More Superfreakonomics: emails from Steven Levitt

[Update Oct 19: My (concluding?) thoughts here.]

This may not be terribly interesting, but here is an email correspondence I had with Steven Levitt this morning:

From: Yoram Bauman
To: Steven Levitt

Hi Steve: This email is a hard one for me to write because it may void your kind offer to mention my forthcoming cartoon book on your blog, but I’m going to follow the dictates of my conscience and leave the rest to you:

I have just seen a PDF of the Superfreakonomics chapter on climate change, and it makes basic mistakes when it says things like “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.” This sentence makes a conspiracy theory out of nothing! Take a look at this figure from the Energy Information Administration: it shows that, yes, human generation of CO2 is dwarfed by natural processes like plant decay. But it also shows that natural processes balance each other out: plant decay generates massive amounts of CO2, and plant growth takes in massive amounts of CO2 via photosynthesis. What you’re left with is a completely plausible story in which human activity slowly increases atmospheric concentrations of CO2 from pre-industrial concentrations of about 285ppm (parts per million) to current concentrations of about 385ppm that are going up by about 2ppm per year.

This sort of misleading skepticism exists throughout the chapter, and it does a disservice to climate science, to economists like me who work on climate change, to academic work in general, and to the general public that will have to live with the impacts of climate policy down the road. Since you don’t do climate economics I’m guessing that the chapter was written by Dubner without much if any input from you, but the book still has your name on it and I hope you will consider reading more of my comments—or just talking to any random climate scientist at Chicago or elsewhere—and think seriously about making a statement to correct the inaccuracies in the book. It would not be hard for you to move the public discussion in a thoughtful direction instead of in the conspiratorial direction suggested by the book.

PS. The book has a quote from climate scientist Ken Caldeira (“carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight”) that is directly contradicted by a quote on Caldeira’s own website, and now Caldeira is saying this about your book: “If you talk all day, and somebody picks a half dozen quotes without providing context because they want to make a provocative and controversial chapter, there is not much you can do.” I know it would be easy for you to ignore all this, but I hope you decide to confront it.

Respectfully,
yoram bauman
standupeconomist.com

From: Steven Levitt
To: Yoram Bauman

Yoram,

By the way I really like your book and jotted a short blurb, I just need to remember to send it. Nicely done. Remind me if I forget.

I don’t understand your comment below. Why does it matter if natural processes are in balance or not? CO2 is Co2! The source doesn’t matter. If we could cut CO2 emissions a little bit overall, whether through natural sources or others, the effect would be the same. It is not saying that cutting human emissions isn’t the right way to do it, but it is a surprising fact and one worth mentioning.

On the Caldiera references, he worked closely with us and read the chapter twice giving detailed comments before it went to print, so I don’t even know what to say about that. Please visit our blog later today or tomorrow to get the full story behind the Caldiera quote to Romm. [Update: Their post is here.]

As far as I know, every fact or claim we make in that chapter is backed up by citations in the end notes, or is specifically attributed to a particular leading scientist based on our interviews with them. If you can find a counter-example, or more than one, I’d be eager to see them. It wasn’t like we just went out and made stuff up. Maybe there is disaggrement among climate scientists about the facts, but so far little of the push back we have been getting is on facts (including, as far as I can tell, your CO2 comment).

Also, I haven’t looked at the chapter for a while, but our main point isn’t that the earth isn’t getting warmer, and honestly, for our arguments we don’t even care why. All we are saying in the end is this: if the earth is getting warmer, is the better solution one that

a) costs 1.5 trillion dollars, doesn’t work for 50 years, somehow requires all humans to change their behavior sharply, and may not work anyway, or

b) one that costs $200 million, could be built tomorrow, would start working right away, and can be stopped and
reversed within a year if we don’t like the results.

I think I would start by choosing “b,” and only use “a” if I had to.

From: Yoram Bauman
To: Steven Levitt

Hi Steve, and thanks for taking the time to respond (and for your kind words about my book :)

1) I will wait for your post about Caldeira, my apologies for jumping the gun.

