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Is It Wrong to Link Hurricane Irene to Global Warming?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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satellite shot of IreneSix years ago, experts waited until after Katrina to start arguing over whether the hurricane was a consequence, at least in part, of global warming. This week, pundits didn’t even wait for Irene to smash into the U.S. to start squabbling over the same question.

The green journalist-activist Bill McKibben, who last week was arrested in front of the White House while protesting an Obama administration proposal to build a new oil pipeline, got things started on Thursday. “Irene’s got a middle name, and it’s global warming,” McKibben wrote in The Daily Beast. McKibben noted that last year was the warmest on record, and sea-surface temperatures along the East Coast of the U.S. are also at record highs—because of human-induced global warming.

This year, McKibben points out, we’ve already had “record floods from Pakistan to Queensland to the Mississippi basin; record drought from the steppes of Russia to the plains of Texas. Just about the only trauma we haven’t had are hurricanes plowing into the U.S., but that’s just luck—last year was a big storm year, but they all veered out to sea. This year we’re already on letter I—which in a normal year we don’t get to until well into October. Every kind of natural system is amped up, holding more power—about ¾ of a watt extra energy per square meter of the Earth’s surface, thanks to the carbon we’ve poured into the atmosphere.”

The journalist Michael Lemonick, writing at Climate Central, addressed the same issue from a slightly different and—I’m sure he thought—less objectionable angle. “Is this weather disaster caused by climate change?” Lemonick asked on Friday. “Wrong question,” he replied. “Here’s the right question: is climate change making this storm worse than it would have been otherwise? Answer: Absolutely.”

Like McKibben, Lemonick points out that “sea-surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean are higher now than they used to be, thanks to global warming, and ocean heat is what gives hurricanes their power. All other things being equal, a warmer ocean means a more powerful storm.”

Lemonick adds that “thanks largely to climate change, sea level is about 13 inches higher in the New York area than it was a century ago. The greatest damage from hurricanes comes not from high winds and torrential rains—although those do cause a lot of damage. It’s from the storm surge, the tsunami-like wall of water a hurricane pushes ahead of it to crash onto the land. It was Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge, not the wind or rain, that destroyed New Orleans back in 2005. With an extra foot of sea level to start with, in other words, Irene’s storm surge is going to have a head start. And climate change is a big part of the reason why.”

The backlash against McKibben and Lemonick was immediate, and it came not just from global-warming deniers, as one would expect, but from others concerned about climate change. The journalist Keith Kloor accuses McKibben of “rhetorical overkill” that undermines the legitimacy of the climate-change cause. The political scientist Roger Pielke Jr., commenting on Kloor’s post, faults both McKibben and Lemonick for going “well beyond what the science can support.”

So does the environmental reporter Andrew Revkin, author of the influential blog “Dot Earth.” Depicting Irene as a harbinger of global warming-induced hurricanes striking the northeast United States with greater frequency “doesn’t mesh with the science, which shows a measurable, though subtle, trend in the opposite direction.” Revkin cites a 2008 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and University of Miami, “Global warming and United States landfalling hurricanes,” which predicts that warming in the Atlantic produces more wind shear, which dissipates rather than intensifying storms.

There’s something dispiriting about all these smart, well-intentioned people, who are all basically on the same side, squabbling among themselves in this way. I’ve faulted McKibben myself for rhetorical overkill—specifically, for suggesting that unchecked climate change may trigger wars and other forms of violence. But the comments of McKibben and Lemonick on Irene struck me as reasonable if debatable speculation, not as hyperbolic alarmism. Here’s another question: When, if ever, will it be appropriate and responsible to link an extreme weather event such as Irene to anthropogenic climate change? And when that day comes, will making such a linkage be utterly moot?

Image courtesy Gannett Inc.


John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Mims 2:46 pm 08/27/2011

    Roger Pielke Jr. is explicity *not* a ‘climate scientist.’ His Ph.D. is in political science.

