Pielke on Climate #7

klotz20171klotz20172The above images on hurricanes come via hurricane researcher @philklotzbach. The top graph shows US hurricane landfalls from 1878 to 2017 (through today). Within that data the trend is down and if you’d like to consider the data as a sample from a larger population, there is no trend. Either way you slice it, US hurricanes have not increased.

The bottom table shows summary statistics for the entire Northern Hemisphere for 2017. Even with the massive damage in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean, by the numbers 2017 is an average year. Lesson: Don’t confuse impact with climate. More on that below.

Welcome to issue #7 of my occasional newsletter on climate and energy issues. As a reminder, my day-to-day research or writing is focused on sports governance and various issues of science policy. But I’ve written a fair bit on the topics of climate and energy over the past 25 years, including two recent books and a boatload of academic papers, and I’m paying attention. So caveat lector!

A few things to say up front:

  • If you appreciate the perspective, consider the tip jar to your right.
  • If you don’t like what I write or don’t like me, then don’t read it – no big deal, I’m just a professor with a blog.
  • And thanks to those of you who have tipped – very much appreciated
  • If you’d like to engage, consider a comment, Tweet @ me (@rogerpielkejr) or an email. I am happy to discuss or debate. I’ve had great feedback on the first 6 issues.
  • Also, if you have a pointer or tip, please send that along as well.
  • Social media warning: if you choose to call me names or lie about me, oh-so-common in discussing climate, then you will be muted or ignored.

The next edition of this newsletter will come in January.

With that,  some of what I found interesting over the past month . . .

Mertonian Norms and Climate Debates

  • Today I have an op-ed in the WSJ on the parallel lawsuits of Mark Jacobson (Stanford) and Michael Mann (Penn State) who are both trying to characterize statements made by people critical of their work as legally actionable.
  • The two lawsuits are virtually identical in claims, argument and even the venue where their lawsuits were filed. There can be little doubt that Jacobson modeled his lawsuit on Mann’s lawsuit.
  • Importantly, here is how my piece starts: “I’ve worked alongside climate researchers for decades. Almost all of them are ethical, dedicated to science and not particularly political. But some leading figures and organizations in this community are weakening the norms that make science robust.” (emphasis added)
  • Mertonian norms are much discussed in studies of science and were first presented by Merton in this 1942 article (in PDF).
  • I am not the first to apply these norms to the climate debate, see especially, Grundmann (2012) and Jasanoff (2010).
  • There are a number of very prominent examples of the flouting of scientific norms within the climate community. It is not the sort of discussion that gets you onto Christmas Card lists, but it is easy to list leaders in the community who’ve decided that expected norms of behavior  don’t apply to them: Jacobson, Mann, Gleick, Pachauri, Schmidt, Rahmstorf, Shukla, Jones, Trenberth … Just to start.
  • Climate insiders will be intimately familiar with these folks and their efforts to quash their enemies (the “deniers”!) by bringing the techniques of power politics into scientific debates. Just today Gavin Schmidt, a publicly-funded NASA scientist, decided that the best way to respond to my op-ed would be to go on Twitter to repeat lies about me first made-up by the Center for American Progress. Thank you Gavin for helping to make my point.
  • The erosion of norms among a few leading climate scientists has been endorsed — often tacitly but sometimes explicitly — by leading scientific organizations. Mann’s lawsuits have been celebrated by leading organizations, some of which have given him awards. The sense of a cause has gripped leaders of the climate community and the cause justifies eschewing norms.
  • Seeing this, why wouldn’t Jacobson follow Mann down the same legal path? Of course, Jacobson’s lawsuit creates all sorts of unresolvable dissonance. Perhaps this dissonance is why scientific organisations which should be stating loudly and unambiguously that lawsuits are not way to pursue scientific debates.
  • This behavior will continue until norms are upheld by the community. I have enjoyed hearing Mann’s friends defend his and Jacobson’s lawsuits. This is the normalization of deviance. Perhaps these scientists can now better understand the norm-flouting and defending of President Trump.
  • The good news is that my op-ed has received wide support from many scientists inside the field of climate and energy, and well beyond. Please have a read and I welcome your comments.

