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Climate Experts Warn of More Coastal Building

July 27 2006 |
by Surfrider Foundation

July 25, 2006


By ANDREW C. REVKIN
Ten climate experts who are sharply divided over whether global warming is intensifying hurricanes say that this question, a focus of Congressional hearings, news reports and the recent Al Gore documentary, is a distraction from “the main hurricane problem facing the United States.”

That problem, the experts said yesterday in a statement, is an ongoing “lemming-like march to the sea” in the form of unabated coastal development in vulnerable places, and in the lack of changes in government policies and corporate and individual behavior that are driving the trend.

Whatever the relationship between hurricanes and climate, experts say, hurricanes are hitting the coasts, and houses should not be built in their path.

But coasts are attractive places to live, and political pressures on states and Congress tend to result in discounted insurance costs for property in harm’s way, the statement said.

The scientists added that reimbursement for losses can spur more building in the wrong places. “Federal disaster policies,” they said, “while providing obvious humanitarian benefits, also serve to promote risky behavior in the long run.”

“These demographic trends are setting us up for rapidly increasing human and economic losses from hurricane disasters, especially in this era of heightened activity,” they concluded, stressing that a storm like Hurricane Katrina or worse “was (and is) inevitable even in a stable climate.”

The statement was posted yesterday at wind.mit.edu/~emanuel/home.html.

The scientists, several of whom had publicly debated the hurricane-climate connection in recent months, said they were concerned that the lack of consensus on the climate link could stall actions that could cut vulnerability — no matter what is influencing hurricane trends.

Philip J. Klotzbach, a hurricane researcher at Colorado State University who disputes the idea that global warming is linked to stronger storms, said the social and economic trends were completely clear.

“There is likely to be an increase in destructiveness from tropical cyclones regardless of whether they are getting more intense or not,” he said yesterday. “This is largely due to the increase in coastal population and wealth per capita in hurricane-prone areas.”

Kerry A. Emanuel, a climatologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, drafted the statement and conducted one of several recent studies asserting that the building energy of hurricanes in recent decades was probably related to human-driven warming of the seas.

“We as a community have said for a long time that this is a big social problem right now,” Dr. Emanuel said in an interview. “A lot of us are tired of the climate question being set up as a bigger conflict than it is.”


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