Natural disasters and ‘climate change’

I’ve written about this subject before, and mentioned approvingly both Roger Pielke Jnr of the USA and John McAneney of Australia, who seem to have written about it most sensibly, by relating the costs of disasters over time to relative GDP at each time. Well, Roger Pielke was asked to write about it on a new website in the USA (, and copped some incredible flak from the orthodox, which prompted McAneney to write something in response, which I am most happy to publish  here. What follows is John McAneney’s text, slightly re-arranged by me.

There is a widespread view that the cost of natural disasters is rising because of global climate change. That perception is wrong. The reality is much more prosaic: costs are rising due to more stuff sitting in harm’s way. To the degree that climate change is implicated at all, its contribution is currently unmeasurable.

This statement should not be controversial: in fact, it is now IPCC orthodoxy. Nonetheless for articulating this orthodoxy on Nate Silver’s new website, 538, Roger Pielke Jr., a Professor at Colorado University, found himself at the centre of a maelstrom of invective. The witch hunt on the blogosphere was disturbing.

Even more unseemly was that several well known scientists of the climate change church felt compelled to join in the concert of the trolls and deny what is well-supported peer-reviewed science, in fact some 30-odd studies on different perils and in different countries. In the eyes of these self-appointed High Priests, Pielke Jr’s crime has been to hold them, rather than those malevolent trouble makers, the climate change deniers, to task, demanding that their rhetoric meet some benchmark of truthfulness, an act of unforgivable ‘treachery’ in their eyes that in the 15th century would have invited a heresy charge before the Inquisition.

In an act of palliative care, Prof. Kerry Emanuel of MIT was invited to provide an antidote to Pielke Jr’s article on 538. In it Emanuel alludes to a 2011 paper that I co-authored with Pielke Jr and Ryan Crompton. It asks how long it might be until we might be able to detect a statistically significant signal in the economic losses from land falling hurricanes in the US. Based on recent climate modelling, we found that this could take centuries and depending upon what climate model was used to set the basin-wide boundary conditions under a warmer climate, the time frame, called the emergence time scale, varied between 120 years and 550 years.

Just to be clear this time scale does not mean that a warming climate poses no threats before then; rather it is just pointing out the reality that it takes an awfully longtime to detect a small (climate change) signal in a very noisy one (loss data). The corollary is that it is silly to use each new natural disaster – a typhoon in the Philippines, a man-made flood in Australia, a landslide in Brazil, a wildfire somewhere else — as the latest expression of climate change. But unfortunately, for the climate change alarmists, any departure from the average is seen as prima facie evidence that the horsemen of the Apocalypse are ‘a comin’. The entrails of a goat might prove more convincing. And like we never had bad weather before!

Now like most scientists, I am not an expert on climate science. In fact the complexity of the ocean-climate-land system means that nobody can truthfully accept this mantle, although some seem only too happy to do so. However a career spent trying to understand complicated systems, has led to a healthy skepticism of models. And personally the unmodelled slowdown in the rate of temperature rise over the last 15-odd years provides me with little confidence that the current crop of global climate models can accurately forecast the future some 80 years hence.

But what if the models are correct? Even sort of. Do I want to run the risk of living in a polluted world, one where the oceans are acidified and biodiversity destroyed? Or in a hotter Sydney, already a bit over baked for my liking? Emphatically not!   So what should be done, if anything, to counter this uncertain downside risk? By whom, when and by how much? These are difficult questions that demand political solutions, decisions that can only be informed at the margins by science. So let’s make sure that our advice to policy makers is honest and open to scrutiny – we need more debate not less on this subject.

In the meantime, and returning to the theme of the rising cost of natural disasters, adapting to the current climate variability would be a sensible place to start. Any gains achieved would put us in good stead for whatever climate change might eventually throw at us. So for starters let’s stop building in inappropriate areas and subsidising insurance premiums for those who chose to build in harm’s way.

And if we are truly looking at decarbonising the economy must nuclear energy really be off the agenda?

[Dr John McAneney is Professorial Fellow in the Department of Geography and Environment of Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia and the MD of Risk Frontiers, an R&D company based at the same university and which studies natural disasters. He is the author of Shifting Sands, a novel dealing with corruption in a scientific institution.]



Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Dasher says:

    “must nuclear energy really be off the agenda?”…I agree. If this is all about risk management you would think that the warmists would at least include this source of energy as worthy of consideration. If they are talking about precautionary principles would not a massive increase in the use of modern nuclear buy us time to devise other clean energy sources? When I suggested this to an very animated young university warmest she simply said “Fukashima” and I said so what is your point? and she said “doh” I persisted politely but the young zealots quickly tired. It was apparent to me that this was an option that was verboten… much for universities being cradles of enquiry.

    • Peter Kemmis says:

      My childhood was in a household where my parents had been children at the outbreak of WW1, married during the Great Depression following 1929, and then with three children saw the start, and the close, of WW2. Then the Korean War; I was the third, and still in primary school. We were fortunate; I never remember going to bed hungry (except once when I must have been very naughty, and an older brother smuggled me a slice of bread, bless him).

