Watchdog Demands NOAA Climate Change Scientific Integrity Investigation

Watchdog Demands NOAA Climate Change Scientific Integrity Investigation

  • April 4, 2024
‘Billions Project’ climate disaster accounting doesn’t add up

Scientific integrity is the bedrock of civic decision-making. To enact sound policy authorities must trust they have most complete, accurate information, presented in good faith and without bias. That’s why the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) maintains strict and far-reaching scientific integrity policies and why its policies are backed up by the Biden administration’s Memorandum on Scientific Integrity. But a significant NOAA program doesn’t seem to be living up to its scientific integrity obligations.

Government watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust (PPT) has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Commerce Inspector General regarding NOAA’s “Billions Project,” which purports to be a tally of weather and climate disasters since 1980 that resulted in $1 billion or more in losses. The Project is cited in official reports as a “climate change indicator” and as evidence that “extreme events are becoming more frequent and severe,” and has been referenced in more than 1,000 articles.

However, the Billions Project doesn’t utilize climate data, it only collects and reports existing economic data about disaster losses. Then, seemingly proceeding from the faith that climate change causes all severe weather events, the Project ignores every other factor that could produce billion-plus dollar losses. It doesn’t distinguish whether a dollar amount in a particular disaster is the result of climate change or the vulnerability, exposure, and wealth of an affected area. Nor does it account for population and economic growth.

Worse, the Project doesn’t identify its sources or methods for calculating disaster losses – a clear violation of scientific ethics that prevents meaningful review and replication of its work. The Project adds and removes disasters from its dataset without explanation and claims to use non-traditional disaster cost inputs that are neither transparent nor traceable. The Project’s cost estimates deviate dramatically from conventional accounting practices for disaster loss estimates, and its loss estimates for hurricanes are substantially and inexplicably higher than the estimates from NOAA’s National Hurricane Center.

NOAA’s Billions Project numbers are a tool for policymakers to enact legislation and regulations that can significantly affect our economy and society. But if the public is to take its numbers seriously, NOAA must overhaul the Project to achieve even a modicum of transparency and scientific integrity.

“The American public has every right to expect, even demand, that the scientific research funded by their tax dollars is conducted under the most rigorous standards of integrity, transparency, and quality,” said PPT director Michael Chamberlain. “This is especially true when that research is used to underpin decisions that affect nearly every aspect of their lives – from the cars they drive, to the foods they eat, to how those foods are prepared. Despite the fact the Billions Project is being used to affect precisely these types of decisions, the principles of scientific integrity, transparency, and quality appear to be severely lacking in its work. If the federal government ever hopes to reclaim even a sliver of the trust it has lost in recent years, ensuring that these sorts of projects live up to their ideals is imperative.”