Vague Accusations of Alarmism

Roger Pielke Jr. indulges in spin while accusing others of the same, in a peculiar op-ed piece in the Denver Post this morning.

This part is true enough:

Earlier this week, Munich Re, a large German reinsurance company, fueled this debate with a report claiming that it has identified “the first climate change footprint in the data from natural catastrophes” in the damage caused by thunderstorms in the United States since 1980. USA Today put the claim on steroids by announcing on its front page, “Climate change behind rise in weather disasters.”

though in typical newspaper counter-information style no links are provided. The USA Today piece is here (while it lasts; webcite here) . ( Can anyone turn up a copy of the original report, or even a press release? Thanks! )

Of course, this sets RPJr.’s hackles hackling (or whatever it is that hackles do); he is bound and determined to see no climate signal in this sort of data. Now, his claim that there is no trend in tornadic activity is well-enough founded:

But he takes it further:

Researchers have similar conclusions for other phenomena around the world, ranging from typhoons in China, bushfires in Australia, and windstorms in Europe. After adjusting for patterns of development, over the long-term there is no climate change signal — no “footprint” — of increasing damage from extreme events either globally or in particular regions.

What about the United States? Flooding has not increased over the past century, nor have landfalling hurricanes. Remarkably, the U.S. is currently experiencing the longest-ever recorded period with no strikes of a Category 3 or stronger hurricane. The major 2012 drought obscures the fact that the U.S. has seen a decline in drought over the past century.

Okay, now that is weird. Lacking the Munich RE study, we have only Roger’s word to go by, and he says the FIRST attributable trend in damage is in that “caused by thunderstorms in the United States since 1980”. By “first” such attribution, we can conclude that there are no others, presumably. So a litany of inconclusive studies in no way refutes the claim. This is not to say that the claim is or isn’t valid; I await the actual report to even begin thinking about that. It is only to say that Pielke’s counterclaim is of no relevance.

But that is not the worst of it, as it immediately escalates from moot handwaving to baseless claims:

Such scientific findings are so robust that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded earlier this year that over the long-term, damage from extreme events has not been attributed to climate change, whether from natural or human causes.

So if the science is so clear on this subject, why then are companies and campaigners, abetted by a willing media, engaged in spreading misinformation?

Let’s consider carefully, on what subject is the science “so clear”? It is clear that “damage from extreme events has not been attributed”, presumably with the frequentist’s arbitrary 95% likelihood criterion. But a lack of attribution is not the same as a lack of causality! IPCC is saying that the evidence of a connection is not proven to 95% confidence (by the usual experimentalist’s definition). They do NOT claim that the LACK of a connection is proven at all. If there really were clearly no connection, then it would be sensible to say the science is “so clear”. But in fact, “has not been attributed” is very different from “has been refuted”.

Something that has not been attributed can later be attributed, once more or better evidence arrives.

Finally we get to full-blown spin:

It starts with this:

The debate over climate change is well known for excesses on all sides. Those who claim that the issue is a hoax actually have a lot in common with those who see climate change in every weather extreme. The logic behind such tactics is apparently that a sufficiently scared public will support the political program of those doing the scaring.

which is an entirely fair criticism. It really is important not only to say what is scary when political types say it isn’t, but also to say what isn’t scary when political types say it is.

but this:

But there is one group that should be very concerned about the spreading of rampant misinformation: the scientific community. It is, of course, thrilling to appear in the media and get caught up in highly politicized debates. But leading scientists and scientific organizations that contribute to a campaign of misinformation — even in pursuit of a worthy goal like responding effectively to climate change — may find that the credibility of science itself is put at risk by supporting scientifically unsupportable claims in pursuit of a political agenda.

is sheer grandstanding. It is not entirely implausible that “leading scientists and scientific organizations …contribute to a campaign of misinformation” but Pielke has shown no evidence that this is the case. I have been following this debate closely for decades do not know of any examples that would fit that bill. There are various campaigns, of course, and some of them aren’t especially closely tied to scientists and occasionally get things wrong. The recent DARA study is an example of dubious alarmism. I am not saying such a thing does not exist. But Pielke has not even shown that his original target, Munich RE, has misinformed, far less that any “leading scientist” or even “scientific organization” has done so. And while I’m not one to claim that the modern academy is a well-designed and well-functioning institution by any means, as far as I know “alarmism” does not rank high among its problems.

