Why Look at Global Disaster Losses as a Proportion of Global GDP?

Newsletter-17_2_Pielke_graph1The graph above shows global weather disasters as a proportion of global GDP. It does not include earthquakes, tsunamis or other non-weather/climate related events. I am sometimes asked: why focus on a metric of global disaster losses as a proportion of global GDP?

The short answer is that this metric says something about the relative impacts of disasters in the broad context of the global economy. Economists and policy analysts routinely use  GDP as a denominator to understand the economy-wide significance of variables such as government spending, health care costs, R&D spending, etc.

If disaster losses are growing as a proportion of GDP it would mean that the world is losses are increasing as a proportion of global economic activity, surely a bad sign. Alternatively, if disaster losses are shrinking as a proportion of GDP, it would indicate that disaster losses are less significant in context of global economic activity, surely a positive sign.

It is this logic which underpins the inclusion of disaster losses as a proportion of GDP as an indicator of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Disasters as proportion of GDP appear under:

  • Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  • Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

The overarching goal is to “substantially decrease the direct economic losses relative to global gross domestic product caused by disasters.” This is why we look at global disasters as a proportion of global GDP. It is not the only important indicator, but it is one.

Of course, if you want to understand how changes in climate may be reflected in the trends in the intensity or frequency of extreme weather, don’t look at economic data. Look at weather and climate data directly.

Statement on a False Claim of Contribution by The Heartland Institute


UPDATE: I received the email above from the president of the Heartland Institute. I appreciate his speedy and positive response to my request. Michael E. Mann has not corrected the record and leaves his Tweets on this up.

It has been called to my attention that I am listed in a report by the Heartland Institute as a member of a task force of theirs  and contributor to a new report. This is false in both instances.

I have never had a relationship with The Heartland Institute and never will. Heartland has once before falsely listed me on their website as a collaborator. They took it down when requested.

I have emailed Heartland Institute to demand that they remove my name from the report and also apologize for the false claim.

In parallel, climate scientist Michael E. Mann is using his platform to spread the misinformation. I have emailed Prof. Mann to ask that he stop spreading the false information. Fifteen minutes after receiving my email Mann again Tweeted the false information, and as of this writing has repeated the false information in four seven nine fourteen subsequent Tweets.

This is incredibly unethical behavior by Heartland and Mann. I am requesting that both stop and act positively to correct the factual record. Twitter spreads misinformation quickly. Do the right thing.

Pielke on Climate #9


There was collusion. The image above of course comes from my infamous article that led the Center for American Progress to orchestrate a well-organized campaign to have me fired as a writer for FiveThirtyEight. Bizarrely, that campaign against me came to light via John Podesta’s hacked emails, released by Wikileaks during the 2016 presidential campaign. Below, I’ll share some new research on floods and tropical cyclones which further buttress the findings of that 2014 article that caused so much of a stir. It’s still as scientifically accurate today as it was then. Facts first.

Welcome to issue #9 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.
  • Thanks to those of you who have already contributed!
  • These funds have helped me defray the costs of several trips where I have had the chance to develop and present new talks related to climate.
  • 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.
  • If you’d like to engage, consider a comment, Tweet @ me (@rogerpielkejr) or send an email. I am happy to discuss or debate. I’ve had great feedback on these newsletters.
  • Also, if you have a pointer or tip, please send that along as well. Anonymity guaranteed for those who want it.
  • Social media warning: if you choose to call me names or lie about me (looking at you Michael E. Mann, Justin Gillis), oh-so-common in discussing climate, then you will be muted or ignored.

With that . . .

