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 dismissive of 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 rightly concluded, “I really don’t know what I’m talking about, do I?” However, he failed to understand his mistake when he added 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, in this instance, there was nothing funny about Stewart’s inaccuracy.