Climate Gate at The Royal Institution: Has Global Warming Increased the Toll of Disasters?

On Friday 5th February James Randerson convened a panel of climate scientists to discuss the mess the IPCC has got itself into. Bob Ward, Robert Muir-Wood and Roger Pielke took up the challenge.

Written by Amelia Gregory

Royal Institution lecture hall
Royal Institution lecture hall by Abi Daker

So, we all know there’s been a bit of a hoo-hah following the disclosure of some important emails that reveal that the data featured as key facts in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate change may not be 100% correct. You do know about this, right? It’s been front page of the Guardian for a while… and perhaps more importantly it’s given all those climate change deniers out there a huge amount of grist for their petty little mill. And that really is bad news.

I haven’t been following the ins and outs of this fandango in massive detail but when my parents invited me along to this hastily convened Royal Institution lecture I leapt at the chance to perch on their infamous red velvet tiered seating amongst the great and the good (read: a mix of moneyed old fogeys with too much time on their hands and geeky young science types who would rather engage in debate than go to the pub on a Friday night).

James Randerson
Portraits by Amelia Gregory

We were introduced to the panel by James Randerson, environment editor at the Guardian and wearer of silly striped tie. You’ve gotta love that look. It was mere moments, I tell you, before the heckling started… James put the slightly ambiguous question “Has global warming increased the toll of natural disasters?” to the panelists, which immediately prompted yelps for clarification from indignant men all around me. “Over what period of time, and what kind of cost?” asked one. (Certain men seem to get very difficult the older they get, have you noticed?) James looked sufficiently rattled – “Can we at least agree that there is man made global warming?” he asked, pleaded. “NO!” came the emphatic answer from a man with wild hair and an even wilder look in his eye, sitting just to my right. Uh oh, I was in the close company of a denialist – this should be fun! “Gosh, I didn’t think this would be so hard!” chuckled James nervously.

Robert Muir-Wood

And then we were racing straight into the presentations, starting with leading climate scientist Robert Muir-Wood, who talked two to the dozen as he raced through slides. Since 2001 there has been huge hype over “disaster costs” with the media being “whipped into a frenzy”, and predictions of up to 500% more floods, mudslides, hailstorms, droughts, ice storms and wildfires being reported as possibilities of the near future. It’s worth noting that Muir-Wood has close links with the insurance industry, who would clearly benefit from increased premiums if the cost of disasters were expected to increase. In 2003 the French experienced “la canicule” – a summer of such intense heat (the hottest in 500 years) that thousands died. But then there was a “death deficit” in the following year. Was this because the vulnerable were looked after better or they’d all died already? Muir-Wood used this as an example of how hard it is to read and understand data without looking at the bigger picture. Another example he used is the major investments made in infrastructures over recent years; for instance Japan has thrown “huge amounts of concrete at flood defences” since 1959, when Typhoon Vera, the strongest Japanese storm in recorded history, hit its shores. Consequently the storm would have had a dramatically lower cost if it had happened today. These outlying factors make it very hard to accurately predict or assess statistics. He concluded that there is only a trend for elevated costs (of disasters) if you look at graphs since the 1970s.

Bob Ward

Bob Ward, who works for LSE, then took centre stage to defend the IPCC. “As always there is a caveat,” he explained; “is any one event an effect of climate change? It’s so hard to match the attribution, which makes it difficult to map trends.” Behind him a slide detailed how climate change might decrease the chance of frost at night, which prompted some loud chuckles from the denialists in the audience, who as ever, seem confused by the difference between climate and weather. Bob clarified that we must look at the numbers of people affected and we can clearly see that insurance losses have risen since the 1950s which means many more people have been displaced or injured by natural events. A funny little graph proved the point that floods, droughts, storms and earthquakes have become the biggies in terms of human cost. However, there is as yet, insufficient evidence of a firm link with climate change. Naturally, the biggest losses have happened where the greatest number of people and properties have been involved.

