Our opinion: No simple science with the climate

Proving once again that the science on pollution and climate change is never as tidy as either side hopes we will believe, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has released the results of a study that says changes in regionalized air pollution are affecting storm activity.

Well, we already knew that, right? Sort of. The change is perhaps not what some people would expect.

As the Associated Press reported, a 50 percent decrease in aerosol pollution particles and droplets in Europe and the U.S. is linked to a 33 percent increase in Atlantic storm formation in the past couple of decades, while the opposite is happening in the Pacific with more pollution and fewer typhoons, according to the study published in Science Advances.

“That’s why the Atlantic has gone pretty much crazy since the mid-90s and why it was so quiet in the 70s and 80s,” said climate and hurricane scientist Jim Kossin of the risk firm The Climate Service.

Before you go raising your arms in victory when it comes to greenhouse gas emission regulations, one of the study’s authors points out climate change from greenhouse gases will grow as aerosol pollution reductions level out.

While aerosol cooling is approximately half to one-third smaller than the warming from greenhouse gases, it is about twice as effective in reducing tropical cyclone intensity compared to warming increasing it, said Columbia University climate scientist Adam Sobel, who wasn’t part of the study.

Nothing is ever simple, is it?

There is one thing clear. Air pollution is still more deadly than the hurricanes its reduction might be encouraging.

“Air pollution is a major killer, so reducing emissions is critical no matter what happens with the number of cyclones,” said University of Washington public health professor Kristie Ebi, who wasn’t part of the study.

Policy makers who hope to take a black-or-white approach to environmental regulations must bear in mind studies such as this one. The fight continues, yes. But we also have to weigh the pros and cons in methods for protecting both the planet and the people living on it, who are part of an environment that doesn’t always play by bureaucrats’ rules.


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