2) My perspective is that you are probably correct that there are few factual errors in the book (I’ll wait for the footnotes and let you know if I find any errors :) but that you are ignoring the overall thrust of the chapter, which is terribly misleading.

It’s not factually incorrect to write that “agnostics… grumble that human activity accounts for just 2 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions”, or to give big play to media stories from the 1970s about “global cooling”, or to write that Lowell Wood says that global sea level will rise 1.5 feet by 2100, or to write that Weitzman says (more or less) that “the future holds a 5 percent chance of a terrible-case scenario—a rise of more than 10 degrees Celcius”, or to divide the world into “true believers [who] bemoan the desecration of our earthly Eden” and “heretics [who] point out that this Eden… once became so naturally thick with methane smog that it was rendered nearly lifeless”…

…but all of these statements collectively give a terribly misleading perspective:

* Yes there are agnostics who “grumble that human activity accounts for just 2 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions”, but this is not a reason to doubt the theory of anthropogenic climate change. The book makes it sound like YOU are among the agnostics, and this is bad.

* Yes there were media stories in the 1970s about global cooling, but your chapter implicitly compares those media stories with the current scientific consensus on climate change: “These days, of course, the threat is the opposite. The earth is no longer thought to be too cool but rather too warm.” In my opinion this is snarky and the only purpose is to cast doubt on the current scientific consensus. This is bad.

* Yes it is possible that Lowell Wood says that global sea level will rise 1.5 feet by 2100 (I wasn’t there, I don’t know what he said!), but this is not what the IPCC says. By writing about it you are making it sound like it IS the scientific consensus, and this is bad. PS. Admittedly, the IPCC estimate on sea level rise issue is something that almost nobody reports correctly. The 2007 IPCC estimates present a range “excluding future rapid dynamical changes in ice flow” (IPCC WG1 Summary, Table SPM3, p. 13), which is very different from saying that these dynamical changes will be zero. Elaboration comes from IPCC FAQ 10.2: “Recent satellite and in situ observations of ice streams behind disintegrating ice shelves highlight some rapid reactions of ice sheet systems. This raises new concern about the overall stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the collapse of which would trigger another five to six metres of sea level rise. While these streams appear buttressed by the shelves in front of them, it is currently unknown whether a reduction or failure of this buttressing of relatively limited areas of the ice sheet could actually trigger a widespread discharge of many ice streams and hence a destabilisation of the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Ice sheet models are only beginning to capture such small-scale dynamical processes that involve complicated interactions with the glacier bed and the ocean at the perimeter of the ice sheet. Therefore, no quantitative information is available from the current generation of ice sheet models as to the likelihood or timing of such an event.”

* Yes Weitzman says (more or less) that “the future holds a 5 percent chance of a terrible-case scenario—a rise of more than 10 degrees Celcius”, but you’re making it sound like Weitzman is arguing that there’s a 95 percent change of an outcome that is not a “worldwide catastrophe”. My belief is that this is a misleading read of Weitzman, and if you don’t believe me you should ask Weitzman if he’s happy with how you’ve described his research. (Actually, heck, you’re probably busy elsewhere, so I’ll ask Weitzman and let you know what he says.) [Update: We had a nice email conversation with Weitzman, I asked him if he thought the book was a misleading representation of his views... and he basically said No. He didn't exactly come out and say it was fine, but... plus one for Levitt, and minus one for me.]

* Yes the earth’s climate has changed a lot even before humans, and I’ll assume your story about the methane fog is correct; but you’re clearing giving the impression that the “true believers” are wrong and that the “heretics” are right. This is not factually incorrect but it is terribly misleading and makes it seem like you are casting doubt on the current scientific consensus.

So that’s my two cents: Your chapter pains me not because it’s factually incorrect but because it clearly gives a misleading impression of the scientific consensus on climate change. I am reminded of your quorum on global warming that your blog colleagues were kind enough to invite me to participate in. There’s nothing factually wrong in there, but it is terribly misleading that the two scientists you quote are BOTH skeptics. What are the odds of that? Probably a billion to one, so my unavoidable conclusion is that you are deliberately trying to cast doubt on the scientific consensus. I don’t mind if you do this in a straightforward way by getting involved in climate research, but to do it via insinuations is in my opinion a disservice to to climate science, to economists like me who work on climate change, to academic work in general, and to the general public that will have to live with the impacts of climate policy down the road.