Upcoming Talk at the University of Minnesota

  • On April 18th at 7pm I’m giving a talk at the University of Minnesota
  • The title is “Extreme Weather and Extreme Politics” and here is a short abstract:
    • In 2017, three major hurricanes struck the United States, causing as much as $200 billion in damage and considerable loss of life. Whenever extreme weather events occur, assertions are made about possible connections to human-caused climate change. We need not rely on assertions as there is a robust body of research and evidence available. I’ve studied extreme weather the damage that it causes for the past 25 years. I’ve also had a front row seat to the so-called “climate wars” — the highly politicized, often nasty and always passionate debate over human-caused climate change. This talk will present consensus science and data on the role of human-caused climate change in trends in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather, in the United States and around the world. I’ll also describe the significant challenges I faced in simply trying to present this science to policy makers and the public. The bottom line? Scientific integrity matters, regardless of your politics. All sides in the climate debate should do better. I’ll suggest how.
  • I’ll post up more details as they are available, and slides and video after.
  • Follow me on Twitter for updates

Are We Finally Moving Past the Delegitimization of Climate Realism?


  • Last month I posted up some slides illustrating the actual scale of the challenge of decarbonizing the global economy to a level consistent with low concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, 450 ppm or lower. See above also.
  • The 450 ppm level is consistent with the oft-discussed, little understood 2 degree Celsius temperature target.
  • I’m not alone in pointing out the “Emperor’s new clothes” tenor to much of climate discussions.
  • For instance, last week Technology Review wrote an article about a 2003 paper by Ken Caldeira, Atul Jain and Marty Hoffert which explained that the world would need more than 1 megawatt of carbon-free energy (measured as consumption, not capacity) installed every day for many decades to achieve low stabilization targets.
  • The Technology Review article explained that we are not on that pace. Shocking I know. In fact, the challenge has actually become more daunting over the past 15 years (see my figure above), due to the dramatic expansion of fossil fuel energy over that time.
  • So why is it that a 2003 paper is newsworthy in 2018? Why doesn’t every one know the real magnitude of the challenge?
  • One important reason is that the work of Mary Hoffert (in particular) became the focus of a highly political campaign of delegitimization during the decade of the 2000s. Leading this campaign at that time, surprising I’m sure, was the Center for American Progress and Joe Romm — the very same organization that worked so hard to squelch my research on disasters.
  • The campaign to distort understandings of the actual magnitude of the decarbonization challenge focused on the so-called “stabilization wedges” of Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow, published in 2004 in response to Caldeira et al. 2003.
  • The goal of the misinformation campaign was to make decarbonization look easier and cheaper than it actually was, presumably to dupe the public and policy makers into taking quick action.
  • In 2008, Pacala explained openly the political motivation behind their “wedges” analysis: “The purpose of the stabilization wedges paper was narrow and simple – we wanted to stop the Bush administration from what we saw as a strategy to stall action on global warming by claiming that we lacked the technology to tackle it.”
  • At the time, the administration of George W. Bush was calling for more research into energy technologies as a centerpiece of their approach to climate. While no one would mistake the Bush administration for climate activists, their focus on energy R&D was not wrong.
  • Pacala and Socolow, and their fellow travelers, did not like this policy approach: “I saw it as an unhealthy collusion between the scientific community who believed that there was a serious problem and a political movement that didn’t. I wanted that to stop and the paper for me was surprisingly effective at doing that. I’m really happy with how it came out.” (This episode is documented in greater depth in The Climate Fix.)
  • The “stabilization wedges” were used as the putative basis for the labeling of anyone who called for investments in energy technology as a climate denier or Bush supporter. There was one true truth and no deviation was allowed.  I know because I was a focus of the delegitimization campaign.
  • Misinformation campaigns are not sustainable.
  • Today, (mostly) everyone agrees that we need significant advances in energy technology to begin making progress towards decarbonization goals. This point is so much agreed that people find it hard to believe that climate activists ever thought anything differently, much less enforced a now-discredited view on energy technology.
  • So fifteen years after Caldeira et al. published their 2003 paper on the magnitude of the decarbonization challenge (and Marty Hoffert’s and colleagues published research before that), it is finally OK to discuss the fact that we simply don’t have all the technology we would need to achieve low stabilization targets without the climate capos looking to end your career. It seems pretty dramatic as I write that. Well, it was.
  • Bottom line: whatever successes climate deniers may have had in limiting action on carbon-free energy technology development and deployment, they received a huge assist from climate activists who pursued a false narrative for more than a decade which emphasized that climate was simply a political, not a technological problem.
  • The good news: The emperor’s new clothes are being seen for what they are.emperor

