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SuperFreakonomics and Carbon Emissions

October 28th, 2009 by Bruce Nielson

I noted recently the debate sparked by the (at the time yet to be released) book, SuperFreakonomics, on the topic of Global Warming.

First, my own biases. I’m a cap and trade advocate, not because I think the science of human-made-global-warming is proven, but because the science of it’s not human-made-global-warming isn’t proven.

That said, I do not doubt that the global warming debate is “religious in nature.” I absolute do not mean that in a bad way. I am glad it’s religion. I can’t personally come up with any other way to get human beings to do something as obviously wise as being careful about how much of something (say carbon dioxide) is put into the atmosphere than to make it an issue of religious orthodoxy on which you can be socially ostracized if you aren’t a member in good standing.

This is one of the areas where, without the concept of religious orthodoxy, it’s impossible to get us humans to act in a responsible way. Remove “religion” (as used in this sense anyhow) from human life and you basically will end human life. Social pressure on religious beliefs that aren’t yet (or may never be) justified by science is a necessary part of life.

As it turns out, the authors of SuperFreakonomics are fully in the global warming religious camp. There is simply no doubt about this. So why is their book causing such a massive stir in that religion? It’s simple, they believe in global warming more so then the current keepers of orthodoxy and so they are trying to change that orthodoxy to match their more radical beliefs.

The debate can be summarized quite easily: The authors believe global warming due to carbon emissions is a man made problem and is imminent. Thus they are ready to start exploring ways to geo-engineer the earth to create global cooling so as to give us more time to change the direction of our battleship and get our carbon emissions under control.

In other words, they are global warming radicals. (Nothing wrong with that, by the way. Perhaps they are dead right, even.) That’s why I find it so ironic that they are be branded as global warming deniers when in fact they are really just to radical for the current orthodoxy.

The current orthodoxy is appalled by their behavior. If word gets out there is a way to cool the earth down via geo-engineering, the growing (actually dropping due to the recession) support for controlling carbon emissions may collapse and we’ll never get it under control.

Yes, this is what the debate is over. It’s really not over anything else but control of the orthodoxy. It’s, by the way, a worthwhile and productive debate in my opinion.

So what’s all this finger pointing over whether or not the book misquoted a source? That’s religion too, of course. It would seem that the authors spoke to a global warming expert named Ken Caldeira. They summed up his point of view and had him review what they said and he bought off on it. Then someone challenged the following statement attributed to him: “[Caldeira’s] research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight…”

Apparently, in context, this was actually leading up to the idea that we can’t fight carbon alone at this point because it’s too late.

The religious leaders felt this didn’t represent orthodoxy and threatened to excommunicate him. He panicked and claimed the book misrepresented him to save his membership. The rest logically follows.

Comments (15)
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October 28th, 2009 12:20:28
15 comments

Vader
October 28, 2009

Anthropogenic global warming is an interesting and plausible hypothesis, though, as you acknowledge, hardly proven.

That global warming will, on balance, be deleterious, is assumed so reflexively that some are willing to take radical measures to control it, on the precautionary principle.

But the overall harmfulness of global warming is also an unproven hypothesis. Historically, human society has thrived best when global temperatures were higher than average. It seems to me that the precautionary principle is then out the window. The precautions are not just costly, they may actually be counterproductive.


Bruce Nielson
October 28, 2009

>>> But the overall harmfulness of global warming is also an unproven hypothesis.

Completely agree.

>>> Historically, human society has thrived best when global temperatures were higher than average.

Completely agree.

>>> It seems to me that the precautionary principle is then out the window.

Non Sequitur

>>> The precautions are not just costly, they may actually be counterproductive.

Completely agree.


John Mansfield
October 28, 2009

The SuperFreakonomics response does seem like the sort we’d have to expect. If a global catastophe really is on the way, then little half-hearted measures like limiting use of combustion to present levels are nonsense. As economists, Leavitt and Dubner have an inkling of how impossible drastic reductions of CO2 emission would be; mankind could more readily adjust to a hotter world with higher seas than turn its back on a century and a half of industrial development or replace that development with carbon-free methods within a couple decades.


