Emanuel fails to disclose conflict of interest in latest paper

Will the insurance companies that MIT’s Kerry Emanuel works for benefit from his latest ‘study’?

MIT meteorologist Kerry Emanuel’s new paper in Nature Climate Change reports that,

Climate change is predicted to increase the frequency of high-intensity storms in selected ocean basins depending on the climate model.

So will this be an excuse for the insurance companies Emanuel is affiliated with to raise their rates or otherwise profit?

The MIT media release states,

Dan Osgood, a lead scientist in the financial instruments sector team for the Earth Institute at Columbia University, sees the new model as a useful tool, particularly for the insurance industry.

“Insurance companies [are] hungry for climate research such as this,” says Osgood, who was not involved in the research. “Having solid science, they can often offer more reasonable and more accurate prices, providing better deals to consumers, as well as accurate price incentives to help people [avoid] taking unreasonable building risks.”

But note that the study’s fine print only states:

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

But shouldn’t Emanuel’s affiliations be disclosed so readers can make up their own minds?

Here’s Nature’s policy:

For the purposes of this statement, competing interests are defined as those of a financial nature that, through their potential influence on behaviour or content or from perception of such potential influences, could undermine the objectivity, integrity or perceived value of a publication.
They can include any of the following:

Funding: Research support (including salaries, equipment, supplies, reimbursement for attending symposia, and other expenses) by organizations that may gain or lose financially through this publication.

Employment: Recent (while engaged in the research project), present or anticipated employment by any organization that may gain or lose financially through this publication.

Personal financial interests: Stocks or shares in companies that may gain or lose financially through publication; consultation fees or other forms of remuneration from organizations that may gain or lose financially; patents or patent applications whose value may be affected by publication.

It is difficult to specify a threshold at which a financial interest becomes significant, but note that many US universities require faculty members to disclose interests exceeding $10,000 or 5% equity in a company (see, for example, B. Lo et al. New Engl. J. Med. 343, 1616-1620; 2000). Any such figure is necessarily arbitrary, so we offer as one possible practical alternative guideline: “Any undeclared competing financial interests that could embarrass you were they to become publicly known after your work was published.”

We do not consider diversified mutual funds or investment trusts to constitute a competing financial interest. [Emphasis added to Emanuel’s potential conflicts]

Below is the MIT media release. Click here for the study (Emanuel’s failed disclosure is on the last page).

The cost of tropical cyclones
New model finds climate change could expose North America, East Asia and the Caribbean to costly hurricane damage.

Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office

January 17, 2012

If you’re planning to build that dream beach house along the East Coast of the United States, or would like to relocate to the Caribbean, a new study by economists and climate scientists suggests you may want to reconsider.

Researchers from MIT and Yale University have found that coastal regions of North America and the Caribbean, as well as East Asia, are most at risk for hurricane damage — a finding that may not surprise residents of such hurricane-prone communities. However, the researchers say by the year 2100, two factors could more than quadruple the economic damages caused by tropical storms in such regions and around the world: growing income and global warming.

In a paper published this week in Nature Climate Change, researchers developed a model to predict hurricanes around the world, looking at how hurricane activity might change in the next 100 years both with and without climate change.

Even in a world without climate change, where rates of greenhouse gas emissions remain stable, the researchers found that annual economic damages from hurricanes could double in the next century: Global population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2100, likely leading to more development along hurricane-prone coastlines. Given such growth, the researchers projected that worldwide annual damage from hurricanes — currently $26 billion — could increase to $56 billion in the next century.

Under a similar economic scenario, but with the added factor of climate change, the team found that annual hurricane damage could quadruple to $109 billion by 2100. According to the researchers’ model, proliferating greenhouse gases would likely increase the incidence of severe tropical cyclones and hurricanes, which would increase storm-related damage.

Furthermore, the researchers found that the distribution of damage is not even across the world. Their model indicates that climate change would cause the most hurricane-related damage in North America, followed by East Asia, Central America and the Caribbean. The rest of the world — particularly the Middle East, Europe and South America — would remain relatively unscathed, experiencing little to no hurricane activity.

Treading new territory

Kerry Emanuel, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, says results from the model developed by the team may have wide-ranging implications for regional planning and emergency preparedness.

