Denier Darling’s New Job Off to Rocky Start

March 22, 2014


If you’re a climate change delayer/downplayer, and you’ve got a new high profile job, and every one from Krugman to Wonkette for eff’s sake is questioning your cred, you may have a problem with your cred.

silver2For those that don’t follow the inside-baseball of the climate media game, a little update.

Stats guru Nate Silver, whose predictions for the last couple of elections have turned him into a data-driven diva for the political set, has launched a blog, (which I’ll decline to link) ostensibly to bring some kind of mathematical rigor to the news biz.  So he hires, as his climate science guy, Roger Pielke Jr – the non-climate-scientist-that poses as the climate expert that climate deniers love (as evidenced by his recent turn in the storied Lord Monckton chair of cracked and dodgy congressional testimony)

As I recently posted, Pielke has a penchant for headlining the Fox-worthy sound bite while burying the sciencey qualifiers in the footnotes.


..FiveThirtyEight‘s science coverage stinks of sublimated ideology. The opening science pieces were pretty bad, but far more telling was Silver’s hiring of climate troll Roger Pielke Jr.

For those who don’t know, Pielke is a highly skilled and intelligent policy professor, ostensibly committed to climate action, who spends the vast bulk of his time criticizing the climate movement and allied scientists. They’re wrong about drought. They’re wrong about extreme weather. They’rewrong about economic growth. Etc.

He does accept the reality of climate change, and keeps his criticism just inside the boundaries of accepted science (e.g., with strategic footnotes). So when he gets an irritated response from, say,President Obama’s science adviser John Holdren, who accused him of selective quotation and obfuscation, Pielke can twist the criticism around and write a stern, head-shaking article about how those darned Greens are just getting way over their skis on The Science. This is the Breakthrough Institute program for hippie-punching your way to fame and fortune, and its success on the career track is almost as striking as its wretched failure as a political tactic to actually achieve anything on climate change.

That kind of squid-ink careerist nonsense is what led Foreign Policy to put Pielke on its list of climate skeptics. It’s what led the late, famed climatologist Stephen Schneider to dismiss him as a“self-aggrandizer who sets up straw men, knocks them down, and takes credit for being the honest broker to explain the mess.” Pretty much.

Below, Wonkette (!) compared Silver’s hire of Pielke to Ezra Klein’s hire of a gay bashing gay guy.


Nate Silver’s data driven nerd paradise has hired Roger Pielke Jr. to write about climate change. Some people got hyperventilation levels of sad and worried about this right out the gate.

Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website is off to a disreputable start with the hiring of Roger Pielke, Jr, one of the country’s leading tricksters, well schooled at the art of confusing the public on climate science. Pielke wasted no time displaying his bag of dirty tricks by posting a blog today that claims there is no link between the rising costs of climate disasters and extreme weather fueled by climate change.

We really need to work “tricksters” into our vocabulary more. It’s so delightfully old-timey! Anyway, Pielke posted his first post on climate-y things Wednesday, and it contained much in the way of spiky graphs that we do not understand because we are not Data Driven New Media types. Some folks over at Talking Points Memo are, apparently, and have not yet been caught up in the 538 hiring spree, so they took issue with some of the spiky graphs, because some of the spiky graphs are probably wrong. At least we think that is what it is saying. Let’s go find a lay person who will tell us why the Pielke hire is bad, besides just calling him a trickster.

-(see TheWeek post above)-

Hmmmm. That does seem bad. Not anti-gay gay dude bad (side eye at you, Vox) but kinda slatepitch bad. We’ll be looking out for some cool new contrarian thinking from this guy, but we might not understand it, because graphs.


Silver’s FiveThirtyEight published its first article about climate change on Wednesday, entitled “Disasters Cost More Than Ever — But Not Because of Climate Change.” But climate scientists are condemning the article and its author, Roger Pielke Jr., saying he ignored critical data to produce a “deeply misleading” result.

