Umm... This ain't rocket science. This really ain't rocket science at all...
Cass Sunstein Wants to Nudge Us: In OIRA’s cost-benefit calculations, the government’s willingness to spend depends on how expensive the damage will be — on what economists call the social cost of carbon. Sunstein and others in the government have spent several months trying to define this cost, and he talked me through the process. One of the most important issues is the discount rate — the depreciation of money over time. All else being equal, if given a choice between paying $1 million now and $1 million five years from now, economists will choose to pay later. After all, if money depreciates at say, 3 percent a year, then spending $1 million today is the equivalent of spending only about $860,000 of today’s dollars five years from now. Over very long periods, like those involved in climate change, the discount rates that are applied to short-term problems like budgets build toward absurdity: using one common method, spending $1 million today to forestall climate change would be the equivalent of spending $2,300 in 2100. Calculations like this seem to argue against doing anything now. The problem, Sunstein says, is that we might do irreversible damage to the planet while blithely waiting for the price of action to drop just enough.... As an academic, Sunstein seemed to side with economists like William Nordhaus at Yale, who set the discount rate at about 5 percent, which would counsel patience. “It’s not clear what direction the risk of error cuts in,” he told me. “If we err, 7 percent could be bad,” he said, but “if we err, 1 percent could be bad also.” A low a discount rate might protect the environment by spurring us to sacrifice now — while damaging the economy, increasing poverty and putting more people out of work. The difficulty is that the experts are lined up “out the door and down the block on both sides of this issue,” one economist told me...
Here we have yet another example of why law professors should simply not be allowed to practice law and economics or moral philosophy without a license--and of how Cass Sunstein has never bothered to do the work necessary to acquire a license to practice law and economics.
First, "irreversible damage": we are doing irreversible damage to the environment every day in that every day human activity brings more species closer to extinction, and natural or artificial selection would never be able to resurrect them no matter how much money we would spend trying to do so. The question that must be asked: is how much we care--how damaging is the "irreversible damage," and what other goods are we willing to forego in order to avoid it? What Sunstein implies--that "irreversible damage" is something that must be avoided and that trumps cost-benefit calculations--is simply incoherent, and does nothing other than perform the function of getting him onto Obama administration message without admitting that he does not understand why the cost-benefit analysis tools he loves so much are leading him to what is for an Obama administration official an off-message conclusion.
Second, the cost-benefit analysis tools Cass Sunstein loves so much are leading him to an off-message conclusion only because Sunstein does not understand how to use them. Nick Stern's Climate Change Report uses the same tools and leads to a very different conclusion than "argu[ing] against doing anything now." The shortcut way to understand why is that there are actually three discount rates to be used in cost-benefit analysis here--(i) a nominal interest discount rate to be used for money values, (ii) a real interest discount rate to be used for real values, and (iii) a human discount rate to be used for human lives and their quality. (Plus there are risk adjustments that I won't go into here.) We tend to read the money-discount and the real-discount rates off of the market yields on long-term Treasury bonds and on long-term TIPS. But neither is appropriate if what is at stake is human lives and their quality--then something more like the TIPS yield minus the expected rate of growth of labor productivity is appropriate.
At the moment the real TIPS yield is 1.79% per year. The expected labor productivity growth rate is something north of 1.6% per year. That calls for a human-lives-and-their-quality discount rate, to be applied to global warming expenditures now, of 0.19% per year AT MOST.
Wallace-Wells's and Sunstein's 3% per year discount rate would be the right one if the human, life, and welfare cost of a given tragedy were the same in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2100 as it is today--if the amount of real value we would wish to spend to avoid a chance of 10,000,000 Bengalis drowning in 2110 would be the same as the real value we would spend to avoid a chance of 10,000,000 Bengalis drowning in the next hurricane season. But it won't be: we expect technology to progress over the next ninety years, and thus for us to be capable of and want to and be willing to spend much more money to guard against human catastrophes a century hence. Today we have 6 billion people on the world with income per capita of $7,000 a year. In 2110 we expect to have 9 billion people on the world with income per capita of $56,000 per year. Thus we expect that inasmuch as they will be richer than we are that they will value human lives and high quality lives more highly in real values and be willing to spend more to preserve and enhance them than we are.
To argue that they will not be--that avoiding a 1% chance of 10,000,000 drowned Bangalis will be worth spending no more in real value on in 2110 than it is today--is to be a moral monster.
Or a cost-benefit analyst who does not understand how to use his tools.
And we are live at The Week:
Global Warming Panic Attack - The Week: Media personalities and Freakonomicists claim that the planet has recently experienced global cooling. But according to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, we have just experienced the hottest twelve-month period in at least a thousand years.
If global temperatures continue rising at the rate they have risen for the past generation, then the world of 2100 will be 2.3 degrees Celsius – that’s 4.1 degrees Farenheit -- hotter than the world of the 1970s. If global warming accelerates, however, as industrializing China, India and other countries pour more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and as Indonesia, Brazil, and others cut and burn their forests, the world in 2100 will be 5 Celsius -- 9 Farenheit -- degrees hotter than the world of the 1970s.
In a more hopeful vein, if we are lucky, we might discover powerful carbon-sink processes that absorb carbon dioxide or reflective-cooling technology that reduces warming. Or we might discover magical new non-greenhouse-gas emitting technologies that can be deployed more cheaply than current carbon-based technologies. In any of these scenarios, we may wind up with a world in 2100 that is little warmer than the world of the 1970s. At least we can hope.
But hope is not a plan. The world was supposed to plan at Kyoto. It did not. Subsequently, it was supposed to plan at Copenhagen. Again it did not.
So right now I am panicking. And in my panicked state, I become shrill and unrealistic. So I am calling for four actions--at least one of which, in particular, is robustly unappealing.
Beg the rulers of China and India to properly understand their long-term interests;
Nationalize the energy industry in the United States;
Pour money into research on closed-carbon and non-carbon energy technologies in order to maximize the chance that we will get lucky on energy technologies if not on climate sensitivity.
Restrict future climate negotiations to a group of seven -- the U.S., the E.U., Japan, China, India, Indonesia, and Brazil -- and enforce agreement by substantial and painful trade sanctions on countries that do not accept the demands of the resulting negotiated system.
In a later column, I will address points (3) and (4). Meantime, let me just talk about (1) and (2).
First, I want us to beg the rulers of China and India to understand their own situation. Unless the North Atlantic Conveyor shuts down and Europe returns to the climate of the Younger Dryas Era (the big freeze of more than 10,000 years ago), global warming will not be hugely problematic for the North Atlantic economies -- at least not for a century. We’ll mourn the loss of our glaciers and snow packs. We’ll lament the extinction of polar bears, the coral reefs, and the giant sequoias. But we’ll welcome extra sunny days to go to the beach. We’ll move a few miles north, relocate economic activity to get out of the paths of hurricanes and droughts, turn down our heaters, turn up our air conditioners, and live our lives. It would be expensive for us to adapt to warming -- more expensive, I believe, than dealing with the problem -- but we could do so.
But China, India and their neighbors in the great river valleys of Asia will soon be home to three billion farming peasants. These farmers depend on the regular monsoon rains and the river flows of the Indus, the Ganges, the Mekong, the Yangtze, and the Yellow Rivers. Global warming means their climate will change. There will either be much more precipitation in the valleys feeding the rivers, or much less. If there is much less, hundreds of millions will face drought and famine. If there is much more, millions will likely die in floods and the dwelling and working places of hundreds of millions will be washed away. Unlike North Americans, Asia’s peasant-farming populations are not rich enough simply to adapt.
So we need to beg the rulers of China and India to understand their long-term interests. The welfare of their countries over the next four generations depends on gaining rapid control of global warming. Their own personal survival — unless they want mobs descending on their homes, dragging them and their descendants into the streets — depends on it. And because either China or India is going to be the globe’s dominant superpower in a century, even if they are clobbered by climate change, pleasing that future superpower now is in every country’s interest. So we need to beg the rulers of China and India to recognize their own long-term interest, and to help us get this climate-control party started.
Allow me to make the first entreaty. Rulers of China and India: I beg you. Get on board. Please.
Second, I want us to nationalize the open-carbon-cycle energy industry in the United States.
In the 1960s it became clear that the price of oil in the United States should be higher. Because of powerful congestion and pollution externalities, we were over-investing in the automobile civilization. A larger tax on oil would have nudged the economy closer to the social optimum.
In the 1970s it became very clear that the price of oil in the United States needed to be even higher. Because of instability in the Middle East, our dependence on that region as a major source of energy created unacceptable geopolitical risks. A larger tax on oil would have nudged the economy into a new configuration, mitigating the danger.
At the start of the 1990s it became painfully clear that the price of carbon energy needed to be higher: the global warming threat was upon us. Yet the price increase never materialized. It never happened because of what the inner circle around my ex-boss, former Texas Senator and U.S. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, used to call the “ullengaz” industry – “oil and gas.” This potent industry has blocked desirable public policy regulation for nearly fifty years now.
In general, I am opposed to state-run, nationalized industries: managing industry is without a doubt the private sector’s role, not the government’s. As a neoclassical economist, I risk having my union card revoked when I advocate government ownership of what otherwise could be a profit-making private enterprise.
But the interaction of rent-seeking industry with a flawed political system has made me willing to make an exception in the case of America’s carbon-based energy industry. True, government ownership will increase inefficiency and the misallocation of resources. But it will also increase political efficiency, since the energy industry will no longer be able to purchase Members of Congress and use them to strangle the policy innovations needed to advance the national interest. So nationalize the carbon energy sector -- not to expropriate wealth or to penalize shareholders, but to remove a selfish and destructive political force that threatens our future.
Radical proposals? Yes.
Indeed, you may think they are shrill, impractical, and utopian proposals. (I, also think they are shrill, impractical, and utopian proposals.) You may think we should instead continue down the energy and environmental policy path we have traveled so many times before, meeting the same legislative roadblocks. You may think that we should simply try again, and hope that this time it turns out differently.
We are live in the Los Angeles Times:
Global warming, new NASA data: It is about time to panic.
According to the NASA data, we have just experienced the hottest 12-month period in more than 100 years, which means that the past 12 months have been the hottest in at least the past 1,000 years.
What does this mean? Well, if global temperatures continue to rise at the rate that they have risen for the past generation, then the world of 2100 will see a world 4.1 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the world of the 1970s. New York will get the climate of Washington. Los Angeles will get the climate of Tijuana.
But global warming might accelerate, especially if China, India and other industrializing powers continue to increase the amount of carbon dioxide they pour out. Perhaps the world by 2100 will be 9 degrees hotter than the world of the 1970s. That would give Washington the climate of Miami and Los Angeles the climate of Cabo San Lucas.
And we might get lucky. We might learn that the climate is in fact immensely stable on the upside. Even though past ice ages have ended quickly with very rapid warming, perhaps there are factors in the Earth's biosphere that allow it to soak up excess carbon dioxide quickly, like a sponge, and perhaps the world of 2100 will not be much warmer than the world of today. Or perhaps we will discover magical new energy technologies that are actually cheaper than our current technologies and will be rapidly adopted without the governments of the world lifting a finger to take action.
But that is not the prudent way to bet. The prudent thing to do is to plan, and to hedge: to plan for the most likely case, and to hedge by taking precautions — insurance — against the worst case. The world was supposed to plan how to deal with our global warming future at Kyoto. And then the world was supposed to plan for how to deal with our global warming future at Copenhagen. It did not do so.
So what do we do now?
Let us start with our global institutions. It is a fact that global warming is not likely to be a total human catastrophe here in California during the next 100 years. We will mourn the losses of our glaciers and our snowpack. We will lament the extinction of the polar bear, the coral reefs and the giant sequoias. We will be distressed at the transformation of California's Central Valley into the north Mojave Desert. But many San Franciscans really won't mind having the climate of Los Angeles. And many Angelenos will not be greatly distressed to have the climate of Tijuana. We will probably move a few miles north and relocate economic activity to get out of the paths of hurricanes and droughts. We will turn down our heaters and turn up our air conditioners. We will live our lives. It will be expensive for us to simply adapt, and it would be cheaper over the next century to deal with the problem. But here in California, there's little question we will be able to adapt without immediate human catastrophe for the next century.
That's not the case for Asia. China, India and their neighbors will soon have 3 billion peasants farming in the great river valleys of Asia. They depend on regular monsoon rains in the valleys and water flows down the channels of the Indus, the Ganges, the Mekong, the Yangtze and the Yellow rivers. Global climate change means that there will either be more precipitation in the valleys and feeding the rivers — or much less. If there is more, millions will die in floods, and the dwelling and working places of hundreds of millions will simply be washed away. The 3 billion are not rich enough to abandon their land and move away. They are also not rich enough to protect themselves. If there is much less water, hundreds of millions will die in famine and drought. Again, the peasant farming populations of Asia are not rich enough to abandon their land and move away. And they are also not rich enough to bring icebergs up from the Antarctic and pipe the water uphill from the sea to their farms.
The peasant farming populations are not rich enough to simply adapt. So the first thing we need to do is to beg the rulers of China and India to understand their nations' long-term interest.
But even if China and India understand and join the North Atlantic and the island nations of the Pacific in understanding the immensity of the long-run problem, that will not be enough. In the current international forum, China and India are simply two out of a 150 nations, and consensus is required. That is just too big a body with too many conflicting interests.
So the second thing we need to do is change the forum. We need a climate council made up of the seven governments that have the biggest power to influence the climate and the most at stake: the United States and the European Union, along with Japan, China, India, Indonesia and Brazil. Once the council has agreed to a treaty, it should be enorced by using aggressive and substantial trade sanctions against outsider countries that do not want to come up to the mark.
Utopian? Yes. Impractical? Probably. But what is the practical and realistic alternative that it would be better to push for?
AFTER COPENHAGEN: What Can Be Done to Meet the Economic and Environmental Challenges?
4 p.m., Goldman Theater, David Brower Center, 2150 Allston Way at Fulton St., Westside of UCB Campus, Berkeley, CA 94704
The Peder Sather Symposium represents an ongoing collaboration between the governments of Norway and Sweden and UC Berkeley. The goal of the symposium is to promote the understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues. The event is designed to foster interdisciplinary discussion among scholars and policymakers from Europe and the U.S. on global and national issues of mutual concern.
