You can imagine the start of a climate geoengineering programme in a number of ways. The way that most appeals to me is as part of a policy portfolio aimed at reducing the future risks of climate change. This would entail careful consideration of a variety of proposals for reducing incoming sunlight, research into the weaknesses of all of them and the choice of a preferred option. Then, if as the result of a deliberative process that has been going on in parallel to this, with each informing the other, you — for a suitably inclusive, legitimate value of “you” — decide that such risk management is worth trying you start implementing on such a programme, with the aim of slowly but steadily ramping up to the level of offset you have decide is wise, while continuing with other mitigation and adaptation measures.
On the other hand, a programme might be triggered by a specific event — for example, something sudden and dire happening in the Arctic. Some such events (lots of methane coming out of permafrost) might indeed be checked by prompt cooling, though you might need rather a lot of it. Other catastrophes (radical destabilisation of Greenland ice) probably wouldn’t be helped at all. But such an emergency might trigger demands for prompt climate action that politicians found hard to ignore, and climate geoengineering might be the prompt action they turned to whether or not it met the needs of the specific emergency.
I’ve always seen this as a rather worrying scenario. Much better to think carefully about climate geoengineering’s merits and dangers and build it into a portfolio of climate action than to be bounced into it as some sort of new alternative. Among other drawbacks, a programme put together in the context of a climate emergency might have to be sized so as to deliver a dramatic effect — one with a cooling that might be measured in watts per square metre, rather than something a tenth that size — right away. This seems likely to be imprudent.
A new paper by Jim Haywood and colleagues at the Met Office and the University of Exeter in Nature Climate Change brings up a new version of this question, though, one which I find intriguing. What about the use of geoengineering to counteract a natural, rather than man-made, climatic event? (more…)
Filed under: Geoengineering, Global change, Interventions in the carbon/climate crisis
I recently had the great pleasure of attending this year’s Breakthrough Dialogue at Cavallo Point, an event at which the Breakthrough Institute brought together kindred spirits of disparate views to hash out some of the many issues that that Institute takes an interest in. On the basis of this Economist special report I was invited to talk about nuclear power, but in the many fruitful interstices of the meeting found myself talking about geoengineering quite a lot, because this is the sort of crowd where that sort of discussion makes sense, and because I am working on a book on the subject.
Towards the end of the meeting, a friend mentioned to me that perhaps I should be more careful in such conversations – people seemed to be getting the wrong idea about what I believed. This may be the case – I can’t really vouch for what message people were picking up, and I’ll admit that I sometimes run off at the mouth and that jet lag when drink has been taken doesn’t always help matters.
That said, I think there is a danger to being too careful in talking about geoengineering. If all the people who know about geoengineering are meticulous in the care that they take in talking about it, they will create no new misapprehensions – but they may do little to dispel old misapprehensions, and they may pass up the opportunity to carve out for geoengineering a more central place in our ongoing discussion on climate. I think it deserves that place; if I didn’t I wouldn’t be writing a book about it.
But while there may be good reason to be expansive in one’s talk, there’s no good reason for being careless, or even sloppy, in one’s reasoning. I have tried to be pretty careful in published stuff in the past, such as this 2007 piece in Nature and this 2010 piece in Prospect. Some time in the future I hope to provide all the clarity and nuance one could wish for in the book. But for the time being, here are a few key points in my current thinking, expressed with what I hope is appropriate care. (more…)
The Economist has an occasional column called Green View which looks at all sorts of environmental issues, though with a preponderance of climate stuff: in the past few months we’ve looked at arctic ice, business and biodiversity, tuna farming, Svalbard (of course), Climategate, malaria and climate change, the Hartwell paper, future urbanisation and a bunch of other stuff. Since I’m the Energy and Environment Editor I sort of own this slot, though I don’t write every one of the pieces that goes in. And since there’s a lot less blogging around these parts than there used used to be, I thought some of you might like to know this.