A version of the "funny little graph" A.K.A. Extreme Weather Events & Natural Disasters, by Abi Daker (disclaimer: this may not be accurate)
A version of the “funny little graph” A.K.A. Extreme Weather Events & Natural Disasters, by Abi Daker (disclaimer: this may not be accurate)

Roger Pielke

And then it was time for the spanner in the works to take to the stand. Roger Pielke is a specialist in analysing how science intersects with decision making from the University of Colorado. “Uncertainty. Get used to it,” he announced. His conclusions came first and seemed to echo those of Ward’s. “Societal factors alone are responsible for increased losses,” he postulated, but emphasised that he advocates decarbonising the economy anyway because 1.5 billion people don’t have access to fossil fuels and need to find alternative energy supplies. “This could also deal with the thorny, messy climate change problem.” He then talked us clearly through his immaculate presentation, showing us that according to Excel there is no upward trend for disaster losses between 1900-2001. Yup, his graph appeared to be flatlining alright. And then we came to it: Pielke’s unequivocal evidence that despite the views of experts the IPCC saw fit to publish misleading data in its 2007 report, even alluding to his own agreement to use a problematic graph, which had not been given. “If the data doesn’t support the claim, don’t publish it!” This evinced yet more excited snorts from the denialist next to me, and when I glanced over at Bob Ward he was shifting uncomfortably in his seat. Oooooh, the graphs had been drawn and it was time for blood – sorry I mean questions – from the audience.

A lump appeared, bumping along the velvet curtains behind the stage, beating a hasty but unsubtle retreat out of the auditorium and momentarily distracting Randerson. “Are we in disagreement over the vulnerability of planet, or the process of science?” asked someone. Because actually the reason everyone had come to this lecture was to find out how the process of the IPCC could have fallen apart so dramatically. Apart from the denialists of course, and one in particular. “I am from Weather Action,” said the loudly snorting man next to me. “We are long range forecasters, and our evidence shows that CO2 does not drive climate, which has all been made up by carbon traders and fraudulent people.” In fact, according to Piers Corbyn, all extreme events are caused by the sun. All of them folks. Nothing to do with us spunking vast quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. You know, I just don’t get how some humans can be so entirely arrogant, to think that our activities will never affect our fragile planet. I wonder how history will look back on people like Corbyn, who wanted to know if the IPCC could now be scrapped so we can “prepare for ‘real’ disasters?” Pielke categorically declined to engage in a debate “that can be held elsewhere” – i.e. whether climate change is happening (yawn). Muir-Wood reminded Piers that he prophezised chaotic wind storms four years ago. “We’re 85% right!” heckled Corbyn. Ward went further still. “There’s no end to my disagreement with Piers,” he said. “I don’t know where to start.” I got the impression that he’s met Corbyn before. After the debate I took a rubbishy designed printout from Corbyn (Why are spurious campaigning bodies so good at bad graphic design? It’s endemic. Please debate.) My favourite box out reads: CRUSADE AGAINST THE SCIENCE DENIERS! Print out this newssheet and show it to a Global Warmer you know and ask them: “Is all this from solar flares, to the ionosphere, the stratosphere, Scotland, China & the Timor Sea caused by driving cars?” Yup, you’re winning me over with that argument alright. (If you know what he’s on about can you let me know please? Ta.)

Earthquake-Abi Daker
A disaster by Abi Daker. Which may or may not be attributable to climate change.

Muir-Wood then made a most pertinent point for a social media addict like myself, which was that the data for climate change is not static, and this is the major stumbling block of a one-off report such as that produced in 2007 by the IPCC. New data is being discovered or disproved all the time and the way in which such information is shared on a global level must become more fluid otherwise reports too quickly become outdated. Of course the internet provides the perfect forum for such an idea, and the organisation of a scientific advisory body such as the IPCC must reflect this.