About Peder Sather: Peder Sather was born in Norway in 1810. He emigrated to New York and then to California, where he founded the banking firm of Sather and Church. Peder Sather was one of the early trustees of the College of California and an active participant in aiding the institution that has become the University of California. Upon his death, the Sather and Church banking firm was absorbed by the Bank of California. Although it was Peder Sather who had accumulated the wealth and resources that helped fund education in California, it was the work of his wife, Jane Krom Sather, a native of New York State, who made the Sather name part of UC Berkeley's history. Through her generous endowments to the University's teaching resources and beautification effort (notably Sather Gate, which was the main entrance to the UC campus), the Sather name has come to symbolize a legacy of collaboration between Norway and the University of California. With the Sather legacy in mind, the University of California and the Royal Norwegian Consulate General of San Francisco inaugurated the first Peder Sather Symposium in 1991.
J. Bradford DeLong
Professor of Economics, U.C. Berkeley
Research Associate, NBER
April 15, 2010
We have just experienced the hottest twelve-month period in at least the past thousand years.
Media personalities and freakeconomists claim that in recent years there has been global cooling. They lie.
If global temperatures continue to rise at the rate that they have risen for the past generation, then the world of 2100 will see a world 2.3C—4.1F—hotter than the world of the 1970s. If global warming accelerates, as industrializing China, India, and other countries pour more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and as Indonesia, Brazil, and other countries cut and burn their forests. We are looking at a world that by 2100 will be 5C—9F—hotter than the world of the 1970s. If we are lucky, we might discover that there are powerful carbon-sink processes and reflective cooling processes that have not yet swung into action, and we might discover magical new non-greenhouse gas emitting technologies that can be deployed more cheaply than our current open carbon-cycle technologies, and we might wind up with a world in 2100 that is little warmer than the world of the 1970s. We can hope.
But hope is not a plan. We can hope. We should also plan.
The world was supposed to plan at Kyoto, and then again at Copenhagen. It did not.
So what do we do now? I think we should do four things:
Let me briefly outline the reasons for these four things we should be doing:
Research. Into closed-carbon energy technologies, into non-carbon energy technologies, into geoengineering. It would be really nice to find a technological magic bullet. It would mean that all kinds of painful and difficult political negotations would not have to be carried through and we could devote the energy to all kinds of things. And it would mean that all kinds of investments economizing on energy use would no longer have to be carried through and we could spend the wealth on other things. Plus it would be cool to watch the gigantic 8000-mile in diameter sunshade being moved into its position at the appropriate Lagrange point for the Earth’s orbit. And it would be fun to watch the giant cannons throwing dust into the atmosphere—and to watch the beautiful sunsets that would result (if such a world would not be a Blade Runner-esque world in which our oceans were turning into acid soda water).
Beg the Rulers of China and India. Unless the North Atlantic Conveyor shuts down and Europe returns to the climate of the Younger Dryas Era, global warming is not a huge deal for the North Atlantic economies for a century. We mourn the losses of our glaciers and our snowpacks. We lament the extinction of the polar bears, the coral reefs, and the giant sequoias. We welcome the extra sunny days to go to the beach. We move a few miles north, relocate economic activity to get out of the paths of hurricanes and droughts, turn down our heaters, turn up our air conditioners, and live our lives. It would be expensive for us to simply adapt—more expensive I believe than dealing with the problem—but we could do so.
But China and India will soon have, along with their neighbors, three billion farming peasants in the great river valleys of Asia. They depend on the regular monsoon rains and the river flows of the Indus, the Ganges, the Mekong, the Yangtze, and the Yellow Rivers. Global warming means the climate will change. There will either be much more precipitation in the valleys and feeding the rivers, or much less. If there is much less, hundreds of millions will die in famine and drought. If there is much more, millions will die in floods and the dwelling and working places of hundreds of millions will be washed away. The peasant-farming populations are not rich enough to simply adapt.
So we need to beg the rulers of China and India to understand their long-term interest: The welfare of their countries over the next four generations depends on rapidly controlling global warming. Their own personal survival—unless they want mobs descending on their homes when they are in retirement, dragging them and their descendants out into the street, and carrying their heads on pikes—depends on rapidly controlling global warming. And because one of either China or India is going to be the globe’s dominant superpower in a century, pleasing that future superpower now is in every country’s interest. So we need to beg the rulers of China and India to recognize their personal and their countries’ long-term interest, and to use their power as future global superpowers to help us get this climate-control party started.
I hereby do so. Rulers of China and India: I beg you. Get on board. Please.
Nationalize the American Energy Industry. In the 1960s it became very clear that the price of oil in the United States needed to be higher: Because of powerful congestion and pollution externalities, we were overinvesting in the automobile civilization. A larger tax on oil would nudge the economy closer to the social optimum. In the 1970s it became very clear that the price of oil in the United States needed to be even higher: Because of instability in the Middle East, unacceptable geopolitical risks were being generated by our dependence on the Middle East as a source of energy. A larger tax on oil would nudge the economy into a configuration in which this geopolitical danger would be lessened. And at the start of the 1990s it became very clear that the price of carbon energy needed to be higher: global warming. Yet it never happened. It never happened because of what Lloyd Bentsen’s aides used to call the “ullengaz” industry—“oil and gas.” Powerful enough to block desirable public policy regulation and adjustment for nearly fifty years now. In general I am opposed to state-run nationalized industries: that is definitely the private sector’s place, not the government. But the interaction of rent-seeking politics with the flaws of America’s political system have made me willing to make an exception in the case of America’s oil industry: the increased allocative inefficiency that will flow from government ownership and management is, in my judgement, likely to be much less than the increased political efficiency that will flow from no longer having the energy industry able to purchase enough Representatives and Senators to block needed policy moves that it fears will be adverse to its interests. So nationalize—not to expropriate or to penalize the shareholders, but to get this particular selfish and destructive political voice out of American governance.
Restrict Future Climate Negotiations to a Group of Seven. When the United Nations was founded, key decision-making power was restricted to a group of five important countries that had been the victorious allies of World War II: The U.S., Britain, France, Russia, and China—those are the five Security Council veto powers. One of the things that Copenhagen has, I think, demonstrated is that climate-control negotiations are too complex and too fraught for them to be successfully achieved via grand multilateral processes. So allow everybody to kibbitz. But require only the agreement of a Climate Council of Seven in order to implement a treaty. And let those seven be the seven who have the biggest power to influence the climate and the most at stake: U.S., the E.U., Japan, China, India, Indonesia, and Brazil. Then enforce the treaty by using aggressive and substantial trade sanctions against outsider countries that do not want to live up to their responsibilities according to whatever plan is negotated by the Climate Council of Seven.
You may think—and you may even say—that these four proposals of mine are all unattainable and radical. You may think—and you may even say—that we should continue to walk down the road we have been walking, even though every time we do we seem to run into and bruise our noses against the same stone wall. We should, you may think, try again to walk the same road, and hope that this time it turns out differently.
But hope is not a plan.
NASA GISS Estimated Global Temperature Anomalies: No snow in Minnesota in March---has not happened before in 125 years of records. "Ice out" on lakes at record early dates--two or more weeks in most instances 9a big time difference...
David Appell points out:
David Appell: Quark Soup: 12-month Temperature Record: I was playing with the GISS temperature anomaly data, and it turns out that the last 12 months (April 2009- Marc 2010) have been the warmest 12-month period in their records.
Jeroen van Bergeijk in Adelaide
?A nondescript building on the edge of Adelaide houses the largest processor of kangaroo meat in Australia: Macromeats. There is no sign on the door. The trucks loading and unloading kangaroos don't advertise what they carry. On the outside, nothing reveals that 3,000 kangaroos are turned into steaks, sausages and minced meat here every day. "I used to be compared to the folks who club baby seals," Macromeats owner Ray Borda said about the industry's image problem. Kangaroos are generally seen as cuddly animals and the mere thought of putting a 'Skippy' on the barbecue appals many Australians. But the attitude they have towards the consumption of their national symbol is changing. "The government used to scorn me," Borda said. "But this year, I was asked to host a kangaroo barbecue in the parliament building." This turnaround is credited to the environmental and health benefits of kangaroo meat compared to sheep and cattle. A recent report by Ross Garnaut, the principal environmental advisor to prime minister Kevin Rudd, stated that traditional farming is responsible for a substantial share of the emission of greenhouse gasses in Australia. The government now encourages eating kangaroos instead. "If you look at the impact on the environment, you find that kangaroo is a better choice than beef or lamb," said Euan Ritchie, a biologist affiliated with the James Cook University in Queensland state. "Kangaroos have a different digestive system from cattle or sheep. They produce less methane, a strong greenhouse gas. In short: cows fart and kangaroos don't." This limited contribution to greenhouse emissions is not the only environmental benefit the kangaroo has. "Cows and sheep need huge amounts of water and their heavy hooves erode the fragile Australian soil,” said Richie...
Paul Krugman writes:
Hot Stuff: [H]ere’s global temperatures so far this year. The yellow line shows 2005, the warmest year to date.
1998 used to be the "warmest year to date."
Fifteen years ago... no, thirty years ago... no, forty years ago we should have impose a carbon tax. Pollution externalities and the national security externalities of relying on and paying people in an unstable and undemocratic part of the world to be the key energy link on our economy both strongly militated for conservation and alternative energy--and a carbon tax was the best way to do that.
Twenty years ago with the recognition of human carbon-emission caused greenhouse gas global warming, a third decisive reason was added to the case for a carbon tax.
Yet here we are now, without one. And many of those who believe in a carbon tax argue that our absence of one now is not that big a deal--that ideally we would start with a low carbon tax now and gradually ramp it up over the next generation or two:
Paul Krugman tries to understand the issues:
http://www.princeton.edu/~pkrugman/toyclimate.pdf Nordhaus and other [ramp-up-gradually] modelers, making their best possible estimates, come to the conclusion that while emissions must eventually be brought way down and carbon concentration stabilized, it’s not worth doing this until K has risen a long way above current levels. So it’s a mega-St. Augustine: "O Lord, make us carbon-neutral, but not yet."... [W]... [have] a long way to go up the saddle path, and hence a low carbon price is appropriate now. This is the “climate policy ramp”.... [I]n Figure 1... [because] there doesn’t seem to be much disagreement about the economic costs of carbon abatement... it’s about dλ/dt=0. Now, it’s obvious if we’ve gotten this far that there are two ways to argue that this locus should be set higher, and hence imply a lower long-run level of atmospheric carbon: you can either increase the numerator in equation (3) or reduce the denominator.
What Nicholas Stern did was reduce the denominator, arguing that we should use a much lower discount rate than the private sector appears to. I’m still wrapping my head around what I believe about that. But what about the numerator? This... [is] the sensitivity of temperatures to carbon concentration... [times] the sensitivity of [social] welfare to temperature.... Lately, climate models have begun suggesting a lot more sensitivity to concentration, with a number of groups doubling their predicted temperature rise.... Marty Weitzman has managed to scare me, by pointing out that there’s a pretty plausible case that a rise of 5 degrees C – which is no longer an outlandish prediction – would be utterly catastrophic. You don’t have to be sure about this; just a significant probability is enough...
I think Krugman goes astray when he characterizes Stern. Nick Stern assumes something different than a "low discount rate." He assumes:
Stern's first assumption seems to me to be trivially and obviously correct as a proposition in utilitarian or, indeed, any other view on moral philosophy.
Stern's second assumption is debateable: if you thought that the costs of global warming rose not with the size of the economy but with the square root of the size of the economy, then all of a sudden the r in equation (3) would be much, much bigger.
I have long thought that the fact that there have been a bunch of ice ages recently when the world was significantly colder than it is now is evidence that there are powerful multiplier mechanisms in our climate on the downward side: as I think I understand it, small solar forcings produced by the evolution of the earth's orbit are powerfully amplified by changes in albedo and thus produce much larger swings in temperature. I had, however, thought that this was not true on the upside: that the absence of recent episodes in which the earth was a bunch warmer than it is now tells us that positive-feedback multiplier amplification on the warming side is limited.
There is growing evidence that I am wrong.
Matthew Yglesias tells us to go read:
Matthew Yglesias: Arctic Seabed Methane Stores Destabilizing: It’s a good thing this is all part of some giant conspiracy, because if I thought scientists at the University of Alaska were undertaking good-faith scientific research I’d be really worried about this:
A section of the Arctic Ocean seafloor that holds vast stores of frozen methane is showing signs of instability and widespread venting of the powerful greenhouse gas, according to the findings of an international research team led by University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov. The research results, published in the March 5 edition of the journal Science, show that the permafrost under the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, long thought to be an impermeable barrier sealing in methane, is perforated and is leaking large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.
But there was a freakishly large amount of snow in DC earlier this year! Meanwhile, climate science deniers are now teaming up with creationists to mount a broad political front against accurate understanding of the world.
Study: Arctic seabed methane stores destabilizing, venting: University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov... published in the March 5 edition of the journal Science, show that the permafrost under the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, long thought to be an impermeable barrier sealing in methane, is perforated and is leaking large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming. “The amount of methane currently coming out of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is comparable to the amount coming out of the entire world’s oceans,” said Shakhova, a researcher at UAF’s International Arctic Research Center. “Subsea permafrost is losing its ability to be an impermeable cap.” Methane is a greenhouse gas more than 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It is released from previously frozen soils in two ways. When the organic material—which contains carbon—stored in permafrost thaws, it begins to decompose and, under oxygen-free conditions, gradually release methane. Methane can also be stored in the seabed as methane gas or methane hydrates and then released as subsea permafrost thaws. These releases can be larger and more abrupt than those that result from decomposition. The East Siberian Arctic Shelf is a methane-rich area that encompasses more than 2 million square kilometers of seafloor in the Arctic Ocean. It is more than three times as large as the nearby Siberian wetlands, which have been considered the primary Northern Hemisphere source of atmospheric methane. Shakhova’s research results show that the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is already a significant methane source: 7 teragrams yearly, which is equal to the amount of methane emitted from the rest of the ocean. A teragram is equal to about 1.1 million tons. “Our concern is that the subsea permafrost has been showing signs of destabilization already,” she said. “If it further destabilizes, the methane emissions may not be teragrams, it would be significantly larger.”
