Mass outbreak of illiteracy?

I just read The Chapter Five (in this book) and I’ll go as far as to say the critics don’t even have a point.

The chapter motivates geo-engineering without saying anything outlandish about the science (as far as this semi-informed lay-person can tell). There’s not even as much as an implication in the whole chapter that global warming isn’t a big deal. In fact, such a level-headed discussion of solutions to the problem actually bumped up my subjective probability of global warming being an issue to worry about. There’s no use fretting over something we can’t, practically, do anything about. It appears more likely to me, now, that we can do something about global warming.

The authors haven’t given up on marginal analysis, they seem to get that people respond to incentives and they appear to be aware of Pigovian-type taxes. They explicitly address the problems with carbon pricing and move the discussion forward with their description of one alternative policy (i.e. subsidized research in bio-engineering).

The reaction to this chapter was just plain strange.

20 thoughts on “Mass outbreak of illiteracy?”

  1. But the chapter doesn’t in any way deny global warming… the whole thing is about a solution to that problem! Delong’s feedback suggests he just didn’t like how they framed the issue. He seems to agree with the substance (“I’m a scifi geek” and so on).

    Why would their choice of framing matter?

    You might think that the Freak’s use of standard denialist tropes would align the Freakish argument with theirs. But it doesn’t. The Freaks are co-opting those lines of argument and using them to push a line that *accepts* GW while suggesting an unorthodox solution to the problem. This sends the denialists back to the drawing board and/or it makes them ok with GW just not with the orthodox policy.

    The delongs of the world should be happy about this choice of framing and because they’re not, their reaction is strange.

  2. I never said they denied global warming, as they don’t deny global warming.

    I said they made false and misleading claims about global warming. The criticism is not about framing, it’s about false and misleading statements like those de long pointed out. Again, are there any parts of de long’s revisions that you diasagree with? Many of these are the “outlandish statements about science” that people are criticizing.

  3. I haven’t read it, and haven’t been too involved with this kerfluffle, but if it is true that I’m hearing that the chapter get Marty Weitzman’s research backwards that is such a tell. Even a quick google search on the paper would have found it means the opposite of what they think it means, and that’s among lay people. Among economists looking at the issue that paper is a key piece of argument, and if they get it backwards it’s clear they didn’t do their homework.

    I’m not sure if you are making the more general point that even though the work is shoddy and misleading it still supports accepting GW as something to do something about, but that doesn’t get any points with me. We are long since that point – you need to do your homework to contribute to the debate in such a public venue as a bestselling book.

    How much do they think injecting sulfate aerosol precursors into the stratosphere is a magic bullet?

  4. “The reaction to this chapter was just plain strange.”

    When people get so attached to a problem (and their solution) then even the tiniest dissent can seem very important. Also, the had the phrase “global cooling” on the cover, and I think that just set some people off — they hear that line and just go into “attack the neanderthals who don’t believe in global warming” mode. Insert “judging book by its cover” joke here.

    Krugman’s on record as saying that the lawmakers that didn’t support Waxman-Markey were “betraying the planet.” If that’s where you’re coming from, it’s easy to see how Levitt and Dubner are heretics who have to be exposed. However, here in reality, most people are able to see they are people on the same side who are just proposing 2 different solutions.

  5. Brian, that would certainly explain the strange response.

    Gabe, I don’t know what to say. The Freaks are on Delong’s side and he’s making suggestions to rephrase things like “to say x is misleading, they should have said y”. I don’t see how that’s not an issue of framing.

    Mike, Krugman was wrong about the Freaks’ take on Weitzman. You should read the chapter and see for your self. There’s a sentence something like “what to do about all the uncertainty about the uncertainty?” That’s exactly the point of Weitzman. Later in the chapter, they quote someone saying something along the lines of “its sudden changes that are the problem” and they suggest that geo-engineering can at least act as a technological backstop. Someone who understands Weitzman’s paper should be worried about these exact same things.

  6. Probably because the attackers spend every day fighting against arguments like “This year is cooler than 1998, that disproves global warming,” “Snowfall record in Denver today, this disproves global warming,” “Climate models don’t include heat contributions from the sun, therefore global warming is a liberal myth,” etc. It’s unfortunate that Levitt and Dubner got caught in the flak screen while attempting an intelligent argument.

    I don’t get the appeal of geoengineering among economists. Don’t you guys live by the law of unintended consequences? Surely an ecology is at least somewhat as complex as a regional economy. When a lay person says “We should raise import taxes until the trade deficit is fixed,” most economists would laugh them out of the room, yet proposals to hack the planetary albedo don’t set off any alarms.