Of course this is red meat for the climate confusionist squad and the liars’ league in general. Pielke’s abhorrence of alarmist spin is ironic: let’s see who the “leading scientists” who “contribute to a campaign of misinformation” are and identify their misdeeds. Of course, you do occasionally see Roger Pielke Jr called a “leading climate scientist”. In which case, the Denver Post article itself is the clearest example we have of a leading climate scientist being alarmist: it is alarmist about alarmism.



  1. "well known for excesses on all sides" and “leading scientists and scientific organizations that contribute to a campaign of misinformation” are false equivalence. The overwhelming majority of nay -sayers are excessive and misinformation based. The overwhelming majority of leading scientists and scientific organisations do not spread misinformation. The rest of his piece is uncertainty = no effect. As you note, the science is "clear" - attribution of specific events or specific classes of event has not been achieved - we might be able to calculate probable bounds for the effect size, but the reasonable range includes the zero, which means the science is uncertain.
    On the other hand, one positive attribution study among lots of negative ones makes you wonder if Munich Re should have corrected for multiple comparisons.
    I also wonder whether pooling lots of candidate effects would actually show a signal - trim the data down to single noisy effects and you get non-statistically significant effects, which is another Roger Pilke Jr. favorite.

  2. Sorry, "one positive attribution study among lots of negative ones " is incorrect. That's a key point I am making. It is "one positive attribution among lots of inconclusive ones", which is a very different beast.

    After all, attribution doesn't require a linear trend; the relationship could be quite complex once identified. All we know is we can't prove it at 95% for most phenomena. Further, the attribution may and likely will remain negligible for some phenomena. While climate change really does affect everything, that doesn't mean its effect is or will be visible in every signal.

    In any case, you seem to still be looking for a global warming signal. That's just silly. Look out your window. Anyone still arguing that question probably hasn't spent a long time in any one place, and wear two pairs of rose-tinted spectacles at all times.

    The argument is, rather, over whether the insurance companies have evidence that they ought to worry. Munich Re says so, but what is the word of one of the world's largest reinsurers on such a matter compared to that of Roger himself?

  3. "look out your window" - that's about it.

    I've just done some homework plowing through Neven's recent comment section (a rich source of real-world information with multiple references, useful for anyone wanting to learn; less time-wasting than the ever-futile but tempting debunking of rebunked talking points.

    Neven's group's work appears to me to provide copious evidence that facts are outstripping theory. Modeling seems to this layperson to be useful but difficult and takes a lot of time; meanwhile masses of data accumulate.

    The IPCC is out of date and conservative. Scientific uncertainly, baked in by the process of both science and summary, is claimed to be exaggeration when it is supports understatement.

    Although I've known about environmental abuses and the degradation of our ecosystem for half a century, I only stopped being lazy about it in the mid oughts. I am fascinated by weather and seek world news, not just local information. We now have satellite images and animations which allow us to enjoy not only the direct evidence but the aesthetics of planetary dynamics.

    If one does not imitate the three monkeys (see no, hear no, speak no ...), the trends are obvious. I am obliged by family caregiving to travel too often between Boston and Princeton, and that too is revelatory. I half expect a winter of blizzards like the last spate when the Arctic exhaled. It is hard to ignore a storm when you are in it!

    Roger Pielke Jr. is a go-to source for Andy Revkin and I assume other members of the anti-alarmist but not totally fake skeptic nexus. This commenter had it just about right about AR:

    Ach Mr. Revkin makes me so irrationally angry sometimes. I have found arguing with him is like trying to grapple with a gelatinous blob. It's slippery and you just can't get a grip. Where to even begin here? ...