Shakhova notes that Earth’s geological record indicates that atmospheric methane concentrations have varied between about .3 to .4 parts per million during cold periods to .6 to .7 parts per million during warm periods. Current average methane concentrations in the Arctic average about 1.85 parts per million, the highest in 400,000 years, she said. Concentrations above the East Siberian Arctic Shelf are even higher. The East Siberian Arctic Shelf is a relative frontier in methane studies. The shelf is shallow, 50 meters or less in depth, which means it has been alternately submerged or terrestrial, depending on sea levels throughout Earth’s history. During Earth’s coldest periods, it is a frozen arctic coastal plain, and does not release methane. As the planet warms and sea levels rise, it is inundated with seawater, which is 12-15 degrees warmer than the average air temperature. “It was thought that seawater kept the East Siberian Arctic Shelf permafrost frozen,” Shakhova said. “Nobody considered this huge area.” Earlier studies in Siberia focused on methane escaping from thawing terrestrial permafrost. Semiletov’s work during the 1990s showed, among other things, that the amount of methane being emitted from terrestrial sources decreased at higher latitudes. But those studies stopped at the coast. Starting in the fall of 2003, Shakhova, Semiletov and the rest of their team took the studies offshore. From 2003 through 2008, they took annual research cruises throughout the shelf and sampled seawater at various depths and the air 10 meters above the ocean. In September 2006, they flew a helicopter over the same area, taking air samples at up to 2,000 meters in the atmosphere. In April 2007, they conducted a winter expedition on the sea ice...
Hell, a BTU tax seventeen years ago would have been even better.
Reuters: World warming unhindered by cold spells: The pace of global warming continues unabated, scientists said on Thursday, despite images of Europe crippled by a deep freeze and parts of the United States blasted by blizzards.... "It's not warming the same everywhere but it is really quite challenging to find places that haven't warmed in the past 50 years," veteran Australian climate scientist Neville Nicholls told an online climate science media briefing. "January, according to satellite (data), was the hottest January we've ever seen," said Nicholls of Monash University's School of Geography and Environmental Science in Melbourne. "Last November was the hottest November we've ever seen, November-January as a whole is the hottest November-January the world has seen," he said of the satellite data record since 1979. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said in December that 2000-2009 was the hottest decade since records began in 1850, and that 2009 would likely be the fifth warmest year on record. WMO data show that eight out of the 10 hottest years on record have all been since 2000....
Scientists say global warming is not uniform in all areas and that climate models predict there will likely be greater extremes of cold and heat, floods and droughts. "Global warming is a trend superimposed upon natural variability, variability that still exists despite global warming," said Kevin Walsh, associate professor of meteorology at the University of Melbourne. "It would be much more surprising if the global average temperature just kept on going up, year after year, without some years of slightly cooler temperatures," he said in a written reply to questions for the briefing...
I think it's time for me to make a formal apology to Al Gore for not doing enough to boost his issues and his voice over the past two decades.
Hoisted from Comments: Jeffrey Davis:
Jeffrey Davis on Global Warming: Re: "The current lack of warming us forecasted to last until at least 2020 leaving us with no warming for at least1/4 of a century." Well, no. This year looks to be the warmest on record. It could change but even with a relatively weak El Nino, temps [so far] are above 1998....
Monthly Global Mean Surface Temperature Anomalies
UPDATE: Russ Roberts writes that it's not his fault--that he wasn't lying to his readers--but that it's the Daily Mail's fault: the Daily Mail was lying to him:
Finally, Brad DeLong calls me a liar: Brad doesn’t like this post.... I had read (and linked to) this article from the Daily Mail.... "Professor Jones also conceded the possibility that the world was warmer in medieval times than now – suggesting global warming may not be a man-made phenomenon. And he said that for the past 15 years there has been no ‘statistically significant’ warming." How would you interpret that last sentence?.... Had I read the BBC version, I also would have known that Jones thinks there is a warming trend rather than merely a trend that is not statistically significant. I should have said that Jones admits that “for the past 15 years there has been no ‘statistically significant’ warming.” My mistake. Dear readers, I did not mean to trick you. (I refrain from mentioning that Brad knew that I had linked to the Daily Mail story rather than the BBC version. I’ll just assume he made an honest mistake.)
Well, I would interpret "that last sentence," being that it was from the Daily Mail, as needing to be carefully checked and handled with tongs.
It's not an accident that the BBC version and reality conflict with the Daily Mail.
To get your information about the world from the Daily Mail is first of all to lie to yourself:
Daily Mail - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: Libel lawsuits:
- On 27 April 2007, film star Hugh Grant accepted damages over claims made about his relationships with his former girlfriends in three separate tabloid articles published in the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday on 18, 21 and 24 February. His lawyer stated that all of the articles' "allegations and factual assertions are false." Grant said, in a written statement, that he took the action because: "I was tired of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday papers publishing almost entirely fictional articles about my private life for their own financial gain. I'm also hoping that this statement in court might remind people that the so-called 'close friends' or 'close sources' on which these stories claim to be based almost never exist." World football governing body, FIFA, also filed a lawsuit against the Daily Mail due to comments made by sportswriter >* Andrew Jennings against the organisation and its president Sepp Blatter.
- The Daily Mail falsely reported that former child star Mark Lester assaulted his ex-wife and had allowed his son to share a bedroom with Michael Jackson. In 2008 substantial damages along with legal costs were awarded to Mark Lester after he launched a libel case against the paper.
Other libel awards against the Daily Mail (and Mail on Sunday) include:
- November 2009 - Actress Kate Winslet awarded £25,000 in damages after an article in the Daily Mail titled "Should Kate Winslet win an Oscar for the world's most irritating actress?" accuses her of lying about her exercise regime.
- 2009 - September — Metropolitan police commander Ali Dizaei accepts 'substantial' damages after a story falsely accusing him of being a bigamist.
- 2009 - May — Labour MP Tom Watson accepts 'substantial undisclosed damages' over untrue allegations he 'was not only copied into emails between former Downing Street press adviser Damian McBride and activist Derek Draper but "encouraged" them.'
- 2009 - May — three women whose stories had appeared in an article about women who'd adopted children, suggesting they did so for 'selfish' reasons, were awarded £10,000 each in damages.
- 2009 - January - £30,000 award to Dr Austen Ivereigh, who had worked for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, accused of hypocrisy over abortion.
- 2007 - May — Actress Keira Knightley awarded £3,000 for an article in which it was falsely claimed she was anorexic.
- 2006 - May - £100,000 damages for Elton John, falsely accused of rude and dictatorial behaviour
- 2006 - April — Undisclosed damages paid to actress Sharon Stone following a story falsely claiming she'd left her child in a car unattended while she ate at a nearby restaurant.
- 2006 - March — A formal apology and substantial damages awarded to businessman Sheldon Adelson, in a case estimated to have cost £4m.
- 2004 - April — Actor Rowan Atkinson was paid 'substantial' damages after story falsely stating he was on the verge of a mental breakdown.
- 2003- October — Actress Diana Rigg awarded £30,000 in damages over story which 'wrongly portrayed her as an embittered woman who held British men in low regard'
- 2003 - August — Actress Nicole Kidman awarded 'substantial' damages after false story accused her of having an affair with actor Jude Law
- 2001 - February — Businessman Alan Sugar was awarded £100,000 in damages following story which falsly accused him of 'being "miserly" in his stewardship of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club.'
even try very hard...
Cafe Hayek: Thomas Friedman writes in the New York Times: "Of the festivals of nonsense that periodically overtake American politics, surely the silliest is the argument that because Washington is having a particularly snowy winter it proves that climate change is a hoax and, therefore, we need not bother with all this girly-man stuff like renewable energy, solar panels and carbon taxes. Just drill, baby, drill..."
He’s right in principle. One observation doesn’t make a trend. Of course Phil Jones has said recently that there’s no trend for the last 15 years. But never mind...
What Phil Jones said was:
BBC: Do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically-significant global warming?
Phil Jones: Yes, but only just. I also calculated the trend for the period 1995 to 2009. This trend (0.12C per decade) is positive, but not significant at the 95% significance level. The positive trend is quite close to the significance level. Achieving statistical significance in scientific terms is much more likely for longer periods, and much less likely for shorter periods...
Russ Roberts knows as well as I do--as well as anybody who has taken even one semester of statistics does--that "no trend" does not mean the same thing as "no statistically significant trend," that you are unlikely to find statistical significance when you restrict your attention to a short period because your statistical tests then lack power, and that everyone literate in statistics asked for their point estimate of the warming trend since 1975 would say that it is almost as much as the overall trend since 1860: 0.012C per year as compared to 0.015C per year.
Russ Roberts knows all this. But he hopes to trick some of his readers by hiding it.
Lyingest economist alive...
Of all the strange things in Steve Levitt and Steve Dubner's Superfreakonomics, perhaps the strangest of all is page 186:
with its remarkable claim that that "there is this little-discussed fact about global warming: while the drumbeat of doom has grown steadily louder over the past several years, the average global temperature during that time has in fact decreased."
Back when Superfreakonomics first came out, this cliam puzzled everybody: when an economist says that something has decreased, he or she means that there is some way of estimating a trend over some period of time that produces a statistically-significant declining trend. Nobody could figure out how to do that with global temperature data..
Now it turns out that what Levitt and Dubner meant was something different: that 2005 was the hottest year on record, and that that record high temperature had not yet been broken--so global temperatures had "decreased" from their high back in 2005.
There have been thirteen new global annual temperature records set in the past 130 years--about one per decade. Since a new global temperature record is set once every ten years, Levitt and Dubner's methodology would thus lead them to say that over the past century and a third global temperatures have been decreasing 90% of the time--yet over that interval temperatures in total have risen by almost a full 1C. There have been eight new global annual temperature records set in the past forty years. That's one every five years. So by their methodology over the past sixty years global temperatures have been decreasing 80% of the time--yet over that interval temperatures in total have risen by a full 0.5C.
What odds would you need in order to take a bet that we will not see a hotter year than 2005 before 2020?
In the inbox:
Currently, the strong El Nino is reaching its peak in the Eastern Pacific, and now finally appears to be exerting an influence on our weather. The strong jet has been apparent for quite some time out over the open water, but the persistent block had prevented it from reaching the coast. Now that the block has dissolved completely, a 200+ kt [this means approximately 230 miles per hour] jet is barreling towards us. Multiple large and powerful storm systems are expected to slam into CA from the west and northwest over the coming two weeks, all riding this extremely powerful jet stream directly into the state.
The jet will itself provide tremendous dynamic lift, in addition to directing numerous disturbances right at the state and supplying them with an ample oceanic moisture source. The jet will be at quite a low latitude over much of the Pacific, so these storms will be quite cold, at least initially. Very heavy rainfall and strong to potentially very strong winds will impact the lower elevations beginning late Sunday and continuing through at least the following Sunday.. This will be the case for the entire state, from (and south of) the Mexican border all the way up to Oregon. Above 3000-4000 feet, precipitation will be all snow, and since temperatures will be unusually cold for a precipitation event of this magnitude, a truly prodigious amount of snowfall is likely to occur in the mountains, possibly measured in the tens of feet in the Sierra after it’s all said and done.
But there’s a big and rather threatening caveat to that (discussed below). Individual storm events are going to be hard to time for at least few more days, since this jet is just about as powerful as they come (on this planet, anyway). Between this Sunday and the following Sunday, I expect categorical statewide rainfall totals in excess of 3-4 inches. That is likely to be a huge underestimate for most areas. Much of NorCal is likely to see 5-10 inches in the lowlands, with 10-20 inches in orographically-favored areas. Most of SoCal will see 3-6 inches at lower elevations, with perhaps triple that amount in favored areas.
This is where things get even more interesting, though. The models are virtually unanimous in “reloading” the powerful jet stream and forming an additional persistent kink 2000-3000 miles to our southwest after next Sunday. This is a truly ominous pattern, because it implies the potential for a strong Pineapple-type connection to develop. Indeed, the 12z GFS now shows copious warm rains falling between days 12 and 16 across the entire state. Normally, such as scenario out beyond day seven would be dubious at best. Since the models are in such truly remarkable agreement, however, and because of the extremely high potential impact of such an event, it’s worth mentioning now. Since there will be a massive volume of freshly-fallen snow (even at relatively low elevations between 3000-5000 feet), even a moderately warm storm event would cause very serious flooding. This situation will have to monitored closely. Even if the tropical connection does not develop, expected rains in the coming 7-10 days will likely be sufficient to cause flooding in and of themselves (even in spite of dry antecedent conditions).
In addition to very heavy precipitation, powerful winds may result from very steep pressure gradients associated with the large and deep low pressure centers expected to begin approaching the coast by early next week. Though it’s not clear at the moment just how powerful these winds may be, there is certainly the potential for a widespread damaging wind event at some point, and the high Sierra peaks are likely to see gusts in the 100-200 mph range (since the 200kt jet at 200-300 mb will essentially run directly into the mountains at some point). The details of this will have to be hashed out as the event(s) draw closer.
In short, the next 2-3 weeks (at least) are likely to be more active across California than any other 2-3 week period in recent memory. The potential exists for a dangerous flood scenario to arise at some point during this interval, especially with the possibility of a heavy rain-on-snow event during late week 2. In some parts of Southern California, a whole season’s worth of rain could fall over the course of 5-10 days. This is likely to be a rather memorable event. Stay tuned.
Fish Out of Water:
Daily Kos: Freak Current Takes Gulf Stream to Greenland: An unprecedented extreme in the northern hemisphere atmospheric circulation has driven a strong direct connecting current between the Gulf Stream and the West Greenland current. The unprecedented negativity of the "Arctic Oscillation" and the strong connection of the Gulf Stream with the Greenland current are exceptional events. More exceptional weather events are predicted with anthropogenic climate change, but this could be a natural variation of weather and currents.