The US National Climate Assessment and Weather Extremes

  • The 4th US National Climate Assessment was published a few weeks ago, and it is worth reviewing what it says about trends in extreme weather events. In short, the NCA supports arguments I’ve been making for many years.
  • “Cold extremes have become less severe over the past century.”
  • “Changes in warm extremes are more nuanced than changes in cold extremes.” (Yes, you read that correctly.)
  • Here are trends in cold spells, warm spells and heat waves 1900 to present from the report:figure6_4
  • “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) concluded that it is very likely that human influence has contributed to the observed changes in frequency and intensity of temperature extremes on the global scale since the mid-20th century. . . In general, however, results for the contiguous United States are not as compelling as for global land areas . . .” (emphasis added, and yes, that means weak attribution).
  • Hurricanes: “there is still low confidence that any reported long-term (multidecadal to centennial) increases in TC activity are robust”
  • Tornadoes: “A particular challenge in quantifying the existence and intensity of these events arises from the data source”
  • Winter storms: “Analysis of storm tracks indicates that there has been an increase in winter storm frequency and intensity since 1950”
  • Drought: “drought statistics over the entire CONUS have declined … no detectable change in meteorological drought at the global scale” (One for John Holdren)
  • “Western North America…. where determining if observed recent droughts were unusual compared to natural variability was particularly difficult” (Another for Dr. Holdren)
  • “IPCC AR5 did not attribute changes in flooding to anthropogenic influence nor report detectable changes in flooding magnitude, duration, or frequency”
  • In the US “”increasing & decreasing flooding magnitude but does not provide robust evidence that these trends are attributable to human influences… no formal attribution of observed flooding changes to anthropogenic forcing has been claimed”
  • “a number of precipitation metrics over the continental United States has been examined; however trends identified for the U.S. regions have not been clearly attributed to anthropogenic forcing”
  • The data says what it says. There is precious little evidence that extremes have become worse in the US since at least 1900, with the exception of more winter storms since 1950 and overall fewer cold spells. Attribution is weak to nonexistent.
  • Despite the evidence there is a drumbeat of news stories and various claims that weather disasters are getting worse.
  • For instance, the New York Times article on the release of the report contained this statement: “In the United States, the report finds that every part of the country has been touched by warming, from droughts in the Southeast to flooding in the Midwest …”
  • Michael Mann, the same professor suing his critics for being wrong about scientific claims says this: “Whether we’re talking about unprecedented heat waves, increasingly destructive hurricanes, epic drought and inundation of our coastal cities, the impacts of climate change are no longer subtle
  • Both the NYT characterization of the report and Mann’s claims are irrefutably incorrect according to the report. These are just a few of many similar examples of claims that are contrary to the NCA related to extreme weather.
  • Claiming that the weather has gotten worse is today an important cultural shibboleth related to climate science. It’s not supported by the evidence but it serves an important role in the political debate over climate. Another weakened norm, I suppose.

