These things are all connected.
A couple of days ago a good ally in the climate change fight ... the fight to make people realize that climate change is not some librul conspiracy to raise taxes on the rich ... goofed. It was a minor goof, barely a goof at all. We do not yet know the nature of the goof but it was somewhere between saying something in a slightly clumsy manner and a bit of misremembering something that happened in 2005 during an interview. That's it. Nothing else to see here.
But that goof has been wrenched form its context and turned into a senseless and embarrassingly stupid attack on science by the likes of Anthony Watts, who really is one of the more despicable people I know of on the internet outside the MRA community (even he's not that bad, and I've even noticed a sense of humor now and then).
It all started when Ezra Klein published an interview with Al Gore on Wonkblog. It was good interview and it was nicely written up. They talked about crossing the 400 ppm mark, electricity prices from alternative energy sources, the nature of technological change vis-a-vis green energy, international climate treaty making and cap and trade strategies, the politics of climate denial and the shift from being concerned about climate to denying the science in the Republican party, what's going on in the current administration, geoengineering, storms, and all sorts of other things.
But then Jason Samenow, of the Captial Weather Gang, noticed something in the interview that seemed wrong. He wrote a blog post about "Al Gore's Science Fiction" to make sure that every body knew about this apparent error. Then, the Union of Concerned Scientists, in an apparent paroxysm of well meant, but really, totally bone-headed, intent to demonstrate that people who are on board with climate science can criticize each other so we must all be for real, restated that something Vice President Gore had said to make him look like he was some sort of dummy, which he is not. The Union of Concerned Scientists, realizing their error, issued a pretty standard notpology. The notpology was disappointing. I know that people there understand that they got it all wrong ... apparently at the institutional level they can't just say "oops, sorry" but rather something more like "oh yes, things were misunderstood, but still, our point is valid." We are reminded once again that institutions do have their limits.
Anyway, Ezra, for his part, dug back into memory and consulted with Vice President Gore and his staff and clarified what he said Al Gore said. But, that was not before lame, mean spirited, ill intentioned, ignorant, and embarrassingly giddy offal started to spew from the denialists. Anthony Watts got into it because that is how Anthony Watts masterbates. He draws cartoon glasses and piles of dog poo on pictures of Al Gore and that gets him off. The Hill jumped in with a piece by Ben Geman about how Al Gore goofed. The Free Republic came in its pants too. Almost nobody made mention of a single other thing in the interview, nobody checked their facts, nobody understood the original meaning of Vice President Gore's remarks which were, in fact, dead on. But everybody got dirty. Shame on all of them (to varying degrees).
Here's what actually happened (never mind the interview, the Union of Concerned Scientists concern trolling, or the circle jerk of denialism with Anthony Watts in the middle).
First, storms got worse. Yes, yes, you will hear climate science denialists insisting that they have not gotten worse, but they have. Hurricanes are worse now than they were decades ago, and global warming is implicated in that.
Then, some people, including some scientists and science communicators, discussed the idea of adding a Category 6 to the Saffir-Simpson scale. This conversation happened in and after 2005. The Cat Six storms would be those greater than 151 or 160 knots. Not many storms have ever been this strong, but there are a few. Robert Simpson, of the Saffir-Simpson Scale, suggested that this would not be necessary because the whole idea of the scale was to represent storms in terms of human and property impacts, and a Cat Six storm would not really be worse than a Cat Five storm because a Cat Five storm is bad enough . He said "...when you get up into winds in excess of 155 mph (249 km/h) you have enough damage if that extreme wind sustains itself for as much as six seconds on a building it's going to cause rupturing damages that are serious no matter how well it's engineered." (I disagree strongly with that statement, by the way.)
There are indeed reasons to revisit the Saffir-Simpson scale. There is a lot of information lost by just looking at wind speeds. Paul Douglas turned me on to this graphic demonstrating that when it comes to hurricanes, size matters:
Look closely. There are TWO Pacific Cyclones (aka Hurricanes) represented in that picture. Reminds me of the drawings designed to demonstrate the vast range of body size in primates, like this one:
But I digress. The point is, Saffir-Simpson is inadequate for what we need. We should be able to take a metric used for hurricanes and add the metric up at the end of the season and say something pretty accurate about how much energy was packaged in those beasts that year and in that ocean basin. Indeed, people who study hurricanes do this ... they measure hurricanes in various ways. But the Saffir-Simpson scale is the most well known, and it only measures maximum sustained winds and nothing else, and the scale is not open ended so the biggest storms look like the second biggest storms.