Climate Change—Some Simple (and Quite Convenient) Truths: As world leaders gather in Copenhagen, climate change is again in the headlines. The science of the issue can get pretty incomprehensible pretty quickly. And the politics are clearly very ugly. Let’s not forget, however, that much of the economics is simple.
It’s an externality, stupid—so price it
Climate change is an “externality” problem. Individuals, firms, and, yes, governments, do not take full account of the harm that others suffer when they emit greenhouse gases. So they emit too much. And the best way to stop them doing this is to charge them a price for the carbon content of what they emit: a “carbon price.” Admittedly, climate change is a particularly complicated externality. Since the damage will fall largely on future generations, the proper price depends very much on how we value their well-being relative to ours. The importance of such long-lived investments as power-stations, and the heavy sunk costs of investing in new technologies, mean that the carbon prices people expect in the future are even more important than the price now. And the fact that the world’s supply of fossil fuels is ultimately fixed means that the effect of carbon prices on total emissions is not as clear cut as it may seem. But the basic principle remains—polluters should pay...
There is one set of circumstances in which uncertainty is a reason for inaction: (a) the measures you would take would be expensive, (b) the measures you would take will be irreversible, and (c) you will get a lot of new information soon to help you judge the situation better.
That set of circumstances does not apply here.
Precaution, uncertainty, insurance, and morality: [G]reater uncertainty argues for more caution--more willingness to accept certain current losses to avoid possible large future losses--not less. That’s because it’s easier to adjust to small changes than it is to large ones, so damage is likely to increase more-than-proportionally as the size of the change increases. Assume some climate model predicts that... temperature would rise 3° C by 2100. If the model were very accurate and precise, that might be 3°± 1°. If the mechanisms involved remain obscure and the data unclear--as is the case today – that might be 3°± 5°.... Given how bad a 3° increase would likely be, if we knew for sure that would be the outcome in the face of inaction there would be a strong agument for making big and expensive policy changes to prevent it from happening. And if we knew that for sure, it would be very hard politically to argue against doing something about the problem. By contrast, 3°± 5° means that proponents of inaction get to say “We’re not even sure there’s any problem at all.” That makes the political case for action much weaker. But it makes the logical case for action much stronger....
[A]n 8° C average temperature increase... rendering much of the tropics virtually uninhabitable and, quite plausibly, hitting various triggers for positive-feedback effects such as the melting of the polar ice caps, which would reduce the amount of solar energy reflected back into space, and the melting of the Siberian permafrost, which would release a huge amount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. (Most systems are more stable in the face of small changes than they are in the face of large changes.) Thus a primary increase of 8° might really mean an increase even larger than that: an increase that might not be reversible even if greenhouse-gas emissions were then sharply curtailed. That would be the kind of disaster to which some version of the precautionary principle reasonably applies....
Ordinarily, it is the proponents of action who bear the burden of persuasion. But in this case political inaction means, in effect, licensing a massive gamble.... [N]one of the arguments for the freedom of economic activity appl[y]... there is simply no “invisible hand” mechanism that directs private action in such a situation in the direction of the public interest.
The willingness of some politicians and pundits to bet the planet on the claim that climate scientists are talking through their hats, which involves the larger claim that they have managed to assemble an enormous conspiracy to perpetrate a hoax, calls either their intelligence or their morals into serious question. And that goes for the journalists and media moguls who treat their ravings as if they represented simply one side in a reasonable argument.
If anyone tries to tell you that uncertainty about climate change is a reason for inaction, he’s either a fool or a scoundrel. Probably a bit of both.
Thus wroth against the deniers he put on the gift of the god,
Which Hephaistos had wrought for him by his art.
First on his legs he set the fair greaves fitted with silver ankle-pieces,
Next he donned the cuirass about his breast.
Then round his shoulders he slung the bronze sword silver-studded;
lastly he took the great and strong shield,
And its brightness shone afar off as the moon's....
And forth from its stand he drew his father`s spear, heavy and great and strong:
That spear could none other of the Akhaians wield...
Eschaton: Here are the places I personally go when I want the lowdown on the most current wingnut lies about climate change, particularly, nowadays, to do with the email theft. List not remotely definitive (I'm in the humanities, dammit). Deltoid -- Tim Lambert is worth reading for his own stuff, but the real fun is the comments, where you'll see silly denialist trolling avant la lettre. Tomorrow's bullshit, today! And just as quickly debunked. DeSmogBlog: Don't miss the Crock of the Week. SwiftHack is a good repository. Real Climate, and responses: here, here, here. This Nature editorial. George Will, filleted. And I like Eli's site.
More Bad Climate Science from the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page...: One doesn't have to go all the way back to snowball earth to know that the Lindzen is full of it. Ice ages come and go with, evidently, very subtle forcing due to the Earth's wobble. I don't see how anyone can doubt that there is strong positive feedback around the current temperature.
Now snowball earth is fascinating for the reason that Hoffman and Schrag just started when you stopped the tape. According to H and S, the Earth was a snowball just before the Cambrian explosion -- All sorts of fossiles suddenly appear. Now one hint of an explanation is in the "grinding glaciers" and then "extreme erosion" parts of their story. Since I heard of the snowball earth hypothesis I wonder if the cambrian explosion is so explosive partly because late pre-cambrian fossils were destroyed by glaciers and erosion and such -- crushing, grinding, dissolving eroding all sound like destroying the then relatively recent fossil record.
Also maybe the explosion had something to do with the near extinction of life. Geographic isolation of small groups of organisms causes an increase in diversity. It is suspected (by Sewell shifting balance Wright et al) that such isolation is required for major evolutionary change which almost has to pass through not very fit halfway to the new life form stages and so might require random drift down a fitness gradient.
If life was restricted to isolated patches around volcanos one could imagine that the life in each hot spot would end up very different. Then when the ice melts you have great diversity (for a while).
Finally constrained areas can promote gigantism. When organisms can spread it helps to reproduce quickly. When they are stuck with each other, fighting over meager food, it helps to be a bit bigger than the other guy. It is sometimes suspected that there was a whole lot of variety in the pre-cambrian but the animals were just not big enough to leave fossils.
So the part they were about to get to when you cut their mikes is great too.
Well, this is new. My first ever DMCA takedown notice--from HarperCollins, publisher of Levitt and Dubner's Superfreakonomics. While other publishers these days are happy to have sample chapters of their authors' works read and distributed on the internet, not so with HarperCollins.
One thing I can do in response is--tit-for-tat--to remove my praise of and link to E.M. Halliday's Understanding Thomas Jefferson: there are other better (albeit longer) Jefferson biographies published by firms that have not sent me DMCA notices: read them instead.
I urge everybody--authors and readers alike--to just say no to HarperCollins in the future.
A second thing I can do is to link to Elizabeth Kolbert's review of Superfreaknomics in the New Yorker:
“SuperFreakonomics” and climate change: Then, almost overnight, the crisis passed.... By 1912, autos in New York outnumbered horses, and in 1917 the city’s last horse-drawn streetcar made its final run. All the anxieties about a metropolis inundated by ordure had been misplaced.
This story—call it the Parable of Horseshit—has been told many times, with varying aims. The latest iteration is offered by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, in their new book, “SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance”.... Levitt and Dubner tell the horseshit story as a prelude to discussing climate change: “Just as equine activity once threatened to stomp out civilization, there is now a fear that human activity will do the same.” As usual, they say, the anxiety is unwarranted. First, the global-warming threat has been exaggerated; there is uncertainty about how, exactly, the earth will respond to rising CO2 levels, and uncertainty has “a nasty way of making us conjure up the very worst possibilities.” Second, solutions are bound to present themselves: “Technological fixes are often far simpler, and therefore cheaper, than the doomsayers could have imagined.”
Levitt and Dubner have in mind a very particular kind of “technological fix.” Wind turbines, solar cells, biofuels—these are all, in their view, more trouble than they’re worth. Such technologies are aimed at reducing CO2 emissions, which is the wrong goal, they say. Cutting back is difficult and, finally, annoying. Who really wants to use less oil? This sounds, the pair write, “like wearing sackcloth.” Wouldn’t it be simpler just to reëngineer the planet?... “Once you eliminate the moralism and the angst, the task of reversing global warming boils down to a straightforward engineering problem,” Levitt and Dubner write....
Neither Levitt, an economist, nor Dubner, a journalist, has any training in climate science—or, for that matter, in science of any kind. It’s their contention that they don’t need it. The whole conceit behind “SuperFreakonomics” and, before that, “Freakonomics,” which sold some four million copies, is that a dispassionate, statistically minded thinker can find patterns and answers in the data that those who are emotionally invested in the material will have missed.... Levitt and Dubner claim to have solved the mystery of why crime, after soaring in the nineteen-eighties, dropped in the nineteen-nineties.... They also have proved—at least to their own satisfaction—that names like Ansley and Philippa will be popular for girls in the coming decade, that reading to your kids doesn’t matter, and that drunks should be encouraged to drive rather than walk.
Given their emphasis on cold, hard numbers, it’s noteworthy that Levitt and Dubner ignore what are, by now, whole libraries’ worth of data on global warming. Indeed, just about everything they have to say on the topic is, factually speaking, wrong. Among the many matters they misrepresent are: the significance of carbon emissions as a climate-forcing agent, the mechanics of climate modelling, the temperature record of the past decade, and the climate history of the past several hundred thousand years. Raymond T. Pierrehumbert is a climatologist who, like Levitt, teaches at the University of Chicago. In a particularly scathing critique, he composed an open letter to Levitt, which he posted on the blog RealClimate....
But what’s most troubling about “SuperFreakonomics” is... [t]hough climate change is a grave problem, Levitt and Dubner treat it mainly as an opportunity to show how clever they are.... Among the many likely consequences of shooting SO2 above the clouds would be new regional weather patterns (after major volcanic eruptions, Asia and Africa have a nasty tendency to experience drought).... There are eminent scientists—among them the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen—who argue that geoengineering should be seriously studied, but only with the understanding that it represents a risky, last-ditch attempt to avert catastrophe. “By far the preferred way” to confront climate change, Crutzen has written, “is to lower the emissions of greenhouse gases.”...
To be skeptical of climate models and credulous about things like carbon-eating trees and cloudmaking machinery and hoses that shoot sulfur into the sky is to replace a faith in science with a belief in science fiction. This is the turn that “SuperFreakonomics” takes, even as its authors repeatedly extoll their hard-headedness. All of which goes to show that, while some forms of horseshit are no longer a problem, others will always be with us.
Seth Borenstein of AP writes:
AP IMPACT: Statisticians reject global cooling: Have you heard that the world is now cooling instead of warming? You may have seen some news reports on the Internet or heard about it from a provocative new book.
(In this book cover image released by Random House, "Super Freakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance," by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner is shown. (AP Photo/Random House))....
Apart from the conflicting data analyses is the eyebrow-raising new book title from Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance. A line in the book says:
Then there's this little-discussed fact about global warming: While the drumbeat of doom has grown louder over the past several years, the average global temperature during that time has in fact decreased....
That led to a sharp rebuke from the Union of Concerned Scientists, which said the book mischaracterizes climate science with "distorted statistics." Levitt, a University of Chicago economist, said he does not believe there is a cooling trend. He said the line was just an attempt to note the irony of a cool couple of years at a time of intense discussion of global warming. Levitt said he did not do any statistical analysis of temperatures, but "eyeballed" the numbers and noticed 2005 was hotter than the last couple of years. Levitt said the "cooling" reference in the book title refers more to ideas about trying to cool the Earth artificially...
More from Seth:
AP IMPACT: Statisticians reject global cooling | ajc.com: Only one problem: It's not true, according to an analysis of the numbers done by several independent statisticians for The Associated Press.
The case that the Earth might be cooling partly stems from recent weather. Last year was cooler than previous years. It's been a while since the super-hot years of 1998 and 2005. So is this a longer climate trend or just weather's normal ups and downs? In a blind test, the AP gave temperature data to four independent statisticians and asked them to look for trends, without telling them what the numbers represented. The experts found no true temperature declines over time. "If you look at the data and sort of cherry-pick a micro-trend within a bigger trend, that technique is particularly suspect," said John Grego, a professor of statistics at the University of South Carolina.
Yet the idea that things are cooling has been repeated inopinion columns, a BBC news story posted on the Drudge Report and in a new book by the authors of the best-seller "Freakonomics." Last week, a poll by the Pew Research Center found that only 57 percent of Americans now believe there is strong scientific evidence for global warming, down from 77 percent in 2006.
Global warming skeptics base their claims on an unusually hot year in 1998. Since then, they say, temperatures have dropped — thus, a cooling trend. But it's not that simple. Since 1998, temperatures have dipped, soared, fallen again and are now rising once more. Records kept by the British meteorological office and satellite data used by climate skeptics still show 1998 as the hottest year. However, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA show 2005 has topped 1998. Published peer-reviewed scientific research generally cites temperatures measured by ground sensors, which are from NOAA, NASA and the British, more than the satellite data.
The recent Internet chatter about cooling led NOAA's climate data center to re-examine its temperature data. It found no cooling trend. "The last 10 years are the warmest 10-year period of the modern record," said NOAA climate monitoring chief Deke Arndt. "Even if you analyze the trend during that 10 years, the trend is actually positive, which means warming."
The AP sent expert statisticians NOAA's year-to-year ground temperature changes over 130 years and the 30 years of satellite-measured temperatures preferred by skeptics and gathered by scientists at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Statisticians who analyzed the data found a distinct decades-long upward trend in the numbers, but could not find a significant drop in the past 10 years in either data set. The ups and downs during the last decade repeat random variability in data as far back as 1880. Saying there's a downward trend since 1998 is not scientifically legitimate, said David Peterson, a retired Duke University statistics professor and one of those analyzing the numbers. Identifying a downward trend is a case of "people coming at the data with preconceived notions," said Peterson, author of the book "Why Did They Do That? An Introduction to Forensic Decision Analysis"...
I am completely bemused. This is either a proof of the existence or of the nonexistence of God, depending on your taste.