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  2. 2. Mims 2:53 pm 08/27/2011

    Although I must add that I agree with your final paragraph 100%. And overall, this is a good summary of the debate, wherever you are on the spectrum from truth-stretchers like McKibben to concern trolls like Pielke and Kloor.

    Lemonick’s stance is entirely reasonable: whatever happens to the frequency of hurricanes, sea level change *will* increase their impact. Chris Mooney, who wrote an entire book on this subject, has some very good things to say on this and related subjects:

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  3. 3. mlbbchbill 2:58 pm 08/27/2011

    the climate is constantly changing, always has, always will, even after we’re long gone…

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  4. 4. henryde 3:12 pm 08/27/2011

    The sad part is that a legitimate scientific argument must share space with a third argument–that hurricanes and earthquakes are the consequence of divine displeasure over gay marriage.

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  5. 5. Postman1 4:07 pm 08/27/2011

    The largest factor in the greater number of storms in recent years has to do with detection. In 1950, When the averages started, three to five of the 2011 storms would not have been named or even noticed. Franklin and Gert lasted two days each, Cindy and Don three, and Harvey four. None attained hurricane strength. Several or all of these would not have been named in 1950 or for decades after 1950. Without those five weak storms, the current storm would be the third of the year and would be Cindy. While keeping track and naming current storms in necessary, comparing them to decades past does not make sense.

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  6. 6. Lemonick 4:09 pm 08/27/2011

    Thanks, Mims. John seems to be lumping me in here with Bill McKibben, and implying that Andy Revkin takes issue with both of us. I don’t think that’s right, for the reasons you say. Some people (not John) seem to think that if you think climate change has anything to do with hurricanes, you therefore think all hurricanes are somehow caused primarily by climate change. Not hardly true.

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  7. 7. laurenra7 6:13 pm 08/27/2011

    I don’t think it’s a matter of right or wrong. The question is, is it helpful? The answer is: no, for several reasons. Here’s one:

    Based on current science, it’s possible that hurricanes in warmer oceans are more powerful, that a storm surge is more devastating if the local sea level is higher than it was a century ago. Making such assertions in itself is not problematic. The problem is a lack of perspective, something Bjorn Lomborg tried to introduce to the debate but was excoriated for by the screaming acolytes.

    The large population increase in areas susceptible to hurricanes is a more significant contributor to the devastation than warming seas or higher sea levels. Even more significant is the level of poverty of stricken areas. Wealthy communities fare better because of stronger buildings and better infrastructure. A magnitude 6.9 earthquake in San Francisco kills 63 people. A magnitude 7 earthquake in Haiti kills 300,000.

    Solving population growth in hurricane-prone areas is as unlikely as reversing worldwide CO2 emissions through state mandates. It’s not going to happen. (Interestingly the CO2 problem and population problems will solve themselves over the next century as populations naturally decline in developed countries.)

    The poverty problem is also difficult, but solvable. We’re wealthy; we can give aid. Better yet, we can use our influence directly and indirectly to educate and assist people in other countries to become free, democratic societies with a free enterprise system–the greatest wealth generator in history–so they can solve their own problems.

    Brow-beating others because of their (justified) lack of concern over CO2 emissions and trying to usurp authority over them through state mandates to force the kind of behavior desired will only win you enemies, while simultaneously doing virtually nothing to solve the supposed problem.

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  8. 8. Scrat 7:35 pm 08/27/2011

    It gets tiresome to hear same mantra “the climate is constantly changing, always has, always will, even after we’re long gone…”

    Sure, that’s one way to read the geologic record – the other is to ask whether previous climates would be hospitable to life that currently inhabits this planet – the answer is probably not.

    The geologic record also speaks pretty eloquently as to what happens when greenhouse gases increase rapidly, in geologic terms – such as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, when GHG levels spiked to over 1000 ppm in a few thousand years (for perspective – our actions will get us to 1000 ppm in a couple of centuries). Result – an extinction event – flora and fauna could not adapt quickly enough.

