26 January 2010

IPCC Statement on Trends in Disaster Losses

The IPCC has issued a statement in response to the Sunday Times article on errors in the IPCC treatment of disaster losses and climate change. The IPCC statement (PDF) is a remarkable bit of spin and misinformation. Here it is with my comments:
Geneva, 25 January 2010


The January 24 Sunday Times ran a misleading and baseless story attacking the way the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC handled an important question concerning recent trends in economic losses from climate-related disasters. The article, entitled “UN Wrongly Linked Global Warming to Natural Disasters”, is by Jonathan Leake.

The Sunday Times article gets the story wrong on two key points. The first is that it incorrectly assumes that a brief section on trends in economic losses from climate-related disasters is everything the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (2007) has to say about changes in extremes and disasters.
RESPONSE: This is pure misdirection and is irrelevant. The issue here is specific to how the IPCC handled the rising costs of disasters and its relationship to increasing temperature. It is not about the general theme of extremes.
In fact, the Fourth Assessment Report reaches many important conclusions, at many locations in the report, about the role of climate change in extreme events. The assessment addresses both observations of past changes and projections of future changes in sectors ranging from heat waves and precipitation to wildfires. Each of these is a careful assessment of the available evidence, with a thorough consideration of the confidence with which each conclusion can be drawn.
RESPONSE: All of this verbiage is irrelevant to the issue.
The second problem with the article in the Sunday Times is its baseless attack on the section of the report on trends in economic losses from disasters. This section of the IPCC report is a balanced treatment of a complicated and important issue.
RESPONSE: Asserting balance does not make it so. The facts here are what the IPCC should respond to: The IPCC report highlighted a single non-peer reviewed study to make a claim that (a) that study did not support, and (b) that was countered by the entirety of the peer reviewed literature (much of which went uncited). My work was misrepresented in the text and in the IPCC response to reviewers. The latter included an outright lie. The only balance that was achieved was between misrepresentation and error.
It clearly makes the point that one study detected an increase in economic losses, corrected for values at risk, but that other studies have not detected such a trend. The tone is balanced, and the section contains many important qualifiers.
RESPONSE: This statement is remarkable for its untruths. (1) The "one study" did not detect a trend over the full period of record, only a cherrypicked subset, and when that paper was published it explicitly stated that it could not find a signal of increasing temperatures in the loss record, (2) The IPCC report did not note that other studies had not found a trend, except when citing my work in passing, and then undercutting it in error by mistakenly citing the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons to suggest something different (and untrue). (3) The Chapter includes the following figure, which has absolutely no scientific support whatsoever:

In writing, reviewing, and editing this section, IPCC procedures were carefully followed to produce the policy-relevant assessment that is the IPCC mandate.
RESPONSE: Carefully followed procedures? Let's review: (a) The IPCC relied on an unpublished, non-peer reviewed source to produce its top line conclusions in this section, (b) when at least two reviewers complained about this section, the IPCC ignored their compalints and invented a response characterizing my views. (c) When the paper that this section relied on was eventually published it explicitly stated that it could not find a connection between rising temperatures and the costs of disasters.
This press release from the IPCC would have been a fine opportunity to set the scientific and procedural record straight and admit to what are obvious and major errors in content and process. Instead, it has decided to defend the indefensible, which any observer can easily see through. Of course there is no recourse here as the IPCC is unaccountable and there is no formal way to address errors in its report or its errors and misdirection via press release. Not a good showing by the IPCC.