A freakonomic view of climate change

November 19, 2009

Ahead of a U.N. summit in Copenhagen next month, scepticism is growing that an agreement will be reached on a global climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, due to expire in 2012.

The protocol set targets aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which are believed to be responsible for the gradual rise in the Earth’s average temperature. Many scientists say that reducing carbon dioxide emissions is key to preventing climate change.

But authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner argue in their new book SuperFreakonomics that humanity can take an alternative route to try and save the planet.

“If the goal is to stop warming then geo-engineering solutions are worth considering because they are far cheaper, probably much more do-able and easily reversible,” Dubner told Reuters before a talk at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in London.

Related vlog: How to become a freakonomist


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Surely the strongest argument against these ideas (apart from the obvious fact that they’ve none of them been tested), is the vaguely freakonomical Parkinson’s Environmental Corollary: human nature being what it is, our emissions will just grow to fill the breathing space these measures buy, after which we’ll be back at square one.

Posted by Ian Kemmish | Report as abusive

The longer this disco science of doom from CO2’s glitter fear is not experienced by any of us as promised, the sooner it will slowly be revealed as the mistake that it was, with the thinnest of truths and was shockingly profited for reasons of ideology, academic and media dollars.

Posted by Meme Mine | Report as abusive

Analogy: a smoker is found to have an early lung cancer.It is pointless to debated whether he should either (a) stop smoking or (b) have the cancer excised.He must do both. We must Both decarbonise our economy (which will itself deliver a much wanted boost to the world economy by creating jobs in energy conservation and renewables)and sequester the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.It’s a bit like walking along and chewing gum at the same time. Some cannot do this, but most, with a little application, find that they can.

Posted by Richard Lawson | Report as abusive

Ian Kemmish’s view essentially is that sustainable human progress through science and technology is impossible, and that any apparent success is just papering over cracks that will reappear eventually.Malthus thought the world could feed about 1bn people, it is feeding 6bn and progress will make it possible to feed the 9bn peak projected for 2050. He also believed that humanity would be permanently on the brink of starvation.Similarly it is quite conceivable that we will find a way to manage the world’s temperature, at that the knowledge will prove to be a lasting benefit to humanity.

Posted by Steve Marshall | Report as abusive

Too little, too late -I saw it coming and have not bred…No handbag-children to accessorize my lifeInstead sport, music,poetry, a companion,pets, food and wineTry to keep myself happy and healthyuntil my decline

Posted by Esther | Report as abusive

When the world was much warmer 9000 years ago Antarctica was habitable, the Sahara was forested, and most of Europe didn’t get snowfall.People forget that we’re technically still in an ice age, just in an interglacial period.Even the most extreme projections for global warming just return us to the warmth the world enjoyed before the carbon we’re now putting back into the atmosphere from when it was sequestered from dying life millions of years ago.I’ve never understood why turning most of the world into Hawai’i would bother anyone at all. We can refrigerate zoos for polar bears and penguins, and save trillions of dollars, euros, yuan, rubles and pesos by just going on. There’s over a 1000 years of coal left; I suspect technology for solar, wind and fusion will progress much faster than that.

Posted by Drew Palmer | Report as abusive

Mr. Levitt has overlooked many of the obvious pitfalls of his proposal: any of the methods to reduce incoming sunshine would:1. not stop the acidification of the oceans by dissolving CO2, which is threatening complete ecosystems (coralreefs, all food chains depending on small critters with calcium hulls)2. have numerous, incalculable side-effects. Most immediate, it would reduce the efficiency of all solar power plants being built and reduce plant growth; more indirect effects might include droughts and flooding (look into what happened to local weather patterns after major volcanic eruptions: pretty ugly)Mr. Levitt behave like a middle-age quack, claiming to be able to cure diseases, but having no clue how the patient actually functions. So, as a preventative measure he should be tarred and feathered

Posted by Jan | Report as abusive

“I’ve never understood why turning most of the world into Hawai’i would bother anyone at all.”Er, perhaps some people would be bothered by the chaos that rising sea levels would create, particularly in Southeast Asia or the Nile Delta. Many of the most heavily populated areas in the world are coastal, and a series of mass refugee migrations would be a recipe for resource wars and the collapse of nations.

