Media Facing a New Form of Climate Debate

Last month,, a blog once a part of the New York Times, began publishing its first articles. Founded by statistician and author Nate Silver, the blog aspires for a new form of objective and data-driven journalism.

However, the blog’s first ever article on climate change has environmentalists worried. The piece, “Disasters Cost More Than Ever – But Not Because of Climate Change,” focuses on recent increases in the financial costs of natural disasters. Roger Pielke Jr., the author and a professor of environmental studies at University of Colorado Boulder, concludes through statistical analysis that the upward trend in natural disaster costs are driven by increases in wealth. [1]

This is not too surprising a conclusion. For example, as we develop more and more expensive beachfront properties, we should expect hurricanes and floods to have a higher price tag. [2]

Hurricane Sandy cost an estimated $65 billion.

Hurricane Sandy cost an estimated $65 billion.

So what’s so controversial?

As the title of his piece suggests, Pielke goes on to assert that in particular climate change has had absolutely no impact on these recent increases in disaster costs, all of which instead can be attributed to the increases in wealth.

“In the last two decades, natural disaster costs worldwide went from about $100 billion per year to almost twice that amount…Indicative of more frequent disasters punishing communities worldwide? Perhaps the effects of climate change? …[A]ll those questions have the same answer: no.”

First of all, anyone with a scientific or statistical background should cringe over the definitiveness of that phrasing. Political pundits eagerly make such bold claims, but not scientists. Scientists back up every claim with an appropriate measure of uncertainty. The difference may seem nitpicky, but for a for a website portrayed as being rigorous and data-driven, it is unacceptable.

Pielke then goes on to say, “When you next hear someone tell you that worthy and useful efforts to mitigate climate change will lead to fewer natural disasters, remember these numbers…” Through his simple data analysis he claims to have proven that climate change has no effect on the frequency of disasters, something an entire body of ongoing research has not.

Predictably, environmentalists and the broader public were quick to jump on the piece, with 80% of the page’s comments being negative. Even climate scientists joined the fray, describing the piece as “deeply misleading” and “surprisingly sloppy.” [3]

In response to the negative press, Nate Silver defended Pielke’s academic credibility but admitted, “[T]hese claims shouldn’t have been included in the story as offhand remarks. These things reflect a poor job of editing on our part.” He then commissioned a rebuttal article from Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at M.I.T. [4]

In his response, Emmanuel criticized several of Pielke’s methods and assertions, including the use of GDP to make claims about climate change as well as Pielke’s analysis of a relatively low amount of data.

Nate Silver defending his blog’s controversial first piece on climate change.

Nate Silver defending his blog’s controversial first piece on climate change.

Many have criticized the media for portraying a controversy over the fundamental science of climate change when they should instead shift gears and focus on the specific impacts and solutions. The debate at highlights some of the issues that can arise when the media does make that change.

As a journalist, how do you report on this (important) topic when the debate lies in minute details and scientific methods above the heads of everyday readers? Moreover, should scientists only publish their results in peer-reviewed academic outlets, or can they bypass this process and report their findings directly to the broader media (as Pielke appears to have done)? [5]



[1] As approximated by GDP

[2] Of course, this (inaccurately) assumes we do not at the same time develop better mitigation technologies.

[3] Pielke wrote an additional response to these scientists defending his claims.

[4] Although I believe publishing Pielke’s article was a mistake, Silver’s response has made me respect the blog even more. Silver posted a response to the criticisms on the blog and even commissioned a rebuttal piece from a well-known climate scientist. This demonstrated incredible journalistic ethics and sets it apart from any other news media I follow.

[5] If you were paying attention, you’ll know the answer is not a simple yes or no!



    Overall, I agree with the above article that the misinformation is troubling, especially as reported as fact. There is enough misinformation touted by politicians and other naysayers who wish to ignore global warming. This is also an extremely relevant modern phenomenon as the media tries to portray the possible dire consequences of a situation that is both scientifically complicated and, as with most scientific fact, hard to prove with 100% certainty. But I also have a few, much more minor issues, with this blogpost. First, the author calls the writer a scientist, though he is a statistician. Though they are both academics, it is more understandable, and possibly less detrimental to an educated reader knowing that the climate change denial was coming from someone whose direct area of expertise is more tangential to rather than entirely concerned with information that would make him a climate change expert. I also think that journalists and others concerned with educating the public have managed to render this information digestible and claiming all the information is over the heads of most readers is ignores that progress.