This page lists a whole lot of the columns (and a few other things that have strayed in by mistake), but as of a few weeks ago it is probably not being updated any more due to a change in the way we publish things on line. A couple of weeks ago there was a piece on what geoengineering could mean for different regions that might be of some interest to readers of this blog. Excerpt:
Uncertainty about who might do best from what sort of project allows discussions of geoengineering to take place without the parties to the debate knowing in any detail where any nation’s specific interests might lie. This introduces what the philosopher John Rawls called a “veil of ignorance”; making decisions as if such a veil existed, Rawls thought, was a good basis for justice. (If regional outcomes could be predicted accurately, a different Rawlsian idea, that of the difference principle, might come into play. This states that just action consist not just of improving things for everyone, but specifically for improving things for the worst off, and would give the effects of geoengineering on the least developed countries a particular importance.)
And this week, rather atypically, there’s a piece on the Earth’s core, and the way things you don’t expect to be transitory turn out so to be. Excerpt:
The Earth is a recycling scheme that has been running for a third of the age of the universe. Microbes and plants endlessly pull carbon, nitrogen and oxygen from the atmosphere and pump them back out in different forms. Water evaporates from the oceans, rains down on the land, pours back to the seas. As it does so it washes away whole mountain ranges—which then rise again from sea-floor sediments when oceans squeeze themselves shut. As oceans reopen new crust is pulled forth from volcanoes; old crust is destroyed as tectonic plates return to the depths from which those volcanoes ultimately draw their fire.
Anyone who likes that second piece might want to check out the essay in Seeing Further (Amazon UK) which I blogged about here, or the Earthrise piece I did for the Times a few years ago, which also covers some similar ground. (Out of ideas, or following a ceaseless process of re-creation? You decide…)
Filed under: Geoengineering, Interventions in the carbon/climate crisis, Published stuff
This week’s Economist carries an obituary of Steve Schneider. Excerpt:
Mr Schneider’s high profile as a proponent of action on climate change—he was the editor of an important journal, Climatic Change, and an influential member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) more or less from its inception—would have made him a favourite target for such antagonists anyway, but he came in for particular scorn because of his willingness to discuss the inevitable tensions between advocacy and academic integrity. Critics of Mr Schneider, including this newspaper, portrayed him as giving in to this tension, and being willing to tell “necessary lies” when it suited his purposes. He countered such attacks vehemently, saying such a conclusion rested on a slanted reading of what he had said on the subject. He had no time for advocacy without truth.
Many comments and memories on this post of Andy Revkin’s
To sit next to Steve Schneider while listening to someone else give a talk about climate science is like watching a DVD with a commentary track by an insightful but rather grumpy director. As the speaker makes her points, Schneider, a veteran climate scientist now at Stanford University, will mutter about who first made all the interesting points in the talk, and when this or that bit of science was first appreciated, and how stupid people have been not to act on this knowledge years ago.
The purpose is to remind anyone listening than climate science has a history, if a fairly brief one, and that the message of that history is reasonably consistent — scientists have believed much what they believe now about global warming for decades, and if climate scientists in general and Schneider in particular had been listened to better, the world would have faced up to the issue better and sooner.
This personal memoir by Schneider provides a similar effect…
Image courtesy of Stanford, I believe
The Science Fiction Foundation kindly asked me to give the George Hay lecture at this year’s Eastercon, on the subject of geoengineering. Quite a lot of the talk explored my ideas about how the issues raised by geoengineering resemble in many ways those raised by nuclear power and weaponry, and on this occasion I tried to put them together in the tradition of the technological sublime, as discussed by Leo Marx, David Nye, Lyotard and others. It’s possible that the SFF will at some point put up a video. I don’t have a complete text, and didn’t clear copyright on most of teh images, so I won’t be putting the whole thing up, but here’s the conclusion, or perhaps the coda — an appreciation of Olafur Eliasson’s remarkable and unforgettable Weather Project:
The turbine hall of Tate Modern is a vast space, and much of the art that has been shown in it over the past ten years has failed in the face of its immensity; little things were daunted by it, big things cluttering it up to ill effect. Olafur Eliasson’s work, though, brought the sublime to it. Undaunted by the huge volume, Eliasson effectively doubled it by mirroring the ceiling, making a spaceship hold large enough for other spaceships to chase through. And within that space, he recreated the sun, encapsulated and encompassed in an idea of art. To quote Edmund Burke again — “Such a light as that of the sun, immediately exerted on the eye, as it overpowers the sense, is a very great idea”. Throughout the hall, 200 metres long, people stared at something more vast than they were used to indoors, more present than they were used to outdoors, an idea that was also an experience. And when they looked up – or lay down, as we did, in large numbers, unbidden – they saw themselves, in the mirrored ceiling, clearly down on the floor, and clearly high above the sun in which they basked. It was a shrunken world, but not a constraining one.
