29 June 2009

Q&A with Tom Fuller

1. Could you summarise your view of global climate change for us?

I provided such a summary in testimony I gave before the U.S. Congress in 2006, and it remains pretty much my current view. Here are my take-home points from that testimony:
1. Human-caused climate change is real and requires attention by policy makers to both mitigation and adaptation – but there is no quick fix; the issue will be with us for decades and longer.

2. Any conceivable emissions reductions policies, even if successful, cannot have a perceptible impact on the climate for many decades.

3. Consequently, costs (whatever they may be) are borne in the near term and benefits related to influencing the climate system are achieved in the distant future.

4. However, many policies that result in a reduction in emissions also provide benefits in the short term unrelated to climate change.

5. Similarly adaptation policies can provide immediate benefits.

6. But climate policy, particularly international climate policy under the Framework Convention on Climate Change, has been structured to keep policy related to long-term climate change distinct from policies related to shorter-term issues of energy policy and adaptation.

7. Following the political organization of international climate change policy, research agendas have emphasized the long-term, meaning that relatively very little attention is paid to developing specific policy options or near-term technologies that might be put into place with both short-term and long-term benefits.

8. The climate debate may have begun to slowly reflect these realities, but the research and development community has not yet focused much attention on developing policy and technological options that might be politically viable, cost effective, and practically feasible.
You can read about these points in more depth at this PDF.

2. If you were a member of Congress, would you vote for the current cap and trade legislation?

The legislation that passed the House last week (Waxman-Markey) is, to paraphrase, Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), a stinker. Even many of those who supported it did so while holding their noses. As a matter of policy it deserves no one’s vote. As a matter of politics, if I were a Democratic member of the House I would likely have voted for the bill to please my party and the president, unless I were from a closely held district with agriculture, fossil fuel, or other similar interests. In that case I would have asked the president and the party for permission to vote against it. So long as the bill passed the president would understand. If I were a Republican member I would almost certainly vote against the bill, unless of course my district were to be the beneficiary of oodles of cap-and-trade pork from the bill.

It is of course easy to play the “how would I have voted” game when you don’t represent anyone and don’t have to run for re-election in 2010;-)

3. Who in the debate is playing fairly and who is not? (I have not yet gotten a complete answer to this question from your father, Stephen Schneider or Bjorn Lomborg--maybe you'll be the first...)

I’m not sure I understand this question, but I'll give it a go.

Many people, on all sides of the climate debate are very sincere in their views and work hard to express them as best they can. But among many, especially in the blogosphere where differences in perspectives are magnified and common courtesies seem to be forgotten, there is too often little willingness to accept the fact that different people have legitimately different views. People often forget that it is OK to agree to disagree. At the same time there are of course people on all sides of the debate who misrepresent information deliberately, attack people’s character, and worse. Having been on the receiving end of some of these tactics I guess I’d say if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen. But we should all try to elevate the quality of debate.

As far as playing “fair” in my experience in the blogosphere there are (remarkably) only two websites that have refused to allow me to comment on their site, even when they are discussing my work, and those sites are run by Joe Romm (Climate Progress) and Gavin Schmidt (Real Climate). They can run their sites as they wish, of course, but their actions speak loudly. Why are these guys afraid of open discussion?

More broadly and significantly, I have little sympathy for those who use legitimate processes such as journal peer review and government advisory reports to advance personal or political agendas. This is a failure of process and those in leadership positions who oversee those processes. The systematic misrepresentation of my research in climate science reports provides a troubling example of this sort of failure.

4. Is climate science such an elite field that experts in other domains cannot offer qualified commentary? I'm thinking of Freeman Dyson and Ivar Giaever, specifically.

Of course not, (but I did have to Google Ivar Giaever before answering;-). If it were then no one could comment on the subject as no one is an expert is all aspects of climate change, which involves expertise ranging from demographics to economics to energy technologies to clouds to oceans to ecosystems to cryospheric dynamics and on and on. No one has this comprehensive expertise, though many are very qualified on important parts of the issue. Balancing authority and inclusion is a central challenge of democracies, and I tend to favor inclusion over authoritarianism, but many others will disagree (especailly on the climate issue).

Dan Sarewitz of ASU documented a public dispute between John Holdren and Tom Wigley from a few years back on this question in an excellent paper. Wigley was arguing for a narrow definition of expertise, Holdren for a broader concept. My views on this are similar to Holdren's. Of course, the credential card is often played as an appeal to authority in public debates to discredit someone or their views, without having to actually engage the substance.

5. As a citizen, do you believe that President Obama's energy program takes the right direction, commits the correct level of resources, and is likely to be beneficial for this country?

I think that President Obama has a powerful vision for where he wants the country to go and I admire and support his energy policy ambitions. However, thus far the main vehicle for achieving those ambitions is, as I mentioned above, a stinker. Getting policy to match political ambitions can be a tough task. In this case the policy is nowhere close.

6. Has the energy of tropical storms increased or decreased over the past 30 years? Are there regular cycles to tropical storm strength, and how does this affect your answer?

You can see data on tropical cyclone energy (measured over a 24-month period using a metric called ACE) from Ryan Maue's website. You can see from the graph below that, in Maue's words, "the recent downturn in global TC energy is nearing record low levels of inactivity."

7. Has the actual number of tropical storms increased or decreased over the past 30 years? Are there regular cycles to tropical storm numbers, and how does this affect your answer?

