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Saturday, October 17, 2009

"Superfreakonomics on Climate"

Paul Krugman:

Superfreakonomics on climate, part 1, by Paul Krugman: OK, I’m working my way through the climate chapter — and the first five pages, by themselves, are enough to discredit the whole thing. Why? Because they grossly misrepresent other peoples’ research, in both climate science and economics.
The chapter opens with the “global cooling” story — the claim that 30 years ago there was a scientific consensus that the planet was cooling, comparable to the current consensus that it’s warming.
Um, no. Real Climate has the takedown. What you had in the 70s was a few scientists advancing the cooling hypothesis, and a few popular media stories hyping their suggestions. To the extent that there was a consensus, it was that there wasn’t much evidence for anything, and more research was needed.
What you have today is a massive research program involving thousands of scientists and many peer-reviewed publications, with all major international bodies agreeing that man-made global warming is real. You can, if you insist, dismiss it all as a gigantic hoax or whatever — but it’s nothing like the isolated 70s speculations about cooling.
And then we come to a bit of economics. The book asks
Do the future benefits from cutting emissions outweigh the costs of doing so? Or are we better off waiting to cut emissions later — or even, perhaps, polluting at will and just learning to live in a hotter world?
The economist Martin Weitzman analyzed the best available climate models and concluded that the future holds a 5 percent chance of a terrible-case scenario ..
Yikes. I read Weitzman’s paper, and have corresponded with him on the subject — and it’s making exactly the opposite of the point they’re implying it makes. Weitzman’s argument is that uncertainty about the extent of global warming makes the case for drastic action stronger, not weaker. And here’s what he says about the timing of action:
The conventional economic advice of spending modestly on abatement now but gradually ramping up expenditures over time is an extreme lower bound on what is reasonable rather than a best estimate of what is reasonable.
Again, we’re not even getting into substance — just the basic issue of representing correctly what other people said.
Administrative note: I’m going to block comments here, because I know it will be overwhelmed.

Robert Waldmann defends the book (here too).

I haven't read the book, and can't, at least not yet.

Brad DeLong:

Correspondence on Global Warming and Superfreakonomics, by Brad DeLong: Steve Dubner writes:
It is amazing to see how quickly and thoroughly Romm's extremely misleading attack has spread, to the point where even independent thinkers like you accept it on face value. His attack is full of deception and outright lies. He makes it sound as if we somehow twisted and abused Caldeira's research; nothing could be further from the truth. We will have to clear this up publicly, although as you suggest it will be hard to put out this fire no matter how wrongfully set. This is politics that's being played now, nothing else. Also: yes, Romm posted a PDF of the chapter on his website, which the publisher, in its routine effort to pull pirated copies of its copyrighted material off the web, asked him to take down. As far as I know, it was never on Amazon; there's been no censoring; we are talking about a book that hasn't yet been published (when it is, I assume Amazon will post the searchable pages, as is typical), but Romm has done a great job of getting people to believe that a book they haven't read is full of errors.
I reply:
Brad DeLong to Stephen
Re: "It is amazing to see how quickly and thoroughly Romm's extremely misleading attack has spread, to the point where even independent thinkers like you accept it on face value..."
As I said, I can't read your chapter--by your publisher's choice.
That's very bad for you: Romm's posting your chapter and a link to it is a way for him to establish credibility--"see for yourself"; your publisher's pulling it down is a way to diminish yours.
Over this weekend, people's views are gelling--Paul Krugman's, for example--while your voice isn't being heard, and once people's views are gelled, it takes a huge amount of evidence and the right kinds of psychological pressure to ungell them.
Thus, for example, I would love to believe in Myrhvold and in cheap geoengineering solutions. But I come from Berkeley, where Richard Muller is the dominant public-intellectual voice on geoengineering, and he is very knowledgeable and very skeptical. My second cousin Tom Kalil does solar panels and so forth for a living at OSTP. The reaction of the climate people I know to Myrhvold on solar panels, whom Romm says you quote:
"A lot of the things that people say would be good things probably aren’t,” Myrhvold says. As an example he points to solar power. “The problem with solar cells is that they’re black, because they are designed to absorb light from the sun. But only about 12% gets turned into electricity, and the rest is reradiated as heat — which contributed to global warming..."
is simply unprintable--that it's like claiming that curve balls curve because of photon pressure from the stadium lights.
So given what is flowing past my computer screen at the moment, it looks very much to me as though you were simply hornswoggled by Myrhvold and company, who have formed their own tight self-reinforcing intellectual community reinforcing each other's beliefs up there in Seattle. There is nothing I can see contradicting that interpretation, and a bunch of things from Romm and others confirming it.
The place where I would concentrate, if I were you, would be Stanford's Ken Caldeira. Romm claims:
"[Caldeira] writes me: 'If you talk all day, and somebody picks a half dozen quotes without providing context because they want to make a provocative and controversial chapter, there is not much you can do.' One sentence about Caldeira in particular is the exact opposite of what he believes (page 184): 'Yet his research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight.' Levitt and Dubner didn’t run this quote by Caldeira, and when he saw a version from Myrhvold, he objected to it. But Levitt and Dubner apparently wanted to keep it very badly — it even makes the SuperFreakonomics Table of Contents in the Chapter Five summary “Is carbon dioxide the wrong villain?...”
If your principal experts truly do repudiate the interpretation you place on their work, that's very bad for you...

