Sen. Whitehouse, Tornado Opportunists Wrong on All Counts

Sen. Whitehouse, Tornado Opportunists Wrong on All Counts
June 5, 2013

Tom Harris

Tom Harris, B. Eng., M. Eng. (Mech., thermofluids), is executive director of the International... (read full bio)

Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.,  took advantage of last week’s tornados in the Midwest to boost their climate change plans. More "green" energy from wind and solar power is needed if we are  to avoid dangerous global warming and increasing extreme weather events, they  say. But their advocacy makes no sense, no matter what you believe about the causes of climate change.

Studies show that strong to intense tornados have actually decreased markedly over the past 50 years, despite a  warming climate. When the period from 1954 to 2003 was analyzed in a 2008 paper  published by the American Geophysical Union, it was found that the most damaging  tornados were about twice as frequent in the first half of the record than in  the second half.

This is not surprising. Contrary to Boxer and Whitehouse’s assertions, the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events  decrease as the planet warms. It is during cooler periods, not warmer ones, that  such phenomena increase. Strong to violent tornadoes actually peaked during the  1970s when concerns about global cooling dominated.

Boxer and  Whitehouse have things backwards for another reason as well. If strong tornados  and other extreme weather events were actually on the rise, then they should be  boosting America’s most affordable and reliable energy sources to prepare for  and cope with these hazards. After all, more electricity would be needed to  handle greater demands for air conditioning and heating. More power would be  required to irrigate lands, build dikes, strengthen public infrastructure and  relocate populations living on flood plains or at risk from tornadoes and  hurricanes.

Yet in discussing their solutions to these dangers,  Boxer and Whitehouse promote wind and solar power, the least reliable and most expensive options available. They don’t support an expansion of the most reliable and cheapest energy source, coal, from which comes 11 percent of  Massachusetts’s electricity, and about half of America’s.

Extreme weather events aside, modern industrialized societies need massive  quantities of reliable, high quality power to run steel mills, Internet servers  and transportation systems, even when the wind drops or a cloud passes in front  of the sun. So it would be foolish to rely on electricity from these  intermittent sources.

And although wind and solar power have had  decades to mature, they still cost between three and 10 times the price of  electricity from coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear. The Energy Information Administration shows that even though non-hydroelectric renewable electricity generation received 53.5% of all federal financial support for the electric  power sector in 2010, it produced only 3.6 percent of all generation.

Moving away from the inexpensive, steady power that coal provides  America because of tornados and other weather extremes is analogous to a ship  captain ordering his crew into lifeboats when a severe storm is approaching. It  would be suicide to abandon ship exactly when the protection of a sturdy vessel was most needed.

Even if there were a human-caused climate crisis happening, and increasing numbers of experts doubt that there is, the  energy policies promoted by Boxer and Whitehouse would have little climatic  impact. China, which derives 80% of its electricity from coal, is planning to  build 500 coal-fired plants over the next ten years, easily swamping the impact  of changes in America’s energy sources.

The only result of a  move away from coal and other highly effective hydrocarbon energy sources in the  U.S. would be one of mass unemployment and millions of Americans joining the  billions of people throughout the world already mired in energy poverty. And  severe tornados and other extreme weather will continue to occur as they always  have, with the climatic effect of America’s sacrifice immeasurable in the real world.

[First published at The Herald News]

To read The Heartland Institute's response to Senator Whitehouse's comments, please click here.

Tom Harris

Tom Harris, B. Eng., M. Eng. (Mech., thermofluids), is executive director of the International... (read full bio)