    I had to laugh at laurenra7′s comment that the free enterprise system will solve the proverty problem. It hasn’t yet. The unregulated free market system espoused by her has lead to the biggest increase in poverty in this country in the last 30 years – just as it did during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

    The issue of CO2 cannot be solved by free market systems as long as the price of using those energy sources externalizes the costs of their use – climate change, pollution, increased healthcare costs and so on. For example – the coal industry has been successful from keeping coal ash from being declared what it is – hazardous waste. We’d be using a lot less of it if the coal industry actually had to deal with it.

    Cap and trade systems, although not perfect, were used to decrease SO2 emissions from power plants – and the system worked very well. No one is complaining and power companies still make a lot of profit for their shareholders. So much for state mandates being a bad idea.

    Sadly, its probably too damned late to use any sort of mandates or other mechanisms to reverse climate change at this point. CO2 has a long half life in the atmosphere and frankly, the will to do anything about it is gone due to the agressive lobbying of the same interests that keep coal ash from being declared hazardous waste.

    Population will probably decline over the next century – but I don’t think it will be because economies will become more developed – no, it will decline because we will have exceeded the carrying capacity of this planet sufficiently that people will just starve as ecosystems break down.

    Whether Irene is a result of climate change is irrelevant.

    Too many other lines of evidence show that the climate is changing and that we are doing it to ourselves.

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  9. 9. geojellyroll 10:50 pm 08/27/2011

    Speculation on links are just that….speculation.

    Climate science needs to regain legitimacy. The way to do that is to stop pushing an agenda.

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  10. 10. papacane 11:51 pm 08/27/2011

    I wish people could stick to the science of climate change and stop shoving a political point of view down our throats. Al Gore’s claim that the science is settled on this matter is an example of the kind of abusive dogma ruining the debate. When the Muslims invaded Egypt and burned the Libray of Alexandria to the ground they claimed the Koran will suffice. Is that what we want on this issue?

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  11. 11. jbrooks 1:50 am 08/28/2011

    Is It Wrong to Link Hurricane Irene to Global Warming?

    On first reading this headline, I assumed it must simply be a rhetorical question. Yet, surprisingly, I find this piece seriously maintaining doubts about a connection.

    Why would the increased greenhouse effect not be an important factor in the above normal ocean surface temps now off the Atlantic seaboard? Global warming is a well-established scientific fact clearly associated with rising ocean temperatures. And given those temperatures, how could global warming not be linked to this storm?

    To suggest that Irene is somehow exempt simply flies in the face of what we know about climate change, and amounts to nothing less than a form of climate skepticism.

    This piece goes on to flagrantly misrepresent Bill McKibben writing in the Daily Beast. Nowhere therein does he in anyway insinuate a depiction of Irene “as a harbinger of global warming-induced hurricanes striking the northeast United States with greater frequency.” To attribute this is nothing less than a fabrication.

    McKibben’s piece is clear, concise, and based on the most widely accepted science. What he says in his piece, and it is plain, is that warmer ocean’s cause more violent storms. That is the established scientific fact and this magazine of all places should know that.

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  12. 12. gthog61 1:59 am 08/28/2011

    Climate change “scientists” have been predicting horrible hurricane seasons ever since Katrina hit. Where have those seasons been?

    Now a cat 1 or 2 or whatever it ended up being when it got to the coast gets overhyped and “Oh my God its climate change!” (can’t be “global warming” because the “evidence” for that sort of petered out). When did no hurricanes ever become the norm? It has always been normal for at least a couple of hurricanes to hit the US coast somewhere in a given season. Now each and every one is going to be a dire harbinger of climate change doom! Guess what, the weather vaaries, always has, always will.

    Watch for the “Oh look how much better obama did than Bush” stories to come out next. You can see that set up a mile away.

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  13. 13. rb 7:35 am 08/28/2011

    I could be wrong, but wasn’t there an ice-age or two? What happened in between them? Were they periods of “global warming”? The dynamics of cold to hot and hot to cold would have dramatic effects the ocean and air currents. We haven’t been here or studying the subject long enough to really know. The ‘geniuses’ may establish a 10 year pattern as lengthy. Well, what does a 10 thousand year pattern show?