Bruce Nielson
October 28, 2009

I guess I should admit one more bias. I’m in the regular CO2 camp, not the radical one of the book. As John ponits out “mankind could more readily adjust to a hotter world with higher seas than turn its back on a century and a half of industrial development or replace that development with carbon-free methods within a couple decades.”

I would like to see a nice gradual development towards control of CO2. I’m actually not necessarily in favor of cap in trade, it’s just the only buzz word I happened to know about how to control CO2. If there are better ways, then I’m in favor of them.

If, as we get CO2 under control (over the next century?) things start to turn bad, then I’d turn radical and I’d be in favor of geo-engineering.

But, as pointed out in my response to Vader, I’m not in favor of doing nothing when we have no idea what is going to happen. In fact, the end result *might* be that CO2 has nothing to do with global warming but has some other disasterous effect. Or, as Vader pointed out, it might be fully positive.

The key point here is that we don’t know and we shouldn’t build narratives for ourselves that suggest we do know. We should act responsibily based on what we actually know. And the key things we know right now — perhaps the only things we know right now — is that we put out lots of CO2 and the current level isn’t hurting anything. We should act from there.


Vader
October 28, 2009

We don’t know if changing our output of CO2 will produce climate changes that are good or bad. We do know that reducing CO2 will do a lot of economic harm.

Ergo, take no action until we know more.


Bookslinger
October 29, 2009

CO2 is good ! It’s plant food. We need more CO2 to make more plants, in order to feed the growing population. Otherwise, you’ll need to take China’s one-child policy and force it upon India, Pakistan, and Africa.

If you really want to reduce atmospheric CO2, don’t reduce it’s man-made production, increase it’s consumption by plants. Plant more trees, wheat, rice, soybeans, etc.


Bruce Nielson
October 29, 2009

“We don’t know if changing our output of CO2 will produce climate changes that are good or bad. We do know that reducing CO2 will do a lot of economic harm.

Ergo, take no action until we know more.”

Vader, I love you, but this isn’t logical. What this is is a good narrative.

The problem is that there is some objective reality out there of when too much CO2 is too much and it kills us and some objective reality where it’s helpful, etc. *We don’t know what it is!*

So as enticing as your narrative is, it misses the point that it might just plain be wrong. (It might also be right, we literally don’t know.)

Let me put this another way:

Let’s say we go with your narrative on the grounds that it makes sense. And let’s say you’re right. Gold! We end up with no reduction to economic output, no damage to the environment, and maybe even (as Bookslinger points out) improvements to the environment. It’s all good.

But it’s literally illogical to assume that just because such a narrative exists that’s its right. It’s illogical to assume that because that might be true that it is true. It’s illogical to assume that because the alternative point of view isn’t proven and has no proof that it can be dismissed.

Therefore, we now have to look at the possiblity (no matter how remote you may personally think it is due to your narrative) and consider that scenario as well.

In this scenario we really are on the brink of as disaster. We don’t have proof we are, but several tell tale signs that many many scientists are correctly reading the tea leaves on. It’s true they lack proof, but this is only because our science was insufficient to obtain proof. We then decide that the Vader narrative is just too compelling: i.e. Vader is right — we have to choose between doing real economic harm now vs. avoiding a disaster (that we’re assuming is for the sake of argument is real) so we make the “obvious” decision and avoid the real economic harm we know exists over the uncertain and we thought improbable global diaster.

It all makes perfect “rational” sense (i.e. it’s a good narrative and good “inductive reasoning”). Other than the fact that it’s wrong and destroys the planet, I have no issue with it at all.

The problem is that we *don’t know* which is the case. But we do know *one of them* is the case.

Furthermore, we have *no way* to measure the probability. You may personally feel it’s low probability, but I’d submit you actually don’t know at all.

Therefore, it’s obvious that we have to make a choice based on our “gut feels.”

In short, you are not using logic, just a good narrative to explain why your “gut” favors one scenario over the other. Responsible and intelligent human beings can and will decide otherwise. There is no possible way to “know” which is the right or wrong answer at this time. From this point of view, there literally is no logical answer. So we can “ergo” neither point of view. Yet we have to act one way or the other despite our lack of knowledge.


Bruce Nielson
October 29, 2009

“Furthermore, we have *no way* to measure the probability. You may personally feel it’s low probability, but I’d submit you actually don’t know at all.”

