Hurricane Ike and Ronald Reagan

A future of ever-stormier weather will make life tough for Gulf offshore oil drillers. Go ahead, blame the Gipper.

Published September 9, 2008 10:00AM (EDT)

With Hurricane Ike apparently headed right into the heart of the Gulf of Mexico's offshore oil fields, hot on the heels of Hurricane Gustav, there really couldn't be a better time to peruse a new report from Jeff Rubin at CIBC, "Drilling in Stormy Waters."

(Two previous CIBC reports co-authored by Jeff Rubin on the topic of rising oil prices and global transport networks inspired the previous HTWW posts "Who Needs Tariffs When You Have Expensive Oil?" and "The Peak Oil vs. Globalization Smackdown." The man knows how to get the attention of the blogosphere.)

Rubin informs us that three years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, "Gulf oil output is still 20 percent below its pre-2005 peak."

What happens if the future is stormier than the past?

Any replay of the 2005 storm season could see gasoline prices soar to $5 per gallon.

More importantly they would all but signal a death knell to the hopes of lessening American dependence on foreign oil. Until hurricanes ravaged production, the Gulf of Mexico was the only source of new supply growth. And now even that seems to have come to a halt.

So -- what are the prospects of future hurricane seasons routinely matching the tempests of 2005, or getting worse? A multitude of elements contribute to a big hurricane season and not all of them can be blamed on global warming. Still, Rubin quotes the conclusions of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which he says "has now joined other climatologists in warning that the 'strongest hurricanes in the present climate may be upstaged by even more intense hurricanes over the next century, as the earth's climate is warmed by increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.'"

Let's just suppose that's true, that hurricanes will get worse, in part due to rising temperatures resulting from human activity.

Wouldn't it have been great if a group of esteemed scientists, who convened together every year at the behest of the U.S. government to give advice on scientific affairs, had warned, 30 years ago, that climate change as a result of pumping carbon dioxide in the air could have disastrous consequences? And wouldn't you be a little irritated if you learned that a U.S. president, back in the early '80s, ignored the warning?

George Bush gets most of the contemporary blame for downplaying the threat of global warming, and doing everything he could to ensure that the United States made no meaningful effort to take action during his administration. But before I read Naomi Oreskes and Jonathan Renouf's Sept. 7 article in the the Sunday Times, "Jason and the Secret Climate-Change War," I was unaware of the early, pivotal role that Ronald Reagan played in climate skepticism.

The scientists, write Oreskes, were a semi-secret organization of high-powered physicists who advised the Department of Defense and called themselves "the Jasons."

In 1979 they produced their report: coded JSR-78-07 and entitled The Long Term Impact of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Climate. Now, with the benefit of hind-sight, it is remarkable how prescient it was.

Right on the first page, the Jasons predicted that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere would double from their preindustrial levels by about 2035. Today it's expected this will happen by about 2050. They suggested that this doubling of carbon dioxide would lead to an average warming across the planet of 2-3C. Again, that's smack in the middle of today's predictions. They warned that polar regions would warm by much more than the average, perhaps by as much as 10C or 12C. That prediction is already coming true -- last year the Arctic sea ice melted to a new record low. This year may well set another record.

President Carter's science adviser commissioned another report from the National Academy of Sciences. The new report concurred with the Jasons. But then Ronald Reagan came to Washington and asked for a third opinion, from another physicist (and Jason), Bill Nierenberg.

His basic message was "calm down, everybody." He argued that while climate change would undoubtedly pose challenges for society, this was nothing new. He highlighted the adaptability that had made humans so successful through the centuries. He argued that it would be many years before climate change became a significant problem. And he emphasized that with so much time at our disposal, there was a good chance that technological solutions would be found....

A year after his report came out he became a co-founder of the George C Marshall Institute, one of the leading think tanks that would go on to challenge almost every aspect of the scientific consensus on climate change. Nierenberg hardened his position. He began to argue not just that global warming wasn't a problem, but also that it wasn't happening at all.

Hey, maybe it isn't happening. And maybe the storms won't intensify. Scientists have been wrong before. Calm down, everybody. What's the worst that could happen?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Environment Global Warming Globalization How The World Works Ronald Reagan