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  14. 14. da bahstid 7:47 am 08/28/2011

    The science is settled though. It’s not Al Gore’s fault he’s right for siding with the scientific community. We’re at 97.5% consensus among actively publishing climate scientists. And 1% undecided.

    The opposition is dominated by misinformation campaigns funded by big oil, employing many of the same people employed by the tobacco industry back when they kept trying to deceive the public away from the scientific proof that smoking causes cancer. Exxon has even openly admitted they’ve spent millions trying to create opposing arguments which get refuted time and again as they keep getting recycled over and over to the public through political media. And then you have conspiracy theorists like “Lord” Monckton…who adamantly insists he is a member of the House of Lords yet has been ordered by said House to cease and desist such claims…who’s never been closer to a science course than a couple math classes he took at age 16 and is proven to consistently misquote the conclusions of real scientists (there needs to be a political term for intentionally misleading misquotes like that). The skeptic community is mired by shady politicians and lobbyists talking tin foil hats with almost no actual science or other credibility to speak of.

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  15. 15. da bahstid 8:00 am 08/28/2011

    As far as the actual topic is concerned, I agree most with the assertions of Mike Lemonick: that global warming will increase the strength of storms when they happen. Any one storm can just be the weather…it would take several over a long period of time to establish statistical significance, but it’s difficult to imagine any one storm by itself being able to do so just from the increased energy available from only a 1.5F global temp increase. Hence, it’s not the right question.

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  16. 16. Carlyle 8:13 am 08/28/2011

    So many false claims to bolster the AGW case. Fortunately people are waking up. Claims such as record floods in Queensland, not true. The 1974 floods not only inundated the South East corner but turned a vast area of The of Carpentaria Gulf savannah country into an inland sea. I lived in the area. Sea level rise of 11 inches in New York. Really? Nothing to do with subsidence? These & like statements tend to go unchallenged but as the posts to sites like this indicate, more & more people are waking up.

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  17. 17. RobertHahn 2:44 pm 08/28/2011

    I don’t believe that the claims that “the science is settled” or that “we have 97.5% consensus” do anything except associate climate science with politics. Science is not about voting. Science is what happens when Galileo is right and 97.5% of everyone else is wrong. Claiming it’s about “votes” just makes it sound like an attempt to bamboozle stupid people, while simultaneously revealing the “scientist” to be a politician in disguise.

    What did the attempt to link Hurricane Irene to the climate change debate actually accomplish? It just taught another bunch of people who were on the fence that the climate change activists are ‘chicken littles’ who may safely be ignored. Was that their intent? Of course not. But crying “Wolf!” every time there’s a storm can have no other effect. The activists are so far off the rails now that we have seemingly respectable professors and government (NASA) scientists suggesting that space aliens will attack us if we do not respond to AGW. Is this supposed to scare people? Or make them dismiss AGW as an ever-more-fantastic scare story being pushed by people who have become silly?

    Stick to the science. Leave the policy prescriptions to the politicians. Scientists who act like politicians serve neither science nor politics.

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  18. 18. Scrat 3:19 pm 08/28/2011

    “The activists are so far off the rails now that we have seemingly respectable professors and government (NASA) scientists suggesting that space aliens will attack us if we do not respond to AGW.”

    Huh? Talk about hyperbole. Could you cite an academic paper that has that sort of nonsense in it? Most likely not because no one is saying it.

    I wish that people who laugh this stuff off would just look at the data. The people who do have no doubt that the changes in climate are anthropogenic.

    Those scientists who have turned into advocates are doing so because they have been warning us for decades and their predictions have turned out to be correct.

    And by the way, that’s how science is done – look at the data, propose a hypothesis and predictions. If the predictions turn out to be correct – that’s strong evidence that your hypothesis is good enough to take on the status of scientific theory.

