Freakonomics Guys Flunk Science of Climate Change: Eric Pooley

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner are so good at tweaking conventional wisdom that their first book, “Freakonomics,” sold 4 million copies. So when Dubner, an old friend, told me their new book would take on climate change, I was rooting for a breakthrough idea.

No such luck. In “SuperFreakonomics,” their brave new climate thinking turns out to be the same pile of misinformation the skeptic crowd has been peddling for years.

“Obviously, provocation is not last on the list of things we’re trying to do,” Dubner told me the other day. This time, the urge to provoke has driven him and Levitt off the rails and into a contrarian ditch.

Their breezy take on global warming unleashed a barrage of highly detailed criticism from economists and climate experts, including a scientist who is misrepresented in the book.

Dubner wonders why everyone is so angry. In part, it’s because the book’s blithe remedies -- “We could end this debate and be done with it, and move on to problems that are harder to solve,” Levitt told the U.K. Guardian newspaper -- are an insult to the thousands of scientists who have devoted their careers to this crisis.

One of the injured parties is Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at Stanford University who is quoted (accurately) as saying that “we are being incredibly foolish emitting carbon dioxide.” Then Dubner and Levitt add this astonishing claim: “His research tells him that carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight.”

Provocative, Untrue

That’s provocative, but alas, it isn’t true. Caldeira, like the vast majority of climate scientists, believes cutting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions is our only real chance to avoid runaway climate change.

“Carbon dioxide is the right villain,” Caldeira wrote on his Web site in reply. He told Joe Romm, the respected climate blogger who broke the story, that he had objected to the “wrong villain” line but Dubner and Levitt didn’t correct it; instead, they added the “incredibly foolish” quote, a half step in the right direction. Caldeira gave the same account to me.

Levitt and Dubner do say that the book “overstates” Caldeira’s position. That’s a weasel word: The book claims the opposite of what Caldeira believes. Caldeira told me the book contains “many errors” in addition to the “major error” of misstating his scientific opinion on carbon dioxide’s role.

Why does this matter? Because there’s a titanic battle going on over whether and how to reduce carbon emissions, and this soon-to-be bestseller tries to convince people that we don’t need to do so. Dubner and Levitt trumpet their “wrong villain” line in their table of contents and promotional material. On National Public Radio the other day, Levitt said, “The real problem isn’t that there’s too much carbon in the air.”

Multiple Villains

“SuperFreakonomics” never identifies the “right villain,” so I called Dubner and asked. “I don’t think anybody knows for sure,” he told me. Then he acknowledged that the chapter’s most newsworthy claim “could have been better phrased, as ‘carbon dioxide is not the only villain.’”

That’s a huge admission. No climate scientist believes carbon dioxide is the only villain: methane, nitrous oxide and other gases need to be reduced too. But that basic truth wouldn’t have drawn attention. It wouldn’t have given Levitt a bold contrarian line for NPR.

Dubner and Levitt acknowledge that the planet has warmed but pretend that cutting emissions is a hopelessly old-school response. “It’s not that we don’t know how to stop polluting the atmosphere,” they write. “We don’t want to stop.” They ignore the fact that U.S. emissions have dropped 9 percent since 2007 -- not just because of the recession but also thanks to energy efficiency and cleaner fuels.

Chance of Catastrophe

They exaggerate the cost of climate action and underestimate the likelihood of runaway global warming, pretending that the “relatively small chance of worldwide catastrophe” isn’t worth getting bothered about.

They dismiss global warming as a “religion” and rehash the so-called “global cooling” scare of the 1970s, a favorite skeptic myth. (A handful of scientists warned of a coming ice age, a false alarm in no way comparable to today’s scientific consensus on warming.)

They trumpet the “little-discussed fact” that the average global temperature has decreased in recent years. This is accurate according to one set of global data -- the other shows an increase -- but scientists say it proves nothing. Imagine the Dow climbing to 14,000, with a wobble to 13,950. That’s what global temperatures have done. Even with small fluctuations, this decade is by every measure the hottest in recorded history. The second hottest is the 1990s. The third hottest is the 1980s. Get the picture? Levitt and Dubner don’t.

Shooting Sulfur Dioxide

Having downplayed the problem, they try to solve it with a set of silver-bullet technologies known as geoengineering. One would shoot millions of tons of sulfur dioxide 18 miles into the air to artificially cool the planet. This could work; it also could have dire unintended consequences.

Caldeira, who is researching the idea, argues that it can succeed only if we first reduce emissions. Otherwise, he says, geoengineering can’t begin to cope with the collateral damage, such as acidic oceans killing off shellfish.

Levitt and Dubner ignore his view and champion his work as a permanent substitute for emissions cuts. When I told Dubner that Caldeira doesn’t believe geoengineering can work without cutting emissions, he was baffled. “I don’t understand how that could be,” he said. In other words, the Freakonomics guys just flunked climate science.

(Eric Pooley, a former managing editor of Fortune magazine who is writing a book about the politics of global warming, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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