Not What a Sensible Person Should Do

June 11th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

FEMA is attempting to do the impossible, and that is to predict future flood losses in a way that will allow changes to be made in the federal flood insurance program. E&E Daily reports:

Federal officials are struggling to calculate the fiscal impact that climate change could have on the nation’s troubled public flood insurance program, amid predictions of intensifying downpours and more potent hurricanes. The mission is proving extremely difficult, according to one researcher, who said the effort so far has failed to reveal even “squishy assumptions.”

The project’s lead researcher suggested that the entire effort was misguided (emphasis added):

Researchers are using data from the IPCC and the U.S. Climate Change Science Program to determine the climate risks to the insurance program. But there are glaring omissions in the overall knowledge needed to accurately depict the effects, says David Divoky, an expert with the consulting firm AECOM and the study’s lead researcher.

Detailed information about population growth is unknown, for example. So are the frequency, severity and location of future hurricanes, all of which can create large variations on the impacts on the flood insurance program. “There may be no solid projections. We’re not even coming up with squishy assumptions,” Divoky told an audience at the floodplain managers conference. “This whole thing is not what a sensible person should do.”

Once again I am reminded about a vignette from Nobel Prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow (PDF):

As a weather forecaster in the Second World War, Arrow and his colleagues were told that their commanding officer needed a long-term forecast. The forecasters knew from experience that such forecasts had little scientific basis, and related this up the chain of command. The reply that came back was this: no matter, the general needs the forecast for planning purposes.

One prediction for the FEMA study seems spot on:

“The results could produce controversy regardless of the outcome”

2 Responses to “Not What a Sensible Person Should Do”

  1. dean Says:

    As you seem to have a habit of doing, you’re presenting this as black and white – using a lot of absolute words like “irreducible” and “impossible” when “difficult” and “uncertain” would be more accurate. Because we don’t know for sure, you think we shouldn’t try. As said before, public policy is usually developed with imperfect information.

    It’s important that they be honest about the precision and accuracy of the information they use, and I know that they aren’t always. And that they have alternate plans as a backup. When you criticize them for treating partial and circumstantial information as absolute, that’s a good service.

    But in all likelihood we will only know things for sure after the fact, when it will be too late to do anything about them. I think that most people would prefer that they try, even if they get it wrong sometimes, to just sitting on their hands until some unrealistic level of certainty is reached.

  2. 2
  3. Maurice Garoutte Says:

    What’s wrong with a good old “I don’t know” answer? The human urge to understand encourages the search for knowledge, that’s the good part. The bad part is once we know something the urge to learn more goes away. For example, people who know the truth about AGW no longer need to research the developing science.

    Personally, I’m an eternal skeptic and so never stop searching. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.