PS. I do not know enough to get involved in the debate on geo-engineering; my beef with your writing is elsewhere.

yoram

From: Steven Levitt
To: Yoram Bauman

Yoram,

It is funny that both you and Krugman interpreted our weitzman cite as evidence we were skeptics! We took it the other way — if there is a 5% chance of catastrophe, yikes!! — we better do something. Weitzman must be an outlier in thinking that the chance of catastrophe is that high. (for the record, I am getting roughly an equal number of criticisms like yours from people who are on the other side saying we are too accepting of the current global warming thinking!)

So our point on Weitzman was that this _is_ a big deal.

I do think also that there is something to be said for raising some skepticism about the current climate models and predictions…they are stated and restated as if they are fact, when in practice I suspect, and good scientists agree, that there is enormous uncertainty and things we cannot or at least could not know.

Probably, though, our message on geoengineering would have come through better if we had written the chapter
differently.

thanks for your time and insights they are very useful.

steve

From: Yoram Bauman
To: Steven Levitt

Right-o. Good luck in dealing with the firestorm, and I think the more times you can emphasize that you are not casting doubt on the scientific consensus on climate change the better it will be for all of us :)

PS. Yes there’s a lot of uncertainty (e.g., about sea level rise), but the scientific consensus does include a high degree of certainty about some basic points that are still disputed in the media and by politicians, i.e., that “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations” (IPCC 2007).

Regards,
yoram

28 responses to “More Superfreakonomics: emails from Steven Levitt”

  1. The business about the CO2 stocks and flows boils down to an argument from personal incredulity: How could puny man affect a systerm so large? Levitt isn’t that stupid. The only “agnostics” who point to it are those who themselves lack an understanding of the climate system or are actively encouraging misunderstanding by others. It would be one thing if he mentioned it by way of explaining and debunking, but it doesn’t sound as if he does.

  2. Brad DeLong has a pdf up. I now see that the CO2 point was intentionally framed to mislead and confuse.

  3. Excuse me. My brain has just exploded:

    Yoram Bauman: “I have just seen a PDF of the Superfreakonomics chapter on climate change, and it makes basic mistakes when it says things like “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.”… [Y]es, human generation of CO2 is dwarfed by natural processes like plant decay. But it also shows that natural processes balance each other out…. What you’re left with is a completely plausible story in which human activity slowly increases atmospheric concentrations of CO2 from pre-industrial concentrations of about 285ppm (parts per million) to current concentrations of about 385ppm that are going up by about 2ppm per year. This sort of misleading skepticism exists throughout the chapter, and it does a disservice to climate science, to economists like me who work on climate change, to academic work in general, and to the general public that will have to live with the impacts of climate policy down the road…”

    Steven Levitt: “I don’t understand…. Why does it matter if natural processes are in balance or not? CO2 is CO2! The source doesn’t matter. If we could cut CO2 emissions a little bit overall, whether through natural sources or others, the effect would be the same. It is not saying that cutting human emissions isn’t the right way to do it, but it is a surprising fact and one worth mentioning…”

    Excuse me while I pick up stray neuronal clumps from the many different corners of the room…

    I mean, Levitt and Dubner’s passage really ought to read:

    “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. Of course the agnostics are misleadiing you: even though human activity creates just 2% of the flow of emissions, already there is 50% more CO2 in the atmosphere than there would be without human activity…”

    or:

    “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. Of course the agnostics are misleadiing you: even though human activity creates just 2% of the flow of emissions, once human-created CO2 is in the atmosphere it takes longer for nature to absorb the nature-created CO2. As a result, already there is 50% more CO2 in the atmosphere than there would be without human activity…”

    or:

    “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. Of course the agnostics are misleadiing you: the right way to think about it is that already 1/3 of the CO2 molecules in the atmosphere are the products of human actiivity, and the fraction and amount are growing very rapidly indeed…”

    Levitt and Dubner are saying that the fact that only 2% of emissions are of human origin is in some sense relevant to and supports the “agnostic” case on global warming. That is grossly, grossly misleading–talking about flows when the relevant variables are the stocks.

