Superfreakonomics: what did Nathan Myhrvold say?
October 20, 2009, 3:53 pm
Filed under: Geoengineering

A swimming pool pump, geoengineering potential unknown

A swimming pool pump, geoengineering potential unknown

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

4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Well that was a breath of fresh air.

Comment by Christopher Mims


Comment by Pat Joseph

Did you see Myhrvold’s presentation on CNN GPS yesterday. Check it out on line if you did not. What is your response.

Comment by RSievert

No, I’m afraid I didn’t — only just back from Cop 15. What did he say?

Comment by Oliver

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