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SuperFreaks Retrench: ‘It’s Harder To Know’ Whether Global Warming Is ‘Man-Created’

By Brad Johnson on November 16, 2009 at 5:45 pm

"SuperFreaks Retrench: ‘It’s Harder To Know’ Whether Global Warming Is ‘Man-Created’"


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Appearing on PBS’s influential Charlie Rose Show last week, SuperFreakonomics authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner expanded upon their destructively uninformed portrayal of climate science, even throwing into question man’s influence on global warming. When Rose asked him about the controversial “global cooling” chapter, Levitt fatuously claimed that “what we actually said is not even very controversial.” Levitt said that SuperFreakonomics is “not denying that the Earth has gotten warmer.” After Rose interjected, “And it’s man created,” Levitt stammered, “It’s harder to know whether it’s man created”:

I-i-i-i-it’s harder to know whether it’s man created. It’s always harder to know whether it’s some — you know, why something happened than whether it did. That’s not even our question.

Watch it:

Later during the interview Dubner attempted to justify the book’s claim that “carbon dioxide is not the right villain,” arguing that it was the decrease in sulfur dioxide and other pollutants that has caused global warming, rather than the accumulation of carbon dioxide.

This is of course utter nonsense — aerosols like sulfur dioxide certainly masked the heat-trapping effects of greenhouse gases, but global warming is caused by the greenhouse gases. If a methamphetamine addict is using alcohol to blunt the side effects of his meth habit, his hyperactivity isn’t due to a lack of binge drinking.

Dubner and Levitt’s quest to deny the reality of climate change and promote radical geoengineering to block the sun as a “sensible” alternative to reducing greenhouse gases is, as the New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert writes, “horseshit.” Their strategy is like counseling the meth addict to become a full-blown alcoholic instead of reducing his drug use.

Despite Levitt’s argument that “it’s harder to know” whether global warming is “man created,” in reality the scientific evidence is clear and has been for years, according to the scientific organizations of the world:

American Association for the Advancement of Science: The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society. [10/9/06]

U.S. Global Change Research Program: Global temperature has increased over the past 50 years. This observed increase is due primarily to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases. [June 2009]

American Physical Society: Emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are changing the atmosphere in ways that affect the Earth’s climate. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide as well as methane, nitrous oxide and other gases. They are emitted from fossil fuel combustion and a range of industrial and agricultural processes. The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now. [11/18/07]

American Meteorological Society: Despite the uncertainties noted above, there is adequate evidence from observations and interpretations of climate simulations to conclude that the atmosphere, ocean, and land surface are warming; that humans have significantly contributed to this change; and that further climate change will continue to have important impacts on human societies, on economies, on ecosystems, and on wildlife through the 21st century and beyond. [2/1/07]

American Geophysical Union: The Earth’s climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming. Many components of the climate system—including the temperatures of the atmosphere, land and ocean, the extent of sea ice and mountain glaciers, the sea level, the distribution of precipitation, and the length of seasons—are now changing at rates and in patterns that are not natural and are best explained by the increased atmospheric abundances of greenhouse gases and aerosols generated by human activity during the 20th century. . . . Evidence from most oceans and all continents except Antarctica shows warming attributable to human activities. [December 2007]

American Quaternary Association: Few credible scientists now doubt that humans have influenced the documented rise in global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution. [10/24/06]

The national science academies of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa: It is essential that world leaders agree on the emission reductions needed to combat negative consequences of anthropogenic climate change at the UNFCCC negotiations in Copenhagen in December 2009. [May 2009]


DUBNER: We address topics in this book that are less trivial than the first book. We don’t write about sumo wrestlers we don’t write about baby names so much, even though it was fun. We’re writing about things like terrorism and like global warming and we try to bring to those topics a different way of looking at them, an economic approach. In other words, instead of looking at them on an emotional level or someone involved in those arenas might look at them — if you’re in the global warming industry you have interests to protect and you have an argument you want to make. And we try to look at it from the outside.

ROSE: And not everybody is thrilled at what you say about global warming.

LEVITT: Most of the people who aren’t thrilled about what we said about global warming aren’t talking about what we actually said. I mean what we said is not even very controversial. We’re not denying the earth has gotten warmer. It has gotten a lot warmer over the last one hundred years . . .

ROSE: And it’s man created.

LEVITT: I-i-i-i-it’s harder to know whether it’s man created. It’s always harder to know whether it’s some — you know, why something happened than whether it did. But that’s not our question. We say if the earth gets too hot or is too hot, what’s the best way to cool it down. And the conventional wisdom is to reduce carbon emissions drastically. That’s a reasonable solution, it could work, it has three problems. One, it’s incredibly expensive. I mean there’s a reason we produce and use a lot of fossil fuels, they’re cheap and they drive the economy. Trillions of dollars it will cost to switch the economy over. Number two, you need seven billion people to get together to coordinate if you want a solution to cut fossil fuels. Number three, even if we could do that, because carbon dioxide stays in the air so long, we’re looking at 50 years, 100 years before you start start to feel the full effects of it.

So, it seems like if you really think global warming is a terrible problem, you need a solution that’s faster, and that’s more certain, or easier to do. So, turns out geoengineering, extremely controversial but so sensible.

I mean, there are ideas out there that are cheap, they’re totally versible, totally reversible, which is incredibly important. You wouldn’t want to do anything that’s irreversible, because the science isn’t that certain. And they don’t require massive behavior change. We’re not saying we should go out tomorrow and build one of these machines say, to put sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere, but what we are saying is, “How can that not that be part of the debate?” We’re just trying to give geoengineering a seat at the table, but the interests that are out there don’t want . . .