    Oh! There’s my right parietal lobe over there!

    Brad

  4. Brad, I agree with your assessment. This series of emails just made my brain explode as well.

    I have spent a significant amount of time going through this information on SuperF, and my premise was that the authors did this either intentionally, or had bad luck in selecting their sources.

    Now I see I was wrong. There really is no point talking to Levitt or Dubner; they don’t even understand the basics of global warming. They are unable to recognize the mistakes they have made in the book. And it isn’t clear they are capable of learning where they went wrong.

    If the information they wrote was misleading and leads the reader to reach the wrong conclusion, or if the information they wrote was insignificant, and focuses on unimportant data, they respond with a shrug and ask “But is the information true?” They will never acknowledge the information as written, takes the reader to a clearly wrong conclusion.

    If the information in the book is just completely wrong, then Levitt and Dubner say “But we got this directly from this expert!” and duck responsibility. So the information from Myhrvold which is incorrect, stands uncorrected because they can explain where they got the info. They apparently never checked with a climate scientist or solar power expert who actually knows something about the energy balances to see if Myhrvold’s analysis stood up.

    So we now know they are ignorant of the basics of AGW theory, can’t recognize legitimate criticism of the science and economic analysis in their book, and aren’t apparently willing to learn from their mistakes. What more can we say… “Houston, we have a problem.”

    It is interesting that Myhrvold was able to feed much of this nonsense to Levitt and Dubner, and they swallowed it without ever questioning whether Myhrvold had an incentive to lie and misrepresent the truth. I thought Levitt was an expert regarding the incentives based economic decisions.

  5. As for the part about “human activity accounts for just 2 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions,” I just keep remembering the beginning of Mankiw’s Principles textbook, which states, “Rational People Think at the Margin.” I teach that to undergraduates. The fact that Dubner and Levitt don’t understand the Marginal Principle is stupefying. They should re-read Mankiw [and/or see Bauman's version of the 10 Principles!].

  6. I think all you guys are missing the point. Although their take on the “consensus” may be different than yours, they are really offering an alternative approach to solving the problem that the “consensus” claims is true. What’s wrong with that?

    By the way – both the historical proxy reconstructions ,looking backwards (“hockey sticks”) and computer climate models looking forward have many problems and uncertainties. There may well be some small chance of a catastrophe, but it’s not at all clear what that chance is. I would argue that the best data we have is the last 100 yrs where CO2 increased a lot, temperatures increased modestly, and the planet did not run off the rails.

    Why not look for a cheap disaster solution in case its needed? Seems like its not PAINFUL enough for the religious believers.

  7. Hi Yoram:

    I think your approach to this issue is the best I’ve seen: explaining that the chapter gives a strong impression of skepticism about GW and CO2 reduction–and yes the definite impression that the authors share that skepticism–without asserting motivations on the part of the authors, or accusing them of intentionally purveying false statements.

    IOW, they blew it–did a really bad job of that chapter–but they didn’t blow it intentionally, nor were they being intentionally obtuse. They thought they were doing a good job. The narrowness of their sourcing–giving such big play to Myhrvold–strikes me as especially problematic, and not very professional. It will be interesting to see if they’ll be willing to say, “yeah, we really blew it.”

    (From a status perspective, wouldn’t that perhaps give them a huge admiration/respect boost among their professional colleagues, and perhaps the public at large? While also “modeling” good behavior?)

    But on the topic of Krugman’s assertion of self-seeking contrarianism (presumably because contrarianism sells books): All reasonable folks will agree that there’s a great place for contrarianism in this world–or more charitably, “out of the box thinking.”

    Here’s some that I came across recently on GW that I found rather profound. Hope you and your readers find it of interest:

    Global Warming Caused by Sex!
    http://www.asymptosis.com/global-warming-caused-by-sex.html

    Thanks,

    Steve
    (Dia’s dad)

  8. Quoting Professor Levitt in the email thread above: “So our point on Weitzman was that this _is_ a big deal.”
    Quoting Professor Levitt and Mr. Dubner from the pdf of chapter 5: “So how should we place a value on this relatively small chance of a worldwide catastrophe?”