For an experience of the sublime, it was unusual in many ways. One was that it was enclosed, not open. The great electric architecture of the building itself stood in for our power to encompass anything – even the weather, even the sun – with our minds. And that made it reflexive, too. To experience it was to see not just the sun, but to see yourself in the sun, seeing the sun.
And not just yourself. Because another oddity was the sense of solar solidarity. Mostly, in facing the sublime, one is alone – that is, in fact, the point. The weather project didn’t allow solitude. You, anyone you were with, anyone else who was there, were all in it together – down on the roof, up in the mirrors, flanking the sun. It was a sublime with a sense of the personal – and the collective. As such, it was an inspiration.
UPDATE: Looking at this post I realise that out of context it is pretty much impenetrable. The idea was to try and find an image for what the sort of solidarity that might make geoengineering governable might actually feel like.
Spending a week on the beautiful North California coastline with a bunch of interesting people talking about a fascinating topic is obviously a chore, but I girded my loins and took the plunge. The Asilomar meeting on the regulation of geoengineering research was intended to echo the Asilomar meeting of 1975, which set out procedures for moving beyond the moratorium on genetic engineering experiments that had been set up the year before. Alexis Madrigal looked at the historical precedent in some detail. Not an exact parallel, as pointed out by various people at the meeting, whose views were taken on board by The Economist
There are, however, important differences between the subjects. One is that in the 1970s it was clear that the ability to move genes between creatures was going to bring about a huge change in the practice of science itself, and biologists were eager for that to happen. Modern climate scientists, by contrast, usually see geoengineering research as niche, if not fringe, stuff. Many wish it would go away completely. Another difference is that in the 1970s there was a worry that DNA experiments could in themselves present dangers. With geoengineering the dangers are more likely to be caused by large-scale deployment than by any individual scientific experiment.
There was no consensus at the end of the meeting, but there was a statement by the steering committee. The Economist concludes
The participants … generally endorsed a set of five overarching principles for the regulation of the field that were presented recently to the British Parliament by Steve Rayner, a professor at the Saïd Business School, in Oxford.
The “Oxford principles”, as they are known, hold that geoengineering should be regulated as a public good, in that, since people cannot opt out, the whole proceeding has to be in a well-defined public interest; that decisions defining the extent of that interest should be made with public participation; that all attempts at geoengineering research should be made public and their results disseminated openly; that there should be an independent assessment of the impacts of any geoengineering research proposal; and that governing arrangements be made clear prior to any actual use of the technologies.
The conference’s organising committee is now working on a further statement of principles, to be released later. Meanwhile Britain’s main scientific academy, the Royal Society, and the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, which has members from around 90 countries, are planning further discussions that will culminate at a meeting to be held this November.
Producing plausible policies and ways for the public to have a say on them will be hard—harder, perhaps, than the practical problem of coming up with ways to suck up a bit of carbon or reduce incoming sunshine. As Andrew Mathews, an anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, puts it, it is not just a matter of constructing a switch, it is a matter of constructing a hand you trust to flip it.
