Superfreakonomics: caused a freak out in the popular discussion of climate change

Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner has stirred up more comment than many books focusing specifically on climate change. It’s semi-official, I’ve been researching the number of references to various climate-change-related books and films in broadsheet newspapers since 2008 and my figures at this stage show more mentions of Levitt and Dubner’s work than of all of James Lovelock’s put together (in the period January 2008 to June 2010) in climate-change-related contexts. Admittedly, the vast majority were in the Guardian, but still.

The section of Superfreakonomics on climate change is not bad though a little prone to stating points that are fairly well known already (e.g. methane is a stronger greenhouse gas than CO2) as if they are EXCITING NEW DISCOVERIES FROM BRILLIANT FREAKONOMICS ANALYSIS! Apparently Al Gore exaggerates to get his message across and the media tend to report things in an overly dramatic manner. What next, evidence that environmentalists tend to worry about climate change and that endangered species of bears tend to defecate in woodlands? I’ll allow them all that, though, in the name of popularising the discussion.

It gets interesting, however, when they start talking about geoengineering, their proposals to deliberately manipulate the climate to counteract the effects of climate change. Their case is as follows

  1. Anthropogenic climate change is a very real problem, although over-hyped by the media and particularly Al Gore
  2. Tackling it by reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gases (mitigation) is very expensive, but effective geoengineering could be much cheaper. Injecting sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere could stabilise the climate at a cost of $250 million, compared to the Stern Review‘s $1.2 trillion
  3. There are uncertainties and risks of side effects, so technologies should have cautious test runs
  4. The aforementioned injecting sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere to simulate the cooling effect of volcanoes is the most promising method, but cloud seeding, spraying seawater into the atmosphere to create more, cooling clouds, should also be considered

Perhaps surprisingly, many climate change activists and writers are ardently against geoengineering. Here, for example, are the key points of a New Internationalist article on the subject, and the growing campaign against geoengineering solutions.

  1. “Unproven scientific ‘fixes’ for global warming are a major threat to the planet”
  2. Injecting sulphur into the atmosphere to mimic volcanoes is dubious: “Such volcanoes have occasionally cooled down the atmosphere before. Unfortunately, they can also cause monsoons to weaken and fail, intensifying hunger in the tropics.”
  3. The actors involved in geoengineering propositions are largely unaccountable and not subject to due process: one scientist has already started in Russia. A Friends of the Earth International spokesman argues: “The same countries and companies that have neglected climate change for decades are now proposing very risky geoengineering technologies that could further disrupt the weather, peoples and ecosystems. We simply don’t trust them to do so equitably.”

An unmanned cloud-seeding ship, floated as a possibility by Superfreakonomics and the preferred approach of Bjørn Lomborg

Myself, I am cautiously in favour of geoengineering being explored. I do accept the principle that kicking-off large-scale climatic change is a risky process full of potential unintended consequences, but given the scale of potential climate change damages, we should absolutely do our homework on this one. Perhaps the solution lies in a variety of small-scale geoengineering projects coupled with mitigation and with adaptation to some level of inevitable climate change.

A thorough and accountable process for testing and investigating geoengineering projects seems like a necessity, but a poor process does not mean a poor idea. There is a risk, admittedly, of side-lining mitigation in favour of geoengineering, when until geoengineering can be proved to work, mitigation of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions should continue at full steam. Like most people, I am not in a position to assess the viability of geoengineering technology, but we should absolutely be giving it a chance. There is no question of not saving the planet, but its better still if we can save the planet money along the way.

P.s. I’m very suspicious of cloud-seeding, also the preferred geoengineering method of Bjørn Lomborg (see his article for the New Statesman). Everything I hear about the physical science of clouds stresses uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty. The uncertainty bar in the 2007 IPCC report dealing with clouds as a cause of climate change is huge (see “cloud albedo effect” on the bar graph on the relevant page of the IPCC website). This is not a reason not to try, but bear that in mind.