Everywhere you Look, There It Is: Zombie Climate Scenario RCP 8.5

  • Last month, I explained the misuse of RCP 8.5 (a fantastical emissions scenario dismissed in the scenarios that underlie the IPCC) to generate implausible scenarios of our climate future;
  • Yes, like a zombie, RCP 8.5 continues to be characterized as “business as usual” and used as a baseline for climate projections;
  • RCP 8.5 is appealing because its use in climate models generates big changes to the climate in the distant future, which helps fill a demand for climate porn;
  • You can’t always see the presence of the scenario, because it gets buried in the details as reporting on climate goes from peer-reviewed research to press release to news story to aggregation to Tweet to your eyes and brain;
  • For instance, last week the New York Times had an article about how sea levels will soon swallow Easter Island. Sad, Scary. And also, manipulative, based on Zombie Climate Scenario RCP 8.5.
  • Follow the links, and you will discover that the NYT article is ultimately based on a scenario of sea level rise by 2100 that is two times higher than the highest scenario of the IPCC.
  • How do you get such an outlier scenario?  RCP 8.5 of course.
  • Sea level rise is real, is influenced by greenhouse gases and is inexorable. We will have to adapt to it and it can be influenced (but not stopped) if carbon dioxide levels are stabilized at low levels. All of this is true. These truths however do not justify zombie science.
  • In another example, writing at the Manhattan Institute @oren_cass explains that scenarios used to generate future climate impacts used as a primary basis for the calculation of “social costs of carbon” not only ignore the potential for human adaptation (I thought we were past this?), but they rely on … RCP 8.5 of course.
  • A new study in Climatic Change concluded that identifying the signal of human-caused climate change in tropical cyclone damage to 2100 would not be possible, due to the large amplitude of variability in storms. The lack of signal occurs even under scenarios of RCP 8.5. This story did not get any media mention that I’m aware of; its not climate porn.
  • Bottom line: Scientific, media or policy reports that reply on RCP 8.5 are selling you something, and it isn’t the truth.

Extreme Weather and Climate Change

  • Research keeps accumulating that shows that so far at least, the rising costs of weather disasters are not a result of weather extremes that have become more common or intense due to climate changes resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases (or really, anything else either).
  • Yet, a committed and influential group of climate scientists and journalists persist with a narrative that disasters are being driven by climate change.
  • There have been some important new papers published on the empirical record of weather extremes, which reinforce the conclusions of IPCC AR5 and SREX (and the US National Climate Assessment).
  • Here are a few that crossed my desk with key quotes:
    • Archfield et al. 2016: “Anticipated changes in flood frequency and magnitude due to enhanced greenhouse forcing are not generally evident at this time over large portions of the United States for several different measures of flood flows.”
    • Magini et al. 2018: “the picture of flood change in Europe is strongly heterogeneous and no general statements about uniform trends across the entire continent can be made”
    • Hodgkins et al. 2017: “the number of significant trends in major-flood occurrence across North America and Europe was approximately the number expected due to chance alone . . . For North America and Europe, the results provide a firmer foundation for the IPCC finding that compelling evidence for increased flooding at a global scale is lacking”
  • After last year’s US hurricanes there were frequent claims that flooding from hurricanes has become worse due to climate change. Fortunately, we can look at the empirical record of flooding from US hurricanes to evaluate such claims. Turns out, they are false.
    • Aryal et al. 2018: “No statistically significant trends in the magnitude or frequency of [tropical cyclone] floods … We do not detect statistically significant trends in the magnitude or frequency of TC floods.”
    • This is consistent with the overall record of US hurricanes. Klotzbach et al. 2018: “since 1900 neither observed [continental US] landfalling hurricane frequency nor intensity show significant trends, including the devastating 2017 season.”
  • Dare I to state the bottom line here, which stands as strong as ever?
  • Bottom line: Disasters Cost More Than Ever — But Not Because of Climate Change
  • I am happy to debate anyone, anytime, anyplace on this subject. Funny thing, no one does, they just call names. Go figure.

