Error-riddled 'SuperFreakonomics,' Part 2
UPDATE: For an even bigger shocker, read Myhrvold’s “rebuttal,” which actually endorses my main critique (!): Nathan Myhrvold jumps the shark — and jumps ship on Levitt and Dubner (on their blog!) asserting: “Geoengineering is proposed only as a last resort to try to reduce or cope with the even greater harms of global warming! … The point of the chapter in SuperFreakonomics is that geoengineering might be good insurance in case we don’t get global warming under control.” Did he even read the book?
This post will shock you.
The sheer illogic and “patent nonsense” of the new book Superfreakonomics discussed in Part 1 is just the tip of the iceberg. What’s most worrisome is 1) who exactly has been peddling much of the nonsense and illogic to the authors — Nathan Myhrvold, the former CTO of Microsoft — and 2) who else may have been persuaded by his bullshit. The Myrhvold connection deserves special focus because it may help explain three puzzling things:
- Why does Bill Gates’ Foundation mostly ignore global warming? (see here)
- Why is Warren Buffett so wrong — and outspoken — about cap and trade? (see here)
- Why did Gates and Buffett visit the Athabasca tar sands — the biggest global warming crime ever — to satisfy “their own curiosity” but also “with investment in mind”? (see here).
According to the Superfreaks, Gates and Buffett went to the visit the tar sands (and other energy producers) with Myrhvold, giving him plenty of time to spread his misinformation to them. Moreover, the idea Myrhvold came away is simply stunning.
And yes, one always needs the caveat, “according to Levitt and Dubner,” because their reporting skills are so dreadful — they shoehorn everything they hear into whatever contrarian view they had decided to adopt. You shouldn’t take anything they say at face value. As we’ve seen, the primary climatologist the book relies on, Ken Caldeira, says “it is an inaccurate portrayal of me” and is “misleading” in “many” places. But I have reason to believe Myrhvold was given a draft to comment on — and if so, he was a willing participant in the defamation of his own reputation and that of his company “Intellectual Ventures.” Apparently, he really does push this piece of staggering illogic:
“If you believe that the scary stories could be true, or even possible, then you should also admit that relying only on reducing carbon-dioxide emissions is not a very good answer,” he says. In other words: it’s illogical to believe in a carbon-induced warming apocalypse and believe that such an apocalypse can be averted simply by curtailing new carbon emissions. “The scary scenarios could occur even if we make Herculean efforts to reduce our emissions, in which case the only real answer is geo-engineering.”
As I said in Part 1, not only is it not illogical, but I suspect most of the world’s leading climate scientists believe that if you could curtail all new carbon emissions (including from deforestation) starting now (or even starting soon), you would indeed avoid apocaplyse. In fact, as Caldeira makes clear, the reverse of Myrhvold’s final statement is true: ONLY if we make Herculean efforts to reduce our emissions, could geo-engineering possibly contribute to the solution.
Note also that this certainty about something completely unproven (i.e. large-scale aerosol-based geo-engineering), comes from a guy who seriously questions the real science of human-caused climate change. The Superfreaks describe their visit to IV this way:
Everyone in the room agrees that the Earth has been getting warmer and they generally suspect that human activity has something to do with it.
Good for them! So they think maybe human emissions cause some of the warming, but that it’s illogical to believe Herculean efforts to reduce emissions can avoid catastrophe, while we can be certain that geo-engineering will work (if it’s needed of course). How convenient.
As discussed in Part 1, however, absent the Herculean effort, geoengineering is all but hopeless and leads to “a dystopic world out of a science fiction story” as Caldeira described it to me. Myhrvold and the geniuses groupthinkers at IV, however, dismiss all of the solutions:
In the darkened conference room, Myhrvold cues up an overhead slide that summarizes IV’s views of the current slate of proposed global warming solutions. The slide says:
- Too little
- Too late
- Too optimistic.
Too little means that typical conservation efforts simply won’t make much of a difference. “If you believe there is a problem worth solving,” Myhrvold says, “then these solutions won’t be enough to solve it. Wind power and most other alternative energy things are cute, but they don’t scale to a sufficient degree. At this point, wind farms are a government subsidy scheme, fundamentally.” What about the beloved Prius and other low-emissions vehicles? “They’re great,” he says, “except that transportation is just not that big of a sector.”
[Pause for laughter. Then for weeping.]
