Double Checking Heidi Cullen’s Facts From her NY Times OP-ED

Heidi Cullen has published a scorching opinion piece in today’s NY Times about the consequences of climate change. I agree with her that it is hot and that future summers will be hot.  I disagree with her about some of the “facts” she presents in her piece.  Here  is my cross-post presenting my analysis.  The NY Times should create some “green jobs” by hiring somebody to engage in such fact checking for them.

Today, the NY Times has a more interesting piece on adaptation investment  close to the Nisqually River in Washington state.   I see some optimism concerning the benefits of investments being made today because of expectations of future challenges caused by climate change.   Are we doomed?

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

11 thoughts on “Double Checking Heidi Cullen’s Facts From her NY Times OP-ED”

  1. You write in your linked post: “Farmers will make a host of new choices that collectively shield us from the extent of damage that Cullen cites.” What? Buy land that is tilted to prevent flooding their crops? [Well, they could turn them into catfish farms, if they were assured of reliable flooding.] And when drought hits, what should they then do?

    I recall reading somewhere that one of the consequences of the melting of the Arctic icecap is that there used to be a polar jet stream that generally stayed up in the higher latitudes, and that now dips down and looks like an undamped sinusoid, creating much greater volatility in the weather. If this is indeed the case, how can farmers cope with such extremes? What new choices can them make to deal with them?

  2. In your linked piece, you argue from personal incredulity against the idea that utility company profits are negatively correlated with the volatility of rainfall.

    Any lineman from a rural state could explain the mechanism to you.

    Arguments from personal incredulity do not constitute “fact checking”.

  3. Actually, unless you assume some magic of technological progress that makes investments in climate adaptation always on average perform better than people think they will, adaptation need not reduce costs. Adaptation requires investment, which costs money. And it’s not going to happen unless/until there’s a clear ROI. So adaptations will be priced (unless — gasp — we circumvent the free market) to leave farmers only epsilon poorer than they would be without adaptation. And that’s assuming no winner’s curse effects, no volatility, no unfortunate path-dependence in adaptation decisions.

    One of the things, though, that I always find interesting is the way that people who devoutly claim the market will yield wonderful dividends in mitigating the effects of climate change seem completely opposed to the idea that it might yield similar dividends in the process of deferring or minimizing change so that there’s less we need to mitigate.

  4. Ahh, I see in your world fact checking means making sure facts fit with your “gut”. Actual facts that don’t fit with your gut can’t be facts! In the real world farmers aren’t infinitely lived agents and so their future discount isn’t constant and so we have no reason to expect them to change investment practices for far flung future events. After all climate change has been known for 20+ years so we should have seen such movement already.

  5. Just to deal with the second issue. It is NOT only hydro that is affected by heat and rainfall. Nuclear power plants need vast amounts of cooling and get shutdown when here is either a shortage of water for cooling or when their source of cooling water gets too hot. You could build air cooled nukes but that would make nukes more expensive. And on the other hand we have nuclear power plants shut down right now due to flooding. Coal plants which is where much of our electricity comes from, also are water hogs and can be affected by extend drought. Also, as others have pointed out, Utility lines are affected by extreme weather events and power line maintenance is one of utility companies big line items. For some utilities the cost of line maintenance and repair exceeds the cost of fuel for generation. In some cases extreme weather can lead to extended outages, which means reduced revenue and increase expenses simultaneously. In short the facts trump your gut feeling.

    In terms of adaptation – that is not fact checking. As others have said above, that is your gut feeling that as weather extremes grow worse, the free market will adapt to it cheaply and easily. At best that is a disagreement on opinion, not a “fact check”.

    Posting on a blog that calls itself “The Reality Based Community” I hope you will post a correction, noting that Heidi was right and you were wrong on utility costs. I hope you will also notice that your dispute with Heidi on free market adaptation are a difference of opinion. Since your disagreement thus consists of 1) you getting the facts wrong 2) you having a difference of opinion. 3)I hope your correction will also note that what you wrote was not a fact check since it contains zero examples of Heidi getting the facts wrong.

  6. Solipsistic skepticism has become a characteristic method of Chicago School economists. I’m not sure I could fully express my scorn, and stay on Mark Kleiman’s good side, so I will just let it go.

    Naively, I would think Kahn would endorse Heidi Cullen’s point: it is, after all, the prospective costs of increasing volatility, which make private investments in mitigation and melioration, profitable.

    paul’s epsilon is just more grease on the slippery slope toward the cliff of runaway climate change and ecological collapse, and Kahn is a Road Runner, who wants to run faster and faster.

  7. I did some fact checking on your fact checking: I don’t believe you, what you’re saying is weird, you should explain yourself, you aren’t making sense, and you’re lazy because haven’t explained whether your findings are credible.

    OK, you do claim that there is a discrepancy between the effects of weather availability in those two papers. This isn’t my area, so I don’t know what weight to give either. Although, pointing to possible controversy is hardly fact-checking. You could at least point to a single thing you claim is not factual.

    But you have demonstrated how deeply you feel about this issue.

  8. The argument against Cullen is much simpler. Neither of the two strings of actual data that she cites supports any of her conclusions. Strings of consecutive or clustered “hot” days do not prove global warming any more than strings of consecutive or clustered “cold” or snowy days prove lack of global warming (or point to global cooling). And 2000s being 1.5F warmer than the 1970s is not evidence of global warming either–is simply points to general fluctuations in temperature. “Global warming” is a trend over many decades that conforms to a model that leads to gradual increase in global temperatures. As such, the MODEL may show a 1.5F increase in a particular decade, but it does not mean that the ACTUAL temperature will rise on average 1.5F during that decade or that it will keep rising in subsequent decades.

    Both sets of data are essentially random walks. If they are truly random, there is no global warming. If they involve an attractor–that is, although random, there is an additional non-random push in a particular direction–then there is global warming. But data for a single year or a pair of decades simply do not show any such trend, nor could they. We might as well talk about observing evolution by looking only at specimens obtained on one day.

    This is very disappointing because one such piece undoes a lot of work. It is as unscientific as it is unpersuasive.

  9. There are other reasons to distrust Heidi Cullen as a loudmouth propagandist. Here’s one example

    That single idiocy led to mountains of backlash. The most recent piece may make things worse.

  10. I think this is the key passage in the “fact checking”:

    But, let’s assume that the $485 billion loss that Cullen reports in the past is correct. The whole point of my Climatopolis project is that past loss estimates vastly overstate the impact of future costs because of adaptation.

    I am so glad that we know the future, and that we know our intractable problems of human nature today will disappear in the future. That’s great. Since we know these important things about the future, I wonder if we know other important things, like next weeks’ PowerBall numbers.

  11. This post and the cross-post lack serious rigor. How did she misquote her source? (BTW, I think you mean ‘misconstrue’ since she didn’t quote them at all). I get it that you don’t like their findings but she accurately conveyed that finding of the report. Your problem is not with Ms. Cullen, it’s with NCAR. So say that. But as others have pointed out, your “fact checking” is based on almost zero contrary facts and mostly your gut level skepticism. Wow.

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