    The problem with leaving the policy prescriptions to the politicians is that when politicians have an agenda for which the facts are inconvenient, then the facts be damned – the Bush Administration did this to climate science, going so far as to prevent scientists from speaking to the press about simple publication of temperature data.

    That’s not hyperbole – it’s been documented. See “Censoring Science: Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming” by Mark Bowen

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  19. 19. RobertHahn 4:20 pm 08/28/2011

    Concerning AGW, Space Aliens, and Jumping the Shark:

    You’re right that it ought to be preposterous that serious academics would say such a thing, but unfortunately it did happen.

    Needless to say, they have been mocked. Mercilessly. People read this stuff and they can’t help but think, “these guys will say anything to promote that cause.” Acts like threatening people with space aliens go a long way toward explaining why the public increasingly views AGW as a political cause and not a scientific debate.

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  20. 20. Carlyle 1:37 am 08/29/2011

    If we are to judge global warming by frequency & severity of extreme events, the result is in the negative. Unless like the cheif of the chief of the inter-governmental panel on Climate Change Dr Rajendra K Pachauri who claims we are also responsible for earth quakes & tsunamis.
    What kind of blind faith does it take to believe this rubbish? Religious faith.

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  21. 21. da bahstid 7:58 am 08/29/2011

    Some people here apparently have not noticed that you can falsely claim pretty much anything under the sun on the internet without legal repercussion…a fact exploited heavily by political media.

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  22. 22. laursaurus 8:16 am 08/29/2011

    “Roger Pielke Jr. is explicity *not* a ‘climate scientist.’ His Ph.D. is in political science.”

    #1@Mims-what a pathetically dishonest attempt to discredit RP Jr! If he has a pH.D in political science, how does that mean he’s not a climate scientist? Was there any such thing as a degree in “climate science” until about 4 years ago? There certainly isn’t anyone in the IPCC or blogging on with a degree in “climate science.” What defines a “climate scientist” and how on earth does RP Jr fail to meet your arbitrary standards?
    According to his bio:
    Roger A. Pielke, Jr. has been on the faculty of the University of Colorado since 2001 and is a Professor in the Environmental Studies Program and a Fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES). At CIRES, Roger served as the Director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research from 2001-2007. Roger’s research focuses on the intersection of science and technology and decision making. In 2006 Roger received the Eduard Brückner Prize in Munich, Germany for outstanding achievement in interdisciplinary climate research. Before joining the University of Colorado, from 1993-2001 Roger was a Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Roger is a Senior Fellow of the Breakthrough Institute. He is also author, co-author or co-editor of seven books, including The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics published by Cambridge University Press in 2007. His most recent book is The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell you About Global Warming (September, 2010, Basic Books).

    He has also published extensively in scientific journals, aka the “paer-reviewed lit-ra-chur” (I like how the Brits pronounce that phrase). Here’s a link so you can check out the 298 publications.
    Now, can you explain to me what makes the head of the IPCC a “climate scientist?” I can’t even say the stones/glass houses advise, since Pielke’s is made of bricks.

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  23. 23. da bahstid 8:35 am 08/29/2011

    What’s always amazing to me though is how certain people’s sources can be shown…over and over again…to be obviously fictitious and agenda driven, yet these people will continue to perpetuate information they know to be false. (Also known as lying, not to put to fine a point on it…)

    Yeah, we really believe PhD scientists actually threatened aliens intend to invade. No really, we believe this must have happened because some political blog says so.

    Matter of fact, I’m so sure this is nothing but concrete truth that we can find it in the archives right here on Scientific American. Because this looney claim is just so plausible.

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  24. 24. Carlyle 8:49 am 08/29/2011

    So why have they not refuted the allegations? Losers.

