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Has Global Warming increased the toll of disasters?

This report on the debate between Pielke Jnr, Ward and Muir-Wood at the Royal Institution is by Josh, the cartoonist whose work has been adorning this site recently.

The Royal Institution has all the academic grandeur you would expect but its decor is up to date and, in a word, posh. The RI website reassuringly says "..although this event is held on a Friday...there is no dress code". The discussion was held in their old lecture theatre, with its steep seats and kitted out with excellent sound, projectors, and very comfy seats. You could imagine the room hearing Michael Faraday 150 years ago - this time it was Roger Pielke Jr.

I am a scientific and medical artist and the notes I take are visual, usually in the form of cartoons, a few of which I include here. This post will just be some overall impressions of the evening as you can listen to all the finer points on the RI website.

James Renderson chaired what was billed as a 'debate'. He got off to a bad start. He attempted to ask the question 'Has global warming increased the toll of disasters?' but was immediately in trouble with the audience - most simply not understanding what the question was, and to be fair it was not a very good question, it was too 'fine'. The 'dont knows' won hands down. It was clear that although good natured, there was a lot of passion in the room and it felt overwhelmingly sceptical.

Robert Muir-Wood spoke first putting up the graph which has caused the IPCC so much recent embarrassment - the one that supposedly has global warming causing an upward trend in natural disasters and increased costs. He gave details as to how it was taken out of context, misleadingly cited, and not peer reviewed.

Bob Ward followed. He gives off an air of steely determination and slight menace, with a touch of the not-from-this-planet vibe. However with this topic and this audience he was strangely tamed. Robert had just shown that any linking of disasters with global warming was spurious, so anything he said to the contrary sounded unconvincing. He sounded unconvinced himself.

Roger Pielke Jr came last and was without doubt the star turn. He spoke succinctly and with authority. It is worth listening to the discussion just for his segment. He showed that the IPCC ignored the advice of the expert reviewers to remove the misleading graph, that they made up an erroneous statement about Roger changing his mind, made a claim unsupported by the data in the final report and even now refuse to admit there is a problem.

The questions afterwards were fun. Some asked interesting questions, some just rambled. Piers Corbyn was there and told us all about his website and weather services - what a character he is.  

So three speakers, not debating the wider subject of anthropogenic global warming but agreeing that there was no the link between disasters and global warming. Not really a debate, unless you count the heckling from the audience.

I sat next to Christine Ottery, a Guardian journalist, who, impressively, twittered the whole thing - read her here.

James ended the discussion with a plug and, of course, a vote. The plug was for the launch next week of a Guardian hosted web account from all sides of the Climate change debate - everyone will be able to add their arguments and annotate them.

And on the question 'Has global warming increased the toll of disasters?'  - the house said decisively not.


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Reader Comments (22)

"I sat next to Christine Ottery, a Guardian journalist" Lucky Josh....

Feb 6, 2010 at 7:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterHoi Polloi

Great 'toons of the event. I agree that Roger did very well (having listened to the audio).

On a different topic, there may be some more rumbling about AR4 mistakes later today at EU Referendum:

"Another major "mistake" in the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report has been identified, easily of the same magnitude of the "Glaciergate" error. A lead IPCC author of the report has admitted that he cannot find any supporting evidence for the claim made.

Over the last few days, I have been working flat out to prepare a report, which will be posted later today - about 10pm GMT. Watch this space."

Feb 6, 2010 at 7:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterIan

I am embarrassed to admit that I saw Josh and thought he might be George Monbiot - there is a slight resemblance, and he seemed to be furiously writing things down. On Bob Ward, he was indeed "strangely tamed", perhaps because he knew that his own stance - of arguing for a possible signal of global warming in disasters costs - looked very weak, given Roger's and Muir-Wood's presentations. He did become more passionate towards the end, making a broad defence of the IPCC using the "think of the children" argument - that is, if you care for your children, grandchildren, etc, you'd support action and therefore what the IPCC has done and is trying to do.

