Archive for June, 2008

Science and Technology Receive Money in Supplemental

June 29th, 2008

Posted by: admin

A casualty of the budget ‘compromise’ for fiscal year 2008 (October 1, 2007-September 30, 2008), funding for science and technology agencies like the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, may get a reprieve in the supplemental funding legislation that just passed the House of Representatives.

Supplemental funding bills, at least for the last few years, have focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This time, $161.8 billion of the bill will focus on those wars, and there will be $24.7 billion of discretionary spending, covering things like flood relief for the Midwest, and continued levee repair in that area and the Gulf Coast.

Part of the bill will cover science and technology funding, not completely making up for the cuts to the FY 2008 requested totals these agencies suffered in this year’s failure to pass the federal budget on time. Per ASTRA, a science advocacy organization focused on the physical sciences, the totals in this bill for science are approximately $400 million (first item as of this writing). AAAS places the total figure at $338 million (probably due to differences in what the groups count in their research and development funding totals).

However, what was once abnormal, irregular budgetary practice has become the norm. I would not expect the FY 2009 budget to be passed by the beginning of that fiscal year, and the budget may not be approved until after the election.

Frustrated? Disappointed? Contact your Senators and Representatives and complain. Then do it again in a few weeks.

Normalised Australian insured losses from meteorological hazards: 1967–2006

June 27th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.


Ryan Crompton and John McAneney of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia have an important new paper in the August, 2008 issue of the journal Environmental Science & Policy titled “Normalised Australian insured losses from meteorological hazards: 1967–2006.” (Available to subscribers here). The paper contributes to a growing literature that documents the importance of understanding the integrated effects of societal change and climate change. The paper also underscores the central role that adaptation policies must play in climate policy.

The abstract states:

Since 1967, the Insurance Council of Australia has maintained a database of significant insured losses. Apart from five geological events, all others (156) are the result of meteorological hazards—tropical cyclones, floods, thunderstorms, hailstorms and bushfires. In this study, we normalise the weather-related losses to estimate the insured loss that would be sustained if these events were to recur under year 2006 societal conditions. Conceptually equivalent to the population, inflation and wealth adjustments used in previous studies, we use two surrogate factors to normalise losses—changes in both the number and average nominal value of dwellings over time, where nominal dwelling values exclude land value. An additional factor is included for tropical cyclone losses: this factor adjusts for the
influence of enhanced building standards in tropical cyclone-prone areas that have markedly reduced the vulnerability of construction since the early 1980s.

Once the weather-related insured losses are normalised, they exhibit no obvious trend over time that might be attributed to other factors, including human-induced climate change. Given this result, we echo previous studies in suggesting that practical steps taken to reduce the vulnerability of communities to today’s weather would alleviate the impact under any future climate; the success of improved building standards in reducing tropical cyclone wind-induced losses is evidence that important gains can be made through disaster risk reduction.

The text of the paper includes this discussion:

The collective evidence reviewed above suggests that societal factors – dwelling numbers and values – are the predominant
reasons for increasing insured losses due to natural hazards in
Australia. The impact of human-induced climate change on insured losses is not detectable at this time. This being the case, it seems logical that in addition to efforts undertaken to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, significant investments be made to reduce society’s vulnerability to current and future climate and the associated variability. Employing both mitigation and adaptation contemporaneously will benefit society now and into the future.

We are aware of few disaster risk reduction policies explicitly developed to help Australian communities adapt to a changing climate, yet disaster risk reduction should be core to climate adaptation policies (Bouwer et al., 2007). . .

An increased threat from bushfires under human-induced climate change is often assumed. Indeed Pitman et al. (2006) and others anticipate an increase in conditions favouring bushfires. However, analyses by McAneney (2005) and Crompton et al. (in press) suggest that the main bushfire menace to building losses will continue to be extreme fires and that the threat to the most at-risk homes on the bushland– urban interface can only be diminished by improved planning regulations that restrict where and how people build with respect to distance from the forest. Disaster risk reduction of this kind would immediately reduce current and future society’s vulnerability to natural hazards.

Please read the whole paper.

How much influence should a ‘mega-foundation’ have?