      As I look at it all now, we had nothing really to complain about. But we knew darn well that money didn’t grow on trees. We came to understand what hard work meant. But honestly, I don’t think we were any more clear sighted than young people of today. I think we were just as easily lead. I know I was. When you’re young, things are simpler. Right and wrong are clearer. And obviously your parents’ generation has stuffed up, or just don’t understand. At least we did. So we thought. If we did think about it at all.

      I would far from wish a war to be a wake-up call! But I was reading an account last night of a young 20+ year old Kittyhawk pilot of WW2, dealing with god knows what horrors around the New Guinea theatre of war, and I wonder now what he would have thought if he could have transported himself into today’s University campuses, just for a day, to a rally or some equivalent. Would he have been just puzzled, or very disappointed, or just shrugged his shoulders and said “they’ll wake up, eventually”?

      Dasher, keep persisting as you do, so politely. Who else will? And you never know what little seed might stick, settle, sprout and grow.

      Here are some figures and a reference which may be useful, sent to me by a good friend. The loss of life is indeed very sad. But the figures are striking. It’s a difference of 1:1000; one death per 1000TWh from nuclear, 999 from all other energy sources combined. Duh indeed?

      Fatalities per 1000 TWh (for context, Australia’s NEM generates about 200
      TWh per year):

      Coal electricity – world avg – 60,000
      (accounts for 26% of world energy, 50% of electricity)
      Coal – U.S. 15,000 (44% U.S. electricity)
      Natural Gas – 4,000 (20% global electricity)
      Biofuel/Biomass – 24,000 (21% global energy)
      Solar (rooftop) – 440 (0.2% global electricity)
      Wind – 150 (1.6% global electricity)
      Hydro – global average – 1,400 (15% global electricity)
      Nuclear – global average – 90 -(17% global electricity w/Chern&Fukush)


    • Mike O'Ceirin says:

      The warmest was probably one of the useful idiots who blindly push the belief system of environmentalism. She would never accept the fact that no one died because of the Fukushima disaster or is even ill! Far more than that the icon of the activist set Chernobyl only resulted in a few more than 50 deaths and no significant medical problems. She has faith in the beliefs of her peers and leaders without question. What if though as they logically should the leaders of environmentalism realised that their best answer to the feared emissions is nuclear energy (Lovelock did)? The game is over and that means a great loss of power so actually solving CO2 emissions is the last thing they want.

    • Peter Kemmis says:

      Another important reason for taking the argument about CAGW right up to warmists, is that the unthinking acceptance by so many as noted by Mike and Dasher, is symptomatic of a wider malaise – far too little objective analysis, far too much emotion cloaked by the support of uniform opinion. The jingoism of a century ago we might decry, but in these years we have been seeing a similar level of whipped up frenzy, “an ill wind that blows nobody any good” (except the recipients of funding largesse). Shallow thinking degrades a decent society. And as Dasher points out, the universities have frequently failed to be “cradles of enquiry” – on the contrary, many university staff are at the forefront, proclaiming their convictions about CAGW.

      And so as this inconvenient 17 year period of relatively stable air temperatures continues, we see the explanation for the modelled “missing heat” shift from being in the deep ocean, to being demonstrated by “extreme climate and unnatural disasters”, to major shifts in wind patterns (I can’t figure whether these shifts are meant to be hiding the heat, indicating CAGW, or just changing climate). And the latest I’ve heard through a close relative of a Climate Science PhD student in Australia, is fear of the next El Nino, that is evidently going to be a corker! No wonder St Paul had to write so many epistles, to keep the faith alive. At least he didn’t have to keep shifting the grounds for his beliefs.

  • Gus says:

    Well, the truth of the matter is, also accepted by IPCC, that there is no visible trend in frequency or intensity of catastrophic weather events that could be attributed to “climate change.” The recently published US NCA statement, which admits it too, though in small print only, is electoral propaganda–steered by Podesta in this case–and has nothing whatsoever to do with science. As it’s been pointed out, it confuses “climate” with “climate change,” and does so on purpose, this being to brainwash American electorate. Were a hurricane to land on US shores and cause some ungodly devastation, the government would immediately blame Republicans and the “do nothing Congress” for the damage and, hopefully, avoid Senate wipe-out in November. This is the idea. Hurricane Sandy, which wasn’t even a hurricane by the time it landed in New Jersey, did help Obama keep the office!
    Are Americans really this stupid? Well, we’ll see in November. Who knows.
    In the meantime, there is a funny little group in Australia, that calls itself “Australian Science Communicators,” that is very interested in this NCA’s trick, so possibly Australians may hear similar drivel, locally produced this time, definitely ahead of Abbott’s attempt to repeal Carbon Tax, and down the road as well. Since Australia is not immune to natural disasters, drought especially, but floods, ironically, too, and since it’s always too hot in Australia for Brits’ liking, the idea may catch on.

  • […] I owe them to Professor John McAneney, about whose work on extreme weather, risk and damage I have written before. You can read the full account of the third event at the Risk Frontiers’ Quarterly […]

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