Getting the facts straight about weather related disasters


GLOBE-Net, July 23, 2013 – “It is misleading, and just plain incorrect, to claim that disasters associated with hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or droughts have increased on climate timescales either in the United States or globally. It is further incorrect to associate the increasing costs of disasters with the emission of greenhouse gases.”

Those bold statements are not the remarks of a climate skeptic. Rather, they are part of the recent testimony given before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works by Dr. Roger Pielke, Jr., a Professor in the Environmental Studies Program of the University of Colorado, and a Fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES).

Based on research evidence presented at the Hearing, Professor Pielke further noted that globally weather-related losses in dollar terms have not increased since 1990 as a proportion of GDP (“they have actually decreased by about 25%”) and insured catastrophe losses have not increased as a proportion of GDP since 1960.

Other significant points arising from Professor Pielke’s research as reported in the Senate hearings:

  • Floods have not increased in the U.S. in frequency or intensity since at least 1950. Flood losses as a percentage of U.S. GDP have dropped by about 75% since 1940.
  • Tornadoes have not increased in frequency, intensity or normalized damage since 1950, and there is some evidence to suggest that they have actually declined.
  • Drought has for the most part, become shorter, less frequent, and cover a smaller portion of the U. S. over the last century. Globally, there has been little change in drought over the past 60 years.

By no means does this suggest that there is no cause for alarm, noted Pielke. “The absolute costs of disasters will increase significantly in coming years due to greater wealth and populations in locations exposed to extremes.”

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The costs of disasters will increase significantly in coming years, he said, due in large part to greater wealth and populations in locations exposed to extremes. “Consequent, disasters will continue to be an important focus of policy, irrespective of the exact future course of climate change,” he said.

Because the climate issue is so deeply politicized, Pielke added several points of clarification to his research findings.  First, he noted, humans do influence the climate system in profound ways, including through the emission of carbon dioxide via the combustion of fossil fuels.

As well, he noted, some researchers have detected and (in some cases) attributed a human influence in other measures of climate extremes beyond those discussed in his testimony, including surface temperatures and precipitation.

[stextbox id=”custom” float=”true” align=”right” width=”300″ bcolor=”ADD3D5″ bgcolor=”ADD3D5″ image=”null”]This research is important in terms of the guidance it could offer to civic leaders and others who must make hard choices regarding adaptive measures that must be taken to protect communities and infrastructure from weather related disasters.[/stextbox]

“The inability to detect and attribute changes in hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and drought does not mean that human-caused climate change is not real or of concern,” he said.

“It does mean however that some activists, politicians, journalists, corporate and government agency representatives and even scientists who should know better have made claims that are unsupportable based on evidence and research.”

“Such false claims could undermine the credibility of arguments for action on climate change, and to the extent that such false claims confuse those who make decisions related to extreme events, they could lead to poor decision making,” he added.

Pielke allowed that a considerable body of research projects that various extremes may become more frequent and/or intense in the future as a direct consequence of the human emission of carbon dioxide.

But he added, our research, and that of others, suggests that assuming that these projections are accurate, it will be many decades, perhaps longer, before the signal of human-caused climate change can be detected in the statistics of hurricanes (and to the extent that statistical properties are similar, in floods, tornadoes, drought).

Read the full version of Professor Pielke’s testimony here

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