Review: Disasters & Climate Change by Roger Pielke, Jr.
The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters & Climate Change is the latest book by Roger Pielke, Jr., noted political scientist and professor in the Environmental Studies Program and a Fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES). In it he addresses the controversial subject of whether natural disasters are becoming more frequent and more fearsome due to manmade climate change. This short volume is an excellent summary of his work in this area and a reference that anyone serious about climate change should have on their shelf. After receiving an advance copy of the work, here is my review.
Roger Pielke, Jr, is a well known expert when it comes to disasters, often giving testimony before the US Congress and other bodies. Pielke earned a B.A. in mathematics (1990), an M.A. in public policy (1992), and a Ph.D. in political science, all from the University of Colorado Boulder. He served as Director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado Boulder from 2001 to 2007, and was a visiting scholar at Oxford University's James Martin Institute for Science and Civilization in the Said Business School in the 2007-2008 academic year. His interests include understanding the politicization of science, decision making under uncertainty, and policy education for scientists in areas such as climate change, disaster mitigation, and world trade.
Though Pielke is an adherent of orthodox climate science, he has met with significant criticism for some of his work. You see Pielke actually believes that science is about gathering and analyzing evidence, and then reporting one's findings even if they clash with currently accepted dogma. That is precisely what he does in The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters & Climate Change, a concise work of fewer than 130 pages. In the course of six chapters he states his purpose, defines terms, reviews available data, and analyzes the results in a straight forward and lucid style.
In the introduction he provides three reasons for the book. First, to provide a synthesis of the current state of science regarding disasters and climate change. Second, to collect the authors works over a period of almost 20 years in a single volume. The third reason is given in the quote below, taken from the text:
The third motivation for this book is the degree to which the science of disasters and climate change has become so politicized. I decided that this book was necessary when in the spring of 2014 I saw on the website of the White House a claim that in the United States floods and drought have become more common. Actually, the scientific assessment which the White House produced and then relied on to make these claims says that they have not.
In Chapter One the author gives some background on the politics of climate change and how he became embroiled in the debate many years ago. He relates the story of how, inadvertently, he became labeled a climate change denier in the press. “Who knew that the path from the Roger Revelle lecturer of the National Academy of Sciences to accused climate denier was so short?” he states wryly.
In Chapter Two, the author starts out by professing his adherence to climate science orthodoxy: Is climate change real? Yes; Does climate change have human causes, notably from the emission of greenhouse gases? Yes; Does human-caused climate change pose risks, perhaps significant ones, for life on Earth? Yes; and so on. Nothing new here and defending such positions is not the purpose of the book. So why provide such a confession? In Medieval times, when a budding proto-scientist was about to publish something heretical it was de rigueur to provide a statement of adherence to the One True Faith up front, perhaps even dedicating the work to His Holiness in Rome. Such actions were an attempt to inoculate one's self from being attacked as a heretic. That would appear to be the underlying purpose of the passages in Pielke's second chapter, intended or not.
He then goes on to explain some of the complicating factors in trying to link disasters, and speciffically a change in the frequency or severity of disasters, to a human signal—i.e. anthropogenic climate change. After a philosophical discussion on proving or disproving dogam, the central question of the book is stated:
Have disasters become more costly because of human-caused climate change? There are two possible answers to this question:
- Yes, the evidence indicates that disasters have become more costly because of climate change.
- No, there is not sufficient evidence to indicate that disasters have become more costly because of climate change.
What follows in the remaining chapters is an in depth presentation of existing work and an overarching analysis. This begins with a definition of terms, a good place for any scientific discussion.
“Weather” refers to “the conditions of the atmosphere at a certain place and time with reference to temperature, pressure, humidity, wind, and other key parameters (meteorological elements).” Extreme weather events include phenomena such as heat waves, winter storms, tropical cyclones, floods, and so on. Weather events occur over minutes, hours, days, and perhaps even weeks.
Most importantly, Pielke notes that he is using the IPCC definition of climate change: “Climate change refers to a change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g., by using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer.”
Of particular importance, the author states, is that the IPCC definition of “climate change” makes no reference to the cause of the observed change. It is simply an identifiable change in the statistical properties of climate over a fairly long time period, which the IPCC identifies as “decades or longer.” With the preliminaries out of the way, things proceed apace.