The answer depends on what basin you look at, what time period and on judgments about data quality. Here are a few peer-reviewed papers that try to address this question: here and here and here in PDF. But if it is landfalls that you are interested in, then there have been no long-term trends documented, anywhere.

8. What prescriptions would you offer to zoning regulations, building permits, architectural standards and community siting to make American communities more resilient to the impacts of large scale weather-related events?

This is a huge question with many answers that I cannot begin to do justice to here (though if you are interested I have written much on flood and hurricane policies). The most important general answer is for communities (where most of these decisions are made) to understand the risks they face and the uncertainties in that risk, and to ensure that their policies match up. Too often this sort of evaluative question gets hung up on questions of risk and leaves out the questions of policy. In general, U.S. disaster policy is based on the idea that risks should be subsidized by the public with predictable consequences. I recommend Rud Platt's book, Disasters and Democracy: The Politics Of Extreme Natural Events, which I reviewed here.

9. The government report has, you say, mischaracterised your research. How would you rephrase their comments so that it would accord with your published work?

It was not just a single government report, but multiple reports by the US government and the IPCC. The misrepresentation has been systematic. The US National Science Foundation, along with government's of Germany and the UK, as well as Munich Re, supported a 2006 workshop in Hohenkammer, Germany to develop a consensus, scientific perspective on the factor leading to the dramataic increase in disaster costs around the world. We reached a consensus and it still holds. I don't see any reason for a major assessment report to ignore the Hohenkammer conesensus or present conclusions counter to it without a justification. Here are our 20 consensus statements (full report here):
The focus of the workshop was on two central questions:

• What factors account for increasing costs of weather related disasters in recent decades?
• What are the implications of these understandings, for both research and policy?

To be clear about terminology, we adopted the IPCC definition of climate change. According to the IPCC (2001) climate change is
“Climate change refers to a statistically significant variation in either the mean state of the climate or in its variability, persisting for an extended period (typically decades or longer). Climate change may be due to natural internal processes or external forcings, or to persistent anthropogenic changes in the composition of the atmosphere or in land use.”
The IPCC also defines climate variability to be
“Climate variability refers to variations in the mean state and other statistics (such as standard deviations, the occurrence of extremes, etc.) of the climate on all temporal and spatial scales beyond that of individual weather events. Variability may be due to natural internal processes within the climate system (internal variability), or to variations in natural or anthropogenic external forcing (external variability).”
We use the phrase anthropogenic climate change to refer to human-caused effects on climate.

Consensus (unanimous) statements of the workshop participants:

1. Climate change is real, and has a significant human component related to greenhouse gases.

2. Direct economic losses of global disasters have increased in recent decades with particularly large increases since the 1980s.

3. The increases in disaster losses primarily result from weather related events, in particular storms and floods.

4. Climate change and variability are factors which influence trends in disasters.

5. Although there are peer reviewed papers indicating trends in storms and floods there is still scientific debate over the attribution to anthropogenic climate change or natural climate variability. There is also concern overgeophysical data quality.

6. IPCC (2001) did not achieve detection and attribution of trends in extreme events at the global level.

7. High quality long-term disaster loss records exist, some of which are suitable for research purposes, such as to identify the effects of climate and/or climate change on the loss records.

8. Analyses of long-term records of disaster losses indicate that societal change and economic development are the principal factors responsible for the documented increasing losses to date.

9. The vulnerability of communities to natural disasters is determined by their economic development and other social characteristics.

10. There is evidence that changing patterns of extreme events are drivers for recent increases in global losses.

11. Because of issues related to data quality, the stochastic nature of extreme event impacts, length of time series, and various societal factors present in the disaster loss record, it is still not possible to determine the portion of the increase in damages that might be attributed to climate change due to GHG emissions

12. For future decades the IPCC (2001) expects increases in the occurrence and/or intensity of some extreme events as a result of anthropogenic climate change. Such increases will further increase losses in the absence of disaster reduction measures.

13. In the near future the quantitative link (attribution) of trends in storm and flood losses to climate changes
related to GHG emissions is unlikely to be answered unequivocally.

Policy implications identified by the workshop participants

14. Adaptation to extreme weather events should play a central role in reducing societal vulnerabilities to climate and climate change.

15. Mitigation of GHG emissions should also play a central role in response to anthropogenic climate change,
though it does not have an effect for several decades on the hazard risk.

16. We recommend further research on different combinations of adaptation and mitigation policies.

17. We recommend the creation of an open-source disaster database according to agreed upon standards.

18. In addition to fundamental research on climate, research priorities should consider needs of decision makers in areas related to both adaptation and mitigation.

19. For improved understanding of loss trends, there is a need to continue to collect and improve long-term and homogenous datasets related to both climate parameters and disaster losses.

20. The community needs to agree upon peer reviewed procedures for normalizing economic loss data.
10. On a scale from 1-10, where 1 is not at all important and 10 is of the highest importance, where would you rank global climate change in terms of its likely impact on human development? Please feel free to explain.

Climate change as a very important topic, and one that I have devoted a good part of my career to working on over almost two decades. So I would fairly obviously and self-servingly give it a high ranking on your scale, probably a 10. But there are also many other issues that are 10s as well, such as health and disease, wars and famine, nuclear proliferation, energy security, economic stability and growth and so on. The challenge of policy is not to identify one issue that is more important than all others, but to craft policy responses that are effective and efficient, given that we have to do many things at the same time. So yes climate change is important, but we have to move beyond exhortation to actual development of effective policy options, and my view is that far more time is spent on the former than the latter.