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July 25, 2006

Scientific Leadership on Hurricanes and Global Warming

Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Disasters

I have often made the case that one of the best ways for scientists to depoliticze science is to clearly discuss the significance of scientific disputes for policy action. Today's New York Times reports that 10 scientists involved in the sometimes acrimonious debate over hurricanes and global warming have prepared a statement that places their debate into policy context. Here is an excerpt from the NYT story:

The scientists, several of whom had publicly debated the hurricane-climate connection in recent months, said they were concerned that the lack of consensus on the climate link could stall actions that could cut vulnerability no matter what is influencing hurricane trends.

Philip J. Klotzbach, a hurricane researcher at Colorado State University who disputes the idea that global warming is linked to stronger storms, said the social and economic trends were completely clear.

"There is likely to be an increase in destructiveness from tropical cyclones regardless of whether they are getting more intense or not," he said yesterday. "his is largely due to the increase in coastal population and wealth per capita in hurricane-prone areas."

Kerry A. Emanuel, a climatologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, drafted the statement and conducted one of several recent studies asserting that the building energy of hurricanes in recent decades was probably related to human-driven warming of the seas.

"We as a community have said for a long time that this is a big social problem right now," Dr. Emanuel said in an interview. "A lot of us are tired of the climate question being set up as a bigger conflict than it is."

The full statement can be found here.

Congrats to the authors Kerry Emanuel, Richard Anthes, Judith Curry, James Elsner, Greg Holland, Phil Klotzbach, Tom Knutson, Chris Landsea, Max Mayfield, and Peter Webster. This is scientific leadership at its best.

Posted on July 25, 2006 12:55 AM


Consensus land-use and other action recommendations, without AGW driven storm strength scares? Few should fight that -- but I wonder how long before this get co-opted into more AGW scare. After all, journalists may be able to read, but they still are undisciplined (or just plain lousy) at translating consensus positions for the rest of us.

Posted by: McCall at July 25, 2006 03:47 AM


I second your congrats to the authors! I can not help but wonder if your own work has helped make this statement possible. Many of the names on the list have appeared in discussions on this site, so they must be aware of what you are trying to accomplish.

I think congratulations should go to you as well!

Finally, I would like to congratulate Prof. Bill Gray. Although his name does not appear on the list, I believe he was one of, if not the first, to publicly warn everyone about the growing US hurricane problem. The ideas expressed in this statement are largely identical to the message that Gray has delivered to the National Hurricane Conference annually for at least the last 15 years.

Here in Florida, Hurricane Andrew made everyone realize that Gray knew what he was taking about, and many of the recommendations listed in the statement began here a long time ago.

Still, progress is slow. It took about 10 years and a huge amount of political haggling just to get the Florida Building Code closer to where it should be. It will take considerably more effort to stop enabling hurricane victims to be victims.

The political climate that developed after Katrina was 180 degrees from were it should have been; and anyone even suggesting that the victims carried some of the responsibility for their loss was labeled an inconsiderate goon! Now New Orleans will likely be rebuilt, bigger, better and just as vulnerable as ever, unless more such statements can slowly change the nation's mindset!

Posted by: Jim Clarke [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 25, 2006 12:16 PM

After a long day of travel, I have just quickly surveyed the blogosphere and found only one mention of this important NYT story over at ScienceBlogs:

From bloggers who usually are on top of climate science and politics, let me offer the following taunts:

RealClimate - nope
The Intersection - nada
Deltoid - rien
Climate Science Watch - nothing
Stoat - silence
A Few Things Ill Considered - mute

Come on guys, why the silence on this particular consensus? ;-)

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 25, 2006 10:40 PM

Happy, Roger? I responded to your taunt, but only because I was flattered to appear on such a short list of climate controversy blogs ;-)

Posted by: coby [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 26, 2006 11:52 AM

Let's see, each and every one of these folks has said the same thing before. The fact that they repeat it in a joint statement is newsworthy only if one thinks it notable that these particular scientists are on such bad terms with each other that they can't even note agreement on something like this. I think the most interesting thing about this statement is the continuing surrogate role being played by Phil Klotzbach, which leads me to suspect that Bill Gray was either not invited or declined to sign. The absence of certain other folks (e.g. Gerry Bell, Jim O'Brien and NHC staff theologian Stan Goldenberg) is a little interesting, but really not all that newsworthy either. As far as consensus statements go, the recent AGU report will continue to do nicely.

