I have watched with interest the controversy over the global warming chapter in Superfreakonomics, the much awaited sequel to Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.
At first, I believed the hype and I was very discouraged, I love Freakonomics and I was disappointed to have to re-evaluate the faith I placed in it on the back of new evidence about the reliability of the authors. Then I read this Freakonomics blog entry in response to the criticism and I had second thoughts. Today, I read this sadly misconceived piece on one of my favourite blogs and, finally, the chapter itself. Now I feel sufficiently well informed to join the debate.
This is not a blog about whether global warming exists, nor is it a blog about whether geoengineering is a solution to it (although of course I have opinions on both), it is a blog about whether the two Steves have become victims of a witch-hunt. I dislike long blog posts, so I’ll keep it fairly succinct up here. Below the fold, however, is an epic post answering each of the criticisms made of the chapter and giving my evidence for my stance. If you wish to read on further, you can.
I love the blogosphere and we have seen several examples lately of it at its best. From the Iranian elections to Trafigura, from support for the NHS to a systematic rebellion against poor health and science journalism, we have been virtually inundated with excellent writing from a series of amateur experts. These stories have spread through the internet like wildfire and have been an astonishing trigger for rapid change. It couldn’t last though, and I have felt for a while it was only a matter of time before a wrong-headed story was picked up and some innocent people made to suffer. I believe that the attack on Superfreakonomics is that story. I am aware that I will probably be a lone voice amid the tumult, but that is no excuse to stay quiet.
As Simon and Garfunkle once said “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”, and that is certainly true here. A few people read the chapter believing it to be global warming (GW) denialism and read everything in it from that perspective. Never mind that what was written in the book was (for the most part) factually accurate, it is different to the publicly acceptable view and they must be pilloried. Internet users everywhere picked up on the story of fallen heroes, so beloved of our age, and propagated the myth. Most of the people giving an opinion haven’t even read the chapter. They are commenting from the basis that “if everyone else says it, it must be true”. The sad truth is that, drowned out by all the yelling and chasing of straw men, Levitt and Dubner raised an interesting and elegant addition to current policies that is gathering growing support from real climate experts. It has real issues (which they touched upon) that are very worthy of further debate but that debate can’t be had while a ravening mob is waving pitch forks.
I happen to believe this was inevitable, if not this story than another would have been the victim, the question is, what can we do about it? Regulating blogs is not the answer – the anarchy that rules the internet is its greatest strength and catalyst for change. To curtail it would be an error of huge proportions. All we can do is raise awareness of the risks and hope against hope that the opposing viewpoint will eventually get heard.
On to the evidence. This may not be as polished as usual as it has taken me ages to research and compile and I’m getting bored. I’ve done my best to cite my sources, but if you think I have missed something or am wrong in anyway, please comment.
Hold on tight, here we go:
In a nutshell, the chapter discusses the potential of releasing sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere as a method of rapidly cooling the earth. Here are a list of things journalists and bloggers have said are claims made by the authors in the chapter:
A. There is “global cooling”.
B. Global warming is a religion.
C. Economic modelling is better than climate modelling.
D. James Lovelock is a spokesperson for the scientific consensus on global warming.
E. Scientists tune climate prediction models to fit in with the consensus because appearing significantly different to the rest is bad for future funding.
F. Water vapour is responsible for a lot more warming than CO2[1.]
G. Most of the recent warming is due to removal of earlier particulate pollution, which reflected sunlight, from the atmosphere[1.]
H. Because temperature increases happen after after rather than concurrent with atmospheric CO2 increases, they are not connected.
I. Sulphur dioxide is a substitute for cutting CO2 emissions.
J. CO2 “isn’t the right villain” in the global warming story.
K. It is too expensive to move from conventional carbon based fuels to newer cleaner technologies.
L. There is no point trying to reduce emissions as it is already too late.
M. Solar panels are not a solution to clean energy production because they emit heat which contributes to warming.
N. The total cost of reversing all our damage using sulphur dioxide is $250 million.
P. Increasing atmospheric CO2 will increase plant growth
Various places have also accused The Steves of:
Q. Grossly misrepresenting their sources, in particular Ken Caldeira.
There, in no particular order, are 16 claims, let’s get on with the (hopefully not too tedious) job of deconstructing them.
I’m going to start with #I because it is perhaps the most important and the easiest to refute. It’s very clear, the authors simply do not say that. What they actually say is that geoengineering is a quick and cheap way of rapidly cooling the earth to mitigate the worst of the effects WHILE WE DEAL WITH LOWERING CARBON EMISSIONS. This has a knock-on effect for point L: The Steve’s do not claim it is too late to try, they state, correctly, that even if emissions ceased completely this instant, warming would continue for many decades because CO2 hangs around in the atmosphere a long time. In other words, even if we successfully reduce CO2 emissions, it is prudent to also investigate geoengineering solutions to mitigate the effects of what we have already done. Somewhat relevant here also is point N and there the bloggers have a point, albeit a pettifogging one. Here is the direct quote in question:
IV estimates this plan could be up and running in about three years, with a start-up cost of $150m and annual operating costs of $100m. It could effectively reverse global warming at a total cost of $250m.
Yes, there is quite clearly a problem there. If, and only if, we ceased all CO2 emissions and managed to get all the CO2 out of the atmosphere in under a year, could we solve the problem for $250 million. In the context of the rest of the chapter, however, it is quite clear the authors don’t believe that is possible, and even the first sentence of that quote gives an annual running cost. It’s a typo. Get over it.
