links for 2009-10-20
DeLong Smackdown Watch: Tim Harford

The Very Last Superfreakonomics Post of All Time...

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...