Although the climate scientists may have accomplished less in a week than did their biologist forebears, they did make progress. The conference organizers declared that geoengineering research is “indispensable” but said that it should be done with “humility.” Governments and the public should work together to decide what schemes are “viable, appropriate, and ethical,” the statement added. Cuts in greenhouse emissions should be a priority, it said, mirroring statements by the American Geophysical Union and the U.K. Royal Society.
Most conferees believe the possibility of climate tipping points has placed geoengineering on the global agenda. And so last week’s meeting—The Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies, or Asilomar 2, as it was dubbed—was driven both by fears of climate catastrophes and the potentially dangerous steps that scientists or politicians might take to avert them. It was “a meeting … we all wished was not necessary,” conference organizer Margaret Leinen of the Climate Response Fund in Alexandria, Virginia, told the participants.
Lesson one: Geoengineering is a tabula rasa in the public mind. Like most of the attendees, I was well aware of the fact that geoengineering is an unfamiliar idea to many people. But I had not seen any actual data on this. Nor had I really grasped the implications of it.
One of the most enlightening presentations of the week was from Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change, who presented the results of a long-running study on the public perception of global warming. In his most recent survey, he had thrown in a few questions about geoengineering. When asked, “How much, if anything, have you heard about geoengineering as a possible response to climate change,” 74 percent of respondents said “nothing.” The 26 percent that had heard about geoengineering turned out to be wildly misinformed — more than half thought it referred to geothermal energy. Only 3 percent of the people who had heard about geoengineering were correctly informed about it. “The public basically knows nothing about this,” Leiserowitz told the attendees. “That is both a great challenge, and a great opportunity.”
The other 4 lessons are: Nobody has any clear idea how to resolve the inequalities inherent in geoengineering; People will be talking about banning field experiments; It’s all about the money; and trust is everything.
“Be very careful.” The warning, from Robert Socolow, a climate researcher at Princeton University in New Jersey, came at the end of a meeting last week that aimed to thrash out guidelines for the nascent field of geoengineering. The discipline aims to use global-scale efforts to control the climate and mitigate the worst effects of anthropogenic warming — but the techniques used could also have far-reaching, unintended consequences.
Jeff also gets the best of many quotes from David Keith (“People aren’t discussing apples and oranges, they are talking about apples and oranges and Porsches and whales and moons”) that enliven much of the coverage. (Pablo Suarez probably runs him a close second for most quoted non-organiser)
Jim Giles at New Scientist takes in more of the science than most accounts, neatly highlighting some new wrinkles, before ending up with the opposition to the ideas (which was aired in the local paper, among other places):
A lack of consultation could fuel campaigns against geoengineering similar to those that have derailed the use of genetically modified crops in Europe, Shobita Parthasarathy warns. Such protests seem to be taking off already. While delegates were talking in Asilomar, a body of over 70 environmental, health and social groups published an open letter attacking the meeting. “Such a discussion cannot happen without the participation of the full membership of the United Nations,” it reads. “Determining guidelines for geoengineering research and testing in the absence of that debate is premature and irresponsible.”
Also worth mentioning: the California poppies, which I fell for the first time I visited the site, and still find entrancing.
Images by me: licensed under creative commons
To understand geoengineering better, concentrate not on what it isn’t, or what you don’t want it to be; look instead at what it is, and what it could become. Geoengineering is not an alternative, but it can be an addition. This neglected set of ways in which people can alter climate should be part of mainstream debate on climate change, studied and assessed as a part of the whole. And that is going to require a far greater level of research. Despite all the public discussion there are only a few dozen people in the world contributing to the scientific literature.
Steven Levitt, at the end of a long post on his freakonomics blog about Superfreakonomics and geoengineering:
For all the blogosphere shouting against our chapter, I have to be honest and say that I just don’t get it. I can’t understand why any environmentalist who really cares about the Earth’s future could say with a straight face that geoengineering doesn’t deserve a seat at the table as the global-warming debate heats up.
