As we mourn the human toll taken by the tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri, some are using the disaster as an opportunity to warn about the dangers of climate change.
Al Roker recently suggested that climate change is bringing tornadoes from the country to the city. Environmentalist Bill McKibben, the same guy who blamed the Washington, D.C., snowstorms on global warming, penned a snarky op-ed in The Washington Post saying that those who ignore these weather events are ignoring a much bigger problem in climate change.
Despite these claims, what has been most surprising is the accurate media coverage of the relationships between the tornado and climate change. The AFP reports that “the United States is experiencing the deadliest year for tornadoes in nearly six decades, but top US weather experts said Monday there is no link between the violent twisters and climate change.” A preliminary assessment from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could not attribute climate change to the events in Joplin. ABC News ran a Q&A column that quoted meteorologist Greg Carbin saying:
There is no indication of an upward trend in either intensity or numbers. We’ve had a lot more reports of tornadoes, but most of those tornadoes are actually the weak tornadoes, the F-0. When you take out the F-0 tornadoes from the long-term record, there is very little increase in the total number of tornadoes, and we don’t see any increase in the number of violent tornadoes. It’s just that these things are coming, and they’re very rare and extreme, and they happen to be hitting populated areas.
CBS News, Reuters, and The New York Times all ran similar stories. It’s nice to see that the media did not turn to Al Gore, especially since it’s the fifth anniversary of the release of An Inconvenient Truth, which warned about more frequent and intense natural disasters and apocalyptic 20-foot sea level increases.
A little more on McKibben. He runs an organization called 350.org, which warns that 350 parts per million (ppm) is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in our air. The organization says, “Everyone from Al Gore to the U.N.’s top climate scientist has now embraced this goal as necessary for stabilizing the planet and preventing complete disaster. Now the trick is getting our leaders to pay attention and craft policies that will put the world on track to get to 350.”
The problem for McKibben is that, even the wildest carbon-free energy policies imaginable won’t get us to where he wants to be. Energy chemist Nate Lewis of the California Institute of Technology ran the numbers and found that for the earth not to surpass 450 ppm by the year 2050, 26.5 of the 45 terawatts the world uses would have to come from carbon-free sources (assuming low population and economic growth). Newsweek’s Sharon Begley’s highlights Lewis’s calculations:
Are you a fan of nuclear? To get 10 terawatts, less than half of what we’ll need in 2050, Lewis calculates, we’d have to build 10,000 reactors, or one every other day starting now. Do you like wind? If you use every single breeze that blows on land, you’ll get 10 or 15 terawatts. Since it’s impossible to capture all the wind, a more realistic number is 3 terawatts, or 1 million state-of-the art turbines, and even that requires storing the energy—something we don’t know how to do—for when the wind doesn’t blow. Solar? To get 10 terawatts by 2050, Lewis calculates, we’d need to cover 1 million roofs with panels every day from now until then.
And that’s to reach 450 ppm—something Henry Jacoby, co-director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, called “totally impossible.” Imagine what it would take to revert back to 350 ppm. If it were conclusive that we needed to achieve 350 ppm and the fate of the world depended on it, we’d find a way to do it. But the fate of the world does not depend on it, and policies like cap and trade, clean energy standards, mandating biofuel use, and subsidizing electric cars is only going to bankrupt our country by forcing Americans to pay more for energy.