ROSE: So you put sulfur dioxide in the air, through hoses. This is Nathan Myhrvold, isn’t it?

LEVITT: Absolutely. Nathan Myhrvold is, has . . . it’s an old idea. A Nobel prize-winning environmentalist put it out a while ago. Nathan has the engineering solution that allows us to quickly and reliably do that for something like 20 million, 50 million dollars. Now compare that to the trillions of dollars we’re talking about on the old solution. Now, now, why not at least have that kind of solution ready in case, as an insurance policy, in case some kind of global catastrophe involving the Greenland ice shelf or something happens and we need to cool the earth down quickly.

ROSE: Explain how it would work.

LEVITT: It’s pretty straightforward.

ROSE: You pour sulfur dioxide in the air and it puts a shield.

LEVITT: Exactly. It puts a shield. Really, the science is based on what Mother Nature has been doing for eons, which is when there are big volcanic eruptions, among the other things that are spewed out is sulfur dioxide. And it sprays it so high it gets into the stratosphere. The key is that getting the sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere where it forms into this haze which reflects something like one to two percent of the sunlight. And that’s enough to cool the earth. And all you need to do is just have a steady flow of it. And if you can figure out a way to get it up there, Nathan’s idea and his compatriots is to just essentially build a glorified garden hose. They put one at the north pole and south pole. It sounds like scientific fiction, but they have the engineering solution. It wouldn’t be that hard. And if you don’t like it, you just turn the spigot off . . .

ROSE: And what did Paul Krugman say about this?

DUBNER: I don’t think Paul Krugman thought of that. he went off a paper Marty Weitzman wrote and Paul Krugman thought he caught us in a mistake, and I hate to say it, but he’s wrong. And at some point, you know, there’s so much fervor about this topic, part of the problem is . . .

ROSE: It’s like theology.

DUBNER: Well, it’s interesting you say that, Charlie, because, you know, it’s one of the many things a very small portion of kind of climate activists have objected to, is that we said, there’s a sentence, and I’m paraphrasing, but it’s something along the lines of, “The efforts to stop global warming have the characteristics of a religion.” There really are these kind of dogmatic principles, there are believers, there are heretics and so on. And we’ve seen that.

You know, um, the interesting thing is geo-engineering is a pretty broad subject, actually. The garden hose to the sky is probably the most frightening to the average person. Any of us would think, “You want to intentionally pollute?” Even though it is replicating a volcano.

But there are other solutions within that portfolio, some of which are as green as you could possibly hope to be — which is essentially creating higher reflectivity oceanic clouds by creating more cloud condensation nuclei. So, clouds cool the earth. They do a great job. They’re nature’s way of cooling the earth. Over the oceans there often aren’t as many because there aren’t enough nuclei.

So, one of Nathan Myhrvold and Intellectual Ventures’ plans is to create an incredibly low-friction boats. They don’t even have an engine. And they just go around kicking up sea spray, salt spray that wafts into the air and forms more densely reflective clouds. That too is geo-engineering.

So the idea is this. That would cost — the three of us could chip in and buy one of those boats. I don’t know what you’re worth, more than us but it wouldn’t be that hard to do. But the point is that, like Levitt said, to get a seat at the table for these kind of ideas as opposed to this one route which we’re barrelling down as carbon mitigation as the only route doesn’t seem to be — seems we should be entertaining other possibilities.

. . .

DUBNER: Can I give one more example of the law of unintended consequences? The efforts to clean up the air in general and get heavy particulate pollution out of the air. All the sulfur, all the acid rain from coal plants and so on, in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s.

It’s now thought — there are new studies, NASA, a bunch of scientists have been doing this — it’s now thought that removing the particles from the atmosphere is what’s led to the warming, in large part.

In other words, carbon dioxide may not be remotely as large a villain as many people fear, because what’s happened is that by being good environmental stewards and trying to clear up the air — we did clear up the air a lot, but all that junk in the air was blocking a degree of sun. And now with the removal of it, we’ve seen more warming. And so that will be a line of research we’ll be hearing of a lot more.

ROSE: The idea is you can take the junk back but you have to put something else back up there that will block the sun.

DUBNER: It’s a big may, it’s a big may — I mean look, Myhrvold, I think, describes it very well in the book. The idea of the garden hose to the sky and sulfur dioxide in the air and geoengineering. It’s like this. When you build a house you do everything you can to not have a fire in the house. You don’t give your kids matches, you don’t run around with a lighter and doing like this. But, if you have it, do you want a sprinkler system? Yeah. So the idea is: If the problem gets to be that bad, do you want to have something that could work beyond this kind of long-term, expensive, uncertain carbon mitigation idea?


In an interview with CBC Radio, climate scientist Ken Caldeira — the one climate scientist on the Intellectual Ventures team interviewed in SuperFreakonomics — reiterates his opposition to the idea that geoengineering is a “sensible” alternative to carbon mitigation:

As I said at the outset, it’s obvious to anybody who looks at the problem that if we want to reduce climate risk
we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce that really quickly. The earth’s system is extremely complicated, and when you interfere in complicated systems, things happen that you don’t anticipate. And so what we can do is anticipate the unanticipated but we don’t know what that will be. But I do think we face grave risks, and I think we might be faced with a difficult situation where do we take the devil we know or the devil we don’t know. We might be in a tough spot.

And even if it worked as advertised, after Mt. Pinatubo the Ganges again had the lowest riverflow ever. What if you started doing this, and it did improve climate in most places most of the time, but you created a famine in India? India is a nuclear-armed nation now, and are they going to stand by and let their people be killed by this engineering approach? Even if it basically works for most people, there are issues of equity and governance and political tensions. It’s fraught with all kinds of dimensions of difficult issues.

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