The devastation caused a few weeks ago by Hurricane Ida in the US, surpassed only by Katrina in 2005, has led researchers to consider a new typology of cyclones powered by global warming. A reality that Kerry Emanuel, Professor of Environmental Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), knew how to see in 1987. The increase in ocean temperature, published in a cited article by NatureIt would feed the “machinery” of hurricanes, making them more intense and, especially, more destructive.
His dedication to climate science – he spent “four seasons” in Mallorca studying the Medicanes, the Mediterranean hurricanes, together with Romualdo Romero- has earned him the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge award in the Climate Change category. The thick gray hair still denotes the countercultural environment in which it was formed in the seventies, but Kerry is first and foremost a pragmatist, an “awkward” in his own words.: affable but resounding, he charges in equal parts against the climate deniers as against the antinuclear positions, which keep us away, he warns, from fulfilling the objectives of the Paris Agreement.
Spain has experienced more intense and frequent extreme events in recent years, from heat waves to extratropical storms. Is everything connected to climate change?
It could be perfectly. It is very difficult for scientists to attribute specific weather changes in a precise location to climate change, because there is so much natural variability. But yes: model-based predictions are largely consistent, and the Mediterranean region is going to become more arid as a general rule.
What is the relationship between the increase in water temperature and the intensity of cyclones?
It’s a bit tricky, but in short: greenhouse gases trap heat in the ocean, which has a hard time radiating it into space. It only manages to escape by flowing into the atmosphere, which creates turbulence. This is the process that fuels a hurricane. It’s actually very simple basic physics. Greenhouse emissions power the hurricane. It does not mean that they believe more, but they increase their speed.
Although we cannot trace a direct link to climate change, can we say that extreme events have become more frequent?
To put it more accurately, what is increasing is the proportion of hurricanes becoming very intense. The average frequency of storms seems to be changing and we do not have a good theoretical prediction along that line. But the number of phenomena that reach extreme values does seem to grow.
Another piece of information his research reveals is that when the speed of a hurricane increases, its destructive capacity increases even more.
Yes. The destructive capacity increases much faster than the speed of the wind. The force exerted by the wind against an object is squared with the speed, but its destructive potential makes it cubed.
This gives the measure of the human cost of the problem: the damage they cause to communities is more lasting and intense than their strength allows us to foresee.
There is a bit of anthropology in this question. If we look across the world, at different cultures and different environmental risks – earthquakes, volcanoes, storms – generally societies tend to adapt well to recurring phenomena. But if they occur less frequently, less than once every 100 years, they are usually not well prepared. And they suffer much more destruction. What is happening with climate change is that the extreme phenomenon that occurred every 200 years begins to occur every 50, and society does not have time to adapt. It is happening too fast. We do not have time to tear down all our buildings to build more resistant ones, which is not what we should do either. But in places vulnerable to hurricanes, great damage occurs from relatively small changes in wind speed.
How can Spain adapt to extreme events such as the last great winter storm Filomena?
Experts in the field, who know more than I, speak of two approaches. On the one hand, we must increase the resilience of our infrastructures and our civilization. But that will mean something different from place to place, depending on the risks, geography or culture. On the other hand, we must try to reduce the impact caused by climate change, migrating to cleaner energies, and perhaps trying to extract carbon from the atmosphere to bury it. For me, the problem comes down to technology. You have to invest more, and that’s good news, because the one that replaces fossil fuels will be better for everyone. Anyone who has tried a Tesla does not want to go back to a gasoline car: it is so nice, with an engine that requires practically no maintenance, very powerful … And a lot of fun to drive! Forget about climate change: combustion kills about 9 million people every year around the world from lung problems caused by particles, it is an annual pandemic against which we are not doing anything.
What do you think of current activism? I read one of his words: “Environmental extremism has been almost as bad as climate denialism.”
Well, I think so. What I see on both the far left and the far right is a tendency to use climate change as an instrument to pass policies that they have long wanted. Ideology rules, rather than sincere concern for the environment. I am empirical: I don’t care how we do it, I want to get out of this mess. And I know that at least four countries have achieved complete decarbonization: France, Sweden, Belgium and Switzerland. They did not do it for the climate, but for energy security, with a combination of hydroelectric and nuclear in just 10 years. Activists say, “No, nothing nuclear.” But it is not a rational position. They want to scare people, but there has been only one serious incident, Chernobyl, and if we accept the highest death toll, 60,000 long-term casualties: We lose the same number of people in three days to fossil fuels! What works, empirically, is a combination of nuclear and renewable energy. There is too much ideology and too little common sense.
Has climate denial also changed? From ‘it’s not happening’ to ‘it’s not that bad’ to ‘okay, it happens, but it’s someone else’s fault’?
Yeah it’s gradually softening [ríe], even in the US. Also on the left the opposition to nuclear energy is no longer so strong. It is a slow process. I remember that in 1952 the New York Times took to the cover that the relationship between smoking and lung cancer had been confirmed. And it took 30 years for tobacco use per capita was reduced, due to the massive disinformation campaign launched by the industry. This has been something similar. Science has known since the 1980s that we are in danger, and the fossil fuel industry fights back with misinformation. It has also taken about thirty years!
And lately you perceive hostility against scientific thinking, in the line of denial against the Covid vaccines?
It’s complicated. I don’t think it’s so much about the decline in respect for science as it is about the rise of extremist ideologies. Maybe because of social networks, I don’t know. When I was a child, the scourge was polio. And when the vaccine was developed, everyone got it. Nobody protested. Now, ‘freedom’ is wielded as an absolute good that goes above all others. I don’t know how this happened. When we were in college, we all read the same newspapers and watched the same channels, because there weren’t so many. And then we argued, but we did not doubt the facts, it occurred to no one to deny that there were deaths in Vietnam. Today everyone reads their “personal newspaper”, no one uses the same data, a hodgepodge of sources, a Twitter tribe … We would need a vaccine against misinformation.
In terms of individual responsibility, what should we do in the face of the climate crisis?
My answer may be uncomfortable, but I don’t think individual behavior changes much. Change your light bulb if it makes you feel better, but what matters is collective action. People must organize and persuade their governments to act en masse. We are not going to solve climate change by stopping eating meat. It will help a little, yes, but it is not about that, but about great reconversions of industrial society. That’s why Greta Thunberg is great, for launching a youth movement demanding changes from countries. I am much more in favor of collective political action than individual, and I have a lot of hope in this generation.
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