The crux of Pielke’s article is this: Extreme weather events are costing us more and more money, but that is not because climate change is making extreme weather more frequent or intense. The reason we are losing more money, rather, is because we have more money to lose. Pielke came to this conclusion by measuring rising disaster damage costs alongside the rising global Gross Domestic Product. He also cited a U.N. climate report, along with his own research, to assert that extreme weather events have not been increasing in frequency or intensity.

“Pielke’s piece is deeply misleading, confirming some of my worst fears that Nate Silver’s new venture may become yet another outlet for misinformation when it comes to the issue of human-caused climate change,” said Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. “Pielke uses a very misleading normalization procedure that likely serves to remove the very climate change-related damage signal that he claims to not be able to find.”

Pielke, a political scientist who has proven to be Silver’s mostcontroversialhire to date, has actually been making his argument about increased disaster costs for years.

His story in FiveThirtyEight is one that he has written before, in Chapter 7 of his 2011 book “The Climate Fix.” Just like in his article, the chapter argues that increased wealth and development is the principal cause of increased monetary losses from extreme weather events — not more extreme weather from climate change.

But just as Pielke’s article has been written before, so too it has been criticized before. Dr. Kevin E. Trenberth, a distinguished senior climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, has criticized Pielke’s data for its simplistic nature. Simply showing that an increase in damage has corresponded to an increase in wealth ignores the fact that communities are now more prepared than ever for extreme storms, Trenberth wrote at the time.

Trenberth says data on increased disaster preparation measures should, to some degree, cancel out Pielke’s findings.

“This is the same old wrong Roger,” Trenberth said by e-mail. “He is demonstrably wrong and misleads.”

Mann agrees that the data analysis is too simplistic. “Pielke, in this case, continues to use an extremely controversial ‘normalization’ procedure when analyzing these data,” he told Climate Progress in an e-mail. “That procedure assumes that damages increase with population but it completely ignores technological innovations (sturdier buildings, hurricane-resistant structures, better weather forecasting, etc.) that have served to reduce societal vulnerability, thus likely masking some of the aggravating impacts of climate change.”

Pielke’s article also says that intensifying weather events can’t be causing more damage, because they aren’t occurring in the first place. Pielke cites the fifth IPCC’s report, which he said showed “little evidence of a spike in the frequency or intensity of floods, droughts, hurricanes and tornadoes.”

“In fact, today’s climate models suggest that future changes in extremes that cause the most damage won’t be detectable in the statistics of weather (or damage) for many decades,” Pielke wrote, citing his own research.

Some have pointed out that Pielke’s own study does not support the claim that he makes from it — that the most damaging extremes won’t be detectable in weather statistics for many decades. The 3-year-old research involves only rare, land-falling tropical cyclones, and looks only at the damage data from those cyclones. The study also explicitly ignores future rising sea-levels from climate change, which research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has shown highly contributes to damaging storm surges.

Dr. John Abraham, a thermal science professor at the University of St. Thomas famous for his formation of the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, criticized Pielke’s assessment of the IPCC’s report. “You should know that we have already detected significant increases in Atlantic hurricane intensity, in extreme heat waves, large precipitation events and regional droughts,” Abraham wrote in an e-mail to Nate Silver expressing his disdain for the article, forwarded to Climate Progress.

“It’s ludicrous to say that extremes have not increased, and they have certainly increased in ways that are completely consistent with expectations based on atmospheric physics and climate model projections in response to increasing greenhouse gases,” Jennifer Francis, a research professor at Rutgers University’s Institute of Marine and Coastal Science whospecializes in the connection between climate change and extreme weather, said.

Abraham also added that it wasn’t clear what Pielke meant when he said the IPCC hadn’t found evidence for a “spike” in extreme weather intensity. “If it means a statistically significant increase, then [Pielke] is wrong,” he wrote. “The report has identified changes to extreme weather including the intensity of Atlantic hurricanes, regional droughts and floods.” Pielke asserts those are not significant drivers of disaster costs.

“This post is surprisingly sloppy,” Abraham said. “I wouldn’t accept this kind of writing from my own students, even undergraduates.”

