30 April 2011

Peter Gleick Responds

Peter Gleick has graciously sent me for posting a response to my critique of his Huffington Post column.  Here is Peter's response, and below that you will find my rejoinder.  Thanks Peter!
My opening paragraph is not claiming attribution, but that the extreme events of the past week must remind us that the climate is worsening. I think that is undeniable. But moreover, the difficulty in attribution is not the same as proof there is no connection. Indeed, I think it likely that every single climatic event we see today is, to some growing but unquantified degree, influenced by the changing climate -- this is the classic attribution problem. Just as you might (and indeed I might) reject any definitive statement about attributing an effect of climate change on these recent events, I (and I would hope YOU) would reject any definitive statement claiming there is NO effect. As the good NY Times piece on this pointed out, we don't know enough about the dynamics, and the model resolutions are not fine enough to test.

My comment about deaths and destruction was not specific to tornadoes, but to climatic extremes overall, globally. Read the whole piece carefully. And it refers to what I believe is an inevitable growing (not declining) risk from these climatic extremes, which include floods, droughts, sea level rise, hurricanes, etc.

Here is a good example of the misrepresentations of deniers like Morano (in which camp I do NOT put you, of course): We see strawman arguments making fun of any reference to tsunamis, as though any climate scientist argues a connection between climate change and frequency of tsunamis. But there IS a connection: not of attribution, but of consequences. Deniers conveniently (for them if not for society) ignore the consequences of two similar-sized 20-foot tsunamis (for example), but one with a foot-higher sea level, hitting a 20.5 foot tsunami wall. In the first case, nothing; in the second case, disaster. That's the reality of future climate change and the important distinction related to threshhold events.

But I was also shocked at what I consider a gross misuse by you of the tornado death graphic at the very top of your blog, as though that graph was relevant to climatic trends. The historical number of deaths reflects not just tornado frequency and intensity, but location, population dynamics and trends, advanced early warning technology and experience, housing construction trends, and many other factors completely unrelated to climate. It is perfectly plausible to have a clear worsening climate signal and a trend of deaths going in the other direction. Your use of the graph was inappropriate and unsupportable, though it has certainly been adopted by the denier community.

[Finally, for the inevitable complaint about my use of the term "denier," I use it for those who use it to describe themselves, and if you want plenty of examples, I've got them.]
Pielke's rejoinder:
Thanks, Peter.  Here are a few reactions to your response.

1. You seem to want things both ways. You write that the tornadoes this week are a "reminder" that "our climate is worsening" which will lead to more "death, injury, and destruction."  Now you say that you are "not claiming attribution" but then maintain that "every single event" is influenced by climate change. I am sure that I am not alone in reading your commentary as making an explicit link between this week's tornadoes and human-caused climate change.

2. If you invoke tornadoes and climate change in the immediate aftermath of >300 deaths writing "we're affecting the climate; in turn, that will affect the weather; and that, in turn, will affect humans: with death, injury, and destruction" then you should expect people to interpret your post exactly as I have. A broader focus on deaths from extreme weather events around the world also has no scientific basis at this time for asserting a connection to human-caused climate change in any of these phenomena (e.g., PDF).  If you really want to defeat "the deniers" then my advice is to refrain from giving them such easy targets to shoot down.

3. At no point did I suggest or imply that a graph of loss of life from tornadoes can be used to say anything about human-caused climate change, much less "deny" it. If you are familiar with my work at all (and I assume that you are) then you will know that I have repeatedly argued that you cannot use trends in loss of life (much less the loss of life in one day) to say anything about climate trends or causality of those trends, as you do in your piece.  If you want to say something about climate trends, then look first at climate data and not messy impact data -- and here is what NOAA/NCDC says about trends in the strongest tornadoes that cause >70% of deaths in the US.
Of course we need to be careful interpreting such trends because tornado data is problematic for various reasons, which makes it very difficult to argue that human-caused climate change is making tornadoes worse. Remember that the IPCC defines climate change as a change in the statistics of weather over 30-50 years and longer. For extremes, rare by definition, such trend detection will all but certainly require much longer time periods.

I appreciate your engagement.

31 comments:

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

Just a reminder to commenters that all substantive comments are welcome. Please refrain from those that venture into ad hominem territory (as defined by me).

Frontiers of Faith and Science said...

Roger,
Great response and much more respectful than Gleik deserves.
I would submit that this tornado outbreak is a fork in the road, ethically.
Those who choose to do as Gleik has apparently chosen, to spread falsehoods. And those who are willing to tell the truth.

Ken Edelstein said...

Dr. Pielke: As a layman who's convinced the scientific evidence shows that human-caused climate change already is affecting storms and other natural systems, I appreciate that skeptics (as opposed to deniers) can raise the kinds of questions that check over-confidence in the scientific mainstream. So at first, I through your use of the F3-F5 chart above was a good reality check.

