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Answers For Delong About The SuperFreaks, Part Two: ‘Global Cooling’ And ‘Economic Suicide’

By Brad Johnson on October 20, 2009 at 3:31 pm

"Answers For Delong About The SuperFreaks, Part Two: ‘Global Cooling’ And ‘Economic Suicide’"


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This is part two of a three-part series. Read part one here.

Blogging economist J. Bradford DeLong has read the “global cooling” chapter of SuperFreakonomics and has asked six wonkish questions about climate science and policy. Below are responses debunking Levitt & Dubner’s myth of decreasing temperature, and their claim that moving away from “cheap” coal would cause “economic suicide.”

3: “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…” As best as I can see from http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/graphs/Fig.A2.txt, this year is: 1/5 of a degree F warmer than last year, the same temperature as 2007 and 2006, 1/7 of a degree F cooler than 2005, 1/10 of a degree F warmer than 2004, the same temperature as 2003 and 2002, 1/7 of a degree F warmer than 2001, 2/5 of a degree warmer than 1999 and 2000, the same temperature as 1998, and warmer than every single other year since the start of the Industrial Revolution–a full degree F warmer than 1960, for example.

How do you get from that temperature record to the statement that “over the past several years… average global temperature… has in fact decreased”?

The assertion that this “decrease” in temperature is a “little-discussed fact” is nonsensical. A search for “1998 cooling global” returns seven million hits. This “little-discussed fact” is one of the most popular canards among global warming skeptics.

Chart: Global Warming by Decade Levitt and Dubner, like Marc Morano, Prison Planet and the Free Republic, are relying on the UK Met Office Hadley Centre temperature set — which has 1998 as the hottest year on record — as opposed to the NASA temperature set DeLong cites — which has 2005 as the hottest record. However, both sets agree that the temperature of every year since 2001 has been within the 95% confidence interval of 1998′s temperature. On a decadal scale, the average global surface temperature is increasing at a quickening pace.

Moreover, this “fact” of “global cooling since 1998″ is an error based on semantic confusion and misinterpretation of data. “Global warming” refers to the radiative forcing from greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. That effect has been consistently rising as emissions accumulate. It does not refer to year-over-year surface temperatures, which are influenced by solar output and atmospheric-oceanic circulation, both of which contributed to raise the average surface temperature of 1998.

The New Scientist, as Joe Romm has repeatedly pointed out, has a comprehensive analysis of the misunderstanding behind claims of recent cooling. The New Scientist also discusses the differences between the NASA and Hadley datasets:

The main reason is that there are no permanent weather stations in the Arctic Ocean, the place on Earth that has been warming fastest. The Hadley record simply excludes this area, whereas the NASA version assumes its surface temperature is the same as that of the nearest land-based stations.

Based on this exclusion, Romm writes, “it is almost certainly the case that the planet has warmed up more this decade than NASA says, and especially more than the UK’s Hadley Center says.”

4: “coal is so cheap that trying to generate electricity without it would be economic suicide…” That coal is cheap does not mean that moving away from it would be “economic suicide.” That depends on (a) how large a share of total costs are energy costs, and (b) how expensive the long-run alternatives to coal turn out to be. And that is what we are trying to figure out. What definition of “economic suicide” are you using?

It’s only conceivably “economic suicide” for someone who invests exclusively in coal stocks or rising rates of mercury poisoning. As a new report from the National Academy of Sciences shows, coal is only “cheap” if its health and environmental effects are ignored. Furthermore, there are numerous studies that have found that a shift from coal-based electricity is economically feasible. Here are just a few from the past decade:

— Energy to 2050: Scenarios for a Sustainable Future [International Energy Agency, 2000]

– Mitigation of Climate Change [IPCC Working Group III, 1990, 1995, 2001, 2007]

– Energy Technology Perspectives 2008 — Scenarios and Strategies to 2050 [IEA, 2008]

– Energy [R]evolution: A Sustainable World Energy Outlook [European Renewable Energy Council, Greenpeace 2005, 2007, 2009]

– Climate 2030: A National Blueprint for a Clean Energy Economy [Union of Concerned Scientists, 2009]

– Pathways to a Low-Carbon Economy [McKinsey & Co., 2009]

– Energy Market and Economic Impacts of H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 [Energy Information Administration, 2009]

– The United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Analysis of H.R. 2454 in the 111th Congress, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 [EPA, 2009]

Overall, a long-term investment of about one percent of GDP in efficiency, renewable energy, afforestation, and other carbon mitigation is found to be sufficient for the transition to a low-carbon economy. Efficiency investments generally come at net negative cost — that is, they increase GDP. Investments in a low-carbon economy have other payoffs than limiting global warming, including preservation of tropical biodiversity and the Appalachians, a healthier populace, de-acidified oceans, and reduced economic loss to energy waste.


Nathan Myhrvold, the Microsoft billionaire lionized in SuperFreakonomics for his Tom Swiftian (but not commercially proven) mosquito lasers and hurricane disrupter, complains about “personal attacks and counterattacks” that makes discussions of climate science “degenerate” into a “personal and venal brawl.”

He then calls Center for American Progress senior fellow Joseph Romm, Ph.D, a “bitterly partisan true believer” and “extremist” “at the fringe of every political movement” who makes “shrill attacks in all directions.”

Do Levitt, Dubner, and Myhrvold think that calling Joe Romm a “climate-activist blogger” who is “shrill,” “hyper-partisan,” “extremist,” and “on the fringe,” will raise the civility of our public discourse?

I’m always baffled by people who complain about personal attacks right before they launch into them.

Does Myhrvold think Arthur Rosenfeld, the Fermi-Award-winning physicist who described the Superfreakonomics summary of Myhrvold’s discussion of solar panels as “patent nonsense,” is part of this extremist partisan fringe?

Does Myhrvold think John O’Donnell, the solar technologist who said Myhrvold is “howlingly off base,” is part of this extremist partisan fringe?

Or better yet, why doesn’t he refrain from name-calling and recognize the critiques have nothing to do with ideology or partisanship?

What makes a news story? A boy not in a balloon — or a genuinely ballooning effort to achieve 350 ppm?

U.S. wind energy industry installed 1,649 MW in third quarter, more than Q2 and Q308

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