Roger Pielke Jr emailed me an advance copy of the 2nd edition of his book on Disasters and Climate Change. Roger’s email ended with I welcome your reactions, comments, critique. Past experience makes me slightly dubious, but I will take Roger at his word.
I’ve read the book, twice in fact, and am finding it quite hard to know what to say. Even though there are a number of things that I disagree with, I think it mostly presents information that is defensible. However, what I think many will conclude from reading this book is not really consistent with our best understanding of this topic.
Since I’m still recovering from having organised a conference that ran all of last week, I’m going to try and keep this short and just make some general comments. There are some specific issues that I may discuss in a later post.
The book discusses how unpleasant and difficult the public climate change debate can be. I think it definitely can be, but I also think it’s worth reflecting on how one’s style of engagement might have influenced how one’s views were received. There is plenty of discussion on whether or not disasters [have] become costlier because of human-caused climate change. The answer is no, the data don’t support claims that the rising costs of climate disasters are due in any part to a human influence on climate. There is even an argument that we should assume that the lack of a detectable signal should be taken as the signal not existing (I don’t agree with this, but will leave this for another post).
There is also a discussion of detection and attribution, that I may discuss further in another post. The book concludes with a discussion about policy and highlights the Kaya identity (emissions are basically a function of GDP, population, how we get our energy, and how we use our energy). It also highights an iron law. GDP growth is essentially sacrosant; any climate policy that will significantly impact GDP growth will never be accepted. It also discusses how difficult it’s going to be to reduce emissions sufficiently. Interestingly, it seems to mostly argue against a carbon tax (one that would have any significant effect, at least).
As I said at the beginning, there are many things I disagree with, but I think a lot of what is presented is probably broadly correct, or at least defensible. We may not yet have demonstrated that climate change has caused disasters to become more costly, it may indeed be difficult to develop effective policy, and getting emissions to reduce sufficiently is going to be very challenging. My biggest issue with the book is that, despite it containing all the necessary caveats, I think it will be used by those who oppose climate policy to argue that there is no evidence that anthropogenically-driven climate change is having any impact on us and, if it is, doing anything ambitious about this will simply not work. If that is the message that was intended, then it’s worked.
If anything, it’s hard to really interpret the intention in any other way. The final chapter seems to explicitly argue against anything too ambitious. The problem, in my view, is that there are indications that unless we get emissions to reduce soon, the resulting climate change could be severely disruptive. I think the book mostly ignores this possibility and seems to present an argument for a policy pathway that we may well be able to achieve, but that may fail to effectively address anthropogenically-driven climate change. I don’t see this as particularly helpful. Others may, of course, disagree.