14 March 2013

Thou Shall Not Critique the Australian Climate Commission

UPDATE: John McAneney responds to the Climate Commission press release here.

Today brings another case study in the self-destructive intolerance of the climate movement, and the challenges of expertise in highly politicized debates. Writing at The Conversation, a widely-read commentary site in Australia, Ryan Crompton and John McAneney of Macquarie University provide an update on their database of normalized insured disaster losses for Australia. (Note: I am affiliated with the group headed by McAneney and have collaborated with both.)

The occasion for their update is a recent report by the Australian Climate Commission, a government body put established to advocate for action on climate change. The report -- The Angry Summer -- provides a tabulation of various weather records broken Down Under during the remarkable summer that has just ended. The report makes a number of very strong claims, including this one:
Australia’s Angry Summer shows that climate change is already adversely affecting Australians. The significant impacts of extreme weather on people, property, communities and the environment highlight the serious consequences of failing to adequately address climate change.
As experts on damage to property caused by extreme events Crompton and McAneney subsequently wrote their piece at The Conversation to put one metric of impacts experienced in Australia this past summer into a bit of historical perspective. They explain by explicitly referring to the claim made by the Climate Commission, noting that it was just one of several claims that were made:
The report refers to, amongst other things, how the significant impacts of extreme weather on property highlights the serious consequences of failing to adequately address climate change.

So has property damage during 2012-2013 been higher than normal?

The answer, in terms of insured losses from weather-related disasters, is no.
You can see the losses for 2012/2013 in the figure at the top of this post (note: the data is June-May, so the data for the current year will still need several months for a full year). The data comes from peer-reviewed research that I have discussed occasionally. Crompton and McAneney conclude:
The long-term average annual normalised insured loss from weather-related disasters is around $1.1 billion. To date, insured losses during the 2012-13 financial year from bushfires in Tasmania and Coonabarabran and flooding in Queensland and New South Wales currently total almost $1 billion. This loss is certainly not “angry”.
Lest they be misinterpreted, the authors conclude their piece by emphasizing the importance of responding to climate change and maintaining scientific credibility in that effort:
Climate change is an important concern, and deserves policy attention. However, making supportable scientific claims is important as well. Those who point to increasing disaster losses as a signal of human-caused climate change are doing no favours for those working to address growing losses and accumulating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
So far, so normal -- at least as far as the climate debate goes. The urge to associate climate change with property damage is tempting and common, of course, and when such claims are made responsible researchers place them into context by pointing to what the peer-reviewed research actually says. In the annals of the discussions of climate change and property damage, where debates can get intense, Crompton and McAneney are respectful and stick to the science (unlike this jerk).

So it is bizarre that at this point this story goes off the rails.

Upon publication of the piece at The Conversation, the Australian Climate Commission issued a rambling and vicious press release attacking Crompton and McAneney. Apparently, the sin they committed was not in being wrong in their scientific claims, but in daring to offer a critique of the Commission in the first place.

The Commission press release states:
Today in the Conversation Ryan Crompton and John McAneney badly misrepresent the Climate Commission’s recent report, The Angry Summer.

Commissioner Professor Will Steffen has released the following statement responding to the article. He commented that the article is “opportunistic and unbecoming of a research institution”.

Crompton and McAneney assert that, from an insurance loss perspective, this summer was not the worst. They compare the costs of extreme weather events this summer to other extreme weather events and assert that the Commission wrongly used insurance losses in the Angry Summer report.
Badly misrepresent? At no point do Crompton and McAneney ever "assert that the Commission wrongly used insurance losses in the Angry Summer report." Sorry, but this is a bald-faced lie from the Commission. Crompton and McAneney accurately state that the report refers to the "significant impacts of extreme weather on property" during the "angry summer." You can see a tweet below from the Commission which refers uncritically to another recent piece at The Conversation, one that is chock full of scientific inaccuracies. Apparently being completely wrong did not merit a press release, but I digress.

The statement by Will Steffen, a scientist speaking for the government in his official capacity on the climate commission, beggars belief -- "opportunistic and unbecoming of a research institution." The comment, which explicitly makes reference to the university as a whole, brings to mind the time that Richard Nixon demanded that all funding for MIT be cut of because he didn't like its politics.
The Commission press release rambles on about how much the Commission actually agrees with Crompton and McAneney, and explains that in the "Angry Summer" report when they said impacts to property they were actually referring to unspecified and unquantified impacts to property other than those related to economic costs. Please. (And really, so what? Regardless of what the Commission really meant, Crompton/McAneney's piece adds valuable context not given by the Commission and should be welcomed.)

The press release says:
Crompton and McAneney correctly note that “making supportable scientific claims is important”. They would be well advised to take their own advice.
The Climate Commission offers not a single criticism of any claim made by Crompton and McAneney.

There is actually nothing more becoming of a research institution than researchers willing to engage the public with the results of their scientific research. In democracies, it is OK to crtiique government -- in fact, governance is improved through such critique. There is nothing more offensive than a government that attacks researchers for the temerity to offer legitimate critique. In the US, we saw how the Bush Administration learned that lesson the hard way. It looks like the Climate Commission hasn't taken note.