One of the first articles on Nate Silver’s highly anticipated data-driven news site used flawed data to make its conclusions, according to some of the nation’s top climate scientists.
Silver’s FiveThirtyEight published its first article about climate change on Wednesday, entitled “Disasters Cost More Than Ever — But Not Because of Climate Change.” But climate scientists are condemning the article and its author, Roger Pielke Jr., saying he ignored critical data to produce a “deeply misleading” result.
The crux of Pielke’s article is this: Extreme weather events are costing us more and more money, but that is not because climate change is making extreme weather more frequent or intense. The reason we are losing more money, rather, is because we have more money to lose. Pielke came to this conclusion by measuring rising disaster damage costs alongside the rising global Gross Domestic Product. He also cited a U.N. climate report, along with his own research, to assert that extreme weather events have not been increasing in frequency or intensity.
“Pielke’s piece is deeply misleading, confirming some of my worst fears that Nate Silver’s new venture may become yet another outlet for misinformation when it comes to the issue of human-caused climate change,” said Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. “Pielke uses a very misleading normalization procedure that likely serves to remove the very climate change-related damage signal that he claims to not be able to find.”
His story in FiveThirtyEight is one that he has written before, in Chapter 7 of his 2011 book “The Climate Fix.” Just like in his article, the chapter argues that increased wealth and development is the principal cause of increased monetary losses from extreme weather events — not more extreme weather from climate change.
But just as Pielke’s article has been written before, so too it has been criticized before. Dr. Kevin E. Trenberth, a distinguished senior climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, has criticized Pielke’s data for its simplistic nature. Simply showing that an increase in damage has corresponded to an increase in wealth ignores the fact that communities are now more prepared than ever for extreme storms, Trenberth wrote at the time.
Trenberth says data on increased disaster preparation measures should, to some degree, cancel out Pielke’s findings.
“This is the same old wrong Roger,” Trenberth said by e-mail. “He is demonstrably wrong and misleads.”
Mann agrees that the data analysis is too simplistic. “Pielke, in this case, continues to use an extremely controversial ‘normalization’ procedure when analyzing these data,” he told Climate Progress in an e-mail. “That procedure assumes that damages increase with population but it completely ignores technological innovations (sturdier buildings, hurricane-resistant structures, better weather forecasting, etc.) that have served to reduce societal vulnerability, thus likely masking some of the aggravating impacts of climate change.”
Pielke’s article also says that intensifying weather events can’t be causing more damage, because they aren’t occurring in the first place. Pielke cites the fifth IPCC’s report, which he said showed “little evidence of a spike in the frequency or intensity of floods, droughts, hurricanes and tornadoes.”
“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,” Pielke wrote, citing his own research.