No, I’m not making this up. Go to the Amazon.com page for the book, and put “summarizes” in the search engine. This guy was the CTO at Microsoft, and IV “controls more than twenty thousand patents” and they just make up crap like this and tell it to really important people who apparently swallow eat it up like pudding. Has nobody in the room ever Googled? I can’t waste time debunking all of tha
t crap, but how about this is from EPA:
Globally “Transport accounts for around a quarter of total CO2 emissions.” In fact, transport is the key sector, because reducing carbon emissions in electricity generation is so damn easy (see “An introduction to the core climate solutions“).
That’s why I call Myhrvold and his ilk, F.A.K.E.R.s — Famous “Authorities” whose Knowledge (of climate) is Extremely Rudimentary [Error-riddled?]. I can only conclude IV is filled with yes-men and -women who specialize in some bizarre form of contrarian groupthink, which in any other setting would be an oxymoron.
And, then we get this multi-whopper piece of nonsense:
Too optimistic: “A lot of the things that people say would be good things probably aren’t,” Myrhvold says. As an example he points to solar power. “The problem with solar cells is that they’re black, because they are designed to absorb light from the sun. But only about 12% gets turned into electricity, and the rest is reradiated as heat — which contributed to global warming.”
As discussed in Part 1, this may set the FAKER record for howlers in one paragraph and for most orders of magnitude error in a single global warming calculation. But the crap goes on and on like a really bad case of dysentery:
Although widespread conversion to solar power might seem appealing, the reality is tricky. The energy consumed by building the thousands of new solar plants necessary to replace coal-burning and other power plants would create a huge long-term “warming debt,” as Myhrvold calls it. “Eventually, we have a great carbon-free energy infrastructure but only after making emissions and global warming worse every year until we’re done building out the solar plants, which could take 30 to 50 years.“
[Pause to tighten vise around cranium so it does not explode.]
No. No. No. A thousand times no.
First off, the energy payback for building solar is currently only a few years and dropping steadily. Second, the carbon payback or “warming debt” of every solution drops steadily over time as you reduce the carbon intensity of the overall energy system. The point is that you do multiple solutions all at once, including a massive amount of energy efficiency, a massive amount of renewables (especially CSP, which the FAKERs seem unaware of), and even fuel switching from coal to gas. The U.S. could easily cut its CO2 emissions deepling in two decades while building out the most massive low carbon energy system. Finally, of course, if we don’t build the low-carbon infrastructure, then we will be building carbon-producing infrastructure, which will generate even more staggeringly large amounts of carbon for Myhrvold’s dystopia.
But the Superfreaks think the FAKERs are geniuses:
Intellectual Ventures is an invention company. The lab, in addition to all the gear, is stocked with an elite assemblage of brainpower, scientists and puzzle solvers of every variety….
Myhrvold played a variety of roles at Microsoft: futurist, strategist, founder of its research lab, and whisperer-in-chief to Bill Gates. “I don’t know anyone I would say is smarter than Nathan,” Gates once observed….
He is so polymathic as to make an everyday polymath tremble with shame.
I’m going to it invent a new phrase for these FAKERs — idiotic savants.
If this guy has Gates’ ear, no wonder the Gates Foundation mostly ignores global warming. And remember, Buffett is the other major contributor to the Gates Foundation. It’s multi-billionaire Groupthink.
Now while the FAKERs are busy dissing all low-carbon technologies, which organizations as credible as the International Energy Agency, the National Academy of Sciences, the IPCC, and McKinsey say can be employed at scale and cost-effectively, their own solution is so risible even the media is starting to laugh at it. The Independent writes:
The answer that the geeks offer is an 18-mile-long rubber hose pumping liquefied sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere. This, you might say, is where freakonomics starts getting a bit above itself….
And they never acknowledge any of the major problems that I discussed in Part 1. Ironically, even though the Superfreaks rely heavily on Caldeira as a scientist who supposedly supports their geo-engineering strategy and even though they point out early on that Caldeira “coined the phrase ‘ocean acidification,” the process by which the seas absorb so much carbon dioxide the corals and other shallow-water organisms are threatened,” Levitt and Dubner never mention it again, even though their geoengineering-only strategy would devastate the oceans for millennia (see “Imagine a World without Fish: Deadly ocean acidification — hard to deny, harder to geo-engineer, but not hard to stop — is subject of documentary“).