Final note for those who read to the bottom: The 2nd edition of The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change (ASU/CSPO) is now in press. Stay tuned …

Pielke on Climate #8


Welcome to issue #8 of my occasional newsletter on climate and energy issues, and the first installment of 2018. 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.
  • Thanks to those of you who have contributed! These funds have helped me defray the costs of several trips where I have had the chance to develop and present new talks related to climate.
  • 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.
  • If you’d like to engage or critique, consider a comment, Tweet @ me (@rogerpielkejr) or send an email. I am happy to discuss or debate. I’ve had great feedback on these newsletters.
  • Also, if you have a pointer or tip, please send that along as well. Anonymity guaranteed for those who want it.
  • Social media warning: if you choose to call me names or lie about me (looking at you Michael E. Mann), oh-so-common in discussing climate, then you will be muted or ignored.

With that,  some of what I found interesting since last time, with a focus on expanding a bit on a recent article and talk . . .

2017 Disasters in Review


  • I have a new essay up at Risk Frontiers (Sydney) titled, Weather-related natural disasters 2017: Was this a reversion to the mean?
  • The new essay bookends one from last summer titled, Weather-related Natural disasters: Should we be concerned about a reversion to the mean?
  • In my latest I look at the disasters of 2017 and put them into economic and climatological context.
  • The graph at the top of the post is new. It shows global weather disasters as a percent of global GDP, using two measures of weather disaster losses (Aon Benfield and Munich Re) and an dataset on GDP from the World Bank. I’ve updated this graph for many years and will continue to do so.
  • The graph shows that 2017 was a big disaster year, mainly due to the 3 major hurricanes in the Atlantic. There was only one other major hurricane that made landfall worldwide in 2017 (details).
  • The graph also shows that since 1990 the overall trend in disasters as a proportion of GDP is down. That means that the world is getting wealthier faster than disaster losses are increasing. This is good news, and so far at least, contrary to various projections, such as that famously made by the Stern Review more than a decade ago (as I explained back in the day).
  • One reason for the depressed weather-related losses over more than a decade, even with 2017, has been the paucity of landfalling US hurricanes. The intense hurricanes of 2017 broke a remarkable streak.
  • Below is a graph updated from Weinkle at al. 2012 (courtesy @RyanMaue)showing total global landfalls of tropical cyclones at hurricane and major hurricane strength.Newsletter_17_2_Pielke_graph2
  • There is no overall trend, and you can see that in 7 of the past 9 years the world has been at or below the long-term average for major hurricanes. If you look at our paper and the accompanying data, you’ll see that we have data for some global basins back well before 1970.
  • Buckle up, we are not quite regressed to the mean.
  • I am co-author on a just accepted paper (in BAMS) led by @PhilKlotzbach landfalling US hurricanes. More to come on that in a future newsletter (see the abstract here on Twitter), but for now, have a look at these graphs from the paper on US hurricane and intense hurricane landfalls since 1900.klotz-figs

