Wealth and climate change are increasing the cost of disaster cleanup


~“Fivethirtyeight asked me to write a response to the article and subsequently decided not to run it.”

Why? Is Fivethirtyeight running out of internets to post stuff on? It’s not like an on-line magazine is in any way limited in the number of articles it can publish, the way a print medium would be. One would think every article they run (presumably without any reward for the author in this instance!) will generate some traffic/ad revenue, so the decision most likely wasn’t motivated by economic considerations. Of this sort.

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From Michael Calderone over at HuffPost,

"Silver said FiveThirtyEight is looking for a rebuttal from someone who has not weighed in yet on the dispute and “has very strong credentials.”

Perhaps this eliminates Abraham because he’s written on the subject extensively(?) before?

Alright, but why did they ask him first?

Plus, my point still kind of stands, in a weaker sort of way. Why not publish more than one rebuttal? (I mean, I get it - you don’t want to give the impression there is a major pushback against your “home champion.” But I would argue this is in principle wrong, if your goal is to produce actual meaningful, truth-uncovering journalism. And you can in effect provide unlimited space.)

Silver can do much better than Pielke as a science writer. Here’s a petition to give him a pink slip.

Hey, I’m not against you…just trying to figure out the reasoning as well.

With Peilke’s pre-packaged reputation (and a couple of scientists claiming he sent them thinly-veiled threats of legal action via email), perhaps they’re trying to avoid any further fallout.

P.S. I had to move to another computer to post this response, because my primary computer is still trying to post it after 30 minutes’ time. My tin-foil hat tells me that perhaps the invisible hand of the Kochs has reached out to strangle my internets.

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Silver’s site is (mostly) about statistics and the underlying numbers should be something we can test. Yet Abraham’s article continues the trend of non-randomly selecting counter-examples and dodging what appear to be confirmed facts in Pielke’s argument.

The prediction of climate science is that global average temperatures must increase and that higher temperatures must increase the frequency of severe weather events. Count the number of hurricanes that strike land and count the number of tornadoes. Measure the geographical extent and duration of drought, etc. Measure the increase in temperature over time. If the numbers (observations) do not match the prediction (hypothesis), don’t attack the messenger.

On the question of increasing costs, if the same house that cost $35,000 in the 1960s is valued at $350,000 today that does not mean that a fire today is “more intense” than a fire in the 1960s. Building a subdivision in a floodplain (since all of the “good” land was already taken) might increase insurance losses but does not, by itself, prove that floods are more frequent or intense.

Science should not silence its critics. It should disprove their data.

I don’t see where Abraham is “attacking the messenger”.

You seem to be a little confused. Pielke does not directly cite any data on extreme weather events in his piece. He does cite the IPCC report saying: “medium evidence and high agreement that long-term trends in normalized losses have not been attributed to natural or anthropogenic climate change.” This is not an example of what you suggest: this is not counting the numbers of tornadoes or hurricanes. Pielke does none of that in his piece.

Instead, Pielke misinterprets that line from the IPCC to indicate that there has been no increase in extreme weather events correlating with increased average global temperature. Abraham points out that when you look directly at the incidence of extreme weather events – as you yourself suggested but which Pielke did not bother to do – there is, in fact, an increase of extreme weather events correlating with the increase in average global temperature. And Abraham cites a great many examples. Each example is a study – a specific incidence of someone performing a test.

Who is it that’s trying to “silence” Pielke? No one that I can see. I do see Abraham rebutting his argument by pointing out that Pielke’s interpretation of data leaves something to be desired. But fivethirtyeight didn’t print that rebuttal so who is it getting silenced, exactly?


Re: wysinwyg

Pielke links to numerous reports in his original post which buttress his main point: storm damage has increased in dollar cost even though storms (intensity and frequency) have not. That is an interesting and statistically testable point that is appropriate for Silver’s website. Abraham fails to refute this point. You also fail to refute it.

Pielke wrote:

“That [IPCC] report concluded that there’s little evidence of a spike in the frequency or intensity of floods, droughts, hurricanes and tornadoes. There have been more heat waves and intense precipitation, but these phenomena are not significant drivers of disaster costs. In fact, today’s climate models suggest that future changes in extremes that cause the most damage won’t be detectable in the statistics of weather (or damage) for many decades.”

Everything in that paragraph appears to be accurate. Abraham criticized Pielke’s word choice (“spike”) but did not refute his point. Pielke points out that “heat waves and intense precipitation” are not “significant drivers” of climate change costs compared to hurricanes and tornadoes. Abraham responds rhetorically: “Heat waves and heavy rains are not drivers of disaster costs?” Deleting the modifier “significant” allows Abraham to argue with a straw man.