We have dealt with a couple of misinterpretations of the authors views, lets quickly dispatch the other outright wronguns: D, H and K.
D: They cite James Lovelock as a “high-priest” of those who treat global warming as though it is a religion. I’m not sure how that can be interpreted as representing the consensus view.
H: I can’t actually find the relevant part of the chapter (if it even exists), suffice to say, they don’t believe this. It’s based on the supposition The Steve’s are denialists and they simply aren’t.
K: The real statement in the book is way more subtle than this simplistic view. It amounts to “insisting poor countries switch to expensive technologies now will harm them economically”. It’s true. It doesn’t mean rich countries can’t or shouldn’t try.
Then there’s the points that are technically true but the interpretation is wrong. In numerical order:
B: Some people are beginning to ignore the evidence and cling instead to rhetoric passed down from others, that sounds like faith to me. The Steve’s don’t say everyone who believes in GW is in that camp and they are right to call it the spade it is. Such a valuing of doctrine over evidence is very harmful to finding a real solution.
C: By comparison, the models used by financial institutions DO seem quite reliable. I wouldn’t use them to model the climate though, any more than I would use a climate model to model the money markets, and they wouldn’t either. They also go on to point out that the financial models missed the credit crunch so they admit they aren’t all that good after all.
F: Again, it is. It’s a lot more complex than that and, ultimately, the CO2 is responsible for putting the water vapour there in the first place, but that isn’t the point, they are factually accurate. The point is not “we shouldn’t tackle CO2″ it’s “we might be able to cool faster by tackling other things while we get the CO2 down”.
Now the left overs:
A: There’s two problems here. One is that advertising for the book refers to it discussing “global cooling”. A catchy phrase and one that has returned to bite Steves on the bum. They say that what they meant was “methods for cooling the earth” not “why global warming is wrong” but you can see why people ceased on it. The other is a throw away line midway through the chapter that they should simply have left out. Here it is:
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.
Oh Steves! Why did you have to go and do that? It’s only true according to one survey out of many, it’s only true in the very short term, it adds nothing to the debate and gives quote miners and real denialists some fabulous material. For comparison, here is another quote from the beginning of the chapter. You can draw your own conclusion as to whether the above quote means Steves actually believe the earth is cooling significantly and permanently or not:
The earth is no longer thought to be too cool but rather too warm. And black soot, rather than saving us, is seen as the chief villain. We have cast endless streams of carbon emissions skyward, the residue of all the fossil fuels we burn to heat and cool and feed and transport and entertain ourselves.
By so doing, we have apparently turned our tender planet into a greenhouse, fashioning in the sky a chemical scrim that traps too much of the sun’s warmth and prevents it from escaping into space. The “global cooling” phase notwithstanding, the average global ground temperature over the past hundred years has risen 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit (.7 degrees Celsius), and this warming has accelerated of late
E. Here, for once, I agree with everyone else. They do actually make that claim and they do not back it up with evidence. There may be some scientists who do that and I appreciate their human nature argument, it is one I use myself often, but it’s just not how academia works. I know enough scientists willing to go against the flow to believe that somewhere someone would have the guts to tell the truth. I’d be prepared to change my opinion if they backed up theirs with the sort of economical evidence that they used to make all their points in Freakonomics, but they don’t.
G. Again, it is true that they made this claim. I am not qualified to know whether “most” is accurate or not, but they are partially true in that particulate pollution was masking the effects of CO2. Where they seem to be mistaken is in their belief that it means CO2 wasn’t also doing damage at the same time.
J. Some more dodgy ground here. They have admitted this was an overstatement and they shouldn’t have said it. I think they still have a point though, we should not only look at CO2 when dealing with other gasses might help.
M: I’m no expert here, but this seems to be their biggest error. It fails to take into account the heat produced by the fossil fuels solar panels are replacing. Put in those terms it is a significant reduction.
For P and Q I will let Ken Caldeira answer in his own words. My interpretation is that they have put a degree of spin on his answers, but not enough to truly mislead. Ken seems to feel it has been enough to give the impression he thinks something he does not but actually, I’m not sure. I suspect that the blog wild fire has led people to believe that the book leads people to believe Ken Caldeira thinks something he does not. Which, if you can follow that, is a very different thing. Certainly, I read the chapter, then I read what Ken Caldeira thinks and I was hard pressed to spot the difference.
In conclusion, the chapter is not perfect, there are mistakes in Steves’ understanding of the science and there are some ill advised comments that leave them open to criticism. Moreover, there’s no mention of the economic method at all, economics only comes into it because the solution being discussed is cheap. That said, the blogging witch-hunt has got caught on straw man after straw man and has completely missed the point.
1. Which I latter found to be an uninspired rehash of this misconceived piece, which may be the one that sparked the whole thing. BTW, later ““s refer to ideas put forward in this blog entry.
2. I confess, it was the ripped off .pdf doing the rounds, but I intend to buy the book in order to read the other chapters, so I’ll pay my dues.
3. It does and it is, although not on its own.
7. I’m really sorry. I hate shouting on my blog but this is ever such an important point, I really don’t understand how it has become so lost.
8. International Ventures: a very interesting sounding company whom The Steves talked to whose opinions much of their chapter seems to be based upon. I’m not sure I like the sound of them and maybe one day I will investigate further.