  2. Patrick Hunnicutt

    It’s always interesting to see the media’s evolving portrayal of climate change, and this case is no exception. While I do agree that and Silver may have engaged in questionable journalism by skewing Pielke’s words, I don’t believe that Pielke engaged in sloppy, inconclusive scientific practices. From my point of view, it seems that he is merely claiming that the net increase in natural disaster costs is attributable to the expansion of wealth, not that climate change has no effect on the frequency of natural disasters. In fact, he acknowledges the role of climate change in increasing the frequency of natural disasters in his statement: “When you next hear someone tell you that worthy and useful efforts to mitigate climate change will lead to fewer natural disasters, remember these numbers…”. Here, he is asserting that natural disasters–regardless of their frequency–will become increasingly costly due to the global expansion of wealth; therefore, any rationalization of climate change mitigation based upon its ability to reduce natural disaster related costs is false.

    However, I do believe that Pielke fails to address the fact that more natural disasters equates to more natural disaster related costs. Net natural disaster expenditure is a function of both natural disaster frequency and expanding wealth. Inevitably, as more natural disasters occur, the total costs of natural disasters will grow, regardless of the expansion of wealth.

  3. Caroline Schechinger

    Your article puts an interesting spin on an otherwise pervasive debate between the general public and scientists regarding climate change. I would agree with you that Pielke grossly misinterprets the relationships among natural disasters, climate change, and human impact (in terms of cost in Pielke’s case). Nonetheless, I do think he does have a point to make; it just seems as if he phrases it much too categorically. That is to say, our increasing “wealth” does have much to do with the cost of natural disasters these days. Just think about coastal erosion along the Outer Banks, (1) or the tremendous importance attributed to mangroves when human-induced destruction of this vegetation proved to greatly exacerbate the damage brought by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, National Geographic’s so-called “deadliest tsunami in history.” (2)

    Along with you and the various climate scientists commenting on Pielke’s article, I agree that one absolutely cannot take climate change out of the picture in evaluating post-natural disaster distress. Taking the Outer Banks again as a case in point, sea level rise relating to anthropogenically induced climate change cannot be ignored. Thus, I think the root of the issue comes down not to Pielke’s particular argument, but the general lack of a common understanding between the general public and the scientific community. I am currently in a geology class in which my professor, Dr. Glass, delineated the ways that basic scientific principles are misunderstood by the public. A theory, for instance, is the absolute pinnacle of scientific understanding, integrating facts, hypotheses, laws, and inferences. The general public, on the other hand, believes that a theory is at the bottom of the totem pole of science–deserving less credibility than laws and facts. Climate change, in the public eye, is “just a theory” when in science “just” and “theory” would never go into the same sentence. Even though climate change is well-established in the scientific sphere, much of the public still turns a blind eye because of these fundamental misunderstandings that are perpetrated by the media.

    One last comment: I agree with the last post that it is not fair to say that journalists must discuss climate change even though “the debate lies in minute details and scientific methods above the heads of everyday readers,” as you put it. Climate change is very real, and individuals who have to deal with their houses being licked away by the ocean little by little would probably disagree that it is minute or difficult to understand. I have faith that the public has the full potential to understand scientific conclusions if presented in the right manner and with palpable implications.


  4. Mona Dai

    Two years ago, I took a environmental science class with Dr. Schaad about natural disasters. One of the key points that I learned from that class actually supports Pielke’s article. My take-away was that humans are largely responsible for their own disasters because we build in hazardous areas. That is, we build tall buildings close to the coast in Florida and Louisiana, both hurricane prone areas, as well as along fault lines in place like California where earthquakes are common. If we didn’t build there, we obviously wouldn’t have these problems so in a way, it is our own fault for creating our own natural disasters.

    With that in mind, I can definitely understand where Pielke comes from in defining the cause of rising natural disaster costs. However, I do agree climate change should not be completely disregarded.

