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Should Hurricanes be Part of the Mitigation Debate?

(Posted by Oliver on behalf of Roger)

Our research suggests that the answer to this question is a clear “No!”

With the IPCC reporting that greenhouse gas concentrations can be stabilized at an extremely small cost relative to global GDP, why should advocacy press right up to the scientific frontier where claims are most vigorously contested and knowledge most uncertain? The case for mitigation is already strong without invoking hurricane damages.

And consider this: even if we simply assume that greenhouse gases have a large and immediate impact on hurricane intensities, there is little that mitigation efforts can do anyway to stem the ever-growing economic toll associated with hurricanes.

The reason for this fact is the inexorable development of coastal locations putting more people and wealth into harms way.

I have just had a paper accepted for publication in the Proceedings of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society , to appear in a special issue on climate change and urban areas. In the paper I examine the relative role of human-caused climate change and development for future damages under a wide range of scenarios. And under every scenario the most important factor for addressing future damages is adaptive in nature. I conclude the paper as follows:

This paper finds that under a wide range of assumptions about future growth in wealth and population, and about the effects of human-caused climate change, in every case there is far greater potential to affect future losses by focusing attention on the societal conditions that generate vulnerability to losses. Efforts to modulate tropical cyclone intensities through climate stabilization policies have extremely limited potential to reduce future losses. This conclusion is robust across assumptions, even unrealistic assumptions about the timing and magnitude of emissions reductions policies on tropical cyclone behavior.The importance of the societal factors increases with the time horizon.

This does not mean that climate stabilization policies do not make sense or that policy makers should ignore influences of human-caused climate change on tropical cyclone behavior. It does mean that efforts to justify emissions reductions based on future tropical cyclone damages are misleading at best, given that available alternatives have far greater potential to achieve reductions in damage. The most effective policies in the face of tropical cyclones have been and will continue to be adaptive in nature, and thus should play a prominent role in any comprehensive approach to climate policy.

So as hurricane season approaches, advocates for action on climate mitigation would be well served by playing to their strengths and avoiding using hurricanes to promote their cause. However, I’d bet that the images of storm-spawned death and destruction are far too tempting for some. If so, that would be a shame because it would distract from a case for mitigation that is already plenty solid.

A pre-publication version of my paper can be found at the link below.

Pielke, Jr., R. A., 2007 (accepted). Future Economic Damage from Tropical

Cyclones: Sensitivities to Societal and Climate Changes, Proceedings of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. (PDF)

Posted by Oliver on behalf of Roger Pielke Jr.


  1. Report this comment

    Brian S. said:

    AGW damages from increased tropical storms could be used very appropriately to justify or increase a carbon tax. The tax is a mitigation, and the monies could be used for adaptation or further mitigation, depending on cost effectiveness.

  2. Report this comment

    piglet said:

    “efforts to justify emissions reductions based on future tropical cyclone damages are misleading at best, given that available alternatives have far greater potential to achieve reductions in damage.”

    Available “alternatives” like what? Relocating millions of people out of potentially vulnerable areas?

    “the inexorable development of coastal locations putting more people and wealth into harms way.” Amazing choice of words, “inexorable development”. If you are saying that development policy should be changed to seriously take hurricane vulnerability into account, no sane person would disagree with that. How this can be turned around to become an argument against mitigation, I cannot logically comprehend.

    I’m now getting a message: “Please try to post your comment again in a short while.” 🙁 I have the impression that the folks maintaining this site have never seen how a blog works. Btw the “recent comments” section doesn’t work properly. 🙁 Anyway, I have seen enough.

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    Thom said:

    Dr. Pielke, I’m wondering about a small detail. Your paper lists 24 citations, but many of them are not peer-reviewed articles. Some are only letters. And of the 24 citations, the first author on 5 of the more pertinent sources (roughly 20%) is Roger Pielke Jr. That makes you the most frequently cited author in your own paper, and some of these sources are also not peer-reviewed.

