This group brings together the best thinkers on energy and climate. Join us for smart, insightful posts and conversations about where the energy industry is and where it is going.


IPCC Sides With Roger Pielke, Jr.

Alex Trembath's picture
, The Breakthrough Instititute

Alex Trembath is a policy associate in the Energy and Climate Program at Breakthrough. He is the lead or co-author of several Breakthrough publications, including the 2012 report "Beyond...

  • Member since 2018
  • 75 items added with 45,072 views
  • Apr 3, 2014

IPCC Report Validation

The new United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released Monday, March 31 confirms representations of the climate science made by a University of Colorado-Boulder scientist who wrote a controversial column for Nate Silver’s new media company,, two weeks ago.

Roger Pielke, Jr., an environmental studies professor at CU-Boulder, and a Senior Fellow at the Breakthrough Institute, argued that the rising cost of natural disasters is explained by more wealth in harm’s way and not by increasing frequency or intensity of natural disasters and extreme weather.

The release of the new UN IPCC report — Climate Change 2014:Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability (Working Group II Fifth Assessment Report)— affirms Pielke’s argument, which was the point of contention with his critics:

“Economic growth, including greater concentrations of people and wealth in periled areas and rising insurance penetration, is the most important driver of increasing losses… loss trends have not been conclusively attributed to anthropogenic climate change.”

The IPCC report released this week backs up a special report on climate and disasters published in 2012. That report — “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation” — is known as the “SREX.” That report cites Pielke’s work 43 times. Beyond the IPCC, Pielke’s work continues to be heavily cited in the scientific literature.

That IPCC report affirmed the methods that Pielke, his coauthors and other researchers used to normalize data over long periods of time. One of the criticisms of Pielke made in the popular media over the last two weeks has been that Pielke ignores improvements in buildings, technologies, and disaster preparedness. In fact, the methodologies used by Pielke are standard, transparent, and understood, by IPCC reviewers.

Below are the critical passages pertaining to the controversy over Pielke.

Working Group II AR5:

  • “Economic growth, including greater concentrations of people and wealth in periled areas and rising insurance penetration, is the most important driver of increasing losses.” (AR5 10.7.3) 
  • “Apart from detection, loss trends have not been conclusively attributed to anthropogenic climate change; most such claims are not based on scientific attribution methods.” (AR5 10.7.3)
  •  “…increased probabilities of upward shifted accumulated loss [from tropical cyclones] might be detectable by 2025 at earliest, whereas a significant loss trend might emerge much later (Emanuel, 2011); (Crompton et al., 2011).” (AR5 10.7.3)
  • “The observed rise in US normalized insured flood losses (Barthel and Neumayer, 2012) may partly correspond to very likely increased heavy precipitation events in central North America (WG1-, while the evidence for climate driven changes in river floods is not compelling (WG1-” (AR5 10.7.3)


  • “Most studies of long-term disaster loss records attribute these increases in losses to increasing exposure of people and assets in at-risk areas (Miller et al., 2008; Bouwer, 2011), and to underlying societal trends – demographic, economic, political, and social – that shape vulnerability to impacts (Pielke Jr. et al., 2005; Bouwer et al., 2007). Some authors suggest that a (natural or anthropogenic) climate change signal can be found in the records of disaster losses (e.g., Mills, 2005; Höppe and Grimm, 2009), but their work is in the nature of reviews and commentary rather than empirical research.” (SREX
  • “There is medium evidence and high agreement that long-term trends in normalized losses have not been attributed to natural or anthropogenic climate change (Choi and Fisher, 2003; Crompton and McAneney, 2008; Miller et al., 2008; Neumayer and Barthel, 2011).” (SREX
  • “The absence of trends in impacts attributable to natural or anthropogenic climate change holds for tropical and extratropical storms and tornados (Boruff et al., 2003; Pielke Jr. et al., 2003, 2008; Raghavan and Rajesh, 2003; Miller et al 2008; Schmidt et al., 2009; Zhang et al., 2009; see also Box 4-2). (SREX
  • Most studies related increases found in normalized hurricane losses in the United States since the 1970s (Miller et al., 2008; Schmidt et al., 2009; Nordhaus, 2010) to the natural variability observed since that time (Miller et al., 2008; Pielke Jr. et al., 2008). Bouwer and Botzen (2011) demonstrated that other normalized records of total economic and insured losses for the same series of hurricanes exhibit no significant trends in losses since 1900.” (SREX
  • “The major factor increasing the vulnerability and exposure of North America to hurricanes is the growth in population (see, e.g., Pielke Jr. et al., 2008) and increase in property values, particularly along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the United States.” (SREX
  • “There is low confidence in any observed long-term (i.e., 40 years or more) increases in tropical cyclone activity (i.e., intensity, frequency, duration), after accounting for past changes in observing capabilities. (SREX 3.3.2, 3.3.3, 3.4.4, 3.4.5)
  • It is likely that there has been a poleward shift in the main Northern and Southern Hemisphere extratropical storm tracks. There is low confidence in observed trends in small spatial-scale phenomena such as tornadoes and hail because of data inhomogeneities and inadequacies in monitoring systems.” (SREX 3.3.2, 3.3.3, 3.4.4, 3.4.5)
  • “Based on a variety of model simulations, the expected long-term changes in global tropical cyclone characteristics under greenhouse warming is a decrease or little change in frequency concurrent with an increase in mean intensity. One of the challenges for identifying these changes in the existing data records is that the expected changes predicted by the models are generally small when compared with changes associated with observed short-term natural variability. Based on changes in tropical cyclone intensity predicted by idealized numerical simulations with CO2-induced tropical SST warming, Knutson and Tuleya (2004) suggested that clearly detectable increases may not be manifest for decades to come. Their argument was based on a comparison of the amplitude of the modeled upward trend (i.e., the signal) in storm intensity with the amplitude of the interannual variability (i.e., the noise). The recent high-resolution dynamical downscaling study of Bender et al. (2010) supports this argument and suggests that the predicted increases in the frequency of the strongest Atlantic storms may not emerge as a clear statistically significant signal until the latter half of the 21st century under the SRES A1B warming scenario.” (SREX 3.4.4)

