Superfreakonomics authors abandon climate science

The authors of SuperFreakonomics simultaneously insist they accept the science — “Like those who are criticizing us, we believe that rising global temperatures are a man-made phenomenon” — while at the same time labeling global warming a “religion” (see here).  And we’ve seen one award-winning journalist explain “Freakonomics Guys Flunk Science of Climate Change.”  But now, as this stunning Charlie Rose video shows, we have the clearest demonstration that both Levitt and Dubner don’t accept and don’t understand the science.  This is a Wonk Room repost.

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 said, “It’s harder to know whether it’s man created”:

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.

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.

[JR:  I don’t know what is more jaw-dropping — Levitt’s response backpedaling on basic climate science or Dubner’s “explanation.”  For the record, Dubner has the science exactly backwards: Removing the aerosols didn’t show carbon dioxide was less important to warming — it showed it was more important!  Indeed, one of the authors’ few scientific sources, Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, said after a 2003 workshop on the subject, “It looks like the warming today may be only about a quarter of what we would have got without aerosols. Crutzen noted that aerosols “are giving us a false sense of security right now.” A 2005 study led by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [subs. req’d] concluded, “Natural and anthropogenic aerosols have substantially delayed and lessened the total amount of global ocean warming-and therefore of sea level rise-that would have arisen purely in response to increasing greenhouse gases.”  Indeed, wasn’t the point of their “Global Cooling” chapter that aerosols would offset the warming we’d otherwise see from CO2?!  What exactly do these guys believe?]

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 argumenter 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]

JR:  You can find a longer transcript of the Charlie Rose interview at Wonk Room.  Here’s another excerpt:

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?

Wonk Room notes that “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.

21 Responses to Superfreakonomics authors abandon climate science

  1. Zach H says:

    I like Dubner’s analogy: it doesn’t matter if you have torches, matches, lighters inside the house because there’s always the sprinkler system to back it up. Doesn’t matter that the house is mostly destroyed and it’s going to cost thousands to fix, the sprinkler will have mostly saved the house. Apparently Dubner doesn’t want us to worry about spending money now on stopping the rise of CO2, we can always use a backstop fix that may or may not end up saving the Earth.

    Good logic, these guys scare me.

  2. Sam says:

    Oh give me a break “outraged”–Romm isn’t making fun of a speech impediment. He’s complaining about his complete refusal to acknowledge the science on climate.

    These Superfreaks are the lowest of the low.

  3. Silas Barta says:

    @outraged: I too am livid when someone criticizes another for their disabilities. But I don’t remember Levitt stuttering when he was being thrown softballs by Jon Stewart or George Stephanopoulos, interviews which I did watch. Now, unlike you, I haven’t seen him at numerous speaking events, but this definitely looks more like embarassment stuttering than disability stuttering.

  4. Joe says:

    I took down the comment of “outraged” since ANONYMOUS posters are not allowed.

    I googled Levitt. I can’t find any evidence he’s a stutterer, but one site said he had a lisp. Anyway, I decided to change the text slightly. People can judge for themselves what Levitt is or isn’t saying.

  5. Jeff Huggins says:

    The Media, The Media, The Media

    At this point, The New York Times (and other media) should be covering this mess and the fact that this book (and its authors) have basically adopted Orwellian nonsense. For example, if and when The New York Times has this book on the “best seller’s” list, it should run a story to clarify the problems and provide the straight scoop to readers.

    On a related matter, although I haven’t read the full story, The New York Times today (I get it only on Tuesday’s now, to see the science section) has a rather remarkable front page. Even as a story about corruption refers to the oil industry and contains ExxonMobil’s name, there is (on the front page again) an ExxonMobil PR piece. The actual full truth of the oil/climate/Exxon/etc. situation is still like a huge one-trillion-pound-plus elephant in the room, pooping everywhere, on all of us, that The Times is too afraid and unwise to discuss. So, although today’s front page doesn’t do it, it presents a remarkable illustration of the “issue” that The Times doesn’t want to call by name or explain, clearly, to the public.

    Andy, what are you and Erica doing to prompt The Times to provide the public with more responsible information, and a better understanding, regarding ExxonMobil? What is Bill Keller doing? What is Curtis doing, at CJR?

    The time is now folks, not next week. Decisions will be recorded in history.

    Be Well,


  6. Jeff Huggins says:

    I’ve watched the clip now. What nonsense!

    If these folks went to the University of Chicago, the University of Chicago should disassociate itself from them, if it values its own credibility.

