George Hay lecture
April 18, 2010, 8:26 pm
Filed under: Geoengineering, Nature writing

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.

Images from Flickr users Mushkush and Istvan under a Creative Commons licence; more nice flickr images here


Some catching up: Asilomar
April 18, 2010, 8:19 pm
Filed under: Geoengineering, Published stuff

Asilomar morningSpending 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.

Both the fine people with books out on the topic were there and gave their own accounts. Here’s a bit of Eli Kintisch, author of “Hack the Planet“, in Science:

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.

And here’s Jeff Goodell, author of  “How to Cool the Planet“, afforded more opportunity for opinion and colour over at Yale360,

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.

Jeff Tollefson at Nature leads with Rob Socolow, who gave one of the meeting’s best talks (ppt, html)

“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

Another geoengineering piece
December 23, 2009, 4:54 pm
Filed under: Geoengineering, Published stuff

Catch-up blogging part 3: While I was in Copenhagen Prospect published a longish piece on geoengineering which I wrote shortly before rejoining The Economist. A taster:

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.

Continue reading

Why people disagree about geoengineering
October 26, 2009, 11:08 am
Filed under: Geoengineering, Media, Uncategorized

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.

  1. 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)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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

More superfreakonomics
October 19, 2009, 5:03 pm
Filed under: Geoengineering, Media

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.

Superfreakonomics, etc
October 18, 2009, 8:57 pm
Filed under: Geoengineering, Media

[Updated Monday morning to include Brad’s last post and Gavin’s take on Real Climate, an update I take note of up here because they’re both worth your time: More in subsequent post Monday pm]

As someone interested in geoengineering, and writing about it myself, I look forward to actually reading what Levitt and Dubner say on the subject in Superfreakonomics (Amazon US|UK) (you can download a copyright-challenged scan of the chapter here as of the time of writing). Once I’ve done so I may, if so moved, comment on it further, but I’ll try to keep this short [update: as you can see from the bottom of this post I did read it — and at the time of posting the xkcd cartoon at the top looks more apposite than ever]. From what I can gather: a) they make a case that geoengineering is a serious option and should be considered as such; b) they do so in a way that spectacularly fails to convince — and indeed enrages — a lot of people who are of a different opinion on this matter, partly because some of their material seems to be the sort of thing that denialists/sceptics/whatever say a lot, and wrong. Anyway, because I feel I should post something, I haven’t read the material and don’t really want to get into this in depth right now, here is a guide to what’s out there for those who want to track it.

Outrage central (how surprising) is Joe Romm’s Climate Progress. Gists follow (nb there’s a fair amount of overlap and repetition):

Post one: Seeing belief in climate change as being akin to religion is wrong, economics not a science, Nathan Myrhvold not all he’s cracked up to be [not fully convinced by JR on this]; Ken Caldeira, a major source for the relevant part of the book, feels misrepresented. This post originally came with a pdf of the chapter, but the publishers asked for it to be removed. It is also apparently the most trafficked post on Climate Progress this year

Post two: Evil geoengineering ideas of Myrhvold’s have corrupted Bill Gates and Warren Buffett; Pinatubo cooling, which lasted for a year or so, does not validate the idea that permanent stratospheric sheidls might do better.

Post three: Amazon feature that allows you to read relevant pages of the book has been disabled. Superfreaks wrong to say the world is cooling now, and that it was feared to be cooling catastrophically in the 1970s. Union of Concerned Scientists lists problems with the climate science in the chapter.

Post four: Superfreaks have denied be “deniers” — but JR has not accused them of this. Superfreaks appear, as Paul Krugman has pointed out, to have mischaracterised/misunderstood Martin Weitzman’s argument about catastrophic risks in the low probability part of the climate sensitivity distribution.

Post 5: Outsourced in large part to Brad Delong (see below). Disputes Dubner’s claim that the book was never readable on Amazon.

There will be more from Joe over the next few days. Dubner’s main response to critics (there was an earlier I-am-not-a-denier placeholder) came out after the fifth of these posts. Gist of the main post: Not a denialist. Disputes some of Joe’s specific points, promises more to come on some, notes Joe’s ideological stance. Key point: Ken Caldeira saw the draft twice, was asked for comments, mostly didn’t object. Quotes Ken in an email to Joe and since forwarded by Ken to Dubner:

I f&@?ed up. They sent me the draft and I approved it without reading it carefully and I just missed it. … I think everyone operated in good faith, and this was just a mistake that got by my inadequate editing

In a later email Ken expanded on his interactions with Romm

Rather than acting deliberately, I panicked and commented on things that I now wish I would have been silent on. It was obviously a mistake to let myself get drawn into this, and I learned a quick and hard lesson in public relations.

