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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Believing the Hype

I can't believe this is the top story on Drudge right now.  Apparently Jan Egeland (remember him from the post tsunami fallout?), U.N. Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs is spouting off again:

"We have reason to fear that 2006 could be as bad as 2005," Jan Egeland, the undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs who coordinates U.N. emergency relief, told Reuters on Wednesday."

Nowhere in the article does he mention what this reason is, yet somehow this bare assertion is news.  Way to go Reuters, you really looked into that one.  


Your definition of 'reason' is somewhat different from mine. The very next line of the article indicates Egeland said, "We have had a dramatic increase in climate related natural disasters and at the same time we have more vulnerable people, so it's a double effect." So there are two intersecting trends--natural disasters worsening and higher vulnerability to them--which would tend to make 2006 a very bad natural-disaster year.

The reasons I've seen for the trend of natural disasters getting worse diverge. Some argue it's global warming, some argue it's something akin to a sixty-year cycle, with ten or so years of stronger hurricanes and storms. Egeland doesn't advocate for either reason, which itself should make you happy. Even if it's the latter, we're smack in the middle of that cycle, so there's no reason to think 2006 won't be at least as bad as 2005--except to hope we'll be a little less unlucky as to where the hurricanes hit in the U.S.
I've addressed the "global warming makes hurricanes worse" notion before (must be in the archives somewhere) and there is every indication that rising ocean temperatures, whatever the reason for them, do not make storms worse, since what could be called the critical temperature (the point after which the power of the storm is determined by other unrelated factors, or more likely becomes very random) is reached every year anyway. Now, Egeland may be right on the vulnerable populations idea, but the notion that there is some sort of trend in the number/intensity of storms is, well, just plain ridiculous. And like I said, he claims to have reason to believe it, but doesn't point to the reasoning, only other conclusions.
But for the past several years, we've had far, far more storms than we had previously. I'd been living in Florida--I know. Egeland does not attribute a cause here, he's commenting on a trend which meteorologists have identified. The meteorologists could be wrong, but the comment you've identified by Egeland seems an eminently reasonable one, about which reasonable people could disagree, and undeserving of scorn.
Ok, first off, I think it is completely reasonable on my part to attribute questionable motives to Jan Egeland, remember this?

"It is beyond me why are we so stingy, really," the Norwegian-born U.N. official told reporters. "Christmastime should remind many Western countries at least, [of] how rich we have become."
"There are several donors who are less generous than before in a growing world economy," he said, adding that politicians in the United States and Europe "believe that they are really burdening the taxpayers too much, and the taxpayers want to give less. It's not true. They want to give more."

And he had a point that I can almost agree with, but his problem is that he equates taxes with "giving", when any idiot could have seen the private (and corporate) relief already flowing. But I digress.

A trend that meteorologists have identified? You local TV weatherman doesn't count. Care to point out any? I just don't think it's there. Check out this link:

Now, it doesn't say much of anything. I mean, if you look at around 1900, there appear to be a lot less storms. Why could that be? Now, look around mid-century and it's a lot closer to where we are now. What could account for that? Now, 2005 may have been a big year, but 2004 was pretty much unremarkable. As recently as 2001 the Red Cross was noting a decrease in the number of storms each year. I don't have the time to put this all into a spreadsheet, but suffice it to say that I think some things are just beyond us and our technology, and I think Egeland is engaging in foolish scaremongering. Also, no offense here, but I don't think living in Florida gives you any greater knowledge, especially since you couldn't have been there too awful long.
The reason I pointed out that I lived in Florida is because it has been on the receiving end or in the projected path of many large storms over the last several years, therefore quite a bit of attention was paid to the matter while I lived down there. It was hard to ignore. I'm hardly claiming it makes me a specialist.

I still fail to understand this visceral reaction to Jan Egeland. That quotation doesn't indicate anything beyond the pale to me. He thought states could, and should, be giving more (and considering how little of the U.S. GDP goes to foreign aid, it's a colorable argument). But beyond all that, I think that it takes far more than what Egeland did to get to foolish scaremongering. It's not like he predicted Iraq was near getting a nuclear weapon when it was decades away (okay, sorry, cheap shot).

