August 5, 2008

CCSP Climate Impacts Report: A Perversion of Science

Filed under: Climate Politics

By Chip Knappenberger

Luckily, the U.S. Climate Change Assessment Report just released by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) is only a “draft” released for the purpose of gathering public comments. This means that the report’s authors still have time to get things in order before a “final” publication is released. The current contents read as if the CCSP authors set aside their list of sizable scientific credentials, and instead opted to write a fantasy piece on how they wished the state of climate science to be, rather than how it actually is.

As it now stands, the draft CCSP report is a gross perversion of science.

It is made even worse that it is coming from a group researchers, who, at one time at least, were regarded as some of the leaders in their fields.

No fair treatment of science discusses a topic with complete disregard to opposing views that are held and published by other credible, qualified and knowledgeable persons.

And yet this is precisely what is contained, ad nauseum, within the draft of the CCSP synthesis report.

The report reads as a simple rehashing of the “pet opinions” held by its authors and completely ignoring that these opinions have been harshly disputed and criticized in the scientific literature and elsewhere by other equally qualified researchers as being based upon faulty methodology and inappropriate inferences.

It is as if the CCSP authors think that if they just keep repeating the same things over and over again in different fora, they will eventually become true—or at least that the critics will have become so exasperated by their audacity and simply grow tired of responding.

I am at a loss for complimentary adjectives to describe people who are tasked by the U.S. government with assessing climate change and its potential impacts on the United States for the clear (although unstated, wink, wink) purpose of influencing policy and who know of legitimate scientific viewpoints which counter their own but yet act as if such opposition entirely doesn’t exist.

I have never read a more pessimistic report on climate change (other than perhaps coverage of Al Gore’s we-are-going-to-make-the-earth-uninhabitable-for-people proclamations)—and this coming from a supposed august scientific body. There are virtually no positive aspects of climate change presented or even postulated. Any that are briefly touched upon are almost inevitably countered with subsequent text along the lines of “but that effect will only be temporary.”

As I read through the report, I kept flipping back to cover page to double and triple check that this report was actually put out by the U.S. governments’ Climate Change Science Program and not Environmental Defense Fund, National Resources Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists, or some other strong global warming advocacy group.

My level of exasperation is redlined.

What kind of people think that the population of Americans will only suffer if the climate heats up by a few degrees? If you were to track the ‘average temperature’ experienced by the ‘average American’ over time (which we did in an analysis a few years ago), based upon population movements alone, you would find that the experiential temperature is increasing at a rate that is greater than many of the projected scenarios of climate change (Figure 1). In other words, the population movements made by American’s free will—primarily movements to more urban centers and southerly locales—has resulted in the ‘average American’ experiencing a climate that is about 3ºF warmer at the end of the 20th century than at the beginning—and that doesn’t even take into effect the inherent added warmth in urban environments. These changes are independent of actual climate changes. This shows that a warmer climate does not dissuade the average American from pursuing his/her interests (heck, maybe it even entices them). It hasn’t dissuaded them in the past, nor should it reasonably be anticipated to do so in the future. If skiing or snowmobiling should someday be relegated to a thing of yesteryear, I am sure we’ll more than find other ways to amuse ourselves (and industries standing ready to entice us into new avenues of recreation).

Figure 1. (top) Annual average temperature experienced by the average American based upon the average temperature of where they lived, 1900-2003. Figure 1 (bottom) Annual average temperature history of the United States, 1900-2003. Based upon the patterns of population movement, the average “experiential” temperature of the average American has increased by a much larger amount than the actual average temperature of the U.S. This occurs because, by their own free will, Americans are seeking out warmer climates.

How close-minded must you be that in a world where the scientific literature is overwhelmed with the results of experiments showing how plant species of endless types and varieties—including the world’s major food crops—will fare better under conditions of increasing carbon dioxide, that the only plants that you draw attention to are ones that have a negative associations, that is, poison ivy, ragweed, and stinging spurge? What’s wrong with singing the praises of better growing chrysanthemums, pansies, or amaryllis (won’t they lift the mental health of the nation?) or how about more productive wheat, corn, soybeans, rice, potatoes, peanuts, tomatoes, strawberries or sunflowers? These sound like health benefits. How can these topics not be discussed in the Chapter on Human Health where the authors saw fit to discuss poison ivy of all things?

Here are three more appalling examples of the CCSP authors completely ignoring significant scientific studies that run counter to the ideas that they decided to present in their Climate Assessment report.

The first is about damage losses from extreme weather events.

Anybody with any sense ought to realize that damages from weather events are dependent on two things—the characteristics of the weather events themselves and the location where the weather event took place. After all, it doesn’t matter at all how strong a tornado is if it occurs out in the middle of nowhere, yet a weak tornado hitting a highly populated area can create havoc. Just as a hurricane hitting an unpopulated stretch of beach verses one that hits New Orleans. Thus, given that damages levels are inherently dependent on two things, you can’t simply show how damage estimates change over time and then conclude something about only one of the underlying influences.

Does this stop the CCSP from showing such a plot ? No. Does the CCSP expect you to think that their plot should lead you to believe extreme weather is getting worse? Of course. Why else would they show the plot? After all the CCSP report is about climate change impacts, not insurance losses.