You are simply wrong when you claim “Pielke does not directly cite any data on extreme weather events in his piece.” (emphasis in the original) For example, Pielke specifically discussed the death toll from hurricanes in the United States since 1940 and contrasted it with the vastly higher death toll from a single recent typhoon in Southeast Asia. Part of Pielke’s point is that wealthy countries have higher storm costs because their property is more valuable. As property values climb, so does the economic impact of storms. Yet wealth also provides resilience, particularly when compared to significantly poorer regions. That is why death tolls in wealthy countries typically are lower.

And that is the central argument in Pielke’s piece – increased wealth results in greater dollar-value damage from any natural disaster. But that does not demonstrate an increase in the frequency or strength of natural disasters themselves. Abraham essentially concedes this point and then changes the subject.

Finally, you ask “Who is it that’s trying to ‘silence’ Pielke?” Look no further than this thread – “Branto” links to a petition to get him fired by Silver.

Let’s keep this simple. Pielke’s argument consists of two parts:

  1. The cost of weather-related disasters is increasing due to increasing value of what is destroyed.
  2. There is no increase in frequency or intensity of weather-related disasters to contribute to the increase in cost of such disasters.

Pielke does a fine job supporting point (1). But everyone is already acknowledging that (1) is true. No one thinks this is a particularly controversial point. Costs from weather-related disasters are largely driven by the value of what is destroyed.

However, it’s also completely possible that in addition to the increased cost due to higher property value etc. that there is also an increase in frequency or intensity of weather-related disasters.

Pielke offers no evidence whatsoever that this is not the case. He asserts that this is not the case, but to support his point he cites the IPCC report saying something that sounds similar but does not mean the same thing. In contrast, Abraham points to numerous peer-reviewed studied finding that the frequency and/or intensity of weather-related disasters has increased.

So you don’t have to prove (1). That’s taken care of. What I’m waiting for is some data on (2). Neither you nor Pielke have provided any.

By the way:

You’re being pretty dishonest here. Abraham doesn’t end on that hypothetical question. Here’s the full statement:

“Heat waves and heavy rains are not drivers of disaster costs? Just don’t tell that to sufferers of floods from Irene, in Colorado, Duluth, Europe, or in the U.K., to name a few. Also, don’t tell residents of France in 2003, Russia in 2010, Oklahoma and Texas in 2011, California this year, Australia, or just about any U.S. citizen in 2012.”

Many of the words in the part you left out are links directly detailing the costs of flood and drought-related disasters. Abraham is supporting his argument with data, not leaving a dangling rhetorical question. Cutting out Abraham’s full response to this argument is a move right out of the Pielke playbook.

Someone who likes fivethirtyeight but thinks Pielke is a poor choice for a science writer is well within his or her rights to petition fivethirtyeight to find a new science writer. Doing so isn’t “silencing” Pielke any more than complaining to a manager about a particularly rude waiter. Even if he gets fired from fivethirtyeight, Pielke will still be free to write what he wants and publish anywhere that wants to print his stuff.

Since fivethirtyeight is a private employer and the people petitioning fivethirtyeight are customers it seems like this is just capitalism in action – customers giving feedback to a company about how it could better serve their needs. You’re not against capitalism, are you?

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This gets sillier and sillier. Pielke’s major source for stats on this is a Munich RE report. Pielke at one point argues that drought and floods have no significant impact on insurance costs for weather-related disasters. But look at page 6 from the Munich RE webinar that Pielke links to:


Estimated insured losses due to thunderstorms, drought, and wildfire top losses due to tropical cyclones by about 20%. I guess for Pielke 60% is “not significant.”

And check page 7 for the frequency of extreme weather events. I guess I can see why Pielke wanted to keep his attention on the money and not on the data about frequency or strength.

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NOTE: 10. Rules lawyering will fail. If a discussion is permitted to veer from the “be cool” letter of the comment policy’s law and you continue to participate, don’t subsequently cite it to hush people up. Just get on with the debate on its own terms, or let the other wookiee win.

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Apparently the moderator does not enforce the Community Guideline to “be cool” and criticize ideas, not people but does delete posts that quote the Guidelines. So rather than just drop it entirely and enjoy my coffee (which is admittedly the far wiser course of action) I will respond since you challenged my honesty in your previous post. What fun.

Pielke’s #2 (frequency) is also true. As I pointed out before, non-randomly selecting events scattered across time and geography is anecdotal, and not necessarily statistically valid, evidence. Climate change is about global anomalies, not episodic local fluctuations. So when some people point out that the United States is currently in the longest recorded period without a “major” hurricane (cat 3 or above) in its history it is incorrect to declare it proof that there is no global warming. That is as invalid as claiming that a drought in Arizona and a flood in France are proof of human influence on the climate. At this point in time, the data is scientifically insufficient but you may believe whatever you want.

