Myhrvold jumps the shark — and jumps ship on SuperFreakonomics
Nathan Myhrvold, who Levitt and Dubner call the “polymath’s polymath” — who is one of the primary “experts” the authors rely on to make the case for their central geoengineering-only approach to global warming — has just publicly repudiated that approach. Apparently he never read the chapter — or didn’t understand it if he did. And apparently in their rush to print this “rebuttal” to my debunkings, the Superfreaks didn’t bother to read it closely, since he just wrote this jaw-dropper on their blog:
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.
You can’t make this stuff up.
As the Union of Concerned Scientists posted here about Myhrvold’s amazing defense repudiation of Superfreakonomics:
That is exactly the opposite of what the book argues and represents a complete repudiation of the chapter from one of the main sources on which Levitt and Dubner relied.
Or go to the Bloomberg interview of Dubner and Caldeira that backs up my reporting on error-riddled Superfreakonomics for an independent view of what the book is about — and what the authors think the book is about:
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.
Are you baffled also? The two leading experts (well, one expert and one F.A.K.E.R.) that Dubner and Leavitt relied on for their geoengineering-only solution don’t believe in it! Well, Caldeira doesn’t believe in it. As we’ll see, it’s impossible to figure out what Myhrvold believes.
Myhrvold is not a ”polymath’s polymath.” He repudiates the Superfreaks, so he’s a contrarian’s contrarian.
Why exactly does Myhrvold think the Superfreaks were so desperate to push the (incorrect) statement about Caldeira that his “research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain”? Since the Superfreaks made me take the PDF of the book down, go to the NPR interview of Levitt (transcript here):
So we’re not – look, I’m not a scientist and Steven Dubner’s not a scientist either, but we’ve managed to interact with some of the greatest scientists in this country. I think what we conclude is that the nature of the debate is just completely wrong. The real problem isn’t that there’s too much carbon in the air. The real problem is it’s too hot.
Ouch. But now it looks like the greatest scientists in this country don’t even agree with them.
Read the Times online excerpt whose subhead actually claims “This time they claim that CO2 may be good”!
The book itself says:
It’s not that we don’t know how to stop polluting the atmosphere. We don’t want to stop or aren’t willing to pay the price.
And then there is Myhrvold himself in the book — for extended quotes see “Error-riddled Superfreakonomics’, Part 2“:
“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.
But Myhrvold says (from the Times online excerpt):
Myhrvold is not arguing for an immediate deployment of the sulphur shield but, rather, that technologies like it be researched and tested so they are ready to use if the worst climate predictions come true.
Good for him. He’s ”not arguing for an immediate deployment” of something that doesn’t exist. Good strategy. If only his former company, Microsoft, had applied that approach with the Windows Vista operating system. Zing!
So why is he pushing this approach?
He is also eager to get geoengineering moving forward because of what he sees as “a real head of steam” that global warming activists have gathered in recent years.
“They are seriously proposing doing a set of things that could have enormous impact — and we think probably negative impact — on human life,” he says. “They want to divert a hu
ge amount of economic value toward immediate and precipitous anti-carbon initiatives, without thinking things through.
“This will have a huge drag on the world economy. There are billions of poor people who will be greatly delayed, if not entirely precluded, from attaining a First World standard of living.”
Ah, those extremist, nutty “global warming activists” — like, say, climatologist Ken Caldeira himself who has said:
I believe the correct CO2 emission target is zero. I believe that it is essentially immoral for us to be making devices (automobiles, coal power plants, etc) that use the atmosphere as a sewer for our waste products. I am in favor of outlawing production of such devices as soon as possible….
Every carbon dioxide emission adds to climate damage and increasing risk of catastrophic consequences. There is no safe level of emission.
I compare CO2 emissions to mugging little old ladies … It is wrong to mug little old ladies and wrong to emit carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The right target for both mugging little old ladies and carbon dioxide emissions is zero.
I am in favor of fire insurance but I am also against playing with matches while sitting on a keg of gunpowder. I am in favor of research into geoengineering options but I am also against carbon dioxide emissions.
Nathan is apparently pushing geo-engineering research because people like Caldeira (and me) want to immediately and precipitously cut carbon.
