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Super Freaky Economist Continues to Mislead on Climate Issues

October 29th, 2009 · 8 Comments

Sadly, the abysmally weak Superfreakonomics is getting worldwide attention and its authors plenty of opportunities to continue to mislead on climate issues. Here is a guest post from Josh at Enviroknow providing a critical (highly footnoted) analytical eye to the Super Freaky Economist’s oped in USA Today.

After a stunningly non-confrontational chat with Jon Stewart [see Greenfyre re The Daily Show] the other night, the authors of Superfreakonomics have now taken to the USA Today Opinion blog to continue pushing their nonsense. While they deliberately cited increasing global temperatures — as well as legitimate concerns such as oil wars and ocean acidification — the fact remains: they have gone way too far off the beaten path to successfully walk this one back. As has been the case throughout this episode, they continue to grossly oversimplify and commit numerous logical fallacies in order to make their seemingly-compelling contrarian argument.

I’ve identified 22 flaws in this latest 920 word piece.

Follow me, after fold, for a look at these 22 flaws. [Editor's note: This represents a flaw every 42 words. Flaws per word is an interesting metric for opinion pieces (and, well, anti-science syndrome suffering 'studies') that could merit future and further use.]

Imagine for a moment that a terrible, unforeseen threat to humankind had suddenly arisen, one so grave that it endangered the very future of the planet. Two teams of respected scientists immediately set to work, trying to find a solution to the impending disaster.

Flaw 1: Catastrophic climate change is not an ‘unforeseen threat’. Scientists began warning about the threat of increasing the level of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere as early as 1896. 172 countries (including over 100 heads of state) met in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 to work on a collaborative solution. Referring to climate change as an unforeseen threat is not accurate.

Flaw 2: Equating mainstream climate scientists — who overwhelmingly advocate reducing emissions to prevent and minimize the impacts of climate change — with the few who advocate geoengineering as a primary solution is extremely misleading.

The first set of scientists returned with a potential solution, but it had some shortcomings. It was expensive, with a price tag in the trillions of dollars. It also required nearly every human being on the planet to change his or her behavior in fundamental ways. And even if the scientists’ scheme worked, it would take decades for the benefits to be felt.

Flaw 3: The job-creation and other economic benefits associated with developing, manufacturing and deploying clean energy technologies are well documented. Citing the economic costs of a solution without accounting for the economic benefits — despite being good enough for the Congressional Budget Office — is fundamentally dishonest. Further, the economic models such cost estimates are based on tend to undercount low-and-zero carbon alternatives and underestimate innovation.

Flaw 4: Putting the impetus for changing behaviors on individuals rather than policymakers is disingenuous at best. Smart public policy can drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions without having an unpleasant impact on individual behavior. The changes in individual behavior such policies would bring about are undeniably changes that lead people to lead healthier lives. Eliminating subsidies for factory farms, switching out coal-fired power plants with natural gas or renewables and investing in public transportation rather than bailing out automakers are three simple examples. Further, assuming that drastically changing the earth’s atmosphere can be solved without changes in human behavior is a prime example of the nirvana fallacy, in which solutions to problems are said not to be right because they are not perfect.

The second set of scientists returned with a very different answer. Their solution cost less than one-thousandth as much to implement and did not require anyone to change his behavior. The scientists could get their solution up and running in roughly a year, with the benefits to be felt immediately. And if the simple fix turned out to not work as expected, it was quickly and easily reversible.

Flaw 5: While the hypothetical scientists advocating an emissions reduction strategy had a ‘potential solution’, the scientists advocating geoengineering offered a ’solution’.

Flaw 6: While expressing skepticism about humanity’s ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, geoengineering is presented as affordable, easy to implement and ‘easily reversible’. The type of massive geoengineering schemes advocated in Superfreakonomics have never been attempted. Speculating on the costs, ease and reversability of such efforts, while presenting such speculation as fact, is — as Matt Yglesias has pointed out misleading and irresponsible.

Faced with these two options, most people would aggressively explore the latter solution (while possibly also investing in the first if the threat were deadly enough).

Flaw 7: This is an example of begging the question (petitio principii). The conclusion that most people would prefer geoengineering to reducing emissions is based on a series of false premises specifically designed to lead to that conclusion.

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.