Posted by John | Report as abusive

It’s good to hear someone with a rational perspective on the situation. Human-induced global warming (which is yet to proven anyway) is totally surmountable, and I have total confidence the future challenges will be met by scientific advances.

Posted by mr_kotechka | Report as abusive

The technology now accessible using the powerful new CPUs is extraordinary. Fusion is about to become reality because the computational dynamics involved can be calculated in real-time. Give it 5 years to become a reality, and then use the energy from these fusion plants to operate fischer-tropsch reactors, sucking CO2 from the atmosphere and generating hydrocarbon gases (like CH4) to fuel cars. It’s a virtuous cycle.Also, taking this to the extreme, if global warming were to become a threat, there is the option of an artificial nuclear winter. Put a few billion tons of dust in the air and see what happens.

Posted by vinfromdallas | Report as abusive

Man-made climate change ideology is based on this logic: Using fossil fuels for energy creates some carbon gas compounds. Carbon gas compounds can cause a greenhouse affect and thus global warming. Therefore man is causing climate change with fossil fuels.That argument takes a specific and generalizes it which is false logic. For example: Washing a car creates water puddles on the driveway. Surface water can cause water vapor from evaporation and thus storms. Therefore man is causing floods by washing cars.Evaporated water from washing cars is a tiny percentage of total atmospheric water vapor as are man made carbon gas compounds a small percentage of total atmospheric carbon compounds. The vast quantity of water vapor and carbon compounds are beyond man’s controlClimate change cycles are caused by the sun – that huge, variably hot thing in the sky.

Posted by Gary | Report as abusive

I think Richard’s smoking analogy is wrong. Reducing emissions would be comparable to cutting back to only 1 pack a day after getting lung cancer. Pointless.Money and time given to emission reduction would be better spent on atmospheric scrubbing and preparing for the effects of climate change. That’s especially true since humans haven’t been proven to be the cause of any change. Earth’s climate has always been in flux. I’m glad the wooly mammoths didn’t try to fight global warming.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

Drug addicts can’t be helped unless they themselves want to be helped. We are addicted to anything that brings profit, and afraid of anything we don’t understand.Even if we are only contributing an insignificant amount to global warming, it’s no secret that we are crapping in our dinner plates so to speak. We are polluting our waters, filling our lands with refuse, and crowding up our space in low earth orbit with garbage satellites that will eventually fall.Even if global warming has nothing to do with us, it still doesn’t change the fact that we can’t keep doing things the way we have. Things are changing. And we would do well to wake up and take our responsibilities to each other and our collective home more seriously. There are more important things than profit and interest.Some things need to be done because they are right, whether we benefit directly from them or not. Some of us are still asking if we should be doing anything at all. That should be glaringly obvious by now. We need to stop asking “what’s in it for me?”, and start doing what we know damn well needs to be done. Or there will be nothing left for any of us.

Posted by Benny Acosta | Report as abusive

I think that there is a pervasive opinion of people in general, that makes most of humanity either greedy, stupid, or both. Neither is true, and anyone who questions current climate “science” aren’t either.As an aside, if the oceans rise to such levels as some predict, wouldn’t that mitigate the over-population problem by that very fact? Then nature will be “reset” and we can start all over. What’s wrong with that? (By the way, I don’t live near the coast).

Posted by Vern | Report as abusive

Just seems like a bad idea to me.We have set ourselves on a path to oblivion by tinkering with science and technologies on a human scale of which we did not understand the impact and consequences, and now we want to start playing around with earth itself. It is more of the same on a ridiculously big scale! So what happens when geoengineering fails? Will we try to cool down the sun?Also, Drew, Can you please explain where you go this information from “When the world was much warmer 9000 years ago Antarctica was habitable, the Sahara was forested, and most of Europe didn’t get snowfall.” Seems a little dubious too.

Posted by Jon | Report as abusive

Don’t worry, the earth will solve the problem of to many parasites. When her resorces run out the problem will be over.