    Gee whiz guys, everything is just so uncertain. Really really uncertain. We can't really be sure of anything, except, wow, we sure are in for some profound changes. Really profound man. Change can be scary, but it can be good too sometimes. We should probably think about how these profound changes are gonna really, like, change stuff. But we don't want to be too hasty. We don't wanna have, like, regrets about stuff. I mean, at least we don't want big regrets. But it's all so uncertain. So, leader dudes, what should we do about, um, deep uncertainty, and big changes, and regrets and stuff?

  4. Susan, Revkin is quite clear that we have plenty of time to solve the problem via technological adaptation (a la Breakthrough/Lomborg/RP Jr.) Thus the emphasis on uncertainty regarding evidence that we might just be in a bit more trouble than that. It's also a case of motivated reasoning since he believes that humans just aren't going to take sufficient action in the short term, which makes it so pretty to think that such action won't be needed. Remember the end of the Gell-Mann interview and the expression on G-M's face at the end when he grasped the problem with Revkin? That really said it all.

  5. I'm trying to figure out why RPJ seems to frustrate so many people, myself included. First, a disclaimer: I have certainly not read everything the guy has written. I'm mostly going off articles in The Atlantic and e360.

    It's not so much what he thinks (much of which is pretty boring, or at least worthy of debate), it's how he presents it. In an effort to be brief, here's what I think it boils down to:

    RPJ believes and claims that he is an "uninterested and objective outsider" merely by declaring himself to be one. Of course he has a very particular policy position that he's advocating and his statements and rhetoric are all in service of that agenda.

    I think he could garner some respect if he came out and said "this is what I want, and this is my evidence in support of that position."

    Then we could have a discussion of the merits of his ideas (on attribution or "no regrets" energy policy for example). But it's hard now because he's trying to put himself above reproach by being this mysterious "outsider" whose ideas don't need debate simply because he said so.

    How did he earn that privilege? 'Cause I want it too.

  6. [OT: Steve, you might be interested extracts I added to the Revkin Gell-Mann interview, link at end here.]

    The reason I bring this up is that one real problem is that most people (witness the reactions to recent debates, without regard to facts or background) don't grasp the scientific method at all - it's too slow and not sexy enough. Sexy has become the end goal of reception, that and death, I guess(remembering that my best art teacher pointed out that death is used a lot to sell things, subliminal of course).

    Sales being the prime motivator of communication these days, there's not much chance for honesty, is there? Or real knowledge? Or admitting what we don't know? Real death, not the metaphorical kind, with decay and all, doesn't come into the picture. These lukers run and hide, I don't think they know they're doing it.
    (note this is part C of 3-part comment)

  7. I don't know how we can make the point strongly enough: there is no time for delay; we have dillydallied away 30 years of warming as it is.

    I don't know how to make the point strongly enough: we have, right now, fit-for-service methods which will work.

    I don't know how to make the point strongly enough: we need to spend about US$1200 billion per year, for many, many decades deploying those fit-for-service methods.

    If new technology somehow shortens the time or lowers the annual cost, fine. Just don't count on it ever, ever happening.

  8. Further to Susan's remarks, it seems implausible that places such as the Arctic could be undergoing drastic changes driven by a global impetus while leaving behavior of weather in the rest of the northern hemisphere protected by some sort of invisible and 100% efficient firewall. Conditions in the Arctic are clearly becoming "extreme" when compared to the previous norm, begging the question "at what latitude does extreme stop?" Weather and climate exist together as parts of a continuum with both occupying continuous space. Where are the borders here and how do they work?

    Granting it's an unlikely coincidence that conditions leading to the demise of sea ice in the Arctic would leave weather identical and indistinguishable from past conditions, can we demonstrate that weather has become more benign where people live in the area above the equator?

    Pielke's assertions seem unworldly, seem to require a precarious balancing of forces.