Then, I went to the NOAA site to see for myself. I stumbled upon this more general chart with a clearer pattern http://www1.ncdc.noaa.gov/pub/data/cmb/images/tornado/2010/annual/2010annual_torncount.png . It shows a steady , unmistakable increase in tornado activity in the United States since 1950. You yourself acknowledge above that extremes such as the F3-F5, "require much longer time periods." While data from a small part of the globe over 60 years is far from definitive, wouldn't the more general data and a relatively straight-line pattern be more relevant to this discussion that the inherently more anecdotal data on extreme storms?

In all honesty, this raises skepticism in my mind about your own willingness to allow the facts to alter your opinion, as well as your willingness to present those facts in a let-the-chips-fall-where-they-fashion. In the interest of a quest for truth (rather than the desire to "win" an argument), why not present the more compelling, relevant data, even if it runs counter to your own argument? Or am I missing something?

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

-3-Ken Edelstein

Thanks for your comment and questions. A few replies.

First, the overall total tornado count is generally viewed to be a poor metric due to the fact that all of the increase occurs in weak tornadoes. The link to DotEarth above has some discussion of this, and here is a concise explanation:

"The increase in reported tornado frequency
during the early 1990s corresponds to the operational implementation of Doppler weather radars. Other nonmeteorological factors that must be considered when looking at the increase in reported tornado frequency over the past 33 years are the advent of cellular telephones; the development of spotter networks by NWS offices, local emergency management officials, and local media; and population shifts."
http://www.spc.noaa.gov/publications/mccarthy/tor30yrs.pdf

The reason why F3-F5 data is more relevant to this discussion is that (a) these tornadoes are probably better counted (as they are hard to miss), and (b) they are responsible for the vast majority of deaths and damage.

Of course, if anyone wants to make a case that the upwards trend in weak tornadoes is human-caused and leads to more death and damage, I'm all ears. But this is a hard case to make, which is probably why no one is making it;-)

I am happy to let the relevant experts sort through the data issues on tornado counts, and my judgment is that there is presently a strong consensus that there is not a detectable climate signal of increasing tornadoes overall, and this conclusion is even stronger for the strongest tornadoes. On the impacts side, where I do have some expertise, I am convinced that it is not presently possible to attribute damage or loss of life to changes in tornado behavior on climate time scales, regardless of what may be driving any such changes.

If this is unclear, please ask again. Thanks.

oldhoya said...

In hopes of remaining au currant with respect to AGW orthodoxy, can anyone tell me what the current official position is regarding major storms? I thought the actual science had caused a retreat from the claim of greater frequency in favor of a prediction of small but significant increases in intensity. Peter Gleick just seems so tres FAR/SAR, so paleo-alarmist.

ronalddewitt said...

Gleick suggests that the downtrend in tornado-caused deaths is the result of better warning and house-construction technology while wanting to accept the upward trend in reported tornados as real. For the purpose of argument, let us accept both of his suppositions. Wouldn't that demonstrate that improved warning and construction are effective in saving lives and are likely a better investment than the costly decarbonization program that is being pressed on us?

Jeff said...

So, Peter takes his opportunity to respond to you and provides a reply as weakly reasoned as his original piece?

Stan said...

So it's ok to say he's reasoned very poorly? I agree.

How about damning with faint praise? Can we say that he reasons well for a climate alarmist?

Bradley J. Fikes said...

Quite revealing that Gleick (who I've sparred with on my own blog) uses the unscientific epithet "denier" to characterize CAGW skeptics.

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

Just a reminder that this post is focused on a debate over attribution motivated by Gleick's post and follow up. Comments welcomed on that subject.

Frontiers of Faith and Science said...

To attribute this outbreak to AGW reduces AGW to weather watching, grasping on to individual weather events. This leaves the AGW community claim that weather is not climate as nothing more than a prop the community employees to silence skeptics. This is as frustrating the inverted null hypothesis used to declare that all things are AGW.
The fact that we have had years of mild tornado seasons prior to this year seems lost on the believer community, since there is now a terrible event to grasp and hold forth as *proof* of CO2 at work.
I think history will look on this as a lesson that weather is quite deadly on its won, and that this is not changed in either high or low CO2 epochs.

dljvjbsl said...