It is also true that recent weather extremes fall within the historical range of global climate (to say nothing of the far greater swings of paleo climate). That means, technically, we have not conclusively demonstrated the global warming signal that scientists continue to look for. For example, there is a big debate right now on the cause of the flattened global temps for the past 10 or 15 years. It may be fascinating stuff (at least I think it is) but it does not “disprove” climate change. Scientifically, it will take time (decades, as Pielke said) to conclusively demonstrate that any weather we experience is due to human activity – instead of being a result of the climatic rebound from the last glacial epoch.

I think we all expect that proof to be developed in the future. Certainly by mid-century. But even the IPCC admits that, statistically, we can’t show that any particular weather event was the result of human influence on the climate. Abraham’s listing of a bunch of additional weather disasters does not change that fact. I do believe that data shows that human activities (particularly related to land use) can, and do, change local weather patterns. But that’s not caused by greenhouse gases and isn’t what the big debate is about.

I don’t know Prof. Pielke but I assume he is an honest man and the same assumption applies to Prof. Abraham. In a relatively short article Pielke raises a lot of interesting (and, apparently, controversial) points. The fact that he does not go into greater detail in a brief article does not mean that he is being dishonest. Nor do I think Abraham is being disingenuous when he admits that the IPCC found an “absence of an attributable climate change signal,” but discounts the statement because the IPCC “has set a high scientific bar for itself.” Even though a “low” scientific bar is not a valid option, I accept that Abraham has drawn a different conclusion based upon his expertise and his focus on different aspects of the larger database.

Like Pielke, Abraham did not start out as a climate researcher. However, both gentlemen have applied their respective expertise to an important issue and I believe we are all better off for their participation. That is why I’m not a fan of efforts to kick Pielke off the fivethirtyeight team. It seems to me that would legitimately be an example of preventing him from speaking through fivethirtyeight, aka “silencing” him. You disagree.

And, although you are probably just being rhetorical, as a matter of fact, yes, I am against capitalism. At least as it is currently (mal)practiced in the United States.

Neither you nor Pielke have provided any evidence concerning the actual frequency or intensity of storm events. Without doing so, you cannot conclude that there is no increase in the frequency or intensity of storm events. You seem to be contradicting your initial post here when you said:

This is exactly the data I’m asking you (or Pielke) to provide to support Pielke’s conclusion. It is, in fact, the evidence required to do so. Now you seem to be arguing that this is impossible to provide and even if it was provided it wouldn’t prove anything. That’s an interesting change of opinion in the space of a few comments.

The Munich RE data Pielke uses to prove his (1) actually contradicts this. You can see clearly on page 6 of the Munich RE webinar presentation that there has been a steady increase in frequency of extreme weather events. Perhaps this is why Pielke used that strange word “spike” in his analysis – his own dataset shows an increase but not a “spike”. Then again, a “spike” is often statistically insignificant whereas the steady increase in the Munich RE dataset does look quite statistically significant. However, if you would like – and I’ve asked for this three times now – to provide some data to the contrary I would be happy to consider it.

As it is, merely insisting Pielke demonstrated that there has been no increase in frequency or intensity of storms when he hasn’t provided any evidence to bear on the question isn’t going to impress anyone. It actually makes your argument look pretty bad, especially when you initially acknowledged that such evidence is required to make this determination and only now are backing away from that position, saying: “At this point in time, the data is scientifically insufficient but you may believe whatever you want.”

On the contrary. There is plenty of evidence out there about the frequency and intensity of weather events and how they change over time. Try here, here, and here. I’m not going to spend all day doing your research for you, though, so if you have some studies that don’t show any trend then please link them instead of just insisting over and over that Pielke demonstrated his claim without providing any evidence for it.

But you don’t have to take my word on it. Here’s Nate Silver talking about the shortcomings of Pielke’s article:

As I mentioned, the central thesis of Roger’s article concerns the economic costs associated with natural disasters. But we also allowed a number of peripheral claims into the piece. For instance, Roger made a number of references to the overall incidence of natural disasters, as opposed to their economic cost.

We think many of these claims have support in the scientific literature, specifically including the 2013 IPCC report. But there is a range of debate among experts about others. Either way, these claims shouldn’t have been included in the story as offhand remarks. We should either have addressed them in more detail or scrubbed them from the article.

…Furthermore, there was some loose language in the article. We pride ourselves on precise, matter-of-fact language. These things reflect a poor job of editing on our part.

