Pielke Jr.: Three rules for making sense of “event attribution” studies.

Roger Pielke Jr. has a blog post of interest: “How to be a smart consumer of climate attribution claims:
Three rules for making sense of “event attribution” studies.” I read this with an eye toward attributing megafires to climate change.


Recent years have seen a proliferation of single “event attribution” claims that are quickly churned out in the aftermath of notable extreme weather events. These analyses typically lead with strong claims of a connection between climate change and the event that just happened.

Last month I explained a bit about such claims:

Single-event attribution uses climate models to calculate the odds that a particular extreme event was made more likely as a direct and attributable consequence of human-caused climate change. Such studies generally look at two scenarios, one a counterfactual based on no increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere and the other with observed increased concentrations. Then, models run under the two different scenarios are compared to see if the probability of extreme events similar to the one in question became more likely in the model runs with more greenhouse gases.

Today, I offer three rules for accepting such claims from a scientific perspective consistent with the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Event attribution claims are worth scrutiny because their underlying methodology was developed explicitly to support climate lawsuits, promote climate advocacy and attract media attention. You can read more about the politics of such claims here. [emphasis added]

It is troubling that I feel like I have to say this out loud — We should not allow the political significance of a topic to overshadow scientific rigor.

10 thoughts on “Pielke Jr.: Three rules for making sense of “event attribution” studies.”

  1. Even more troubling is yet another Wilent straw man argument claiming event attribution rather than combined trends of all fires over time is what’s important just so he can reference why his enemy is wrong because furthering his political justifications matter more than furthering legitimate science that takes a more comprehensive look like the charts and graphs in this post on California wildfire trends: https://blog.ucsusa.org/carly-phillips/climate-change-is-turning-californias-wildfire-season-into-wildfire-year/

    Or rather, the political significance of a forest management agenda (deforestation/tree killing) is entirely ok and allowed to overshadow scientific rigor as long as it pleases Steve Wilent’s dream for logging as much forest as possible in the name of preventing wildfire, and the more laws that protect the environment that can be eliminated to allow more logging the better. Same old Steve routine, just a different day. He’ll never admit that sometimes you can thin too much; he’ll never admit that sometimes lawsuits that stop logging have protected a forest in a substantive way even when the scientists and the judges agree, Steve will never agree that cutting down trees can be harmful sometimes.

    Because everyone knows rigorous science and politics has proven, drought, high winds and low humidity has nothing to do with wildfire severity and only a lack of vegetation management and tree huggers that use propaganda and lawsuits to prevent us from killing the forest to save it is the problem.

    It’s as if y’all think that natural forests succession via clusters of saplings and seedlings no longer has a role in ensuring the most resilient trees survive despite hundreds of millions of years of forests growing this way. Not so says, Wilent, who is forever convinced that’s irrelevent and we need to chainsaw to death every last patch of trees to make it look like a well spaced zero understory vegetation tree farm because that’s the magic trick that what will stop high winds, drought and low humidity and thus prevent high intensity wildfire.

    Clearly Wilent is not, nor has he ever been an honest advocate of science, just another chainsaw user who’s pushing a political agenda that is not backed up by modern science only outdated timber industry tree farm science that has been disproven for lacking long term resilience for the greater living system.

    It this really the hill your’re willing to die on? Sure seems like it… And I’ll do my best to make sure I’m still teaching forestry student 40 years from now the truth of your anti-science, pro-logging agenda and how it became obsolete in the same way that blood letting and blowing smoke up people’s ass was once thought to be the most advanced way for a doctor to cure a sick person.

    • I’m not Steve, but for me “people in the future might not like you or may judge you” is not a compelling reason to change my views. Well, actually the fact that people in the present might not like me or may judge me is not a compelling reason either.

      Now if you would engage and try to understand why we differ in our views, that’s a different story.

      • Hi Sharron, that was a fairly rude comment on my part… It’s born of the frustration that the time-tested natural sciences are constantly being trumped by industrial sciences that are based on optimizing exploitation rather than optimizing right relations. It’s so exasperating the amount of denial of deforestation in my studies of forest governance in all the countries of the world…

        As for you personally, I’ve found this pattern in your commenting on my comments often. You seem to prefer to resort to pointing out most irrelevant/misworded part of my comment to point out what wrong with my my points rather than keeping focused on the more substantive parts that could lead to greater dialogue and better references to understand each other’s claims.

