16 May 2011

On Attribution, A Response to Parmesan et al.

In the current issue of Nature Climate Change I have a correspondence in response to the commentary by Camille Parmesan and colleagues on attribution of specific biodiversity outcomes to human caused climate change. They argued:
The biological world is responding rapidly to a changing climate, but attempts to attribute individual impacts to rising greenhouse gases are ill-advised.
Keith Kloor had a nice discussion of that piece when it came out.

In my response, I focus on the underlying political incentives for such claims of attribution:
Parmesan and co-authors1 offer a welcome tonic to overstated claims that attribute various localized changes in biological systems to human-induced climate change. However, their Commentary is off target when it lays blame for the misguided focus on attribution on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “effectively yield[ing] to the contrarians’ inexhaustible demands for more ‘proof.’” As compelling as battle with the sceptics seems to be in virtually every aspect of the climate issue, the overstated role of attribution in the climate debate has a far more prosaic origin in the fundamental design of the Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Read the rest of my response here in PDF.

If you are interested in learning more about how the political context of climate policy creates incentives for claims of attribution, and how this hurts climate policy, please see Chapter 6 in The Climate Fix as well as these two papers:

Pielke, Jr., R. A. (2004), What is climate change?. Issues in Science and Technology 20 (4) 31-34.

Pielke, Jr., R. A. (2005), Misdefining ‘‘climate change’’: consequences for science and action. Environmental Science & Policy 8 (6) 548-561.


  1. Contrary to the 'the contrarians made me do it' assertion cited here, it was the constant stream of negative attribution studies publicized in the media that first made me suspicious of the global warming program.

    Bias isn't difficult to recognize when they're dropping steam-shovel loads of it on your head. Are we to believe that the first half of the 20th Century was the Panglossian best of all possible worlds, and any change must necessarily be bad? Where were the studies showing the contrary case - expansion of range and population numbers? Surely some species somewhere would have to benefit from a slight increase in air temps regionally. But no - all results were biased in the negative. And that's what caught my attention. And that was before the rise of the public climate skeptics, and before blogs existed.

  2. History is replete with Chicken Little warnings of impending doom from "experts". The warnings never cease and they never cease to be wrong. Arrogant error appears to be a fundamental attribute of being an expert. If corelation were causation, one would be advised to investigate if hubris is being issued to doctoral candidates along with their cap and gown.

    In any event, experts are an affliction that society seems destined to bear and since the education system keeps spitting them out in growing numbers, we aren't likely to see Chicken Little retire any time soon. If we are lucky, the education system will begin instructing all students on the poor track record for experts and voters will stop putting unwarranted faith in them.