Someone then raised a query about the amount of money the IPCC receives to do its work, which led to the clarification that the IPCC is run along similar lines to any academic body, with scientists contributing their time and knowledge because they think it’s worthwhile and not for financial gain. And herein lies one of the biggest problems. Whilst folks like IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri must find work elsewhere (for Indian mining conglomerate TATA, which stands to make large sums from “climate doom scenarios”) there will by necessity be a conflict of interests. Our worthy panelists appeared to be in universal agreement that the IPCC needs to be reformed. “But it needs to cost more to do a good job,” said Muir-Wood. “The problem is that everything is done on the cheap,” agreed Pielke. Perhaps if some proper cash was spent on collecting and refining climate change data there would be less need to use “grey data” and there would be fewer mishaps of the kind that is now rocking the scientific community. It seems obvious that a lack of resources has led to corner cutting, and as Pielke pointed out there needs to be clear boundaries between producing data and giving political advice. If more money is spent on the IPCC then there will automatically be more accountability, and more trust.

By the end of this whirlwind journey into the minds of climate scientists Ward, Pielke and Muir-Wood, the protagonists seemed to be in agreement that since the 1970s there have definitely been increases in the cost of natural disasters. But a final show of hands from the audience showed that not many people (far less than at the start of the lecture) believed that global warming has increased the toll of natural disasters. I myself was part of the “don’t knows” because although I suspect it to be so, the correlation has clearly never been shown. This final moment highlighted just how much damage the revelations of the past few months have incurred; wherein people have looked at the brouhaha in the media and concluded that all scientists are liars who will happily bend the truth to suit their own means. And yes, it seems some have indeed cobbled together dodgy information, and in doing so have massively set back the most important movement of our lifetimes – 25% of the population now believes that climate change is not a serious issue, which is devastating news when we have so much work to do. If data cannot be proved then it clearly shouldn’t be used. What were those scientists thinking?

But, remember this – as Bob Ward surmised (and I’m paraphrasing here, obviously he didn’t say the t-word and all other poor language is entirely my own). “Are you willing to take the risk that climate change is all a load of old twaddle? No, we don’t know how much it will affect us or when, but affect us it will. If we do nothing we risk suffering the most serious consequences, and they ain’t pretty my friends.” Yes, human beings (even scientists) are fallible. The IPCC has made mistakes. Hopefully some important lessons have been learnt about how data is collected and presented, and what it might cost to do a good job. But we mustn’t let a tiny set-back stop us from striving for a different world, one where the battle against climate change encompasses so much more than just the environment. It’s about making the world a better place for all, and that means massive changes in how humans live.


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16 Responses to “Climate Gate at The Royal Institution: Has Global Warming Increased the Toll of Disasters?”

  1. thank you Amelia for this blog (I don’t think Bob Ward is so fat and menacing as your drawing of him 8-) )

    By all means, let’s strive for a different world, only let’s do it based on good evidence, avoiding massaging the numbers, steering clear of information cobblers, and without the language of Armageddon and the manipulation of people’s fears…

    As for Ward’s question, “Are you willing to take the risk that climate change is all a load of old twaddle?”, it sounds to me like a reductio ad absurdum. I am definitely not willing to take the risk of ruining societies and economies wholesale in order to act in panic to counteract the potential risks of climate change.

    Why, let’s manage those risks in a serious manner instead…

  2. Amelia says:

    HI Maurizio, thanks for your comment and for your wonderful tweets through the lecture. But actually, I do believe that we need to completely reorder society – as I say, the problems we face are about so much more than stopping climate change. We’re in a mess, and climate change is merely a manifestation of that disorder. If you read a few more of my posts you might get a better idea of where I am coming from, especially when I am writing about Climate Camp. I hope you will peruse the site a bit further!

  3. Amelia says:

    PS, yes I don’t think Bob looks quite this bad! sorry Bob, if you see this…

  4. Simon says:

    He will…

  5. Tom Fuller says:

    Amelia, thank you for this. I listened to the audio and your summary is excellent–and it’s more entertaining than the actual recording. (small typo correction, it’s 1.5 billion, not million, without access to energy)

  6. Josh says:

    Hi Amelia. I didnt see you drawing away but very glad there was another artist there – I was drawing away in the front row. My reflections and some cartoons are on Bishop Hill’s blog – link below.