    (Of course, our former President had gone to Harvard B-School, so who knows what can be said about that?!)

    Be Well,


  7. The Media is hanging over the financial edge of a cliff – don’t look to them to cover important stories properly or at all. They are in desperation mode. Top science freelance journalists tell me, no one is buying science and environment articles any more. Meanwhile staff layoffs in first 9 months of 09 reached 14,000+

    That leaves the field wide open to well-funded disinformationists …Joe you’re going to be a busy boy.

  8. Alex A. says:

    I don’t really understand what Levitt and Dubner are advocating… Their book seems to advocate a geo-engineering solution, but Dubner’s latest blog post argues that we need a treaty to prevent countries from embarking on unilateral geo-engineering… they say that the earth is warming but it’s also cooling… that climate scientists understand aerosols but not water vapor, but can just create clouds to offset warming… etc.

    Meanwhile, Myhrvold was in the nytimes today:

    apparently, Myhrvold is working on a cookbook, which will no doubt be quite interesting. In addition to other topics, it will cover the “physics of heat transfer on the stove and in the oven.”

    I hope someone is checking his math for him.

  9. paulm says:

    What a load of BS [from the Superfreakonomics authors]

    The fire brigade to the rescue…

    Californian firefighter warns of increase wildfires due to climate change
    Thom Porter, staff chief at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) talks about the changes he has witnessed in the Californian climate and how it is increasing the risk of forest fires in a video for Greenpeace.

  10. paulm says:

    Sorry, the first comment was pertaining to the post….

    [JR: I added that clarification. Lord knows, I often have to clarify what I write!]

  11. We have been overwhelmed by carbon-financed, meticulously planned disinformation campaigns.

    So now when two adolescent, upstart econo-freaks start cashing in on pandering to human cupidity — it is totally appropriate that we pick such an easy target and tear them apart.

    It will be fascinating to see how – or whether- they grow up. .. Either they get wise, or get strident…. and their stridency is getting shrill… I expect their next book to be carefully chosen and well thought out.

  12. ken levenson says:

    Levitt and Dubner don’t KNOW if global warming is man made like one doesn’t KNOW if we really exist or anything for that matter…like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle…yea that’s the ticket!

    One thing we do know – Levitt and Dubner know very little about climate science or public ethics but a great deal about selling books.

  13. Leif says:

    What a crock … If removing all that “junk,” particulates, etc. is allowing the earth to warm why was the earth in a basic steady state for eons prior to the industrial revolution? My understanding is that all that “junk” was in fact masking the effects of greenhouse gas warming which would have been far worse without the shade from the “JUNK.” The “junk” has had a negative effect and has been accounted for in that it settles on the snow decreasing it’s reflectiveness, being mostly soot, carbon, dirt, etc., thus increasing snow melt the world over. Thus amplifying the snow melt part of the equation.
    It would appear to me that Levitt and Dubner are franticly digging as fast as ever.

    [JR: Exactly.]

  14. Mark Shapiro says:

    Jeff and Stephen –

    ExxonMobil to the New York Times: “Nice little paper you have here. It would be a shame if anything happened to it.”

    Let’s not expect the old Grey Lady to do any heavy lifting on climate change.

  15. David Lewis says:

    The Superfreaks boys are gibberish peddlers. The way they change their line from day to day, it is as if they are consciously attempting to increase the controversy and keep it going, to increase book sales. Especially this seems likely as they made their chapter on global warming unavailable online so people becoming interested in the controversy would have to seek out the book.

    In the “false sense of security” department: Jim Hansen puts it differently than Paul Crutzen. Hansen said almost all possibilities other than what the current assumptions of the properties of aerosols are would mean that the forces driving global warming are more powerful than what has been observed which will become apparent if the aerosols are reduced, as is the plan. A chart in his 2008 AGU paper shows he thinks net forcing could be anywhere from what it is thought to be now to twice as powerful. All this discussion leaves out the feared unpredictable feedbacks like sudden massive methane release, etc.

    “We had a rationale”, says Hansen, for the assumptions, but “we must admit the error bar is huge”. He cautioned civilization: “keep in mind that it is almost as likely” that the situation is far worse than it has generally been taken to be.

    The “false sense of security” Joe quotes Crutzen speaking of in the post above is not some sense Crutzen, or Hansen has. Crutzen, who holds the Nobel for his work on ozone depletion, was talking about the false sense someone else, or civilization in general, has.

    Read his “Albedo Enhancement by Stratospheric Sulphur Injections: A Contribution to Resolve a Policy Dilemma?” paper and see. This paper caused the discussion of geoengineering to come out of the shadows, as Crutzen called out to like minds who have the opposite of any false sense of security.

