"Jon Stewart Argues That Concern About Global Warming Is Just A ‘Secular Religion’"
On last night’s Daily Show, host Jon Stewart heaped praise on the contrarian approach to global warming taken by SuperFreakonomics author Steve Levitt, a University of Chicago economist. Stewart was baffled by the widespread criticism of Levitt and co-author Stephen Dubner, asking, “Have you stepped on a secular religion?” Stewart, often a tough interviewer, coddled Levitt, saying, “I’m sorry you’ve taken so much s**t for it.” He blamed the uproar over SuperFreakonomics on people who “feel you are betraying environmentalism”:
I’ve been somewhat surprised at how angry people are. The global warming chapter, you don’t deny global warming. You don’t say that CO2 isn’t a factor, but they feel you are betraying environmentalism or our world. Why are people so mad?
SuperFreakonomics mischaracterizes the field in order to argue that “moralism and angst” has blinded scientists and policymakers from pursuing the “cheap and simple solution” of geoengineering. Although the book condemns scientists for fearmongering and promotes a radical alternative to existing policy, Levitt tells Stewart, “I don’t try to pretend I know the science.”
In reality, the critics of Levitt’s treatment of climate science and policy are not “dogmatic” believers of a “secular religion” — they are highly respected climate scientists, energy experts, and economists, including climate scientist Ken Caldeira, who has said Levitt and Dubner misrepresented his views. The widespread criticism isn’t based on the book’s personal attacks on Al Gore or its mocking of global warming as a “religion,” but on the multitude of factual errors, misrepresentations, and false conclusions that the authors use to promote their mindless contrarianism. As science journalist Eric Pooley writes, “The book claims the opposite of what Caldeira believes.”
Levitt recommends untested, planetary scale geo-engineering to block the sun as a “band-aid” that “buys us time” if “we might need to do something,” because carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a long time. However, scientists concerned that global warming needs to be reduced rapidly have already found a well-proven approach that’s cheaper and safer than pumping unlimited amounts of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere: stopping black carbon emissions of soot from diesel and biomass burning.
Stewart hit the nail on the head when he concluded, “I really don’t know what I’m talking about, do I?” However, he failed to understand his mistake when he concluded that he had “apparently frightened our audience by suggesting that conservation isn’t the only way out of any of our problems.”
Stewart has excoriated other media darlings for their laissez-faire approach to serious issues, from Tucker Carlson to Jim Cramer, and just last week skewered CNN for its failure to do even basic fact-checking of its guests. Unfortunately, this time Stewart ended up being just like those he usually mocks — neither funny nor accurate.
STEWART: Let’s get to the global warming. that’s the one — I’ve been somewhat surprised at how angry people are, because the global warming chapter, you don’t deny global warming. You don’t say that CO2 isn’t a factor, but they feel you are betraying environmentalism or our world? What is it, why are people so mad?
LEVITT: I think you are right. We start with the science. I’m not a scientist, I don’t try to pretend I know the science. We try to go with the facts that are agreed on, the world is getting warmer and maybe there’s going to be cataclysm and there’s something we might need to do something about it. But instead of jumping to the conclusion that mankind owes a debt to future mankind to not put carbon into the air, we asked a different question, which is, “If we really wanted to cool the earth down quickly and cheaply and in a way that’s reversible, what would we do?” And the answer I don’t think at all, is not carbon mitigation, because that’s number one, very expensive about a trillion dollars a year to do it. The biggest reason is it takes 50 years. Because of the way carbon stays in the air, if we really cut carbon today the benefits will be 50 years from now. The earth will continue to heat up. Scientists have what are called geoengineering solutions, so different ways. Some of them are quite environmentally friendly, like seeding clouds to grow over the oceans, and others are kind of science fiction, like running a 100,000 foot garden hose up into the sky and spreading sulfur dioxide up there.
STEWART: That was my favorite one. It was the guys who want to use the garden hose. There’s kinda like these mad scientists that come up with these solutions, like they have one for getting rid of hurricanes cooling the water by floating little pontoons in the Gulf of Mexico.
STEWART: Why don’t we try this? I don’t understand people are angry about this. why does it have to be so dogmatic. No the only way is to get us off of fuel, uh fossil fuels and use these squirrelly light bulbs that curl and not try this crazy umbrella. I (bleep)ing love this umbrella thing. [ laughter ] You don’t say in here that conservation is useless or can’t be done, you are just suggest other things. Have you stepped on a secular religion?
LEVITT: Yeah, I think — the idea that we don’t have to pay the price for polluting is a really, really hard idea for people to take. Seems to me you put the moralism away. How do you solve the problem. We got here. We burned too much stuff. There are all sorts of other reasons why you don’t want carbon in the air. I don’t want to say this is real… It’s a band-aid.
STEWART: You’re also factoring in human nature. You are saying we’re not going to be able to reverse 5,000 years of human nature which is to do things easier, quicker, louder and with more smoke, so why not put up an umbrella?
LEVITT: Yeah, so, it’s a band-aid. I mean, you gotta be realistic about it. You put this up, it buys us time. If the worst things of climate predictions are still coming through, then it gives us 50 years to have more technological solutions.
STEWART: I appreciate you adding to the conversation. I don’t think that you are somehow denying science or any of these other things and I’m sorry you’re taking so much (bleep) for it. But the only other thing I would say is we should apply some of this to another field, economics. Because this is the kind of the thinking that could maybe help us with the banking thing. That could be your next book, like “Super Freaky Economics.”
LEVITT: Supercagi, fragilistic…
STEWART: I really don’t know what i’m talking about do I? I’ve apparently frightened our audience by suggesting that conservation isn’t the only way out of any of the problems in the world. I sincerely apologize and I do also believe we should just eat vegetables. “Superfreakonomics” on the bookshelves now. It’s recyclable!
STEWART: Look, I know you are kind of mad about that whole global warming thing before. I just want to let you know I was just kidding around. It’s all good. That’s our show. Join us tomorrow night at 11:00 where the entire set will be made of hemp.
Also posted at ThinkProgress.
In short, Stewart misses the point completely. There’s no doubt the environmentalist movement is full of people who are ideologically opposed to consumption. But there are also plenty of people (like myself) who are no fan of hairshirts, but still worry about the potential catastrophic impacts of climate change. The problem with Levitt’s book isn’t that it attacked a holy cow (it may have done that, but that isn’t the problem). Where Levitt went wrong is that the solution he and his co-author Stephen Dubner propose isn’t actually a solution.
Helpfully, when you offer facile dismissals of science and policy to which people have devoted their lives—“We could end this debate and be done with it,” sighs Dubner, “and move on to problems that are harder to solve.”—they get angry, and they express that anger. Then you get to be the Brave, Persecuted Freethinker battling the Quasi-Religious Orthodoxy, and the press loves you all the more. Why else would anyone know Roger Pielke Jr.‘s name? Lomborg rode that train, along with Shellenberger/Nordhaus and Dyson. In a smaller, grubbier way, even a flack like Patrick Moore (“co-founder of Greenpeace”!) has made it work for him. It’s no wonder Levitt/Dubner thought they could do the same thing, and you can sense their hesitation now that it’s not working so well. Though it did work like a charm on the normally sharp Jon Stewart, who offered Levitt this pathetically fawning interview.
That’s right, Levitt doesn’t even have to BS the interview because Stewart does it for him. From mocking green living to calling climate science “a religion” Stewart sounds like he is reading Levitt’s talking points. Instead of challenging Levitt, Stewart does all of the disinformation and obfuscating for him. Journalism schools could use this as a case study of really appalling interview technique; it’s that bad.