Caldeira, like the vast majority of climate scientists, believes cutting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions is our only real chance to avoid runaway climate change.

“Carbon dioxide is the right villain,” Caldeira wrote on his Web site in reply. He told Joe Romm, the respected climate blogger who broke the story, that he had objected to the “wrong villain” line but Dubner and Levitt didn’t correct it; instead, they added the “incredibly foolish” quote, a half step in the right direction. Caldeira gave the same account to me.

Levitt and Dubner do say that the book “overstates” Caldeira’s position. That’s a weasel word: The book claims the opposite of what Caldeira believes. Caldeira told me the book contains “many errors” in addition to the “major error” of misstating his scientific opinion on carbon dioxide’s role….

Caldeira, who is researching the idea [of aerosol geoengineering], argues that it can succeed only if we first reduce emissions. Otherwise, he says, geoengineering can’t begin to cope with the collateral damage, such as acidic oceans killing off shellfish.

Levitt and Dubner ignore his view and champion his work as a permanent substitute for emissions cuts. When I told Dubner that Caldeira doesn’t believe geoengineering can work without cutting emissions, he was baffled. “I don’t understand how that could be,” he said. In other words, the Freakonomics guys just flunked climate science.

That’s award-winning journalist Eric Pooley in his terrific Bloomberg story today, “Freakonomics Guys Flunk Science of Climate Change.” Pooley has been managing editor of Fortune, national editor of Time, Time’s chief political correspondent, and Time’s White House correspondent, where he won the Gerald Ford Prize for Excellence in Reporting.  His story vindicates my original reporting in Error-riddled ‘Superfreakonomics’: New book pushes global cooling myths, sheer illogic, and patent nonsense — and the primary climatologist it relies on, Ken Caldeira, says it is an inaccurate portrayal of me and misleading in many places.

For me, the “villain” quote was not actually the main issue.  The main issue for me was the misrepresentation of Caldeira’s core belief that you have to cut emissions dramatically for geoengineering to even have a chance of making any sense.

That misrepresented view is the one that actually represents a real threat to humanity — should enough people come to believe it.  That’s why I am still writing about this — that, and the fact that the Superfreaks are going to be spreading their confused misrepresentations for weeks to come.  Their amazing press schedule is here — they’re getting a full hour on 20/20 on Friday, plus Good Morning America (twice!) and The Daily Show.

Who can really be opposed to geo-engineering research — as long as humanity is NOT foolish enough to come to believe that pursuing geo-engineering research is a substitute for aggressively reducing emissions starting now?  Secondarily, it would be a mistake to believe with any certainty that such research will in fact ever lead to a viable and practical “cooling” strategy.  But, of course, calling for “research” into geo-engineering as Caldeira does would hardly form the basis of a particularly provocative chapter in a contrarian book seeking publicity and best-sellerhood.

When I first saw the PDF of the Superfreakonomics chapter, I knew that it had utterly misrepresented Caldeira’s view.  How did I know that?  First, I can read.

In September, Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post had a story about Bjorn Lomborg who had proposed the exact same geoengineering-only approach, which noted:

Several scientists questioned whether focusing on geoengineered solutions at the expense of major carbon reductions would adequately address the effects of climate change. Carnegie Institution senior scientist Ken Caldeira, a geoengineering expert, said such a strategy “misses the point.”

“Geoengineering is not an alternative to carbon emissions reductions,” he said. “If emissions keep going up and up, and you use geoengineering as a way to deal with it, it’s pretty clear the endgame of that process is pretty ugly.”

Pretty clear, no?

Second, in an email interview, I sent Caldeira an email titled, “Can you elaborate on Washington Post quote.”  The full contents of that email were a reprinting of the quote followed by “Can you explain this for my readers?  Have you or someone else written about this?”

I reprinted his full reply here on September 5 — Exclusive: Caldeira calls the vision of Lomborg’s Climate Consensus “a dystopic world out of a science fiction story.” Here is an excerpt (the ellipsis is his):

Nobody has written about this that I know of, but ….

If we keep emitting greenhouse gases with the intent of offsetting the global warming with ever increasing loadings of particles in the stratosphere, we will be heading to a planet with extremely high greenhouse gases and a thick stratospheric haze that we would need to main more-or-less indefinitely. This seems to be a dystopic world out of a science fiction story. First, we can assume the oceans have been heavily acidified with shellfish and corals largely a thing of the past. We can assume that ecosystems will be greatly affected by the high CO2 / low sunlight conditions — similar to what Earth experienced hundreds of millions years ago. The sunlight would likely be very diffuse — maybe good for portrait photography, but with unknown consequences for ecosystems.