The Way Things Break:

Nate Silver’s reputation is based on being a stats wiz. This is what his blogging was devoted to, what his best-selling book is about, and the one thing he has that his competition/peers like Ezra Klein or Matt Yglesias don’t. And one of Nate Silver’s very first, very public hires (Roger Pielke Jr.) sucks at statistics. Not “published something in need of minor correction once or twice” sucks. “Doesn’tunderstandhow at-test works” sucks. “Doesn’t understandbasic probability” sucks. Sucks out loud. Sucks on ice.

Roger’s very first article for Silver’s new site is, unsurprisingly, about Roger’s hobbyhorse. The claim that disaster losses are not increasing due to climate change.

Let’s be clear about some things. Climate change is real. Humans are not just “contributing” to it, we are responsiblefor essentially all of it over the past several decades. Our perturbation of the climate through our emissions of greenhouse gases is fundamentally changing the Earth system. The biosphere and human systems are going to have to adapt to a rate of change as of now unseen anywhere else in the paleoclimatic record. In the absence of emissions stabilization, a difficult but decidedly achievable outcome, the threat to thebiosphere and society is daunting. The amount of climate change we’ve already experienced, while extremely serious, is tiny compared to the impacts we will see in world of unchecked fossil fuel exploitation. In addition to changes in the average or mean state of the system, we have already begun to see changes in some types of extreme weather events, and changes to the drivers of yet other extreme events.

Ostensibly, Roger Pielke Jr. accepts all of the above. He just doesn’t want you to focus on this big picture. Instead Pielke wants you to believe and to focus on the claim that we’ve seen no increase in “normalized” damages due to climate change. The fundamental conceit of this claim is that even though disaster losses are unquestionably on the rise, once you account for changes in the value of infrastructure being built in areas affected by disaster (due to population growth, inflation, etc.), there is no “statistically significant increase”.

This claim rests on our ability to account for factors which might spuriously inflate the damages caused by disasters, but also our complete failure to account for factors that have allowed us to avoid even greater losses.

The case of 2012′s Superstorm Sandy is illustrative. While Roger spent the first few days of the disaster trying to play down the magnitude of the mounting carnage, Sandy ultimately ranked among the most costly storms on record, even using normalized losses. Preliminary estimates range from $50-65 billion USD.

And yet it could have been so much worse.

Hurricane Sandy uncharacteristically failed to recurve out to sea, and barreled back towards the East Coast of the US. Due to the amazing advances we’ve seen in our ability to model the global weather system, we knew well in advance that this unexpected turn by Sandy was a real possibility.

This possibility was taken into consideration by those trying to game out the impact of Sandy’s landfall. The impact of rising sea levels on the frequency and severity of storm surge flooding was as well. Looking to a future of warming-boosted surges, researchers identified huge vulnerabilities in the New York transportation infrastructure to previously rare events. Such considerations ultimately led the MTA to shutdown the subway system in order to avoid the corrosive impact of salt water if the tunnels were flooded. This decision, informed by modeling and meteorological sophistication unimaginable in the early 1900s, saved the subway system and prevented New York City from being paralyzed for weeks and nearly doubling the economic damages.

Roger Pielke Jr.’s “normalized” disaster loss fixation takes none of this into account. Nor does it account for the benefits of building code improvements. Or other disaster prevention measures like dikes.

PaulKrugman is among a growing list of knowledgeable folks who were hopeful about Silver’s new enterprise but are less than impressed. Krugman writes:

… data are never a substitute for hard thinking. If you think the data are speaking for themselves, what you’re really doing is implicit theorizing, which is a really bad idea (because you can’t test your assumptions if you don’t even know what you’re assuming.)

I feel bad about picking on a young staffer [Note: not Pielke Jr.], but I think this piece on corporate cash hoards — which is the site’s inaugural economic analysis — is a good example. The post tells us that the much-cited $2 trillion corporate cash hoard has been revised down by half a trillion dollars…

… what does this downward revision tell us? We’re told that the “whole narrative” is gone; which narrative? Is the notion that profits are high, but investment remains low, no longer borne out by the data? (I’m pretty sure it’s still true.) What is the model that has been refuted?