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  25. 25. Carlyle 9:13 am 08/29/2011

    Is this one of the lies you refer to, not from a blog but from The Times of India?
    Live in harmony with nature, says Pachauri
    TNN Mar 14, 2011, 03.38am ISTCOIMBATORE: Given that human actions are increasingly interfering with the delicate balance of nature, natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and tsunamis will occur more frequently, said Dr Rajendra K Pachauri, director general of TERI, and the chief of the inter-governmental panel on Climate Change.

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  26. 26. Postman1 6:56 pm 08/29/2011

    In addition to my list from my previous (#5 on this thread) comment:
    Jose- barely made tropical storm strength, lasted one day, affected no one, would not have been named even twenty years ago. Add this to the other three to five named non-storms this year. Nothing wrong with good detection, just don’t compare today’s count with totals from past decades when many of these lightweights were not counted.

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  27. 27. da bahstid 5:55 am 08/31/2011

    No Carlyle, that’s different. Although I’d still be careful about accepting anything stated by any third-world country’s media. But additionally there’s nothing wrong with the quotes stated in that India-based site.

    Or…do you think there is? I suppose you’re upset he isn’t ranting and raving that we need to destroy every living thing off the face of the earth? Is that what you need to be happy in life?

    Maybe more important than that, you have made my point perfectly. You have just seen how sources aligning with your agenda are completely dishonest. But rather than re-evaluate the integrity of your position, you simply look for the next piece of ammunition to throw into the argument. Right and wrong don’t matter to you. Being dishonest is perfectly fine so long as it promotes your agenda.

    This of course is typical of people in the AGW denial crowd. Somehow or another people such as yourself can’t seem to realize that, if your position is so intensively dependant on perpetual dishonesty, then perhaps it has something to do with the fact that your position is wrong.

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  28. 28. Carlyle 8:15 am 08/31/2011

    Just explain for me the way that humans cause earthquakes & tsunamis. You have just shown that your ignorance of science is profound. Remember, this is the head of the IPCC who made this pronouncement. The actual reason he said it is that his Hindu faith teaches that mankind influences these things. Religion. Not science like much of the AGW argument. It does not compute. By the way, your dismissal of a so called third world newspaper is racist. A country that has produced some of mathematics most famous men, has a home built nuclear capacity & a space programme can only be dismissed in this way by an ignorant racist bigot who can not accept facts that counter his religion. This man is misguided by his religious faith. Just like you.

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  29. 29. da bahstid 9:22 am 08/31/2011

    Nice try, but now you’re just plain flaming. I haven’t noticed anyone making such a claim as climate change causing earthquakes…that’s just another example of your need to employ dishonesty ad lib. Just like the racist accusation…now that was rich. Exactly in line with the sort of editorializing of the sources you probably hold in high regard.

    In other words, as stated before, you NEED to lie perpetually to sustain your argument. Your argument depends desperately on it because the FACTS are all against you. This is why you have no credibility. No one on your side of the debate has any credibility, and this gets proven over and over again.

    We’re looking at four decades of warming simultaneously with four decades of reduced solar output. 2009 was the deepest solar minimum in possibly a century. Happening at the same time atmospheric CO2 has climbed 40% following 8000 YEARS of a highly stable 280ppm average. This is just the surface of things. And you want to claim it’s all mystical chance, magical powers conspiring together instead of the ONLY logical explanation. The writing is on the wall, 97% of publishing climate scientists are just calling it for what it is.

    You keep attempting to try and rationalize this as some sort of religious…thing? You’re the one that wants to detach from the scientific evidence and pretend Earth is somehow magically eternally resistant to change. Maybe you haven’t realized this, but this IS the fairy-tale Judeo-Christian view of things that you appear to ascribe to. Earth is a small pile of dust floating in space, it’s finite in mass and astronomically infinitesimal. You want to think it’s surface temps are impervious to the laws of physics that govern the rest of the universe. Hey that’s brilliant. The scientific community is not governed by such naive flights of religious fancy. You apparently don’t recognize that you are.

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  30. 30. Carlyle 5:20 pm 08/31/2011

    Incredible. Read post 25. The head of the IPCC declared that human activity was causing earth quakes & tsunamis.

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