Feb 6, 2010 at 9:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter B

Its done ..these muthafuckas are toast : )

Feb 6, 2010 at 9:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterMicky D

Echoing the venue, while waiting for the event to begin I was wondering how much history that place had and how many similar contentious scientific issues had been debated there. Also on the dress code, who the two distinguished gentlemen in dinner jackets were and how many of those debates they'd sat in on. For locals, the price of a ticket is the same as a cinema ticket but the content is more educational. The RI organiser also mentioned the nanotechnology labs upstairs and I couldn't help but think of Prince Charle's fears of grey goo, and how appropriately that may be located given we're about to hear a debate about man-made disasters.

Agree about Renderson's intro question not being well framed, but then that seems to be an issue with how the mainstream media represents the science. Given how contentious the issues can be and facing a potentially hostile audience, I think he handled it well and in good humour though.

Robert Muir-Wood's section laid the background to the Risk Management report and some of the issues around how normalising losses to cater for changes in population, industry or improved flood defences can be complex. My impression was he agreed that by the time it reached the IPCC, some of the research had been 'sexed up'. Which lead to how that happens.

Bob Ward didn't seem quite as comfortable. He's presumably very familiar with the Risk Management report given he was previously their Policy Director. As he explained, his role is to advise policy makers, so effectively he's a lobbyist on behalf of his employer. He may have been thrown off his stride slightly by chosing a slide showing a quite from WG1 claiming an end to cold winters, which got a chuckle and some heckling. His section seemed to me to rehash what the IPCC report had said, and Muir-Wood had just contradicted. The science in WG1 is settled, we will see natural disasters, we will see more people affected even though we've not found evidence for it yet and as he said, we'd seen no trends for a lot of disaster cases. So presumably all the disasters are still in the pipeline with the heating. Key point I think was that there's really only been one global study, the Risk Management one, which is presumably why the IPCC chose it despite it's grey status. Because they cited it, so did the Stern report, the media, and the rest is becoming history. One key figure he cited from one paper and model he described as 'simple' might result in losses approaching 1% of GDP by 2050. Compared to costs of mitigation against something unproven and so far undetected, we seem to be proposing spending far more than we'd save. He did however make a good point that losses increase because more people are at risk, largely due to policy failures.

Then, along came Prof. Pielke Jnr. I learned how his name should be pronounced. His conclusion slides were very good. No detectable losses attributable to rising CO2, the vast majority of losses due to storm and flood damage, roughly 95% of the costs. The majority of loss increases were due to population changes rather than any provable climate change. He then carried on with how losses are calculated, and US hurricane losses dominate global events. He used a good slide comparing the development of Miami beach 80 years ago and now, and how those losses are calculated and adjusted for development. Also used a neat slide showing an Exel linear trend line based on US available data. No trend in US hurricane landfall, flat line. He then compared his research to others, and showed that although storms in the Atlantic had increased, they'd not made landfall, they'd not increased losses/risks. Expanding that, no reported increase in cyclone/hurricane damage found globally. All papers he cited showed the same thing, no trends in losses. He then moved on to the IPCC issues and referred to the graph he's got here-

and his closing comments pretty much echo what's in that article. The IPCC used a smoothed, misleading graph and incorrectly referenced it, but it does appear to show increased losses even though the paper it derived from makes no such claim. He wrapped up with how the IPCC review process assumed what he thought and didn't ask him, and restated nobody had managed to find any AGW related loss increases.

Which left the audience perhaps a little confused. All the panel members seemed to be saying there is no published research showing increased losses due to AGW, hence one of the first question was along the lines of 'what's the debate?' if they all (generally) agreed with each other. To date, despite the 'massive' post-industrial increase in CO2, we're showing no increase in natural disasters. So much for Thermageddon.

One question was about why decarbonise if there's no obvious risk, or the risk is 1% of GDP and the costs of decarbonisation are much higher than this. Pielke made the point that if there were an increase in disasters, then adaptation makes sense. Decarbonisation makes sense to reduce reliance on finite fossil fuels, and basically we have to do it to increase energy supply. CO2 reduction becomes a bonus effect.

Here is where I'll depart from the debate and into what I took from it. Although as Pielke said in here, and in his Newsnight interview, the debate is less nuanced in academia, but perhaps more nuanced by the time it hits the mainstream. The IPCC published it's report, it then gets picked up and ran with by the media who misinterpret and exagerate sections of it. The report is fairly cautious, but in the media we get various doomsday scenarios. Gore's latest book shows swarming hurricanes, floods, possibly locusts if you could zoom in enough.