This mischaracterises the debate/furore/ritual clubbing/whatever (see previous posts). Quite a lot of the people attacking superfreakonomics — eg Brad Delong — *do* want geoengineering to have a seat at the table. It’s just that they don’t like the superfreaks’ treatment of the subject — and may, as I do, think such treatment is going to make it harder to get that seat, not easier. They, and I, are criticising the chapter not because geoengineering shouldn’t be taken seriously, but because Levitt and Dubner don’t seem to be trying to take it seriously: their handling of the issue is partial and unsatisfactory. It mixes a poorly tempered enthusiasm for geoengineering with some tired tropes of global warming denialism (which serve no clear purpose in the argument), and it frames the idea specifically as an alternative to emissions reductions (“Mt Pinatubo versus Al Gore”, “solve the whole global warming problem”) rather than as an additional strategy should there be a need for prompt cooling.
From the evidence of his post Levitt sort-of-gets some of this: that is why he says that the chapter in question is really about “how could we most efficiently cool the earth fast”, rather than other questions such as “how can we most equitably manage the risk of climate change”. But: a) while it may well be that a close reading provides textual support for the idea that the superfreaks acknowledge the narrow focus of their question, the chapter sure gives the impression that it is about climate change in general; b) asking “how can we most efficiently cool the earth fast” without asking broader questions about climate change is intellectually shallow; c) even in the narrow frame, surely “how could we most efficiently cool the earth fast and keep it cool” is a better question, with a more complex answer.
Generosity dictates, though, that we should also look more generally at the real phenomenon that Levitt points to: people who don’t want geoengineering discussed at all, or only under the strictest of limits. I disagree with these people. But I don’t find it very hard to understand where they are coming from. Here are five components to their arguments, as I see them.
- Geongineering adds to the climate risks unconscionably. Volcanoes, and by implication other stratospheric-veil schemes, screw with hydrology; cloud brightening can change ocean currents; ocean fertilization radically rearranges ecosystems: we don’t know how to do any of these things well, and if we sanction the general idea that geoengineering is plausible we are prohibitively unlikely to retire all these risks before going ahead with a scheme. As applied to geoengineering research this is partly an epistemological argument (the impossibility of getting knowledge of a high enough quality) and partly a slippery slope argument. I think in general slippery slope arguments are overblown, but I can see where this line of reasoning is coming from. (There is also a linked concern about crowding out research money for other aspects of climate, but I think that’s a sceond tier argument)
- It is reasonable to distrust a priori the motives of anyone who tries to argue for any approach to global warming other than emissions reduction. People feel this because they know, from experience and analysis, that that there are extremely powerful lobbies which want to slow or derail emissions reduction, and assume that pretty much anyone saying anything along those lines is doing so as either a dupe or a tool of those lobbies. There is an element of cognitive miserliness in this; but where one person says cognitive miser another might say cognitively prudent, and ask why he or she should bother wasting cognition on a subject when past experience has given them a pretty damn good inductive basis for thinking such an investment of thought will be wasted.
- I think its clearly true that many environmentalists have a pre-existing desire for people to live low-impact, low-consumption lives, often because they sincerely believe that this will make everyone happier. To some extent, and with various levels of awareness that they are behaving in this way, some of these people see concern about global warming as an instrumental way to bring a low-consumption low-impact work of some sort about. This is not to say they are insincere in their concern about global warming: merely that it is overdetermined. I personally would rather people separated out these two strands of their thought, but I can see as a matter of fact that they frequently don’t, and I’m sure if Steve Levitt was really trying to “get” things he could see that to.
- The first moral argument. At an everything-I-need-to-know-I-learned-in-kindergarten level people think that when you make a mess you should clean it up, not paint over it, even if painting over it is much easier. This is not a particularly good argument, and will have little if any traction with people who see the world in terms of costs and benefits — but it is an argument that people can feel easily and clearly, and feelings about the morality of pollution run deep.
- The second moral argument: the purpose of environmental action is to restore nature. This means getting back to a preindustrial sort of a climate, with lower greenhouse gases and no permanent high-altitude smogs. For me, this is a flawed argument, a planet-wide application of the naturalistic fallacy; I think correct environmental action is much more complex, and that increasing the possibilities for human happiness matters more than an idealised concern for nature. But I understand that other people don’t feel this way.