  9. This claim:

    > But leading scientists and scientific organizations [...] may find that the credibility of science itself is put at risk by supporting scientifically unsupportable claims in pursuit of a political agenda.

    is of the form

    (HBPP) By doing F(p), X may find that may put Y at risk.

    The conclusion dog-whistled here is: X should stop doing F(p), in this case F being "supporting" and p referring the some claims presumed to be unsupportable. (Y is related to X, i.e. it's G(X), but never mind that.)

    This looks like an appeal to the precautionary principle to me.

    This also look at a quite strong version of it.

    I'm not sure if it's possible to do anything that would satisfy F(p) without triggering the Honest Broker's PP (HBPP).

    In fact, I did not know honest brokers accepted strong versions of the PP.

  10. Sorry for the typos, I had a dinner to prepare.

    I will note that my analysis ommited this last part:

    > [...] in pursuit of a political agenda.

    I'm not sure what to do with this intention attribution.

    I'm a bit sure what honest brokers wish to convey with it, though.

    By using such intentional attribution, honest brokers might put their analysis at risk.

  11. Susan, RP Jr. defines honest brokers as groups, meaning that he as an individual can't be one, but then having literally written the book on the subject he sets himself up as the meta-broker. How very convenient for him on several levels.

    Willard, it seems to me quite straightforward that a strong PP should require RP Jr. to advocate in the strongest possible terms for rapid, sharp emissions reductions. Of course what he's being precautionary about isn't the physical climate or climate policy, but the mode of development and expression of policy. Um, excuse me, I just threw up in my throat a little while I typed that last bit.

  12. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, October 14, 2012 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  13. oops, that was part 1 of 3 (OT Gell-Mann).

    I return mostly to emphasize my point about sales, sex, and death below. I don't think people familiar with science have any idea how clueless the ordinary American consumer is about the scientific method.

    Do any of you even remember the first time you had to drop your preconceptions and actually learn and study something with an open mind? I do, it was a painful breakthrough moment in learning how to draw, and a touchstone for letting go of facile fakery (trust me, it does creep in). Drawing has an advantage over science in that this process provides an immediate reward - almost immediately, what you put on the paper captures something about what you are representing that wasn't there before, proportion and often even a vital essence. Science is much more difficult so it may be harder to pinpoint the process of giving up on finding the "secret" and actually getting to work to find answers, no matter how partial, that stand the reality test.

  14. On second thought, I have to agree with this:

    "trim the data down to single noisy effects and you get non-statistically significant effects"


    Scientists and other intellectuals normally look for what the evidence can teach us. But climate, perhaps uniquely, has developed a group of people who are constantly looking for ways to examine the data such that it reveals nothing. This is, in fact, a far easier enterprise, and aside from its policy ramifications, it attracts people who like to look more competent than they actually are.

  15. Steve,

    Beware that the strongest versions of the PP might not be as fruitful as you may think:

    > Yet the precautionary principle, for all its rhetorical appeal, is deeply incoherent. It is of course true that we should take precautions against some speculative dangers. But there are always risks on both sides of a decision; inaction can bring danger, but so can action. Precautions, in other words, themselves create risks - and hence the principle bans what it simultaneously requires.

    Cass Sunstein might very well be going a bridge too far in his reasoning, but he does have a point.

    The HBPP might not be very useful for any decision whatsoever.

    PS: That was a Poe, btw -- I'm not suggesting that Junior is using the PP. It's just that he formulated his criticism with a counterfactual that looks a lot like PP.

    PPS: We should beware that Junior does not broker anything. He's not an honest broker. It's just a playful way to refer to him. Junior is a walking caricature and deserves this name.

  16. Roger Jr.'s desire has always been to control the dialog, and he will attack anything and anyone that threatens his access. The tactic has always been to set himself up as the unique conduit between science and policy. That he has been reduced to a minor public annoyance is in part from people getting the point.

  17. There's a pointer at the press release page

    to the full study; that link goes to a login page and it may be to an article written in German; didn't poke further just yet.

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