February 26, 2005

A Flood of Dissidence

Pick up any newspaper or tune in to any news program and take a look at the weather report. Nine times out of 10, it’s all about some sort of calamitous weather event (heat wave, cold outbreak, strong winds, lack of precipitation, too much precipitation, no snow, avalanches, etc.). And more often than we would prefer, someone comments that “these are the types of things that we should expect more of because of an increasing greenhouse effect,” with the usual disclaimer “although no one can say for sure whether this one particular event was caused by global warming.”

The association between weather events and climate change is commonly made, despite the lack of evidence to support it. Increasingly, those scientists who don’t blindly rally for The Cause are being cast out of the “mainstream” by the self-appointed membership council.

A recent example of such shunning is that of Dr. Christopher Landsea, hurricane expert from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Landsea is perhaps the world’s foremost expert in hurricane climatology. As such, he has served the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) by providing, for the past several Assessment Reports, a summary of the current state of knowledge about hurricane history, especially as it relates to global warming. Landsea notes that there are large natural variations in the patterns of the strength and frequency of hurricanes, and that these natural cycles make it very difficult to detect an influence of global warming on tropical cyclones

His finding is not in keeping with The Cause. However, since Landsea was apparently not acting like a bad little boy and throwing a big tantrum about it (a role that we happily filled, see for example http://www.co2andclimate.org/wca/2004/wca_24a.html), the “mainstream” let him pretty much alone.

But apparently Landsea had had enough. Last fall, following a bevy of claims that the busy 2004 hurricane season was probably related to global warming (some of which were made by high ranking IPCC participants)—claims that were not supported by observational data—Landsea spoke out. After failing make a case with the IPCC leadership that IPCC scientists, when representing the IPCC, should not override a large body of scientific knowledge with personal opinion, Landsea concluded that the IPCC process had become too politicized (i.e. wed to The Cause) and publicly withdrew his involvement with the in-production IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, due out in 2007 (for more complete coverage of Landsea’s resignation, see www.co2andclimate.org/wca/2004/wca_30b.html).

The retribution was swift. The scientist who is serving as the coordinating lead author of the chapter on observed climate for the upcoming IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, Kevin Trenberth, the very same person who invited Landsea to contribute to the report in the first place (and the person who made the statements linking last year’s hurricanes to global warming that drew Landsea’s ire), told The Economist “politics is very strong in what is going on, but it is all coming from Landsea and colleagues. He is linked to the sceptics.”

Being linked to the “skeptics” is the same as having your “mainstream” membership revoked. Notice that this did not come about because Landsea, God forbid, said that global warming perhaps is not the problem that it is made out to be (that used to be the standard by which you were blacklisted to “skeptic”), but instead, simply made the point that IPCC representatives oughtn’t be going around saying stuff that is not backed by peer-reviewed science and that is in opposition to the material found in their own reports.

Landsea’s case is not an isolated example. This is the new wave of attack—you are either firmly behind The Cause, or you are eschewed by the “mainstream.” A fine exposé on this topic, providing more examples, was written by two German scientists, Hans von Storch and Nico Stehr, and published recently in Der Spiegel. An English translation of the article can be found on an excellent website run by the University of Colorado’s Roger Pielke Jr. that is dedicated to the discussions of science policy issues, and which focuses a lot in the topic of global warming.

Pielke Jr.’s mainstream membership is scheduled to be revoked at any time (if it has not been so already; for what it is worth, Roger Pielke Sr. lost his membership year’s ago by contending that landscape modification was an important driver of climate change). Not only on Pielke Jr.’s website does he make the case that the IPCC process has lost its scientific objectivity and has merely become a means to an end (i.e. to become the Scripture of The Cause), but he also has published (among many other things) a series of papers that demonstrate that weather-related catastrophes aren’t getting obviously worse because of global warming.

The latest in this series, was published in the February 2005 issue of Natural Hazards Review, and concerns flood-related losses in the United States. A research team led by Mary Downton, and including Zoe Miller and Roger Pielke, Jr. examined the historical record of flood damage throughout the country as compiled by the National Weather Service (NWS). Granted, this record leaves a lot to be desired because the NWS records are only rough approximations gathered from a variety of sources soon after the flood damage occurred and never verified by comparison to actual expenditures. But, nevertheless, Downton’s team carefully reviewed and evaluated the NWS records, including examining archived information, interviewing the folks who collect the data, identifying potential error sources, and performing a variety of error analyses in an effort to produce a dataset that would be useful to the greater community of researchers and policy makers for understanding the character of damaging floods across the United States.

After compilation of the flood damage record, the researchers plotted up the annual flood damage total for the United States from 1934-1999. What they found (Figure 1) was a statistically significant trend towards more and more damage by floods. This result fits precisely with Bylaw No. 1 of The Cause—“All things are getting worse.” Perhaps Pielke Jr.’s “mainstream” standing will be re-evaluated.
US Flood Damage
Figure 1. Estimated annual flood damage in the United States, 1934-1999. (Source: Downton et al., 2005)

Think again. In Figure 2, is presented the results when the total annual flood damage is adjusted to account for the changing U.S. demographics from 1935-1999.
US Floods
Figure 2. Estimated annual flood damage in the United States, 1934-1999, per million dollars of tangible wealth. (Source: Downton et al., 2005)

The data in Figure 2 are presented in terms of damage per unit wealth and shows a slight (statistically insignificant) downward trend. This means that floods have had a lessening (or neutral) impact on our personal wealth over the course of the past 65 years or so. This is as vile a concept as exists for Believers as it means that we, as a people, are rising above the ravages of nature and might have other things to worry about than global warming now that we are losing less wealth to floods.

Given that media outlets are not populated by free-thinking reporters, you likely won’t hear about this result many places but here. As such, we skeptics are glad to be serving a useful role.


Downton, W.M., Miller, J.Z.B., Pielke Jr., R.A., 2005. Renalysis of U.S. National Weather Service Flood Loss Database. Natural Hazards Review, 6, 13-22.

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