The Politics of Inconceivable Scenarios

  • Last for this month, but perhaps most important, is a hugely significant paper published by Justin Ritchie and Hadi Dowlatabdi of the University of British Columbia titled Why do climate scenarios return to coal?
  • The paper argues that the IPCC’s scenario for future emissions of carbon dioxide most often characterized as “business-as-usual” (technically called RCP 8.5) should be considered implausible.
  • They explain: “RCP8.5 no longer offers a trajectory of 21st-century climate change with physically relevant information for continued emphasis in scientific studies or policy assessments.”
  • Why does this matter? A “business as usual” scenario is frequently used as the basis for projections of how the future climate will evolve in the absence of climate policy that seeks to reduce emissions.
  • The difference between BAU and a climate policy scenario in terms of climate outcomes is thus characterized as the consequences (and sometimes the costs) of not mitigating.
  • Right away you can see that for those seeking to argue the case for mitigation action, there is every incentive for BAU to be as bad as possible. But what if BAU isn’t as bad as it used to be, under assumptions that may have made sense in the 1970s for a dramatic return-to-coal through the 21st century? Should today’s BAU baseline be made more realistic?
  • Larry Kummer has done a great job documenting how RCP 8.5 has been frequently invoked as a “business-as-usual” scenario.
  • In fact, once you start looking, you’ll see RCP 8.5 everywhere in the climate impacts literature. For instance, just yesterday, PNAS published a quick-turnaround study by Kerry Emanuel arguing that storms like Hurricane Harvey will become 6x more common by 2100 … under RCP 8.5. But if RCP 8.5 is implausible, then so too are Emanuel’s results (any other methodological issues aside).
  • Revisiting BAU has profound significance. As Ritchie and Dowlatabadi explained in an earlier paper: “For the past quarter-century, high emission baselines have been the focus of research, explicitly or implicitly shaping national policy benchmarks, such as estimates for the social cost of carbon.”  That innocuous sentence gets close to a third rail of the climate debate — the social cost of carbon (SCC).
  • The more extreme the BAU scenario, the higher the SCC and the higher the cost of what those using the SCC would claim to be acceptable regulatory action. See the incentives at play here?
  • The Ritchie and Dowlatabadi paper reveals a deeply problematic aspect of the climate issue: It depends almost entirely on competing visions of the future as codified in integrated assessment models. The costs of action and inaction are based on the assumptions used to build these models – not evidence, not data but assumptions.
  • Policy arguments based on assumptions in highly speculative models are tailor-made for pathological politicization, appeals to authority and gatekeeping to protect from critical views. Based on this, in the real world of politics they also have very little weight in near-term policy decisions.
  • A far better approach would be to focus on carbon-free energy as a proportion of global supply and to argue about what would actions would move that proportion from a current ~14% towards upwards of 90%.BP.2017.3
  • Richie says he has faced some difficulties getting his arguments published: “Despite getting over 30 peer reviews collected from all of these journals, no one has shot it down,” he said, adding that he still has detected a reluctance among some scholars to grapple with his observations. “Maybe I’m completely wrong about all of this, and here I’ve written all these papers and there’s some critical flaws in them. That’s great—tell me about it,” Ritchie said. “Please! Someone just read it!
  • Read it. It is important.

19 thoughts on “Pielke on Climate #7

  1. Thank you for the generous mention of my post describing the commonplace misrepresentations of RCP8.5.

    That post rests on a previous one showing that RCP8.5 is a useful worst-case scenario — but unlikely. It assumes large trend changes. Most importantly, accelerating population growth (fertility does not crash in emerging nations, as it has everywhere else) and a stagnation in technology. Both are implausible. The latter is especially odd, as we appear to be entering a new industrial revolution.

    For details see “Is our certain fate a coal-burning climate apocalypse? No!”


  2. About the “normalization of deviance” in climate science.

    This deserves much more attention! To learn more about this phenomenon see its roots in the work of the great sociologist (& Senator) Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Defining Deviancy Down” in American Educator, Winter 1993/1994 — “How We’ve Become Accustomed to Alarming Levels Of Crime and Destructive Behavior.”


    This was further developed by another American sociologist, Diane Vaughan in her 1996 book “The Challenger Launch Decision”. It described what she called a “normalization of deviance” within NASA that led to the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.


    If climate change does not destroy the world, a future sociologist will write a book documenting this dynamic at work in today’s climate science institutions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Larry, you are right as is Roger. This politization of science was perhaps inevitable as science is claiming more and more reach over people’s daily lives. But the problem here is that with increased importance should come increased scrutiny and higher ethical standards. Science currently is infested with gross abuses that will require structural changes in how science is funded and how peer review works. What is intensely discouraging to me is that despite a growing consensus (with editorials and journal articles in our leading scientific journals) that at least half of all scientific results are wrong and that there are serious structural issues in science, no real reforming actions have been taken by the Universities and the professional societies.