Comments are open.

Update: Steven Levitt:

The Rumors of Our Global-Warming Denial Are Greatly Exaggerated, by Steven D. Levitt: SuperFreakonomics isn’t even on sale yet, and the attacks on our chapter about global warming are already underway.
A prominent environmental blogger has attacked us. A well-known environmental-advocacy group pressured NPR into reading a statement critical of the book at the end of an interview I had given on Scott Simon’s Weekend Edition show. Even Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong got in on the action before they’d even read the book.
We are working on a thorough response to these critics, which we hope to post on the blog in the next day or two. The bottom line is that the foundation of these attacks is essentially fraudulent, as we’ll spell out in detail. In the meantime, let us just say the following.
Like those who are criticizing us, we believe that rising global temperatures are a man-made phenomenon and that global warming is an important issue to solve. Where we differ from the critics is in our view of the most effective solutions to this problem. Meaningfully reducing global carbon emissions has proven to be difficult, if not impossible. This isn’t likely to change, for the reasons we discuss in the book. Consequently, other approaches represent a more promising path to lowering the Earth’s temperature. , so obviously that’s not the case.
The statements being circulated create the false impression that our analysis of the global-warming crisis is ideological and unscientific. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I don't get the complaint in the very first sentence. They send the book out early to people hoping for reviews, then complain when people actually review the book? I realize it's not what they hoped for, but what's the complaint here? The people leading the attacks have read the book. If their reviews had been positive, would they still be telling people that the reviewers they chose to send the book to are liars who are not credibly reporting what's in it, and dismissing those who echo what the reviewers wrote? Putting this another way, if they people they chose to send the book to are writing unfavorable things, what would those they suspected would not like the book (and hence were not sent a copy) say?

Finally, it seems to me that they are misstating the objections ("The critics are implying that we dismiss any threats from global warming; but the entire point of our chapter is to discuss global-warming solutions"). The complaint isn't that they are global warming deniers, it's that they misstated the science associated with proposed solutions to the problem.

Update: While they are not global warming deniers, Mathew Yglesias says the book does make the claim that the climate change threat is being overstated by environmentalists, and that the book supports this view by inaccurately representing the views of the scientific community:

...Go here and read for yourself pages 184, 185, and the beginning of page 186 of Suprefreakonomics. The point, quite clearly, is to lead you to believe that “hard-charging environment activist and all-around peacenik” Ken Caldeira share the Levitt/Dubner view that (a) environmentalists are overstating the extent of the climate change problem, (b) curbing carbon dioxide emissions should not be our main tool in combatting climate change, and (c) that it’s useful to disparagingly analogize advocates of CO2 emissions curbs to those driven by religious faith rather than scientific expertise. Caldeira is called onto the floor to speak as a voice of sober-minded science against the misguided CO2-limiters. ... Of course it’s possible that ... Ken Caldeira is mistaken about some things. But it’s not possible that Levitt and Dubner are correctly representing the views of Caldeira or climate scientists in general...

Update: More from Paul Krugman. A snippet:

Levitt now says that the chapter wasn’t meant to lend credibility to global warming denial — but when you open your chapter by giving major play to the false claim that scientists used to predict global cooling, you have in effect taken the denier side. The only way I can reconcile what Levitt says now with that reality is that he and Dubner didn’t do their homework — not only that they didn’t check out the global cooling stuff, the stuff about solar panels, and all the other errors people have been pointing out, but that they didn’t even look into the debate sufficiently to realize what company they were placing themselves in.

And that’s not acceptable. This is a serious issue. We’re not talking about the ethics of sumo wrestling here; we’re talking, quite possibly, about the fate of civilization. It’s not a place to play snarky, contrarian games.

Update: And more from Brad DeLong: Six Questions for Levitt and Dubner.

Update: Stephen Dubner replies to critics. Paul Krugman replies briefly to Dubner in the process of a "broader analysis of what it all means."

    Posted by on Saturday, October 17, 2009 at 09:33 AM in Economics, Environment | Permalink  Comments (33)



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