But 2003 had four named storms by July, and sixteen total, including six hurricanes. The National Hurricane Center called 2004 a year with "well above-normal activity" with 15 named storms and 9 hurricanes, including four making landfall in the U.S. (remember Charley and my namesake, Ivan?).

Quite frankly, we've devolved into throwing numbers at each other, and I'll go out on a limb and suggest that neither one of us is more likely to understand a meteorological study of current storm trends than the other.

So let's get back to the original point: What on earth is so bad about what Egeland said? You've called it foolish fearmongering, which even if it is (and I don't think it's either) is hardly news in this day and age, and pointed to something the guy said last year, which is hardly relevant to his current statement. What's the big deal here?
First off, the link to 2003 was a mistake on my part, it should have been:

Second, I understand that Florida has been hit a lot. I was mostly pointing out that you couldn't have lived there much more than a year. As for quite a bit of attention being devoted to hurricanes, I get that too. Hurricanes are a big deal, but a perceived trend isn't necessarily an actual trend in weather, just a trend in awareness. Now, I did put the number of tropical storms from each year (back to 1851) into a spreadsheet (crap, I just disclosed my lacking social life on the blog, which means that about twenty people know), and yes, there is an upward trend, fairly linear (I can't claim statistical soundness by any means, but if you want to see it, I will email it to you), but I still question it, because I think that advancements in technology could probably explain a lot. We have all sorts of radar systems now that we didn't have 100 years ago (I would guess the use of radar for weather monitoring must have begun post WWII, and thereafter took a few years to be perfected), so we're picking up on more storms now that we would have missed then, though there were a few years with a lot of reported storms earlier than I would have expected, maybe ships ran into a lot of them that year or something. If I had been smart, I would have counted storms making landfall and not total storms, but I didn't. I think that 2005 was a severe outlier, and while 2003 and 2004 were big years, they weren't that far outside of the bulk of the data. Want some more outliers? In 1887 there were 19 detected tropical storms, 11 of them hurricanes. 1933-21 storms-10 hurricanes. 1969-18 storms-12 hurricanes (1 a Cat 5 that appears to have hit NOLA). 1995-19 storms-11 hurricanes. Comparing these big years, the percentage of tropical storms that became full on hurricanes in 2005 is about the same (or a little lower, but so help me I am not getting into standard deviations) as other big years.

Ok, so that was a little more excessive number hurling, but I think numbers can actually be useful. As for understanding meteorological studies, I do think that I have at least a little edge on you, since I have read them in the past (my undergrad degree was a B.S. in Environmental Science and Environmental Policy, for what that's worth), and would like something to back up Egeland's assertions. But really, we're talking politics here, so let's get down to it. I brought up the tsunami because I think Jan and his office blew any credibility they may have had in its aftermath. While the U.S. and Australian navies were on the scene within hours, the U.N. took weeks, and Egeland felt the need to complain that the U.S. wasn't doing enough, while his office was doing pretty much nothing except predict massive disease outbreaks that would kill as many as the actual tsunami. They didn't. How's that for scaremongering? Mark Steyn pointed out in a recent speech (channeling the most recent Batman movie of all things) that "It's what you do that defines you." I don't think the U.N. looks very good in this light, and that's why I have this reaction to Egeland. I just went back to look over the article again, and on the second page it points out that he's behind on some fundraising goals. Trying to raise $30 million, and only has $20, so he gets some news coverage going. Even if it wasn't scaremongering, it is certainly a cheap fundraising tactic. What's more, even though he mentions the need for preventative measures, most of the money he's raising is for reconstruction, which might as well be nothing. The same article pointed out that Guatemala's damages from hurricane Stan were close to $1 billion, with "mudslides burying villages and washing away roads". Here's an idea: spend a little more money next time so it doesn't happen the same way again. Incidentally, that's another thing that bothers me about Florida; people keep building in places that they KNOW are going to get hit, and apparently aren't building any better structures. Ultimately, I think Egeland is a prime representation of the U.N.'s general impotence. Did I answer anything there?
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