There is doubtless more to geoengineering opposition than this, but these five points seem to me to cover a great deal of it. The important thing is to grasp that geoengineering is at some level just another form of climate change, that there are a great many of ways in which people disagree about climate change, and that it helps to understand them. If Steven Levitt wants to understand all this better, then he ought to buy a copy of Mike Hulme’s “Why we disagree about global warming” (Amazon US|UK), as discussed in the Copenhagen reading list post.
PS: Recent useful contributions to the superfreakonomics debate: an interview with Ken Caldeira by Jeff Goodell, whose book on all this is going to be way better than Superfreakonomics, and Daniel Davies on what contrarians should expect.
Filed under: Geoengineering
It’s clear that there are real problems with Levitt and Dubner’s take on geoengineering in their book Superfreakonomics (see past two posts Update: or more concisely, see Eric Pooley’s piece on Bloomberg, reposted here with added Joe Romm). I thought it might be interesting to see if those problems necessarily reflect mistakes made by Nathan Myhrvold, who is one of their sources (more on Nathan and some of his geoengineering ideas in this post).
Here are the things that Nathan says or is reported to believe in the relevant chapter — not necessarily a comprehensive list, but I think I got most of them:
That people who suggest global warming will lead to the extinction of humanity are probably wrong; that an Inconvenient Truth was meant to scare people; that Al Gore doesn’t lie in An Inconvenient Truth, but some aspects of the film are misleading, in that they lead people to believe significant problems such as the flooding of Florida are near at hand when they are not; that it will take decades for computer software/hardware to be good enough to implement models that do a really good job on climate; that while global warming is a real phenomenon most of the warming of the past decades may be due to a reduction in aerosol pollution (“global dimming”); that most commercial greenhouses run under high CO2 coniditions in order to benefit from CO2 fertilization; that current attempts to replace fossil fuels are insufficient to the task; that transportation is not a big sector; that doing without coal is economic suicide (though that phrase is not in quotation marks); that cap and trade will not deliver large enough carbon cuts in time; that “a lot of things people say would be a good thing probably aren’t”; as an example of that, that the reradiated heat from solar panels, which is a lot more than the electricity they generate, will warm the planet; that the building of a planet’s worth of solar panels would itself require a lot of energy which would mostly not be generated by solar panels; that Mt St Helens kicked up a lot of dust; that his dorm room at college was messy; that “big-ass” volcanoes have climatic effects; that the ideas for implementing a stratospheric aerosol that would cool the world included in the chapter on geoengineering of the NAS 1992 report on policy implications of climate change were not very practical; that putting sulphates into the stratosphere as opposed to the troposphere gets you an extra level of cooling in a way that can be seen as leverage; that the pumps on a pipeline taking sulphur gases from ground level to the stratosphere (where it would be moored to a blimp) could be smaller than the pumps in his swimming pool; that there is a lot of stockpiled sulphur in Canada; that one sulphur-aerosol project using that stockpile could “solve the whole global warming problem for the northern hemisphere”; that in view of fossil fuel use (and possibly other things) “we’ve already engineered the earth”; that geoengineering could be “an excuse to pollute”, but that that is not necessarily a reason not to do it (the analogy is to not refusing care to a heart patient because she doesn’t have a healthy lifestyle); that unilateral geoengineering “would freak people out”; that he doesn’t dismiss global warming; that he wants to see geoengineering technology ready for use if the worst climate predictions come true, but not fielded as a matter of course; that a slow down in world GDP growth due to stringent carbon emission reductions would fall particularly hard on the legitimate aspirations of the poor; that “if you believe the scary stories are true, you should also admit that relying on reducing carbon dioxide emissions is not a very good answer”; that the scary scenarios could come about even if there are herculean efforts towards carbon dioxide emissions reduction.
So what’s to disagree with here?