Flaw 8: As I pointed out the other day, in the argument over what to do about global warming, there are plenty of special interests making their case. They are the polluting corporations that stand to make billions of dollars by delaying responsible action and endangering humanity. To call those who argue that we should follow the science ‘entrenched special interests’ is a gross distortion. It offers a glimpse into the anti-environmentalist bias Levitt and Dubner seem to harbor.

Flaw 9:  Once again, the assumption that geoengineering as a solution to climate change is cheap, easy and reversible is repeated with zero evidence whatsoever.

Flaw 10:  Everything presented thus far in the article constitutes an incomplete comparison, in which not not enough information is presented to make a complete and accurate comparison of two options. As I have detailed above, the information that is presented is largely misleading and flat-out wrong.

All the fossil fuels we burn to heat and cool and feed and transport and entertain ourselves have apparently turned our tender planet into a greenhouse, increasing the surface temperature in a potentially dangerous trend.

Flaw 11: The use of the word ‘apparently’ in this sentence is an attempt to raise doubts about the greenhouse gas effect. Why include it here otherwise?

Flaw 12: The use of the word ‘potentially’ in this sentence is an attempt to raise doubts about the dangers of climate change. Again, why would you include it if that was not the intent?

So even if humankind immediately stopped burning all fossil fuel, the existing carbon dioxide would remain in the atmosphere for generations. While there might be other good reasons to reduce fossil-fuel use — oil wars spring to mind, as does ocean acidification — is reducing carbon emissions really the best way to cool the Earth should the need arise?

Flaw 13: This is somewhat of a straw man. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is generally advocated as a way to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, one of which is ‘cool[ing] the earth’, not as a way to ‘cool the earth should the need arise’. I have not seen the authors put forth any solutions for dealing with oil wars or ocean acidification.

It would seem logical, therefore, that the right way to counteract global warming is to reduce carbon emissions. Though that might work, it’s expensive: Economists estimate that drastically reducing our reliance on fossil fuels will cost more than $1 trillion each year, and it will especially punish the poorest nations. Nor is reducing carbon emissions so easy, as it requires global cooperation and substantial lifestyle changes. The benefits, meanwhile, would be slow to accrue — primarily because the half-life of atmospheric carbon dioxide is roughly 100 years.

Again with the $1 trillion annual pricetag and the ’substantial lifestyle changes’. I will not count these as new flaws in the article since they are just repeating the same mistakes that had already been made.

Flaw 14: Assuming that greenhouse gas reductions will automatically ‘punish the poorest nations’ is foolish. All serious international efforts to address climate change include mechanisms for addressing such concerns. Indeed, developing nations will never agree to an international agreement that would punish the poorest nations. If anything, such a treaty will serve to level the playing field.

Flaw 15: The global cooperation required to reduce carbon emissions should not be assumed to be a negative development. The collective action and shared sense of responsibility associated with developing a collaborative solution will likely play a profoundly positive role in international relations. Solving global problems with global solutions is a good thing, not a bad thing.

So even if humankind immediately stopped burning all fossil fuel, the existing carbon dioxide would remain in the atmosphere for generations. While there might be other good reasons to reduce fossil-fuel use — oil wars spring to mind, as does ocean acidification — is reducing carbon emissions really the best way to cool the Earth should the need arise?

Flaw 16: Oil wars and ocean acidification might might be good reasons to reduce fossil fuel use? They are definitely good reasons, that is, if you care about the massive economic output associated with oceans or the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of people who have died in oil wars.

A group of scientists outside Seattle, working at a company called Intellectual Ventures, believe they have an alternative solution. It was inspired by a massive volcanic eruption in 1991 at Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines.

Such huge eruptions shoot millions of tons of sulfur dioxide high into the stratosphere. At that altitude, it mixes with water vapor and quickly blankets the Earth, creating a sort of hazy shield — in essence, a layer of sunscreen. In the two years after Pinatubo, the Earth cooled by an average of nearly 1 degree Fahrenheit, or 0.5 degrees Celsius. Which is to say that a single volcanic eruption temporarily reversed the cumulative global warming of the previous century.

Intellectual Ventures’ solution is to mimic the effects of Pinatubo by building a “StratoShield,” a pump-and-hose system that would inject sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to cool the Earth’s surface, at a cost of a few hundred million dollars. The effect would be quickly felt, and the pumps could be adjusted or turned off as needed — if, for instance, the Earth began to cool on its own.

