14 March 2014

Some News

I'm thrilled to be joining Nate and the excellent team @FiveThirtyEight!

06 March 2014

Essay in The New Republic

I have an essay in The New Republic here following up on the "debate" with John Holdren. This post is so that readers can engage with me and ask questions. All are welcome but do note that this blog has a comment policy.

Note also that at Dot Earth at the New York Times, Any Revkin has posted up a long comment from Martin Hoerling, a NOAA scientist and drought expert. Well worth a read.

Here it is, have a read, then come back if you'd like to discuss.

03 March 2014

What Does it Mean to be Anti-Growth?

I have a new piece out today in the Earth Island Journal. It is part of an exchange with John de Graaf, who argues that economic growth must end. My piece explores what it actually means to be anti-growth.

Here is how I start:
It has become fashionable in some circles to come out against economic growth. Bill McKibben, the author and climate change activist, asserts that “growth may be the one big habit we finally must break.” He adds that this is “a dark thing to say, and un-American.” Such calls for an end to growth are typically advanced in environmental debates and those about economic globalization. But what does it actually mean to be against economic growth? I argue that to be anti-growth actually implies keeping poor people poor.
Please head over to EIJ to read the whole thing, and come back and tell me what you think.

New Paper on Global Disaster Losses

Shali Mohleji, of the AMS Policy Program, and I have a new paper out, which builds on her dissertation work. In the paper we take a close look at the dataset on global disaster losses, maintain by Munich Re. The folks at Munich Re were extremely helpful in this work.

Our paper focused on dis-aggregating the Munich Re global dataset into its regional and phenonmena components, and then comparing trends among the dis-aggregation with the peer-reviewed literature on disaster losses in regions and for specific phenomena.

The conclusion of the analysis is:
The bottom line here is that a signal of greenhouse gas emissions cannot be found in the aggregate loss data from Munich Re. Those making claims to the contrary should take note.
If that sounds familiar, it should, as Bouwer (2011), Neumayer and Bartel (2011) and IPCC (2012) came to the same conclusion. With apologies to John Holdren, this is the scientific mainstream, get on board.

One other quick bit from the paper: The post-1980 trend of increasing "global" losses Munich Re dataset is mainly the signal of US hurricane losses -- 57% of the overall trend.

Here is the abstract:
Mohleji, S. and Pielke, R., Jr. (2014). "Reconciliation of Trends in Global and Regional Economic Losses from Weather Events: 1980–2008." Nat. Hazards Rev., 10.1061/(ASCE)NH.1527-6996.0000141 (Feb. 22, 2014).

Reconciliation of Trends in Global and Regional Economic Losses from Weather Events: 1980–2008

Shalini Mohleji1 and Roger Pielke Jr.2

1 American Meteorological Society Policy Program, 1200 New York Avenue NW, Suite 450, Washington, D.C. 20005, USA.

2 Corresponding author, Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, University of Colorado, 1333 Grandview Ave, Campus Box 488, Boulder, CO 80309, USA. Corresponding author. Tel 303 735 0451; fax: 303 735 1576. E-Mail address: pielke@colorado.edu.

In recent years claims have been made in venues including the authoritative reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and in testimony before the US Congress that economic losses from weather events have been increasing beyond that which can be explained by societal change, based on loss data from the reinsurance industry and aggregated since 1980 at the global level. Such claims imply a contradiction with a large set of peer-reviewed studies focused on regional losses, typically over a much longer time period, which concludes that loss trends are explained entirely by societal change. To address this implied mismatch, we disaggregate global losses from a widely utilized reinsurance dataset into regional components and compare this disaggregation directly to the findings from the literature at the regional scale, most of which reach back much further in time. We find that global losses increased at a rate of $3.1 billion/year (2008 USD) from 1980–2008 and losses from North American, Asian, European, and Australian storms and floods account for 97% of the increase. In particular, North American storms, of which U.S. hurricane losses compose the bulk, account for 57% of global economic losses. Longer-term loss trends in these regions can be explained entirely by socioeconomic factors in each region such as increasing wealth, population growth, and increasing development in vulnerable areas. The remaining 3% of the global increase 1980 to 2008 is the result of losses for which regionally based studies have not yet been completed. On climate time scales, societal change is sufficient to explain the increasing costs of disasters at the global level and claims to the contrary are not supported by aggregate loss data from the reinsurance industry.
If you would like a pre-publication copy of the full manuscript, please send me an email request.

UPDATE: Here is Warren Buffett on CNBC today talking insurance and climate change:

01 March 2014

John Holdren's Epic Fail

Last week in a Congressional hearing, John Holdren, the president's science advisor, characterized me as being outside the "scientific mainstream" with respect to my views on extreme events and climate change. Specifically, Holdren was responding directly to views that I provided in Senate testimony that I gave last July (and here in PDF).