June 26th, 2008

Posted by: admin

Tomorrow is Bill Gates’ last official day at Microsoft. His energy will now be reoriented toward philanthropic efforts at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation’s assets currently exceed $37 billion. In 2006, Warren Buffet pledged roughly $31 billion in Berkshire Hathaway stock — at rate of approximately $1.5 billion per year — to the Gates Foundation. The exact dollar value of his pledged donation is impossible to calculate, since it is directly tied to the performance of his stock. Regardless, the current assets and pledged donations to the Gates Foundation exceed $60 billion.


Interview with Rade Musulin

June 26th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. has an interview with my colleague and co-author Rade Musulin, of Aon Re Australia. Rade discusses our recent paper on normalized hurricane losses.

You can read the interview here.

Science and Technology Policy Report Roundup

June 24th, 2008

Posted by: admin

A perfectly non-scientific sampling of reports on science and technology policy in the United States, some from organizations that may not be familiar to everyone.

The RAND Corporation – A long-standing science and technology research company, RAND started with national security issues and has branched out into many different areas. Until the early part of this decade, they ran the Science and Technology Policy Institute, and its predecessor, the Critical Technologies Institute, for the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology – This monograph is a nice contrast to the occasionally overheated rhetoric about the impending collapse of the U.S. science and engineering enterprise. It notes the continued strengths of American research and development, noting that our leadership should not be taken for granted. Another interesting note (at least to me) was the notion that globalization can work both ways. from the research summary at the link above:

Counterintuitively, globalization and the rise of science and technology capability in other nations may prove to be economically beneficial to the United States overall. A future with more technologies invented abroad can benefit the United States, since domestic use of new technology, whether invented in the United States or elsewhere, can result in greater efficiency, economic growth, and higher living standards.

Adapting and adopting new technology – whether developed in the United States or elsewhere – is a useful skill in maintaining a competitive edge. That’s an idea worth exploring and repeating.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences – Not to be confused with that other AAAS, this Academy is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is nearly 70 years older, and draws from all fields when selecting its members.

The ARISE Report – ARISE stands for Advancing Research in Science and Engineering. The report is from the Academy’s Initiative on Science, Engineering and Technology which is concerned about science literacy and the interactions of science, technology and society. The report’s recommendation focus on encouraging high-risk research and supporting young researchers. While the second one may seem a no-brainer, I appreciate the attention provided the first concern. As forward thinking as universities can be, they are still very conservative institutions (in the traditional sense, not the contemporary left-right sense). The same can be said of the scientific communities that provide reviewers for government proposals. I think this report could have been stronger in its recommendations to peer reviewers about being more responsive to high-risk or transformative research, as well as being more supportive of early career researchers.


What the CCSP Extremes Report Really Says

June 20th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Yesterday the U.S. Climate Change Science Program released an assessment report titled “Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate” (PDF) with a focus on the United States. This post discusses some interesting aspects of this report, with an emphasis on what it does not show and does not say. It does not show a clear picture of ever increasing extreme events in the United States. And it does not clearly say why damage has been steadily increasing.

First, let me emphasize that the focus of the report is on changes in extremes in the United States, and not on climate changes more generally. Second, my comments below refer to the report’s discussion of observed trends. I do not discuss predictions of the future, which the report also covers. Third, the report relies a great deal on research that I have been involved in and obviously know quite well. Finally, let me emphasize that anthropogenic climate change is real, and deserving of significant attention to both adaptation and mitigation.


Mark Shafer in BAMS on The Honest Broker

June 19th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Mark Shafer, director of climate services at the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, reviews The Honest Broker in the May, 2008 Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. It is a positive review. He writes:

Pielke’s discussion of climate change politics is excellent. He seizes on the central issue in climate change politics: that those opposed to action (based on value decisions) raise scientific uncertainty as a reason for delay or inaction. In response, scientists focus on reducing or eliminating uncertainty to undermine grounds for opposition to action rather than focusing on the merits of the argument, which is really a values-based decision irrespectie of the science.

The conclusion to the review is very positive:

The basic framework of the book and its discussion of the importance of considering values and uncertainty are strong. the numerous examples he offers are instructive. Anyone engaged in policy, even on the periphery, would benefit from this discussion.

Get your copy today!! Now 20% off at CUP!!

Normalized U.S. Earthquake Losses: 1900-2005

June 18th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.


Kevin Vranes and I have just had a paper accepted for publication on historical earthquake losses in the United States.

