LOS ANGELES - The disastrous hurricanes of recent years have become the poster children of global warming.
But Roger A. Pielke Jr., an environmental policy specialist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, wondered whether the billions of dollars of damage were caused by more intense storms or more coastal development.
After analyzing decades of hurricane data, Pielke concluded that rising carbon dioxide levels had little to do with hurricane damage. Rather, it boiled down to a simple equation: Build more, lose more.
"Everything has been put on the back of carbon dioxide, and carbon dioxide cannot carry that weight," he said.
Pielke's analysis, published in February in the journal Natural Hazards Review, is part of a movement that contends that global warming over the next century will play a much smaller role in unleashing planetary havoc than many scientists believe.
His research has led him to believe that it is less expensive and more effective to adapt to a warming planet than to fight it. Instead of spending trillions of dollars to stabilize carbon dioxide levels - an enormously complex and expensive proposition - the world could work on reducing hunger, storm damage, and disease now, thereby neutralizing the most feared problems of global warming.
Hans von Storch, director of the Institute for Coastal Studies in Germany, said the reason is that the world's problems are so big that the added burdens caused by rising temperatures would, in fact, be relatively small.
It would be like going 99 miles per hour on the Autobahn when going 93 is already dangerous, he said.
Consider a United Nations estimate that global warming would increase the number of people at risk of hunger from 777 million in 2020 to 885 million by 2080, a 14 percent rise, if current development patterns continue.
That increase easily could be counteracted by spending on better irrigation systems, drought-resistant crops, and more efficient food transport systems, said Mike Hulme, founding director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia in England.
"If you're really concerned about drought, those are much more effective strategies than trying to bring down greenhouse gas concentrations," he said.
Playing down the importance of emissions reductions has raised hackles among many scientists, who say that the planetwide effect of global warming eventually will go beyond humanity's ability to deal with it.