But wait, Myhrvold now says on the Superfreaks blog:
Geoengineering is proposed only as a last resort to try to reduce or cope with the even greater harms of global warming! The global-warming community has treated us to one scary scenario after another. Some are predicted by the science, some are extrapolations beyond current science, and some are not much better than wild guesses, but they could happen. Should we fail at cutting enough and those things occur, geoengineering might offer a better option….
This kind of attack [by Romm] makes it very difficult for people to suggest new ideas. I have thick enough skin to laugh it off when Romm attacks me, but plenty of people don’t. The politicization of science has a terrible impact on the unfettered discourse of ideas that is so important to making progress. This has been a big impediment to geoengineering. Serious climate scientists who are privately interested in geoengineering are loathe to discuss it publicly because they worry that somebody like Romm will attack and ridicule them if they do. Indeed, part of the reason I chose to work on geoengineering and chose to go public about it is to try to get the topic to be more widely discussed.
The point of the chapter in SuperFreakonomics is that geoengineering might be good insurance in case we don’t get global warming under control.
Except, of course, I have only been attacking and ridiculing people who support the geoengineering-only approach — the very approach that Myhrvold himself utterly rejects here.
Yes, good old reasonable Nathan Myhrvold, who just sees geoengineering as an insurance policy “in case we don’t get global warming under control.” But then, of course, he trashes the “global warming activists” who want to do just that in the book. It is Myhrvold and the Superfreaks who have poisoned the dialogue. Indeed, they go out of their way to attack and ridicule those who want to try to get global warming under control sans geoengineering. As I note in “Error-riddled ‘Superfreakonomics’, Part 2,“ 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.]
Yes, as I noted, 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 Error-riddled.
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.
In his “rebuttal,” Myhrvold never actually debunks the central critique I make of that paragraph. I have a little bombshell to drop on that tomorrow, which some readers have asked to see, so for now, let me end by noting one typically nonsensical thing Myhrvold says in his rambling, ad hominem attack on me:
Strangely, he gives comparatively little attention to the main point of the chapter, which is geoengineering.
Please do go check the quote at the Freakonomics blog here.
I give “comparatively little attention to the main point of the chapter, which is geoengineering.”??? You can’t make this stuff up — unless of course you’re a ”polymath’s polymath.”
So now we know that not only didn’t he read the chapter of SuperFreakonomics he is
defending repudiating defending repudiating, he didn’t even bother to read “Error-riddled Superfreakonomics, Part 1,” which he links to in his defense repudiation (!), in which I repost Caldeira’s devastating critique of the geoengineering-only approach (and add some of my own) or “Error-riddled Superfreakonomics, Part 2,” which focuses on him, in which I actually repost Robock’s entire critique of the geoengineering-only approach, complete with citations.
His post vindicates my original assessment.
16 Responses to “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?”
You keep trouncing them with the facts, Joe, and they keep bobbing and weaving. It’s kind of funny, really.
It’s going to come down to this: It must be starting to dawn on Levitt and Dubner that they screwed up, big time. How they respond is going to be a good test of what kind of men they are. Will they step up and concede major errors, and agree to rectify them in the next edition, and publish this one with disclaimers? Since they appear to have no financial or idealogical ties to fossil fuel industries, this may actually be possible.
I only know Stephen Dubner casually through personal correspondence, but believe that he is a decent person who just got trapped. Let’s see if he and Levitt can admit the truth and act on it, discarding any thoughts of cost/benefits, temporary embarrassments, and so on. This is the only card they have left in the long term.
At least they can plead ignorance of the subject, and being misled by Myhrvold and God knows who else. If Myhrvold is the smartest guy Bill Gates knows, it sounds like a good time to short Microsoft.
Like all sagas of the truth getting sidetracked, there is one little thing that they may have figured out ahead of many of us: their analysis indicates that we are not going to be able to convince enough citizens or governments to reduce emissions anywhere near fast enough to really put the skids on global warming. Even now, we hear people on TV saying it’s inconceivable to think we can replace coal and oil on any meaningful scale until, say, 2030. They’re dead wrong, of course, but they’re the ones who still have the power to appear on TV and say those things.