  5. James Bando

    I also was in that Natural Disaster’s course with Mona. I took away the message that we build in these highly disaster prone areas out of a sentimentalism for the past. For example, after Hurricane Katrina, we all saw just how devastating a hurricane along the Louisiana coast can be due to the now depleted wetlands and ocean’s warmer temperature. However even knowing this information, people continue to live in dangerous areas because they’re sentimental for the area. My question from all this is when do we listen to the voice of scientists, perhaps ones like Pielke’s, and respect and learn to not develop land that is severely prone to disaster.

    Though this may seem completely out there and extreme, but perhaps there’ll come a day when we give up on places like coastal Louisiana and decide to put our efforts and money into safer areas. Like Pielke asserts, these disasters are becoming more expensive because we’re just shoving a ton of investment and capital into disaster zones…when/could this ever stop?


    In response to James, (and having not taken the same class and he and Mona) I think this question of sentimentality in choice of human habitation is very intriguing. To a certain extent, I can see the logic behind it. People want to stay rooted in a region that makes them feel connected their their culture and heritage. Take regions like the harsh deserts of the Middle East or the unforgiving cold of Canada or Russia- those places aren’t exactly hospitable or conducive to human survival, but we have cultural stories tied to them, stories that we’re afraid to forsake for fear of forsaking our shared past. Also, roughly 40% of people live within 100 kilometers of a coast presently, no doubt a function of both survival for original settlements and nostalgia for later generations.

    This all being said, however, I find it highly infeasible that there will ever come a point in time in which we collectively decide to stop developing near high-risk coastal areas. Florida has some of the most beautiful beaches in the U.S., and Louisiana Gulf Coast seafood isn’t going to taste the same if it doesn’t come from the Gulf Coast. Part of the reason we fight so hard to preserve the environment is so that we can glean that intrinsic enjoyment from it made readily accessible through nearby developed areas (it’s a lot easier to walk to the Florida beach from your hotel lobby than drive the extra hour from your inland hotel, same goes for Louisiana fishing or swamp tours). So while I don’t agree with Pielke’s ready dismissal of climate change as being a contributing factor to the devastation caused by natural disasters, I can see validity in his point that they are so costly specifically because we have, do, and will continue to build and rebuild at those susceptible locales that are high-risk, but yield high reward (not only to developers, but to those who appreciate the beauty of nature as well).

  7. Rui Wang

    Responding to the three posts above:
    There is a strong difference in engaging in certain risky behaviors and decision with or without the knowledge of the risk and potential consequences. True, it might be over paternalistic to restrict a person from building their house or other facilities on the beach land if they do understand the risk. This is not the problem in most cases. I do agree with James point that there definitely needs a higher attention of the voice of scientists in order for people to appreciate the risk. It is often most dangerous when one acknowledge the existence of an issue yet subjectively dismiss the risk for other causes. This is very much the reason basic education and wider media coverage on climate change are crucial. We will need to establish the understanding of environmental risk before the problem is formulated. Otherwise, it would be really hard for scientist and environmentalist to communicate the risk of building on risk prone areas when the developers are so concentrated on short term account benefits and having the heuristic that disasters are not going to happen.
    Back to the debate on the pieces of Pielke, although the conclusion drawn from the statistic is very wrong, it does rises good questions and cases that I do not often think about when looking at the increasing cost of natural disaster. From this point of view, the publication of the article is actually meaningful. I am glad to learn that Ms. Silver commission a rebuttal instead of taking the article off or discrediting it outright. I hope that the ongoing debate will not only rise the salience of climate change and other related issues, but also allows more comprehensive perspectives to be synthesized.


    I agree with many of the previous comments. Pielke’s initial assertion should be uncontroversial. As assets become more expensive, the nominal cost of their destruction will of course increase. But his second assertion, which infers from this accounting identity a statement about disaster frequency, seems absurd — if taken literally.

    I think Mona’s, James’, and others’ comments about housing location and risk tolerance are particularly interesting. If I understand the correctly, the argument goes something like this: Humans have always built at coastal and other high-risk locations. In the past, this may not have been a problem, since houses/property/other assets had lower real values. But, as the real value of, e.g., homes has increased, the risk/reward tradeoff of building in these areas has become less palatable.

    The question then is: what proportion of the cost increases can be attributed to increased real property values, and what proportion (mechanically, this must be the complement of the first proportion) can be attributed to increased disaster frequency? I think this accounting needs to be clarified and made explicit for the debate to continue constructively.

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