Comments By Peter H. Gleick With Respect to His May 17 2011 Huffington Post “Climate Triage And The “New Normal”

Dr. Peter H. Gleick President and co-Founder of the Pacific Institute wrote a weblog post on May 17 2011 on the Huffington Post titled

Climate Triage and the “New Normal”

His post starts with the text

“The delay in acting to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases means that more and more anthropogenic climate changes are now unavoidable. Climate impacts are already evident and they are going to get worse and worse. It’s the “new normal.” In coming years, we are going to be faced with increasingly difficult decisions in what must now be called climate triage — choices about who and what is going to be protected and saved, versus abandoned and lost.”

I was alerted to this post by Dr. Tom Stohlgren of of the U.S. Geological Survey in which he disagreed with the post’s focus on climate change. There followed an exchange of e-mails between Tom and Peter, and I became involved by being copied on the exchange.

Peter’s post, in our view, represents the “outcome vulnerability” perspective in which climate change (i.e., the “new normal”) feeds down to result in significant new environmental and social impacts. The use of the terminology “climate triage” appears to be a top-down, outcome vulnerability perspective.

Our paper

Pielke Sr., R.A., R. Wilby, D. Niyogi, F. Hossain, K. Dairuku, J. Adegoke, G. Kallos, T. Seastedt, and K. Suding, 2011: Dealing with complexity and extreme events using a bottom-up, resource-based vulnerability perspective. AGU Monograph on Complexity and Extreme Events in Geosciences, in press,

however, concludes that the outcome vulnerability approach is too narrow and that a bottom-up, resource-based focus (the “contextual vulnerability) is much more robust. As we wrote in our paper, in contrast to the outcome vulnerability focused on added greenhouse gases, as presented in Peter’s weblog,

“The concept of contextual vulnerability enables the determination of major threats to water, food, energy, human health and ecosystem function from extreme events including those arising from climate, but also other social and environmental pressures [as in Carmichael, 2009, Pielke Jr., 2010;  Wallace, 2010; ; Webster and Hoyas, 2010; Curry and Webster, 2010[TJS1] ]. After  these threats are identified for each resource, then relative risks can be determined in order to prioritize individual response measures and to shape the preferred mitigation/adaptation strategy.”

Peter has provided further comments on his perspective on this subject. The comments, edited with his approval, are extracted from the e-mails from Peter.

“As a hydroclimatologist working on water issues for thirty years, I have written extensively about the integrated nature of natural and human systems. I agree completely that we are (always) dealing with multi-factor issues here. I gave a briefing on Capitol Hill last week on climate and the Mississippi River and I explicitly acknowledge that climate is only one of the factors affecting flooding and flood risk. My post about triage refers to having to make new, difficult, and conflicting choices in the future as a result of climate change. Yes, we have to make them all the time anyway: resources are limited, impacts are complex and diverse. But climate change (and triage associated with it) imposes new and growing (exponentially growing) challenges and choices on us. As a result, there will be new difficult decisions that have to be made that would NOT have had to be made without climate change. Hence ‘climate triage’.

The scientific evidence that climate change is influencing extreme events is overwhelming, compelling, and, in my opinion, especially strong for flooding in the Mississippi, as I note in my blog post.

My view is that we have made too little of climate change, completely ignoring or discounting its influence, simply because we (the climate science community) are unable to “attribute” causality. So because we cannot or should not argue that the Mississippi floods are “caused” by climate change, the attitude has been to discount it completely; to treat it and other extreme events as uninfluenced by climate change.  I believe that all weather events are now influenced by climate – perhaps to a very small degree, perhaps to make them LESS severe, but perhaps to make them more severe, depending on the kind of event, the place, and other factors. And the scientific literature on this is significant, compelling, and growing.”

I appreciate Peter’s willingness for constructive interactions on this critically important issue, including his clarification of his perspective.

In my view:

 (i) we need improved understanding of the role of climate variability, which has always been a risk to the environment and society, relative to changes in this variability and long term change that has resulted from the human interference in the climate system,

and

ii) a quantitative assessment of the risk to key resources (water, food, energy, human health and ecosystem) function from the entire range of threats. This includes climate variability, separated into different time periods (e.g. seasonal, yearly, multi-decadal), but also the diversity of other threats such as invasive species, air and water pollution, population growth and demand for resources, etc.).

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