Stanford's Ken Caldeira attacks:
Yale Climate 360: The main misrepresentation [of my work and my beliefs by Steve Levitt and Steve Dubner] is the quote [in Superfreakonomics] that says that CO2 is not “the right villain”.... [P]ull back to the case of the biosphere taking up 70 percent of CO2--well, yes, we have a published study that said that. It also... [said we] risk melting Antarctica.... [T]here is a selective use of quotes. If you spend several hours talking to somebody and they take a half-dozen things and put it in a book, then it’s going to be in the context and framing of arguments that the authors are trying to make... very different from the context and framing that I would put those same facts in... So I think that the casual reader can [get]... a misimpression of what I believe and what I feel about things...
And Steve Dubner counterattacks:
The Anatomy of a Smear: Most gravely, we stand accused of misrepresenting the views of one of the most respected climate scientists on the scene, [Ken Caldeira,] whom we interviewed extensively. If everything they said was actually true, it would indeed be a damning indictment. But it’s not...
The world is indeed a most remarkable place...
On second thought, this is definitely a conclusive proof of the existence of Coyote...
Hoisted from comments: A recommendation for "harsh measures" from Robert Waldmann:
Ken Caldeira on Levitt and Dubner and Geoengineering: That's an excellent interview [with Caldeira]. On the other hand, I think we are getting close to the point where we ought to let Caldeira get back to doing research.
I would like to focus on one point "China or India then went into a decade or two of deep drought." That is not just a scary story Caldeira pulled out of his hat. Simulations tend to suggest that SO2 geoengineering will cause reduced precipitation in India and China. To be very very frank, I think that there is a silver lining to that cloudlessness. A big global warming problem is getting China and India on board. If, say, the USA could honestly say:
that's a nice monsoon you have there. It would be a pity if something were to happen to it.
Oh and by the way, we really really don't want to send SO2 into the stratosphere, because it might cause you a terrible drought. But if we see no alternative way to fight global warming, we might feel forced to send the SO2 up the tubes and hope for the best."
I'd say the effect on geopolitics is a feature not a bug of SO2 geoengineering research.
My personal position is that China and India are poor, so rich countries should pay all of the costs of reducing their emissions. But that's not going to happen is it? Might as well put our faith in global cooling ponies. So I conclude that threatening them with an 18 mile long tube is third best.
With Jeff Goodall, of Yale Environment 360:
Geoengineering the Planet: The Possibilities and the Pitfalls: Caldeira argues that sharply reducing greenhouse gas emissions is by far the most prudent course. Still, given the huge volume of carbon dioxide that humanity continues to pour into the atmosphere, Caldeira says it would be folly not to undertake research into geoengineering. With the prospect that the world could reach a level of dangerous warming this century, Caldeira maintains it’s necessary to determine which projects — such as putting particles in the stratosphere to reflect sunlight into space — might work and which will not. He likens geoengineering schemes to seatbelts — a technology that might reduce the chance of injury in case of a climate crash. But, warned Caldeira, “Thinking of geoengineering as a substitute for emissions reduction is analogous to saying, ‘Now that I’ve got the seatbelts on, I can just take my hands off the wheel and turn around and talk to people in the back seat.’ It’s crazy.”
Yale Environment 360: I want to start with this little dust-up over SuperFreakonomics. In the book, you are quoted as saying, when it comes to global warming, “Carbon dioxide is not the right villain.” Is that accurate?
Ken Caldeira: That is not accurate. I don’t believe I said anything remotely like that because I believe that we should be outlawing the production of devices that emit carbon dioxide, and I don’t think we can solve this carbon climate problem unless we drastically reduce our carbon dioxide emissions very soon.
e360: They also write that you are convinced that human activity is responsible for “some” global warming. What does that mean?
Caldeira: I don’t think we can say with certainty whether we’re responsible for 90 percent of it or we might be responsible for 110 percent of it...
e360: Another thing that plays in to the same kind of sensibility is the idea that the doubling of CO2 traps less than 2 percent of the outgoing radiation emitted by the Earth. When that’s phrased like that, it makes it sound like it’s not really much of a problem.
*Caldeira: *You should think of the whole global warming problem as a 1 percent problem, at least for doubling of CO2. In absolute temperature Kelvin — scientists like to use the Kelvin scale — the current Earth temperature is around 288 degrees Kelvin, and a 3-degree warming on top of that is basically a one-percent additional warming. And so this whole issue of climate change, when viewed from an Earth-system perspective, is a story about 1 percents and 2 percents...
e360: The authors also cite you as saying that a doubling of CO2 yields a 70-percent increase in plant growth, suggesting it would be a boon to agricultural activity. It sounds like one of those old CO2-is-good-for-you ads. Can you explain that?
Caldeira: Yes... the 70-percent increase in plant growth... came out of a paper that we produced, I believe, in 2005. We took a model... which has a very low climate sensitivity, and what I would consider a hyperactive land biosphere--produced 9-degree Centigrade warming globally and 20 degrees around East Antarctica. Now that’s 16 degrees Fahrenheit globally, and something like 36 degrees around Antarctica.... So we were showing, look, even if CO2 fertilization is at the high end of anybody’s imagination, we still produce rather frightening temperatures. But I do believe the basic sign is correct, that with more CO2, plants can use water more efficiently... agricultural productivity will increase in the mid and high latitudes, where warmer weather will help the plants grow, but will decrease productivity in the poor equatorial nations where heat is already stressing crop yield.
e360: Overall, do you feel like your work has been accurately and fairly represented in this book?
Caldeira: The main misrepresentation is the quote that says that CO2 is not “the right villain”... but if you say what’s the primary gas responsible for the planetary warming, I would say it’s carbon dioxide.... [T]he other statements that are attributed to me... based in fact and based on studies.... [P]ull back to the case of the biosphere taking up 70 percent of CO2--well, yes, we have a published study that said that. It also presented results saying that we might warm up the planet enough to risk melting Antarctica.... [T]here is a selective use of quotes. If you spend several hours talking to somebody and they take a half-dozen things and put it in a book, then it’s going to be in the context and framing of arguments that the authors are trying to make... the contexts and the framing of those issues are very different from the context and framing that I would put those same facts in... So I think that the casual reader can... come up with a misimpression of what I believe and what I feel about things.
e360: Let’s talk a little bit more broadly about geoengineering. I was struck by something one of the authors said on NPR the other day — that he got interested in geoengineering when he realized that the problem with global warming is not that there is too much carbon in the air; it’s that it is too hot. Do you agree with that?
Caldeira: The reason it is too hot is that there is too much carbon dioxide in the air. Now the carbon dioxide itself, of course, has big negative implications for ocean acidification and ecosystems, including coral reefs. So there are direct CO2 effects.... [I]f we had some magic thing that would reverse all effects of CO2 perfectly, then you could say, “Well the problem is not CO2.” But nobody really expects that we are going to have some magic, perfect CO2 nullifier.... [T]o present it as if, “Well, it not’s really CO2, but the effects of CO2,” it’s like if you got shot by a bullet and you said, “Well, it wasn’t really the bullet that was the problem, it was just that I happened to have this hole through my body...”
e360: Right. Well, a lot of people think of geoengineering as a quick and cheap fix for global warming. Is it?
Caldeira: Let’s pretend for a moment that putting dust in the stratosphere is easy to do and works reasonably well... and that China or India then went into a decade or two of deep drought. Whether the system caused that drought or not, I think the Chinese or the Indians would rightly suspect that the reason they have this drought and ensuing famines might be due to this system that was put up by these other countries. And you could easily imagine that there would be a great amount of political tension.... Then, of course, the system is not going to work perfectly... not going to address... ocean acidification... not going to perfectly offset global warming.... [G]eoengineering options [are] something we would only want to consider if our backs were really up against the wall... because the alternatives look so frightening.
e360: I know that some scientists have suggested that there should be some kind of taboo on geoengineering research. But I know that you’ve been outspoken in the need for a federally-funded geoengineering research program. Can you explain that?
Caldeira: Yes, I think we don’t know right now whether these kinds of approaches have the potential to reduce risk or not. In our climate models, the amount of climate change can be reduced by these kinds of approaches, but the climate models are an imperfect reflection of reality.... Let’s say geoengineering doesn’t work, and that it would add to risk. It seems to me it would be worth having a research program to demonstrate that beyond a reasonable doubt so we can all forget about this and move on. On the other hand, if these options do have the potential to reduce risk, then it seems to me that we would like to have the option to reduce that risk should a time come where that would seem necessary. I kind of think of these geoengineering options as seeing, “Well, can we invent some kind of seatbelts for our climate system?” We need to drive the climate system carefully, we need to greatly reduce emissions. But even if we’re driving carefully we still run the risk of getting into an accident. And seatbelts can potentially reduce the damage when we’re in an accident.... I’m much in favor of a very broad-spectrum approach.... [T]hinking of geoengineering as a substitute for emissions reduction is analogous to saying, “Now that I’ve got the seatbelts on, I can’t just take my hands off the wheel and turn around and talk to people in the back seat.” It’s crazy.
e360: Can you sketch briefly what a geoengineering research program might look like?
Caldeira: The first thing I would do is use the plural, and say “programs.” Because many different things are lumped into the same category.... David Keith and Klaus Lackner have been looking at capture of carbon dioxide from the air.... [T]hat’s very different from, say, putting sulfur dust in the stratosphere.... [T]wo new programs — one looking at what are the scalable, fast-acting things we could do in the event of an emergency. What could we do fast that would start the earth cooling within a couple of years if we really wanted to? And then I think we need another research program in saying how can we backpedal out of our high greenhouse gas concentrations....
e360: Do you think it’s inevitable that we’re going to try to engineer the Earth’s climate?
Caldeira: First of all, nobody can really see the future.... I think that there are pathways that we might start regionally and slowly ramp up to something more global. I think that’s a possibility. The other possibility is a real emergency situation where there’s a phase change in public opinion, [where] it becomes conventional wisdom that we can’t tolerate this climate change any more, that we have to do something.... I would wager that we would never deploy any geoengineering system, and that we’re more likely just to try our best to adapt to it. But I think there’s enough of a risk that it’s worth investigating whether there are options to reduce risk and damage....
[W]e’re talking here about people’s lives... I don’t think we’re going to deploy these systems to save polar bears... [but] to help people from dying of famines, or something dramatic like that. And I think that these techniques have a potential to save lives and reduce suffering, and we should explore whether that’s true or not.... [W]e’re obviously interfering with the climate system wholesale now, and it’s possible that more intelligent interference could reduce the damage from the first interference. But it could make it worse. I don’t think we know, which is why we need the research program.
- Don’t whine.
That is all....
I know a little bit about contrarianism. So I’m disturbed to see that people who are making roughly infinity more money than me out of the practice aren’t sticking to the unwritten rules of the game.
Viz Nathan Mhyrvold:
Once people with a strong political or ideological bent latch onto an issue, it becomes hard to have a reasonable discussion; once you’re in a political mode, the focus in the discussion changes. Everything becomes an attempt to protect territory. Evidence and logic becomes secondary, used when advantageous and discarded when expedient. What should be a rational debate becomes a personal and venal brawl....
The whole idea of contrarianism is that you’re “attacking the conventional wisdom”, you’re “telling people that their most cherished beliefs are wrong”, you’re “turning the world upside down”. In other words, you’re setting out to annoy people. Now opinions may differ on whether this is a laudable thing to do – I think it’s fantastic – but if annoying people is what you’re trying to do, then you can hardly complain when annoying people is what you actually do.... If Superfreakonomics wanted a calm and rational debate, this chapter would have been called something like: “Geoengineering: Issues in Relative Cost Estimation of SO2 Shielding”, and the book would have sold about five copies.
Viz also, Stephen Dubner:
They have given the impression that we are global-warming deniers of the worst sort, and that our analysis of the issue is ideological and unscientific. Most gravely, we stand accused of misrepresenting the views of one of the most respected climate scientists on the scene, whom we interviewed extensively. If everything they said was actually true, it would indeed be a damning indictment. But it’s not....
The other point of contrarianism is... you assemble... points which are individually uncontroversial... and put them together to support a conclusion which is surprising and counterintuitive.... [T]he aim of the thing is the overall impression you give.... [T]he entire point is to make a defensible argument which strongly resembles a controversial one. So... you don’t get to complain that people have “misinterpreted” your piece by taking you to be saying exactly what you carefully constructed the argument to look like you were saying. Fair enough, you might not care to defend the controversial point it looked like you were making, but a degree of diffidence is appropriate here, because the confusion is entirely and intentionally your fault:
(That is the “global cooling” in our subtitle. If someone interprets our brief mention of the global-cooling scare of the 1970’s as an assertion of “a scientific consensus that the planet was cooling,” that feels like a willful misreading.)
No it doesn’t; it feels like someone read the first two pages for the plain meaning of the words and didn’t spot that you were actually playing a little crossword-puzzle game where the answer was “consensus”. In general, whatever “global cooling” meant, it was put on the cover in full knowledge of the impression it would give to a normal reader so once more, it is not legitimate to complain that this phrase was interpreted in the way in which it was intended to be interpreted.
In general, contrarians ought to have thick skins, because their entire raison d’etre is the giving of intellectual offence to others. So don’t whine, for heaven’s sake. Own your bulls---...
And, you know, the first two times I read chapter 5 of Superfreakonomics I missed this one totally. It was only after Yoram Baumann started raving and weeping like a child that I picked up on it...
Neil B ♪ said...
Yet More Superfreakonomics Blogging. Yes. I Know. I Know...: “When Al Gore urges the citizenry to sacrifice… the agnostics grumble that human activity accounts for just 2 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions, with the remainder generated by natural processes like plant decay.”..
Absolutely no even marginally competent writer would put out fraudulent drivel like that about plant decay. That's like loon Beck blabbering about exhaled CO2. The existence of a surface carbon cycle (get it - cycle?) that runs carbon around between the atmosphere and plants etc. is one thing, and the new CO2 from underground is another. This is what you learn in eighth grade earth science. Levitt et al are either flaky incompetents or deliberate frauds.
Will Wilkinson called for SUPERTREES!!:
For More Responsible Climate Politics: This is all very hand wavey. Take a technology like artificial carbon sequestering "trees." What that would do is simply remove carbon from the atmosphere, like real trees, but at a much greater rate. They would be relatively easy to calibrate and fine tune. This is the sort of thing I had in mind. It wouldn't "throw a wrench" into the climate. It would pretty straightforwardly change "too much" carbon in the atmosphere to "not too much" carbon in the atmosphere. That is to say, it would fix the problem. That would be fantastic, right?