The claim that a geoengineering scheme in Canada would “solve the whole global warming problem for the Northern Hemisphere” is wrong. It might at best be true only for an absurdly limited definition of global warming that was purely in terms of radiative forcing; I doubt if it is true in any other — that is to say meaningful — sense. (Even if it were true, it is certainly not knowably true; as Nathan says, climate models aren’t good enough to tell one such things.) Most obviously, if you cool the northern hemisphere while leaving the south to warm you will move the thermal equator; as a result the pattern of northern hemisphere climate in a world with greenhouse warming and a cooling cap on the north will not be the same as the pattern in a world that in which there was neither. A recent study by Ken Caldeira and Lowell Wood (Global and Arctic climate engineering: numerical model studies, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A (2008) doi:10.1098/rsta.2008.0132), who both attended the meeting where the Superfrakonomics discussion is set, looked at idealised geoengineering schemes aimed at the Arctic; it found that they could not recreate a preindustrial climate in a doubled-carbon-dioxide world, but that they did do quite a lot to ameliorate such a world. That’s the most you can say, and it seems to me a very long way from saying “abracadabra, problem solved”. In general, anything aiming to be a long term solution to global warming would have to include flat carbon dioxide levels, though I would be willing to accept that it might also include some geoengineering. This sort of “geoengineering can be a solution in and of itself” stuff is really misleading, and needs to be rejected as such.
Then there’s “we’re already engineering the earth”. Again, no. David Keith nailed this trope, popular with geoengineering enthusiasts, ages ago: “Making a mess is not engineering”. Engineering is purposeful; what humanity has done to date, great though its impact has been, has not had any purpose at the level of the earth system (it has had other purposes, of course, but engineers have to mean to change the thing they are changing, and to make changes directed at a given and pre-specified goal)
“Transportation is not a large sector”: no, it is a large sector — in the US second only to electricity generation in carbon emissions. That said, in context, he was talking about Priuses, and private road transportation for passengers is a subset of transportation as a whole. But as it stands I think it’s fair to mark that as wrong.
The claim that reduced scattering of sunlight by aerosols, through direct and indirect effects, has had a greater effect on global warming than greenhouse gases in recent decades is also, as far as I know, wrong. Something similar is probably true for some areas, such as western Europe and the eastern US, but I know of no evidence for it being a worldwide phenomenon and would be surprised to hear of such evidence.
Doing without coal is economic suicide: as Tim Lambert has pointed out, tell it to the French. (again, Nathan may not have said this — it could be the Superfreaks’ point). Coal is very abundant and cheap and it will take a lot to make people give it up; but a lot can be done (as can CCS, though that, too, is hard.)
That’s about it for flat out disagreement.
There’s another claim — solar cells warm the world — that needs further unpacking and which I think I will leave for a later post.
There are some more which are judgment calls. It is true that building new energy infrastructure will require energy from the old infrastructure. But it’s not clear that the amount of energy needed to create new low and zero carbon energy infrastructure will be significantly grater than the energy that would be needed to recreate the old energy infrastructure, a process that is continuously ongoing. As replacement is just business as usual, it’s already be in the figures. So it seems a bit strange to treat this is as an extra burden, and a little unnecessary, in that the burdens of business as usual are heavy enough.
The 1992 NAS geoengineering schemes, such as artillery guns for lofting aerosols into the sky, may well have been fanciful; to those not acquainted with the details it’s not clear that a great big hosepipe sticking into the stratosphere is less so. If you’ve seen detailed engineering trade offs, though, you might be convinced of such a thing. You might also know whether the pumps needed are larger or smaller than those which service Nathan’s pool. On that, I must admit, I have no clue at all.