Posted by James | Report as abusive

Unfortunately when the science is proven it will be a little too late. Clearly it is not unreasonable to suspect that the science is correct ( I believe it is) so really it is about the odds! If the vast majority agreed that there was a 1 in 6 chance of global warming being true, then we are playing russian roulette with the next generation. If we were to insure the planet against the consequences of global warming, then how much would we have to pay in premiums to insure the planet? When we look at it in these terms then the costs to mitigate carbon emissions is pretty cheap, especially when taking into consideration the benefits to health and the enviroment.One recent study by the goverment of Ontario regarding coal plants, showed that the true cost of electricity generated with coal, cost the health care system (due to the emissions)about 6 cents a kilowatt hour, making the real cost of this source much higher than is regularly quoted.We have to make the reductions on a global basis, and not allow products to be imported from areas that are trying to gain an economic advantage using cheap electricity from dirty sources. If this is not done at the same time as we make reductions here in the west, then companies will be forced to move to these enviromentally damamging areas. I suspect that to a certain extent this is going on at present, in terms of pollution and work safety.Just to be safe I live on high ground:-)

Posted by Horselogger | Report as abusive

There are many scientific studies that show the earth has been through several warming and cooling trends. It’s a naturally occurring situation since the dawn of time. Period! . On average we are still 8-15 degrees celsius cooler than earths highest recorded temperatures and are still in the holocene epoch which has been going on now for over 10,000 years. For roughly the last billion years our global warming has been interrupted by a few glacial periods starting at around 925, 800, 680, 450, 330, and 2 million years before present. Even throughout this period we’ve experienced temperature variances that have caused glaciers to increase and decrease. Studies have shown that co2 rises have more to do with a transition having taken place or is in the process but has little influence on climate change itself. It is my opinion that we as humans can find cleaner ways to live and it will be beneficial to us to move more towards a more clean means of survival. The methods of our solutions must be honest, ethical, and fair. China the U.S. and the E.U. are by far the leading contributors to the increase of man made co2 in the atmosphere. Roughly about 70% of the total global output. And this is just the pollution of burning fossil fuels. The rest of the countries represent well under 6% each of that total. The current solutions proposed by governments are based on the idea that our climate warming is directly due to human involvement which is simply not true. Their solutions provide mandated profits for few at the expense of many and does not provide the vehicle for co2 to actually decrease but to simply cost more money as it increases and distribute the processes to other countries that currently contribute very little to pollution. Therefore allowing them to either pollute their counties more or sell their carbon credits, or whatever, to the highest bidder increasing costs and continuing the pollution of the world. And with so many of the undeveloped countries being in debt ( or soon to be) to international financiers you can understand who will ultimately gain at their expense. With these types of proposals we as people move our control farther and farther away from home and we have less influence over our lives and our environment. History shows this trend indeed! I don’t believe for one moment that the intent of the our global decision makers represents a true desire to better our world for ALL. There are better solutions.

Posted by jason | Report as abusive

few of us are intelligent enough to understand that we must decarbonise our economy and sequester the excess carbon dioxide, just as few of us are intelligent enough to understand that we must have free and universal health care and education!the wealth-power system we have is easy for most people to relate to as most people are innately greedy and selfish. the concept of ‘enlightened self interest’ for the majority is just a hippie joke.no…our Rapanui will more than likely take us all down to destruction. i’m just glad that i’m old enough so that i won’t be around to see it!

Posted by dr arp | Report as abusive

After reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent New Yorker review of Levitt and Dubner’s book (framed by her rendering of the city’s facts-based “Parable of Horseshit” retold therein), I have to agree with her parting shot: “To be skeptical of climate models and credulous about things like carbon-eating trees and cloudmaking machinery and hoses that shoot sulfur into the sky is to replace faith in science with a belief in science fiction. This is the turn that ‘SuperFreakonomics’ takes, even as its authors repeatedly extoll their hard-headedness. All of which goes to show that, while some forms of hoseshit are no longer a problem, others will always be with us.”