It would be. And carbon tqxes (or, second best, cap-and-trade) would be a wonderful way to get John Galt's mammoth brain set to work inventing them, wouldn't it? But somehow Will doesn't see it that way...
Hoisted from Comments: Nicholas Weaver, who knows what he is talking about, writes:
The Very Last Superfreakonomics Post of All Time...: Rather than just going "the black quote was a mistake", the Freakonomics crew has given Myhrvold a forum to defend the quote!?! http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/20/are-solar-panels-really-black-and-what-does-that-have-to-do-with-the-climate-debate/
Now there are many MANY problems with solar replacing coal, from the energy storage issue to potential use of rare-metal components. Solar is not a panacea, and the real conclusion that one reaches is nuclear power, and lots of it. I can easily construct a solid argument that solar is not viable for most of our electricity needs:
It doesn't work at night/cloudy conditions without additional energy storage.
It is vastly more $/W to manufacturer than a coal plant, when you include the cost of energy storage.
Many solar technologies (eg, Nanosolar's thin films) involve very rare metals (eg, indium). It is unclear what a real ramp-up of solar production would do to that market.
and that QED: we need nuclear power. (It is fun to taunt greenpeace with this, BTW).
But instead Myhrvold defends his position badly...
He repeats the black canard, without mentioning that 1kWh of coal-energy also releases 1kWh of thermal energy, so unless you are placing the solar panel on a surface with albedo less than .3, even just the thermal heating argument is false. Or if you use an alternate approach ("White roof is 1T C02 per 10 m^2 annual savings equivelent" Akbari's estimate), you are still talking the CO2 load of just 500 kWh/yr of a coal plant. If your 10 m^2 roof generates 1.5 kW for 6 hours/day, that is $5/W to <$2/W. Since so much of the cost of the cells for the study is the refining of silicon, there is probably a similar drop in kWh of construction per watt of power. He misses one of the huge reasons why the efficiency crowd want buildings to have a high albeido: simply to lower the AC bill for free, and thus why you should put solar cells on the roof of your garage rather than the house itself...
He compares the cost of running a coal plant with the cost of building a solar plant, neglecting that we need to construct vastly more power plants to both meet growing demand and to deal with end-of-life on old, inefficient plants. Even then, the breakeven point is less than 3 years, by his inflate-the-cost of solar figure!
What I don't get is why they are taking this approach.
It would be easy enough to go "Whoops, the 'because they are black' quote was taken a bit out of context as a joke, thats really minor all things considered. The real reasons solar is not a panacea relate to energy storage, etc..., its being corrected in the second printing." The conclusion thus stands, but the argument becomes sound. So why defend it stupid? Is it simply trolling for attention?
Instead, what is happening is I have to conclude that anything Myhrvold says has to be assumed to be false until proven otherwise, and by unquestioningly accepting his assumptions, anything Drubner and Levitt say may need to be taken the same way.
I guess I really do need to apologize to Tim Harford for calling him a defender of Levitt and Dubner's Superfreakonomics climate chapter...
FT.com | The Undercover Economist: Perhaps I was naive in my reading of Superfreakonomics, but it didn’t occur to me that the chapter on geoengineering would stir up such a storm. I liked the book, but worried about the chapter. I wrote:
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....
Brad DeLong even thinks the above paragraphs constitute a defence of the global warming chapter; well, you be the judge of that.... I read all the criticism and the back and forth, went back to the original review, which I penned three weeks ago, and... I don’t think I’d change a word. It is a strong story. And it is one-sided.
How did I get here? Steve Dubner is an excellent, excellent reporter and writer. There is nobody sharper than Steve Levitt when he is on. I like the idea of geoengineering. I am both a science fiction geek and an economist--thus I am the key demographic for geoengineering. I would love to watch the 18,000 mile in diameter parasol being nudged into its metastable orbit at L1. And I definitely think that a lot of research into geoengineering possibilities should be one of the strings to our bow--alongside conservation, efficiency, and the move to closed-carbon-cycle and non-carbon energy technologies--in dealing with global warming.
But I don't think that research into geoengineering possibilities is properly conducted by people--like Nathan Myhrvold--who appear to be so bad at figuring orders of magnitude that they genuinely think that solar panels on net warm the earth, nor that what they say should be relied on.
And I definitely don't think people should misinform their readers by saying that the global cooling warnings of the 1970s were like the global wqrming warnings of today, or that the "climate agnostics" have a point because human activity contributes only 2% of the flow of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, or that particulates worldwide have been going down over the past several decades, or that trees are a net source of global warming, or that the world has been cooling over the past several years, that Nathan Myhrvold has thought more about ecological disaster scenarios in greater scientific detail than any climate doomsayer, or that coal is so cheap that it is "economic suicide" to move away from it as an energy source.
The only story that makes sense is that Dubner and Levitt went to Intellectual Ventures, were wowed by their presentations--that is, after all, reputed to be the key competitive advantage of Intellectual Ventures, that and patent trolling--and then somehow... failed to sharpen their wits and do their due diligence.
And as best as I can see they are still failing. Someone who wishes me ill sends me a transcript from NPR, a piece of which reads:
LEVITT: Now, in the long run, perhaps you'll want to deal with the [high] carbon[-dioxide] issue [even with geoengineering] because we're going to have acidification of the oceans and the coral reefs will die if we don't do something about the carbon. But if you just buy the time to keep the Earth cool for a while longer, I am certain that if we invest we will come up with technology that will allow us much more effectively in the future to pull carbon out of the air than we currently have....
Let's think about what such a technology might be...
We need to pull the CO2 out of the air--which means we need to chemically change it in some way, because it is quite a stable molecule and a very gaseous one as it is. We are going to have to break some of the carbon-oxygen bonds. When we do, oxygen will be free and looking hard for two electrons--but we can get it to bond to itself and then it will float off into the atmosphere, causing no immediate problems: there is a lot of oxygen in the atmosphere already, and a little more won't change concentrations appreciably enough to cause any problems. We then can bond the carbon to itself and to hydrogen atoms, making long nice organic molecule chains out of which we can make textiles or plastics or cellulose or any of a bunch of other materials.
Sounds really cool!
The problem is that breaking these carbon-oxygen bonds takes energy. So let's fire up some more coal-fired power plants to generate the energy. Since our technology is really efficient, it won't take that much energy, right?
Coal-fired power plants make energy by making carbon-oxygen bonds. A bond is a bond. To break a carbon-oxygen bond and make a carbon-carbon one in order to pull a carbon atom out of the atmosphere takes as much energy as you get when you break a carbon-carbon bond and make a carbon-oxygen one in a coal-fired powr plant. So in order to pull one atom of carbon out of atmosphere via our magic efficient technology we have to--if we are powering it by coal--push one atom of carbon into the atmosphere.
So now we have (a) our normal power plants to power our civilization, plus (b) our atmosphere carbon-scrubbing industry, which is (c) powered by even more carbon power plants to generate the power to break the carbon-oxygen bonds that our first set of power plants made. But plants (c) put more carbon into the atmosphere than plants (a) did.
I know, says Steve Levitt, we can power our carbon-scrubbing industry (b) by power plants (c) that use nuclear or solar or... But then why not power our original civilization-sustaining power plants (a) by nuclear or solar or whatever?
I know, says Steve Levitt: we can build self-reproducing nano-machines to pick up ambient sunlight and use it to break carbon-oxygen bonds and fix carbon. That way we don't have to build either our carbon-scrubbing industry (b) or our power plants (c). And since they reproduce autonomously, they are costless in the long run. We can assemble them into aggregate structures and--at this point Matthew Yglesias breaks in: we could call them "trees"...
I can't conclude anything other than that Levitt and Dubner have failed to sit down and think any of this through to its conclusion. Which is too bad. Because we know they can think and communicate--and think and communicate accurately and very well...
A breakfast companion points out that there seem to be three big differences between Levitt and Dubner on the one hand and we economists who tend to worry about global warming on the other. He further points out that these are all due to the fact that Levitt and Dubner today appear to no longer be thinking like economists. Economists believe that there are always substitutes--alternatives; economists believe that there are always complements--always ways of doing things that reinforce each other, especially in situations of uncertainty in which diversification is especially valuable; economists believe that orders of magnitude are very important and that the right simple numbers are good guides to orders of magnitude;
The first is that we economists see geoengineering as a complement to other measures--as something you research now in addition to clean energy technologies; as important to do because uncertainty is rife and so diversification to reduce risk is much more than usually important; and as something that you do in the future as your other conservation, efficiency, and shift-away-from-open-carbon energy policies take hold--and that (if they work) allow you to do less of other policies. (Though perhaps not all that much less, in all probability: a world with significantly more CO2 and significantly less sunlight and significantly more acid rain would be very different from our current world in a number of ways we do not know understand, some of which might be quite costly.) Dubner and Levitt, by contrast, appear to see them as substitutes--as what we do not in addition but instead of conservation. For Levitt and Dubner, we do geoengineering, and then we don't have to do anything else--that conservation on the one hand and geoengineering on the other are alternative "way[s] to cool the planet, albeit with methods whose cost-effectiveness are a universe apart.
The second is Levitt and Dubner's buying of Nathan Myhrvold's claims that "coal is so cheap that trying to generate electricity without it would be economic suicide" and that "energy consumed by building thousands of new solar plans necessary to replace coal-burning and other power plants would create a huge long-term 'warming debt'." Your standard economist's response to "there are no cost-effective substitutes" is always "you must be joking." Your standard economist's response to the claim that it is very costly to shift the productive structure of an economy from one configuration to another is always "show me the money." Yet that doesn't happen in this case:
Mr. LEVITT: Right. But I just don't--if you look at the history of modern mankind, I think you will be hard pressed to find any particular problem that was serious that was solved by a behavioral change, as opposed to by a technological solution...
That's just not economics: economics is that incentives change, and as incentives change people's behavior changes.
The third is that Levitt and Dubner no longer think like normal economists in looking not just for a number but for the right number relevant to a back-of-the-envelope calculation. For example, they write:
When Al Gore urges the citizenry to sacrifice... the agnostics grumble that human activity accounts for just 2 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions, with the remainder generated by natural processes like plant decay...
Yoram Bauman questions this:
More Superfreakonomics: I have just seen a PDF of the Superfreakonomics chapter on climate change, and it makes basic mistakes when it says things like “When Al Gore urges the citizenry to sacrifice… the agnostics grumble that human activity accounts for just 2 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions, with the remainder generated by natural processes like plant decay.”... [Y]es, human generation of CO2 is dwarfed by natural processes like plant decay. But it also shows that natural processes balance each other out: plant decay generates massive amounts of CO2, and plant growth takes in massive amounts of CO2 via photosynthesis. What you’re left with is a completely plausible story in which human activity slowly increases atmospheric concentrations of CO2 from pre-industrial concentrations of about 285ppm (parts per million) to current concentrations of about 385ppm that are going up by about 2ppm per year.
This sort of misleading skepticism exists throughout the chapter, and it does a disservice to climate science, to economists like me who work on climate change, to academic work in general, and to the general public that will have to live with the impacts of climate policy down the road....
Steve Levitt responds:
I don’t understand your comment below. Why does it matter if natural processes are in balance or not? CO2 is CO2! The source doesn’t matter. If we could cut CO2 emissions a little bit overall, whether through natural sources or others, the effect would be the same. It is not saying that cutting human emissions isn’t the right way to do it, but it is a surprising fact and one worth mentioning...
Yoram Bauman tries again:
[Y]ou are ignoring the overall thrust of the chapter, which is terribly misleading. It’s not factually incorrect to write that “agnostics… grumble that human activity accounts for just 2 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions”, or to give big play to media stories from the 1970s about “global cooling”, or to write that Lowell Wood says that global sea level will rise 1.5 feet by 2100... but all of these statements collectively give a terribly misleading perspective:
- Yes there are agnostics who “grumble that human activity accounts for just 2 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions”, but this is not a reason to doubt the theory of anthropogenic climate change. The book makes it sound like YOU are among the agnostics, and this is bad....
So that’s my two cents: Your chapter pains me not because it’s factually incorrect but because it clearly gives a misleading impression of the scientific consensus on climate change. I am reminded of your quorum on global warming that your blog colleagues were kind enough to invite me to participate in. There’s nothing factually wrong in there, but it is terribly misleading that the two scientists you quote are BOTH skeptics. What are the odds of that? Probably a billion to one, so my unavoidable conclusion is that you are deliberately trying to cast doubt on the scientific consensus. I don’t mind if you do this in a straightforward way by getting involved in climate research, but to do it via insinuations is in my opinion a disservice to to climate science, to economists like me who work on climate change, to academic work in general, and to the general public that will have to live with the impacts of climate policy down the road...
Steve Bloom chimes in:
The business about the CO2 stocks and flows boils down to an argument from personal incredulity: How could puny man affect a systerm so large? Levitt isn’t that stupid. The only “agnostics” who point to it are those who themselves lack an understanding of the climate system or are actively encouraging misunderstanding by others. It would be one thing if he mentioned it by way of explaining and debunking, but it doesn’t sound as if he does.... I now see that the CO2 point was intentionally framed to mislead and confuse.
And my brain has just exploded:
Excuse me while I pick up stray neuronal clumps from the many different corners of the room...
I mean, Levitt and Dubner’s passage really ought to read:
When Al Gore urges the citizenry to sacrifice... the agnostics grumble that human activity accounts for just 2 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions, with the remainder generated by natural processes like plant decay. Of course the agnostics are misleadiing you: even though human activity creates just 2% of the flow of emissions, already there is 50% more CO2 in the atmosphere than there would be without human activity...