“Neener neener, people have been citing a number that was wrong” is just not helpful. Tell me something meaningful! Tell me why the data matter!

Though Krugman is referring to a different 538 article, he could easily be making the same criticism of Pielke’s. Why do Pielke’s data matter? Are disaster losses not increasing? They are. Does “normalizing” the loss data tell the whole, unbiased, story? No, it doesn’t. Are extreme events, and drivers of yet more extreme events, changing in response to GHG emissions? They are.

Stay tuned with popcorn ready. I’m informed that Silver, to his credit, will be publishing a punishing Pielke response from someone who has a history of crafting punishing responses.


15 Responses to “Denier Darling’s New Job Off to Rocky Start”

  1. omnologos Says:

    Any news on the literature front? Anybody taking on “denialist” Connolley yet? Will Lew take care of these antiscience attacks against a scientist?

    Hypocrisy all around

  2. omnologos Says:

    Ps forgot to mention the misinformers of the ipcc who wrote the srex report

    Wonkette and ThinkP know better than them for sure

  3. Pielke jr. Pops up yet again. This is really whack-a-mole territory.

    Still, it’s clear he has become bad news for anyone who associates with him. I doubt he’ll be invited back to Maastricht University’s business school to talk about climate change any more. If he does, I’ll cause merry hell for all concerned.

  4. indy222 Says:

    Can anyone cite me a better analysis than Pielke’s? The criticisms against Pielke seem valid, and the most effective way to bury it 6ft deep is to re-do the analysis including the ignored aspects (better building codes, advances in engineering, etc.), even if necessarily approximate. I’ve seen the mounting costs of climate vs geophysical disasters over the past decades from the re-insurance people, which by themselves do a significant way towards discrediting Pielke’s work. Does anyone know of attempts underway to do this re-analysis? It would seem an valuable and easily publishable piece of work. Trash-talking Pielke should not be the end of this issue.

    • omnologos Says:

      That’s Connolley’s point. I remember a debate with Pielke Jr, Bob Ward and another impacts scientist in 2010 or 2011, where it was hard to find what they actually disagreed upon.

      Pielke Jr represents the ipcc approved consensus view. Impacts won’t appear in the record for one or two decades. Deal with it, or deny the science.

    • andrewfez Says:

      Try Munich RE’s atmospheric disaster costs vs. non atmospheric stuff (earthquakes).

  5. rayduray Says:

    Pielke has published a new article revising some of his work.

    Oddly, he assumes landslides are not caused by rain or mountains loosening up as glaciers melt. To him, all landslides are not climate related, by definition. I love political scientists. They seem equally as robust as economists at assuming away realities they don’t care to deal with. 🙂

  6. uknowispeaksense Says:

    Thanks Maurizio. $10 for me for you being the first commentator.

    • That’s not a bad idea. Maybe we could make a market futures board in denier obsurdities and donate it to renewables research? 🙂 where is dumboldguy? Somebody has to say WHAAAAT? I lost my omno dictionary. Somebody translate.

      • uknowispeaksense Says:

        My friend and I have perfected our system. We both put a sum of money into a pool. We then make random bets about the comments section of a couple of blobs. In this case I predicted maurizio would comment first and say something strange. My friend predicted something else. If neither were correct the money stays in the pool. I bought sushi for us both with my winnings.

  7. Hmmm. When was the last time we saw someone from an unrelated field make a mess of things and gain a reputation for mistakes…

    Baliunas and Soon
    Or could we add Bjorn Lomborg, and …..

    • Potholer54 has been very quiet lately. I miss his debunking videos as they are so much fun to watch. His series on Monckton really shows what a clown this supposedly “lord” is.

      Perhaps he could pick up on news falsehoods in The Daily Mail and other anti-science media outlets.

      • andrewfez Says:

        Potholer has a new job now, so he’s cutting down on the number of videos he’s making. He discontinued the crockaducks series because of time constraints.

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