Tokyo Talk on Integrated Assessment Models


  • Last week I gave a talk in Tokyo at the 2018 ALPS International Symposium — Towards long-term, deep emissions reductions hosted by METI and RITE (and special thanks to Keigo Akimoto).
  • You can see my full talk here in PDF and also on Twitter.
  • It was really fun for me to be able to spend some time with Prof. Yoichi Kaya (shown speaking at the Symposium above) of “Kaya Identity” fame and the inspiration for much of the technical analysis in The Climate Fix.
  • The talk is long and somewhat technical and references many peer reviewed papers, so I’ll only discuss a two extensions to the talk here.
  • The talk focuses on a number of “fudge factors” in IAMs, specifically assumptions of spontaneous decarbonization, misuse of RCP 8.5 in climate impact studies and the dependence on BECCS in scenarios. Three other assumptions I could have included are temperature overshoot assumptions, estimates of climate sensitivity and misleading definitions of what constitutes “energy access.”
  • First extension: We identified the importance of assumptions of spontaneous decarbonization in IPCC scenarios more than a decade ago (Pielke, Wigley and Green 2008).
  • Even though a solid piece of research, our 2008 paper and me specifically were the subject of a furious and sustained attack by the Center for American Progress, such as Joe Romm’s “Why did Nature run Pielke’s pointless, misleading, nonsense?” (the first of dozens of such pieces).
  • With hindsight it seems clear that our paper in 2008 was the trigger for a long effort to drive me out of the climate debate (funded by Tom Steyer with lots of behind-the-scenes help from activist climate scientists)cap-rp
  • Anyway, taking a look back at our research, and updating it in my Tokyo talk, I observe that heroic assumptions of spontaneous decarbonization not only survived our critique, but have since thrived. They showed up in the following set of IPCC scenarios (the RCPs) and now in the most recent set of scenarios (SSPs).
  • Such assumptions are like a narcotic in the climate debate. They give the impression that the climate policies at the center of international climate diplomacy might actually work, even as evidence of their failure should seem obvious.
  • Second extension: In the talk I reference a paper by MIT’s Kerry Emanuel as an example of the misuse of RCP 8.5. I cannot overstate how egregiously bad this is.RCP-85
  • Emanuel’s paper is so bad not simply because it uses RCP 8.5. Rather it is so bad because its estimate of the impacts of climate change on Hurricane Harvey in 2017 are entirely a function of projected impacts in 2100., which he then divided by 6. Had Emanuel used any of the other scenarios out to 2100, then estimated 2017 impacts would have been much less. That’s right, the arbitrary choice of a 2100 emissions scenario determines the impacts of climate change from 1980 to 2017.
  • As explained in detail in my 2 books on climate (which in turn draw upon the IPCC and many, many peer reviewed papers), there is excellent and robust science on human influences on climate. Make no mistake, this science is robust and performed with integrity.
  • However, the continued misuse of RCP 8.5 to generate scientifically unsupportable estimates of climate impacts places climate advocates in a position of promoting dodgy science to support political advocacy originally grounded in solid science.
  • Seriously, Why do this? Scientifically empty studies based on RCP 8.5 legitimately give climate science a bad name.
  • In my talk I pick on Emanuel, but he has lots of company. Below is a figure from a Bloomberg story just yesterday on a new paper by Justin Ritchie and Hadi Dowlatabadi that critiques RCP 8.5, showing, much as I do in my talk, the love of RCP 8.5 in the climate impacts literature. It’s endemic.800x-1

Bottom Line: The Emperor’s Clothes

  • The three assumptions that I highlight in my talk support three political stances reinforcing the status quo:
    • First, the costs of status quo climate policies are low
    • Second, the costs of inaction are already extremely high
    • Third, climate diplomacy is on track because a future, unproven, massive technology will save us
  • Without these assumptions, each of these political stances is questionable — or at least, should be opened to questioning.
  • While important assumptions go unchallenged and challenging questions go unasked, the IPCC is about to release a report on 1.5 degrees (fantasy land).
  • I’ll close this installment with two slides from my talk on the actual magnitude of the challenge posed by stabilizing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at any low level. dvopedyv4aevjzmdvopxevvaaavnmu
  • The emperor’s clothes, though, they are lovely.

Global Tropical Cyclone Landfalls 1970-2017

global.landfall1In 2012, Jessica Weinkle, Ryan Maue and I published a paper that compiled data on landfalls of hurricane-strength tropical cyclones around the world. While many individual basins have data further back in time, a reliable global dataset is available from 1970.

