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!