    Hansen’s understanding, which he says “stunned” him as it dawned: according to his paleoclimate studies, observations of ongoing global change, and modelling, in that order, there is too much GHG in the atmosphere already. Civilization must face the prospect that it must rapidly stabilize the composition of the atmosphere and remove some of the gases. Otherwise, we leave to our descendants a planetary system committed to no ice at the poles. This means no stable shoreline on any timeframe meaningful to human beings, 260 feet or so of eventual sea level rise, wholesale global climate change, the end of this age of life in the oceans and on land because of climate change, ocean acidification, and the general impact of civilization, and, at no extra cost, rising international tension which in the past has resulted from lesser changes of these types which means war.

    This is the understanding based on current assumptions about aerosols that Crutzen and Hansen say might be false, because it could underestimate the problem. Hansen is worried something worse is in the cards. If the “almost as likely” properties of aerosols turn out to be what happens, Hansen says, “humanity, after enjoying the economic fruits of fossil fuels, may be dragged to its doom”.

    In the AGU paper he discusses the possibility of a runaway greenhouse effect on Earth. He points out that Venus is 450 degrees C at the surface +470 of which is due to the greenhouse effect there. He notes that Earth has recovered several times from when it became a “snowball”, when ice sheets extended to the equator caused by natural processes, but says he sees no possibility of a recovery from a runaway greenhouse. He says: “Venus will never have oceans again.”

    He calls for more precise aerosol data which he says could be available now except at that time the satellite that could provide was still sitting on a shelf at Langley. Hansen wants more temperature data from the deep ocean as well, as at present, studies assume no change has happened, when there is actually no data.

    Because of his fears about aerosols, the unprecedented speed of increase in the forcing rate, the relatively tiny size of the negative feedbacks, the fact that solar irradiance has increased from ancient times and the business as usual course civilization remains on that is set to burn all oil, Hansen makes a prediction that if all the coal, tarsand and shale is burned as well a runaway greenhouse is a “dead certainty”.

    And then Hansen issued his prediction that when the next El Nino arrives, a new record global temperature will be recorded on the GISS analysis of global surface temperature chart. As Joe has posted recently, Mr. Nino is back in town. The surface temperature of the planet certainly looks as if it is heading to that record.

    Joe has been critical of Hansen recently, but not for his scientific work. As NAS President Cicerone has said, Hansen is the best climatologist there is.

  16. Jeffrey Davis says:

    Levitt and Dubner and spouting “Corn pone opinions.”

  17. John Larson says:

    Since nobody has mentioned this yet; geoengineering proposals like “Stratospheric Sulphur Injections” do nothing to address the very serious problem of ocean acidification due to increasing CO2 in the atmosphere.

    If you haven’t looked into the issue of ocean acidification, I strongly recommend it. The recent scientific results showing significant impact on shellfish and other sea life should be setting off major alarm bells.


  18. Mike says:

    Joe – you take down anybody’s posts who don’t agree with you.

    You are like a rabid dog with a single-minded focus. Once again, you show your inability to argue your point without resorting to taking things down.

    Levitt and Dubner have many dissenting opinions on their blog. You crush it like a dictator.

  19. William T says:

    Good comment David – it seems as though the world (and the political world in particular) has a very bad case of ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ syndrome. It is of course an easy option to put off the difficult decisions, until some crisis occurs which gives enough political cover to make the hard decisions. Unfortunately, what these scientists are saying is that we’re already at the edge of the cliff and it might not be possible to grab hold of the edge on the way down. At the very least, the effort required to stop the momentum of increasing temperature forcing is going to get much harder the longer things are delayed.

  20. William T says:

    Mike – the world needs people with single minded focus to address this problem. We have already had 2 decades of arguing the toss about AGW. Read the comment by David Lewis. Very carefully. Every delay means that the effort finally required to reverse the CO2 buildup in the atmosphere becomes even greater. At some point the task becomes impossible to achieve.

  21. Harold says:

    Apparently Dubner doesn’t want us to worry about spending money now on stopping the rise of CO2, we can always use a backstop fix that may or may not end up saving the Earth.

    It would be nice to see some well planned experiments which show the effects of various possible ways to decrease atmospheric CO2. Besides evaluating possible solutions, it could be possible to validate the models. Right now, the models haven’t been validated, and they aren’t “physics” models, so there is no way to validly predict the temperature effect of reducing CO2 levels.