  9. If you put out a single, or even a couple of such misleading arguments, ok, maybe you are naive. OTOH, if all the arguments point in one direction, if they are carefully constructed to be technically true by a strained reading or attributable to others on whom you can pin the tail, then sorry, you know very well what you are doing and you are doing it on purpose, and don’t expect Eli to cut you any slack.

    Why are you cutting these clowns any slack?

  10. why does anyone bother to cite IPCC given that a good portion of its conclusions are based on the flawed work of MBH98, etc..

  11. Yoram,

    Levitt and Dubner may be wrong on the science but they are right on the solution. Spending (gambling) multi-trillions on solutions that could impoverish millions (billions?) with outcomes that are incredibly uncertain would be foolish. Let’s manage the results of GW, not try to fix it.

    Steve

    PS @Kevin, Levitt is actually applying the ideas of Marginal Decision making much than most GW alarmists. Levitt’s approach recognizes that the marginal benefits of the multi-trillion dollar solution are very, very uncertain. The marginal costs are not.

  12. 4 issues require clarification:
    a) to what extent is human activity contributing to global warming
    b) as pointed out by Levitt – do we choose route (a) or (b)?
    c) if human kind has survived the Ice Age &climate change over thousands of years, why won’t we today?
    d) why is the IPCC the chief authority on the issue of climate change?

    Why:
    A) where’s the causality?:
    - Is human activity primarily behind rising CO2 levels?
    - is CO2 leading to rising temperatures, or are rising temperatures contributing to higher CO2 levels in the atmosphere?

    Correlation vs. causality. And scientists need to look at thousands of years of data to establish this (and have – and it’s Disputed!) . The theory on solar cycles makes a lot of sense (i.e. – it’s where all of our energy comes from… &changes in solar activity impact earth substantially)

    B) Levitt clears up the issue well in my opinion..

    C) This is primarily a rhetorical question – we have survived possessing minor tools (shelter, food/agricultural, transport and health care) for thousands of years, and we will survive Even IF global warming will be
    catastrophic’

    D)
    - the IPCC quote is a “hypothesis”, not a “conclusion”.
    - IPCC is GOVERNMENT funded – Fully… and governments, democratically- &non-democratically elected, are direct stakeholders in the issue of global warming (i.e. are policy creators) & indirectly are impacted by various interest groups…
    - IPCC – Intergovernmental panel on climate change
    - Funding: UNEP (United Nations), WMO (United nations), governments

    Reading on the policy recommendation &research review process held by the IPCC, it appears politicized (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intergovernmental_Panel_on_Climate_Change ) – too many policymakers involved

    Personally knowing first-hand the details of how policy is done &what politicians &their aides think about it, what the lobbying behind it is aimed at, and above all the Money involved – I’m a HUGE SKEPTIC. Science/academia is one thing but when politics and policymakers get involved (who are clueless on science &have their political &profit agenda) AND industry lobbying is on it – be doubtful..

  13. “In my opinion this is snarky and the only purpose is to cast doubt on the current scientific consensus. This is bad.”

    Yes, please do not cast doubt on the scientific consensus. In fact, never question the scientific consensus. Please pay no attention to the scientific consensus behind the curtain.

    Come on Yoram, you’re a scientist. It is your job to question the scientific consensus. Just because Levitt and Dubner question the part of the scientific consensus you like, that doesn’t make casting doubt on it bad.

  14. Thank you Robert for a reasoned questioning of the “consensus.” First, I am ashamed that esteemed members of my profession have forgot econometrics 101. Spurious correlation is a real possibility, or even the correlation vs. causality argument brought up by Robert. Why has it become taboo to even question that? Have we forgot our roles as arbiters of information for the public and the need to be skeptical?

