25 Years of Climate Change Research


updated 28 March 2019

This essay provides a overview of my perspectives on climate change and the decades of research and writing that I have done on the topic. Ever since my PhD dissertation in 1994 I have argued that climate change poses risks and deserves significant action in response. I’ve also argued that our response efforts to date have been woefully inadequate. My views, which I have not been shy about sharing, have led some to try to exclude or remove  me from the discussion, with some considerable success.

I’ve worked on issues of climate change science and policy since the early 1990s. My PhD dissertation was on the efforts by the U.S. government to produce science in support of climate policy (specifically it was a policy evaluation of the U.S. Global Change Research program under Public Law 101-606, which is the law under which the U.S. National Climate Assessment is produced). In my dissertation I wrote that the neglect of attention to policy options in the research program, in favor of predictive earth science research, would limit efforts to develop effective responses to climate change. I wrote in my dissertation: “Debate over “global warming” has distracted scientists and policymakers alike from the requirements of effective decisionmaking.”

My dissertation was the source of a number of articles, among them:

Pielke, Jr. R. A. (1995). Usable information for policy: an appraisal of the US Global Change Research Program. Policy Sciences, 28:39-77. (PDF)

Pielke Jr, R. A. (2000). Policy history of the US global change research program: Part I. Administrative development. Global Environmental Change, 10:9-25. (PDF)

Pielke Jr, R. A. (2000). Policy history of the US global change research program: Part II. Legislative process. Global environmental change, 10:133-144. (PDF)

This early work on the flawed structure of U.S. climate research led to my first run-ins with leaders of the climate science community. I (and colleagues) were arguing that the science was plenty strong enough to support policy action, and that more attention needed to be paid to policy development and the research needed to support that development. Some climate scientists saw this as threatening to their research interests and funding.

This debate broke out into the open when Dan Sarewitz (who I had worked with for Representative George Brown (D-CA) and Chief of Staff Rad Byerly at the House Science Committee while I was in graduate school) and I published a paper in Issues in Science and Technology calling out the scientific community for its inattention to the needs of climate policy. We wrote:

Our position, based on the experience of the past 13 years, is that although the current and proposed climate research agenda has little potential to meet the information needs of decisionmakers, it has a significant potential to reinforce a political situation characterized, above all, by continued lack of action. The situation persists not only because the current research-based approach supports those happy with the present political gridlock, but more uncomfortably, because the primary beneficiaries of this situation include scientists themselves. Things are unlikely to change for the better unless the climate research community adopts a leadership role that places societal responsibility above professional self-interest.

Pielke, R., & Sarewitz, D. (2002). Wanted: scientific leadership on climate. Issues in Science and Technology, 19:27-30.

This article was well received by many in the science and policy community. Bert Bolin, one of the first chairs of the IPCC, wrote in response to our article:

As an old-timer in the climate policy arena, I applaud the article by Roger Pielke, Jr., and Daniel Sarewitz . . . there is also a need for the climate system research community to give priority to analyses and summaries of present knowledge that are of more direct and immediate use for the development of a strategy to combat climate change.

Other climate scientists weren’t so happy with our piece. Seven climate scientists, including Steve Schneider and Kevin Trenberth, responded that we were “egregiously wrong” and argued that climate science was not intended for policy relevance:

The needs of society raise interesting and stimulating questions that are amenable to scientific analysis. It is true, therefore, that some of the results that come from climate science are policy relevant. It is also true that scientists in the community are well aware of this. It is preposterous, however, to suggest that climate science is primarily policy driven.

I’ll leave it to readers to assess whose arguments are more in line with the legislation that authorizes climate research funding in the US and which arguments have faired better in the fullness of time.

After getting my PhD, I was offered a post-doc position at NCAR working for Mickey Glantz, on a project on the role of weather forecasting in extreme events with case studies on Hurricane Andrew (1992) and the Midwest floods (1993). That work led to dozens and dozens of papers and several books. This work also focused my attention on the importance of adaptation in the climate issue, which in the 1990s was disparaged and dismissed.

I drafted the following paper as negotiations in Kyoto were underway (leading to the Kyoto Protocol) out of a sense of frustration that climate policy was missing something really important:

Pielke Jr, R. A. (1998). Rethinking the role of adaptation in climate policy. Global environmental change, 8:159-170. (PDF)

That paper earned me a lot of criticism. According to Google Scholar it was cited about 100 times in the decade after it was published, but then almost 300 times in the decade after that.  But I am extremely proud of being out in front, even with the criticism.

Dan Sarewitz and I took these arguments to a larger public in 2000, with an article in The Atlantic Monthly (PDF, HTML) that argued that adaptation could offer a way forward on climate policy. We stated that the Kyoto Protocol, then not even 2 years old, would fail:

[A]tmospheric carbon-dioxide levels will continue to increase. The Kyoto Protocol, which represents the world’s best attempt to confront the issue, calls for industrialized nations to reduce their emissions below 1990 levels by the end of this decade. Political and technical realities suggest that not even this modest goal will be achieved.

Declaring Kyoto DOA was not popular. But we were right. We argued that a climate policy that led with adaptation might open up new possibilities for mitigation. Today, adaptation and mitigation have largely become separate issues, and in my view, the world is doing far better on adaptation, often quietly and out of the hot glare of the climate debate. Thankfully.

However, even though our attention to the social responsibility of scientists and the neglect of adaptation was controversial, it was my work on extreme weather and natural disasters that ultimately led me to being ostracized from the climate community. I won’t revisit all that here, as this is long enough. But the story involves the White House, Tom Steyer, the Climategate emails, Wikileaks, a successful online campaign to have me fired as a writer (supported by journalists and scientists) and a congressional investigation — all focused on shutting me up. Read the high/low points here (in PDF).

My work on climate has also touched on geoengineering, negative emissions, decarbonization, media attention, climate science policy, integrated assessment modeling and more. If you are interested in learning more, have a look at my books The Climate Fix (2011) and Disasters & Climate Change (2nd Edition, 2018).

Want to read my most recent writings on climate? See these recent papers:

Weinkle, J., Landsea, C., Collins, D., Musulin, R., Crompton, R. P., Klotzbach, P. J., & Pielke, R. (2018). Normalized hurricane damage in the continental United States 1900–2017. Nature Sustainability (PDF).

Klotzbach, P. J., Bowen, S. G., Pielke Jr, R., & Bell, M. (2018). Continental United States hurricane landfall frequency and associated damage: Observations and future risks. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, July:1359-1377.

Pielke, Jr. R. (2018). Opening Up the Climate Policy Envelope. Issues in Science and Technology, 34, no. 4 (Summer). (HTML) (PDF)

There is a lot more to add to this, which I will return to as time permits. Maybe this might make for a paper one day. Comments welcomed.