Others picked up the IPCC and ran with it, like the Stern report which repeated and maybe exagerated disaster losses/risks, and where Ward seemed critical of Pielke. But Ward is a lobbyist. He works for an organastion sponsored by an investment fund with forestry and other 'green' interests. Amusingly, Grantham also has big oil on it's advisory board. Stern report advises spending 1% of GDP annualy to prevent a possible 1% loss by 2050. It doesn't seem to be wise investment advice. It advocates stabilising CO2 at 450ppm yet we've seen no increased losses as we've got close to that level.

Ch.19 of the Stern report focuses on adaptation, which to me seems the most sensible approach to mitigating disasters. We saw losses increased not due to the frequency of disasters but the costs. We allow building on flood plains, we spend little on flood defences. We're predicting increased storms, so why promote wind turbines for energy security? The debate spoke about how losses had been reduced by building flood defences or changing building codes to reduce wind damage. This kind of adaptation to me makes much more sense by syphoning off money for carbon trading or penalising businesses. The risk analysis to date do not seem to support those as a mitigation strategy, and as Prof. Pielke said, we've been decarbonising for the last 100 years, if we carry on, we should see a reduction in anthropogenic CO2 by default.

Feb 6, 2010 at 9:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterAtomic Hairdryer

ps.. If Josh was sitting next to the woman with the Mac laptop, then I saw him to!

Feb 6, 2010 at 9:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterAtomic Hairdryer

@Atomic Hairdryer
How is Pielke pronounced? I have always assumed it was the same as the Australian politician Joh Bielke Petersen as in "Bee Ell Kee" so "Pee Ell Kee"

Feb 6, 2010 at 11:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterTilde Guillemet

Tilde Guillement -- I think that's just about right. If you listen to Roger pronounce it,the Pee-elk part sounds like a single syllable.

Feb 7, 2010 at 2:29 AM | Unregistered Commentermpaul

Josh ---

Did you give any thought to making your cartoons into Tee shirts -- or is it too cold over there in Britain?

Feb 7, 2010 at 3:00 AM | Unregistered CommenterDon Pablo de la Sierra

thanks for the comments, and for Atomic's marvelous precis of the discussion. If there is a next time, Atomic and Peter, do come and say hello!

And finally, yes to the T shirts, we do occasionally wear them here...

Feb 7, 2010 at 9:17 AM | Unregistered CommenterJosh

@Tilde.. Yes, Prof Pielke says it a couple of times in his discussion regarding the IPCC's telepathic abilities. I had hoped to hit the bar afterwards and ask about studies regarding future losses from proposed mitigation/adaption and it's only polite to get his name correct. It struck me the panel generally agreed there are issues with the way the IPCC's run and if it's to continue, it should be more formalised. Prof Pielke made a comment that because Pachauri's position is unpaid, he can dodge the UN's conflict of interest policies. Maybe because group chairs have similar issues, more advocacy has crept in and it's a bit like the ongoing Iraq inquiry where we find the science has been 'sexed up' for policy makers and the public. Prof. Pielke compared the IPCC to pharmaceuticals or military intelligence on Newsnight and at the RI and stressed the importance of accuracy to maintain credibility. But we're seeing the AR4 turning into another 'dodgy dossier' with what's looking like a manufactured consensus.

Personally, I think policy advice needs to face similar scrutiny to ensure it's not subject to similar conflicts of interest. Bob Ward said his role is to translate the 'science' in the IPCC reports into policy, or for policy makers. If the science is inaccurate, then so will those translations. If they're influenced by other forcings, they'll be even worse.

We're perhaps seeing some of this already. UK budgets for flood defences have been slashed, or responsibility is uncoordinated and shared between government agencies and privatised utilities who have conflicts of interests. That may be amplifying flood risk and damages, but government funds have been diverted to pay for CO2 websites and pay EU fines for failed IT projects. I'm not sure if there'll be similar penalties when we miss CO2 reduction targets that may be artificial, unnecessary and divert more money away from doing practical things.