    Steve’s point is also valid. To pursue a policy, benefits must exceed the costs. What are the benefits to these policies? Are they equal to trillions of dollars?? I submit that they are highly uncertain and that the confidence interval on BENEFITS may actually cross ZERO (note that this question does not even deny that we have something to do with climate change in the first place). If we are on a runaway train with feedback loops as the IPCC/Al Gore want us to believe, then there is NOTHING WE CAN DO anyway. Or, alternatively, if the value of saving humanity is infinite, we should spend an infinite amount of money to do it. (I understand the hyperbolic nature of both extremes, I’m just establishing the boundaries here). Why are economists not discussing the benefit/cost ratio here or even questioning the benefits? Many above seem content to stop the analysis at the point that the climate is changing without ever questioning whether that really matters to humans or not (at least explicitly accounting for those impacts).

    I expect climatologists to be dogmatic on this issue because their job security is based on scaring the hell out of everyone else to secure funding and keep their ‘nice jobs.’ I don’t understand why prominent economists are not using the tools of their training to question the dogma of climatologists. If you honestly think that the IPCC model is accurate for any longer than about 5 minutes (and it does a poor job of even tracking the existing data we have), then you have never built a forecasting model. I am quite sure you have all asked yourself the question: “Are higher reported cancer rates suggestive of more carcinogen exposure or better diagnostics?” We are dealing with 100 years of hard data to explain processes that develop over geologic time. Come on. We are smarter than accepting the received wisdom based on limited data blindly without really asking tough questions, aren’t we?

    As for Levitt and Dubner, they are purposefully hyperbolic and challenging conventional wisdom–both because they probably believe in the contrary view and are selling books. But, they are presenting a scenario that is no more fraught with questionable conclusions based on limited data than the IPCC. If you cast stones at Levitt, you should equally cast stones at the IPCC for dubious hypotheses based on limited experience.

  15. My take on this dust-up surrounding SuperFreak and climate change:

    As a non-scientist (but quantitatively educated) citizen, I don’t see anything wrong with pointing out that future predictions of global climate are highly uncertain. If they are more certain than represented by L&D, please point us to the analysis and predictions (with confidence intervals). If not, then the objections to L&D come across as scientists being non-scientific.

    Given the uncertainty about future climate change impacts, why is it unreasonable to consider lower cost interventions like geo-engineering? BTW, this is not the first time geo-engineering has been presented as an alternative in popular media: the Atlantic ran an article on this several months ago.

    When I read the criticisms of SuperFreak here and from others (like Krugman) I get the impression that the critics are “true believers” upset that someone is questioning the orthodoxy (or presenting information that has the wrong “tone” even though the substance is correct). When I buy the book, I am going straight to the climate change chapter. The tone of the advance criticisms tells me there is something worth reading.

  16. There is no doubt that the solution the global warmist propose will have significant long term negative effects on the developing and developed nations. But there is plenty of doubt that slowing CO2 will either change the planet or change the planet for the better.

    Let’s say that the algore hysteria is somewhat true. Seas would rise a few inches when the planet warns; that would be a disaster; and the marginal CO2 put out by man is what is causing it. However, it is entirely possible that the last ten years is an early indication of an extreme cold epoch’s beginning; and ironically, by rejecting the algore solution, we save the planet.

    The objection I usually get is that if the natural cycle towards cooling there is nothing we can do about it. But if the trend is towards warming we can fix it.

    Discussions with global warmists is like arguing with Jim Jones. Facts don’t matter if there is a theory that supports the “faith’.

  17. OK, if we are free to talk about motivation: my impression is that the critics of Levitt and Dubner are really upset that there may be a solution that doesn’t require greater government control of individuals’ economic liberty. Why else all the vitriol?

  18. Not having read the chapter, I can only comment on the commentary from Krugman, Levitt, Bauman et all. I imagine my personal stance is probably not far removed from Levitt. I believe climate change is primarily human caused, reading what I have and talking to actual climate scientists. Like Levitt, I am not convinced that expensive solutions that have been proposed are the solution. I’m even more than willing to entertain an argument that we shouldn’t even really care about climate change. The climate changes, always has. So what?