When Al Gore urges the citizenry to sacrifice... the agnostics grumble that human activity accounts for just 2 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions, with the remainder generated by natural processes like plant decay. Of course the agnostics are misleadiing you: even though human activity creates just 2% of the flow of emissions, once human-created CO2 is in the atmosphere it takes longer for nature to absorb the nature-created CO2. As a result, already there is 50% more CO2 in the atmosphere than there would be without human activity…
When Al Gore urges the citizenry to sacrifice... the agnostics grumble that human activity accounts for just 2 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions, with the remainder generated by natural processes like plant decay. Of course the agnostics are misleadiing you: the right way to think about it is that already 1/3 of the CO2 molecules in the atmosphere are the products of human actiivity, and the fraction and amount are growing very rapidly indeed…
Levitt and Dubner structure their passage to say (a) only 2% of emissions are of human origin, and (b) the fact that only 2% of emissions are of human origin is relevant to and supports an “agnostic” position on global warming.
But that is a lie: itt does not support an agnostic position. It is grossly, grossly misleading for Dubner and Levitt to talk about how the relative flows are "a surprising fact and one worth mentioning." They know damned, damned well that what is relevant to the "agnostic" positon are not the flows but rather the stocks. And they know damned, damned well even though only 2% of the new CO2 molecules created are of human origin, a full 30% of the stock of CO2 molecules existing is of human origin--with that percentage climbing every day.
Oh! There’s my right parietal lobe over there under the couch!
Let me give Steve Levitt the last word:
...I do think also that there is something to be said for raising some skepticism about the current climate models and predictions... they are stated and restated as if they are fact, when in practice I suspect, and good scientists agree, that there is enormous uncertainty and things we cannot or at least could not know...
No, let me give firstname.lastname@example.org the last word:
While eco-cultists like Al Gore keep referring to a 6 degree C rise in global temperature as some sort of doomsday scenario, the agnostics grumble that the temperature of the earth is already 287 Kelvin, so we're talking about a mere 2% increase.
I can haz best-seller?
Steven Dubner writes:
Global Warming in SuperFreakonomics: The Anatomy of a Smear - Freakonomics Blog - NYTimes.com: Much of the outcry was made by people who had read Romm but not our book — which isn’t surprising, since the book isn’t out until October 20. As the noise grew, Romm added on the charge that “the publisher has stopped Amazon from allowing people to search the book” – that is, to read the actual text online. Smells like a conspiracy theory, no?
But nobody stopped anything. The text was never searchable on Amazon for the simple reason that the book wasn’t yet published, which is standard procedure. I don’t know where Romm got this fact – or if perhaps it was just too good a rumor to not be true...
(1) Dubner's "nobody stopped anything" is simply wrong. Romm posted a .pdf of Freakonomics chapter 5. Somebody--Dubner and Levitt's publisher--then did require Romm to take it down. That takedown is in sharp contrast to the behavior of some other publishers these days, who are eager to offer sample chapters online.
(2) Moreover, Romm says that as of last week he was able to use Amazon's "search inside the book" function on Superfreakonomics, and that somebody turned it off. I believe him:
(1) Joshua Gans identifies in Dubner and Levitt an odd inconsistency that I’ve identified more broadly: those who go on and on about how people respond to incentives when they’re making a pro-free-market argument suddenly seem to lose all faith in the power of incentives when the goal is to induce more environmentally friendly behavior:
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.
(2) Ryan Avent makes a general point about people who dismiss cap-and-trade as too hard, then promote something else that only seems easier because you haven’t thought it through. I agree with him about the carbon tax issue; and while I hadn’t thought about applying the same principle to geoengineering, he’s completely right. Having somebody--who? The United States? The United Nations? The Coalition of the Willing?--pump sulfur into the atmosphere through an 18-mile tube, or cut off sunlight with a giant orbital mirror, would either (a) require many years of hard negotiations or (b) quite possibly set off World War III. If it’s (a), why is that so much easier than a global agreement on emissions? (Which, as Brad points out, really would only have to involve four big players.)
(3) Andrew Gelman poses a question:
The interesting question to me is why is it that “pissing off liberals” is delightfully transgressive and oh-so-fun, whereas “pissing off conservatives” is boring and earnest?
I have a theory here, although it may not be the whole story: it’s about careerism. Annoying conservatives is dangerous: they take names, hold grudges, and all too often find ways to take people who annoy them down. As a result, the Kewl Kids, as Digby calls them, tread very carefully when people on the right are concerned — and they snub anyone who breaks the unwritten rule and mocks those who must not be offended. Annoying liberals, on the other hand, feels transgressive but has historically been safe. The rules may be changing... but it’s been that way for a long time.
So I finally got a copy of chapter 5 of Superfreakonomics.
In the abstract I really like the idea of cheap geoengineering solutions to global warming. My personal favorite is a giant parasol 18,000 miles in diameter at L1 to absorb and then reradiate a chunk of sunlight in other bands. But I have never been able to find anyone here at Berkeley who (a) knows what they are talking about, and (b) agrees with Levitt and Dubner that we know that Al Gore efficiency-and-conservation solutions are much less cost-effective than Mt. Pinatubo geoengineering solutions in dealing with global warming. That NASA and Energy and OSTP should be working on and funding research into the possibilities of geoengineering is something everybody I talk to agrees with. But nobody I talk to agrees with Levitt and Dubner that efficiency-and-conservation efforts are futile, and that we should shut them down to bet all our chips on geoengineering.
It really does look to me like Levitt and Dubner:
Thus I have a little unsolicited advice for Levitt and Dubner. If I were them, I would abjectly apologize. And I would then start editing the chapter thus:
pp. 165-6: Change to no longer put "global cooling" in the 1970s and "global warming" today in parallel: The scientists in the 1970s who were worried about global cooling had neither the quantative evidence, the climate models, the understanding of forcing processes, or the peer-reviewed consensus that analysis of global warming has today. Placing the two in parallel is simply wrong.
pp. 165-6: Change to remove false claim that the quotes from Newsweek were the words of "scientists."
pp. 165-6: Change to remove false claim that Newsweek was accurately citing the 1975 NAS Study--which says not that the globe is likely to cool but instead that we don't know enough about climate to forecast trends, and tht we need to do more research.
p. 167: Change to make explicit the claim that switching to an all-vegetarian diet reduces your carbon footprint by about the same order of magnitude as does switching to a hybrid car. But do not say that cars and trucks do not "contribute an ungodly share of greenhouse gases." They do--it's just that human meat-intensive agriculture contributes and ungodly share as well.
p. 168: Change to make the point that the fact that our estimates of climate effects are imprecise is not an argument for doing less or waiting to offset global warming--it is an argument for doing more and doing more now. Uncertainty is not our friend at all
p. 169: Change. Currently massively confused about Marty Weitzman's work. Marty focuses on the chance and valuation of catastrophe. He concludes that a version of the precautionary principle is appropriate: when distributions have fatter tails than log normal--which Marty thinks they do--the right policies are those that minimize the possibiliity of catastrophe. Which means starting to act now.
p. 170: Change to no longer imply that James Lovelock has some special role or authority in climate analysis or climate policy.
p. 170: Change to debunk rather than approve of British conservative Boris Johnson's claim. Johnson's statement is simply wrong. It is not the case that "the fear of climate change is like a religion in this vital sense, that it is veiled in mystery, and you can never tell whether your acts of propitiation or atonement have been in any way successful." We can measure greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, solar radiative forcings, and temperatures. We can tell whether acts of propitiation and atonement are working.
p. 171: Change the highly misleading: "When Al Gore urges the citizenry to sacrifice... the agnostics grumble that human activity accounts for just 2 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions, with the remainder generated by natural processes like plant decay..." that 98% of carbon emissions are part of an ongoing biological cycle is not an argument supporting an "agnostic" position. And Levitt and Dubner should not hve claimed that it is.
p. 171: Change highly misleading paragraph to stress that what is relevant is not the stock but the flow: not that human activity accounts for 2% of the flow but rather that but for industrial emissions one-third (and growing) of the stock of greenhouse gases would simply not be there today.
p. 173: Change to no longer dismiss out-of-hand global agreement on climate policy. Dubner and Levitt currently write: "when it comes to actually solving climate change externalities through taxes, all we can say is good luck.... [G]reenhouse gases do not adhere to national boundaries.... Nor does one nation have the right to tell another what to do." But if the big four--U.S., EU, China, and India--of 2050 do agree, they then have the cultural, economic, and diplomatic power to coerce the rest of the world. Reaching global agreement is a very reasonable prospect.
pp. 177-181: Change to tone down the puff piece on Myhrvold and Intellectual Ventures--the subsequent pages contain a lot of clues that Myhrvold and company really don't know very much about what they are talking about.
p. 182: Change to debunk rather than approve of quote from Wood: "Everybody turns their knobs... so they aren't the outlier, because the outlying model is going to have difficulty getting funded..." Alternatively, back this claim up with some real evidence that it is so. (The climate modelers who I talk to say that it is not.)
p. 182: Change to debunk rather than approve of quote from Wood: "current climate models 'do not know how to handle water vapor and various types of clouds'..." Current climate models may not handle water vapor and clouds especially well, but they do handle them.
p. 182: Also, change to reinforce point that uncertainty in climate models is not an argument for doing less now but rather an argument to do more.
p. 183: Change to debunk rather than approve of quote from Myhrvold: "most of the global warming over the past few decades... might actually be due to good environmental stewardship." It's not.
p. 183: Change to remove false claim that worldwide particulate pollution is shrinking rather than growing. It is still growing rather than shrinking and so still cooling the earth more with each passing year--it's only in the clean North Atlantic that heavy particulates been shrinking.
p. 183: Change to rephrase: "Nor does atmospheric carbon dioxide necessarily warm the earth"--other things equal, it certainly does.
19, p. 184: Change to remove false claim: "Yet [Ken Caldeira's] research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight."
p. 186: Change to debunk rather than approve of false quote from Wood: "most authoritative literature on the subject suggests a [sea level] rise of about one and a half feet by 2100."
p. 186: Remove false claim: "a most surprising environmental scourge: trees." Distinguish between (a) tropical trees, (b) temperate trees, and (c) boreal trees in regions where there is a great deal of snow cover.
p. 186: Remove false claim that the earth has been cooling "over the past several years."
p. 187: Claim that "coal is so cheap that trying to generate electricity without it would be economic suicide" needs much, much more backing-up: I can't see how it could possibly be true.
p. 187: Remove false claim: "A lot of things that people say would be a good thing probably aren't.... As an example he points to solar cells..."
p. 187: Claim that "The energy consumed by building the thousands of new solar plants necessary to replace coal-buring and other power plants would create a huge long-term 'warming debt'"--I cannot see how this could possibly be true. The overwhelming majority of power plants that are going to be in operation have not been built yet, and buildind closed-carbon-cycle or non-carbon plants is not much more expensive than building open-carbon-cycle ones.
p. 188: Remove false claim that "Myhrvold... has probably thought about such [ecological disaster] scenarios in greater scientific detail than any climate doomsayer."
That is as far as I have gotten...
SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling (and some other stuff)?: liked Freakonomics, so I'm a bit sad to see the (inevitable) sequel being so hopelessly wrong. Probably this is a case of the old rule: whenever you see people write about stuff you know, they get it wrong. Joe Romm has a fairly characteristic attack; and just for a change I'll agree with him; though he chooses odd bits to assault. It looks like the "global cooling" junk is just one chapter, but of course it is the only one I'll pay any attention to.
Diagnosis, in brief: (1) they write about stuff they clearly don't understand (2) they pick a catchy reverse-common-wisdom nugget as a headliner without the having the slightest interest in whether it is true or not (mind you, plenty of more respectable folk do the same) (3) they pick an expert to talk to, but since they don't have a clue about the subject they don't know how to pick a good expert, or even understand what the expert says (4) there is a grain of sense in there, but so badly wrapped in trash it is nearly unfindable.
The entire piece is riddled with errors. Reading it all would be tedious. So, before reading it in detail I decided to set myself a target of 10 major errors and then stop....
Does "Superfreakonomics" Need A Do-Over?: I enjoyed the original Freakonomics quite a bit.... [I]t was clear Levitt was a clever economist who could gin up fascinating "natural experiments" to crack open everyday mysteries. So now Levitt and his co-author Stephen Dubner have a sequel.... Levitt and Dubner just parachute into the field of climate science and offer some lazy punditry on the subject dressed up as "contrarianism." There's no original research. There's nothing bold or explosive. It's just garden-variety ignorance. As William Connelly, a former climate modeler at the British Antarctic Survey says in his review of the book's climate chapter (which he has posted):
Diagnosis, in brief: (1) they write about stuff they clearly don't understand (2) they pick a catchy reverse-common-wisdom nugget as a headliner without the having the slightest interest in whether it is true or not (3) they pick an expert to talk to, but since they don't have a clue about the subject they don't know how to pick a good expert, or even understand what the expert says (4) there is a grain of sense in there, but so badly wrapped in trash it is nearly unfindable.
In just a few dozen pages, Dubner and Levitt manage to repeat the myth that the scientific consensus in the 1970s predicted global cooling (quite untrue), imply that climatologists are unaware of the existence of water vapor (no, they're quite aware), and traffic in the elementary misconception that CO2 hasn't historically driven temperature increases (RealClimate has a good article to help with their confusion). The sad thing is that Dubner and Levitt aren't even engaging in sophisticated climate-skepticism here--there's just a basic unwillingness to gain even a passing acquaintance with the topic. You hardly need to be an award-winning economist to do that.
What's more, as Joe Romm reports, the main scientist that Levitt and Dubner actually interviewed, Ken Caldeira, says they've completely twisted and mischaracterized his views—a glaring bit of journalistic malfeasance. And, as Matt Yglesias points out, one of Dubner and Levitt's arguments rests on the (demonstrably wrong) premise that solar panels are always black. Now, as a journalist, I'm all in favor of having people write about things they're not an expert in--and mistakes do happen--but this is a little absurd.
Meanwhile, over at The New York Times website, Dubner is complaining that critics are all engaged in "shrillness" (without linking to any of the criticisms of his book) and appears to be quietly removing comments when readers attempt to point to Connolley or Romm's critiques. Guess they don't make hard-charging contrarians like they used to.
UPDATE: And email@example.com emails:
I'm a little offended by the book's laziness. Had they wanted, they could've recruited some clever deniers to feed them material for the climate chapter. People like Chris Horner and Anthony Watts and Roger Pielke are dishonest and wrong, but they're not stupid or ignorant people—they engage in some high-level sophistry and deceit. But Dubner and Levitt didn't even know enough about the subject to seek out the A-list bullshit artists.
