Sunday, January 22, 2006

Missing something from RP Jr.'s "Turning the big knob" paper on hurricanes

Either I am missing something from Roger Pielke Jr.'s 2000 article "Turning the big knob," or the article itself is missing something. As its subtitle says, it discusses energy policy as a means to reduce weather impacts, and basically concludes, don't bother. I'm not so sure.

The paper attempts a quantitative analysis of increased economic damages from hurricanes whose intensity have been increased by global warming, comparing that to analysis of the increased hurricane costs resulting from projected economic growth in coastal areas that would occur even if the climate were unchanged. The basic argument is that growth costs far exceed the climate change costs, and therefore climate change hurricane costs should be ignored. Climate will increase hurricane costs by about 40-50%, according to the studies cited in the paper. That increase, compared to an assumed $10 billion in annual global hurricane damages in 2000, is $4-5 billion.

By contrast, economic growth and assumed hurricane damages in the future would be 300-600%. Because the damage related to economic growth on lands vulnerable to hurricane far exceeds damages related to climate change, "policies addressing social factors.... [controlling land use rather climate change policies aimed at reducing hurricane effects] should play the predominant role in solicetal response to future extreme weather events.... [several pages later] policy responses to tropical cyclones and other extreme weather events should be decoupled from considerations of energy policy."

There are several problems with this argument, the most important of which is that it ignores the combined effects of climate change and increased economic value. This omission is the most striking because it is the most realistic option for the future: our likely future is that we will do little about climate change and do little to redirect land-use growth away from the coasts. Because they acknowledge that economic damages could increase 50% due to global warming, the actual comparison should be a 50% increase over the 300-600% increase in hurricane damages that would result from their projections of economic growth. That is not chicken feed, and should not be ignored.

Another major problem is the implicit assumption that by controlling land-use, one can in effect relocate away from global warming. Once that implicit assumption is stated outright, the problem with it is obvious. Channeling land-use growth away from hurricane vulnerability while doing nothing about global warming could just increae warming-related costs elsewhere.

A third major problem parallels the problem with Bjorn Lomborg's critique of a lack of economic analysis over global warming, particularly a lack of cost-benefit analysis. The IPCC rejected this for reasons discussed in the Scientific American critique of Lomborg's work (from

"Application and extension of the economic paradigm certainly focuses attention of cost measures that are denominated in currency, but practitioners have been criticized on the grounds that these measures inadequately recognize non-market costs... Their list [of overlooked measures] includes monetary losses, loss of life, changes in the quality of life (including a need to migrate, conflict over resources, cultural diversity, loss of cultural heritage sites etc.), species or biodiversity loss and distributional equity" (Chapter 2, Working Group 2, section 2.5.6).

Some additional problems:

  • Damage estimates are artificially low because they come primarily from a time when hurricanes were at a low point in their long-term cycle. Recalibrating the damages to include more intense hurricane cycles we are experiencing now would give much larger figures.
  • It's dated. It's from 2000, and relies extensively on 1996 IPCC assessments, which rely on still earlier studies. This isn't a flaw of the study itself, but rather than relying on it, the work should be done again with updated information.
  • It ignores costs resulting from redirecting land use. Businesses that want to locate in Louisiana may find Ohio less profitable. Equally important, much of the economic appreciation is fixed with existing land, homes, and businesses. Tearing up an existing beachfront home and moving it somewhere inland isn't going to give you anywhere near the same value, let alone the future appreciated value.
Finally, while I acknowledge that changing energy policy will be difficult, my professional work is in land use. I think trying to infuse rationality in land use, especially if it affects the development potential of private property, is incredibly difficult. Energy policy may be more than the "big knob." Compared to changing land use, it may be low hanging fruit.

So I will e-mail RP Jr. and see if he has anything to say to set me straight. I would be happy to include that here in the post, or any comments on this posted in the comments sections would be welcomed as well.

UPDATE: Roger's response is here. I'll take some time to think about it.

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