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Inconvenient Timing for a Climate-Change Heretic



Roger Pielke Jr. must be embarrassed by the timing of his latest op-ed piece. Let me explain.

We just had Hurricane Harvey, which set all kinds of records. Last week San Francisco registered its highest temperature ever, 106, which is insane for the City by the Bay. Wildfires are burning across the West. And now, here comes Hurricane Irma, the largest hurricane in Atlantic history.

You don’t have to be a climate scientist to suspect something’s awry with our weather.

The scientific issue is complicated, I know, but politically-speaking, it’s simpler to understand. Democrats believe in the Al Gore theory that human activity is radically altering the Earth’s climate. Republicans disagree, and the more conservative they are, the more they insist—not only that man isn’t the cause of climate change—but that there isn’t any climate change at all.

I, myself, think that many Republican politicians fully understand that something is wrong with our climate, and that human activity certainly is involved. But they’re afraid to say so publicly. You see, the Republican base is so under-educated, so ignorant of so many realities, so steeped in their various resentments and superstitions—resentments that the Republican Party has stoked for years–that GOP politicians dare not educate them, for fear of being primaried out of office. So the Republican Party goes along pretending all is well with the climate.

What’s particularly sad, though, is when scientists join the climate-skeptic crowd. Most scientists, reports NASA, acknowledge that climate change and warming are real, and are major, life-threatening issues. But there’s always going to be a handful who say there’s no problem. Just as the tobacco industry still manages to dig up the occasional “expert” who says smoking doesn’t cause cancer, so too the right wing will unearth someone with scientific credentials to bolster the fossil fuel industry’s contention that climate change is (to quote Trump) “a hoax invented by the Chinese.”

Enter Roger Pielke Jr. He works at the University of Colorado, where he teaches environmental studies. He’s not dumb enough to deny that something may be wrong with the climate. But he is known as a “climate heretic” (his own words) due to his belief that There is scant evidence to indicate that hurricanes, floods, tornadoes or drought have become more frequent or intense in the U.S. or globally.”

In his online piece—written before we knew about Irma–Pielke airs his many grievances. He has been attacked by “thought police” and “activist groups funded by billionaires” [like Tom Steyer]. John Podesta (Hillary’s campaign chairman) mounted “a campaign to have [him] eliminated” as a published writer because of his “inconvenient research”—a pun on Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth. His bottom line: There have been no long-term increases in the frequency or strength of hurricanes in the U.S.”

Hurricane Harvey obviously threw a curve ball at Prof. Pielke. The size and scope of Harvey was a real challenge for Pielke, so he felt the need to do a little ‘splainin’ in the Wall Street Journal, where his op-ed piece, “The Hurricane Lull Couldn’t Last,” ran on Aug. 31.

There, he rolled out another of his contentions: Despite Harvey’s historic rainfall levels and thousand-year flooding, proof “that hurricanes [are] more common and intense” than they used to be “hasn’t happened.” Therefore, “Without data to support their wilder claims,” Pielke writes, “climate partisans have now resorted to shouting that every extreme weather event was somehow ‘made worse’ by the emission of greenhouse gases.” Pielke’s advice going forward? “President Trump should…appoint a science advisor…to coordinate federal science agencies,” as if there’s not already enough evidence out there that extreme weather events are on the increase.

Unfortunately for Prof. Pielke, he wrote all this right before another inconvenient hurricane, Irma, arose in the Atlantic. As of yesterday, it was “one of the powerful hurricanes ever recorded,” and threatens to smash into the U.S. somewhere around South Florida this weekend.

If Prof. Pielke had waited another week before writing his op-ed piece, he might have toned it down. He would have known about Irma, and perhaps not have been as stubbornly defensive. I mean, back-to-back historic superstorms hitting America within days of each other? Wow. What does it take for people like Prof. Pielke to question their conclusions? Scientists are supposed to change their minds when contrary evidence piles up. Doesn’t it seem like there’s powerful evidence that hurricanes (and droughts and heat waves and torrential rainstorms) are more frequent, and getting worse? Why are people like Prof. Pielke so resistant to the evidence?

It’s a puzzle, but it’s not puzzling why the Wall Street Journal loves him. The Journal is the mouthpiece of capitalist, Wall Street business interests. They’ve been cheerleading the “no global warming” rally for years. Business does not want to admit the severity of climate change. Neither, apparently, does Pielke. Two peas in a pod: Pielke gets a soapbox to sell his books, and the Wall Street Journal continues along its embarrassingly stupid path of climate skepticism.





  1. We need to make a distinction between weather and climate.

    Weather is short-term. Climate is long-term.

    Circumstances permitting, a storm of unprecedented scope and scale can arise anytime.

    See this Washington Post article on “500 year floods” and their frequency:

    The strongest hurricane recorded in the Atlantic (as measured by millibars of barometric pressure) was Wilma back in October 2005.

    A Category 5 hurricane has wind speed faster than 155 mph.

    Three Category 5 storms have made landfall in the USA — the last two within our lifetimes.

    (Hurricane Katrina was rated a Category 4 storm when it made landfall. Hurricane Sandy was rated a Category 1 storm.)

    In August 1969, Hurricane Camille had the highest wind speed at landfall at an estimated 190 miles per hour — the highest ever recorded worldwide — when it struck the Mississippi coast.

    In August 1992, Hurricane Andrew with a wind speed at landfall of 165 miles per hour hit Florida.

    As for other natural disasters looming, a devastating earthquake in California can happen at any time.

