CU-Boulder's Roger Pielke talks about the rising cost of natural disasters

Scientists agree that developing nations could be among the hardest hit by the effects of climate change. But are policymakers focusing enough on helping these countries adapt to the potential impacts of global warming? During today's OnPoint, Roger Pielke, Jr., director of the University of Colorado at Boulder's Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, argues that adaptation should be a higher priority than greenhouse gas regulations. Plus, Pielke explains why climate policy discussions needs to move beyond the Kyoto Protocol.


Darren Samuelsohn: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Darren Samuelsohn. Joining us in the E&ETV studios in Washington is Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Mr. Pielke thanks for coming on the show.

Roger Pielke Jr.: Thanks for having me Darren.

Darren Samuelsohn: You're here in town to talk about natural disasters and the rise of, or the decline of them. Can you give us a sense or synopsis of what your message is?

Roger Pielke Jr.: Yeah, my message is that disasters, and particularly the cost of disasters, have been increasing dramatically in recent years, in recent decades. And people want to understand why because it's important for people who are concerned about loss of life, economic property damage. And want to know what can we do about it? My message is focused on research that I've done for about the past ten years, looking for a signal of climate change, of global warming, which is a real phenomena. But we haven't seen it yet in the disaster record. So my message is that if we really want to improve our responses to disasters we have to focus on reducing vulnerability of people, of property and so on.

Darren Samuelsohn: You've written about sort of the energy that goes into global warming from politicians to local leaders to the public to the financial markets to reporters. And you've said that that energy maybe shouldn't be so focused on climate change. I'm wondering where should that energy be focused?

Roger Pielke Jr.: Well climate change is important. It's a very important topic and we should be devoting a lot of energy and action to it. But we shouldn't make the mistake of confusing a global warming policy with disaster reduction policies. One of the messages I'll have in my talk is that we should separate those things out. If we want to better prepare for future Katrina's the solution is not going to be found in preparing for global warming.

Darren Samuelsohn: Looking at the data, I mean do you dispute the notion that you should link the intensity of hurricanes to global warming?

Roger Pielke Jr.: I don't do research on the intensity of hurricanes, so I'm like most everybody else, you and others, I rely on the scientific community. And leading scientists have said that there is a connection between greenhouse gases and the intensity of storms. So I find that eminently plausible. It seems to me that if you put energy into a system such as we do with greenhouse gases into the climate system, it will have an affect. And making storms more intense seems eminently plausible to me. But it's not the same thing to say that storms become more intense and we have more damage. And that can be a little bit disconcerting for some folks. But you have to realize that the development along our coastlines has been tremendous year to year, over a period of decades. So seeing a signal of global warming in the hurricane damage record can be very difficult in this much larger effect of population growth and development.

Darren Samuelsohn: But the images obviously have an effect on the public. Are they maybe not getting the complete message then when they're watching CNN and they're seeing what happened in New Orleans for example last summer?

Roger Pielke Jr.: Well, this is where it gets to be tricky because obviously people who are advocating for changes in energy policy very much would like to point to Hurricane Katrina and hurricane damages, death and destruction as tools of advocacy because it's salient to people. They can see it and it's tangible. But the problem is if energy policy can't have a material effect on future damages, or a very, very small effect, we're misleading people. And we may be giving them bad policy arguments to take action when other policies such as improving building codes, evacuation routes, land use planning and so on can have a much more immediate and much larger effect on future damages.

Darren Samuelsohn: Should climate change go into the equation though when people are thinking of those ideas, when you're talking about building codes and whatnot?

Roger Pielke Jr.: To some degree, but again, hurricanes happen. They happen in places that are well understood. They've been happening for decades. So these communities should very much be worried about preparing. To the degree that they're under prepared, if indeed it is global warming that gets them a little bit more motivated to act, then that's probably not a bad thing so long as they take the right actions.

Darren Samuelsohn: Your view is one of adaptation more than regulation, is that correct?

Roger Pielke Jr.: Well with respect to the hurricane problem and disasters more generally around the world, it seems that if we really care about loss of life and property damage, then adaptation has to be a major part of our portfolio.

Darren Samuelsohn: Looking at the developing world, I mean, how do you suppose that they should adapt to the threat of climate change or just the threat of rising natural disasters?

Roger Pielke Jr.: Yeah, the developing world has a very different sort of vulnerability than we experience in the United States. It's much more a human vulnerability, much larger loss of life. Several years ago there was a hurricane Gene that went over the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Two very different countries and the exact same storm hit both countries. It shares the same island of Hispaniola. And in Haiti there were thousands of people that lost their life. And in the Dominican Republic almost no one lost their life. That shows how important development and having adequate standards of building codes, land-use policies and so on. So in the developing worlds there's a lot that can be done to make them much more resilient to the effects of natural disasters.

Darren Samuelsohn: And Haiti has major deforestation compared with the Dominican Republic.

Roger Pielke Jr.: Right.

Darren Samuelsohn: Those two countries, their disparities I guess, were not done with climate change of mind. Do you think going forward that they should be thinking these policies forward with climate change in mind or just more just about sustainability?

