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A Normal Day in Climate Science


Don’t believe everything you read – especially about the supposed link between global warming and natural disasters.


A post-tropical-storm-Sandy, pre-US-election cover story that cites the then-as-yet-unpublished Munich Re study – dated Nov 1, 2012

Environmental studies professor Roger Pielke Jr. wrote a superlative blog post yesterday. This is how it ends:

Misleading public claims. An over-hyped press release. A paper which neglects to include materially relevant and contradictory information central to its core argument. All in all, just a normal day in climate science!

Those of us who take the trouble to delve into the bewildering world of climate change soon discover a wheelbarrow full of questionable practices and sloppy research. That doesn’t invalidate the entire field, but it does give one tremendous pause.

If I thought the fate of the planet hinged on the work I was doing, I’d be bending over backward to meet the highest standards possible. I’d triple-check my math. I’d use widely recognized procedures – rather than making up new ones. I’d dot every ‘I’ and cross every ‘T’.

But as Pielke says, quite the opposite seems to be the norm in climate science. His post is about a practice called science-by-press-release. Last October, the reinsurance company Munich Re issued a press release that said its researchers had found evidence of a “climate-change footprint” in the financial losses associated with natural disasters.

Media outlets such as USA Today wrote up the story. Joe Romm, over at his ClimateProgress blog declared it a “seminal” piece of research and fell for its conclusions hook, line, and sinker. So did Theo Spencer, a senior staffer with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

You’d think that people claiming to have found evidence no one else has yet managed to locate would back up their claim with hard data. You’d think they’d submit the paper to an academic journal, navigate the peer-review process, and then announce their findings. But this was just another case of “trust us.”

According to Pielke, the study wasn’t readily available for outsiders to examine at the time the press release appeared. To this day, only the 12-page executive summary can be accessed on Munich Re’s website. The final page of that summary advises that the full 274-page document “was produced exclusively for clients of Munich Re” and therefore can’t be viewed by the general public.

A news story three months later reported that Munich Re’s researchers had, in fact, “submitted a paper” to a journal. That paper has now been published and Munich Re has issued a second press release.

In Pielke’s words:

As one looks a little bit closer at the public representations made by Munich Re about the paper and the paper itself, one quickly finds – as is all too common in climate science – that the strong public claims simply cannot be supported by the actual research, and the paper suffers from an obvious fatal error.

The paper says nothing conclusive about attribution. It is not an “initial climate change footprint.”.In fact, the paper says much the opposite: attribution of losses to climate change was not achieved in the paper. [bolded added, link in original]

Pielke says the published paper fails in three significant ways. But the public is unlikely to hear about that. As he observed in a piece he wrote for the Denver Post last October, we are instead being fed a steady diet of climate misinformation.

Corporations such as Munich Re, activists such as Romm and Spencer, and sensation-seeking journalists are all to blame (see this Huffington Post piece and this Bloomberg Businessweek cover story).

The fact that Munich Re’s research hadn’t yet been published and wasn’t available for examination didn’t prevent the media from trumpeting its results.

Yet when a fully peer-reviewed study by Pielke and colleagues was published demonstrating that the financial damage associated with US tornadoes has actually declined since 1950, the media wasn’t interested. In Pielke’s words, there was “a complete blackout of coverage.”

Here’s a bit more from Pielke’s October op-ed:

Along with colleagues around the world, I’ve been studying climate change and disasters for almost 20 years.What we found may surprise you: Over the past six decades, tornado damage has declined after accounting for development that has put more property into harm’s way.

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.

In other words, the sky is not falling. And it’s actually the editors of Bloomberg Businessweek that deserve to be called stupid.

More than ever, it isn’t a good idea to believe everything you read. Not about climate change. Not about natural disasters. And certainly not about a supposed link between the two of them.


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