November 12, 2009

Superfreakonomics, Schmuperfreakonomics. Solving climate change just ain’t that easy.

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An economics professor who went on the Jon Stewart Show to flog his book Superfreakonomics the other night has been taking a flogging in the blogosphere. Reason: The book points out ways to fight climate change without reducing consumption of carbon-based fuels. The favorite idea of economist-author Steven Levitt: Pump sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, which has a shading effect (and mimics what happens when a big volcano blows.)

Now, I was an economics minor. I’m open to solutions that make sense, harness markets and save money. This isn’t one of them. I’m here today to tell you a bit about why, but also to argue that we are going to need to find technological solutions to global warming, and they might not all be pretty.

University of Calgary researcher David Keith with his machine, which he says pulls carbon dioxide from the air. Why is he getting so little attention compared to the Superfreakonomics authors? Ken Benditksen photo, courtesy University of Calgary

University of Calgary researcher David Keith with his machine, which he says pulls carbon dioxide from the air. Why is he getting so little attention compared to the Superfreakonomics authors? Ken Benditksen photo, courtesy University of Calgary

Recall that back in economics class, when the professor described an effect, it would only be after first giving the caveat that we were holding constant all the other variables. Another ECON caveat: “Given perfect information…” Profs said this all the time.  Both caveats are acknowledgements that whatever you may do (to affect the economy, in this example in economics class), there are sure to be many other factors in play that also will affect the outcome.

So it is with this idea of pumping SO2 into the stratosphere. It just cools the planet. That ain’t enough. It doesn’t, for example, end the acidification of the ocean caused by excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It’s on myriad points like this where Levitt and co-author Stephen Dubner trip up.

 One of the best take-downs explaining why Superfreakonomics is wrong, wrong, wrong scientifically comes from Gavin Schmidt on the excellent realclimate.org blog (put out by actual climate scientists, if you can imagine). Schmidt writes of the SO2 supershield:

Unfortunately, the real world (still) has an ozone layer, winds that depend on temperature gradients that cause European winters to warm after volcanic eruptions, rainfall that depends on the solar heating at the surface of the ocean and decreases dramatically after eruptions, clouds that depend on the presence of condensation nuclei, plants that have specific preferences for direct or diffuse light, and marine life that relies on the fact that the ocean doesn’t dissolve calcium carbonate near the surface.

Betsy Kolbert of The New Yorker wrote an entertaining explanation about how Levitt and Dubner have this climate-change solutions thing wrong. It’s worth a read, I tell you. She works in “The Parable of Horseshit,” for example. No, uh, lie. (And do yourself a favor — read all the way to the end.)

Anyway, Kolbert nails why these Supercalifragilisticeconomics guys are pissing off so many people who have worked so hard on the climate-change problem:

What’s most troubling about “SuperFreakonomics” isn’t the authors’ many blunders; it’s the whole spirit of the enterprise. Though climate change is a grave problem, Levitt and Dubner treat it mainly as an opportunity to show how clever they are. Leaving aside the question of whether geoengineering, as it is known in scientific circles, is even possible—have you ever tried sending an eighteen-mile-long hose into the stratosphere?—their analysis is terrifyingly cavalier. A world whose atmosphere is loaded with carbon dioxide, on the one hand, and sulfur dioxide, on the other, would be a fundamentally different place from the earth as we know it.

(Lest we lay too much blame at the feet of Levitt, let’s also remember that Jon Stewart was the one on the program complaining that enviros treat fighting climate change as a “secular religion.” Levitt at least admitted: “There are all sorts of reasons you don’t want carbon in the atmosphere.” Of geoenginnering he said: “It’s a Band Aid. … It buys you time.” Note that even Levitt did *not* portray it as a total solution.)

It might help place the Superfreakonomics authors’ arguments into context to also know this: Elsewhere in the book, they basically endorse drunken driving. Really. They point out that a person walking home from a bar drunk is eight times more likely to get into a fatal accident than the same drunk driving home. Sure. Driving drunk is much safer — for the drunk! What about for the pedestrian he mows down? 

I’d be the last to argue that economists should not be consulted about solving our problems, including (and sometimes especially) environmental problems. But it’s a little disturbing to see these guys getting so much traction at a time when the public is apparently misunderstanding the science behind climate change, with larger numbers all the time doubting that climate change is a real problem.

Now, as promised, I do have to argue — as anyone who has thought much about this likely would — that we’re going to have to take some technological steps to ameliorate global warming.

Dateline Earth has written about “geoengineering” ideas like shooting SO2 into the atmosphere. There was also the crazy idea that we could dump a bunch of iron ore into the ocean (third item). Or put a big shield into space. Yadda, yadda.

But we’ve also previously covered the idea of pulling the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Now, that seems like it could work. I mean, scientists did figure out how to pull nitrogen out of the air, so why not CO2?

Before anyone jumps down my throat about that, yes, I am aware that fertilizers made possible by the nitrogen-from-the-air trick are responsible for many environmental problems, such as the Gulf of Mexico dead zone.

But does that mean we should use every engineering trick in the book — that makes sense — to slow global warming? No, it doesn’t.

The trick is to figure out when we’re considering a bona fide techological solution and when we are getting, as Kolbert’s article title suggests, “Hosed.”

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