As you can see, Silver’s own reservations about the article match my complaints exactly.

That’s not really true. The warmest 10 years on record have all occurred since 1998. The last 15 years is the hottest 15 year period on record. The “flattened” global temps you mention are the result of starting a trendline on 1998 which is the third-hottest year on record. The hottest and second hottest are 2010 and 2005 respectively. If you cherry pick your trendlines you can make them go down but you can’t make the last 15 years anything but the hottest 15 years in the history of human beings measuring temperature. Please take a look at that last link. It will make it pretty clear how bullshit this “flattening” argument is. Someone told me the link isn’t working for them so here’s the URL: http://americablog.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/skeptscience-realistclimateXX.gif

No, the fact that he claims weather events have not increased in frequency or intensity when his own dataset contradicts that claim is what makes him dishonest. And some other stuff you can find easily enough by googling “pielke dishonesty”.

You seem to be misunderstanding the argument here. Pielke quotes IPCC saying “attributable signal” and he uses this as evidence that there is no signal at all. That’s not valid reasonsing. It’s changing the goalposts.

You know, I don’t like to get into credentials in these sorts of discussions because it amounts to an argument from authority. However, Abraham has a PhD in mechanical engineering and specializes in thermodynamics and fluid flow whereas Pielke has a PhD in political science. Which is more relevant to climate science (the science itself, not subsequent policy discussions) is left as an exercise for the reader.

Well I’m not a “fan” of such efforts either, but I also don’t have any particular problem if the readers of a publication don’t like one of the writers and try to draw management’s attention to this fact. Pielke has no constitutional right to a job at fivethirtyeight.com but he does have a constitutional right to free speech. If he loses his job he is not “silenced” because he still has that right to free speech and never had a right to the job in the first place. I think your loose use of the term “silenced” is actually pretty insulting to people living under political regimes where they are legitimately silenced by government force.

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That’s a disingenuous way to put it. When a die keeps coming up with lots of sixes, you can’t statistically show that any particular one was because the die is weighted, since there would always be some sixes in both cases. But that’s a very different question then whether you can show the amount of sixes is extremely unlikely unless the the die is weighted.

Normally when you were just given something that suggested the contrary, even if it wasn’t a proof, you would back this up with more than just assertion. Since as wysinwyg explains it’s the entire substance of Pielke’s claim, the failure to provide a good reference is a serious one.
Edit: especially since now he’s also pointed out some additional evidence that you’re entirely wrong on this point.


Yep. I shoulda stuck with the coffee. But I’ve gone from being called personally “dishonest” to making a “bullshit argument” so maybe that’s an improvement.

We’re getting off course here as we argue about how Pielke “should have” written his article and whether all of your demands for additional footnoting have been obliged. But I don’t have to prove anything. You have to disprove the null hypothesis.

The null hypothesis is not that the climate isn’t changing (since it is always changing in some ways and in some places). It’s (basically) that the short-term variations in climate average out over time. The challenging hypothesis of anthropogenic climate change is that a significant, even unprecedented increase in global average temperatures is being caused by manmade emissions. The political corollary is that these increased temperatures will cause significant harm (beyond the normal disasters we have experienced for the past few centuries) rather than allow us all to live in a tropical paradise. Admittedly, that’s a very difficult hypothesis to investigate in the short term since the ocean-atmosphere-land interaction is a chaotic system. But scientifically speaking we haven’t exceeded the “normal” global distribution of extreme weather events and the IPCC agrees. Then they go on to talk about all of the signs that may grow into sufficient proof in the near-to-distant future. And I just received permission from the NSA to say “it’s still a free country so you can believe what you want to believe.”

In terms of basic physics, additions of “greenhouse gases” to the atmosphere have an effect but that is only of interest to us if it is detectably harmful. Yet, thus far, we only can see a (surprisingly, to me) small increase in the temperature anomaly while the increase in harmful impacts on society (other than, perhaps, the blood pressure of people who hate Pielke) is much harder to discern – assuming it actually exists. Of course we also know that CO2 is plant food and we can detect that many crop yields have increased along with carbon dioxide. Criticize me if you wish, but even if that “fertilizer” effect has reduced malnutrition in the developing world, I’m not going to give a Nobel to the coal industry. Of course, <proselytizing alert!> if the rest of you would give up meat, like I did, we might be able to convert total global agriculture to a net carbon sink. Do it for the future generations.

Just one last thing and you can have the field to yourselves.