    I quite agree about changing society – I just dont think you can sway opinion with fibs and the RI debate was all about just that.

    If the science is rock solid it will win and no one needs to hide data or create fearsome doomsday scenarios to drive change.

    Happy drawing!

  7. Amelia says:

    wow, great blog Josh! followed by a stream of comments…. I was also twittering like a muthafucka through the event. you can follow my twitter stream of consciousness here:

  8. Amelia says:

    Hi Tom, thanks for pointing this out, I shall have to trust you on this because Pielke has read the blog and didn’t notice the typo himself!

  9. charlesH says:


    I think many share your view:

    “But actually, I do believe that we need to completely reorder society – as I say, the problems we face are about so much more than stopping climate change.”

    AGW is just a tool to achieve your more fundamental goal to “completely reorder society”.

  10. Mike says:

    My biggest problem is with Ward’s assertion: “we don’t know … but … If we do nothing we risk suffering the most serious consequences…”

    As Dr. John Christy, an IPCC lead author, said, “Our ignorance about the climate system is enormous, and policy makers need to know that. This is an extremely complex system, and thinking we can control it is hubris.”
    This, IMHO is the most important point in the whole issue, so I could go with Ward if he had stopped with, ‘we don’t know.’

    Of course he is using the terribly applied ‘precautionary principle.’ But in light of Christy’s important point, Ward’s point withers.

    And add to this what Prof. Lindzen of MIT states: “One of the things the scientific community is pretty agreed on is those things [CO2 caps] will have virtually no impact on climate no matter what the models say. So the question is do you spend trillions of dollars to have no impact? And that seems like a no brainer.”

    In our broken world economy of bankrupt countries seriosly in debt, do we want to waste money we don’t have on pie-in-the-sky ’solutions’?

  11. Neil says:

    A great blog Amelia. You should take this up professionally. You observations were superb and so refreshing to hear. Sorry we didn’t see an artist impression of Piers

  12. Amelia says:

    hi Charles, thanks for commenting – but what is AGW pray tell? sorry if I am being dim!

  13. Amelia says:

    hi neil
    thanks, I am not sure how to take that, as, erm, this is kind of what I do professionally…. I spent a lot of time last year writing my book, Amelia’s Anthology of Illustration (featuring renewable technologies to prevent catastrophic climate change) but I’m definitely going to be concentrating on writing more about climate change on this website in 2010. And yes, you’re right, I should have hunted down a pic of Piers Corbyn too! I wonder if he’s read this yet… I suspect we shall hear from him if he does!

  14. charlesH says:


    AGW is anthropological global warming. Warming caused by man.

    My point being many people want to believe that AGW is significant because it can be used to support some other agenda. They take the IPCC at face value.

    Others, seeing that carbon caps/taxes will keep the poor poor are much more skeptical of IPCC positions. They want scientific proof not mere speculations.

  15. Jonni says:

    “But actually, I do believe that we need to completely reorder society – as I say, the problems we face are about so much more than stopping climate change.”

    That, I feel makes your argument regarding climate change disingenuous at best. How about addressing the problems you are concerned about rather than using climate change as a hammer looking for a nail sticking up.

    To what degree climate change is occurring because of human activity, and to what degree the data behind the science may be false or poorly analyzed, is truly irrelevant when then entire debate is just a foil for another hidden agenda. It is deceit in the details vs. deceit in the macro agenda. Who cares, it is still deceit. It doesn’t matter whether the science is proven, the data is accurate, the predictions are credible if what we are trying to do is solve a different problem. On that point, we do agree.

    And with respect to the “what if it’s true, can we take the chance” argument, doing something also has equally disruptive, serious consequences. Why should we choose one over the other? Sort of like: if I don’t do this, life might be really miserable, but if I DO it, life will definitely be miserable. Hmmm which odds would I choose, based on what information?

  16. [...] the Royal Institution. The illustrations & the fantastic article they accompanied can be seen here on Amelia’s Magazine. .gallery { margin: auto; } .gallery-item { float: left; margin-top: 10px; text-align: center; [...]

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