Why the ‘SuperFreakonomics’ global-warming chapter is worth your time
The two Steves knew exactly what they were doing when they sat down to pen the final chapter of their sequel to their 2005 bestseller Freakonomics. In the now infamous chapter in the newly released SuperFreakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner manage to downplay the global warming threat, compare climate change believers to religious fanatics, and accept at face value the assertion by some pointy-headed geeks that they can save the world on the cheap.
No surprise, SuperFreakonomics set off a firestorm of criticism and angry rebuke. To quote Joe Romm, “the Superfreaks frame this chapter mostly as their (misguided) view of the science versus the views of that famous non-scientist Al Gore (as opposed to the views of all of the scientists who disagree with the crap they are peddling). That straw man approach gives them the ‘high’ ground.”
The Steves feigned surprise Monday night before a crowd of 300 gathered at Seattle’s Town Hall. Why would anyone get upset about that chapter? We’re not denying the climate change problem, they averred, nor are we saying nothing should be done about it.
To the contrary, the Steves told the audience, when they suggested that the costs of capping carbon emissions are greater than the costs of potential geoengineering solutions, they’re just being good, objective scientists. No, make that economists — the only truth tellers among the social scientists, who get treated like pariahs because they make morally agnostic observations about humanity, they said. Dismal science, indeed.
The truth is, there’s plenty to object to in SuperFreakonomics. The whole tone of the climate chapter understates the threat and overstates the potential for technology to save the day. Some examples:
- Leading off the chapter with the “global cooling” hysteria of the 1970s, which sends a not-so-subtle signal that scientists are wrong lots of the time — so they might be wrong again on global warming (pp. 165-66).
- Citing one economist’s analysis that there’s only a 5 percent chance of the worst-case climate scenarios happening — so why invest billions to fix an unlikely threat? (p. 169)
- Making the “global warming as religion” comparison, as if climate science were just another meaningless sectarian rift (p. 170).
- Worried about sea level rise? Relax. The climate models all disagree, and the rise that will actually happen won’t be all that bad (pp. 185-86).
- Worried about a bunch of U.N. bureaucrats coming up with a draconian solution? Don’t. Even if they do, world governments will behave like “rational actors” and do whatever is in their short-term best interest. China and India ain’t gonna put their development on hold (pp. 202-03).
- You’re still worried about the devastating effects of global warming? Stop losing sleep. There are these smart dudes with Microsoft riches working to solve the climate problem, MacGyver style (pp. 176-96).
That’s a pretty simplistic review of the first part of the global warming chapter. But it’s no more simplistic than the authors’ breezy survey of climate science and unquestioning regurgitation of the wild geoengineering ideas being offered up Nathan Myrhvold and his Hall of Justice pals at Bellevue-based Intellectual Ventures. (Motto: If you thought of it, we already patented it.)
This point bears a bit more scrutiny. Freakonomics and its sequel contain lots of counterintuitive observations based on measurable data. The global warming chapter stands out because, well, it doesn’t rest on data. Myrhvold says he and his pals can float a “garden hose to the sky” to pump sulfur 18 miles high into the stratosphere, all for $20 million in upfront costs and $10 million annually to keep it running. Uh huh.
And the IV brainiacs have super boats in mind that would spray ocean water into the air to feed the formation of clouds, blocking more sunlight from hitting the surface and being absorbed as heat. Sounds great, but how many boats? What do they cost?
Dubner event hinted salaciously that IV has solutions to ocean acidification in the works. Details, please!
These are fascinating ideas. But they’re just that — ideas based on some pretty big leaps of faith, i.e. that these things can be engineered, that someone will fund them, and, moreover, that the solutions will actually do enough to cool the planet.
As Grist’s very own David Roberts wrote a few weeks back, “Lesson: the problems humanity faces are systemic and interrelated. The idea that sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere will save us is akin to the hope that a math equation can be solved by erasing one of the numbers.”
OK, enough. The real point here is get beyond the bad in SuperFreakonomics and focus on two messages that deserve greater discussion in the world of climate wonkery.
First, Levitt and Dubner do what economists do best, and that’s note that emissions from burning fossil fuels are a negative externality — fancy economist speak for the fact that we don’t really pay the full cost of relying on coal, oil, and gas. Power plants and their customers around the world generally don’t pay anything now to deal with the environmental impact of CO2 emissions and other bad stuff — heavy metals in the emissions and ash, health effects of particulate pollution, etc.
And it’s an open question whether an international carbon-cap system based on trading credits and buying offsets can genuinely cut carbon emissions enough to reduce global warming that’s already predicted to happen. At the end of the day, no matter what is decided at Copenhagen, it’s still in too many people’s economic interests to keep burning fossil fuels. It’s also right for Levitt and Dubner to note that cutting carbon emissions won’t address methane from livestock or nitrous oxide from fertilizer.
Second, and just as significant, Levitt and Dubner are doing a real service by talking about geoengineering and stressing that technology and innovation are going to be a part of saving our asses — it won’t be done through complex cap-and-trade schemes alone. As fancical and unproven as the ideas proffered by Myrhvold and company are, eggheads everywhere should be encouraged to think about them and figure out ways to execute them. We might just need some wacky tech solutions to fend off the worst effects of global warming while we transition the global economy toward clean, renewable energy.
So, read the book. Take the Steves’ dismissive tone with a grain of salt, but think hard about how we insert geoengineering into the climate discussion, and heed their warning about the limits of public policy to steer people away from the old ways of doing things.
More on the super-freaking-hullabaloo …
- Levitt’s lengthy defense of the global warming chapter.
- Joe Romm’s lengthier dissection of it.
- Boston Globe writer Drake Bennett’s take.
Video: Stephen Dubner on SuperFreakonomics:
Video: Intellectual Ventures video on “garden hose to the sky”:
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