Dubner goes on to say that the relevant text was never searchable on Amazon. Its noticeable that this post focuses entirely on Romm, treating him as fons et origo of all other criticism. It doesn’t address the fact that the chapter has also been criticised by economist and colleague on fellow New York Times blogger Paul Krugman. Gists:

Krugman post 1: I trust Joe Romm, and I worry that superfreakomics guys love contrarianism for the sake of it. Fate of the planet too important for that.

Krugman post 2: Starting off with the global-believed-in-the-1970s story cuts credibility. They missed the point of Weitzmann’s analysis.

Krugman post 3: More on what Weitzmann actually said. Notes Dubner’s not-a-denialist post, doesn’t think it cuts it.


William Connelly (Stoat):

Diagnosis, in brief: (1) they write about stuff they clearly don’t understand (2) they pick a catchy reverse-common-wisdom nugget as a headliner without the having the slightest interest in whether it is true or not

William also offers chapter and verse on global cooling and other rhetoric borrowed from skeptics that the superfreaks use (rather confusingly, since they and their sources genuinely don’t seem to be deniers). He also has excellent taste in cartoons.

Tim Lambert (Deltoid):

Levitt and Dubner do not understand the climate science literature. This by itself would not be fatal, but what has taken them off the cliff is the Freakonomics formula: “What you thought you knew about X is wrong!”

There follow some mostly good points, made more concisely than Joe Romm does.

Brad Delong has taken various shots on the subject. Here is an exchange of emails with Dubner, and here are six specific questions. He also helpfully points readers towards 4 more favourable blog posts on the book from Bryan Caplan:

Overall, [the book]’s better than the original.  It’s still cutesy, but stronger in the “who cares?” factor.

Tim Harford:

[The geoengineering chapter] is a strong story, but it is also one-sided, portraying the geo-engineers as brilliant iconoclasts, dismissing the objections to geo-engineering as the knee-jerk reaction of the unreflective, and failing to convey the views of a single credible geo-engineering sceptic. A well-deserved swipe at Al Gore does not really count.

Joshua Gans:

There is nothing too wrong with [the geoengineering chapter]. Not enough for name calling. What the authors are doing is identifying the ‘economist’s angst’ in this whole discussion.

and Robert Waldmann

As far as I can tell, [the superfreaks’ critics] really don’t have very much to say against [geoengineering]. Rather they mainly object to the Steves’ proposal that we use [it] as an alternative to cap and trade. The argument against doing both seems fairly weak to me.

[Update: Then, in the optimistically entitled *sigh* last post on superfreakonomics I promise, Brad gives a full list of issues he and others have with the chapter (you need to have the pdf or a copy of the book to go through these properly). This is probably the best single place for a list of the problems that have been raised. His take home message:

It really does look to me like Levitt and Dubner:

  • went to Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures.
  • got wowed.
  • excitedly wrote up what they heard.
  • and then failed to do their intellectual due diligence about what they were told there.]

[Further update: Gavin has a post at Real Climate, which tends towards the straw-mannish, in that it suggests that geoengineering might be treated as a strategy for a world with no emission reductions, which I don’t think many people, if any, are really advocating (though people might argue it could come about anyway). But it is definitely worth reading. And it points to this very good post on the topic by Michael Tobis, which puts geoengineering, mitigation and adaptation into the context of interventions which are not mutually exclusive — a good place to put them]

Ezra Klein looks at other aspects of the book and the authors’ MO

The problem with Super Freakonomics is it prefers an interesting story to an accurate one. This is evident from the very first story on the very first page of the book.

After all this I gave in and skimmed the chapter. It has some interesting discussions in it, but I think quite a few of the criticisms are well founded: there are what I take to be some errors,  some suggestio falsi, and some serious omissions.  I think there’s a structural delight in the contrarian which gets irksome, and I think building your understanding of geoengineering out of what is heard at an Intellectual Ventures meeting is not likely to give you a fully rounded view of the issue. I wish they had gone deeper. That said I am not convinced by all the criticisms, and I do think wider discussion of geoengineering — and indeed frank advocacy — is something to be hoped for. People need to say what they think should be done.

That said, last word for now to dsquared’s take on freakonomics in general:

My intuition is that Freakonomics has had its moment in the sun. The central selling point was always, basically, academic machismo; the presumption on the part of economists that because they were “smart” in the Larry Summers sense, they could turn their hand to anything and the rest of the world was bound to listen to them. Those days, to put it mildly, are gone.

Image from the wonderful xkcd, used under creative commons licence