Also curious if anyone knows whether the gentleman who was sitting next to Piers Corbyn was Peter Gill? Our current energy policy puzzles me. Ofgem says we need to spend £200bn on new power. £75bn of that may go on wind turbines, £50bn may go on regular generation to insure against low/high wind and frost preventing or reducing wind generation. Rest for grid upgrades to deal with unreliable and fluctuating capacity. If we're predicting increased storms and sea surges, onshore and offshore wind power doesn't seem very sensible or practical.

Hopefully there'll be a next time. The RI guy seemed pleased with the success of an event arranged at such short notice. A showdown between Monckton and Gore is perhaps a bit much to hope for. T-shirts would be handy to help ID the faithful at future gatherings and a bit more practical than wearing a mitre :)

Feb 7, 2010 at 10:10 AM | Unregistered CommenterAtomic Hairdryer

From Dr Pelke's blog:

Q: How do you pronounce your name?

Pell-Key. Though I'll respond to Peel-Key. And if I am in Germany it is Peel-Ka.

Feb 7, 2010 at 11:06 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlan Bates

I've bookmarked the audio, does anyone know if there'll be a video?

Feb 7, 2010 at 11:31 AM | Unregistered CommenterKendra


I asked the RI and they said they were trying to set it up. Anyone notice any cameras when they were there?

Feb 7, 2010 at 11:45 AM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

Yes, two cameras...I am sure there will be a video version.

Feb 7, 2010 at 3:23 PM | Unregistered CommenterJosh

Interesting debate - and very good presentation from Dr Pielke. It did make the IPPC seem slightly uncertain about it's motivation - if everyone is doing their work for free, there is still a cost, but surely this also REMOVES some of the impartiality/objectivity. Too much searching for justifications, not enough understanding of the underlying physics.

Feb 7, 2010 at 7:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterSean Houlihane

In 1799, Sir Benjamin Thompson, Reichsgraf von Rumford), FRS, together with Sir Joseph Banks, established the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Sir Humphry Davy was chosen as the first lecturer.

Rumford's most important scientific work took place in Munich, and centered on the nature of heat, which he contended in An Experimental Enquiry Concerning the Source of the Heat which is Excited by Friction (1798) was not the "caloric" of then-current scientific thinking but a form of motion.

It is fitting that the RI should host an event to prick the pomposity of AGWarmists. Rumford knew that science required honest enquiry and no fudging the numbers.

Feb 7, 2010 at 9:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterPerry

thanks to Josh for pointing them to this blog. I have tweeted the whole thing myself too and these are my ordered tweets.

Feb 8, 2010 at 1:00 AM | Unregistered CommenterMaurizio Morabito

Bob Ward is from the London School of Economics. In my youth that place was not viewed as a serious institution. Have we shifted to some alternative universe in which the LSE is taken seriously? Or has it changed for the better? I'm actually surprised that it still exists.

Feb 9, 2010 at 3:18 AM | Unregistered CommenterSteve Smith

Interesting debate - and very good presentation from Dr Pielke. It did make the IPPC seem slightly uncertain about it's motivation - if everyone is doing their work for free, there is still a cost, but surely this also REMOVES some of the impartiality/objectivity. Too much searching for justifications, not enough understanding of the underlying physics.
Water Damage Jacksonville

Aug 23, 2010 at 9:51 AM | Unregistered Commentersanta

I think global warming indeed has increased the toll of natural disasters all over the world. I mean, do you remember how many hurricanes we had back in the 70's? Some people has said that generic viagra companies pollute the climate, but I think they do less than oil companies! This is not a matter of blaming, but taking decision individually.

Sep 6, 2010 at 3:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterDan

I'm concerned about my impact on the environment. I heat my home with heating oil but am worried about what this is doing to the environment. I live in a rural area of lincolnshire so there's not much alternative to heating my home with oil except wood and LPG... but I don't know if this is even more harmful.

I have just found a heating oil website who offer Group Buying Days, this seems like a great way to help the environment because you can order with others which helps to keep tankers off the roads more, reducing CO2 emissions.

I would like to see more information on the internet about the effects of heating oil on the environment. On most climate change sites I go on there are articles on gas and electric heating but little on the effects of heating oil.

Does anyone have any figures about heating oil and ways to minimize my impact on the environment?

Jan 27, 2011 at 6:54 PM | Unregistered CommenterKen Lowe

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