Shedding light on a Misleading Picture

Claim:

"The new federal report on climate change gets a withering critique from Roger Pielke Jr., who says that it misrepresents his own research and that it wrongly concludes that climate change is already responsible for an increase in damages from natural disasters."

– New York Times Blogger John Tierney skips over the detailed findings of the Global Change Research Program (GCRP) report, entitled Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States [pdf], and focuses on a blog post by Roger Pielke Jr.  Dr. Pielke, a Colorado professor who strongly opposes limits on carbon emissions, attacks the report for relying on “non-peer reviewed, unsupportable studies rather than the relevant peer-reviewed literature"

Truth:

Talk about missing the forest for the one lonely tree.

There is in fact very strong evidence that global warming is already contributing to extreme events such as heat waves, intense precipitation, and forest fires. Indeed, the GCRP report, which was prepared over many months in collaboration with 13 federal agencies and dozens of scientists, presents a wealth of scientific data demonstrating a close linkage between climate change and extreme events.

However, Roger Pielke, and by extension John Tierney paint a very misleading picture. Tierney completely ignores these alarming links, and instead focuses on Pielke’s nit-picking complaint about a few sentences in the 196-page scientific report regarding monetary damages due to natural disasters/hurricanes.

While the monetary figures associated with these extreme events have not been thoroughly quantified, scientists agree that the intensity and frequency of these extreme events is on the rise.

An example of the link between global warming and extreme events is when the climate warms the global water cycle is inevitably altered, including the ability of the atmosphere to hold more moisture. This leads to more intense rainfall events.

To better understand this, consider the analogy of the atmosphere as a sponge. As the atmosphere warms the sponge gets larger, can hold more water, and wringing it out creates a vast amount of rainfall, which is significantly more intense.

As the GCRP report indicates on page 32, over the past 100 years "precipitation events characterized as heavy downpours have increased by 20%, and climate models forecast that these heavy downpours that presently have a 1 in 20 year occurrence will occur every 4-15 years by the end of this century."

The increased prevalence of forest fires is also propelled in part by increasing temperatures caused by climate change. While some regions of the US are experiencing downpours and flooding, other areas are afflicted with severe droughts.

Summer dry seasons have gotten longer, and vegetation is much drier, establishing ideal conditions for forest fires. According to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, within the last 30 years the length of the wildfire season in the Western U.S. has increased by 78 days.

Tierney also fails to address the climate change impacts that might not be categorized as "natural disasters".

  • Research has established that climate change is contributing to sea level rise. According to the GCRP report, rising sea level is threatening 7 of the 10 largest ports in the Gulf Coast region where over 2/3 of all US oil imports are transported (pg 62).
  • Warmer waters are reducing the efficiency of thermal power plants.  Even a 1% reduction in electricity generation by the country's power plants will require two million Americans to find an alternate source of power, as reported on the GCRP. (pg 56)
  • According to the GCRP report, spring snowpack is projected to decline by at least 40% in the Cascades by the 2040's with unrestrained global warming, placing severe strain on water supply for the Northwest, which relies heavily on snowpack to meet water demands (pg 135)
  • The GCRP report states that by the middle of the century the number of Red Ozone Alert days is likely to increase by 68 percent in 50 of the largest Eastern U.S. cities, solely due to global warming. (pg94)

Clearly, climate change is not just about damage from natural disasters narrowly defined, and we cannot afford to ignore these other impending outcomes.

Finally, despite what Tierny states in his post, the GCRP report is rooted in a wealth of peer-reviewed literature. The report itself went through several drafts, and was extensively reviewed and revised by numerous scientists and other experts before publication.

The foundation of this report is a set of 21 Synthesis and Assessment Products (SAPs), which were designed to address key policy-relevant issues in climate science (see page 161)

To date, the GCRP report serves as a paramount synthesis of scientific literature available.

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