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A renewable energy ‘breakthrough’

There’s no real doubt among scientists that greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity are causing the planet to warm dangerously. But they still have plenty to fight about, and one of those things is the question of why hurricane activity in the Atlantic is on the rise.

One faction says a phenomenon called the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation plays a big role. Basically, it’s all about long cycles of cooling and warming. In warmer periods, the theory goes, you see more hurricanes.

Others say human influence is having a big effect, but maybe not the way you’d think.

A growing number of researchers see influence from pollution — in large part, the atmospheric sulfur pollution that rose sharply during the postwar industrial boom and declined after environmental legislation like the Clean Air Act. Under this theory, the sulfur pollution inhibited the formation of storms by cooling the region. When the air got cleaner, storm activity went up.

And a recent paper in the journal Science makes the case that the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation doesn’t really exist. (Notably, the lead author on the paper, Michael E. Mann of Pennsylvania State University, was the one who originally coined the ungainly term.)

So can you trust science?

Absolutely. Jill Trepanier, an associate professor of geology at Louisiana State University, told me that Dr. Mann’s reversal serves as an excellent example of scientific progress. “That’s the way the science game is played, truly a lot of it is being right for a while and then realizing you’ve been wrong and having to adjust,” she said. “What is true today might not be true tomorrow.”

Dr. Mann, who developed the 1998 “hockey stick” graph, which shows the powerful effects of greenhouse gas emissions on global warming, said that he was happy to be able to correct his own work about the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation. “Scientists must always be open to revising past thinking,” he said.

“On the hockey stick, unfortunately there is an example where we were shown to be right,” he added. “I wish I was wrong about that. I wish I was wrong about climate change.”


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