        Online, we’re all tempted too often to behave like trolls rather someone more interested in learning than arguing. This is especially problematic for me as a lifelong student of forestry from a natural science perspective because the first thing out of a forester’s mouth when they make a living cutting down trees after they realize I’m not supporting that is: “You have no idea what you’re talking about.” Not a very good way to start a conversation, but that’s they way its been for me for 30+ years…

    • Thank you, Deane, for giving me an opportunity to explain what I think.

      I do not dream of logging as much forest as possible in the name of preventing wildfire. But I do advocate harvesting, even if it involves commercial timber sales, in areas where forest conditions in need of modification, and where threats to people, property, and resources are high,

      I do not believe that the more laws that protect the environment that can be eliminated to allow more logging the better. I do wish that the courts would give more consideration to the impacts of taking no action, especially in projects designed to decrease fire risk and/or improve habitat for threatened and endangered species.

      I admit that sometimes you can thin too much. And sometimes too little,

      I admit that sometimes lawsuits that stop logging have protected a forest in a substantive way, but this is the exception, not the rule.

      I agree that cutting down trees can be harmful sometimes. I have participated in planning timber sales where I disagreed with the prescription. I have also participated in planning timber sales that, on balance, had positive economic, environmental, and social effects.

      I also believe that Roger Pielke Jr. is correct that “event attribution” studies can be misleading.

      • I also believe that climate change is one of several factors impacting forest health and, in some areas, increasing wildfire risk.

        • Thanks for clarifying that you aren’t as much as an extremist as I thought… Just as you spent more than a few decades planning how to cut down forests, I’ve spent more than a few decades arguing to keep them standing.

          Those bias are not something we’re going to give up, but no need to get too crazy about it.

          I’m sure in another 18 million years when tall tree forests celebrate 400 million years anniversary of dominating the planet, the brief time they spent experimenting with mostly bald monkeys and their machines that wiped em out near everywhere for a while won’t seem as bad or wrong as it does right now.

  2. Here’s what I wrote on Roger’s substack. Someone pointed out that everyone might not be able to accurately assess his three rules..

    “Roger, following up on Jim’s comment below, I think there would be value to initiating some kind of attribution review website. Perhaps hire someone to do the preliminary work and you review it. Or get a team of knowledgeable volunteers and review their work. This group could score each attribution study based on your criteria (and others) with full transparency and opportunity for others to comment. I don’t know how much it would cost, but it seems like a trust worthy source of info would be worth something compared to the zillions of bucks in the climate space.

    Why don’t people believe climate scientists? Because no one spends money on developing trustworthy institutions, and because some bully people who are skeptical of The Dominant Climate Narrative. That’s ultimately not a winning strategy, and divides people when joint fact finding is a way of bringing people together. There is a field of environmental conflict resolution. It’s kind of funny that climate is thought to be an environmental issue, but environmental conflict resolution mechanisms are not invoked. What’s up with that? Example https://scienceimpact.mit.edu/joint-fact-finding

    • Sharon, I like your thinking — attribution review website. But shouldn’t journals do this? Or their advisory boards? Maybe there’s an opening for an NGO to develop a standard in review for “event attribution” studies, and study authors would be held to the standard.

  3. “We should not allow the political significance of a topic to overshadow scientific rigor.”

    It’s hard to argue against that as a general principle. But in some cases you have to factor urgency into the equation, and the possible need to act with less than the desired scientific rigor. Pielke quoted someone: “Whether there’s sufficient value in getting a less reliable answer faster is another question.”

    My question – Is it really worth getting this worked up about people erring on the side of saving the planet? What’s the harm? Pielke seems to buy into this: “Climate-centric disaster framing is politically useful to actors with interest in diverting attention from local, national and international policy initiatives that might bring—or could have brought—more direct and locally relevant remedial action.” I don’t see this happening. I think most people recognize it’s climate AND other things we must address, but as long as there are climate deniers and skeptics and other opponents to addressing it, it make sense to be loud about the climate.

    • I agree, Jon, that “people recognize it’s climate AND other things we must address,” at least to some degree, but climate impacts, observed or modeled, get far more coverage, and the more sensational the “event attribution” study findings, the more likely they are to get media attention.


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