    Is it normal to list several sources for an article that are not peer-reviewed?

    Is it common to list numerous self-citations?


  4. Report this comment

    Roger Pielke, Jr. said:

    Thanks for the comments, all, a few replies.


    On the time scale that this paper looks at (2050) SLR is not a significant factor in damage. Consider that sea levels rose by about 20 cm over the past 100 years and it is impossible to see this in the historical record of damage.

    Brian S.- I suggest that you re-read the paper.

    piglet- My paper is not an argument against mitigation. It states quite clearly that the analysis “should not diminish the importance of mitigation policies in response to climate change”

    Thom- Not sure I understand your questions, but by my quick count about 18 of the references are peer-reviewed. And yes it certainly does build on our previous work.

    Thanks all!

  5. Report this comment

    Fergus Brown said:

    Roger: I don’t disagree that the emphasis on hurricane potential is problematic, and therefore is confusing the issue of mitigation rather than helping it, but I also suggest that it is, to the general public, currently the most significant ‘weather effect’ for them to worry about, and is such because of the extent of media coverage over the past couple of years. As such, even though it neither strengthens nor weakens the argument for mitigation, it has a value in communication to the public. If TC intensity or frequency were able to be shown to be dependent on climate changes (GW), then the argument for mitigation, in the USA at least, would be much strengthened.

    I also am confused about the decoupling of sea level from damage. Surely, a large proportion of damage from TCs is via storm surges? If sea level rises, surges become more potent. Or am I confused?


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    Thom said:

    Roger, I don’t understand your confusion. By your own count, only 2/3 of the references are peer-reviewed. My question is pretty clear, pretty simple. Is it common to have several citations that are not peer-reviewed?

    For instance, one of your central citations is from this journal “Energy and Environment.” Well, that journal has a troubling history of serving as a platform for skeptics, who publish contrarian articles that were channeled back to Republicans, such as Senator Inhofe, to use as talking points. And the editor for the past decade of the journal is a very public skeptic named Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen. Besides her rants about climate change and the IPCC, she also expresses fringe opinions on acid rain and ozone depletion. To call her “outside the mainstream” is generous.

    Why would you publish in such a forum. And then why would you continue to cite such a paper when it’s obvious that it is not peer-reviewed and poor in quality?

  7. Report this comment

    bubba said:


    Forgive me for butting in here, but the bibliography for this paper is apparently common enough to be “Accepted for publication in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society” as is clearly stated on the title page.

    As the paper has obviously been accepted by this peer reviewed journal, that seems rather straightforward doesn’t it? Why the confusion?

    Perhaps your question is better directed to the Royal Society itself. I’d suggest the “Referee’s Guidelines” page as a start:



  8. Report this comment

    Roger Pielke, Jr. said:


    Thanks. I have two replies.

    1. You assert that “If TC intensity or frequency were able to be shown to be dependent on climate changes (GW), then the argument for mitigation, in the USA at least, would be much strengthened.” I’d agree that this is the thinking behind such arguments, but science can be a doubled-edged sword. If you advance this argument and it turns out that TCs are not strongly dependent on GW, then this approach would likely backfire in public and political debate. With the IPCC arguing that mitigation can occur at relatively low cost, without using hurricanes, why take the risk?

    2. The second point is found in the analysis in my paper. Even if there is a strong connection between TCs and GW the reality is that mitigation would never be the main policy response to arresting damage.


    Aha, now your question is clear! 😉 And your questions are fair ones.

    1. Yes, researchers often rely on non-peer reviewed sources, in this case including a report by the World Bank, a paper from the Exeter stabilization conference, a pre-publication paper by Bill Nordhaus, a report by the UN, and a letter to Science. Sources such as these are typically referred to as “grey literature” which I see discussed here:

    2. On our Energy and Environment paper from 1999, had we known then how that outlet would evolve beyond 1999 we certainly wouldn’t have published there. The journal is not carried in the ISI and thus its papers rarely cited. (Then we thought it soon would be.) We were invited to submit a piece in 1997 or 1998 and we had this in prep and sent it in.