Dr Gleick writes

=====================
Deniers conveniently (for them if not for society) ignore the consequences of two similar-sized 20-foot tsunamis (for example), but one with a foot-higher sea level, hitting a 20.5 foot tsunami wall. In the first case, nothing; in the second case, disaster. That's the reality of future climate change and the important distinction related to threshhold events.
===================

and elsewhere in the same piece

==================
. The historical number of deaths reflects not just tornado frequency and intensity, but location, population dynamics and trends, advanced early warning technology and experience, housing construction trends, and many other factors completely unrelated to climate. It is perfectly plausible to have a clear worsening climate signal and a trend of deaths going in the other direction
=======================


Isn't this just an obvious contradiction. In one section, he describes the dangers of tsunamis and climate change with no reference to adaptation and in he next section he indicates that there is no signal of climate change in tornado cause deaths because of adaptation. I suppsoe that in the decades of sea level rise no one would think to raise the tsunami barrier.

I'd just have to say that Dr. Gleick's piece is poorly reasoned and internally contradictory. If I was a peer reviewer for this I would not be recommending acceptance.

tom897 said...

I commend your standard that ad hominem comments be avoided. But, it seems to me that 7:20, 8:29, and 1:08 have elements of that approach to criticism. 5:22 appears to make this point in gentle terms. But, AH attacks, while perhaps satisfying to those who type them, have little or no ability to persuade---indeed some find that they impeach the credibility of those who advance them.

So, I urge that you be stricter in enforcing the guidance suggested in 6:54.

Mark said...

The tsunami example is particularly poorly chosen. Japan has large and frequent tsunamis because it is rising quite rapidly. Sea level change on that coast can't start to compete with the tectonic rises.

Even moving elsewhere, we all know people build down to the coast. No amount of sea level change will alter this. If the sea rises, they will move back, not drown.

In any case, current sea level rise is, what, 3 mm a year and holding steady. The measured rise in sea level is not changing, no matter how much bleating that it is going to doom us all soon.

p.s. Roger : I too find it amusing that personal abuse is not permitted by me against a person who seeks to link me with Holocaust denial because I dispute some climate findings. That seems mildly inconsistent.

madadadam said...

I'm interested to see Mr Glieck's sources for his claims of "the climate is worsening". The data for Tornados shows nothing except that more are being reported - money to be made from Discovery Channel for Mad Maxesque vehicles full of video cameras, charging about the roads of the Southern States! Ryan Maue's data showing marked reduction in Tropical Storm intensity. So what are we left with? Bitterly cold weather last winter here in the UK?

Josh said...

Spot on as usual, RPJ - Gleick's eliding of tornado events with global warming alarmism would be comical if it were not so shockingly insensitive. That he does not, or cannot, see it is sad.

Keep digging Mr Gleick, you are doing Morano's job for him.

CanardDeChien said...

"But I was also shocked at what I consider a gross misuse by you of the tornado death graphic at the very top of your blog, as though that graph was relevant to climatic trends."

You see Mr Pielke? You have shocked a prominent climate scientist with a graph as "though that graph" meant something.

Personally I think we all just emote as if that graph meant nothing.

klee12 said...

Let us assume that climate warming due to CO2 emissions is the ultimate cause of increased disasters, such as the recent tornado caused disaster. If CO2 emissions continue, then it seems that we should expect increased tornado activity in the next few years. If we don't then wouldn't that be evidence that the premise above is not correct?
If climate change is happening, then the changes should be manifested in a trend, not an isolated event.


IIRC, there were claims (not by climate scientists) that climate warming caused the katrina disaster and I sort of believed them. Then in the years following nothing much happened and I was a little disillusioned with the press.

klee12

Maurice Garoutte said...

Mr. Gleick's denial of attribution in a sentence which a reasonable person would read attribution seems to be a case of careful speaking to avoid being caught in a blatant lie. Which is like throwing a stone to avoid being caught throwing a rock.

As the climate alarmists keep saying, they do indeed have a communications problem. They have lost credibility. Without some shred of credibility anything they say will be disregarded.

The story over the weekend that Brown Recluse spiders are spreading because of Global Warming did nothing to help their cause.

Tom said...

Roger, you highlight quite usefully the role of better instrumentation as a confounding element of measuring the impacts of climate change. Certainly the use of more and better radar and the ability of citizens to report sightings of funnel clouds with cellular telephones makes it difficult to say there are more tornadoes than in days gone by.

But realistically, isn't this true of many other impacts imputed to AGW, ranging from temperature measurements to sea level rise?

Much like the use of asterisks to note home run records after the introduction of longer schedules (let's not even get into what asterisks will eventually be used to mark the advent of steroid use), should there not be some way of noting the differences in technology used for acquiring data throughout the various fields and subfields of climate science?

Your own work on floods and large storms talks readers through it quite effectively, but data sets are still being used in a way that allows ambiguity of interpretation.

How would you suggest that we take notice of these changes in visual representations of data, such as the charts used above?

Major Combs said...

Compared to the past 100 centuries of sea level rise averaging over three feet per century,the current rate of six inches per century and falling seems unremarkable. Since the rate of increase has fallen dramatically in the past 100 centuries, putting a great deal of time between the end of an Ice Age seems to slow sea level rise better than reducing CO2. Happily, the coming Ice Age will reverse the loss of shoreline dramatically. Of course, it will also leave a lot of enormously expensive dock facilities and marinas high and dry.

