26 January 2010

Bob Ward's Big Day

Bob Ward is at it again. It is interesting that no scholars have stepped up to defend the IPCC on the disasters and climate issue, leaving the task to Lord Stern's spokesman. Below is a piece that he had on the Guardian site today, defending the IPCC against claims that it had sexed up its sections on disasters and climate change. Bob is a PR pro, and while there is enough spin in his piece to make anyone dizzy, the piece is remarkable for how little there is in it to contradict my claims. Ward seems to rest his critique on the notion that this is old news.

Below I unpack the key parts of the piece.

The trouble with Pielke's argument is that the work of Muir-Wood and his colleagues was eventually published as a peer-reviewed paper in 2008 (and included as chapter 12 of the book Climate Extremes of Society) and included the same conclusion. It remains the only paper to assess global economic losses from all types of extreme weather events, not just a single source of hazard in one region.

Interestingly, Bob Ward neglects to mention this statement which appeared in the published version of Muir-Wood et al.: "We find insufficient evidence to claim a statistical relationship between global temperature increase and normalized catastrophe losses." Maybe that was just an oversight on Ward's part.

Ward also neglects to mention this comment by Muir-Wood from the Times article on Sunday, speaking of his 2006 article: ""The idea that catastrophes are rising in cost partly because of climate change is completely misleading. We could not tell if it was just an association or cause and effect." Maybe that also was just an oversight on Ward's part.

Ward does not mention that the IPCC violated its own procedures for citing grey literature, or that IPCC reviewers had made up stuff, or been ignored. Maybe including these details was just an oversight on Ward's part.

Pielke is right that an increase in the number of valuable properties in high-risk areas is overwhelmingly the primary cause of increased financial losses from extreme weather events over the past few decades.

So I am right. If I am right then when the IPCC links increasing losses to increasing temperatures, it must be . . . ? What?
That in itself is a worrying conclusion given that climate change is expected to lead to changes in the occurrence and severity of such events. Indeed, only last week a paper in the journal Science by researchers at the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projected nearly a doubling in the frequency of the most severe hurricanes in the Atlantic by the end of this century.

But it is difficult to tell to what extent, if any, climate change has also already affected past disaster losses around the world. Extreme weather events are rare, so identifying small trends is difficult when losses vary so much from year to year, creating a lot of "noise" in the dataset, and many competing factors contribute to the overall pattern.

The absence of a "statistically significant" trend may indicate that no trend exists, or instead that a trend exists but cannot be definitively detected until a longer period of losses is available.

Right. It is difficult to identify a trend. That is why the IPCC should not have sexed up its report. Statisticians have a phrase to describe a a trend that exists but cannot be detected -- "not a trend." If a trend cannot now be detected, then lets just say that. It is honest, it is supported by the scientific literature. Don't sex it up. Seems obvious? Why can't Ward bring himself to say that?
What is clear is that it would be wrong to think of this as another mistake by climate researchers. In fact it looks more like a blatant attempt to dig up an old academic row in order to create the impression of an IPCC under siege.

Old academic row. Cute. Given that Bob had very little time to write this, he probably couldn't come up with anything better. He should get some credit for staying away from the "denier" label.

Bob betrays his recent foray into academia by calling a debate since 2006 an "old academic row." When I was in grad school -- nearly 2 decades ago -- people were debating climate change and disasters. And they will still be when I retire in a few decades.

Only in the up-is-down world of the climate debate is serious academic debate and scholarship derided in the manner that Ward has done. He should be glad that people are looking carefully for the signal of GHGs in the disaster record. Or would he prefer that people just make stuff up?