CNN | 11/20/2019 | Listen

Scientist: Why do so many Americans ask me about nuking a hurricane?

Updated 5:49 PM ET, Mon August 26, 2019

Editor's Note: Adam Sobel, a professor at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, is an atmospheric scientist who studies extreme events and the risks they pose to human society. Sobel is the author of "Storm Surge," a book about Superstorm Sandy. Follow him on Twitter: @profadamsobel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN) - On Sunday, as the Atlantic hurricane season showed signs of life with the formation of Tropical Storm Dorian, Axios reported that "President Trump has suggested multiple times to senior Homeland Security and national security officials that they explore using nuclear bombs to stop hurricanes from hitting the United States." President Trump denies this report, but that has not stopped it from sparking a rapid-fire round of follow-on articles, criticism on social media, and explanations from scientists about why nuking hurricanes is a bad idea.

I'm not really interested in whether President Trump made the alleged suggestion or not. It certainly sounds like something he would say, but if he is embarrassed enough by the account to deny it, that is good enough for me. I wish he'd feel similarly about a lot of other things he has not denied saying.

I also do not -- despite my credentials and identity as a scientist -- want to write yet another explanation of why nuking hurricanes is a terrible idea. (Short version: it wouldn't work, because a hurricane is a lot more powerful than a nuke. And in the meantime, it would release a lot of radioactive material into the atmosphere, doing much more harm than good.)

I'm more interested in where the idea comes from. Not who came up with it first and when, but why it keeps coming up, again and again over many years. Whether the President said it this time or not, a lot of people have -- so many that the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration has created a page outlining why it's such a bad idea. And as terrifying as the idea seems -- at least, to those of us who have some relevant education and have spent much time thinking about nuclear weapons, hurricanes, or both -- those saying it probably did so, and continue to do so, from a place of good conscious intentions. I view Trump as a tremendously malevolent force in American politics and society, but I don't begrudge him hostility towards hurricanes. I can accept the possibility that, if he indeed suggested nuking them, he probably did so just because he thought it could protect the people in their path.

I have personally been asked about the nuke idea many times, by regular people who have shown up at public talks I have given about hurricanes. I'm not sure I wouldn't ask it myself, if I didn't already know the answer.

But it behooves us to look a bit below the surface of this conscious, benign curiosity. When faced with a hazard from our natural environment, why do some of us turn, even if just for a moment in our minds, to tremendously powerful, dangerous weapons of mass destruction?

Here is my attempt at an answer. Those of us who live in the more affluent neighborhoods of the modern world feel so insulated by wealth and technology from the physical realities of life on this planet that, when those realities threaten to impinge on us in ways we can't immediately dismiss, we become impatient. Why can't our leaders just make this problem go away by spending money, exercising military power, or both? The thought that we might need to bend to the forces of nature -- that we might need to change something about ourselves, either in the short or long term, to accommodate the fact that we live on a planet we can't entirely control -- frustrates us enormously.

This is relevant, of course, to debates about the climate crisis. Behind nearly every denial of the existence of that crisis is what those who study the problem call solution aversion. That is, hostility to any proposed policy or action that allows recognition of external physical limits (like the fact that uncontrolled emissions of greenhouse gases are making life increasingly dangerous for enormous numbers of people and members of other species) to curb the drive for economic growth. And this is not just an issue on the right side of the political spectrum. Many of us who believe that the climate crisis is a serious problem -- and I don't exempt myself here -- don't behave as though it is, either in our individual actions or, more importantly, our engagement in the political process.

Rather than accept that our collective best interests require a longer view, one that takes account of the physical realities of the nonhuman world, and that this might require of us some effort of one kind or another -- it is very tempting to ask why the state can't solve the problem for us by bombing someone or something.

As the planet continues to heat up, policymakers are giving increasing attention to the idea of "geoengineering" -- manipulating the environment to counter the effects of climate change, for example by intentionally sending up rockets or airplanes to put a lot of dust into the stratosphere, in order to cool the earth by blocking sunlight. Though I am strongly opposed to this idea, I accept that it is not as insane to discuss it as it would be to discuss nuking hurricanes.

But as we do so, we should continually look inside ourselves and ask if it is appealing because it is really the best option, or because it lets us get away with continuing to think that the world revolves around us. Are we truly trying to live by the values we hold dearest? Or do we just want rockets, planes or bombs to make our problems go away so that we can continue as we are?


© 2019 Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Listen to CNN (low-bandwidth usage)

Go to the full CNN experience