As the UK’s Guardian puts it:
They profile Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer of Microsoft, whose company, Intellectual Ventures, is exploring the possibility of pumping large quantities of sulphur dioxide into the Earth’s stratosphere through an 18-mile-long hose, held up by helium balloons, at an initial cost of around $20m. The chemical would reflect some of the sun’s rays back into space, cooling the planet, exactly as happened following the massive 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, in the Philippines. The primary objection to this plan, as with other “geoengineering” schemes, is that there’s no predicting the unknown negative effects of meddling in such a complex natural system. And it’s strange, given how much is made in both Freakonomics books of the law of unintended consequences, that they don’t
mention this in the context of Myhrvold’s plan.
But the Superfreaks say its all settled science:
First of all, would it work?
The scientific evidence says yes. It is basically a controlled mimicry of Mount Pinatubo’s eruption, whose cooling effects were exhaustively studied and remain unchallenged.
Do these guys even have the most rudimentary notion of what “scientific evidence” is? Here’s what Pinatubo did:
Yeah, it solved global warming.
The June 1991 eruption had a real, but very short-term impact. We have no “scientific evidence” of what the medium-term or long-term impact would be of creating the equivalent of multiple simultaneous Pinatubos every year for decades and decades.
It’s like saying 2 aspirins cured my headache, so now that the doctors say I have a malignant brain tumor, the scientific evidence proves I can take 2000 aspirins every day for the rest of my life and be cured.
As Caldeira says:
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.
For more, see Science on the Risks of Climate Engineering: “Optimism about a geoengineered ‘easy way out’ should be tempered by examination of currently observed climate changes” and British coal industry flack pushes geo-engineering “ploy” to give politicians “viable reason to do nothing” about global warming. Is that why Lomborg supports such a smoke-and-mirrors approach? which has an analysis by Robock I’ll repost at the end.
But first, let me end with one final Myhrvold shocker, which may explain the answer to the questions I posed at the start. Where does he want to put the 18-mile-long hose to pump large quantities of sulphur dioxide into the Earth’s stratosphere?
Myhrvold, in his recent travels, happened upon one potentially perfect site. Along with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, he was taking a whirlwind educational tour of various energy producers–a nuclear plant, wind farm, and so on. One of their destination was the Athabasca oilsands in northern Alberta, Canada.
Memo to Superfreaks: They ain’t “oil sands.”
Billions of barrels of petroleum can be found there, but it’s heavy, mucky crude. Rather than lying in a liquid pool beneath the earth’s crust, it is mixed in, like molasses, with the surface dirt. In Athabasca you don’t drill for oil; you mine it, scooping up gigantic shovels of Earth and then separating the oil from its waste components.
One of the most plentiful waste components of sulfur, which commands such a low price that the oil companies simply stockpile it. “There were big yellow mountains of it, like a hundred meters high by a thousand meters wide!” says Myhrvold. “And they stair-step them, like a Mexican pyramid. So you can put one little pumping facility up there, and with one corner of one of those sulfur Mountains, you control the whole global warming problem for the Northern Hemisphere.“
[Pause to clean up gray matter now scattered all over the vise.]
It is interesting to think what might’ve happened if Myhrvold was around 100 years ago, when New York and other cities were choking on horse manure. One wonders if, while everyone else looked at the mountains of dung saw calamity, he might’ve seen opportunity.
[Pause to think fondly about Myhrvold being around 100 years ago and not today — then start worrying about the various unintended catastrophes we’d be dealing with now as a result.]
Lord knows how many people besides Gates and Buffett and Levitt and Dubner — and the hundreds of thousands of people who will read Superfreakonomics (currently #4 on Amazon’s sales ranking) — will be duped by Myhrvold et al.
Since the Superfreaks don’t report the work of any of the myriad climate scientists who have raised concerns about geo-engineering, since they have essentially adopted the exact same position as Bjorn Lomborg, let me end by reposting an outstanding response from RealClimate, “A biased economic analysis of geoengineering” by Prof. Alan Robock. Robock gave the best talk I ever heard on geo-engineering (here), and this post is an excellent primer with numerous links:
Bjorn Lomborg’s Climate Consensus Center just released an un-refereed report on geoengineering, An Analysis of Climate Engineering as a Response to Global Warming, by J Eric Bickel and Lee Lane. The “consensus” in the title of Lomborg’s center is based on a meeting of 50 economists last year. The problem with allowing economists to decide the proper response of society to global warming is that they base their analysis only on their own quantifications of the costs and benefits of different strategies. In this report, discussed below, they simply omit the costs of many of the potential negative aspects of producing a stratospheric cloud to bl
ock out sunlight or cloud brightening, and come to the conclusion that these strategies have a 25-5000 to 1 benefit/cost ratio. That the second author works for the American Enterprise Institute, a lobbying group that has been a leading global warming denier, is not surprising, except that now they are in favor of a solution to a problem they have claimed for years does not exist.
