Or: Levitt and Dubner Keep Digging, Part One
You’d think that the authors of a pop-econ best seller would be familiar with the sunk cost effect. You’d be wrong.
Criticism of Levitt and Dubner’s (L&D from here on) atrocious chapter on climate has been swift and remarkably in-depth. L&D have been shown to have misrepresented everything from the position of their main expert Ken Caldeira to alleged global warming caused by solar panels.
Rather than acknowledge that they’ve massively screwed up, L&D have gone on the attack- they’re trying to dismiss the substantive and largely unanswered critiques of their shoddy work as little more than the response of religious zealots, and refocus media attention to their ‘unconventional, counter-intuitive, boy aren’t we more clever than the conventional wisdom’ trademark insights.
L&D want you to know that this whole climate change problem could be solved at a mere pittance if it weren’t for those in the thrall of Political Correctness and Big Government, not to mention the dirty fucking hippies and the climate “science” community- those flat earthers. Oh, you think I’m joking:
Faced with these two options [emissions reductions and geo-engineering], most people would aggressively explore the latter solution (while possibly also investing in the first if the threat were deadly enough).
Unless, of course, the threat we were talking about was global warming. On that issue, a lethal combination of political correctness and entrenched special interests has convinced the chattering classes that the costly, slow and difficult path is the only option, stifling any discussion of cheap, easy and reversible solutions that might be available…
Why, then, are so few people willing to talk about such “geoengineering” solutions? There could be a fear of unintended environmental consequences, although the lack of significant side effects from Pinatubo is encouraging. It might be that this solution just seems too good to be true. Could it really be so simple and cheap? Modern society is in love with costly, complicated solutions. (Governments in particular seem to like them.)…
Devoted environmentalists, meanwhile, as well as some members of the tight-knit climate-science community, find this sort of idea repugnant. Using sulfur dioxide to solve an environmental problem? It just doesn’t feel right to them. Of course, the idea that the Earth revolves around the sun didn’t initially feel right either. Nor did the assertion that the Earth might in fact be round and not flat.
L&D would have you believe that a certain group of people (liberals the Politically Correct, Big Government worshiping, environmentalist, climate science-supporting “chattering classes”) are standing between honest discussion of the merits of the no-brainer geo-engineering fix and the colossal boondoggle of mitigation. L&D- brave, counter-intuitive visionaries that they are- have ridden forth on white steeds to rescue everyone else from the tyranny of those who support reducing greenhouse gas emissions (which is virtually every relevant scientific organization on the planet) and would keep this miracle cure secret.
The only problem with this scenario is that, like much of L&D’s work of late, it’s complete bullshit. It’s a flashy narrative obscuring a much longer, much more complex, much less revolutionary reality in which the real work and discovery is performed not by venture capitalists and their credulous stenographers, but actual scientists doing actual science.
Serious discussion on geo-engineering has gone on for more than a decade (in fact, entire reviews of the history of geo-engineering were published nearly ten years ago):
- US Department of Energy (Technical Fixes for the climatic effects of CO2. Workshop on the Global Effects of Carbon Dioxide from Fossil Fuels, 1977)
- Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Geoengineering the Climate, Report: UCRL-JC-108014, 1991)
- American Geophysical Union (A Serious Look at Geoengineering, EOS, 1992)
- The National Academies of Science (Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming: Mitigation, Adaptation, and the Science Base, 1992)
- The IPCC Third Assessment Report (Biological Uptake in Oceans and Freshwater Reservoirs, and Geo-engineering, 2001)
And geo-engineering isn’t some obscure concept kept alive only by Intellectual Ventures, L&D, and a handful of “scientists outside Seattle”, despite what L&D would have people believe. To the contrary, it’s being discussed now more than ever at the highest levels of the scientific and political communities [all refs published within the last year or so, before the publication of Superfreakonomics and L&D's claims]:
- The National Academies of Science (Geoengineering Options to Respond to Climate Change)
- The American Meteorological Society (Policy Statement on Geoengineering the Climate System)
- Advisor to President Barack Obama for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Holdren (interview with the Associated Press)
- The World Bank (Beyond Mitigation)
- The Royal Society (Geoengineering the Climate)
Moreover, it’s not as though geo-engineering has gone undiscussed in the media. Here is just a sample of recent, in-depth discussions of geo-engineering in major media outlets [again, all recent and published prior to Superfreakonomics and L&D's claims]:
- The Los Angeles Times (Resetting Earth’s thermostat)
- Foreign Affairs (The Geoengineering Option)
- The Wall Street Journal (It’s Time to Cool the Planet)
- The Atlantic Monthly (Re-Engineering the Earth)
- The New York Times (too many to count)
- National Public Radio (Scientists Debate Shading Earth As Climate Fix)
There are some very good reasons to be wary of engaging in L&D’s vision of geo-engineering. Even if it works flawlessly, it doesn’t address ocean acidification, hydrological cycle disruption , centuries-long commitment or face the built up warming in a matter of decades, etc. And even those who L&D tout as their scientific endorsements like Ken Caldeira and Paul Crutzen believe that geo-engineering is an emergency solution only to be considered after/concomitant with aggressively pursuing mitigation
The truth of the matter is that this is a complex issue demanding more than attending an investment pitch session and calling it done. And rather than presenting a fresh or unconventional take on the subject, L&D are just repackaging the result of decades of research already being considered at the top political and scientific levels as something “new”.
The idea that a cheap, effective, fast solution to the climate problem which doesn’t depend on greenhouse gas reductions is just sitting out there unexamined is absurd on its face, which is why L&D had to invent their tinfoil narrative of geo-engineering somehow being kept from public discourse by the mighty Political Correctness/Greenie Lobby. I’m almost embarrassed for L&D. They could have just admitted that they shot their mouths off about something they were clearly ignorant of and issued an update or correction to their book. It might be a blow to their perceived credibility, such as it is, but at least they’d show themselves to be serious writers who are more interested in getting things right than giving others the impression they’re in possession of some unconventional wisdom everyone else lacks.
Apparently L&D have decided against the sane, honorable path, and are instead engaging in a media blitz that is an unstable blend of careful walk-back (note their present denial of their book’s cooling claims) and attack on those who had the temerity to suggest they said anything wrong in the first place- all the while still maintaining that geo-engineering is every bit as Awesome as they wrote about in Superfreakonomics.
In Part Two, I plan on addressing the actual scientific merits of L&D’s favored geo-engineering solution, as well as its drawbacks.