Posted by Cliff Esler | Report as abusive

#1 we ARENT feeding the world’s hungry….if you pay attention to news, there are more percentage wise and actual starving poor than ever before….scientists really need to focus on climate change and increasing variability….#2 some locals I have seen are STILL protesting GLOBAL WARMING but only understand half the picture….climate change is definitely happening NOW…which includes increasing variably and is EXACTLY what is currently happending, later storms, etc…people who cannot handle the truth just stick their head in the sand…I understand that it is easier that way for some to cope, and others have interests in status quo or just short-sighted gains, maybe even make their money from oil, but this does not preclude intelligent people from actually doing something about it NOW…BEFORE it is too late….piecemeal state by state efforts are not enough…since politicians will always support constituents and industries whose lobbyists bribe them, when your’e exxon, you can afford a LOT of lobbyists…. Humans already engineer crops to allow triple cropping, population increasing too fast for another green revolution…we will use up all fossil fuels shortly…ironically, only recession prolonged oil a couple more years….still, Saudi Arabia is now selling U.S. cheaper quality crude because THAT IS ALL THERE IS LEFT….wake up and smell reality…change will happen whether we like it or not, we should control what happens by changing our behavior NOW…….why is the US always an obstacle to rest of the world w/respect to climate change and many other progressive issues??? look at some of above backwards posts and see why….

Posted by change happening | Report as abusive

Jason,I do not believe that the issue here is whether the earth has ever been warmer or cooler. It probably has. I imagine that 3 billion years ago the earth was indeed quite a lot hotter. The true problem is that our ecosystems are not prepared to deal with climate change (look at extinction rates over the past 50 years), and when the ecosystems colapse, when our life support systems die, so do we.

Posted by Jon | Report as abusive

Jon,There are better solutions than what our world leaders are putting on the table and this is not the first time in human history that we’ve experienced climate change.

Posted by jason | Report as abusive

I share with German Chancellor Angela Merkel the claim that all developing countries will follow suit once America moves on anti-global warming accord.

Posted by hsr0601 | Report as abusive

Wasn’t it Gandhi who said something to the effect of being the change you want to see in the world?My only question is that if preventing climate change is such a serious issue that takes precedence over the luxuries provided by industrialization, then why do so many proponents of regulation continue to fund those industries? In other words, why wait for the government to step in before you act? If all those in favor of government intervention collectively quit driving gas powered cars, buying electricity from coal plants, and purchasing goods produced by those that do the same, then they’d be more successful at achieving their objectives. If one believes that polluting the planet is wrong, then one should –want– to make the individual decision to live responsibly and encourage others to do the same.

Posted by vtenginerd | Report as abusive

The book just shows that there are other ways. Politically I do not think anyone would have the power or in the right mind to make a decision on sending millions of tons of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. Mother Earth, however, can make that decision without asking us. Changing billions of people’s habit is not likely to be possible. However given sufficient incentives, a few smart people can think of a way to produce enough electricity without pollution, the others just use it shamelessly.

Posted by Lee Siu Hoi | Report as abusive

The climate has been changing for millions of years CO2 or no CO2. Human activity has nothing to do with climate change. About 1000 years ago the medieval warm period was not caused by CO2 and even the sea level has not risen. I would be surprised if you published my comment as all realistic comments by scientists never appear in the press.

Posted by Michael Kennedy | Report as abusive

We should be doing simulations with super computers to figure out how to best modify the planets climate so as to optimize for crop production and species protection.Large scale climate manipulation will inevitably make some land more fertile and some land less ferile so we will have to cooperate on a world wide level to continue to feed everyone.At the same time we need to move to 100% renewable energy and a stiff carbon tax is the only way to get there. The only way for that to work is if its applied on a world wide level.

Posted by Paul Sawyer | Report as abusive

Aces for the comment by Michael Kennedy. Doubts? Do yourself a favor. Overlay a long-term graph of sun spot activity over a map of earth temperature. Surprise, they match. Current hype and pseudo-science however has turned climate control into a 3 ring circus of government, industry and social fear that defies belief. The real problem is that there are far too many people on this planet ejecting their garbage into the air, water and land and the rest of us are wallowing in it. The earth will continue to exist with or without humans, and earth will continue to vary in temperature with or without humans. If we are going to continue to habitat this planet though, regardless of climate, we should demonstrate far better stewardship, and not destroy it.

Posted by JJ Been | Report as abusive

Windmills and wood gas are OLD technologies. The huddled masses could have so easily fixed Co2 already. But PERMISSION was Denied to the Masses by control freak Engineers who partnered with money lending Tables and Built CORPORATE citys for the benifit of Automobiles using juxterposition of facilities. Windmills need to be in the Hands of people and NOT CORPORATIONS otherwise we will be enslaved even More.

