Recent debate on FiveThirtyEight about whether climate change is the cause of natural disasters is interesting – and necessary for critically interpreting climate modeling data. However, ultimately, such a debate doesn’t bring us closer to negotiating a response to the problem. In fact, despite the nuances of the argument that Pielke makes in his article, his agenda concerning climate change communications and policy is to contribute to climate change conversations for the purpose of moving “beyond exhortation to actual development of policy options” like adaptation and mitigation. Arguments about the cause (whether they’re about the cause of climate change itself or, in this case, the cause of increased incidents of natural disasters) ultimately engage us in the meta-details of differences among our perspectives, disciplinary backgrounds and approaches, and therefore distract us from what’s really important – figuring out how to collaboratively negotiate these differences in perspective in order to develop a viable response.
Emanuel’s main point in counter-arguing Pielke’s claim that “climate change plays no role in increases in damages from natural hazards… [and that] recent costly disasters are not part of a trend driven by climate change” is that increased occurrences, and the subsequently increasing costs, of natural disasters are the direct result of climate change. She provides support for her argument by citing her research with Yale economist Robert Mendelsohn and colleagues: global hurricane damage will about double owing to demographic trends, and double again because of climate change. This point is valid, interesting, and powerful, but it doesn’t offer ground for negotiation of how to respond to its implications … at least not as it is discussed here.
In his argument, Pielke relies on support from the IPCC’s most recent report, Assessment Report 5 (AR5) which explains that there is little evidence of a spike in frequency or intensity of floods, drought, hurricanes, or tornadoes [because of climate change] to argue that the notion that climate change is the direct cause of an increase natural disasters is false. Not once in this article does Pielke suggest that climate change is not a real or significant issue warranting serious attention toward the development of solutions. He simply criticizes this particular argument, citing its inaccuracy, as a way of warning against fallacies like this that could potentially threaten public confidence in and support for climate change mitigation and adaptation policies.
So there we have it – two strong, distinct arguments about climate change data – from two legitimate, well-respected sources. As Pielke has explained in previous publications, “different people have legitimately different views” … however, that is not the case if we review the commentary of each article, almost all of which starkly advocates one view and flagrantly criticizes the other.
My argument here is that if you read Pielke’s argument for what it really communicates, you can see the value in his criticism. Emanuel’s response reads into the meta-details of cause, which is actually not the most important argument of Pielke’s explanation. Pielke’s article, from my perspective, is simply – but boldly – arguing that the promise that mitigating climate change will lead to fewer natural disasters is not valid and therefore, ought not be used in making a case for climate change policy. To make this even more clear: Pielke is simply challenging the 1:1 ratio being drawn between causes of natural disaster and climate change. In no way is he challenging the real issue, that “human-caused climate change is real and requires attention by policymakers to both mitigation and adaptation.” He is simply criticizing the way in which this debate is being crafted and framed, implicitly suggesting that it is being used to advance a personal/political agenda. Emanuel’s response focuses on whether climate change is the primary factor causing increased natural disasters and therefore increased recovery costs, and doesn’t address the wider implications of the data itself. Such arguments are important and productive, to an extent, but what I believe is more valuable is re-focusing the fervor and intellectual energy we are seeing here on collaborative, trans-disciplinary, alternative approaches for responding to the problem, whether the problem is natural disasters and recovery costs or that climate change is projected to increase threats to human health, particularly in lower income populations, predominantly within tropical/subtropical countries.
Emanuel is right, “those who wait for actuarial trends to emerge at a 95% confidence level before acting do so at their peril.” But Pielke is right too, that recent costly disasters are not necessarily part of a trend driven primarily by climate change. Unfortunately, the competing arguments that their data incites are not compelling concerned citizens to admit both Emanuel’s and Pielke’s validity … which is why I believe that arguments about cause, when deliberating about anything that has to do with climate change, are so very dangerous and unproductive. Arguments about cause inevitably turn to debates of micro-scale differences in interpretation of the same data … which keeps the cycle of debate circling around an inevitably unproductive point.
If we really want to address solutions to the effects of climate change, we’ll start by exercising the maturity involved in making our perspectives, research findings, and personal agendas completely vulnerable to others’ productive criticism, because doing so is the only way to begin negotiating how to move forward in responding to the circumstances we’re being faced with. Holding defensively to our nuanced arguments is not going to enable us to move beyond exhortation toward the development of policy options, as Pielke wisely recommends.