Flaw 17: Using the Mount Pinatubo eruption to justify unpredictable and unproven geoengineering schemes is an example of the naturalistic fallacy, which claims that if something is natural it is right.

Flaw 18: While ‘the pumps could be adjusted or turned off as needed’, the sulfur dioxide pumped into the stratosphere could not be easily removed if we realized too much had been realized. Sulfur dioxide, which also causes acid rain, is known to cause increased cases of asthma, heart and lung disorders and bronchitis. The authors don’t address — or even mention — such valid concerns.

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.) But we tend to forget how many hard problems in the past were solved simply. Instead of the long-feared mass starvation, the worldwide population has instead charged forward to nearly 7 billion people, thanks in large part to the simple breakthrough of high-yielding crops. Polio and many other horrible diseases were essentially wiped out by simple vaccines. The automobile seat belt — a simple strap of nylon! — has saved roughly 250,000 lives in the USA alone since 1975.

Flaw 19: This is a gratuitous shot at government spending. Believe it or not, governments prefer inexpensive and simple solutions over costly and complicated ones. They don’t, unlike Levitt and Dubner, have the luxury to pretend that potentially costly and complicated solutions like geoengineering are inexpensive and simple. Put another way, there is a reason the people who would be responsible for implementing geoengineering solutions don’t advocate them: they are completely unproven and likely implausible.

As for the StratoShield, we can’t judge its efficacy and safety for sure until it is put through extensive research. But the science behind it is solid, as judged by no less an environmental authority than Paul Crutzen, who won a Nobel Prize for his research on ozone depletion.

Flaw 20: Citing the opinion of a single scientist does not indicate that the science behind ‘the Stratoshield’ is ’solid’. Given the huge number of scientists in the world, you can easily find one (or several) respected scientist who are willing to lend their support to just about anything.

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.

Flaw 21: Equating the modern mainstream scientific consensus on climate change with mistakes the burgeoning scientific community made hundreds of years ago is not credible. Science as practiced in those days would hardly be recognizable by the scientists of today, and vice versa. Is the argument here that since the majority of scientists were wrong about something completely unrelated hundreds of years ago they might also be wrong now? That doesn’t hold much water.

If we truly care about the Earth’s future, geoengineering solutions deserve a seat at the table in the global-warming discussion. Otherwise, we run the risk of sailing humankind’s ship right off the edge of this planet.

Flaw 22: Geoengineering will not prevent us from ’sailing humankind’s ship right off the edge of this planet.’ It represents a last-resort hail mary that could be attempted once we have already gone too far. Consider this analogy. A man is standing on the roof of an apartment building, considering jumping off. There are two options for how he could come out of this alive: 1) He could call 911 in advance and ask for an ambulance to come assist him once he hits the ground, or 2) He could decide not to jump off the building, and find a way to climb down the side. Dubner and Levitt are suggesting that the man calls 911 and takes the leap.

Overall, the argument seems to be that we should essentially abandon what nearly all scientists say is the best plan A (reducing greenhouse gas emissions), in order to put most of our efforts into researching a largely-hypothetical and worst-case scenario plan B (geoengineering). This is, put simply, really stupid. Ken Caldeira explains (via Ryan Avent, via Brad Delong):

[G]eoengineering options [are] something we would only want to consider if our backs were really up against the wall… because the alternatives look so frightening.…

I kind of think of these geoengineering options as seeing, “Well, can we invent some kind of seatbelts for our climate system?” We need to drive the climate system carefully, we need to greatly reduce emissions. But even if we’re driving carefully we still run the risk of getting into an accident. And seatbelts can potentially reduce the damage when we’re in an accident…. I’m much in favor of a very broad-spectrum approach…. [T]hinking of geoengineering as a substitute for emissions reduction is analogous to saying, “Now that I’ve got the seatbelts on, I can’t just take my hands off the wheel and turn around and talk to people in the back seat.” It’s crazy.

Exactly. Just because we have seatbelts on (small investments in geoengineering as a last-ditch backup strategy), doesn’t mean we shouldn’t drive carefully to avoid crashing the car (aggressively reducing emissions).

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