You may not like to argue from authority but, obviously, you just did. So rather than “leave it to the reader” (convenient how you did that) I did look up Pielke’s credentials. I still take both side’s arguments at face value, but Pielke seems to have sufficient background (via wikipedia) to me. Feel free to argue amongst yourselves over the relative merits of a math degree vs MechE because I consider it irrelevant:

Roger A. Pielke, Jr. is an American political scientist and professor in the Environmental Studies Program and a Fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) where he served as Director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado Boulder from 2001 to 2007. Pielke was a visiting scholar at Oxford University’s James Martin Institute for Science and Civilization [1] in the Said Business School in the 2007-2008 academic year. His interests include understanding the politicization of science, decision making under uncertainty, and policy education for scientists in areas such as climate change, disaster mitigation, and world trade.
Pielke earned a B.A. in mathematics (1990), a M.A. in public policy (1992), and a Ph.D. in political science, all from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prior to his positions at CU-Boulder, from 1993 to 2001 he was a staff scientist[2] in the Environmental and Societal Impacts Group of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. From 2002 to 2004 Pielke was Director of Graduate Studies for the CU-Boulder Graduate Program in Environmental Studies and in 2001 students selected him for the Outstanding Graduate Advisor Award.

But as long as we’re handing out class assignments, you might google Warren Buffett and see how thrilled he is to be able to charge higher insurance premiums based on perception, yet his company’s payouts haven’t gone up commensurate with the increased revenue because of the lack of disaster claims. The rich get richer…

You can attack Pielke (and me) all you want but I just didn’t find his article very controversial. However, as I’ve now learned from our friendly discussion, it’s better to be on the right side than it is to be right.

You said that Abraham responded “rhetorically”. You did this by cutting off three sentences of argumentation supported by linked evidence. That seemed dishonest to me. It still seems dishonest to me. Are you telling me you legitimately read that paragraph and didn’t see that the whole paragraph was phrased as a response to Pielke?

Your bullshit argument has been a bullshit argument ever since it came into common currency about 5 years ago. (2008 was colder than 1998 due to typical variation and of course that means “global warming has reversed!”) You didn’t come up with it. You repeated it without first investigating whether it’s a credible argument. It’s not. It’s bullshit.

I’ve provided evidence against the null hypothesis already. You haven’t provided any evidence or argument contesting mine despite repeated requests. You can always say “there’s not enough evidence for me” but at a certain point that stops being skepticism and starts being unreasonable. All the evidence I know of indicates increasing temperatures throughout the 20th century.

Abraham provided plenty of evidence that these changes are not leading to “a tropical paradise” (of course, “tropical paradises” often have highly destructive monsoons and other weather-related disasters; just because a place is nice to vacation in doesn’t mean it’s a great place to live). Some specific concerns of mine:
1)Rising sea levels and more severe storms mean more damage and destruction when storms make landfall. Since the vast majority of the human race lives on coastlines this is a serious problem.
2)Earth’s climate has shown remarkable stability for the last 12,000 years. “Coincidentally” agriculture was invented about 12,000 years ago. All human agriculture since then has taken place in a very narrow range of climactic conditions. Adding a large element of carbon dioxide forcing into the picture could very well undermine the ability of human beings to engage in agriculture on the scale required to feed everybody.
3) Abraham pointed out numerous ways in which increased average global temperatures affect fresh water supplies for both drinking and agriculture. None of them are good. Glacial meltwater is one of the primary sources of water for a significant proportion of the human population. Receding glaciers means less meltwater means less fresh water for drinking and agriculture.
That’s not an exhaustive list.

You’re the one who introduced credentials into the argument. I simply brought in relevant details to clarify your comment. I’ve taken both arguments at face value as well every step of the way.

I haven’t attacked you or Pielke. I’ve criticized your arguments. It’s amazing how consistently global warming skeptics confuse one for the other.

As I’ve already mentioned, the thesis of Pielke’s article is not controversial. Everything uncontroversial about the article is well-supported – and everything well-supported in the article is uncontroversial. What I’ve taken issue with (along with a lot of other people, including Nate Silver himself) is that Pielke peppers the article with unsupported claims and editorializing that aren’t part of the main thesis of the article.

Please explain.

You could also explain why you keep trying to introduce distractions like Warren Buffet and vegetarianism into a discussion that started with you talking about how the only thing that’s important in a discussion like this is data. I’ve tried to keep the discussion data-driven but I don’t see you introducing a single citation. I do see a lot of moralizing from you – some of it with some validity – but that is presumably irrelevant to the scientific question of whether the frequency and/or intensity of storms has increased or, for that matter, whether there is actually a detectable warming signal in the temperature data.

As you said:
"Silver’s site is (mostly) about statistics and the underlying numbers should be something we can test. " So why don’t I see you citing any numbers?

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