To accuse an academic of holding views that lie outside the scientific mainstream is the sort of delegitimizing talk that is of course common on blogs in the climate wars. But it is rare for political appointee in any capacity -- the president's science advisor no less -- to accuse an individual academic of holding views are are not simply wrong, but in fact scientifically illegitimate. Very strong stuff.

Given the seriousness of Holdren's charges and the possibility of negative professional repercussions, via email I asked him to substantiate or correct his characterization, to which he replied quite quickly that he would do so in the form of a promised follow-up to the Senate subcommittee.

Here is what I sent him:
Dear John-

I hope this note finds you well. I am writing in response to your characterization of me before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight yesterday, in which you said that my views lie "outside the scientific mainstream."

This is a very serious charge to make in Congressional testimony about a colleague's work, even more so when it comes from the science advisor to the president.

The context of your comments about me was an exchange that you had with Senator Sessions over my recent testimony to the full EPW Committee on the subject of extreme events. You no doubt have seen my testimony (having characterized it yesterday) and which is available here:

Your characterization of my views as lying "outside the scientific mainstream" is odd because the views that I expressed in my testimony are entirely consonant with those of the IPCC (2012, 2013) and those of the US government's USGCRP.  Indeed, much of my testimony involved reviewing the recent findings of IPCC SREX and AR5 WG1. My scientific views are also supported by dozens of peer reviewed papers which I have authored and which have been cited thousands of times, including by all three working groups of the IPCC. My views are thus nothing if not at the center of the "scientific mainstream."

I am writing to request from you the professional courtesy of clarifying your statement. If you do indeed believe that my views are "outside the scientific mainstream" could you substantiate that claim with evidence related specifically to my testimony which you characterized pejoratively? Alternatively, if you misspoke, I'd request that you set the record straight to the committee.

I welcome your response at your earliest opportunity.
Today he has shared with me a 6-page single space response which he provided to the Senate subcommittee titled "Critique of Pielke Jr. Statements on Drought." Here I take a look at Holdren's response.

In a nutshell, Holdren's response is sloppy and reflects extremely poorly on him. Far from showing that I am outside the scientific mainstream, Holdren's follow-up casts doubt on whether he has even read my Senate testimony. Holdren's justification for seeking to use his position as a political appointee to delegitimize me personally reflects poorly on his position and office, and his response simply reinforces that view.

His response, (which you can see here in full in PDF) focuses entirely on drought -- whereas my testimony focused on hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and drought. But before he gets to drought, Holdren gets off to a bad start in his response when he shifts the focus away from my testimony and to some article in a website called "The Daily Caller" (which is apparently some minor conservative or Tea Party website, and the article appears to be this one).

Holdren writes:
Dr. Pielke also commented directly, in a number of tweets on February 14 and thereafter, on my February 13 statements to reporters about the California drought, and he elaborated on the tweets for a blog post on The Daily Caller site (also on February 14). In what follows, I will address the relevant statements in those venues, as well. He argued there, specifically, that my statements on drought “directly contradicted scientific reports”, and in support of that assertion, he offered the same statements from his July testimony that were quoted by Senator Sessions.
Let me be quite clear -- I did not write anything for "The Daily Caller" nor did I speak or otherwise communicate to anyone there. The quote that Holdren attributes to me - “directly contradicted scientific reports” -- is actually written by "The Daily Caller." Why that blog has any relevance to my standing in the "scientific mainstream" eludes me, but whatever. This sort of sloppiness is inexcusable.

Leaving the silly misdirection aside -- common on blogs but unbecoming of the science advisor to the most powerful man on the planet -- let's next take a look at Holdren's substantive complaints about my recent Senate testimony.

As a starting point, let me reproduce in its entirety the section of my Senate testimony (here in PDF) which discussed drought.

What the IPCC SREX (2012) says:
  • “There is medium confidence that since the 1950s some regions of the world have  experienced a trend to more intense and longer droughts, in particular in southern Europe and West Africa, but in some regions droughts have become less frequent, less intense, or shorter, for example, in central North America and northwestern Australia.” 
  • For the US the CCSP (2008)20 says: “droughts have, for the most part, become shorter, less frequent, and cover a smaller portion of the U. S. over the last century.”21
What the data says:

8. Drought has “for the most part, become shorter, less frequent, and cover a smaller portion of the U. S. over the last century.”22

Figure 8.
Figure 2.6 from CCSP (2008) has this caption: “The area (in percent) of area in severe to extreme drought as measured by the Palmer Drought Severity Index for the United States (red) from 1900 to present and for North America (blue) from 1950 to present.”