Lumping together the other claims, I find myself in broad agreement. First, on climate: Yes, I agree that global warming is real and needs addressing, but I too don’t think climate change is likely to lead to the extinction of the human race. I do think that An Inconvenient Truth (which I have not seen, but I have seen Gore’s presentation) is designed to scare people — which is a fair goal for someone raising an alarm — and when I saw him talk I felt he skirted close to the edge on sea level stuff. Volcanoes of large ass do have effects, and there may be a (very small) possibility of very bad events even after massive reductions in carbon emissions. If the sort of climate model one really wants is one that produces projections with a sub-kilometre grid, and does so fast enough that one can run large ensembles in reasonable periods of time — and that is indeed the goal of soem respectable people in the field — then expect to wait a couple of decades for the many exaflops required. Carbon dioxide is indeed used for its fertilization effect in greenhouses (can’t say that I know it’s used in most of them, but it is in a lot).
On emissions reduction it is clear that what has been done to date is insufficient, and though I know and respect people who think that cap and trade will do much to solve the problem I do not think their case is proven, in that I do not think that a cap and trade system of sufficient scope is necessarily politically achievable. It is true that “a lot of things people say would be a good thing probably aren’t”, though in the field of climate I would point to corn ethanol as the best example. There is definitely a risk that a slow down in world GDP growth due to stringent carbon emissions would fall particularly hard on the legitimate aspirations of the poor (I think that risk could be mitigated by the right policies, but I wouldn’t bet that it would be). There are also imaginable circumstances where one might want more options than emissions control alone.
On geoengineering I think leverage is a petty useful concept and use it myself, and I know there are mountains of sulphur in Canada. I agree that geoengineering, unilateral or otherwise, “would freak people out”, and that supporting research aimed at understanding what the technology might do and how it might work, as I do, does not mean endorsing deployment. I also agree that geoengineering could all to easily be seen as “an excuse to pollute” but that there would be circumstances in which that was not a good reason for not doing it.
So I think there are some factual claims that are wrong, some things which are dubious, and a lot to agree with. Getting things wrong is bad, but it happens. Letting them stay wrong in a chapter you have agreed to read over for accuracy is worse, and shouldn’t happen. That said, most of what is wrongest about the chapter does not seem to stem directly from Nathan, at least as represented in the finished product.
My overall feeling is that Nathan, who I’ve met a few times and liked, is convincing to himself and others, brash, capable of making mistakes, biased (as we all are). He is committed to particular technological approaches and overclaims for them (the besetting sin of the technologist); he does so in a big way here when he says a particular piece of geoengineering is a solution to the whole problem. This is reflected in the fact that it seems unclear, and may indeed be unclear to him, how much he thinks of geoengineering as a research project and how much as a truly likely option. He clearly likes to be contrarian, and a critical outlook and quick intelligence may make him unwilling to dig into and understand the basis of widely held positions in which he sees some immediate flaws. He could be more careful. But I can’t say I agree with Joe Romm that this all makes Nathan an “idiotic savant”.
Image from Flickr user SirWiseowl, used under a creative commons licence
Little of science or policy import in this post: mostly process.
Brad DeLong (all right one more i gotta correct the record) has used the Google cache to come up with pretty clear evidence that, pace Dubner (who may have been misinformed), there was originally a look-inside-the-book option for Superfreakonomics which has subsequently been withdrawn.
Joe Romm (anatomy of a debunking) posts quite a lot of correspondence with Ken Caldeira, some of which was in Dubner’s earlier post. One specific point to stress: Ken is in this email as elsewhere very clear that he supports geoengineering research and not geoengineering implementation under current conditions. That crucial subtlety does seem to be missing from the Superfreakonomics account of his work. In general, reading this through, it seems to me that my impression of the chapter last night is one I broadly still hold.
Paul Krugman looks at some lessons learned and points well enunciated in superfreakingmeta.
I note, by the way, that Google is currently of the opnion that no-one is using the term superfrakonomics, or for that matter superfrak’donomics. Given the number of BSG fans in the better parts of the blogosphere this surprises me…
Those interested in more on geoengineering from this blog, rather than a load of links to today’s controversy, might want to browse further in the geoengineering category; a nice start is this post and the article it links to, and the IMO post is quite fun too.
Update: missed this, an email exchange with Superfreakonomics author Steven Levitt. He doesn’t really get some of the issues, but does say:
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.