“It could be used by lots of different people … to understand what resources to put into certain countries to mitigate or adapt to tropical cyclone changes resulting from climate change,” says Emanuel, a co-author of the paper. “For example, urban planners in cities might want to know how high to make the flood barriers if sea levels go up.”

Emanuel worked with researchers at Yale to develop the hurricane prediction model, an effort that combined two disparate disciplines: atmospheric modeling and economics. Emanuel describes the work as “treading new territory,” and the researchers had to “do a lot of back and forth to understand each other’s terminology.”

After sorting out semantics, the group set out to predict tropical cyclone and hurricane activity around the world. The researchers relied on four existing climate models commonly used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to assess climate risks. Each of the models track and forecast certain climate variables such as wind, temperature, large-scale ocean currents and ocean temperatures. However, the models only track these variables at a relatively coarse resolution of 100 to 200 kilometers. Since a tropical cyclone that may whip into a massive hurricane under certain weather conditions requires resolutions of a few kilometers, using climate models to simulate storms is highly problematic.

Seeds of a cyclone

Instead, Emanuel and his colleagues embedded a tropical-cyclone model within each climate model. The combination allowed the team to see where storms may develop around the world, based on regional weather systems. The researchers randomly scattered hundreds of thousands of “seeds,” or potential tropical cyclones, throughout each of the four models, then ran the models to see where the seeds developed into significant storms. There was some variation between models, but in general, they revealed that 95 percent of storms simply dissipate, leaving 5 percent that were likely to turn into hurricanes under favorable conditions such as warm ocean water and high winds. They used enough seeds to generate 17,000 surviving storms in each simulation.

The team also looked at each country’s hurricane-related damage after adjusting for its gross domestic product (GDP). The researchers found that wealthier nations like the United States are able to absorb economic losses from a hurricane better than many others, such as island nations in the Caribbean.

“These are all small islands, and most of their GDPs are exposed,” Emanuel says. “In the United States , you take all this damage and divide it by the GDP of the whole country, and you get a smaller relative impact.”

Dan Osgood, a lead scientist in the financial instruments sector team for the Earth Institute at Columbia University, sees the new model as a useful tool, particularly for the insurance industry.

“Insurance companies [are] hungry for climate research such as this,” says Osgood, who was not involved in the research. “Having solid science, they can often offer more reasonable and more accurate prices, providing better deals to consumers, as well as accurate price incentives to help people [avoid] taking unreasonable building risks.”

The researchers stress that there was a fair amount of uncertainty in predictions made among the four climate models. For example, in estimating the effect of climate change on tropical-cyclone damage, the models’ predictions ranged from $14 billion to $80 billion a year.

Emanuel also points out that “looking at natural disasters strictly through an economic lens doesn’t tell you the whole story.” For example, despite a growing economy and population, if severe tropical cyclones become more frequent, people may choose to build elsewhere — a phenomenon Emanuel says an improved model will have to take into account.

Other authors on the paper are Robert Mendelsohn, Shun Chonabayashi and Laura Bakkensen from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

4 thoughts on “Emanuel fails to disclose conflict of interest in latest paper”

  1. A climate “scientist” with a vested interest…. we have never seen that before, oh sorry I meant ….

  2. Yes.
    Many times I’ve witnessed firsthand this lack of “arm’s length.” Today in America, we only punish without evidence or trial, those who- in their forthrightness – expose the corrupt. Why? The big money’s behind the liars and con-artists.

  3. Shocking new discovery! Over the next 88 years there will not be much, if any, damage from hurricanes in areas that don’t experience hurricanes. And richer areas that are already highly prone to high hurricane damage will see those damages rise as population and economic activity increase along the coast–man that’s high quality economic analsysis there.

    And atmospheric models at that gross a level, “coarse resolution of 100 to 200 kilometers,” to predict hurricanes seems gross incompetence–the hurricanes themselves are about that size or less. Looks like their model would treat a hurricane as a single direction, single velocity wind with uniform preasure across the storm–a cyclonic storm!

    It will only be news when they have developed a model that can, with say 90 percent certainty and with 1-2% of actual conditions, predict the weather 10 days from now. Until then I think I’ll remain highly skeptical of forcasts for conditions 88 years from now.

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