    The problem is however the near religious tenor of some of the believers on both sides. I think the fear on Bauman’s part is that Levitt’s chapter written the way it is written lends global warming deniers additional credibility that shouldn’t have. Theories should be questioned, and tested. However, too many global warming deniers take any contrary fact to disprove the entire scientific climate community, and that’s what bothers me and probably bother Bauman. It’s the attack on science that I don’t like. I believe in science, and respect the opinion of experts. I do not want support communities that are willing to shrug off experts and scientists just because they don’t like it.

  19. Yoram repeatedly expresses his disappointment that Levitt “misleads” the public about the consensus on global warming. I think most people are aware that the majority of scientists support the view that global warming is caused by humans, so why is it such a terrible thing if Levitt or someone else expresses or reports others views that are not the consensus?

    The debate on Climate Change alarms me because of an unwillingness to accept dissent as a legitimate opinion, which even this reasonable sounding article contributes to. I am sure there are plenty of other subjects where people use facts reported by others and draw different conclusions. I would say that is how science normally progresses, but in Climate Change debates that is usually looked upon as unprofessional and inappropriate.

  20. Hi Yoram. Thanks for drawing out Steve Leavitt on this and not just letting it go. One comment on the “2% of CO2 emissions” business: This represents a deep misunderstanding of the nature of the problem, one that is shared, alas, by many climate activists as well. The accretion of GHG is not modeled very well as a simple pollution problem, in which CO2 (or methane etc.) escapes from the safe confines of our fields, factories, forests and other f-in’ locations to the atmosphere. If it were, Leavitt would be right. Instead, the problem is that carbon is being released from its eon-long sequestration in the earth’s crust via extraction of hydrocarbons, upon which it enters the “fast” carbon cycle. There is enormous carbon exchange between the atmosphere, ocean and terrestrial ecosystems. Our knowledge of the dynamics of this process is still evolving and much is unknown. But the more carbon that enters this cycle, it is safe to say, the more will end up as GHG, even given the continuous back-and-forth exchange. In other words, the total flow within the carbon cycle is very large, and we humans are responsible for very little of it. But the expansion of this flow, which has doubled atmospheric CO2 since the onset of the industrial revolution (and the concomitant greatly increased extraction of fossil fuels) is our bad.

  21. Peter, the recent increased accumulation of CO2 the atmosphere, and of ‘fossil CO2′ is well documented. (See the Keeling Cycle in Wikipedia for a start).

  22. The argument Bauman and DeLong (and others) make isn’t that hard to understand. Just paraphrase Dickens:

    “Annual CO2 income twenty pounds, annual CO2 expenditure twenty pounds, result happiness. Annual CO2 income twenty pounds, annual CO2 expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

    I would think economists would have no trouble understanding the difference between “in balance” and “a bit out of balance” in the long run (when I hope we will not all be dead).

  23. A note on several of the objections written here on the unwillingness of climate change “believers” to accept dissenting opinions: it is easy to make this sound unreasonable and even out of line with scientific principles. However, dissenting opinions offered on climate change are primarily not scientific. And when they are you ought to look closely at the funding, because if you are worried about the political motives and government funding behind the IPCC, you should worry more about the motives behind the energy companies that have funded most of the dissenting research I have come across (not obviously that there isn’t valid research questioning and challenging specifics and providing alternative solutions, but at this point I know of no substantial scientific studies questioning the basic consensus as described by the IPCC other than those funded by major corporations that stand to benefit from the continuation of current consumption patterns).

    I admit I haven’t read this chapter yet, but have only been following the debate on it. From Levitt’s responses here, it seems their goal was to provide alternative ways to address climate change with new technologies such as geo-engineering that might make more economic sense given the vast uncertainties — despite widespread consensus on anthropogenic causes of increased CO2 — on how natural systems will react to this change. This seems to me to be very reasonable as politically brought behavioral change as a solution will be extremely hard to bring about and could be detrimental in its own right. However, the fact that the people speculating about new technologies in this case don’t have a solid enough base knowledge of ecology or climatology to understand why the source of CO2 matters for the solution (See Levitt’s comment; “Why does it matter if natural processes are in balance or not? CO2 is Co2!”) frankly terrifies me.

