According to Sunday's Washington Post, scientists are squabbling about whether global warming is causing an increase in hurricanes.
But while this controversy is interesting -- there does appear to be a genuine scientific conflict here, unlike the made-up conflict about whether human beings are causing climate change (we are) -- The Post buried the most important point in the whole story in the last paragraph:
William Hooke, who directs the American Meteorological Society's policy program, said that whatever the answer turns out to be, "We ought not to lose sight of the fact that we're doing a poor job of protecting ourselves against the hurricanes we have now."Even if we were not confronted by the frightening spectacle of climate change brought on by human actions, we would still need to improve how we deal with hurricanes. I grew up on the Gulf Coast, and based solely on my personal experience (a blip of time when you're looking at climate patterns), I can guarantee you that hurricanes are going to hit with regularity all along the coast, and that some of them are going to be very destructive.
And yet we still allow people to build on barrier islands, continue to drain protective wetlands, build inadequate levees, and generally let human desire for land trump settled scientific knowledge about how best to protect ourselves from the worst of the storms. With or without global warming, storms are going to be worse as long as we ignore the knowledge we already have.
Not only that, we have inadequate disaster relief plans in place, something that can affect not only those who live in hurricane country, but also victims of other tornadoes, fires, blizzards, floods and other disasters, not to mention what might happen if we had a significant terrorist attack.
You can count me among the people who are very concerned about global warming. I often fear that even if the US has a political change of heart and starts working to deal with the problem, and even if it can convince China to go along -- both very big "ifs" -- we may already have affected the climate so much that there will still be untold destruction and suffering in our lifetimes and in generations to come.
And there is plenty of scientific evidence to back up the human effect on climate change. Real Climate, "a commentary site on climate science by working climate scientists for the interested public and journalists," is an excellent source of information on the subject. Their most recent post -- which includes comments by some of the authors mentioned in The Washington Post article -- gives insight into the discussion over the effect of global warming on climate change.
It's time for the rest of us to become scientifically literate. We not only need to stop wasting time on fake controversies (like evolution), but also to learn to understand the difference between politically inspired controversies (such as whether global warming is a problem) and real scientific debates (such whether last year's hurricane season was the result of global warming).
Good science education -- with a thorough grounding in scientific methods and principles and some training in how to evaluate statistics and experimental results -- should no longer be left only to those who plan to become scientists. We all need to understand everything we can about the world and universe around us.