Damage caused by Hurricane Harvey in Rockport, Texas, Aug. 28, 2017. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Malcolm McClendon

Report identifies rising risks posed by hurricanes as planet warms

By Nicky Sundt
CSPW Senior Fellow

The Climate Change Special Report, arguably the most important report produced by the interagency U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) under the Trump Administration, still has not been cleared for publication. The clearance process already has taken three times longer than originally assumed. Among the report’s findings: climate change is ratcheting up the risks hurricanes pose for the United States.

The political stakes for the Trump Administration have only grown during the review. A June draft of the report was leaked to the New York Times, which ran a front-page story on the report. Then Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of Texas and Louisiana, highlighting not only the connections between climate change and hurricanes, but the costs of inaction in the face of mounting risks. See “Katrina. Sandy. Harvey. The debate over climate and hurricanes is getting louder and louder” (Washington Post, 30 August 2017).

Criticism has grown over local, state and federal officials who have consistently denied the science underlying the Climate Change Special Report and who have systematically undermined efforts to slow climate change and to prepare for its emerging impacts. See the Washington Post editorial: “Houston is paying the price for public officials’ ignorance” (August 29, 2017). Those officials include former Texas Governor Perry who now is the Secretary of the Department of Energy – the only major agency that has not yet cleared the report for public release.

As we reported in our previous blog, Federal Climate Science Special Report Leaked: Clearance Process Raises Concerns Over Upcoming Climate Assessment Report (August 10, 2017), the USGCRP submitted a final clearance draft to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) on June 28, 2017. The draft was supposed to be immediately forwarded to a committee or subcommittee of the interagency National Science and Technology Council for a three-week review. Nine weeks later, the report still has not been cleared for public release.

The Department of Energy (DOE) is responsible for the latest delay. DOE had reviewed and approved two earlier drafts of the report, once at the end of the Obama Administration and the other under the Trump Administration. When OSTP sent the most recent draft out for final review and clearance, it requested clearance from all agencies by August 18. DOE failed to do so and requested another three weeks. OSTP allowed it two weeks – until tomorrow, Friday 1 September 2017.

Here are a few of the report’s conclusions relating to tropical storms:

  • “There is broad agreement in the literature that human factors (greenhouse gases and aerosols) have had a measurable impact on the observed oceanic and atmospheric variability in the North Atlantic, and there is medium confidence that this has contributed to the observed increase in hurricane activity since the 1970s.”
  • “Several studies have projected increases of precipitation rates within hurricanes over ocean region, particularly for the Atlantic basin. The primary physical mechanism for this increase is the enhanced water vapor content in the warmer atmosphere, which enhances moisture convergence into the storm for a given circulation strength, although a more intense circulation can also contribute. Since hurricanes are responsible for many of the most extreme precipitation events in the southeastern United States, such events are likely to be even heavier in the future.”
  • “Both theory and numerical modeling simulations (in general) indicate an increase in tropical cyclone (TC) intensity in a warmer world, and the models generally show an increase in the number of very intense TCs. For Atlantic and eastern North Pacific hurricanes and western North Pacific typhoons, increases are projected in precipitation rates (high confidence) and intensity (medium confidence). The frequency of the most intense of these storms is projected to increase in the Atlantic and western North Pacific (low confidence) and in the eastern North Pacific (medium confidence).”
  • “Assuming storm characteristics do not change, sea level rise will increase the frequency and extent of extreme flooding associated with coastal storms, such as hurricanes and nor’easters (very high confidence). A projected increase in the intensity of hurricanes in the North Atlantic could increase the probability of extreme flooding along most of the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf Coast states beyond what would be projected based solely on RSL rise.”

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry addresses employees at Energy Department headquarters in Washington, D.C. on Friday, March 3, 2017. Photo by Simon Edelman, U.S. Department of Energy

“Rick Perry takes Texas pride in being a climate change denier”
Like several other members of the Trump cabinet, Perry has a long history of climate change denial. Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones reported on October 12, 2011 in Perry Officials Censored Climate Change Report that “Rick Perry takes Texas pride in being a climate change denier – and his administration acts accordingly.” The following day, author and CSPW founder Rick Piltz wrote the following in our blog Texas state officials give a preview of climate science censorship to expect under a Perry administration:

“High-level state officials under Texas Governor Rick Perry have censored a chapter in The State of the Bay, a regular publication of the Galveston Bay Estuary Program, to remove discussion of climate change and sea level rise. `This is a clear-cut case of censorship,’ the author, Dr. John B. Anderson, an oceanographer at Rice University, told Raw Story. `It’s not scientific editing.” And he supplied the report, showing text deleted by the Texas Council on Environmental Quality, to document the point.’”

The International Business Times provides other damning examples in “How Texas Lawmakers Failed To Plan For Climate Change And Harvey Floods” (August 29, 2017):

The Texas legislature had multiple opportunities to create a “climate adaptation plan” that could have resulted in preparations, but the bills were killed every time. The sponsor of the legislation told International Business Times that former Texas Gov. Rick Perry made sure that the climate adaptation bills would not pass.

The article continues:

“Houston is the heart of the nation’s fossil fuels industry, making the discussion of climate change post-Hurricane Harvey particularly relevant. The Texas state government has been widely criticized for being beholden to oil industry interests. Campaign finance records bear out that claim: Over the last two election cycles, Texas state lawmakers have received more than $11.3 million from the oil and gas industry, including $2.3 million for Texas State House Speaker Joe Straus. Former Gov. Perry, now Donald Trump’s Secretary of Energy, received more than $1.6 million from the oil and gas industry during his very brief 2016 presidential run. As governor of Texas, he received more than $10 million across three elections, including $6 million in the 2010 race.”

Perry still denies climate is being increasingly disrupted by human activity. Asked in a CNBC interview in June if he accepted that carbon dioxide was “the primary control knob for the temperature of the Earth and for climate,” Perry said:

“No, most likely the primary control knob is the ocean waters and this environment that we live in.” See “Rick Perry just denied that humans are the main cause of climate change” (Washington Post, June 19 2017).

The Secretary also has proven to be just as effective at undermining climate science and stymying climate action as the Secretary of Energy as he has in his previous public offices. To drive the point home, in late July the DOE press team tweeted an op-ed titled “In the fight between Rick Perry and climate scientists — he’s winning.” It was written by Ross McKitrick of the right-wing Cato Institute, an organization that has repeatedly attacked the USGCRP and its legally-mandated National Climate Assessments. See “Secretary Perry, don’t fight science” (The Hill, August 1 2017).

Report “must be defended effectively against political attacks and moved into the public discourse.”
Given the record that Perry and the rest of the Trump Administration have established on climate change, will DOE and the White House clear the Climate Science Special Report for a public release without major edits and further delays? It depends on the degree to which Americans demand uncensored science and accept its implications. As author and CSPW Founder Rick Piltz said in his 2011 piece about Perry’s heavy-handed censorship:

It’s not enough that the research and assessments that…the science community are producing get written. They must be defended effectively against political attacks and moved into the public discourse.”


Nicky Sundt is CSPW’s Senior Fellow. She is an expert on energy and climate change with over 35 years of experience and accomplishment in government, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector. During the four-month fellowship, Nicky will watch over and report on key US federal climate science obligations under law – especially those relating to communications to the President, Congress, and the public.