  24. Anyone who thinks that pumping SO2 into the atmosphere, greatly increasing acid rain, probably disrupting rainfall throughout the world and rapidly acidifying the oceans is a good way of solving the climate problem on the cheap needs to think again. How is a massive, uncontrolled experiment in polluting the earth’s atmosphere with SO2 not a worse form of government control than sifting toward conservation and alternative energy? The acid rain problem has been largely solved by taking SO2 out at the smoke stack. The new plan is to pump large amounts of the acid producing gas into the admosphere on purpose. As a scientist, this is a government action that I would fight.

  25. I think many of the comments radically underestimate how differently the same material may be interpreted by people coming from different backgrounds/perspectives. I mean to give a really silly example consider how the statement, “It’s totally absurd to think that jesus descended to heaven after his death to appear to the disciples.” In the usual public discourse one interpret this as expressing skepticism about christ’s divinity. On the other hand the same statement made by a seminarian to his peers would likely communicate a theological quibble about the timing of jesus’s ascent to heaven.

    Now given that Levitt and Dubner are academics and (even as economists) embedded in a professional and social mileu that takes the basic facts of global warming and the scientific consensus for granted it seems quite understandable that it might not occur to them that some readers would interpret it as supportive of climate skepticism. After all it’s always totally obvious to you what you mean so it’s easy to miss the fact that it’s not obvious to others.

  26. Did Superfreakonomics kill Copenhagen? The news that the U.S. Congress has put off climate legislation until next year means that there will be no meaningful carbon reduction agreement at the Copenhagen Summit next month. The release of Superfreakonomics was timed just right for the for the kill. But they also needed to stir controversy to generate mass publicity and influence Congress to delay climate legislation.

    Had Levitt and Dubner just presented a fair argument for a geo-engineering solution for global warming, they might not have generated enough attention. So they tossed in some superfluous climate denier talking points to guarantee a strong reaction from the bloggers. The talking points were easily refuted, but the mainstream media just reported that Levitt and Dubner were under attack, and made them look like martyrs.

    This was when Congress needed to decided if it could act before Copenhagen. There was no time for the problems of Superfreakonomics to disseminate to the public. With the other priorities of Healthcare, Jobs and Bank Reform, Congress did the political thing and put climate legislation on hold. Superfreakonomics was not the only factor, but it may have been the proverbial straw that broke the will of Congressional leaders to fight.

    The environment movement has defined Copenhagen as the last chance for a global climate treaty that would start the process to reverse climate change in time to avert the foretold cataclysm. Ironically, by killing Copenhagen, Superfreakonomics may have made geo-engineering necessary to buy enough time for a future carbon reduction plan to work.

  27. Superfreakonomics: Page 74. “Measuring doctor skill is a tricky affair” The authors state that the best doctors by patient selection results in the worst patient outcomes because the sickest patients choose the “best doctors”. Then they repeat the same method and come to different conclusion with ER doctors, even resulting in a gender bias which in itself should raise eyebrows. EMERGENCY ROOM STAFF SELECTION (triage and staff nurses, techicians etc) make sure the worst cases get to the “best doctors”. Therefore raising the mortality outcome stats for these doctors. Likewise female staff nurses make sure female doctors see more female patients than their male counterparts. Page 81 at the top:” women are slightly better at keeping people alive”
    3rd paragraph, line 10 from top “women are much less likely than men to die within a year of visiting the ER”
    Result: Women doctors seeing more women patients will have a better mortality outcome than than male counterparts. The Authors need to work their methods backwards from a “no-gender” bias result until they figure out where the method failed them. There is no gender bias in doctors anymore than there is a gender bias in Economists, lawyers, carpenters, etc. Back to the Drawing board fellows. Thanks for you time, if indeed you really read this, sincerely, Michael M. Alt, MD

  28. When I was taking economics courses back before the beginning of time, my professor spoke of the Buffalo’s. He gave fond reverence for those who chose to lower their heads and charge rather than consider an argument thoughtfully. Either I’ve stumbled into a Colorado Alumni Site or my professor would really enjoy the banter.

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