I can explain myself on this better.

What I am really saying is that there is no probabilities here. We either are going to destroy the planet or we are not going. It’s 100% and 0%.

What we don’t know is which is which.

Thus we have to treat it as a probability. But really, it’s not a probability.

If this makes sense, then you’ll see why I see both points of view as “rational” (i.e. rational people can derive either due to lack of information and differing gut feels.). But I see neither as “logical” (i.e. can be deduced.)

Now you can make a narrative like you just did, to indicate why you think it’s a “low probability.” But in reality, you are either right or you are wrong. If you argue it’s a low probability, say 1%, and you are wrong, then you’re off by 99%. If you say 1% and you are right, then you’re off by 1%. But either way, it wasn’t actually a probability, that’s just a convention to explain our lack of knowledge.


Jeff Hoyt
October 30, 2009

My belief is not so much that belief in AGW is the religious component, but that belief that government control will bring about utopia is religious in nature. Screaming about AGW is just the current vehicle to gin up suport for massive increases in government control of our lives. Some evidence can be found in this common interchange: A: “We have less than x years to act or the world will be destroyed” B: “Would you support increasing the number of nuclear power plants?” A: “There are problems with nuclear power”

I believe Bjorn Lomborg is correct that the world faces numerous problems, and that resources need to be allocated to problems that we can identify risk for and potentially solve. Governments unfortunately are doing what governments do best – misallocating resources to the overall detriment of us all.

I also like to have fun offering to wager with the alarmists regarding temperatures. To date every one has declined.


Bookslinger
October 30, 2009

Bruce, one big reason I don’t believe the climate alarmists is that they have been caught in too many lies, and in using cooked-up numbers. Have you ever listened to or read John Stossel on the subject? The alarmists outright LIE!

Back in the Clinton years, the UN group got caught red-handed lieing in one of their big reports about who supported their report. They outright lied when they included scientists who didn’t agree, and published their names under the “agree” column.

Another reason I disagree with the climate alarmists is that too many regular everyday meteorologists, including TV weathermen who have college degrees in weather and climate, disagree with the alarmists.

Another reason I disagree with alarmists is that the temp fluctuations follow more the sun’s cycles and sunspots.

Another reason I disagree with alarmists is that much more “greenhouse gases” come from NATURE than from man.

Another reason I disagree with the alarmists is that there have been BIGGER temp changes in recorded history, since the 1600’s and 1700’s, that are well documented, when the planet’s population was much smaller, and humans were putting out much less greenhouse gases.

Another reason I disagree with the alarmists is that the avg temp increases happened more BEFORE WWII than after, when all the so-called greenhouse gases started to increase.

Another reason I disagree with the alarmists is that Dixie Lee Ray made good points and backed them up in her book “Trashing the Planet”.


Bruce Nielson
November 4, 2009

I don’t disagree with what you are saying Bookslinger, other than I suspect you are wrong about coloring most of these as “lies.”

This was sort of my point, wasn’t it? That Superfreakonomics was colored as lying about what an expert said when in reality there was a legimate misunderstanding.

This type of binary thinking and demonization of “the other side” is to me the problem itself.

I have concerns over too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and not knowing what it will do. You have concerns that global warming isn’t caused by carbon dioxide. It seems to me that I’ve delinked these two and you have them linked so strongly you haven’t considered any other possiblity.

I don’t doubt that anyone on either side can make a list of one sided counter points like you did. I know for a fact that both sides can do it. I don’t consider a list of one sided counter points to be valid information by itself.

I guess I have the following question for you. Let’s say you raised those concerns with someone that is knowledgeable but in the “fear of man-made global warming” camp (this isn’t really me). Could you even anticipate correctly what their counter responses would be? I suspect you couldn’t.


Bruce Nielson
November 4, 2009

I want to retract my statement about “I suspect you coulnd’t.”

That comes across wrong. And for that matter, you might be one of those rare people that actually understands both sides of a debate fully.

My real point here is that on average, people on both sides of the debate haven’t much idea what the other side actually believes. The fact that they can list off concerns, but don’t know what the counter point is to each concern they listed suggests a one-sided understanding of the issue.

This might not be you at all specifically.

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