    The largest earthquake on record in North American (and the second most powerful in world history) — magnitude 9.2 [yikes!] — occurred on March 27, 1964 in Alaska. That happened in our own lifetimes. But if we didn’t personally experience it, we forget the headline news. Forget history.

    (Aside: And let’s not get into the notion of “earthquake weather.”)

    The largest flood on record in North America were the Missoula Floods that repeatedly transformed the topology of what we now call Oregon and Washington.

    “Black Swan” random shit happens.

    You cannot reflexively attribute it to climate change.

  2. Ray Stanczak says:

    Climate scientists don’t attribute events “reflexively”. Some do, or attempt to, so we have peer review as a form of cross-check. Those who either deny or simply don’t understand the formal methodology must be, by definition, reflexive because the rational explanations are of no use.
    Is there a journal where the “Black Swan” crowd can publish and survive peer review?

  3. Ray,

    For clarity: the pronoun “You” refers to individuals whose knee jerk reaction to unusual weather is: “It must be caused by climate change.”

    As the Washington Post article cited above attests, it perfectly within the bounds of probability to have three so-called “500 Year Floods” back-to-back-to-back.

    Independent of climate change causation.

    Simply bad luck.

    ~~ Bob

  4. And on the subject of luck (actually, randomness), see this inteview with a Caltech professor.

    From The Wall Street Journal Online
    (April 30, 2008):

    “Numbers Guy Interview: Leonard Mlodinow”

    By Carl Bialik
    “The Numbers Guy” Blog

    [Preface: The title of Leonard Mlodinow’s book, “The Drunkard’s Walk,” evokes the randomness of events, as if governed by drunken ambling. Seeing the world through this lens is itself disorienting — success is the product of LUCK; identifying real patterns is nigh impossible; and our natural faculties mislead us at every turn. In recent weeks we’ve explored this world through a probability quiz (and debated the answers). Today I’m interviewing Mr. Mlodinow — a lecturer at Caltech who has written for “Star Trek” and collaborated on a book with Stephen Hawking — about his latest book, and about the role of randomness in our lives.]

    WSJ: You argue persuasively that much of what we consider a track record of expertise is really an accident of LUCK. Is there any true expertise, in your opinion? Are there any experts you trust?

    Mr. Mlodinow: I believe there is true expertise in some endeavors, and not in others. There is obviously no such thing as expertise in predicting the results of coin tosses, but there is expertise in predicting the behavior of lasers. I feel that picking stocks or predicting Hollywood hits is more like the former. The process of building a company or making a film is more like the latter.

    But there is a related question: Given that we are discussing an endeavor in which it is possible, how can you tell if someone has expertise? That is hard, because expertise plus bad LUCK can equal a failure, and lack of expertise plus good LUCK can equal success. The only way to tell the two apart is to observe the individual over a long time, which in statistics often means 100 or even 1,000 trials. This is obviously often not possible, so I recommend instead that we judge people by a thoughtful analysis of their intelligence, philosophy, work ethic, etc., rather than simply by their results.

    WSJ: Just because a certain human achievement — say, clutch hitting, or successful stock picking — exhibits the normal statistical variation, does that necessarily mean the best performers were just LUCKY? Or is there something about human intentionality that makes it possible that the best performers really did exhibit extraordinary skill and were deserving of the result?

    Mr. Mlodinow: Intentionality and talent always matter. An extraordinary feat is certainly made more likely by someone’s focus, hard work, etc. But chance also matters. And since there are few situations outside the science laboratory in which the random influences can be eliminated, LUCK is almost always a part of the statistical variation we observe in people’s feats.

    In order to judge which is dominant, we have to consider the specific endeavor. In sports this has been studied extensively. For instance, though basketball players often make many baskets in a row, you can compile a player’s probability of making a basket after making the previous shot and compare it to that player’s probability of making a basket after missing the previous shot. This has been done for many players, even players known to be “streaky,” and the probabilities always come out to be equal, and so the streaks seem to be due to random variation rather than a “hot hand.” Moreover, the patterns of streaks that occur in most major sports have been studied, and look exactly like what one would expect from a purely random process, such as a coin-tossing model. This leads me to believe that that is probably what is going on.

    WSJ: Do you think that part of the appeal of sports is their simplicity — that there is, generally, a level playing field and success seems deserved — as opposed to, say, picking stocks or picking movies for a Hollywood studio?

    Mr. Mlodinow: Success in sports is deserved, but even for the best players, the headlines usually come from the fluctuations rather the norm, and chance is usually a large part of it. A ballplayer may average a hit per game, or a basketball player 20 points per game, and that will make them stars in the long term. But it is when a player has four hits or makes 40 points in a game that people really start talking. I think the fun of following the movie box office and stocks is very similar to the fun of sports — all three combine passion and unpredictability.

    WSJ: Might we need to proceed irrationally in our lives to succeed? In other words, if we really believed that so much of success was the result of LUCK, wouldn’t a lot of us just give up trying?

    Mr. Mlodinow: Some theorize that this is the evolutionary reason that we like to assume we are in control, even when we clearly aren’t. That may be so, but I don’t mourn the role of luck, I celebrate it. All else equal, it is a lot more fun not knowing how your book will do, or how your life will turn out, than it would be if everything could be determined by a logical calculation. Moreover, the fact that LUCK matters means you can help yourself by being persistent. A failure doesn’t mean you are unworthy, nor does it preclude success on the next try.

    As Thomas J. Watson, the highly successful IBM pioneer, said, “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.”

    WSJ: How would you respond to Mark Twain’s quip that “People commonly use statistics like a drunk uses a lamp post: for support rather than illumination”?

    Mr. Mlodinow: I think Mark Twain was 110% correct.

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