Pielke misrepresents climate/extreme weather connection… again

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In a replay of the argument he’s made for years, political scientist Roger Pielke Jr. attempts to dismiss the wide array of evidence linking climate change to extreme weather. Pielke’s selective use of data, an approach that has brought him repeated criticism from respected scientists, is featured on the new FiveThirtyEight website, which claims to rely on data to better report the news.

UPDATE March 28:

Also see this post by Dana Nucitelli at The Guardian: FiveThirtyEight undermines its brand by misrepresenting climate research

And this, by John Abraham at Huffington Post: Statistics and Climate Science: Roger Pielke Missed the Mark

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The following is a guest post by Climate Nexus (text in PDF here):

Pielke Misrepresents Climate/Extreme Weather Connection… Again

In a replay of the argument he’s made for years, political scientist Roger Pielke Jr. highlights cherry-picked disaster data in an attempt to dismiss the wide array of evidence linking climate change to extreme weather (“Disasters Cost More Than Ever — But Not Because of Climate Change”). Pielke’s selective use of data, an approach that has brought him repeated criticism from respected scientists, is featured on the new FiveThirtyEight website, which claims to rely on data to better report the news.

Contrary to Pielke’s selective assertions, the influence of climate change on extreme weather is not measured by extrapolating from costs, but by changes in the weather itself. A huge and growing body of evidence shows that climate change is making extreme weather worse around the globe. Pielke even cites data from Munich Re, the reinsurance giant, while omitting the fact that Munich Re itself takes the economic impact of climate change seriously.

The impacts of climate change on extreme weather are clear:

    • Wildfires in the U.S. are getting larger, and researchers attribute this to warmer temperatures. From 2002-2011, fires cost the U.S. an average of $1.2 billion per year.
    • According to the 2013 IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (Table SPM-1), North Atlantic hurricanes have grown more intense, and this is projected to continue due to climate change. Precipitation associated with hurricanes is also projected to increase.
    • Global sea levels have risen, meaning that even average-sized storms are causing more damage due to storm surges. One study found that due to sea level rise, 80,000 more homes were exposed to flooding during Hurricane Sandy.
    • Heat waves are intensifying and becoming more widespread.
    • Precipitation is being concentrated into more extreme events. This contributes to flood damages, and costly events like the 2013 extreme Colorado floods are in line with this trend.
    • Drought causes high damage costs to farms and businesses, and past droughts have been found to be worsened by climate change (including the 2011 Texas drought costing $7.62 billion). Dry areas are projected to continue to get drier, according to the IPCC.

Pielke also includes damage from earthquakes and volcanoes in his global disaster losses tally. These types of natural disasters are not influenced by climate change, and are therefore red herrings that simply do not belong in a post about climate.

Economic factors such as development in coastal areas do impact damage results, a fact that climate scientists account for. While this relationship introduces some uncertainty as to the climate’s precise impact on damage statistics, the examples above show that we know enough to be sure that climate change is contributing to the rising totals.

Future projections show that extreme weather will continue to worsen these impacts.  The economic impacts of climate change are recognized not only by the IPCC and many other world authorities, but by Munich Re itself, the data source for Pielke’s article. In fact, a 2012 study conducted by Munich Re concluded that while past increases in losses have been driven by socioeconomic factors, human-caused climate change now contributes to the trend.

This is merely the latest of myriad past examples of Pielke spreading myths about the impacts of climate change. As others have pointed out, he claims to accept the conclusions of the IPCC and the reality of climate change, but spends most of his airtime downplaying the issue, cherry-picking minor science points, and generally antagonizing credible scientists and bloggers. These are all reasons to be skeptical of his claims about the influence of climate change on extreme weather.

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See also: First Climate Article On Nate Silver’s Data Website Uses ‘Deeply Misleading’ Data, Top Climatologists Say

Earlier posts:

John Holdren: Drought and Global Climate Change: An Analysis of Statements by Roger Pielke Jr

Pielke affirms IPCC’s authority but ignores its evidence on extreme weather

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6 Responses to Pielke misrepresents climate/extreme weather connection… again

  1. Andy Stahl says:

    According to Climate Nexus: "Contrary to Pielke’s selective assertions, the influence of climate change on extreme weather is not measured by extrapolating from costs, but by changes in the weather itself."

    Pielke's FiveThirtyEight article says: "To identify changes in extreme weather, it’s best to look at the statistics of extreme weather."

    Did Climate Nexus read Pielke's 538 article?

  2. Jack Wolf says:

    I think people are catching on to the fact that the climate situation is far worse that what many were led to believe by industry interests. Too many Americans have been affected, and we can see the situation is getting worse. Just about everyone knows someone that's been hit. Gez, Pielke isn't even an environmental scientist - those industry interests are scraping the bottom of the barrel at this point.

  3. spinoza says:

    Contrary to Pielke’s selective assertions, the influence of climate change on extreme weather is not measured by extrapolating from costs, but by changes in the weather itself.

    This is misleading. Pielke was not measuring "the influence of climate change on extreme weather." Rather, he was analyzing the rising costs of extreme weather to ascertain what caused the increase in financial losses. His conclusion that factors other than climate change are primarily responsible for the increased costs of extreme weather is not in any logical way inconsistent with the scientific consensus that climate change is causing an increase in the frequency and intensity of severe weather.

    Here is a thought experiment to illustrate my point. Imagine everyone on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts decides to build their ocean front houses out of billion dollar Faberge eggs. The next hurricane is a little bit stronger than usual because of climate change but the dollar amount of the damage is in the trillions. If you were to observe that the Faberge egg beach houses caused the sharp increase in economic losses, you would be correct. You would also be correct in noting that the increase in hurricane intensity due to climate change was not what caused the sharp increase in the total dollar value of all property damage.

    • Rick - Climate Science Watch says:

      Yes – but the fact that economic development puts more valuable resources in harm’s way is not really in dispute. The argument is primarily over the extent to which climate science supports attributing various kinds of extreme events to anthropogenic climate change. And Roger appears to lean heavily toward the skeptic side, discounting the additional damage from climatic disruption, now and, especially, projected in the future. That’s where he comes in for criticism for not dealing adequately with the state of scientific understanding, and for putting forward an argument that can be seen as downplaying the urgency of action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

      Nate Silver at 538 has posted a response to criticism (FiveThirtyEight to Commission Response to Disputed Climate Article) that includes this:
      http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/fivethirtyeight-to-commission-response-to-disputed-climate-article/

      “[T]he central thesis of Roger’s article concerns the economic costs associated with natural disasters. But we also allowed a number of peripheral claims into the piece. For instance, Roger made a number of references to the overall incidence of natural disasters, as opposed to their economic cost.

      “We think many of these claims have support in the scientific literature, specifically including the 2013 IPCC report. But there is a range of debate among experts about others. Either way, these claims shouldn’t have been included in the story as offhand remarks. We should either have addressed them in more detail or scrubbed them from the article.”

      Also, see this post by Dana Nucitelli at The Guardian: FiveThirtyEight undermines its brand by misrepresenting climate research
      http://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2014/mar/25/fivethirtyeight-misrepresents-climate-change-research

      And this, by John Abraham at Huffington Post: Statistics and Climate Science: Roger Pielke Missed the Mark
      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-p-abraham-phd/roger-pielke-climate-science_b_5038272.html

  4. Fred says:

    Pielke's primary argument on 538 was about cost, do rising CO2 levels raise disaster costs? The evidence for the relationship is weak.

    I am also disturbed by Pielke's wandering from costs to frequency-of-events and back. The article wasn't polished, needed a better editor.

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