We know also that CO2 and sunlight affect Earth’s climate system in different ways. For the same amount of change in rainfall, CO2 affects temperature more than sunlight, so if we are to try to correct for changes in precipitation patterns, we will be left with some residual warming that would grow with time.

And what will this increasing loading of particles in the stratosphere do to the
ozone layer and the other parts of Earth’s climate system that we depend on?

So that’s how I knew when I was sent the Superfreakonomics chapter on October 9th (by someone familiar with my reporting on Caldeira and geoengineering) that it had misrepresented his views utterly.  And that’s why I sent him this email (sorry for the repetition here, but this is for completeness’ sake):

Ken

You need to read this and see how your words have been taken out of context and give me a reply (by Sunday, if possible)….

Lines about you like (page 184) “Yet his research tells him carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight” seriously abuse your reputation and your extensive publications and warnings about the threat of ocean acidification….

I’d like to do a major reply.  I have attached the entire chapter for you to read (and you can confirm it is genuine by going to Amazon and searching for your name).

I’d like a quote like, “The authors of Superfreakonomics have utterly misrepresented my work.” plus whatever else you want to say.

I assume you stand by the Post quote:

“Geoengineering is not an alternative to carbon emissions reductions,” he said. “If emissions keep going up and up, and you use geoengineering as a way to deal with it, it’s pretty clear the endgame of that process is pretty ugly.”

and your email to me, including “dystopic world out of a science fiction story” that I can requote.

http://climateprogress.org/ 2009/ 09/ 05/ caldeira-delayer-lomborg-copenhagen-climate-consensus-geoengineering/

Was it wrong for me to ask him for a quote like that?  Again, from my perspective I was in an extended interview with him on this precise subject, so I knew exactly where he stood.

I respect Pooley a great deal, and I asked him for his answer to that question, which I reprint at the end.  But first, I’m going to reprint his entire story because it’s just that good — and the context is important:

Oct. 20 (Bloomberg) — Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner are so good at tweaking conventional wisdom that their first book, “Freakonomics,” sold 4 million copies. So when Dubner, an old friend, told me their new book would take on climate change, I was rooting for a breakthrough idea.

No such luck. In “SuperFreakonomics,” their brave new climate thinking turns out to be the same pile of misinformation the skeptic crowd has been peddling for years.

“Obviously, provocation is not last on the list of things we’re trying to do,” Dubner told me the other day. This time, the urge to provoke has driven him and Levitt off the rails and into a contrarian ditch.

Their breezy take on global warming unleashed a barrage of highly detailed criticism from economists and climate experts, including a scientist who is misrepresented in the book.

Dubner wonders why everyone is so angry. In part, it’s because the book’s blithe remedies — “We could end this debate and be done with it, and move on to problems that are harder to solve,” Levitt told the U.K. Guardian newspaper — are an insult to the thousands of scientists who have devoted their careers to this crisis.

One of the injured parties is Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at Stanford University who is quoted (accurately) as saying that “we are being incredibly foolish emitting carbon dioxide.” Then Dubner and Levitt add this astonishing claim: “His research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight.”

Provocative, Untrue

That’s provocative, but alas, it isn’t true. Caldeira, like the vast majority of climate scientists, believes cutting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions is our only real chance to avoid runaway climate change.

“Carbon dioxide is the right villain,” Caldeira wrote on his Web site in reply. He told Joe Romm, the respected climate blogger who broke the story, that he had objected to the “wrong villain” line but Dubner and Levitt didn’t correct it; instead, they added the “incredibly foolish” quote, a half step in the right direction. Caldeira gave the same account to me.

Levitt and Dubner do say that the book “overstates” Caldeira’s position. That’s a weasel word: The book claims the opposite of what Caldeira believes. Caldeira told me the book contains “many errors” in addition to the “major error” of misstating his scientific opinion on carbon dioxide’s role.

Why does this matter? Because there’s a titanic battle going on over whether and how to reduce carbon emissions, and this soon-to-be bestseller tries to convince people that we don’t need to do so. Dubner and Levitt trumpet their “wrong villain” line in their table of contents and promotional material. On National Public Radio the other day, Levitt said, “The real problem isn’t that there’s too much carbon in the air.”

Multiple Villains

“SuperFreakonomics” never identifies the “right villain,” so I called Dubner and asked. “I don’t think anybody knows for sure,” he told me. Then he acknowledged that the chapter’s most newsworthy claim “could have been better phrased, as ‘carbon dioxide is not the only villain.’ ”

Note to self:  Wow!