  7. swong, I think that’s a great argument. The somewhat weak response is that there’s unintended side effects of *enforcing* carbon pricing schemes, too. Will we go to war with China and/or India when they don’t meet their targets?

    I don’t think anyone is arguing that we shouldn’t attempt to price carbon and geoengineering. The Freaks claim the second is several orders of magnitude cheaper than the first, btw.

  8. Here, let’s try this:

    “Nor does atmospheric carbon dioxide necessarily warm the earth” false
    “Yet [Ken Caldeira’s] research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight.” false
    “a most surprising environmental scourge: trees.” really?
    “A lot of things that people say would be a good thing probably aren’t…. As an example he points to solar cells…” really?

    These aren’t framing issues, they’re staments that are wrong (first two) or laughably wrong (second two).

  9. gabe, I’m actually surprised that you keep coming back to this stuff. Why did those sentences appear in a chapter that was describing a solution to the problem of global warming? Take them out and it makes Delong and you happy, but it makes the argument much less palpable to people who are still skeptical about the importance of global warming as an issue to worry about. Marginal analysis and all that.

    BTW, I could fairly easily provide the context to make each of those sentences “make sense” with respect to consensus science. I just see the point of doing so.

  10. Not to belabor the point, but you said the critics had no point, and I pointed out statements where criticism is clearly justifiable. It’s not about me or de long being happy, but about misleading or false statements. I don’t think bringing in skeptics justifies misleading or false statements.

    Levitt promised a “We are working on a thorough response to these critics, which we hope to post on the blog in the next day or two.” I’m still waiting for a response to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ concerns, and honestly, I don’t expect to see it ever.

  11. Ok. You goaded me into it:

    “Nor does atmospheric carbon dioxide necessarily warm the earth” They were talking about causation. It appears C02 concentrations increase, at large time scales, *after* temperatures increase. Not false, not misleading… true.

    “Yet [Ken Caldeira’s] research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight.” Directly after this line, the Freaks list his research that seems to suggest C02 isn’t the most important green house gas. In the broader context where cows continue to fart, will carbon pricing solve the global warming problem? I’ve never heard a good argument for this.

    “a most surprising environmental scourge: trees.”
    The next sentence is “[Caldeira’s] research has found that planting trees in certain locations actually exacerbates warming because comparatively dark leaves absorb more incoming sunlight than, say, grassy plains, sandy deserts, or snow-covered expanses.” Personally, I’d never considered the color of the earth as an issue in global warming before reading this book. OMG, I learned science from the Freaks!

    “A lot of things that people say would be a good thing probably aren’t…. As an example he points to solar cells…”
    Did you know that solar panels give off 10 times more heat than they capture as electricity? I didn’t before I read the book! If you put a bunch of dark colored (don’t say black!) solar panels in the desert, you’re turning a reflective part of the earth into a non-reflective part of the earth and you’re increasing the amount of heat in the atmosphere. Really!

    Oh and that one was a quote from someone else.

  12. I can certainly see the logic in the last two quotes that you mention, Will. As in economic policy, so many of these environmental “solutions” turn out to have unintended consequences, and these are some good examples of unintended side-effects. I’m a little more uncertain about the first two, though. As I understand it, the evidence indicates that in isolation, increasing carbon dioxide will warm the atmosphere. There is little dispute about this, and in fact even “skeptics” such as Dr. Richard Lindzen will acknowledge that a doubling of CO2 would warm the earth’s surface temperature by 1C in the absence of any other processes.

    I’m not entirely sure how much confidence to place in paleoclimate datasets, but I know that some scientists (probably many) have suggested that the changing levels of CO2 in past millenia helped to amplify warming and cooling patterns that begun as a result of slight changes in the earth’s orbit, etc.

    Thus, I suppose that it’s stretching the limits to say “nor does carbon dioxide necessarily warm the earth.” We don’t quite know how the atmosphere will respond to the warming induced by extra CO2. It’s possible that certain processes will dampen that warming, and in the end, the earth will not warm by much at all, but that is highly unlikely.

    I don’t really know enough about the methane problem to comment intelligently, but it seems that we exhaust so much CO2 from cars, electricity production, industrial processes, and so forth that it’s hard to quite imagine how cows could measure up. Perhaps they do more than I realize, though.

