Tdworld 10900 Hurricane595

The Politicization of Science

Aug. 12, 2014
How many incorrect conclusions or predictions does it take for the public to lose all confidence in science?

Most of us in the electric utility business have a strong respect for science. We readily understand you cannot ignore the laws of physics without putting yourself in harm’s way. You can’t build and operate a generation facility, nuclear or otherwise, without applying science. Heck, you couldn’t even be assured that the pole you set would remain standing without science.

In the utility vegetation management business, there has been an increasing turn to science since the 1950s when we started to study and subsequently, consciously apply ecological principles to right-of-way maintenance.

Any of you who know me, have attended one of my presentations or read my articles know that I am a strong proponent of advancing our work through rigorous, statistically backed science and sharing those findings. So, if you would like some entertainment, set me down with a wobbly pop and bring to my attention some study that fails to account for numerous variables, ignores statistical theory and rules of logic. What a way to set my hair on fire.

Increasingly, we see the politicization of science. This should be of grave concern to us as an industry and simply, as taxpayers. How many incorrect conclusions or predictions does it take for the public to lose all confidence in science? If that should happen, what will be the difference between your opinion based on research and sound scientific theory versus the opinion of anyone else whose facts may be filtered through an anti-capitalist, anti-development or “environmental” lens?

While I’m not big on conspiracy theories, I do wonder if there is not a strategy for eroding the confidence in science. It’s the only way the anti-everythings or BANANAS (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything) can dismantle the barriers to the palace that inconvenient scientific truths keep fortifying. Through their need to find funding for their work, researchers have become unwitting participants in the gradual erosion of scientific credibility. To obtain funding you need to be on the right side of an issue. How much research is being publicly funded that has the potential to disprove anthropogenically induced climate change? That is, politics is leading research. Isn’t that putting the cart before the horse?

In April, Climate Central reported that weather-related power outages had doubled since 2003. While the authors concede an aging infrastructure and greater electricity demand are contributing factors, they point to climate change as a major cause. They state that while only two Category 4 or 5 hurricanes have made U.S. landfall since 1990, the average hurricane strength and total number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes is increasing. How they can make such a statement is baffling to me. Go to the National Hurricane Center web site and you can find that the average hurricane return period for the U.S. East coast from 1950 through 2011 is 0.55 years. The return period for Category 4 and 5 hurricanes is 6.8 years. The expectation then for the period of 1990 through 2013 is for 3.4 Category 4 or 5 events. Consequently, if there are any implied trends for climate change, they run opposite to the authors’ statement of increasing hurricane strength and frequency. They also state that while the trend in severe thunderstorm incidence is unknown, insurance companies are now paying out at least seven times more for thunderstorm damages than they were in the 1980s. Faced with a paucity of historical data to support the assertion of increasing frequency and intensity of thunderstorms the authors turn to a recent “ensemble of climate change models.”  These models “demonstrated that rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases increases the risk of thunderstorms by adding more heat and water vapor to the atmosphere.” So in the absence of data, which would either validate or be cause for the rejection of the models, we should accept the model output?

This isn’t science. It’s pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. I have to ask the questions that should be obvious but aren’t addressed. How much have property values increased since the 1980s? How much more infrastructure has been built and what is its value. How vulnerable is the new infrastructure to storm damage? That is, what is the change in the value exposed to damage? How much more vulnerable is the aging electric system infrastructure to storm damage? How has the electric system exposure to trees changed since the 1980s? How much more vulnerable is the utility forest to tree failures? Only after accounting for such variables can we begin to attribute some portion of the damages to climate change.

In "Modeling Storm Outages," Beck, Guikema, Buckstaff and Quiring say the evidence for climate change isn’t clear because of variations in the time period used. To illustrate they indicate that between 2000 and 2012 there were 22 Atlantic hurricanes. By my calculation that is the same cyclone frequency experienced between 1950 and 2011. However, these authors also report that storms are becoming more economically damaging. In seeking potential causes, however, they state increased costs are likely due to the increasing density of assets within an area and the increased value of the damaged assets. Rather than, in the absence of data, speculate further about possible causes they move forward simply with what is known, that storms are becoming more economically damaging.

Unfortunately, the Climate Central article was promoted and discussed in newspapers and common media while the article on "Modeling Storm Outages," which could be said to be rigorous but cautious, as science typically is, was published in an industry trade magazine.

Which of these articles do you think has captured the attention of policy makers and the public?

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