      And of course, there are particularly egregious individuals like Mann and your and my old friend, ATTP, who has a post saying virtually nothing definite but trying to cast doubt on Roger’s work here. It redefines the terms snide and equivocal. Nothing will change unless these people are corrected by their peers. Instead they are respected and given awards. And this is the heart of the problem. Just as with sexual assault, where there is a culture of silence and cover up and in some cases using the courts to silence criticism and intimidate critics, we see science being infested with a similar culture of silence and as is more disturbing the use of the legal system to silence criticism.

      The strongest ethical obligation lies with senior scientists. In the climate wars, this has happened to some extent with many senior scientists being more skeptical. Their seniority, of course, has been used to discredit them in shameless political attacks by younger (and more aggressive) scientists. I really hope that you Larry and Roger continue to do the hard (and unpopular and in some cases even dangerous) work of keeping science honest.


  3. Thanks for returning to the “debate” on climate change on this blog; a reasonable voice is always a help.

    I think the rejection of scientific norms by many well known climate scientists is not at all surprising, because they are acting primarily as public policy advocates, not primarily as scientists. Behavioral norms for politicians who hold rather extreme political views seem to me perfectly consistent with the behaviors of these advocate-scientists. I don’t know if they appreciate the damage they do to science when they act like politicians, but if so, they probably think the policies they want are more important than the damage they do.


  4. “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) concluded that it is very likely that human influence has contributed to the observed changes in frequency and intensity of temperature extremes on the global scale since the mid-20th century.

    Curious, I know that there are large areas of land that don’t have thermometers… How many of these temp extremes were in these areas with no temp coverage?


  5. The Ritchie and Dowlatabadi paper is indeed important.

    One minor quibble is perhaps the statement that the scenario reflects 1990s assumptions. This very same point was made to me c1994 by David Hughes, Environmental Affairs Manager for the Australian mining company MIM Holdings (now part of Glencore). His point was that the scenarios driving the models used in the IPCC reports assumed consumption of coal over the next century in excess of proven reserves.

    I found the remark fascinating, but I never followed it up (beyond my expertise) and have not – until now – seen it verified in the literature.

    One additional reason why it is an important finding is that (especially when one takes into account the IEA forecasts) not only is coal not yet dead, as many activists are claiming, but its demise is likely to come from resource depletion, not competition from alternatives or policy settings. Rescue scarcity would likely drive up prices, of course, and (relatedly) price and technological innovation in mining and in situ gasification is always likely to alter the balance between resources and reserves.


    1. Aynsley,

      The relationship between mineral reserves, resources, and prices has long been understood by geologists and those in the mining industry, but is poorly understood by the public (as seen in the flood of nonsense during the “peak oil” hysteria of 2005-13).

      For a good intro see this excerpt from the classic “Copper the anatomy of an industry” by
      Sir Ronald Prain (1975).



      1. Larry,
        There is perhaps a case that energy resources are a little different from minerals – especially metals like copper. After all, many are widespread and abundance makes it unlikely they can ever be exhausted since they can only be transformed. But the energy to extract, say, gold for seawater, is a problem – though not (given nuclear) an insurmountable one. As a graduate student of mine once pointed out, the ultimate constraint comes via the Entropy Law and the generation of waste – although the Earth is not really a closed system, and we could always fire it off into the Sun!
        But, yes – the appeal of neo-Malthusianism is widespread, and I confess to being a recovering ‘apocaholic’, having swallowed the ‘incontrovertible’ modelling of the Club of Rome in my youth. It rather tends to reflect anxieties over the effects of rapid social change, and the first concerns over ‘sustainability’ emerged in Germany over forestry in the 18th century. Apocalypticism, wherein rapid change and social disintegration is seen as leading to doom and destruction – followed by an unchanging utopia (usually a millennium, aka ‘a very long time’) where the cognoscenti are ‘saved’ is a remarkably common phenomenon!


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