The missing punch line

Posted January 19th, 2010 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Category 5 Spin

Although the fallacies in SuperFreakonomics began to seem like ancient history when the story about the hacked CRU emails broke out, as the Copenhagen conference was starting, it remains on the bestseller list… This blog has been on a hiatus for the past year or so because of other obligations but I have been following this one and decided its time to finish that and a few other partially written posts from 2009 that remain timely. (If you haven’t followed this one, I suggest you start with this brief synopsis by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker, and then come back)

When, at the end of October, Jon Stewart asked one of the authors, Steven Levitt if, in taking on global warming, he might have just stepped on a secular religion, I had expected some sort of a punchline to follow, that might begin to peal back the multiple layers of irony in this. That is in part because it has always seemed to me that economists, or at least the ones who, like Levitt, are “cold blooded enough to sit around and calmly discuss the trade-offs involved in a global catastrophe”, have been the ones preaching a secular religion, one commonly known as “Market Fundamentalism”. Which is what you get when you leave aside all the angst and moralism, and all those pesky social relationships in which the economy is embedded and just let “the market” make decisions about fundamental policy issues – as if it were merely a choice between one or the other.

So if anything it was the response to Superfreakonomics that stepped on a secular religion. The notion of global warming as a religion is essentially the narrative of the chapter in the book on this subject. Freudian projection perhaps? Instead, Stewart wondered why people are so angry and dogmatic, and apologized that the authors of Superfreakonomics had taken so much s…[beep]. At the end he admitted that he did not know what he was talking about and said he was just playing around. After all, it is a comedy show. But comedy or not, the reason the Daily Show has stood head and shoulders above other comedy shows is precisely because it typically exposes the failure of mainstream media to do their job, as well as their hypocrisy, for example, in this priceless parody of Glenn Beck. So it is all the more misleading when he doesn’t maintain the standard to which he holds the real media.

Jon atoned somewhat for that softball interview a week later when he interviewed Al Gore and acknowledged that the science in Superfreakonomics was not good. He seemed genuinely perplexed – as are most Americans, not about whether or not global warming is happening, but about whether we actually have the capacity to do anything about it. Unless of course we can find some sort of technical fix, like, say, mimicking a volcano by running a garden hose up to the stratosphere to release sulfur dioxide – an idea suggested in the book as an alternative to reducing emissions. A delayed punchline came from Stephen Colbert the following week, when he asked Jon why his guest interview was like a faulty computer program and why he had not asked the tough questions – except that it was in reference to Stewart’s interview with Al Gore rather than Levitt. Not linked to nearly as much in the blogosphere was a subsequent clip in which Stephen did ask tough questions about climate change, as he teemed up with Al in an episode of Formidable Opponent.

As for Jon, he should have asked Levitt the questions he asked of EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson last May. Although he says he believes the science of climate change, he asked her whether, in trying to regulate CO2, and by tinkering around with the elements, “aren’t we trying to engineer something we can’t control?” Which is precisely what is being advocated by Levitt and Dubner with their “garden hose to the sky” – an idea proposed by Nathan Myhrvold from Intellectual Ventures. In another interview on the Diane Rehm show, asked about acidification of the oceans which would continue unabated if CO2 emissions are not reduced, Levitt actually suggested that this problem could be solved by adding base to the ocean (ht CPR Blog). Perhaps he did not consider how much base would be required – according to a Royal Society report on ocean acidification associated with increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide:

To counteract the changes in acidity caused by today’s ocean uptake of roughly 2 Gt C per year (IPCC 2001) would require roughly 20 Gt CaCO3 per year (Caldeira & Rau 2000), which, for a limestone layer 100 m thick, would require the removal of roughly 60 km2 each year. This limestone would need to be coastally located, or transportation costs would likely be prohibitive (Rau & Caldeira 1999). Thus, features such as the white cliffs of Dover could be rapidly consumed. Therefore the introduction of limestone to offset ocean acidification would raise a host of additional environmental problems. Furthermore, limestone does not dissolve in surface waters, so additional processing, and energy, would be needed (Kheshgi 1995; Rau & Caldeira 1999).

Levitt concluded by turning on the charm: “The idea that we don’t have to pay the price for polluting is a very hard idea for people to take,” which doesn’t sound like anything I would ever have expected to hear from an economist. This narrative continued when Nathan Myhrvold was interviewed by Fareed Zakaria on CNN a few Sundays ago. Zakaria asked if the reason for opposition to geoengineering – that might enable us to avoid making painful adjustments, might be rooted in a Calvinist feeling that we need to suffer. Like Jon Stewart, he is doubtful that emissions can actually be reduced.

Missing in all of these interviews was anyone on the other side, who actually argues against research into geo-engineering, at the very least for use as a last resort, e.g., to prevent loss of the ice sheets. I have not seen that argument made at all – and by the way, we are already in the midst of a great big geo-engineering experiment so we don’t have much choice in the matter. What I have seen are objections to the notion of using geo-engineering as an alternative to reducing emissions. Also missing in the interviews was any mention of the numerous actual criticisms that have been directed at the book, for example, about what could go wrong with a garden hose to the sky, and the fallacy in Myhrvold’s assertion that solar panels absorb and emit more heat than is converted to electricity because they are black, and therefore increase rather than reduce global warming.

Superfreakonomics also misrepresents the views of both Ken Caldeira and Al Gore. Gore is predictably reduced to a caricature who is counting only on people being “willing to put aside their self-interest and do the right thing” however much it costs. While Gore does tend to emphasize that climate change is a moral issue, he has also long advocated the use of market instruments as a way to actually achieve emissions reductions. On the Freakonomics blog, Levitt’s co-author, Stephen Dubner did concede to the misrepresentation of the views of Ken Caldeira and agreed to correct the next edition. But it hasn’t stopped the National Post and Mark Morano from continuing to hype the original claim, misattributed to Caldeira, that “carbon dioxide is not the right villain.”

In other words, Levitt and Myhrvold are conveniently defending themselves against a formidable strawman – a delusion which is reinforced by Dubner’s claim that their critics have issued a Fatwa. But whether on the Daily Show or on CNN or elsewhere, this is not being presented as comedy.

I have more thoughts on why this narrative works and why science is vulnerable to this kind of attack, which will have to wait for another post. I also empathize with Jon’s frustration with the elusiveness of real solutions and the longing for a simple one that doesn’t just lead to more unintended consequences. For too long, the public discourse on solutions to climate change has focused on those squirly lightbulbs while knowing full well that the problem is much bigger and the solution more complex. Although there are no quick fixes, I could not get out of bed in the morning if I did not believe that emissions can actually be reduced with the right economic incentives – but they won’t just happen without making some tough policy decisions. And conservation in land use practices, along with the use of biochar, could actually take a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere and put it in the soil where it can increase productivity and begin to restore degraded lands, which will be critical when there are 9 million mouths to feed. But it won’t be nearly enough to slow down climate change unless it goes hand in hand with the reduction of emissions.

Update: Left as an Exercise provides an exhaustive list of links to other critiques of the book.

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