  13. Marc, put in context, they didn’t mean CO2 concentrations wouldn’t heat up the earth. But if they meant this, the chapter isn’t internally consistent because later on they talk about “diminishing returns” of CO2… each additional CO2 molecule added heats less than the one before. You can’t believe the function connecting CO2 and warming is downward slopping *and* has diminishing returns if you use those words like economists do.

    On the methane thing, I don’t know either but, for what its worth, delong seems to think its the third biggest cause of human caused global warming.

  14. Freaks:“Nor does atmospheric carbon dioxide necessarily warm the earth”

    Will: “they didn’t mean CO2 concentrations wouldn’t heat up the earth.” ???

    The chapter isn’t internally consistent, because they want to use discredited information from global warming deniers, like 1970s cooling, etc. while still believing in global warming

    Just because carbon dioxide isn’t the only villian doesn’t mean it’s not a villian. Besides, Calderia has since retracted that statement in an interview posted on his website. No serious climate researcher doesn’t think CO2 is the main cause of global warming, i.e. the main villian. But yeah, cow farts.

    Re: the trees, caldeira never said that trees were a “scourge.” He said that plated in North America they might have a net warming effect according to some models. Scourge?

    Solar panels aren’t a “good thing”? The amount of carbon saved by the solar energy dwarfs the amount of sunlight absorbed by the solar panels themselves. From Myhrvold “It does not make solar cells bad in absolute terms.” even when you consider the building costs.

    I’m dissapointed with the right blogosphere that instead of saying that geoengineering is interesting and that Levitt and Dubner messed up on climate science, there’s just rallying around the freaks. I really liked freakonomics too.

  15. full disclosure: I’m a democrat and voted for Obama. I think the drug war is stupid, gay people should be able to get married, lattes are great and I would die before I didn’t get to own a pair of Berkenstocks.

    I also believe one can simultaneously believe global warming is a threat and believe carbon pricing isn’t the only solution to the problem. I believe that GW is a threat and I believe carbon pricing is very unlikely to happen. This puts me in a bind if I were to also believe carbon pricing is the only solution to the problem. If carbon pricing is the only solution then its very likely the world will get stupid hot and there’s nothing we can do about it.

    The Freaks have convinced me that carbon pricing isn’t the only solution and these other solutions are more likely to be implemented. This cheers me as I think global warming is a serious problem. Curable cancers are funner to have than terminal ones.

    Regarding the framing of the issue in that chapter: I agree that the Freaks co-opted many of the better GW denialists gems. Its funny to see people on both sides misread that chapter as a critique of GW because it clearly is not. Its funny that the denialist think its a denial because it shows how easy it is to dupe them. Its funny that the delongs of the world are throwing a fit because this framing actually brings people to their side.

    Regarding the “scourge” line… umm… how can I put this delicately… grow a sense of humor.

  16. gabe, that article you linked to: the guy didn’t read or didn’t understand the chapter. The “shoot sulfur in the troposphere” discussion is predicated on there being a disaster scenario. Its not introduced as a substitute for carbon pricing. This was obvious from the first reading and it was still obvious on a second reading when I was looking for “gotchas”.

    The point of the Weitzman cite was to say that its the threat of a super-catastrophe that’s the problem. However, in rereading the chapter I’ll admit they didn’t do a great job of introducing the importance of his analysis. On the first reading, I already had his work in my head so I probably “got” it more easily than others that are unaware of Weitzman’s work. But in any case, they certainly are not using Weitzman’s calculation of the chance of a disaster scenario as an excuse to do nothing. Only an uncharitable reading of that passage would lead you to that conclusion.

    Also, IV, the heroes of the story, are developing alternative energies (e.g.) so they have a stake in reducing carbon dependence or whatever the catch phrase is. Actually, I don’t see how they make money on the sulfur plan. They certainly make money if everyone switches to their plans for nuclear power.

  17. they hear that line and just go into “attack the neanderthals who don’t believe in global warming” mode.

    Can I just say, it’s rather disingenuous to sell bazillions of books by proclaiming that “everything you know is wrong!!! Steve Levitt is a fearless challenger of the conventional wisdom” and then cry that careful readers would realize that the conventional wisdom is 99.9% correct and that critics are just being hysterical whiners who can’t bear even the slightest challenge to orthodoxy without wanting to burn witches. I haven’t read the chapter nor do I know jack about climate science, so I won’t weight in on this current “controversy,” but I have to say that this Freaknomics shtick has gotten very old for me.

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