    However, I’ll stand by the analysis in that paper (which has been discussed on our blog in depth). So if you have questions or comments about that paper, or even better, this paper (on which you are closely examining the bibliography but not the paper itself) please do share them! 😉

    And remember that this paper is peer-reviewed and is appearing in a pretty high-quality outlet.


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    Eli Rabett said:

    Roger, While your paper looked at a 2050 horizon, the IPCC AR4 looks considerably beyond that, principally to 2100, but not exclusively. To criticize the IPCC on the grounds that your paper only looked at a 2050 horizon is odd.

    Moreover, as you know there is considerable uncertainty about sea level rise due to ice cap melting (esp Greenland), to the degree that the AR4 SPM essentially threw up its hands and said more work done here, we cannot estimate this with any degree of certainty. Thus the potential for higher (say 1 m or more) global sea level rise by 2100 is there and you have to confront the issue of what that will do when coupled to storm surge damage.

    Further, as was pointed out by piglet, you have to figure out how to unsettle trillions of dollars and billions of people worth of real estate. Of course, there is always the Bush final plan for New Orleans method

  10. Report this comment

    piglet said:

    “My paper is not an argument against mitigation.”

    Right, I should have said “How this can be turned around to become an argument against the relevance of mitigation” rather than “against mitigation”. I think you are saying that GW mitigation is irrelevant to hurricanes since hurricane damage will increase anyway, and adaptive development policies are needed anyway, even without climate change. But just because hurricanes are a problem even without considering GW doesn’t warrant the conclusion that GW effects on hurricane intensity need not be considered, or communicated to the public.

  11. Report this comment

    Mark Bahner said:

    Roger Pielke Jr. wrote, “efforts to justify emissions reductions based on future tropical cyclone damages are misleading at best, given that available alternatives have far greater potential to achieve reductions in damage.”

    “Piglet” responded, “Available ‘alternatives’ like what? Relocating millions of people out of potentially vulnerable areas?”

    One potential alternative I can think of is to develop and deploy a hurricane storm surge protection system that would consist of as much as 100 miles of water-filled tubes that would be deployed along shorelines and across open shallow water. The system would be portable (to be deployed anywhere along the Gulf Coast or East Coast), and would be capable of being moved into place and “constructed” (essentially filled with water) in 2-4 days.

    For example, for hurricane Katrina, such a system could have been deployed from Pascagoula, MS, along the shoreline, then out to the Chandaleur (barrier) Islands in Louisiana, and finally terminating at the Mississippi Delta, somewhere south of Point a la Heche.

    See item C in the photograph for the Chandeleur Islands:

    Mississippi delta and Chandeleur Islands

    I envision such a system costing less than $5 billion to develop and produce, and less than $1 billion for each deployment.

    Since the cost of storm surge for Katrina alone was over $80 billion, such a system would have paid for itself more than 10 times over, simply from that one hurricane.

    If a storm similar to Katrina (i.e. Category 3 hurricane) hits New York City in the coming decades, it could easily result in $500 billion (half a TRILLION) dollars in damage, due to flooding of most of the structures on Long Island, most major tunnels into NYC (e.g. Holland Tunnel, Brooklyn Battery Tunnel), many subway entrances, and flooding of JFK and LaGuardia airports.

    However, a hurricane storm surge protection system could theoretically eliminate or greatly reduce all that damage.

  12. Report this comment

    Roger Pielke, Jr. said:


    Who is criticizing the IPCC on this thread? Not me.

    Also, my paper is about hurricane losses, not sea level rise losses. See Tol and Nicholls on the latter.


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    okazii said:

    Have you ever considered adding more videos to your blog posts to keep the readers more entertained? I mean I just read through the entire article of yours and it was quite good but since I’m more of a visual learner,I found that to be more helpful.

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