A Daily Caller article made a sweeping generalization to claim that global warming did not harm the South Pacific Islands when a deadly cyclone recently struck. But scientists quoted within the article itself explained definitively that climate change-induced sea level rise actually did worsen the cyclone's devastating impacts.
Cyclone Pam tore through the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu last weekend, killing 24 people and displacing tens of thousands of others. In response, President Baldwin Lonsdale of Vanuatu made an impassioned appeal to world leaders to act on global warming, stating that “climate change is contributing” to the nation's intense cyclones.
The conservative news site Daily Caller was quick to find fault with Lonsdale's remarks. In a March 18 article headlined: “Report: Global Warming Did Not Devastate South Pacific Islands,” writer Michael Bastasch claimed that “scientists are hesitant to blame rising carbon dioxide levels for wreaking havoc on Vanuatu.”
What some of the scientists had to say, however, actually agreed with the idea that climate change increased the storm's impacts -- specifically, that global warming-driven sea level rise made the effects of the cyclone far worse.
In fact, Bastasch himself ultimately noted in the article that the scientists unwilling to directly attribute Cyclone Pam to global warming were (emphasis added): “instead pointing out that sea level rises caused by global warming, not the cycles themselves, are causing more damage.”
Global warming-driven sea level rise is indeed a primary factor for cyclone damage -- particularly in low-lying islands such as Vanuatu -- as it contributes to bouts of sudden extreme flooding known as storm surges. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says that storm surges from hurricanes pose “the greatest threat to life and property” in coastal areas. During Cyclone Pam, the Vanuatu islands reportedly experienced storm surges as high as eight meters -- over 26 feet. Vice News reported that a 2014 NOAA study "found that changes in both ocean and atmospheric temperatures had combined to substantially increase the potential intensity of storms in the area where Pam hit."
One of the scientists Bastasch quoted expanded on the connection between climate change and storm surges within the Daily Caller article. U.K. Met Office climate scientist Peter Stott told Bastasch that sea level rise “is leading to large increases in the expected frequency of extremes of sea level from storm surges.”
None of the scientists Bastasch quoted completely denied the link between the global warming and the tragic impacts of Cyclone Pam.
Bastasch also quoted MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanuel, who made a more direct link between the cyclone's intensity and human-caused climate change, stating that Cyclone Pam has “no doubt been influenced by natural and anthropogenic climate change and they do remind us of our continuing vulnerability to such storms.” Emanuel added in an email to Media Matters that “long-term trends and projections of climate variables known to affect tropical cyclones ... weigh in favor of increasing incidence of high-category storms.”
And although most scientists would shy away from directly blaming Cyclone Pam on global warming alone, that's not really the point: individual extreme weather events are taking place in a climate that has already changed. As Emanuel explained to Media Matters, “all events are affected to some degree by climate changes, whether natural or anthropogenic.”
The devastation of Cyclone Pam illustrates the threat that climate change could pose to coastal areas such as Vanuatu. BBC's environmental analyst wrote that Lonsdale “can't be sure that the gusts of Pam were propelled by human hands. But he can be very sure that, as greenhouse gases increase, it is his people who are among the most at risk.”