Roger Pielke Jr.: Yeah, I think with respect to, again, the impacts of disasters, a more general focus on environmental sustainability makes more sense than a very narrow focus on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let's bring it to the United States for a second. And I guess maybe this is something certainly not as severe as the hurricanes in Hispaniola. But you see in the newspaper articles around the country, you hear about the snow pack is going to be decreasing and ski seasons are going to be short in the Pacific Northwest and where you're from in Colorado. The fishing season is going to be shorter in Maine, the ice fishing season, and maybe even recreation in the Outer Banks. I mean how do you make that case than to Americans as they're seeing this connection with global warming?

Roger Pielke Jr.: Now one of the things that we don't do with respect to making arguments about global warming is we don't talk about what the effect of alternative policies are going to be on these outcomes that we care about. We usually stop and we say global warming is going to affect the ski industry and the long list of things that you just described. The important question, it seems to me, is where do policy makers have levers to affect these sorts of impacts? And if, as scientists say, we're already committed to some degree of climate change, then that necessarily means that adaptation will have to be part of our portfolio. But I think policymakers also need to know what sort of impacts can we expect from greenhouse gas reductions with respect to these outcomes that you described?

Darren Samuelsohn: So in 200 years time, are we probably not going to have a skiing industry in the United States? Is that, I guess, just one thing that we have to accept?

Roger Pielke Jr.: Again, this is going to be a function of what the scientists tell us. And, again, predictions are uncertain, but, again, if we're committed to some degree of climate change, the reality is that that part that we're committed to is irreversible. And moving the world energy system is a little bit like turning a large boat. It doesn't happen when you kick it. It happens by a slow gradual movement. So it seems that even if the world gets on the ball and starts acting very quickly on greenhouse gas emissions reductions there is going to be a very large commitment to climate change that we're going to have to deal with.

Darren Samuelsohn: You've said as well that you really shouldn't make promises as a policymaker to try and reduce emissions and tell them, tell people, tell the public that they're going to be able to stop storms and whatnot. I mean are you finding that policymakers are maybe overreaching and making promises that they're just not going to be able to keep?

Roger Pielke Jr.: Well, I think to some degree on the issue of global warming we've got the cart and the horse mixed up. It seems that right now the politics of energy policy are such that there's a lot of bipartisan support for reducing fossil fuel use. The president came out and said there we're addicted to oil and so on. And that the most important, most tangible, best selling reasons for changing energy policy may not be environmental at this point. But if it works and it gets people motivated and it can be properly justified, then I would say we should pay more attention to the politics than necessarily focusing narrowly on the environmental issues.

Darren Samuelsohn: Where do you see, as we go forward and we talk about what's going to happen post Kyoto, where do you see the international dialogue going on this issue?

Roger Pielke Jr.: Yeah, the Kyoto process is very interesting because no one is succeeding, perhaps Sweden is succeeding with respect to Kyoto, but Europe is falling short of its Kyoto commitments. There's not a lot of momentum for more stringent commitments in the period after Kyoto. So I think we're in a period that it may be beneficial that it opens up dialogue on policy options and where to go next. But over the next few years, the Kyoto commitment period is 2008 to 2012, it will be very interesting to see how the international community decides to move forward. From my perspective the best options aren't on the table yet. And we need to start revisiting options going forward.

Darren Samuelsohn: What would those best options be that you would like to see on the table?

Roger Pielke Jr.: Number one is a commitment to talk about new options.

Darren Samuelsohn: Yeah.

Roger Pielke Jr.: This is obviously a very difficult problem, very complicated politics. And people have arrayed themselves on either side of Kyoto, yes or no, which means not a lot of attention has gone into alternatives. And we have a wonderful community of experts on the climate issue around the world. And I think once we break open this two-sided debate on Kyoto, we can focus the attention of many of these experts on, all right, how can we think about doing things a little bit differently?

Darren Samuelsohn: Do you think President Bush has opened up that dialogue to not just about yes or no about Kyoto in terms of sharing technologies with other nations around the world?

Roger Pielke Jr.: Well I think, ironically enough, the Bush administration made a horrible political move from the standpoint of its own interests by pulling out of Kyoto, very dramatically in 2001. Had the Bush administration simply signed on and then commiserated with European partners about how difficult it is to reduce emissions and so on, it probably would have much less attention than it has. I'm not familiar, and I'm not sure too many people are, with the Asian-Pacific partnership and what it means. But I think any option should be put on the table and evaluated rigorously, seriously, because it's pretty clear that whether you're in support of Kyoto or not in support of Kyoto, it's not a solution to the problem.

Darren Samuelsohn: And if you're advising a presidential candidate in 2008 and they want to talk about global warming, what would you tell them to say?

Roger Pielke Jr.: I would tell them to say exactly this, it's time that we look at alternatives. And there are, what I would call, no regrets options to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that we should be much more vigorously taking on. If someone would have said the president talks about addiction to oil five years ago, I would've been laughed out of the room. It seems to me that there's a real bipartisan opportunity for changing energy policy now. And a smart candidate will focus on that and not try to sell to people something that is long term and uncomfortable and hasn't really proven to be sellable in the past.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK. Professor Pielke we're out of time. Thanks so much for being on the show.

Roger Pielke Jr.: Thanks Darren.

Darren Samuelsohn: Until next time, this is Darren Samuelsohn for another edition of OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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