January 20, 2006

Donald Kennedy: Setting Science Back

Filed under: Climate Politics, Hurricanes

Donald Kennedy, the Editor-in-Chief of Science magazine, lately seems more bent on setting science back rather than advancing it.

His editorial page rants on global warming are as predictable as the content of most of the climate change articles in his journal. It hasn’t been lost on many in the science community that he simply refuses to print any “perspectives” piece that doesn’t go along with his take on climate change. If other points of view are so uninformed, why doesn’t he let them out so that they can be held up to ridicule?

But now, observers of the global warming war are beginning to question Kennedy’s competence.

His January 6th editorial prompted Roger Pielke, Jr. to wonder “Does Donald Kennedy Read Science?

Here’s what Pielke, Jr. has to say in his popular science and policy blog Prometheus:

In an editorial in the 6 January 2006 issue of Science editor Donald Kennedy writes, “The consequences of the past century’s temperature increase are becoming dramatically apparent in the increased frequency of extreme weather events …”

In a letter published in Science 9 December 2005 written to correct another set of unsupportable claims published in Science about extreme weather events, I wrote,

“Over recent decades, the IPCC found no long-term global trends in extratropical cyclones (i.e., winter storms), in “droughts or wet spells,” or in “tornados, hail, and other severe weather”… A recent study by the International Ad Hoc Detection and Attribution Group concluded that it was unable to detect an anthropogenic signal in global precipitation.”

And even though my brief discussion of hurricanes got lost in the page-proof process (a correction is pending), recent research indicates no increase in the global frequency of tropical cyclones (e.g., Webster et al. 2005), and no long-term increase in the number or intensity of storms striking the U.S. (e.g., Landsea 2005). In short, there is no evidence to support Kennedy’s claim of an “increased frequency of extreme weather events” that can be attributed to increasing global temperatures.

This issue is about more than simply getting the science right. In advancing an explicitly political agenda from a very influential position, Prof. Kennedy is making claims for particular policy actions that won’t work as advertised. As we have written umpteen times here, and backed with research, yes greenhouse gas reductions make sense, but not as a policy instrument for addressing the escalating societal impacts of extreme events. While I have sympathies for Prof. Kennedy’s politics, as a matter of policy, Professor Kennedy’s argument is simply wrong.

His January 20th editorial is no better. This time Kennedy argues against the phrase “Act of God” as it has been applied to Hurricane Katrina, instead fingering global warming from “the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from human industrial activity, to which the United States has been a major contributor” as a primary culprit for Katrina’s “upgraded intensity.” (Last month, Katrina was downgraded to a Category 3 storm at landfall). In support of his opinion he cites Kerry Emanuel’s Nature article and Peter Webster’s Science article that were published last summer, claiming that both “have shown that the average intensity of hurricanes has increased during the past 30 years as the oceans have gained heat from global warming.” Kennedy goes on to conclude that “not only is the New Orleans damage not an act of God, it shouldn’t even be called a ‘natural’ act.”

To simply cite Emanuel and Webster is to ignore the torrent of dissent that has flowed forth from many of the world’s leading tropical meteorologists and climatologists over those papers. Nature has published two responses questioning the relevance of Emanuel’s work, one by Pielke, Jr., who could find no long-term trends in normalized hurricane-related damages (which should increase if hurricanes were getting more intense) and the other by Christopher Landsea, who identified methodological flaws in Emanuel’s analysis procedure and found no long-term trend in the intensity or number of hurricanes that struck the United States.

We also submitted an article to Science showing that the common assumption in both Webster and Emanuel (and the one propagated by Kennedy)—that tropical cyclone intensity is strongly dependent on sea surface temperatures—is simply wrong. The dependence is surprisingly weak, and once the Gulf of Mexico reaches the temperature it reaches every summer, global warming or not, additional heating bears no relationship to increasing storm intensity. Science rejected our article citing the comments of two reviewers—reviewers who both noted that our finding that SST and hurricane intensity were not strongly related was important, but already well known. Apparently not, though, to the editor of the journal to which the article was submitted.

One reviewer commented:

“This paper attempts to demonstrate a negative conclusion: rising SSTs are not the causative mechanism of major hurricanes. While that is an important finding, Science tends to publish “positive” results.

And the other:

“But the paper does one important thing. It divorces the intensity issue from that of global warming stating that at some temperature, hurricanes intensify rapidly, irrespective of how the SST increases. In fact we have seen that this year with Katrina, Rita and Wilma, all of which went from Cat 2 to 5 in less that 24 hours when the hurricanes moved over very warm Gulf water. If you look closely at the Knappenberger [lead author of our submission] figure and the Baik and Paek picture, there are also a lot of hurricanes that remain at lower categories even if the SST is very warm. So my interpretation of it all is the following: If the dynamic conditions are right and the SST is very warm, a very strong hurricane will develop. But if the dynamic conditions are not right then they will not occur irrespective of the SST. If the SST is cool and even if dynamical conditions are correct, a strong hurricane will not evolve. So the paper does not really add much more to our knowledge of the relationship of SST and intensity beyond what we already know.”

Apparently, it would have added more than Donald Kennedy seems to know!

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently published an article that stated in no uncertain terms that global warming was NOT involved in the recent increase in hurricane activity in the Atlantic Ocean. Titled “NOAA attributes recent increase in hurricane activity to naturally occurring multi-decadal climate variability”, it takes an in-depth look a the reasons behind the increase in activity since 1995. Scientists cited include Gerry Bell, NOAA’s lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at the Climate Prediction Center; Max Mayfield, director of the Tropical Prediction Center at the National Hurricane Center; Christopher Landsea, NOAA’s Science and Operations Officer at the NOAA National Hurricane Center; and famed hurricane forecaster William Gray of Colorado State University. The article plainly states that “NOAA research shows that the tropical multi-decadal signal is causing the increased Atlantic hurricane activity since 1995, and is not related to greenhouse warming.”

(See here for Roger Pielke, Jr.’s take on the Jan. 20th Kennedy editorial)

Obviously in his fervor to influence policy Kennedy chooses to overlook, ignore, and disregard science that gets in his way. His next venue will be January 23 on Capitol Hill. It’s a real shame that he will certainly ignore the larger truth and inconvenient facts while attempting to force his political vision. Some people might say that the editor of our most prestigious science journal is abusing his position.

But maybe it’s not so bad. Increasingly, folks are taking note of the poor quality of papers on the issue of global warming that are making it through the review process at Science (and as Nature as well). Perhaps, as Science descends to be just another issue-oriented Washington lobbying magazine, it’s OK for Kennedy to selectively cite the truth.

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