Letter From Washington: We Just Don’t Know Enough

by Eli Lehrer on May 3, 2011

photo by Ricardo Alcalá/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

Bad as the mid-April tornadoes were, those that that struck this week rank as  the second deadliest windstorm disaster since global weather monitoring (and thus, significant advance warning of hurricanes) became possible in the 1960s . Only Hurricane Katrina, it appears, claimed more lives than this spate of tornados and many Katrina’ related deaths had more to do with the breakdown of public services and the collapse of levee walls than winds per se.

Despite this one-year uptick, however, the general trend of tornado deaths is generally very much a downward one. Still, even there isn’t even one more tornado death takes place, this will be the deadliest tornado year since the early 1970s.

Here are three, mostly unrelated,  observations:

The nature of tornadoes means that we’ll probably have one-year upticks whatever happens: A modest decrease in death tolls from tornadoes correlates with the widespread deployment of Doppler Weather Radar in the 1980s (which lets forecasters know how fast storms are traveling), but most of the declines probably results from more basic prediction technologies and warning networks. Since tornadoes are theoretically possible just about anywhere, sometimes they’re just going to hit in very populated areas.

We’re probably not going to have a tornado insurance availability problem: Tornados remain very unpredictable and tornado strike in any very particular location isn’t going to really correlate with another one over the period during which a company would insure a property. A few single-state domestics may have problems as a result but the big national companies really ought to hang tough if they have any brains.

Like everything else, nobody is going to be able to show that this does (or doesn’t) relate to human caused climate change: Everything serious I’ve seen about climate change from every ideological/scientific point of view makes it pretty clear: we just don’t know enough to link any particular event to climate change or to rule out  a link.  You can’t beyond-a-reasonable doubt rule out much in particular. Since the current spate of hurricanes isn’t outside of rather recent historical experience, however, even a very rigorous model indicating that CO2 emissions contributed to the weather wouldn’t necessarily prove that limiting these emissions is the best way to deal with the problem. Since we’ve achieved impressive overall reductions in tornado deaths and damage over the past few decade, its quite plausible that the best responses may have nothing to do with CO2 emissions whatsoever even if one concedes that they are the cause.

The best response may be, instead, to do what, broadly, already appears to be working: improve warning networks, develop better response protocols and upgrade building standards. Tornados do not provide proof that controlling carbon emissions is a good idea.


Arizona governor Jan Brewer has vetoed  a bill that would have allowed individuals in Arizona to purchase health insurance across state lines. While interstate purchase is a good idea, Arizona’s plan—which could have potentially left consumers in the state entirely without regulatory/administrative recourse for complaints about health insurers—seems like a bridge too far particularly since it relaxed virtually all instate insurance coverage mandates too. (The mandates are generally bad but, broadly, the expensive ones aren’t stupid and the stupid ones aren’t expensive.)  Wyoming, where very few people will likely take advantage of the law, may be a better test case.


One piece of very good news from Washington State: amidst a law that implements a state health insurance exchange, the legislature has passed a “safe harbor” for health care sharing ministries that will let them escape insurance department regulation that would have basically banned them from operating in the state. Gov. Christine Gregoire is expected to sign since she supports the underlying bill. At least we can count one small free market (and free exercise of religion) victory for the week.

Until next week,

Eli Lehrer, vice president for Washington operations

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