That’s a huge admission. No climate scientist believes carbon dioxide is the only villain: methane, nitrous oxide and other gases need to be reduced too. But that basic truth wouldn’t have drawn attention. It wouldn’t have given Levitt a bold contrarian line for NPR.

Dubner and Levitt acknowledge that the planet has warmed but pretend that cutting emissions is a hopelessly old-school response. “It’s no
t that we don’t know how to stop polluting the atmosphere,” they write. “We don’t want to stop.” They ignore the fact that U.S. emissions have dropped 9 percent since 2007 — not just because of the recession but also thanks to energy efficiency and cleaner fuels.

Chance of Catastrophe

They exaggerate the cost of climate action and underestimate the likelihood of runaway global warming, pretending that the “relatively small chance of worldwide catastrophe” isn’t worth getting bothered about.

They dismiss global warming as a “religion” and rehash the so-called “global cooling” scare of the 1970s, a favorite skeptic myth. (A handful of scientists warned of a coming ice age, a false alarm in no way comparable to today’s scientific consensus on warming.)

They trumpet the “little-discussed fact” that the average global temperature has decreased in recent years. This is accurate according to one set of global data — the other shows an increase — but scientists say it proves nothing. Imagine the Dow climbing to 14,000, with a wobble to 13,950. That’s what global temperatures have done. Even with small fluctuations, this decade is by every measure the hottest in recorded history. The second hottest is the 1990s. The third hottest is the 1980s. Get the picture? Levitt and Dubner don’t.

Shooting Sulfur Dioxide

Having downplayed the problem, they try to solve it with a set of silver-bullet technologies known as geoengineering. One would shoot millions of tons of sulfur dioxide 18 miles into the air to artificially cool the planet. This could work; it also could have dire unintended consequences.

Caldeira, who is researching the idea, argues that it can succeed only if we first reduce emissions. Otherwise, he says, geoengineering can’t begin to cope with the collateral damage, such as acidic oceans killing off shellfish.

Levitt and Dubner ignore his view and champion his work as a permanent substitute for emissions cuts. When I told Dubner that Caldeira doesn’t believe geoengineering can work without cutting emissions, he was baffled. “I don’t understand how that could be,” he said. In other words, the Freakonomics guys just flunked climate science.

(Eric Pooley, a former managing editor of Fortune magazine who is writing a book about the politics of global warming, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

The bottom line is that the story I broke was dead on.

And the Superfreaks still don’t get that the primary climatologist they spoke to completely disagrees with their primary thesis, which they continue to attribute to him.  Consider this October 18 Times online excerpt (whose subhead, actually claims “This time they claim that CO2 may be good”!), which ends:

It is one thing for climate heavyweights such as Crutzen and Caldeira to endorse such a solution. But they are mere scientists. The real heavyweights in this fight are people like Gore.And what does he think of geoengineering?

“In a word,” Gore says, “I think it’s nuts.”

You may be interested to know that Gore spokesperson Kalee Kreider told me they didn’t interview Gore for the book nor was he given a chance to review the chapter prior to publication.

The only remaining question for me is — Was it wrong for me to ask Caldeira for a quote like that?  My parents were award-winning journalists, and I certainly criticize journalists all the time.  So I put it to Pooley, and here is his full reply:

I don’t think journalists should rough out quotes in advance for their sources. Some folks do it; I never have. I think your case is a little different, not because you’re a ‘blogger’ and not a ‘journalist’ (those distinctions are fading fast!) but because you’re an expert who was already having a conversation with Caldeira on this subject and could see that Dubner and Levitt had misrepresented his views.

That said, I think everyone’s rule needs to be, don’t put anything in an email that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the Times.  If you had emailed Caldeira and said, “It seems clear to me that they utterly misrepresented your work; if you agree and are willing to say so, I’d like to quote you on it,” then no one could say boo.

Fair enough.  I wasn’t acting exactly as a journalist nor was I just acting as someone who was coming to this story cold.  I knew they had misrepresented Caldeira.  But Pooley’s phrasing is obviously what I should have written in retrospect — even with my dual role as an expert and a blogger.

I am very glad that I did go back and explicitly ask Caldeira if I could use the quote he did give me.  I think that is good journalism, although as I say only about half of the reporters I deal with do that.  Had Dubner done that, he could have avoided some of this, but then he wouldn’t have had the catchphrase he wanted for the book and the Table of Contents and the publicity.

The second bottom line:  This was an extremely special case whose circumstances I doubt will ever be repeated again in my life.  Given the circumstances, I don’t think I did anything wrong.  But in the future I will follow Pooley’s sound advice.

Comments welcome, if you’re still reading!