Saturday, June 24, 2017

Book Review: 'Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming' by Chris Mooney

Review by Stephen Andrew
Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming 
 By Chris Mooney author of The Republican War on Science
 Harcourt 2007 
 Ordering Information. Availability: Immediate

One of the greatest challenges for any science writer is to convey complex information from sometimes widely divergent scientific disciplines to a broad range of readers while retaining their interest. From the first page to the last, Storm World displays a superb writing style guaranteed to captivate both the seasoned climate science aficionado and newcomer alike. Perhaps this is because in addition to professional interest, Chris was affected personally:
6229 Memphis Street -- My mother’s house was one of these.  A tree had crashed across the backyard, knocking down a flimsy fence. A sewing machine protruded from a pile of boards.  On the side of the house, rescue workers had painted a red mark; beneath it had lain the corpse of [the cat] Mewls ... The floors were spongy, especially in the hallway, which had become a graveyard of congealing paper after a bookcase collapsed. Everything was caked with mud and grime. "Substantially damaged" is how the city bureaucrats, with their knack for understatement, described it. -- (Prologue from Storm World, Lakeview New Orleans, Christmas 2005.)
Most regular readers here are aware there have been allegations leveled at the Bush Administration regarding climate change for some time. The author goes into far greater depth, well beyond the scope of any relatively short blog or magazine article, to untangle the facts and inferences behind the infamous accusations of pressure and intimidation allegedly orchestrated at the highest levels of power, made by government scientists from virtually every relevant field who claim they may have been systematically discouraged, censored, or outright threatened to toe the party line. But the book also takes a firm, objective stand, handing out credit and blame to both individuals and institutions where appropriate irrespective of political affiliation or ideological persuasion.
Storm World begins with a fascinating historical look at the key theories and colorful individuals who developed the science ...
... now underpinning modern storm meteorology. Woven into that delightful review are the origin and resolution of several classic scientific controversies, some of which are now recycled in various forms by traditional media and political operatives as wholly (And often erroneously) representative of the modern state of affairs.
The book develops those historical roots into the modern dichotomy existing today between hurricane specialists and advocates of the Atlantic Multidecadal cycle, such as global warming skeptic Bill Gray, and the climate modelers like MIT’s Kerry Emanuel. Briefly stated:
(pg 81 – 82) Emmanuel thinks the attempt to explain the 20th century’s Atlantic hurricane ‘cycle’s by invoking a so-called Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation or mode derives from a misreading of data. He argues instead that the mid-twentieth century cooling of the Northern Hemisphere, driven by sulfate aerosols ... also helped chill the Atlantic enough to suppress hurricanes. ... It’s a grim viewpoint because, contrary to the AMO theory or Gray’s view of a natural balance that ultimately rights itself, it suggest there may not be any reprieve ...Instead, as we keep heating the planet, the Atlantic storm seasons could steadily worsen.
In similar books I’ve read, the authors seem to rest their narrative primarily or entirely on the science.  Storm World indeed contains enough of that to satisfy even the most analytically inclined reader, but Mooney weaves a powerful overarching theme that will appeal beyond that core group of storm junkies to anyone who was read to sleep in their youth: He tells stories about people. The theorists, the empiricists, the old school traditionalists and the up and comers comprising the many colorful, often brilliant, personalities making up both sides and indeed all sides in a scientific community now partially consumed by the scientific and political intersection of global warming.
As a Florida homeowner who witnessed hurricanes Charley, Frances, Jeanne, and Wilma, I can attest that each of these monsters had a particular personality, a unique ensemble of characteristics as seen (Or more accurately, heard, as in heard battering the walls and roof of my home) from the inside. And yet it’s a terribly difficult concept to convey to someone who has not camped out in home or shelter through multiple hurricanes. Mooney manages to underscore, perhaps unintentionally, why it is that naming these storms after people resonates so strongly with those who experience them intimately. In short, Mooney has clearly grown as a pure writer since his last effort The Republican War on Science.
Another strong theme stretching throughout the book concerns the certainty of the science linking global warming to more intense hurricanes. I was surprised to learn just how recently that link has begun to emerge, and further caught off guard that, while the science especially lately does seem to be converging more and more toward a consensus that warmer sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic and Gulf –both at least partly a product of human induced global warming -- will produce more powerful storms, the science is both far more complex than I understood and a ways off from being definitive one way or another.
On the other hand, repeated, widespread political interference in the free dissemination of information to the public mostly by the Bush Administration for years is now "so well documented at this point that it’s impossible to claim there has been nothing unusual going on in the government in this regard." And the author solidly backs up that statement up with page after page of internal emails, sworn testimony, excepts from articles in traditional media, and material collected from interviewing several of the parties involved.
The book manages to pull together so many stories and personalities from across decades of time and divergent disciplines of science into a single, seamless coherent, and entertaining read –at times reminiscent of science writer Isaac Assimov’s fabulous non-fiction/anecdotal approach -- that there’s simply no way I could do it full justice here. You’ll just have to either read the book and/or catch Chris Mooney at one of his scheduled speaking events this summer. All I can say is Storm World should be crowned the seminal work written for the interested layman on both the science underlying hurricanes and the politics which ensued over them. It is by far the best I’ve yet read, and as concerned resident of coastal Florida and a science writer on one of the largest progressive blogs on the Internet, I’ve read a few.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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