Cyclone Nargis and climate change


While reading news about the disastrous cyclone in Myanmar last Saturday coupled with the government’s unprecedented rejection of international aid, another question skirts the edge of many people’s minds. Is this yet another demonstration of climate change at work?

It’s a reasonable question given the seriousness of the problem and the growing media attention global warming receives. In the past day or so, the Associated Press put a story on the wire titled “Is Global Warming to Blame for Burma Cyclone?” that has been picked up by dozens of papers including USA Today. 

A sexy headline, sure, but there’s little to back it up. The story’s primary expert to venture a connection is Sunita Narain, director of the Indian environmental group Center for Science and Environment.

"While we can never pinpoint one disaster as the result of climate change, there is enough scientific evidence that climate change will lead to intensification of tropical cyclones," said Narain.

"Nargis is a sign of things to come," she said. "The victims of these cyclones are climate change victims and their plight should remind the rich world that it is doing too little to contain its greenhouse gas emissions."

We asked climate scientist Gavin Schmidt of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies to weigh in on the topic and received an exasperated email reply. Schmidt wrote:

“This is a non-story. I'm not sure how many times it needs to be said - but single weather events are extremely hard (read practically impossible) to attribute to climate change and no scientist worth their salt will claim otherwise.

The story that is worth your while is an examination of where these ideas come from and how they are stoked by contrarians and noise makers who are always on the lookout for 'alarmist' claims that they can misquote.

Do a story on how hard it is for scientific statements about uncertainty and caveats to penetrate into the public discourse.”

Climate change can be an ephemeral problem—one that’s hard for most of us to see, thus it’s seemingly everywhere. Best that we all brush up on the facts, or next thing you know it’ll be climate change that misplaced the house keys, caused the milk in the fridge to expire, and the cell phone battery to run out.

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