Photo Credit: IPCC and Roger Pielke, Jr./shutterstock

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Apr 3, 2014


Unfortunately, when Roger goes before Senate subcommittees and testifies, he gives cover to the likes of Inhofe who want to deny climate change and avoid taking action on carbon .

It isn’t surprising that damage from climate change is currently indistinguishable from noise on a statistical basis, since the change so far is small. But over time the amount of change will grow and grow. And most of the things that will be affected have some margin of safety — e.g., coastal cities can tolerate some sea level rise. But at some point, during an extreme event like Sandy, the margins will be exceeded and there will be catastrophic failure.

Other events may not appear on the radar of economists, such as death of coral reefs, but are nevertheless a tragedy.


Michael Berndtson's picture
Michael Berndtson on Apr 3, 2014

This post is nothing more than sales and marketing for the think tank Breakthrough Institute. A lot of bullets with citations doesn’t make it anything more than that. It’s logrolling. Logrolling, to my suprise, is nicely defined in wikipedia:

Logrolling is the trading of favors, or quid pro quo, such as vote trading by legislative members to obtain passage of actions of interest to each legislative member.[1] In an academic context, theNuttall Encyclopedia describes logrolling as “mutual praise by authors of each other’s work.” In organizational analysis, it refers to a practice in which different organizations promote each other’s agendas, each in the expectation that the other will reciprocate.

Here’s a simile: Q: Breakthrough Institute is to Silicon Valley libertarianism as Heartland Institute is to? A: Cicero, Illinois strongarm corporatism.  

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Apr 3, 2014

The problems with Pielke’s writing on 538 are twofold, and neither is addressed by the IPCC, nor by Mr. Trembath above.

1. Pielke cherry-picked his data. The data he used was from Munich Re, the world’s largest re-insurance company. Munich Re’s data goes back to 1980, but Pielke used only data from 1990. The reason for this is apparently that he only wanted to present a pre-ordained result, instead of getting to the truth. Because including the full 1980-present timeperiod would have changed the regression slope from zero to positive, which conflicts with Mr. Pielke’s political do-nothing agenda.

2. Monetary losses are a very poor measure in the first place, and should never have been used to assess risk. This is because disasters are, by definition, rare events, and rare events are statistically “noisy”, even in the best circumstances. But the question of whether or not a given major weather event happens to hit in a rich area of the world or a poor area of the world *adds to* the noise, instead of reducing it.

One of the reasons we do statistics in the first place is to eliminate noise and determine any underlying signal. By incorporating an additional (and totally unneccesary) source of noise to the data, Mr. Pielke once again worked to assure the result he wanted to obtain. For a website allegedly devoted to statistics, it was a remarkably shoddy performance — so shoddy that website owner Nathan Silver has thrown Mr. Pielke under the bus and invited a rebuttal to be published, which should appear soon.

Alex Trembath's picture
Thank Alex for the Post!
Energy Central contributors share their experience and insights for the benefit of other Members (like you). Please show them your appreciation by leaving a comment, 'liking' this post, or following this Member.
More posts from this member

Get Published - Build a Following

The Energy Central Power Industry Network® is based on one core idea - power industry professionals helping each other and advancing the industry by sharing and learning from each other.

If you have an experience or insight to share or have learned something from a conference or seminar, your peers and colleagues on Energy Central want to hear about it. It's also easy to share a link to an article you've liked or an industry resource that you think would be helpful.

                 Learn more about posting on Energy Central »