Geoengineering has come a long way since first discussed here three years ago. [Here I use the term “geoengineering” to refer to “solar radiation management” (SRM) and not to carbon capture and sequestration (called “air capture” in the report), a related topic with quite different issues.] In a New Scientist interview, John Holdren, President Obama’s science adviser, says geoengineering has to be examined as a possible response to global warming, but that we can make no such determination now. A two-day conference on geoengineering organized by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences was held in June, 2009, with an opening talk by the President, Ralph Cicerone. The American Meteorological Society (AMS) has just issued a policy statement on geoengineering, which urges cautious consideration, more research, and appropriate restrictions. But all this attention comes with the message that we know little about the efficacy, costs, and problems associated with geoengineering suggestions, and that much more study is needed.
Bickel and Lane, however, do not hesitate to write a report that is rather biased in favor of geoengineering using SRM, by emphasizing the low cost and dismissing the many possible negative aspects. They use calculations with the Dynamic Integrated model of Climate and the Economy (DICE) economic model to make the paper seem scientific, but there are many inherent assumptions, and they up-front refuse to present their results in terms of ranges or error bars. Specific numbers in their conclusions make the results seem much more certain than they are. While they give lip service to possible negative consequences of geoengineering, they refuse to quantify them. Indeed, the purpose of new research is to do just that, but the tone of this report is to claim that cooling the planet will have overall benefits, which CAN be quantified. The conclusions and summary of the report imply much more certainty as to the net benefits of SRM than is really the case.
My main areas of agreement with this report are that global warming is an important, serious problem, that SRM with stratospheric aerosols or cloud brightening would not be expensive, and that we indeed need more research into geoengineering. The authors provide a balanced introduction to the issues of global warming and the possible types of geoengineering.
But Bickel and Lane ignore the effects of ocean acidification from continued CO2 emissions, dismissing this as a lost cause. Even without global warming, reducing CO2 emissions is needed to do the best we can to save the ocean. The costs of this continuing damage to the planet, which geoengineering will do nothing to address, are ignored in the analysis in this report. And without mitigation, SRM would need to be continued for hundreds of years. If it were stopped, by the loss of interest or means by society, the resulting rapid warming would be much more dangerous than the gradual warming we are now experiencing.
Bickel and Lane do not even mention several potential negative effects of SRM, including getting rid of blue skies, huge reductions in solar power from systems using direct solar radiation, or ruining terrestrial optical astronomy. They imply that SRM technologies will work perfectly, and ignore unknown unknowns. Not one cloud has ever been artificially brightened by injection of sea salt aerosols, yet this report claims to be able to quantify the benefits and the costs to society of cloud brightening.
They also imply that stratospheric geoengineering can be tested at a small scale, but this is not true. Small injections of SO2 into the stratosphere would actually produce small radiative forcing, and we would not be able to separate the effects from weather noise. The small volcanic eruptions of the past year (1.5 Tg SO2 from Kasatochi in 2008 and 1 Tg SO2 from Sarychev in 2009, as compared to 7 Tg SO2 from El Chichón in 1982 and 20 Tg SO2 from Pinatubo in 1991) have produced stratospheric clouds that can be well-observed, but we cannot detect any climate impacts. Only a large-scale stratospheric injection could produce measurable impacts. This means that the path they propose would lead directly to geoengineering, even just to test it, and then it would be much harder to stop, what with commercial interests in continuing (e.g., Star Wars, which has not even ever worked).
Bickel and Lane also ignore several seminal papers on geoengineering that present much more advanced scientific results than the older papers they cite. In particular, they ignore Tilmes et al. (2008), Robock et al. (2008), Rasch et al. (2008), and Jones et al. (2009).
With respect to ozone, they dismiss concerns about ozone depletion and enhanced UV by citing Wigley (2006) and Crutzen (2006), but ignore the results of Tilmes et al. (2008), who showed that the effects would prolong the ozone hole for decades and that deployment of stratospheric aerosols in a couple decades would not be safe as claimed here. Bickel and Lane assert, completely incorrectly, “On its face, though, it does not appear that the ozone issue would be likely to invalidate the concept of stratospheric aerosols.”