Particularly amusing is the discussion of common types of confusion that show up when talking about climate change. The second type of confusion identified by the author is using the phrase “climate change” as a causal factor. For example, anytime a disaster or damaging meteorological event occurs, the media invariably ask “did climate change cause it?” Much of the author's style and sense of humor are on display in his explanation of this phenomenon.
This question is inherently nonsensical. “Climate change” is not a causal actor. It is a statistical property that reflects the consequences of causes.
Imagine a baseball player who steps up to the plate and knocks a pitch out of the park. Home run! It so happens that this season his batting average is an impressive 0.320, after a sub-par performance of 0.220 last year.
Would we say, “The home run was caused by batting average change”? Of course not. That would be circular and empty.
His batting average is a measure of change in his hitting. That measure is not a reason why he hits better, but a description of that change. Maybe he practiced more, had laser surgery on his eyes, or is taking performance-enhancing drugs. Or maybe he is just lucky. These might all be causal explanations for his improved hitting. “Batting average change” is not.
Unfortunately, much discussion of climate change is also circular and empty in exactly the same manner. “Climate change” no more causes weather events than changes in batting averages cause home runs.
This somewhat playful style helps keep what is undeniably a dull subject for laymen, filled with facts and figure, readable and entertaining. So, with all the preliminaries out of the way, the IPCC definitions and its framework for detection and attribution reviewed, it is time to set about answering the central question: Have disasters become more costly because of human-caused climate change?
Five peer-reviewed studies of disasters on a global scale are examined. Four of these studies examined the Munich Re dataset and the fifth looked at a different dataset. All five reach consistent conclusions, despite using different approaches in their analyses.
The litany of climate change induced disaster is addressed, topic by topic. These include extreme heat, extreme precipitation, tropical cyclones (hurricanes), floods, tornadoes, and drought (including Australian bushfire). Accompanying the discussion are a number of graphs to help the reader visualize the statistical data presented. While nothing can make a huge assembly of statistics entertaining, Pielke tries his best: “The graph below shows the U.S. landfall intensity data for 1900 through 2013. There is no upwards trend since 1900, consistent with the trends in normalized losses. There is similarly no upwards trend in the data since 1950, but there is if the analysis is started in 1970, as is the case with landfall frequency.”
I leave further the details of the author's analysis to the reader but I will state Pielke's conclusion regarding the evidence linking disasters to climate change:
At the global level, it should be clear that the available evidence provides no support for claims that disaster losses have been increasing due to climate change, whether those changes are human-caused or not. Once societal factors are taken into consideration, there is no residual trend. In the language of the IPCC, detection has not been achieved. There is consequently no remaining increase in losses to be attributed to any factors beyond the various societal factors which lead to increasing disaster losses.
Now you know why Dr. Pielke has been savaged in the media by any number of climate change alarmists, those true believers in the imminent destruction of our world by the ravages of human CO2 emissions. One of the common narratives used by warmists is that natural disasters are getting worse, be they hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or droughts. According to Pielke's research, it just isn't so, not after correcting for the growth in human population and other societal factors. Simply put natural disasters are more costly because there are more people to be harmed and they own more stuff that can be damaged.
With a clear and concise presentation of evidence, Pielke drives home his conclusions. He states that his findings are based on the current state of the science and that future findings may well change his conclusions. This is a reaffirmation of how science works: all things are subject to change as our understanding and the evidence change. That, however, does not change the findings of this book.
Nonetheless, one point should be abundantly clear. The evidence available today points to a clear answer to the central question at the focus of this short volume: Human-caused climate change has not led to a detectable increase in the costs of disasters...
In this regard, those advocates for action who claim to see the influence of climate change do themselves no favors by stretching and sometimes going beyond what science can support. Sure, you can get attention and news coverage with assertions that changes in climate are leading to more disasters. But over the long term, are such strategies worth the risk of exaggerating what science can actually show with evidence?
While Roger Pielke, Jr. and I hold quite different views on anthropogenic climate change—its causes and its future impact—I find his work on disasters compelling. Though it is often not evident in the public debate over climate change, scientists disagree more often than not. In fact, disagreement and debate are at the heart of science. Only recently has science become so poisoned by politics that conscientious scientists like Dr. Pielke are publicly attacked for doing what they were trained to do. He is that seemingly rare individual who remains true to the strictures of science while not being afraid to speak out about his findings, even if they dispute current dogma. I would urge anyone interested in the climate debate, skeptic or advocate alike, to read this book.