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.
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