Posted by EDEN | Report as abusive

himmmmm Who i say who is in charge of PERMITS and Licences and Patents and Royalties. I say JESUS IS. also his Buddies Mohamid Moses and Budda etc

Posted by Eden | Report as abusive

how many roads must a slave walk down. before he is allowed Permission To be Free. Oh but we may as well try and catch the Wind

Posted by Eden | Report as abusive

how much transactual analysis of freud must language be before it reach Adult Id. the answer is tilting windmillls at Co2

Posted by Apple with wormhole | Report as abusive

Whether you like it or not we will be using fossil fuels for energy for decades to come. So we should figure out ways to clean it up as much as we can. Some think that returning to the lifestyle of 100 years ago is the solution but that is absurd. Just take a walk through an old cemetery and see all the baby graves from 100 years ago. And the graves of the young women who died in childbirth. Thank heavens we don’t have that anymore.

Posted by Steve Numero Uno | Report as abusive

Jason,you are right it’s not the first time in which Earth experienced climate change,but it’s the first time when human kind can change something.I am an engineer and although we are supposed to be in a cooling period of Earth’s long-life, the temperatures are increasing. As Jon said this climate change left signs in the last 50 years ,the extinction rates.Finally, there are no solutions for fighting CC by not changing the economical-social-political facts and perspective, as far as I know. Solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, fuel cells are not able to meet the human kind needs. Technologies are far more expensive and they are not ready for the world.

Posted by Serban | Report as abusive

Everyone knows it’s all talks and no action. Try asking the common folks to stop driving, and start to walk, what will be the national reaction?If the theme of the Summits is to explore alternatives, and each country contributes the resources unique to the country, then it will be productive effort.

Posted by scheng1 | Report as abusive

I know that Windmills and wood gas and Dams can power all the robots to do all the Jobs and Work. Seems its the human Engineers who have not noticed. Probably to busy signing off on documents with their money originating lending tables of authorised institutions conceptually Corporation emaculate or otherwise. Best to engineer the lazy robots to steer themselves around the paddock to oil their own wheel rather than engineer them to make us polish and fix and work for them. And then the engineers Proudly claim they are creating Jobs

Posted by Eden and Apple | Report as abusive

Says to eden been there done that and says to self chuckle I am not incorporated

Posted by God | Report as abusive

No, the smoker does not need to “do both”, Analogy: a smoker is found to have an early lung cancer. It is pointless to debated whether he should either (a) stop smoking or (b) have the cancer excised. He must do both.He can do both, choose a or choose b. Or keep on going the way he’s going.However, to change the smokers behavior, he must want to change. And no matter how much you use social engineer to force him to change, unless he finds a personal reason to change his ways, which might even be fear of dying, he won’t change.As far as I can tell, Freakonomics alienates people just as much as the social engineering folks. Neither group is effective. Used to be we’d say, “but they sure do sell a lot of newspapers!” Damn I miss newspapers.

Posted by common sense | Report as abusive

the immediate costs to do something is less than if we do nothing….regardless if humans caused it or rhino farts, it is pointless drivel to discuss….if we do nothing now, now matter who caused it, or percentage of blame, then future costs will escalate….doofus dubya stuck his dumb head in sand and carbon emissions escalated 31% since kyoto, all because of infantile posturing blaming china…sure did wonders for our economy, though, didnt it??? will do even more by now having to respond to “inevitable” climate change…it is self-fulfilling prophecy…on a global scale….sure am glad stock market is going gang busters…so bailed out bankers using our money have somewhere to park their record bonuses…full speed ahead on the new world order!!!!