To drive the point home, the CCSP follows with a statement about weather-related damages increasing faster than population and inflation (and thus implying actual changes in the weather). Since it is impossible to draw such a conclusion from the figure they show, they instead draw it from a paper by Evan Mills published in Science magazine in 2005. The techniques and conclusions in the Mills paper were harshly criticized in a response by Roger Pielke Jr. that was also published in Science and further elaborated on Pielke Jr.’s blog site (see here and a follow-up here ). Pielke Jr. concluded “Presently, there is simply no scientific basis for claims that the escalating cost of disasters is the result of anything other than increasing societal vulnerability.” This is precisely the opposite of the CCSP conclusion. Do you think that the fact that Evan Mills is one of the co-authors of the CCSP report has anything to do with the CCSP completely ignoring Pielke’s conclusions? How can a responsible fact-finding government body completely turn its back on well-founded criticism of the limited scope of material that it deems to present? This is unbelievable.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident, but the general theme of the CCSP—push, push, push the “global-warming-is-disastrous” mantra and ignore, ignore, ignore anything to the contrary.

Here is another egregious example, this time about human health.

Aside from the laughable attempt at trying to relate the introduction and spread of West Nile Virus across the U.S. to climate change (laughable because the range of climate that the West Nile spread through is about 20ºF and 30 inches of rain, so it shouldn’t seem as if miniscule, by comparison, climate change would be the cause of its spread from New York City to the four corners of the continental United States in just 5 years) the section on heat waves and human mortality is shameful. The CCSP authors want you to believe that climate change will lead to more heat waves which will lead to more people dying as a result. The former is probably true, the latter is most probably false—that is, if you properly account for population changes (in other words, it is not permissible to claim more people are dying from the heat without accounting for the increase in the number of total people—this is the same type of shenanigans that they tried in the “damages” section we describe above).

When you properly account for changing population structure over time, you find that despite rising summer temperatures, the population in major urban centers across the United States has become less sensitive (that is, fewer people are dying) to summer heat extremes over the past 30-40 years (Figure 2). Simply put, we have become better adapted to heat waves. This is documented in a series of papers by Robert Davis et al. (including one which was singled out as the “Paper of the Year” by the Climate Specialty Group of the Association of American Geographers). Davis et al conclude that the impacts of increasing heat waves in the future will be small and likely diminishing, despite increases in the intensity and severity of heat waves. After all, they found that the warmer the locale generally the fewer heat related deaths (in fact, most southern tier U.S. cities no longer exhibit any statistically identifiable heat-related mortality). This seems a no-brainer.

Figure 2. The population-adjusted heat-related mortality for major cities across the United States. Each bar of the histogram for each city represents a different 10-yr period. The left bar represents the heat-related mortlaity in the 1960s/70s, the middle bar represents the 1980s, and the right-hand bar is the 1990s. No bar at all means that there was no statistically distinguishable heat-related mortality during that decade. In nearly every major city the results are the same—that is, heat-related mortality has been systematically declining as American’s have become better adapted. Yet, for some reason, the pessimistic folks at the CCSP think that suddenly this will all change and that instead of continuing to seek out ways to avoid dying from the heat, we will simply give up and succomb. (figure source: Davis et al., 2004, Environmental Health Perspectives, 111,1712-1718)

But, what does the CCSP conclude about heat waves and human mortality? That more than double the number of people will die in from future heat waves as do now. On what basis is that conclusion made? That people will largely stop adapting to the heat and instead of taking preventative action to avoid dying, will simply perish in increasing numbers as the temperature rise. Sort of like the frog in the slowly warming pot of water. It is a shame that this is how the CCSP authors rate human ingenuity. And what about any reference to the Davis et al. papers which show that people indeed don’t want to succumb to high temperatures and instead seek out ways to avoid dying? Don’t even think about it.

And just for good measure, I’ll throw in another example, this time on hurricanes.

The CCSP authors are intent on making the readers of the report think that recent hurricane and especially hurricane Katrina are the result of human-induced climate change, and that the future will hold more and stronger storms. Now anyone who has paid even a passing interest in the topic of hurricanes and global warming will know that during the past year or so, the scientific literature on the subject has been dominated by articles which suggest that a) trends in hurricane frequency and intensity are difficult to interpret in the historical record because of a variety of yet-to-be (or perhaps never-to-be) resolved data quality issues and b) the more and more computer models suggest that future climate change may not lead to detectably stronger or more frequency hurricanes. But is a single citation made to any paper which suggests that either the historical record may not indicate a trend in hurricane intensity, duration, and/or frequency or may in fact be inadequate to make such a determination, or to any paper which finds that hurricanes may not get more frequent or intense in the future? No. Are references made to each of the primary papers which draw a link between anthropogenic climate change and more frequent and intense hurricanes now and in the future? You betcha! It seems not to matter at all they are several years old and all the major conclusions have subsequently been challenged.

The title page of the “draft” CCSP report describes the report as a “Unified Synthesis Product.”

It is definitely “unified.” But it is most definitely not a synthesis of the science related to climate change impacts in the United States.

Rather, it is a joke.

Perhaps all of the above will be rectified as the current release is only a “draft” of the final report and that these are all innocent errors and oversights.

I think otherwise, for if the authors really thought the “draft” report was in serious need on fixing, they would have allowed for more than just 28 days of public comment. The draft of the first U.S. Climate Assessment put out by the CCSP in 2000 was open for 60 days of public comment, and judging from how poor the contents of the final version of the First Assessment were (we continued to point out weaknesses in it for about 3 years after final publications (search for “Assessing the Assessment” here), that was far too short a time.

Actually, this time around, perhaps 28 days is enough. For it is plenty of time for most rational people to realize just what a farce the CCSP report is and to demand that it be withdrawn, thrown out, and begun from scratch with authors who are more interested in portraying the actual state of the science, not standing it on its head. Anything less should be unacceptable.

It is that bad.

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