Note: Writing in Nature Senevirnate (2012) argues with respect to global trends that, “there is no necessary correlation between temperature changes and long-term drought variations, which should warn us against using any simplifications regarding their relationship.”23


20 CCSP, 2008: Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate. Regions of Focus: North America, Hawaii, Caribbean, and U.S. Pacific Islands. A Report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. [Thomas R. Karl, Gerald A. Meehl, Christopher D. Miller, Susan J. Hassol, Anne M. Waple, and William L. Murray (eds.)]. Department of Commerce, NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, Washington, D.C., USA, 164 pp.

21 CCSP (2008) notes that “the main exception is the Southwest and parts of the interior of the West, where increased temperature has led to rising drought trends.”

22 This quote comes from the US Climate Change Science Program’s 2008 report on extremes in North America.

23 http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v491/n7424/full/491338a.htm
Let's now look at Holdren's critique which he claims places me "outside the scientific mainstream."
Holdren Complaint #1:  "I will show, first, that the indicated quote [RP: This one: "“droughts have, for the most part, become shorter, less frequent, and cover a smaller portion of the U. S. over the last century.”21"] from the US Climate  Change Science Program (CCSP) about U.S. droughts is missing a crucial adjacent sentence in  the CCSP report, which supports my position about drought in the American West. . . That being so, any reference to the CCSP 2008 report in this context should include not just the sentence highlighted in Dr. Pielke’s testimony but also the sentence that follows immediately in the relevant passage from that document and which relates specifically to the American West."
What is that sentence in question from the CCSP 2008 report that Holdren thinks I should have included in my testimony? He says it is this one:
"The main exception is the Southwest and parts of the interior of the West, where increased temperature has led to rising drought trends."
Readers (not even careful readers) can easily see Footnote 21 from my testimony, which states:
CCSP (2008) notes that “the main exception is the Southwest and parts of the interior of the West, where increased temperature has led to rising drought trends.”
Um, hello? Is this really coming from the president's science advisor?

Holdren is flat-out wrong to accuse me of omitting a key statement from my testimony. Again, remarkable, inexcusable sloppiness.

Holdren's reply next includes a section on drought and climate change which offers no critique of my testimony, and which needs no response from me.
Holdren Complaint #2: Holdren implies that I neglected to note the IPCC's reference to the fact that drought is a regional phenomena: "Any careful reading of the 2013 IPCC report and other recent scientific literature about on the subject reveals that droughts have been worsening in some regions in recent decades while lessening in other regions."
Again, even a cursory reading of what I quoted from the IPCC shows that Holdren's complaint does not stand up. Here is the full quote that I included in my testimony from the IPCC on drought:
“There is medium confidence that since the 1950s some regions of the world have experienced a trend to more intense and longer droughts, in particular in southern Europe and West Africa, but in some regions droughts have become less frequent, less intense, or shorter, for example, in central North America and northwestern Australia.”
Again, hello? Seriously?
Holdren Complaint #3: Near as I can tell Holdren is upset that I cited a paper from Nature that he does not like, writing, "Dr. Pielke’s citation of a 2012 paper from Nature by Sheffield et al., entitled “Little change in global drought over the past 60 years”, is likewise misleading."
He points to a January 2014 paper in Nature Climate Change as offering a rebuttal to Sheffield et al. (2012).

The first point to note in response is that my citing of a paper which appears in Nature does not provide evidence of my being "outside the scientific mainstream" no matter how much Holdren disagrees with the paper. Academics in the "scientific mainstream" cite peer-reviewed papers, sometimes even those in Nature. Second, my testimony was delivered in July, 2013 and the paper he cites as a rebuttal was submitted in August, 2013 and only published in early 2014. I can hardly be faulted for not citing a paper which had not yet appeared.  Third, the 2014 paper that Holdren likes better actually supports the IPCC conclusions on drought and my characterization of them in my Senate testimony.The authors write (PDF):
How is drought changing as the climate changes? Several recent papers in the scientific literature have focused on this question but the answer remains blurred.
 The bottom line here is that this is an extremely poor showing by the president's science advisor. It is fine for experts to openly disagree. But when a political appointee uses his position not just to disagree on science or policy but to seek to delegitimize a colleague, he has gone too far.

26 February 2014

Energy Development and Poor Nations

Dan Sarewitz (ASU) and I have an op-ed just out in the Financial Times. Here is how it starts:
Having failed to stem carbon emissions in rich countries or in rapidly industrialising ones, policy makers have focused their attention on the only remaining target: poor countries that do not emit much carbon to begin with.
My Twitter feed is aflutter with policy wonks debating the pluses and minuses of multilateral energy development aid and investment. There are good arguments to be had of course on all sides. The key difference as I see it is that all of these wonks are benefiting from the profligate consumption of fossil fueled energy while they have these debates.

It is great to say that we need to bring on line carbon-free energy -- and we should. It is also pretty easy to say that new carbon-intensive energy development should be limited if you are benefiting from already-existing carbon-intensive energy while we wait for alternatives, rather than living in dire energy poverty. You can see this trade-off discussed in the form of an exchange between Andy Revkin and Bill McKibben that I relate in The Climate Fix.

