Roger Pielke Jr. has made something of a career out of studying societal response to hurricanes (see him quoted liberally here). He’s made something of a side career out of arguing that greens should — as a matter of ethics, science, and policy — refrain from using severe weather events like hurricanes to raise alarm over global warming and (thereby) advance their preferred energy policies.

I happen to disagree with him on that, but his position, being somewhat infuriating to greens, tends to get caricatured and vilified a lot. So, let’s let him speak for himself.

He responded to my post on hurricanes and global warming with a post on his blog. I responded in turn with the following email:

Roger,

Reducing the question to a simple "should greens lie?" may offer you the opportunity to moralize, but it’s not a very interesting way to engage the question.

At the very least the science in this area is ambiguous — one commenter linked to this story, which reports on new research showing a stronger link. We just put the question to a respected scientist (at GISS) who responded flatly that "As far as I know there is no consensus on hurricanes and climate change."

There’s considerable reason to think global warming is going to lead to severe, devastating weather events, including hurricanes of greater intensity. That is one of the many reasons generating awareness of the issue, and political will to take action, is imperative.

As a scientist, you may insist that your only obligation is to report dispassionately on the science, with all the qualifications and ambiguity carefully preserved. But presumably you are not only a scientist. Presumably you are also a concerned citizen — and if you aren’t, surely there are many of them out there wondering what to do about this.

The lines between "global warming made this hurricane worse" and "global warming is connected to a recent rise in hurricane intensity" and "global warming raises the statistical chances that future hurricanes will be on average more intense that past hurricanes" are important in science. But are they important in advocacy? Are they more important than using a dramatic event to move public dialogue in the right direction?

The answers don’t seem as obvious and clear-cut to me as they apparently do to you.

Cheers,

DR

To which he replied with the following (and yes, of course, he’s given me permission to reprint):

Hi Dave-

I never said "Should greens lie?" or anything close. I do think that it is simply immoral to use extreme weather events as the basis for arguing for changes in energy policy. This is a position steeped in values but also grounded in science.

The important question is not "is global warming affecting hurricanes"? But instead, "Can taking action on energy policies meaningfully affect future hurricane impacts, as compared to other policies?" While there may not be a consensus on the first question, I’d challenge you to find any scientist who would answer the second in favor of energy policies. You won’t find one. We should be taking action on energy policies and we should be reducing vulnerability to hurricanes. But to conflate the two is simply to advocate a policy that can’t work and adopt a political strategy that cannot win.

Climate change is important enough that we don’t need to misuse the science to advance the agenda. If we find ourselves having to misuse the science, well we’ve played the politics wrong. Take a close look at the examples I allude to from the folks on the right who are misusing science to advance their agenda with every bit as much passion and conviction that you show on the warming issue. If greens misuse science, they are legitimizing the exact sort of actions that led us into Iraq and the smuggling of ID into schools. I for one am not willing to sanction such behavior by emulation.

We can agree to disagree on this one, no worries.

FYI, these points are discussed here:

Sarewitz, D., and R.A. Pielke, Jr., 2005. Rising Tide (PDF), The New Republic, January 6.

Best regards,

Roger

For those who don’t want to follow the PDF link, here’s the conclusion of that paper:

Those who justify the need for greenhouse gas reductions by exploiting the mounting human and economic toll of natural disasters worldwide are either ill-informed or dishonest. This is not, as Britain’s Sir David King suggested, “something we can manage” by decreasing our use of fossil fuels. Prescribing emissions reductions to forestall the future effects of disasters is like telling someone who is sedentary, obese, and alcoholic that the best way to improve his health is to wear a seat belt.

In principle, fruitful action on both climate change and disasters should proceed simultaneously. In practice, this will not happen until the issues of climate change and disaster vulnerability are clearly separated in the eyes of the media, the public, environmental activists, scientists, and policymakers. As long as people think that GLOBAL WARMING = WORSE HURRICANES, global warming will also equal less preparation. And disasters will claim ever more money and lives.

So: Roger spends his life studying the way we prepare for and respond to hurricanes (which is not well). He determines that thousands, perhaps millions, of lives could be saved with some relatively straightforward measures — decreasing population density along coasts, developing better warning systems, etc. Despite the enormous stakes and growing loss of life, disaster preparation is largely ignored and underfunded, especially relative to the international hubbub over climate change.

Then, the climate-change crowd starts jumping on his issue — hurricanes — to advance their energy policies, which at best will save lives many decades in the future and at worst will waste invaluable time, money, and energy. To him, this is tantamount to sacrificing people that could have been saved with more immediately efficacious action. Responding to global warming, he insists, is something to do instead of or in addition to disaster preparation, but we shouldn’t pretend that it is a form of disaster prep.

So yeah, I can see where he’s coming from.

I happen to think — don’t worry, I won’t hash it out here, this is already too long — that "fruitful action on both climate change and disasters" will most likely occur together, as part of the same swell of public concern and outrage. It wouldn’t be too hard for a savvy Apollo-Alliance-style coalition to push a package of measures the would address both short- and long-term disaster preparation. Such a package, by capitalizing on concerns over both hurricanes and global warming, would be difficult to oppose.

But since, ahem, neither is happening, I suppose the discussion is academic. I’m glad these kinds of exchange are happening, though.