Monday, October 19, 2009

Super Freakonomics Book Causing Stir In The Global Warming Debate

The next edition of Freakonomics, appropriately titled Super Freakonomics, tackles a polarizing issue known affectionately to many as climate change. Before the book has even hit the shelves it is causing a stir surrounding the evaluation of climate change and our role in dealing with the realities and myths regarding the environmental subject. Interestingly it seems as though the book doesn’t necessarily take an “anti-climate change” stance, yet environmental advocacy groups and bloggers are lambasting the book as entirely false or moreover, libelous (here are a few samples from metalfilter). I have included a few interesting excerpts below, but it would do you well to read the entire passage here. I can empathize with both sides of the climate change argument and feel as though, like most arguments, the truth likely falls somewhere in the middle. I tend to feel that we should err on the side of caution due to the implications of mother nature’s retaliation if the climate change naysayers are wrong. With that being said I recognize the difficulties associated with combating climate change no matter how substantiated or unsubstantiated the claims may be. The article highlights perhaps the most unfortunate reality surrounding global warming in that “pollution is an externality – that is, the people who generate pollution generally don’t pay the cost of their actions and therefore don’t have strong incentives to pollute less.” Where ever you fall on the spectrum of belief, exposure to contrary beliefs and arguments is rarely a negative thing. I, for one, am looking forward to the second Freakonomics book and the quest for truth and solutions surrounding the environmental health of our world.

Here is a brief passage about the overall premise of the chapter and the controversy it is causing:
Our global-warming chapter has several sections. We discuss how it’s a very hard problem to solve since pollution is an externality – that is, the people who generate pollution generally don’t pay the cost of their actions and therefore don’t have strong incentives to pollute less. We discuss how even the most sophisticated climate models are limited in their ability to predict the future, and we discuss the large measure of uncertainty in this realm, given that global climate is such a complex and dynamic system. We discuss some of the commonly held misperceptions about climate and energy, including the fact that the historic relationship between global temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide is more complicated than is generally thought.

The real purpose of the chapter is figuring out how to cool the Earth if indeed it becomes catastrophically warmer. (That is the “global cooling” in our subtitle. If someone interprets our brief mention of the global-cooling scare of the 1970’s as an assertion of “a scientific consensus that the planet was cooling,” that feels like a willful misreading.) To think we are “deniers,” would obviate the chapter’s central point: if we weren’t convinced that global warming was worth worrying about, we wouldn’t have written a chapter about proposed solutions.

I found this passage very interesting in that it discussed something that you rarely hear; a potential solution if we are in fact past the point of no return in the global warming battle:
The most controversial of these solutions – a “stratoshield” — involves the controlled injection of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to cool ground temperatures, which mimics the natural cooling effects of a big volcanic eruption like Mount Pinatubo. This sort of “geoengineering” solution is intensely disliked within environmental circles, and we discuss the reasons why. And we discuss why, if global warming gets worse, it might still be a good idea to consider further research on the stratoshield. We also discuss a much more environmentally friendly anti-warming solution from I.V. that uses salt-sea spray to increase cloud reflectivity.

We describe how when Caldeira first heard about the stratoshield from Lowell Wood, another I.V. scientist, he “disliked the concept” but nevertheless “ran a climate model to test Wood’s claims.” Furthermore: “his model backed up Wood’s claims that geoengineering could stabilize the climate even in the face of a large spike in atmospheric carbon dioxide, and he wrote a paper saying so. Caldeira, the most reluctant geoengineer imaginable, became a convert — willing, at least, to explore the idea.”

That is why Caldeira was in the room with his I.V. colleagues that day – talking to us, exploring the idea – and that is one reason that we gave as much credence to I.V.’s climate and geoengineering proposals as we did: because Ken Caldeira is not a climate-change-denying know-nothing, but quite the opposite. Because even though Caldeira would like to see us become a zero-carbon society, he seemed to agree with Nathan Myhrvold’s assessment that if global warming is as real a problem as they think it may be, then an overreliance on carbon mitigation may be “too little, too late, and too optimistic.”

How could a devoted environmentalist who wants a zero-carbon society believe this? Because, as we wrote (with input from Caldeira), “the half-life of atmospheric carbon dioxide is roughly one hundred years, and some of it remains in the atmosphere for thousands of years. So even if humankind immediately stopped burning all fossil fuel, the existing carbon dioxide would remain in the atmosphere for several generations.”

And the closing argument:
Levitt and I – and Nathan Myhrvold, and maybe even Ken Caldeira – look forward to debating the content of the chapter itself, the actual ideas and conclusions.

Will a lot of people argue with them? Absolutely. Some critics claim that we are too pessimistic about carbon mitigation, that we understate the probability of catastrophic climate change, that we are wrong to write that “the movement to stop global warming has taken on the feel of a religion.” Fair enough: we will debate those issues.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating stuff. Scary too.