Landfalls are important because these are the storms that cause almost all damage. Our dataset is the only such analysis of landfalling storms. The figure above shows the data updated through 2017 courtesy @RyanMaue.

Some summary stats:

  • 2017 saw 18 tropical cyclones make landfall at hurricane strength;
  • There were 4 major landfalls, 3 of which were in the Atlantic;
  • The long term average is 15.3 total and 4.8 major (medians = 15 and 4);
  • 2009-2016 were all below average (or median or less) for landfalls;
  • The record is 30 total landfalls in 1971 (since 1970);
  • The record for major landfalls is 9, which happened 5 times.

Below are the data for weak (S/S Category 1 and 2) and major (S/S Category 3, 4 and 5).global.landfall2

We will update the data again in one year.

Source: Weinkle, J., Maue, R., & Pielke Jr, R. (2012). Historical global tropical cyclone landfalls. Journal of Climate, 25:4729-4735.

Weather Disasters as Proportion of Global GDP: 1990-2017


NOTE: Figure above updated 8 January to correct an error in 2017 values (I failed to correct 2017 for inflation).Correction reduces the value from 0.44% to 0.41%. 2017 stays in 2nd place. Apologies.

The figure above shows the annual costs of weather disasters (data from Munich Re) as a proportion of global GDP (data from the UN), from 1990 to 2017.


  • 2017 ranks 2nd to 2005;
  • The dataset is dominated by US hurricanes (accounting for about 70% of losses);
  • The trend from 1990 to 2017 is downward;
  • Mean and median are both 0.24%;
  • 6 of past 10 years have been below average;

The most important caveat: don’t use disasters to argue about trends in climate. Use climate data. Duh. (Pielke 2015 below has an accessible summary of IPCC conclusions on trends in weather extremes. See also IPCC SREX and AR5 .) Trends in the incidence of extreme weather help to explain this graph as the world has experienced a long stretch of good fortune (see Pielke 2017, linked below).

Comments, questions welcomed.

Further reading:

Mohleji, S., & Pielke Jr, R. 2014. Reconciliation of trends in global and regional economic losses from weather events: 1980–2008. Natural Hazards Review, 15(4).

Murray, V., & Ebi, K. L. 2012. IPCC special report on managing the risks of extreme events and disasters to advance climate change adaptation (SREX).

Pielke, Jr., R. 2017. Weather-related Natural Disasters: Should we be concerned about a reversion to the mean? Risk Frontiers

Pielke, Jr. R. 2015. The rightful place of science: disasters and climate change. (CSPO/ASU).

Stocker, T. F., et al. 2013. IPCC 2013: climate change 2013: the physical science basis. Contribution of working group I to the fifth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change.

UPDATE 8 January 2018 – Data for the chart above

YEAR Weather-related losses in 2013 $ Global GDP in 2013 $ losses/GDP
1990 80.7 34558.3 0.23%
1991 94.0 34916.9 0.27%
1992 112.0 35538.7 0.32%
1993 132.8 36056.9 0.37%
1994 82.2 37179.5 0.22%
1995 100.3 38283.0 0.26%
1996 113.6 39539.4 0.29%
1997 63.5 41015.9 0.15%
1998 170.4 42111.2 0.40%
1999 123.0 43448.9 0.28%
2000 63.5 45238.7 0.14%
2001 41.5 46076.7 0.09%
2002 111.6 47042.0 0.24%
2003 88.5 48243.0 0.18%
2004 144.1 50159.9 0.29%
2005 266.3 51943.4 0.51%
2006 69.7 54113.6 0.13%
2007 96.3 56259.6 0.17%
2008 141.8 57067.2 0.25%
2009 70.9 55707.6 0.13%
2010 123.0 57952.2 0.21%
2011 170.8 59595.5 0.29%
2012 153.9 61647.7 0.25%
2013 125.3 63805.4 0.20%
2014 94.5 66038.6 0.14%
2015 77.3 68350.0 0.11%
2016 128.2 70742.2 0.18%
2017 298.6 73218.2 0.41%

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.