As Hurricane Ian was beginning to pummel southern Florida last week, CNN anchor Don Lemon asked Jamie Rhome, the acting director of the National Hurricane Center, about any connections between hurricanes and human-caused climate change.
At first, Rhome resisted, saying during Tuesday’s TV interview that “we can come back and talk about climate change at a later time” and that he wanted to “focus on the here and now.”
Pressed a second time, Rhome gave in.
“I don’t think you can link climate change to any one event,” he said. “On the whole, on the cumulative, climate change may be making storms worse. But to link it to any one event — I would caution against that.”
Rhome’s remarks quickly became a sort of rallying cry for climate change deniers and their allied right-wing media. The nation’s top hurricane expert shared their view that climate change is not influencing hurricanes, they concluded, and that it is therefore not the threat that so-called climate alarmists want the public to believe.
Fox News anchors piled on Lemon and gave airtime to a number of climate contrarians, as Media Matters for America documented. Fox also published a piece Wednesday declaring that President Joe Biden’s NHC chief had “shut down” Lemon, but it offered zero information about scientific research into climate change and tropical cyclone activity.
Other outlets wrote that Lemon “face-plants” in the CNN footage and had been “schooled” by Rhome. The Daily Caller accused “liberal media” of “desperately trying to score political points by linking the near-Category 5 storm to man-made global warming.”
And the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank in Illinois with a long history of peddling climate misinformation, accused the media of “lying through their teeth” about hurricanes. The group applauded Rhome for “saying the truth instead of just parroting the narrative and keeping the cult going.”
The truth, however, is that Rhome’s choice of words — that scientists can’t “link” climate change to any specific hurricane event — is seemingly at odds with the science. While climate change can’t be pointed to as the singular cause of any given storm — and scientists are careful not to do so — little doubt exists around the linkage between increasing planetary temperatures and more intense storms.
In other words, climate change does not cause a hurricane, flood or wildfire, but it has and will continue to leave its mark on such events. A pair of studies in 2017, for example, found that rainfall from Hurricane Harvey was at least 15% stronger due to global warming.
“I think part of the problem is what one means by ‘event,’” Michael Mann, a climate scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, told HuffPost. “Could there still have been a Hurricane Ian in the absence of human-caused warming? Sure. Would it have been as strong, or as much of a coastal and inland flooding event? Almost certainly not.”
Mann was among those who criticized Rhome’s comments to CNN. In a series of posts to Twitter, Mann accused Rhome of “spouting climate denial talking points” and of going “out of his way to misrepresent the state of understanding of climate change impacts on these storms.” He later softened his criticisms.
Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University and the chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, called Rhome’s statement “outdated messaging from a decade ago that is unaware of the rapid developments in the field of attribution.”
Among those who came to Rhome’s defense was Ryan Maue, a meteorologist who served as the chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under former President Donald Trump. Maue believes in human-caused climate change but often downplays the threat and its links to extreme weather.
If nothing else, the incident exposed how desperate the climate denial movement has become. In this case, its leaders latched on to a poorly worded statement and found their hero in a federal scientist who, it turns out, does not share their view.
In an interview earlier this year, Rhome clearly laid out the ways in which planetary warming is and will continue to fuel more destructive tropical storms.
“Here’s the bottom line of what’s happening: If the globe is warming — and it is — it’s going to retain more moisture, right? It’s going to hold it better. And then a hurricane is going to come and extract it all. So it means it’s going to rain — it’s going to rain harder in future hurricanes,” he told News 6 WKMG in Orlando, Florida.
“You also don’t need me to tell you that the sea level is rising. You can see it. We can all see it. We go to the coast, [and] the coastline’s changing. The sea level is rising. That is a higher base or foundation upon which future hurricanes will have to push storm surge. So the storm surge will be deeper and go farther inland,” he added.
“Whether the [hurricane] numbers are increasing or not, storms that are forming are packing a bigger punch.”
Asked about the fallout from Rhome’s CNN appearance, National Weather Service spokesperson Susan Buchanan said Rhome “clearly stated that ‘on the whole, on the cumulative, climate change may be making storms worse.’”
“That comment is supported by the overwhelmingly clear science on what climate change means for storms like Ian in general: heavier rainfall, possible slower movement which prolongs heavy rain and battering winds, and more inundation as sea levels rise,” she said via email.
“With a major hurricane and catastrophic storm surge bearing down on Florida during the CNN interview, Jamie’s focus was on the ongoing and pressing impacts.”
Mann said Rhome should have used more nuance in his comments.
“I think one can attribute [it] to an inartful response to a question he didn’t expect to have to field, rather than an intention to downplay climate change,” he told HuffPost.
Pressed about whether Rhome misspoke during the CNN interview, Buchanan told HuffPost that her colleague is “on record affirming there are linkages between hurricanes and climate change.”
“In that moment, his goal was to keep the focus on a deadly storm bearing down and the imminent public danger,” she said. “Researchers will quantify science-based linkages to climate change after an event is over, which is the appropriate time for that conversation.”
That’s already underway. Last week, a preliminary analysis by a pair of climate researchers found that Hurricane Ian’s total rainfall was approximately 10% higher due to human-caused climate change.
Hurricane Ian had the characteristics of the type of storm that, according to experts, will become increasingly common in a warming world. It underwent what’s known as “rapid intensification,” growing from a tropical storm to a major hurricane in just a few days. It dumped upward of 20 inches of rain in areas of central Florida, and the storm surge inundated coastal cities like Fort Myers and Naples. By Tuesday, the death toll had climbed to at least 102, according to CNN.
In an opinion piece in the Guardian last week, Mann and Susan Joy Hassol, the director of the nonprofit Climate Communication, called Ian “a tragic taste of things to come” and threw cold water on Rhome’s CNN comments.
“Too often we still hear, even from government scientists, the old saw that we cannot link individual hurricanes to climate change,” they wrote. “There was a time when climate scientists believed that to be true. But they don’t any more. We have developed powerful tools to attribute the degree to which global warming affects extreme events.”