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Non-rumble at the RI

Friday’s debate at the RI turned into a soggy mess of a love-in, but it held no comfort for alarmists. The very limited point of discussion was “Has Global Warming increased the toll of disasters?” Audience members repeatedly asked where the points of difference among the three speakers lay, and they were certainly hard to see. Everyone seemed to agree that the answer to the discussion question was a clear and resounding “there is no evidence for that whatever.”

The speakers were Roger Pielke Jr, of the University of Colorado, Robert Muir-Wood of the consultancy Risk Management Solutions, and Bob Ward, of the Grantham Research Institute at the LSE. The meeting was chaired by the amiable James Randerson of the Guardian (standing in for David Shukman of the BBC). He polled the audience beforehand on whether we believed that global warming had indeed increased the toll of disasters, a question that had apparently been dumped on him by someone else. After a hilarious quarter of an hour of having the question taken apart by stroppy audience members, who wanted to know whether by answering it they were committed to belief in warming, he finally had to force a vote. Most were don’t-knows. At the end of the discussion, when the same vote was taken, many of the don’t-knows had switched to the ‘no increasing cost’ position; they could not really do anything else, on the evidence presented. I gathered that there’s just one definitive study of trends in global costs of disasters, produced by Risk Management Solutions. Since Bob Ward had been at RSM before joining the Grantham Institute, he wasn’t about to argue with Robert Muir-Wood about that study – hence the lack of grit in the discussion.

The report ‘normalized’ the various measures of damage due to various types of disaster, weather-related ones and otherwise: normalizing involves correcting for factors such as inflation, changing densities of populations in affected areas, changing property values, improved defences, and so on. The upshot was that there has been no discernible effect of climate change overall in the very wobbly graph of costs since 1950. However, since 1970 there seems to have been a slight but statistically significant rise.

Pielke, by far the clearest and most skilful speaker of the three, thinks that rise means nothing in the long run – there have been similar intervals of rising costs, and the IPCC was unjustified in making a meal of it. Furthermore, he is very angry at the IPCC for attributing opinions to him that he did not hold.

Muir-Wood, who talks like a machine-gun, also declared himself ‘irritated’ at seeing part of the study seized on by the IPCC (he is also annoyed with the Stern Review’s use of the study, but the Stern Review did not get discussed).

Bob Ward was a surprisingly unfocused and ineffective speaker. His PowerPoint presentation seemed to be an all-purpose climate-talk affair; he rambled through much of the same material as Muir-Wood and Pielke, without much in the way of interpretation or challenge. He did not defend the IPCC against the charges. He made the usual pious points about the IPCC having to keep high standards, mistakes needing to be exposed, wrong-doers needing to be held to account and so on – all ending with the importance of not being distracted from the main point: the reality of climate change, the disastrous consequences, etc.

A commenter on my previous post thought the whole thing would be a waste of time, since Pielke and Ward were equally ‘warmists’. It is true: Pielke is no ‘denier’, and at the meeting he was arguing for ‘decarbonizing’ the economy. But people of Pielke’s calibre should be listened to with respect. No sensible person should be a climate-change-denialist in my view: I am an alarmism-denialist, and a “the science is settled” denialist. When the climate-science house has been cleaned up, and there is effective oversight of the researchers, and they publicly archive all their data and methods, and they are prised away from the deep-green wingnuts, it will be interesting to find out what the climate’s really doing. And what it was doing back in mediaeval times. Academically interesting; but not justifying interfering with technological progress.

There are notes on the meeting by commenters on Bishop Hill’s blog. There is an audio archive at the RI site.
And RPj is claiming a clear defeat for the IPCC in this corner of the battlefield.

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4 comments to Non-rumble at the RI

  • “A commenter on my previous post thought the whole thing would be a waste of time, since Pielke and Ward were equally ‘warmists’. It is true: Pielke is no ‘denier’, and at the meeting he was arguing for ‘decarbonizing’ the economy. But people of Pielke’s calibre should be listened to with respect.”

    There’s another reason. In holding a belief, one should always seek out and know the best arguments available against it. Only if your belief can stand up to those unscathed can you have confidence in it.

  • Ari

    All three speakers where being exceedingly polite which is why there appeared to be very little between them. It was however very clear that if Pielke had felt he could speak freely he would basically have the IPCC start all over again as their entire output is compromised by its politics.

    For me the most striking thing about the presentations (particularly the Muir-Wood and Pielke one’s as Ward said very little) was the paucity of data their particular branch of climate studies relies upon. Proper data (as in standardised and verifiable) is goes back 30 – 40 years but climate patterns work in centuries.

  • It all sounds a bit dull. Did anyone say anything about the fact that natural disasters cost less when you’re rich in the first place?

    “No sensible person should be a climate-change-denialist in my view”

    The climate changes, but that’s not saying much of anything.

  • Very interesting. Having noticed him earlier, I find the attitude of Bob Ward the most interesting. He certainly seems to have had the stuffing knocked out of him. He seems to have gone from pitbull to kitten in a matter of weeks.