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SuperFreaks Claim Their Book Doesn’t Have ‘A Moral Or Policy Perspective’

Yesterday morning, SuperFreakonomics authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner continued their national media tour, appearing on public radio’s Diane Rehm Show. They dismissed the widespread criticism of their book by Nobel Prize-winning economists and climate scientists as the “work of an activist,” evidently referring to physicist and former Department of Energy official Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Levitt and Dubner even tried to laugh off the on-air criticism of Dr. Peter Frumhoff, a global change ecologist who is the director of Science and Policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The authors represent their book as merely a quizzical look at interesting issues, without “a moral or policy perspective”:

Just in case you’re happening upon this conversation in the middle and haven’t grasped the kind of perspective that we’re coming from — we don’t write about prostitution, or terrorism, or global warming or any of these things, really, from a moral or policy perspective. We just try to lay out what’s going on and from that let people proceed how they want to think about it or how they want to draw conclusions. So this is not meant to be an endorsement or a condemnation of any of these things. We’re just trying to figure out what’s going on.

Listen here:

This depiction, like most of the SuperFreaks’ defense of their work, bears little resemblance to the actual text. The authors discuss global warming explicitly through a “policy perspective”:

It is this specter of catastrophe, no matter how remote, that has propelled global warming to the forefront of public policy. . . . So how should we place a value on this relatively small chance of worldwide catastrophe? . . . One good reason for waiting is that we might have options in the future to avert the problem that cost far less than today’s options.

The authors condemn a broad array of existing policy efforts: to limit carbon dioxide emissions (“not the right villain”), to establish carbon pricing (“all we can say is good luck”), expand renewable energy (“cute”), limit deforestation (trees are an “environmental scourge”), clean up transportation (“not that big of a sector”), or reduce coal use (“economic suicide”).

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They also discuss global warming explicitly through a “moral perspective,” condemning “the movement to stop global warming has taken on the feel of a religion,” with a “high priest,” “patron saint,” and “doomsayers” responsible for a “drumbeat of doom.” The authors quote Microsoft billionaire Nathan Myhrvold, who accuses advocates of policies other than geo-engineering of being “global-warming activists” who want to “do a set of things that could have enormous impact — and we think probably negative impact — on human life.”

On the other hand, the SuperFreaks provide a strong endorsement for pumping sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere forever as a “cheap and simple solution” that is “practically free” with a “proof of harmlessness.” Its biggest problem, they claim, is that it is “too simple and too cheap.” They claim climate scientist Ken Caldeira has endorsed this policy “solution,” but policymakers only listen to “people like Al Gore,” who think “it’s nuts.” Somehow Levitt and Dubner fail to mention that Caldeira himself has actually said the SuperFreaks’ policy perspective is ridiculous:

As a long-term strategy, it’s nuts.

Bizarrely, Levitt and Dubner never once mention the one policy area that is universally recognized as being “cheap and simple” by economists and scientists alike — boring energy efficiency. Guess they were too busy chatting with call girls and mosquito-laser billionaires.

Update:

During the interview, Levitt dismisses ocean acidification as something that isn’t “an incredibly big problem,” concedes that geo-engineering “isn’t a perfect solution” and admits that “we won’t solve this without dealing with the carbon issue,” but then calls geo-engineering “a solution to a particular problem” (namely, the warming of the earth).