Posted by change focus | Report as abusive

Clues for the clueless:1. Scientists have not yet been able to determine a direct causal link between emissions and the changing of current weather conditions.2. Nor have scientists been capable of creating a testable model capable of analysing previous conditions, or predicting future conditions.3. Assuming there is a direct causal link, it is unlikely that the third world is willing to take action and sacrifice their own economic development. Nor does the first world have the money to bankroll the entire planet.4. Assuming the third world agreed to take action on climate change, it is unlikely that the world will be able to set a target of reducing emissions by 50% by 2050.5. Assuming the world reduces its emissions by 50% by 2050, this will only slow global warming down by 50%. It will not reverse any current changes, or prevent any changes in the next couple of decades.6. Assuming that this is the case, the third world will suffer mass starvation. Whether or not we choose to do anything about it, or actually succeed in slowing down climate change.7. Assuming we cut emissions but then fail to reach a new technological breakthrough in green renewable energy, we will be no more screwed then if we decided to do Sweet F%^$ All to combat climate change.8. Assuming we fail to discover the green tech version of the cornucopia, we will inevitably need to turn to nuclear power to fill the gaps once oil becomes more expensive. Not the green future you anticipated, is it?9. As the effects of global warming start to affect the third world, the priority of developed nations will be to prevent those effects from spilling over to better off nations. Or in other words, strict migration control and refugee quotas.10. And there is always the off hand chance that nations will realise that because it is unlikely we will stop or even slow global warming, it is cheaper and more efficient to simply deal with a post-warming world. The third world, most assuredly, will suffer the most.Welcome to the brave new world. The horror will be much worse then mere human extinction. It will be you and your developed nation living in comfort while watching the third world starve.And realising that, yes, you can live with it.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

A few too many assumptions, clueful, but some important points. Your last point is rather questionable — it seems to be the emerging countries leading us out of recession.

Posted by rico | Report as abusive

political diatribe is pointless and polarizing….the facts are irrefutable that climate is changing and that humans can do something about it; U.S. doesn’t care as we are not as affected….political posturing by either party is basically delaying change…U.S. chooses to not lead and wastes energy laying blame, which is typical…other countries need to go ahead without us….poor countries need to realize we rely on them remaining poor so we can buy their junk at walmart….we cannot lead…we have too many people trying to score political points….the current periphery will be worse until they emigrate here to the U.S…..we are now semi-periphery imho, not the core as before, if you take a global perspective….of course, govt. will not readily admit this…people in a globalized world do not live in some isolated bubble…but it is sure easier to label “others” and put “others” in a box than collectively do something to benefit all, if we are actually a “democracy” or a leader, like we tell our own people when we are starting wars….., wars now, in case nobody has noticed, are for securing resources…other countries do this in a more tactful fashion, we just use our bloated military….like rome, which destroyed itself stretching too thin to control its’ empire….also immigrants in the future may be coming more for food/water security than anything else…neocons better get to spending our taxpayer dollars building their wall….which will just make us even further behind….as we take our toys and go home….from the rest of the world…ironically, our military bases overseas are still proliferating…..

Posted by audacity of nope | Report as abusive

“Geoengineering solutions”, there we go! What a novel concept, instead of listening to scientist, lawyers, and pol sci majors tell us how to solve a “problem”, lets listen to people who maybe have training and experience in Problem Solving, ummm engineers? what a novel concept! We let engineers solve every other problem facing humanity, but global warming, nope, let the scientist solve it…. If it was a bunch of engineers stepping into the “turf” of scientists, the media reaction would be quite opposite. Thank you scientists the, globe is warming, now please step back and let the “experts” work on it, as you would be saying the same thing if situations were reversed.

Posted by James | Report as abusive

audacity of hope – you say “political diatribe is pointless and polarizing….the facts are irrefutable that climate is changing and that humans can do something about it; “. Please prove that statement. Please only post these “facts” – one at a time if you like and we can go from there. But please do not say “the facts are irrifutable” when probably every single one IS refutable or has already been refuted. Just because you say they are refutable doesn’t mean that is true. Awaiting your post – or others.

Posted by John | Report as abusive

Serban,You left out nuclear power. Is that on purpose? As much as I hated it, I have to admit it is still something to consider.Hoi

Posted by Lee Siu Hoi | Report as abusive

Overlay a chart of sun spot activity from the last 150 years over a chart of climate change. Wow, what a surprise. There’s a direct correlation. This climate hype is no different than the flu hype, the Y2K hype and other contrived panics that are media driven, with every political opportunist jumping on board. Come on people, smarten up and start asking questions of these self-professed experts.

Posted by Weston East | Report as abusive