James Hamilton Is Mostly Optimistic
Paul Krugman Goes Meta

*Sigh* Last Post on Superfreakonomics, I Promise


So I finally got a copy of chapter 5 of Superfreakonomics.

In the abstract I really like the idea of cheap geoengineering solutions to global warming. My personal favorite is a giant parasol 18,000 miles in diameter at L1 to absorb and then reradiate a chunk of sunlight in other bands. But I have never been able to find anyone here at Berkeley who (a) knows what they are talking about, and (b) agrees with Levitt and Dubner that we know that Al Gore efficiency-and-conservation solutions are much less cost-effective than Mt. Pinatubo geoengineering solutions in dealing with global warming. That NASA and Energy and OSTP should be working on and funding research into the possibilities of geoengineering is something everybody I talk to agrees with. But nobody I talk to agrees with Levitt and Dubner that efficiency-and-conservation efforts are futile, and that we should shut them down to bet all our chips on geoengineering.

It really does look to me like Levitt and Dubner:

  • went to Myhrvold's Intellectual Ventures.
  • got wowed.
  • excitedly wrote up what they heard.
  • and then failed to do their intellectual due diligence about what they were told there.

Thus I have a little unsolicited advice for Levitt and Dubner. If I were them, I would abjectly apologize. And I would then start editing the chapter thus:

  1. pp. 165-6: Change to no longer put "global cooling" in the 1970s and "global warming" today in parallel: The scientists in the 1970s who were worried about global cooling had neither the quantative evidence, the climate models, the understanding of forcing processes, or the peer-reviewed consensus that analysis of global warming has today. Placing the two in parallel is simply wrong.

  2. pp. 165-6: Change to remove false claim that the quotes from Newsweek were the words of "scientists."

  3. pp. 165-6: Change to remove false claim that Newsweek was accurately citing the 1975 NAS Study--which says not that the globe is likely to cool but instead that we don't know enough about climate to forecast trends, and tht we need to do more research.

  4. p. 167: Change to make explicit the claim that switching to an all-vegetarian diet reduces your carbon footprint by about the same order of magnitude as does switching to a hybrid car. But do not say that cars and trucks do not "contribute an ungodly share of greenhouse gases." They do--it's just that human meat-intensive agriculture contributes and ungodly share as well.

  5. p. 168: Change to make the point that the fact that our estimates of climate effects are imprecise is not an argument for doing less or waiting to offset global warming--it is an argument for doing more and doing more now. Uncertainty is not our friend at all

  6. p. 169: Change. Currently massively confused about Marty Weitzman's work. Marty focuses on the chance and valuation of catastrophe. He concludes that a version of the precautionary principle is appropriate: when distributions have fatter tails than log normal--which Marty thinks they do--the right policies are those that minimize the possibiliity of catastrophe. Which means starting to act now.

  7. p. 170: Change to no longer imply that James Lovelock has some special role or authority in climate analysis or climate policy.

  8. p. 170: Change to debunk rather than approve of British conservative Boris Johnson's claim. Johnson's statement is simply wrong. It is not the case that "the fear of climate change is like a religion in this vital sense, that it is veiled in mystery, and you can never tell whether your acts of propitiation or atonement have been in any way successful." We can measure greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, solar radiative forcings, and temperatures. We can tell whether acts of propitiation and atonement are working.

  9. p. 171: Change the highly misleading: "When Al Gore urges the citizenry to sacrifice... the agnostics grumble that human activity accounts for just 2 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions, with the remainder generated by natural processes like plant decay..." that 98% of carbon emissions are part of an ongoing biological cycle is not an argument supporting an "agnostic" position. And Levitt and Dubner should not hve claimed that it is.

  10. p. 171: Change highly misleading paragraph to stress that what is relevant is not the stock but the flow: not that human activity accounts for 2% of the flow but rather that but for industrial emissions one-third (and growing) of the stock of greenhouse gases would simply not be there today.

  11. p. 173: Change to no longer dismiss out-of-hand global agreement on climate policy. Dubner and Levitt currently write: "when it comes to actually solving climate change externalities through taxes, all we can say is good luck.... [G]reenhouse gases do not adhere to national boundaries.... Nor does one nation have the right to tell another what to do." But if the big four--U.S., EU, China, and India--of 2050 do agree, they then have the cultural, economic, and diplomatic power to coerce the rest of the world. Reaching global agreement is a very reasonable prospect.

  12. pp. 177-181: Change to tone down the puff piece on Myhrvold and Intellectual Ventures--the subsequent pages contain a lot of clues that Myhrvold and company really don't know very much about what they are talking about.

  13. p. 182: Change to debunk rather than approve of quote from Wood: "Everybody turns their knobs... so they aren't the outlier, because the outlying model is going to have difficulty getting funded..." Alternatively, back this claim up with some real evidence that it is so. (The climate modelers who I talk to say that it is not.)

  14. p. 182: Change to debunk rather than approve of quote from Wood: "current climate models 'do not know how to handle water vapor and various types of clouds'..." Current climate models may not handle water vapor and clouds especially well, but they do handle them.

  15. p. 182: Also, change to reinforce point that uncertainty in climate models is not an argument for doing less now but rather an argument to do more.

  16. p. 183: Change to debunk rather than approve of quote from Myhrvold: "most of the global warming over the past few decades... might actually be due to good environmental stewardship." It's not.

  17. p. 183: Change to remove false claim that worldwide particulate pollution is shrinking rather than growing. It is still growing rather than shrinking and so still cooling the earth more with each passing year--it's only in the clean North Atlantic that heavy particulates been shrinking.

  18. p. 183: Change to rephrase: "Nor does atmospheric carbon dioxide necessarily warm the earth"--other things equal, it certainly does.

19, p. 184: Change to remove false claim: "Yet [Ken Caldeira's] research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight."

  1. p. 186: Change to debunk rather than approve of false quote from Wood: "most authoritative literature on the subject suggests a [sea level] rise of about one and a half feet by 2100."

  2. p. 186: Remove false claim: "a most surprising environmental scourge: trees." Distinguish between (a) tropical trees, (b) temperate trees, and (c) boreal trees in regions where there is a great deal of snow cover.

  3. p. 186: Remove false claim that the earth has been cooling "over the past several years."

  4. p. 187: Claim that "coal is so cheap that trying to generate electricity without it would be economic suicide" needs much, much more backing-up: I can't see how it could possibly be true.

  5. p. 187: Remove false claim: "A lot of things that people say would be a good thing probably aren't.... As an example he points to solar cells..."

  6. p. 187: Claim that "The energy consumed by building the thousands of new solar plants necessary to replace coal-buring and other power plants would create a huge long-term 'warming debt'"--I cannot see how this could possibly be true. The overwhelming majority of power plants that are going to be in operation have not been built yet, and buildind closed-carbon-cycle or non-carbon plants is not much more expensive than building open-carbon-cycle ones.

  7. p. 188: Remove false claim that "Myhrvold... has probably thought about such [ecological disaster] scenarios in greater scientific detail than any climate doomsayer."

That is as far as I have gotten...