So, given that storms are getting worse and the scale is inadequate, the discussion of at least adding a Cat Six happened, and this is what Gore mentioned.
But the Union of Concerned Scientists, or should I call them for now the Onion of Concerned Scientists, said this of Gore's statement (and I quote mine):
Al Gore, Climate Science, and the Responsibility for Careful Communication...
When I was in fourth grade, I wrote Vice President Al Gore a letter ... I believed then, as I do now, that he is a strong voice for issues with an environmental component such as climate change. And, importantly, he has become, to many people, the public face of climate science....But unfortunately he recently got it wrong about the science of climate change...Gore inaccurately suggested that the hurricane scale will now include a category 6... this is untrue. There are no plans by the National Hurricane Center—the federal office responsible for categorizing storms—to create a new category....Since writing that letter as a ten-year-old, I’ve earned a degree in atmospheric science and learned to value to the role that science plays in informing public policy. Science—and climate change especially—needs effective communicators...
and so on and so forth. How annoying of Al Gore to be so annoying. What a disappointment. I WAS A CHILD AND I WROTE HIM A LETTER AND NOW HE DOES THIS TO ME!!!
OK, take it down a notch.
Al Gore was referring to the discussion I mention above. Perhaps he made this reference clumsily. Ezra may have quoted him wrong, and he now states that is likely (he's not been able to check his tape yet) so them message got further garbled. Then, some bloggers including one at Union of concerned Scientists decided to make a case of it. And now we have a nice science denialist orgy going with Head Orgy Master Debater Anthony Watts running the show. Joe Romm has more on the interview and what Vice President Gore said here.
There are three things you need to take away from this:
1) Al Gore is an effective communicator and knows a lot about climate science. If you hear that he said something that is wrong, before you get all "concerned" consider the possibility that he didn't.
2) We really do need to look at how we characterize hurricanes.
3) The science denialists really have nothing, if this is what gets them so excited. They should get out more.
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Clutching at straw men in desperation - this is what chronic progressive dyscognia does to people when trying to maintain an untenable denial for too long.
The Age of Denial is over, only they haven't got the memo yet.
The Saffir-Simpson scale DOES sometimes miss the boat. Sandy was mild based on wind speed alone, but the extreme low pressure in the center (since when does the barometer go below 28 inches!?) allowed a massive massive storm surge to form. The high water mark in New York Harbor was three feet ABOVE what Donna did back in 1960, even though Donna had considerably higher wind speeds. (The tide timing didn't help, either.)
It's possible that the "Cat 1" status in the warnings played a role in people's ignoring evacuation orders, which cost lives.
Also, one's status as a hurricane is based on organization and not wind speed. Otherwise a lot of other storms would be hurricanes including tornadoes! At the last minute, Sandy became disorganized because she sucked in a large part of another storm and became powerful.
I like to use the analogy of Bill Bixby and the Incredible Hulk.
As Bill Bixby grows into the Incredible Hulk he gains strength but ceases to become human. So, if you are trying to count the number of large and dangerous humans in the room, the number would not go up by one, for technical reasons.
Part of the problem with Sandy was that it was in the process of becoming an extratropical storm. This is a normal feature of hurricanes encountering cool waters. But in this case it led to the National Weather Service making the tactical error of having regional offices, rather than the National Hurricane Center, issue advisories. The models were saying that Sandy would become extratropical before landfall, so it wouldn't really be a hurricane (despite the wind and the storm surge). But the transition took longer than expected, and Sandy retained tropical characteristics up until, if not landfall, it was close enough to make no difference.
But Young CC Prof @2 is correct that the maximum wind speed gets too much attention. Storm surge has historically been the big killer in a lot of hurricanes, and that depends on three factors: central pressure of the storm, direction of approach, and local coastal topography. New York City is particularly vulnerable on the latter point; according to modeling reported at Weather Underground, it is one of five places on the US Atlantic coast where a storm surge in excess of 10 meters is theoretically possible. (The other four are Mississippi, the Big Bend region of Florida, the Myrtle Beach area in South Carolina, and Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts.) Everything would have to go right (or wrong, if you happen to live in that area) to get such a big storm surge, particularly as storms rarely approach the area from the direction Sandy came, but it's still possible.
I would like to see Anthony subjected to the kind of scrutiny that Al Gore goes through. Watch his insect-farts and microbe respiration nonsense get dragged through the Post for a few weeks. He'd have a meltdown.