Rich said...

Before anyone tries to use the count of ALL tornados and any "trend" they may predict they first need to look at the source of these numbers. In most states a tornado is only a tornado "if and only if" it was observed by a trained "official" (usually trained by the NWS.) Over the last 30 years the number of these trained and certified officials has steadily increased by several; orders of magnitude. Most ARES, SkyWarn and many Armature Radio Clubs have more than a dozen or more certified "spotters" that spend hours watching for these "tornados" in an effort to protect the public. As a result of their effort to protect the public, they have increased greatly the numbers of "real" tornados reported and considered legitimate by the NWS. Even if the real numbers has remained the same or even decreased, the numbers that the NWS has is going to increase because they have been "legally" reported by a certified person. So Increasing numbers over the past 30 years means nothing more than we have more certified spotters.

globalcooler said...

To Klee12, Unfortunately, I believe there is a fault in your logic. Assumng there was a CCO2 induced warming we would likely not have this many tornados. It is the cooling that is responsible, most likely, for the current swarm of twisters. Areas of the central parts of the country have yet to begin their planting season. If we have a continuation of the frequent tornados next season, that would seem to indicate continued cooling which is quite likely given current solar trends.

Frank Slojkowski said...

Perhaps a suitable way to address Mr. Gleick's issue is to ask a question: If atmospheric CO2 concentration were to have remained constant from 1950 to the present, would the tornado outbreak and other climatic catastrophes of the recent past have occurred in precisely the same way and with the same intensity?

klee12 said...

golbalcoolser wrote

Assumng there was a CCO2 induced warming we would likely not have this many tornados. It is the cooling that is responsible, most likely, for the current swarm of twisters.

OK, I'm not an expert so I stand corrected. But let me try to salvage my argument.

Assuming that the "climate is worsening" (his words from above) what caused or contributed to it? We can't do anything about the worsening climate climate unless we know what it is. I think he (cleverly) avoided saying that climate warming contributed to the climate worsening. So, I say, let's make the hypothesis that X contributed to climate worsening and X is caused by humans. If X was not caused by humans there is not much we can do. Then if we continue to contribute X, it seems that X would continue to contribute to "climate worsening" in the future. In other words we should be able to test the hypothesis. The threat of testing the hypothesis will probably force Gleick to be more precise, i.e. does he base his conclusions on models?

I was aware that Gleick did not mention CO2 warming, and that he carefully worded his statement, e.g "climate is worsening". It seemed to me he was trying to imply something in a way so that he could easily defend what he was trying to imply.

klee12

ourchangingclimate said...

In a general sense, Gleick is correct to say that every weather event is in principle impacted by the changing climatic circumstances.

Though that is more a philosphical than a practically useful statement, and it's not the same as claiming that "AGW caused this", which many of Gleick's opponents are arguing against (i.e. strawman).

John N-G made the same argument in relation to last summer's extreme events:

"In between these two extremes, where AGW in a sense causes everything and AGW changes the probabilities but doesn’t in a sense cause anything in particular, there are, I think, two possibilities for ways in which we can assign a portion of the blame to AGW if appropriate." (which he dubs the "additive effect approach and the "probabilistic approach").

See also
http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/2010/08/18/extreme-weather-and-climate-change/

Bart

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

-26-Bart

Thanks, though at this point I'm not sure what Gleick's point actually is, I think he is working it out as he goes along. You'd have a very hard empirical case to make that AGW has changed the probabilities of tornadoes or their impacts.

Question for you, if the point being made is not practically useful, then why make it? Is this really a debate about philosophical orientations?

Thanks

ourchangingclimate said...

Roger,

My point was merely that that particular criticm of Gleick's position is a strawman.

Your'e right that a practically useless statement is not very useful to make. Though it still has a use in showing that absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence: There must be some influence. The question is: How big is this influence? In which direction (if any)? Is it detectable?

Bart

John M said...

#28

Is this supposed to be an example of "framing" the climate change argument more effectively for the general public?

If so, good luck with that.

openid said...

Following Gleik's logic I have just come to the realization that my age may have something to do with the rising CO2 level. Both have been increasing each year. Now it's merely a matter of determining whether I'm causing CO2 or CO2 is causing me to age.

Eric said...

Correction from #28:

Though it still has a use in showing that absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence: There MAY be some influence.

---
Bart's incorrect use of "must" instead of "may" in the above statement spotlights Gleick's summary of the case of CAGW> From his response to RPjr:

"the difficulty in attribution is not the same as proof there is no connection."

In other words just because we cant show it doesn't mean it is not happening. How compelling.

"

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