With respect to an Arctic-only scheme, they suggest in several places that it would be possible to control Arctic climate based on the results of Caldeira and Wood (2008) who artificially reduce sunlight in a polar cap in their model (the “yarmulke method”), whereas Robock et al. (2008) showed with a more realistic model that explicitly treats the distribution and transport of stratospheric aerosols, that the aerosols could not be confined to just the Arctic, and such a deployment strategy would affect the summer Asian monsoon, reducing precipitation over China and India. And Robock et al. (2008) give examples from past volcanic eruptions that illustrate this effect, such as the pattern of precipitation reduction after the 1991 Pinatubo eruption (Trenberth and Dai, 2007):
With respect to cloud brightening, Bickel and Lane ignore the Jones et al. (2009) results that cloud brightening would mainly cool the oceans and not affect land temperature much, so that it is an imperfect method at best to counter global warming. Furthermore Jones et al. (2009) found that cloud brightening over the South Atlantic would produce severe drought over the Amazon, destroying the tropical forest.
They also ignore a huge class of ethical and world governance issues. Whose hand would be on the global thermostat? Who would trust military aircraft or a multi-national geoengineering company to have the interests of the people of the planet foremost?
They do not seem to realize that volcanic eruptions affect climate change because of sulfate aerosols produced from sulfur dioxide gas injections into the stratosphere, the same that is proposed for SRM, and not by larger ash particles that fall out quickly after and eruption and do not cause climate change.
They dismiss air capture (“air capture technologies do not appear as promising as solar radiation management from a technical or a cost perspective”) but ignore the important point that it would have few o
f the potential side effects of SRM. Air capture would just remove the cause of global warming in the first place, and the only side effects would be in the locations where the CO2 would be sequestered.
For some reason, they insist on using the wrong units for energy flux (W) instead of the correct units of W/m^2, and then mix them in the paper. I cannot understand why they choose to make it so confusing.
The potential negative consequences of stratospheric SRM were clearly laid out by Robock (2008) and updated by Robock et al. (2009), which still lists 17 reasons why geoengineering may be a bad idea. One of those important possible consequences, the threat to the water supply for agriculture and other human uses, has been emphasized in a recent Science article by Gabi Hegerl and Susan Solomon.
Robock et al. (2009) also lists some benefits from SRM, including increased plant productivity and an enhanced CO2 sink from vegetation that grows more when subject to diffuse radiation, as has been observed after every recent large volcanic eruption. But the quantification of these and other geoengineering benefits, as well as the negative aspects, awaits more research.
It may be that the benefits of geoengineering will outweigh the negative aspects, and that most of the problems can be dealt with, but the paper from Lomborg’s center ignores the real consensus among all responsible geoengineering researchers. The real consensus, as expressed at the National Academy conference and in the AMS statement, is that mitigation needs to be our first and overwhelming response to global warming, and that whether geoengineering can even be considered as an emergency measure in the future should climate change become too dangerous is not now known. Policymakers will only be able to make such decisions after they see results from an intensive research program. Lomborg’s report should have stopped at the need for a research program, and not issued its flawed and premature conclusions.
Jones, A., J. Haywood, and O. Boucher 2009: Climate impacts of geoengineering marine stratocumulus clouds, J. Geophys. Res., 114, D10106, doi:10.1029/2008JD011450.
Rasch, Philip J., Simone Tilmes, Richard P. Turco, Alan Robock, Luke Oman, Chih-Chieh (Jack) Chen, Georgiy L. Stenchikov, and Rolando R. Garcia, 2008: An overview of geoengineering of climate using stratospheric sulphate aerosols. Phil. Trans. Royal Soc. A., 366, 4007-4037, doi:10.1098/rsta.2008.0131.
Robock, Alan, Luke Oman, and Georgiy Stenchikov, 2008: Regional climate responses to geoengineering with tropical and Arctic SO2 injections. J. Geophys. Res., 113, D16101, doi:10.1029/2008JD010050. PDF file
Robock, Alan, Allison B. Marquardt, Ben Kravitz, and Georgiy Stenchikov, 2009: The benefits, risks, and costs of stratospheric geoengineering. Submitted to Geophys. Res. Lett., doi:10.1029/2009GL039209. PDF file
Tilmes, S., R. Müller, and R. Salawitch, 2008: The sensitivity of polar ozone depletion to proposed geoengineering schemes, Science, 320(5880), 1201-1204, doi:10.1126/science.1153966.
Trenberth, K. E., and A. Dai (2007), Effects of Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruption on the hydrological cycle as an analog of geoengineering, Geophys. Res. Lett., 34, L15702, doi:10.1029/2007GL030524.