Vranes, K., and R. A. Pielke, Jr., 2008 (in press). Normalized earthquake damage and fatalities in the United States: 1900 – 2005, Natural Hazards Review. (PDF)

The dataset that we present in the paper will allow for a range of interesting analyses. Here is the abstract:

Damage estimates from 80 United States earthquakes since 1900 are “normalized” to 2005 dollars by adjusting for inflation, increases in wealth and changes in population. A factors accounting for mitigation at 1% and 2% loss reduction per year are also considered. The earthquake damage record is incomplete, perhaps by up to 25% of total events that cause damage, but all of the most damaging
events are accounted for. For events with damage estimates, cumulative normalized losses since 1900 total $453 billion, or $235 billion and $143 billion when 1% and 2% mitigation is factored respectively. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire adjusts to $39 – $328 billion depending on assumptions and mitigation factors used, likely the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history in normalized 2005 values. Since 1900, 13 events would have caused $1B or more in losses had they
occurred in 2005; five events adjust to more than $10 billion in damages. Annual average losses range from $1.3 billion to $5.7 billion with an average across datasets and calculation methods of $2.5 billion, below catastrophe model estimates and estimates of average annual losses from hurricanes. Fatalities are adjusted for population increase and mitigation, with five events causing over 100 fatalities when mitigation is not considered, four (three) events when 1% (2%) mitigation is considered. Fatalities in the 1906 San Francisco event adjusts from 3,000 to over 24,000, or 8,900 (3,300) if 1% (2%) mitigation is considered. Implications for comparisons of normalized results with catastrophe model output and with normalized damage profiles of other hazards are considered.

Op-Ed in Financial Post

June 18th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

UPDATE: At Dot Earth Andy Revkin labels an excerpt from this op-ed the “quote of the day.”

I have an invited op-ed in today’s Financial Post (a Canadian newspaper with a skeptical editorial perspective on climate change). I argue that even though many scientists oversell the predictive capabilities of climate models, action on climate change still makes sense. Here is an excerpt:

So in the debate on what to do about climate change, what are we to make of the overstated claims of predictive accuracy offered by many scientists?
Not surprisingly, the reason for overstated claims lies in the bitter and contested politics of climate change. Myanna Lahsen, an anthropologist who has studied climate modelers, finds that many of these scientists are acutely aware of the fact that any expressed “caveats, qualifications and other acknowledgements of model limitations can become fodder for the anti-environmental movement.” She documents how, more than a decade ago, a prominent climate scientist warned a group of his colleagues at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, home of one of the main U.S. climate modeling efforts that informs the IPCC, to “Choose carefully your adjectives to describe the models. Confidence or lack of confidence in the models is the deciding factor in whether or not there will be policy response on behalf of climate change.”

I witnessed this dynamic in practice while I was waiting to testify on climate policy before the U.S. Congress in 2006. A prominent climate scientist testifying on the panel appearing before mine was asked by a member of Congress about uncertainties in predictions from climate models. The scientist replied, enthusiastically and accurately, that there are a range of important uncertainties coming from scenario inputs and choices in parameterization schemes, instantly overwhelming his congressional audience with technical detail. Much later, and after a long break, the scientist requested an opportunity to clarify his earlier comments, and this time he said, “I would like to give you a little more direct answer to the question on reliability of climate models. I think they are reliable enough to be a very useful guide into the future.”

Lost in the Manichean debate over climate change is the real significance of what climate models really are telling us: We should act on climate mitigation and adaptation not because we are able to predict the future, but because we cannot.

See it all here. Comments and reactions welcomed.

U.S. Flood Damage 1929-2003

June 16th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The ongoing Midwest floods are a horrible disaster. The United States however has seen a long-term trend of decreasing flood losses as a fraction of GDP, as shown in the following graph.

Flood Damage 1929-2003.jpg


Flood damage data: Here (Note no data 1980-82)

GDP data: Here

For further reading:

Pielke, Jr., R.A., M. Downton, J. Z. B. Miller, S. A. Changnon, K. E. Kunkel, and K. Andsager, 2000: Understanding Damaging Floods in Iowa: Climate and Societal Interactions in the Skunk and Raccoon River Basins, Environmental and Societal Impacts Group, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO, August. (PDF)

Pielke, Jr., R. A. and M.W. Downton, 2000. Precipitation and Damaging Floods: Trends in the United States, 1932-97. Journal of Climate, 13(20), 3625-3637. (PDF)

Downton, M. and R. A. Pielke, Jr., 2005. How Accurate are Disaster Loss Data? The Case of U.S. Flood Damage, Natural Hazards, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 211-228. (PDF)