Oh, and congratulations to Coby! :)

Posted by: Steve Bloom [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 26, 2006 12:01 PM

Coby- Nice work!

With respect to the hockey stick, I believe that Steve McIntyre has made overtures to publish jointly but was rebuffed. Nonetheless, I think we extracted what you were looking for from both camps when we did our "so what?" challenge a while back.


Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 26, 2006 12:13 PM

Steve Bloom- Thanks, but I don't think that you can back this claim up:

"each and every one of these folks has said the same thing before"

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 26, 2006 12:16 PM

Really? Just out of curiosity, who of these folks do you think hasn't made a similar past statement? I'm willing to double-check one or two of them.

Posted by: Steve Bloom [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 26, 2006 04:30 PM

Steve- I think that the statement breaks new ground for all except Landsea, Mayfield, and Emanuel. For instance, you might recall Judy Curry writing here not long ago that she doesn't discuss policy.

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 26, 2006 04:55 PM

Semantic arguments aside about whether she did or didn't discuss policy, she did say (and on this very blog not long ago): "No matter what we decide to do about the greenhouse warming issue, the most vulnerable coastal cities need to reconsider their coastal engineering, land use practices, emergency procedures, etc. in view of the risk of increasing hurricane activity and the longer range prospect of sea level rise." That seems pretty close.

Posted by: Steve Bloom at July 27, 2006 03:31 AM

Over at ScienceBlogs The Intersection and Stoat respond to my taunt, finding much to agree with in the statement by the climatologists.

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 27, 2006 06:38 AM

I've been meaning to blog about this over at, and hope to have a better discussion in the next few days.

But...this is exactly what scientists need to do more of. They need to work with journalists to create news pegs that focus on the relevance and connection of science to policy. Otherwise, there is a repeating pattern in coverage. Science writers do a good job of covering the release of a new study or writing more thematic scientific backgrounders, but often times don't do much on exploring the policy angles. Political reporters start paying attention when the White House or Congress put the issue on their agendas, but usually this coverage focuses on strategy, personalities, and sometimes leads to the type of false balancing that everyone criticizes. When policy angles are covered by political reporters, they are usually dichotomized into just the Democrats' versus Republican plans.

Sometimes you will see policy discussion break out of the partisan dichotomy on the opinion pages when experts contribute op-eds, but for the most part, with the exception of just a few of the very best columnists, opinion pages feature the same type of limited partisan policy discussion.

I think the recent hurricane release is a great example of how scientists, journal editors, and scientific organizations can can step beyond just the promotion of a single study, and start to negotiate news that focuses on the policy-relevance of research.

Posted by: Matthew C. Nisbet at July 27, 2006 10:00 AM

I have posted an analysis of the statement and why it is relevant to rethinking how scientists define for journalists what is newsworthy here:

Posted by: Matthew C. Nisbet at July 27, 2006 11:14 AM


There is a big difference between saying something should be done because X is going to happen, and something should be done regardless of whether X happens or not.

In signing the statement, Curry agrees that improving hurricane policy, mitigation and preparedness is really the important social issue, with AGW enhanced tropical activity being relatively inconsequential in comparison. One can not say that such a mindset is implied by her previous statements.

Posted by: Jim Clarke at July 27, 2006 12:16 PM


If I may toot my own horn, I addressed this topic, with considerable approval, on Wednesday morning:


Posted by: Eric Berger at July 27, 2006 02:28 PM

Matt and Eric- Thanks for the links, very thoughtful stuff. I encourage everyone to visit their links:


Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 27, 2006 10:11 PM

I agree that this is a significant departure in the AGW climate wars, scientists actually coming to a consensus with no one questioning it. Skeptics and believers alike can endorse common sense in coastal planning,zoning, and insurance policy. Why can't this be done in other policy issues? As a skeptic, I can easily see many politically neutral and possible points of agreement along the lines of this detente.

Posted by: Dr. J at August 11, 2006 01:33 PM

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