FURTHER UPDATE: Roger Pielke is unhappy with chunky (which I understand) and with my posting of chunky (which I understand), but then appears to go completely off the rails in email:
Roger Pielke, Jr. firstname.lastname@example.org Mon, Oct 19, 2009 at 5:48 AM: I see that you have refused to post my comment on your blog. If you make strong accusations about a professional colleague it would seem appropriate to back that up. I await your reply which I'll prominatly feature on my blog. All best from Boulder, Roger Pielke, Jr.
Brad DeLong email@example.com Mon, Oct 19, 2009 at 11:22 AM: I have no idea what you are talking about. I haven't done anything to any comments from firstname.lastname@example.org...
Roger Pielke, Jr. email@example.com Mon, Oct 19, 2009 at 11:24 AM: How about the comments that you posted on your blog about me? Specifically: http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2009/10/economist-brad-delong-calls-me-stupid.html
Brad DeLong firstname.lastname@example.org Mon, Oct 19, 2009 at 11:29 AM: Are you sane? I have not refused to post your comment on my weblog. My default is that everyone's comments are automatically published. (I do prune them later, if I think they are actively misleading. But I don't refuse to publish.)
Roger Pielke, Jr. email@example.com Mon, Oct 19, 2009 at 11:35 AM: Indeed I am sane. I believe you are ignoring the point of my email to you, you posted a comment on your site with some very strong (and misleading statements about me, here: http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2009/10/does-superfreakonomics-need-a-do-over.html. Why did you do this? And will you correct the post or otehrwise explain this unprovoked attack? See: http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2009/10/economist-brad-delong-calls-me-stupid.html
Brad DeLong firstname.lastname@example.org Mon, Oct 19, 2009 at 12:11 PM: I repeat: I have not refused to post your comment on my weblog.
At this point I am thoroughly bemused...
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.
The combined global land and ocean surface temperature for September 2009 was 0.62°C (1.12°F) above the 20th Century average of 15.0°C (59.0°F). This was the second warmest September on record, behind 2005, and the 33rd consecutive September with a global temperature above the 20th Century average. The last below-average September occurred in 1976.
The global land surface temperature for September 2009 was 0.97°C (1.75°F) above the 20th Century average of 12.0°C (53.6°F), and ranked as the second warmest September on record, also behind 2005. The worldwide ocean temperature tied with 2004 as the fifth warmest September on record, 0.50°C (0.90°F) above the 20th Century average of 16.2°C (61.1°F). Warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures were widespread, particularly in lower latitudes. The near-Antarctic southern ocean and the Gulf of Alaska featured notable cooler-than-average temperatures.
For the year to date, the global combined land and ocean surface temperature of 14.7°C (58.5°F) was the sixth-warmest January-through-September period on record. This value is 0.55°C (0.99°F) above the 20th Century average.
A weak El Niño persisted across the equatorial Pacific Ocean during September. Sea surface temperature observations in the equatorial Pacific Ocean during the month remained above average. According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, El Niño is expected to strengthen and last through the Northern Hemisphere winter of 2009-2010.
Paul Krugman writes:
Superfreakonomics on climate, part 1: OK, I’m working my way through the climate chapter.... The chapter opens with the “global cooling” story — the claim that 30 years ago there was a scientific consensus that the planet was cooling, comparable to the current consensus that it’s warming. Um, no.... To the extent that there was a consensus, it was that there wasn’t much evidence for anything.... What you have today is a massive research program involving thousands of scientists and many peer-reviewed publications, with all major international bodies agreeing that man-made global warming is real. You can, if you insist, dismiss it all as a gigantic hoax or whatever--but it’s nothing like the isolated 70s speculations about cooling.
And then we come to a bit of economics.... Yikes. I read [Marty] Weitzman’s paper... it’s making exactly the opposite of the point they’re implying it makes. Weitzman’s argument is that uncertainty about the extent of global warming makes the case for drastic action stronger, not weaker. And here’s what he says about the timing of action:
The conventional economic advice of spending modestly on abatement now but gradually ramping up expenditures over time is an extreme lower bound on what is reasonable rather than a best estimate of what is reasonable.
Again, we’re not even getting into substance — just the basic issue of representing correctly what other people said.
Aha. A friend has sent me a scan of what he calls the "particularly egregious" pages 186-7 of Steve Levitt's and Steve Dubner's Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance:
Indeed, I find that I have six questions for them about these two pages:
1: "Wood notes that the most authoritative literature on the subject suggests a rise of about one nd a half feet by 2100..." I had thought that the most authoritative estimates suggest a 1 to 7 feet rise in sea levels by 2100--not 1.5 feet. Am I wrong?
2: "Ken Caldiera... mentions a most surprising enviromental scourge: trees..." I grant that covering the reflective greenland ice sheet with green leaves might not be a good idea. But surely Ken Caldeira of Stanford did not say that your average tree is doing less to cool the earth by sucking up carbon dioxide than if the tree were cut down and decomposed and some other more-reflective typical use were made of its spot, is he?
3: "Then there's this little-discussed fact about global warming: while the drumbeat of doom has grown louder over the past several years, the average global temperature during that time has in fact decreased..." As best as I can see from http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/graphs/Fig.A2.txt, this year is:
How do you get from that temperature record to the statement that "over the past several years... average global temperature... has in fact decreased"?
4: "coal is so cheap that trying to generate electricity without it would be economic suicide..." That coal is cheap does not mean that moving away from it would be "economic suicide." That depends on (a) how large a share of total costs are energy costs, and (b) how expensive the long-run alternatives to coal turn out to be. And that is what we are trying to figure out. What definition of "economic suicide" are you using?
5: "The problem with solar cells is that they are black... designed to absorb light from the sun.... But only about 12 percent gets turned into electricity, and the rest... contributes to global warming." Surely the heat energy reradiated from a solar panel is a small fraction of the heat trapped by all the carbon dioxide that would be produced by the coal-fired plants that would otherwise generate the electricity, isn't it?
6: "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'." I had thought that practically none of the power plants that we will use in 2050 are now in operation, and that building them--whether for open-carbon cycle, closed-carbon cycle, or non-carbon--will cost about the same amount of energy, and thus that there is no significant extra power-plant construction debt from going green in our new power-plant construction over the nezt forty years as long as it is done gradually. Am I wrong?
Steve Levitt writes, about his unpublished book:
The Rumors of Our Global-Warming Denial Are Greatly Exaggerated: [W]e believe that rising global temperatures are a man-made phenomenon and that global warming is an important issue to solve. Where we differ from the critics is in our view of the most effective solutions to this problem. Meaningfully reducing global carbon emissions has proven to be difficult, if not impossible. This isn’t likely to change, for the reasons we discuss in the book. Consequently, other approaches represent a more promising path to lowering the Earth’s temperature. The critics are implying that we dismiss any threats from global warming; but the entire point of our chapter is to discuss global-warming solutions, so obviously that’s not the case.
The statements being circulated create the false impression that our analysis of the global-warming crisis is ideological and unscientific. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Perhaps then they should halt distribution, and get a new and very different dust jacket for the book? After all, "global cooling" are the first two words of their subtitle:
Steve Dubner writes:
It is amazing to see how quickly and thoroughly Romm's extremely misleading attack has spread, to the point where even independent thinkers like you accept it on face value. His attack is full of deception and outright lies. He makes it sound as if we somehow twisted and abused Caldeira's research; nothing could be further from the truth. We will have to clear this up publicly, although as you suggest it will be hard to put out this fire no matter how wrongfully set. This is politics that's being played now, nothing else. Also: yes, Romm posted a PDF of the chapter on his website, which the publisher, in its routine effort to pull pirated copies of its copyrighted material off the web, asked him to take down. As far as I know, it was never on Amazon; there's been no censoring; we are talking about a book that hasn't yet been published (when it is, I assume Amazon will post the searchable pages, as is typical), but Romm has done a great job of getting people to believe that a book they haven't read is full of errors.
Brad DeLong to Stephen
Re: "It is amazing to see how quickly and thoroughly Romm's extremely misleading attack has spread, to the point where even independent thinkers like you accept it on face value..."
As I said, I can't read your chapter--by your publisher's choice.
That's very bad for you: Romm's posting your chapter and a link to it is a way for him to establish credibility--"see for yourself"; your publisher's pulling it down is a way to diminish yours.
Over this weekend, people's views are gelling--Paul Krugman's, for example--while your voice isn't being heard, and once people's views are gelled, it takes a huge amount of evidence and the right kinds of psychological pressure to ungell them.
Thus, for example, I would love to believe in Myrhvold and in cheap geoengineering solutions. But I come from Berkeley, where Richard Muller is the dominant public-intellectual voice on geoengineering, and he is very knowledgeable and very skeptical. My second cousin Tom Kalil does solar panels and so forth for a living at OSTP. The reaction of the climate people I know to Myrhvold on solar panels, whom Romm says you quote:
"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..."
is simply unprintable--that it's like claiming that curve balls curve because of photon pressure from the stadium lights.
So given what is flowing past my computer screen at the moment, it looks very much to me as though you were simply hornswoggled by Myrhvold and company, who have formed their own tight self-reinforcing intellectual community reinforcing each other's beliefs up there in Seattle. There is nothing I can see contradicting that interpretation, and a bunch of things from Romm and others confirming it.
The place where I would concentrate, if I were you, would be Stanford's Ken Caldeira. Romm claims:
"[Caldeira] writes me: 'If you talk all day, and somebody picks a half dozen quotes without providing context because they want to make a provocative and controversial chapter, there is not much you can do.' One sentence about Caldeira in particular is the exact opposite of what he believes (page 184): 'Yet his research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight.' Levitt and Dubner didn’t run this quote by Caldeira, and when he saw a version from Myrhvold, he objected to it. But Levitt and Dubner apparently wanted to keep it very badly — it even makes the SuperFreakonomics Table of Contents in the Chapter Five summary “Is carbon dioxide the wrong villain?...”
If your principal experts truly do repudiate the interpretation you place on their work, that's very bad for you...
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: Yes Nathan is howlingly off base. Not because solar panels are (whatever cover with whatever relative emissivity), but because solar panels, like wind turbines and solar thermal power plants, eliminate the emission of CO2 which would otherwise occur from electricity production.
As Ken Caldeira so grippingly points out (and I tried to make graphically clear in my Stanford talk last year) , each molecule of CO2 released thermal energy when it was formed — that’s why we formed it. In the case of electricity generation, about 1/3 of its thermal energy went out a wire as electric power, the rest was released promptly as waste heat. But each molecule of CO2, during its subsequent lifetime in the atmosphere, traps 100,000 times more heat than was released during its formation.
A hundred thousand is a big number. It means that running a handheld electric hairdryer on US grid electricity delivers a planet-warming punch comparable to [the heat directly emitted by] two Boeing 747s operating at full takeoff power for the same time period. The warming is delivered over time, not promptly, but that don’t matter; the planetary heating is accrued, the accountants would say, the moment you hit the switch.
The thermal energy balance for a solar panel runs vastly in the other direction. If our solar panel is pure black, and 14% efficient, then for each kWh of electric power that comes out, there are 7 kWh of heat that were absorbed and radiated. But each kWh it generates it eliminates the release of 1.4 pounds of CO2, which during its lifetime in the atmosphere will absorb 210,000 kWh of heat. So the energy balance for the solar panel (when it’s connected to the US grid) is about NEGATIVE 209,993 kWh(heat) per kWh(electric) — since some fossil power plant somewhere is being turned down based on its generation. And hey, if it’s blue instead of black, that might increase to negative 209,995 kWh.
Joe Romm writes:
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. « Climate Progress: The reason I’m calling Levitt and Dubner Superfreaks for short is that Chapter Five of SuperFreakonomics, the “Global Cooling” chapter — aka “What do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo have in common?” — has precious little economics, and what it does have is simply wrong. So the book could easily have been titled Superfreaks. [Note: Most of the book is searchable online. At the request of the publisher, I have taken down the PDF of the chapter]...
I want to read the Superfreakonomics chapter on climate change this morning. Steve Levitt and Steve Dubner's publisher is now keeping me from doing so.
That is a bad thing to do--and something that is, I think, very bad for Levitt and Dubner (if possibly good for their publisher's bank account). I can read Romm on Levitt and Dubner. I can't read Levitt and Dubner. And that is very bad for Levitt and Dubner: if I can't read them, Romm's argument that they (a) were sold a bill of goods by Nathan Myhrvold and company who do not understand orders of magnitude and (b) misrepresented the views of Stanford's Ken Caldeira win by default.
UPDATE: And Paul Krugman weighs in:
A counterintuitive train wreck - Paul Krugman Blog: Uh oh. I trust Joe Romm on climate — and his verdict on Superfreakonomics is pretty damning. I’ll get to work on the book myself, but it doesn’t look good.
At first glance, though, what it looks like is that Levitt and Dubner have fallen into the trap of counterintuitiveness. For a long time, there’s been an accepted way for commentators on politics and to some extent economics to distinguish themselves: by shocking the bourgeoisie, in ways that of course aren’t really dangerous. Ann Coulter is making sense! Bush is good for the environment! You get the idea.
Clever snark like this can get you a long way in career terms — but the trick is knowing when to stop. It’s one thing to do this on relatively inconsequential media or cultural issues. But if you’re going to get into issues that are both important and the subject of serious study, like the fate of the planet, you’d better be very careful not to stray over the line between being counterintuitive and being just plain, unforgivably wrong.
It looks as if Superfreakonomics has gone way over that line.
SECOND UPDATE: Joe Romm:
Climate Progress: [S]ince my original post and various other debunkings around the web, the publisher has stopped Amazon from allowing people to search the book.... I don’t know of a single instance where searching was allowed and then stopped. It seems to me the publisher must be concerned that bloggers and others could actually see and quote the myriad errors and sheer illogic and patent nonsense for themselves...
This is very bad for Levitt and Dubner. They need to get on the horn to their publisher immediately, and get access restored.
To respond by shutting off internet access to the book may or may not be good for short-term sales, but it means that Romm's story becomes the default story for all time...