There is no case to be made here in my view. So long as countries such as the US are 87% fossil-fueled, UK 87%, Germany 83% (data from BP in 2012), there is little basis for expecting poor countries to develop any differently.

Have a read of our piece, we are happy to hear your reactions.

23 February 2014

Please Take This Oath of Allegiance

Remember back when the Bush Administration wanted academics to offer an "oath of allegiance" of sorts in order to be considered for a role on an expert advisory committee? Well it appears -- surprise, surprise -- that the Obama Administration does the same sort of thing.

The Washington Post yesterday published an account from Danielle Allen of the Institute for Advanced Study on being approached by the Obama Administration to serve on the National Council on the Humanities:
I was not willing to commit to never criticizing the administration, nor to restricting my publishing agenda to topics that were unlikely to be controversial. There is just no point trying to be a public intellectual if you can’t speak your mind. This requirement was conveyed and discussed through phone calls; I have no written record to prove it. But that was how it went.

Why did the White House want such restrictions? Lawyers told me that the administration didn’t want to have to deal with even one news cycle being overtaken by media frenzy about something some low-level official had said. The administration was trying to survive in our 21st-century media environment.
Back in 2007 when I testified before Congress o the inevitable political nature of the advisory committee process I said the Bush Administration was engaged in "ham-handed information management" (here in PDF). Demanding that an academic refrain from criticizing the Administration or restrict their publishing certainly evokes this same theme.

Efforts to manage what experts can and can not say as advisers to government did not make sense under Bush and they do not make sense under Obama. I wonder if the "war on science" crowd would agree?

21 February 2014

Talk Today: Basic Research as a Political Symbol

Here in PDF are the slides from my talk today in Bonn. The talk was based on several works (see second-to-last slide) but this is the main one in PDF.

Comments welcomed!

20 February 2014

The Science Advocate's Dilemma

I am in Bonn, at a fascinating (if you are a science policy wonk) workshop titled, "Basic and Applied Research: Historical Semantics of a Key Distinction in 20th Century Science Policy" and organized by David Kaldewey, University of Bonn, and Désirée Schauz, Munich Centre for the History of Science and Technology. The workshop so far has been excellent.

I'm speaking tomorrow and I will mention John Kay's column in the FT from earlier this week, in which he wrote about what has been called basic, fundamental or pure research:
In 1969 Robert Wilson, director of the National Accelerator Laboratory, was testifying before the US Congress. He sought funding for a particle accelerator (forerunner of the Large Hadron Collider at Cern where the Higgs boson was discovered in 2012). Asked by Senator John Pastore how his project would help defeat the Russians, he responded: “It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another . . . are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets . . . new knowledge has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.”
So why don't scientists spend more time defending science as comparable to painting, sculpting or poetry?

The graph at the top of this post provides an answer. On the left is the FY2013 budget for the US National Endowment for the Humanities -- the agency which supports painting, sculpture and poetry. On the right is the federal budget for R&D, which is justified in terms of its utility. The graph says it all.

In the coming weeks I'll have a new piece out on the comprehensive consensus in science policy over the notion that science should be useful, so much so that US Tea Party members are reciting the views of early 20th century communists. Stay tuned for that.

17 February 2014

Discussion of Extreme Events on Colorado Public Radio

You can hear Kevin Trenberth and me discussing extreme events and climate change on Colorado Public Radio. The audio can be found at the link at the top of that page.

In the interview I essentially reflected the IPCC SREX and AR5 views on climate and extreme events. Here is an except from the CPR news story that accompanies it:
After big weather events, the question that often comes up is: "Is climate change responsible for this?" That question has popped up a lot in Colorado recently given massive floods and fires over the past year.

In September 2013, devastating floods hit the Front Range and, less than a year ago, the Black Forest wildfire wiped out more than 500 homes near Colorado Springs.

Colorado hasn’t been alone in its extreme weather misery: Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast in 2012, blizzards and snowstorms tortured the Northeast in 2013 and the current severe drought in California means ski resorts haven’t opened and ranchers are selling off their herds.

Are all these events just Mother Nature cycling through her natural mood swings? Or is it, as some scientists suggest, that the human influence on our climate is causing these weather catastrophes?

Kevin Trenberth, a distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and environmental scientist Roger Pielke Jr., director of the Center for Science and Technology in Boulder, disagree on the answer.
Comments welcomed!

12 February 2014

Graph of the Day: UN Population Projections for Africa and China

I was using the data above for a piece I'm working on and thought I'd post it up for future reference. The graph shows UN population projections (medium fertility scenario) for China and the continent of Africa.

Africa is projected to surpass China's population in about 10 years, reach double China's population soon after mid-century and end the century with 4 times China's population.