Parsing the White House Climate Report

At least one researcher cited in the 196-page climate impacts report issued this week by the Obama administration is not impressed with the final product. Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado’s Center for Science & Technology Research has written a blog post critical of the report and in particular, the way in which his work was interpreted. If you’d rather not plow through the entire post, John Tierney has an overview of Pielke’s critique on his blog for the New York Times.

California heat wave, from the Aqua satellite. Image: NASA
2004 California heat wave, from the Aqua satellite. Image: NASA

The report was arguably the first to break down both observed and projected effects of climate change into coherent regional summaries. For the purposes of the report, California was considered part of the Southwest region, which included states as far east as Colorado and New Mexico.

Not surprisingly, many of the points raised in the Southwest section (beginning on p. 129) have to do with water supply. Most have been reported or discussed in our Climate Watch coverage, either here or in our radio reports. Selected “highlights” include:

– Past climate records based on changes in Colorado River flows indicate that drought is a frequent feature of the Southwest, with some of the longest documented “megadroughts” on Earth.

– The prospect of future droughts becoming more severe as a result of global warming is a significant concern, especially because the Southwest continues to lead the nation in population growth.

– Human-induced climate change appears to be well underway in the Southwest. Recent warming is among the most rapid in the nation, significantly more than the global average in some areas.

– Projections suggest continued strong warming, with much larger increases under higher emissions scenarios compared to lower emissions scenarios. Projected summertime temperature increases are greater than the annual average increases in some parts of the region, and are likely to be exacerbated locally by expanding urban
heat island effects.

– Water supplies in some areas of the Southwest are already becoming limited, and this trend toward scarcity is likely to be a harbinger of future water shortages. Groundwater pumping is lowering water tables, while rising temperatures reduce river flows in vital rivers including the Colorado.

– Projected temperature increases, combined with river-flow reductions, will increase the risk of water conflicts between sectors, states, and even nations.

– Increasing temperature, drought, wildfire, and invasive species will accelerate transformation of the landscape.

– Under higher emissions scenarios, high-elevation forests in California, for example, are projected to decline by 60 to 90 percent before the end of the century.

– In California, two-thirds of the more than 5,500 native plant species are projected to experience range reductions up to 80 percent before the end of this century under projected warming.

– Projected changes in the timing and amount of river flow, particularly in winter and spring, is estimated to more than double the risk of Delta flooding events by mid-century, and result in an eight-fold increase before the end of the century.

– A steady reduction in winter chilling could have serious economic impacts on fruit and nut production in the region. California’s losses due to future climate change are estimated between zero and 40 percent for wine and table grapes, almonds, oranges, walnuts, and avocados, varying significantly by location.

By the way, Pielke’s critique does not directly address anything in this list, though his work does involve weather-related disasters, which would include floods. Asked by a commentator on his blog if he thinks the entire report should be dismissed based on the flawed interpretation of his research, Pielke replied: “I wouldn’t think so and would certainly hope not. At the same time the section which covers my research does not give me a lot of confidence in the process that led to the report.”

Parsing the White House Climate Report 19 June,2009Craig Miller

8 thoughts on “Parsing the White House Climate Report”

  1. We need to specify Pielke Jr or Sr; in this case, it was Jr.
    …who’s a Senior Fellow at The Breakthrough Institute, the think tank founded by Shellenberger and Nordhaus. My question/link asking about TBI’s funding did not survive Tierney’s blog comment moderation.

    re this –
    “Asked by a commentator on his blog if he thinks the entire report should be dismissed based on the flawed interpretation of his research, Pielke replied: “I wouldn’t think so and would certainly hope not.”

    – it’s unfortunate that this judgement of Pielke Jr’s was not conveyed to Mr. Tierney before he titled the NYT blog post “U.S. Climate Report Assailed”.

  2. Ah, coincidental with PielkeJr moving off-campus, Max Boykoff is moving onto campus in August.

    Boykoff is a serious heavyweight and an honest writer. KQED journalists, please read and think.

    “When journalists and editors do not effectively place the issues in the context of such views, public understanding suffers. As New York Times journalist Andy Revkin writes, “The media seem either to overplay a sense of imminent calamity or to ignore the issue altogether because it is not black and white or on a time scale that feels like news. This approach leaves society like a ship at anchor swinging cyclically with the tide and not going anywhere. What is lost in the swings of media coverage is a century of study and evidence….” Inadequate media translations of climate change have generated, as Revkin puts it, “probably more public confusion and cynicism about what is going on”

  3. I would suggest that “piffle” is in the eye of the beholder. I had a long conversation this week with Ben Santer at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, lead author of the first chapter of the White House report. His specialty is the “human fingerprints” on climate change and he used the phrase “Beyond a shadow of a doubt” several times to describe the confidence in the link between warming and human activity. Nobody’s disputing that here. He also opined that Roger Pielke has “done well for himself” by maintaining a high profile as the self-appointed “conscience” of the scientific community on climate change (he also points out that Pielke “is a social scientist, not a climatologist.”
    And yet it does appear from Pielke’s post that somebody goofed, at least in that particular citation of his work. The report not only appears to get it wrong but get it backwards. That seems noteworthy to me, though even Pielke admits that it doesn’t invalidate the entire report, as I noted in my original post.

  4. Great post alert:

    Julian Sanchez and commenters, on practical epistemology, ad hominem arguments and the one way hash problem (“…in such cases, trying to evaluate the arguments on their merits will tend to lead to an erroneous conclusion more often than simply trying to gauge the credibility of the various disputants. “) with some interesting libertarianism-and-climate bits (e.g. “If climate change is actually going to be profoundly harmful, then it’s precisely the sort of problem libertarian principles say the state ought to be trying to solve. … but I don’t mean to deny that as a sociological matter, a general aversion to regulatory solutions has left libertarians too prone to hope the problem can be wished away as long as someone out there with a Ph.D. remains unconvinced.”)

    and, re ad hominem, “Most fallacies aren’t really fallacies when you reinterpret them as Bayesian reasons to give an idea more credence rather than iron-clad syllogisms.”

  5. Craig Miller is correct that the CCSP report got some things very wrong. Unfortunately for me, the errors involve my research.

    Hank Roberts is very incorrect, I have not moved off campus. I did chair the search that led to Boykoff’s hire and we are all very excited to have him at CU.

Comments are closed.


Craig Miller

Craig is a former KQED Science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to that, he launched and led the station's award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor