A Free-Market Energy Blog

Romm Polemics vs. Drought Science

By Chip Knappenberger -- December 13, 2012

At Climate ProgressJoe Romm is ever eager to find that bad things are inevitable in our climate future because of fossil fuels. So it really makes his day when a prominent scientist gives him doomster material. Bad news is good news in RommWorld where so many facts and uncertainties contradict his neo-Malthusian worldview.

Romm hones in and hyperventilates over those chosen scientists promoting climate alarm–and swats away with derision that the same have things wrong. In many cases, Romm gets tangled up in the science with partisanship and confusion.

Romm has a long track record of this type of behavior. And perhaps the most recent case involves Romm’s unwavering dedication to NASA’s James Hansen (outlier) view of the coming climate and human’s influence on it. Hansen has a lot of bad stuff to say, which is good for Joe Romm. But the problem is that Hansen is not usually right.

Dust Bowl Debate: Hoerling Gets Rommed

A recent subject of Romm’s scorn has been Dr. Martin Hoerling, who has on a least two occasions over the past 6 two 8 months, explained why Hansen’s climate alarmism—on display in prominent op-eds, and hyped by Romm—just doesn’t square with the science.

Dr. Hoerling is no climate change denier who haunts climate blog sites countering every global warming claim—by lukewarmers or alarmists alike—with his own version of pseudo-science, but instead is a prominent scientist at the Physical Sciences Division (PSD) of the Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the Department of Commerce of the United States government. Scientists at the PSD live and breathe atmospheric dynamics. So he is extremely well-qualified to discuss the causes of weather/climate events.

Hoerling has taken seemingly taken it upon himself to counter many of the extreme weather/climate links to anthropogenic global warming that have become popular in recent years. It is not that he doesn’t think that human greenhouse gases are leading to climate changes, but just that attributing every extreme weather event to anthropogenic global warming and acting like it otherwise wouldn’t have occurred doesn’t make sense in light of the larger body of observations and often theory.

Back in May, Hansen published an op-ed in the New York Times titledGame Over for Climatein which he was arguing against the Keystone XL pipeline by describing some scary climate events that he foretold would result from the opening of the Canadian Tar Sands (see here for why I think this is bunk). Here is an example from Hansen’s op-ed:

Over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.

If this sounds apocalyptic, it is. This is why we need to reduce emissions dramatically.

Hoerling called baloney on that, telling the Times’ Andy Revkin, among other things, that:

The Hansen piece is policy more than it is science, to be sure, and one can read it for the former. But facts should, and do, matter to some. The vision of a Midwest Dustbowl is a scary one, and the author appears intent to instill fear rather than reason.

Romm immediately fired off a lengthy diatribe against Hoerling’s comments, in which he seemed to imply that he, Romm, knew more about the subject than did Hoerling.

Romm opened his attack: “The response by NOAA’s Martin Hoerling to James Hansen’s recent op-ed does not reflect the scientific literature.” And Romm took special offense to the last two sentences in the Hoerling quote above, writing:

That’s a very serious attack on Hansen — if it were true. But it isn’t, and it should be retracted.

Well, it doesn’t seem as if Hoerling is planning on retracting his statement, in fact, quite the opposite. And as if to set Romm’s mind at ease about the scientific literature, Hoerling put together a research team with the express intent to analyze the potential for semi-permanent Dust Bowl-type drought in the Midwest and his team just published their results in the peer-reviewed Journal of Climate, in a paper aptly titled “Is a Transition to Semi-Permanent Drought Conditions Imminent in the U.S. Great Plains?”

Back to Science

What was found in their course of study was that support for such a conclusion exists only in poorly-based assumptions about how commonly-used metrics of drought respond to rising temperatures. It turns out the metrics are overly sensitive to rising (and extreme) temperatures, and thus overestimate the magnitude of drought in those conditions (like under projections of rising future temperatures as well as during extreme heat waves like the 2012 Midwestern drought).

After showing why such assumptions are wrong, and why projections made based on them are unreliable, Hoerling and his team label as exaggerated the possibility that anthropogenic climate changes will imminently lead to semi-permanent drought conditions across the Great Plains.

Big surprise considering the source of the initial claims.


Hoerling, M., J. Eischeid, X. Quan, H. Diaz, R. Webb, R. Dole, and D. Easterling, 2012. Is a Transition to Semi-Permanent Drought Conditions Imminent in the U.S. Great Plains? Journal of Climate, doi:10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00449.1, in press.


  1. Ronald Walter  

    In the spring and summer of 2011, from May 31 to July 14, I recorded a rainfall amount of 33.5 inches. 5 inches per week. A measurement that would be the total for one year in the geographical area where I live. The science is meaningless if you want to make conclusions that fit your crackpot ideas.

    Mr. Romm probably has never heard of the ’22 year dry line’. 1988 was a dry year. I remember seeing a thermometer in the shade one day that read 108 degrees. 2009, 2010, and especially 2011 were extremely wet years. Never been so much water. It is still there. So much water, many plants that were absent from the landscape from constant noxious plant herbicide control returned and flourished like never before. You can’t make this stuff up. In 1997, during the winter, the temp plummeted to 42 below zero. It was a record.

    in my geographical area, 2012 was a return to more normal temperatures and the recorded rainfall amounts were more normal that not.

    There were abnormally dry conditions in the lower Great Plains, but the upper Great Plains experienced record crops and normal crop growing conditions.

    Most of the record high temperatures were recorded during the Dust Bowl. 1959 to 1961 were dry years. I do remember dust hanging in the sky on extremely windy days during that time period. Subtract 22 from 1959 and you have 1937. 1919 was a good crop year and many barns were built. The early to mid 1970’s were wetter years than normal.

    Eastern Montana has high desert and badlands. It is easy to predict a drought in Eastern Montana because it is hot and dry there during the summer months… That is the way it is. You won’t go wrong making a prediction of a dry year there.

    You can predict a weather pattern if you observe the weather over a long period of time. My guess is the northern Great Plains will have wet years beginning in less than ten years from now to about 2034. It is cyclic and you won’t be wrong if you observe what actually happens. Facts are better and make good evidence.

    Building climate models based on dubious science is folly from the word go.


Leave a Reply