The High Points of Superfreakonomics: I just read my advance copy of Superfreakonomics. Overall, it's better than the original. It's still cutesy, but stronger in the "who cares?" factor. The highlight: "What Do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo Have in Common?," a surprisingly skeptical look at global warming, and a shockingly positive defense of geoengineering. Levitt and Dubner don't seem ready for the Pigou Club:
But when it comes to actually solving climate-change externalities through taxes, all we can say is good luck. Besides the obvious obstacles - like determining the right size of the tax and getting someone to collect it - there's the fact that greenhouse gases do not adhere to national boundaries... Thus, global warming.
In any case, why bother with taxes when we can fix warming for peanuts?
Budyko's Blanket could effectively reverse global warming at a total cost of $250 million. Compared with the $1.2 trillion that Nicholas Stern proposes spending each year to attack the problem, IV's idea is, well, practically free...
Superfreakonomics reviewed: As for the final chapter on global warming, it is a striking discussion of geo-engineering, surveying various schemes for cooling down the planet rather than trying to prevent climate change by cutting carbon emissions. This is a strong story, but it is also one-sided, portraying the geo-engineers as brilliant iconoclasts, dismissing the objections to geo-engineering as the knee-jerk reaction of the unreflective, and failing to convey the views of a single credible geo-engineering sceptic. A well-deserved swipe at Al Gore does not really count.
According to this chapter, the only reason everyone is making so much fuss about carbon dioxide is that they’ve never heard of geo-engineering, or are the kind of stubborn Luddites who think technology never solved anything. I have some sympathy with that view but the section nevertheless needed more balance.
In the end, a book such as SuperFreakonomics stands or falls on its entertainment value. And on that count, there’s no doubt: it’s a page-turner...
The Climate of Superfreakonomics: there is nothing too wrong with it. Not enough for name calling. What the authors are doing is identifying the ‘economist’s angst’ in this whole discussion. They start off with the 1970s discussion of global cooling although it isn’t clear that is a strong prediction either. We are all frustrated that climate models aren’t perfect even if sufficient scientists think there is enough and so I read that discussion as providing an example of that. But then there is a pretty clear discussion of the intertemporal problem we face in dealing with this. Again, all fairly non-controversial if leaning to a sceptical side. Nothing to get upset about....
The chapter then moves on to consider what to do about climate change. It too quickly moves through current plans for carbon prices saying they are uncertain and costly. Both true but there is surely more to it than that. After all, there is a ton of pollution going on and surely economists should be nervous about that being unchecked. Levitt and Dubner recognise externalities but then propose to mitigate externalities by eliminating the harm rather than changing behaviour. This is to be done through geoengineering which is discussed at length....
The underlying argument as to why we should pursue this rather than behavioural change is not environmental religion but whether it is possible to put prices on this and get behavioural change. Levitt and Dubner don’t think it is possible. They argue that if you can’t get doctors to wash their hands to stop the spread of infection, how can you expect people to clean up the planet?
But come on. Isn’t the whole point of the Freakonomics project that prices work and behaviour changes in response to incentives? Everywhere else, a few pennies will cause massive consumption changes while when it comes to a carbon price, it is all too hard. My own view is that a carbon price plus some information might have some drastic effects on the behavioural side. This chapter should have been about what it takes to change behaviour and what we do and do not know about that. Instead, it passes through that entire issue in a completely unsatisfactory way. Where is the call for field experiments and randomised trials? Instead, we should stick hoses into the atmosphere and seemingly give up on trying to get people to turn off lights when they exit a room....
This is all a shame because the point of having a popular face for someone like Steve Levitt is to be able to push agendas they are convinced about. The geoengineering one is a candidate for that but the incompleteness of the economic job has undermined the exercise and may well damage the platform he has built. It would have only taken a few pages. Yes, it would be a little less punchy and counterintuitivey (is that a word?) but the influence factor would surely have been stronger.
When it comes down to it, pollution is occurring. As Ken Arrow pointed out long ago, if there are irreversibilities then there is an option value in curtailing the polluting activity so that we can work out what the right future path is. It is that risk that means we should not let externalities go unpriced. And even if geoengineering works out, there will still be externalities. The safe course is to deal with them now...
Tubes!: Not the intertubes, 18 mile long tubes held up by helium baloons releasing S02 into the stratosphere.
Daniel Davies writes
if you find yourself writing, in all seriousness, as a practical proposal, the phrase "pumping large quantities of sulphur dioxide into the Earth’s stratosphere through an 18-mile-long hose, held up by helium balloons", it is probably time to take a step back and ask yourself if something has gone a little bit wrong with your life.
Ok, so I asked myself, and I still think that pumping large quantities of sulphur dioxide into the Earth’s stratosphere through an 18-mile-long hose, held up by helium balloons, would be excellent.
Davies is one of many many people who criticize the chapter on global warming of "Superfreakonomics" by Steves Levitt and Dunbar. The most quoted takedowns were written by Joe Romm and by Tim Lambert. As far as I can tell, they really don't have very much to say against the acid rain tubes idea. Rather they mainly object to the Steves proposal that we use the tubes as an alternative to cap and trade. The argument against doing both seems fairly weak to me.
There is the Leninist argument that the worse it is the better it is so any way to ameliorate global warming other than reducing emissions is bad, because it wil reduce pressure for reduced emissions. No one feels obliged to paint their roof black to increase pressure for emissions reductions and I don't see the difference.
Now there are clearly problems with the acid in the stratosphere approach. The SO2 won't stay there forever. It seems to me that the best way to defend the tubes proposal is to lye -- that is dump something alkaline in the oceans (this is both to deal with sulfuric acid from the tubes and carbonic acid from C02). Now if one aimed to do that in a way which wouldn't create extremely alkaline areas and kill marine life, it would cost a lot. I think that cost should be added to the tubes' cost.
Also, it might not work. A case for not relying on the tubes but not, as far as I can see, a case for not trying them.