<i>New Yorker</i> writer takes to task the many holes found in the new book, <i>SuperFreakonomics.</i>
Tue, Nov 10, 2009 at 05:19 PM
Photo: Associated Press
The new book SuperFreakonomics by authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner has experienced an almost cult-like following among climate change deniers and skeptics alike. But does their claim that geoengineering can solve the global warming issue stack up?
Not really, according to a review by Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker, who methodically knocks out the various reasons why the book’s premise is, well, full of crap.
For example, the Superfreakonomics authors contend that the global warming threat is an exaggeration and that no one really knows how the Earth will respond to rising CO2 levels, despite an overwhelming amount of scientific research that says otherwise.
Kolbert also takes issue with the authors' overall solution to avoiding climate catastrophe, which does not include renewable energy technologies like wind and solar, but instead relies on far simpler, and supposedly cheaper, climate engineering schemes.
One of these schemes includes mimicking volcanoes by shooting tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, which would then eventually turn into sulfate aerosols capable of mirroring sunlight back into space.
Global warming problem solved! The problems with this are almost too many to count, however.
For one, nobody knows what would happen if humans suddenly shoved thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. Perhaps before we unintentionally create another climate crisis, maybe we should first solve the original crisis.
Second, “a world whose atmosphere is loaded with carbon dioxide … and sulfur dioxide … would be a fundamentally different place from the Earth as we know it,” writes Kolbert, who says that one of the likely consequences of shooting sulfur dioxide above the clouds would be new regional weather patterns that could bring widespread drought to Asia and Africa.
Plus, even though the Earth may get a bit cooler from the sulfur scheme, the oceans would continue to become acidic because there's still too much carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere and absorbed by the oceans, which kills off wildlife and bleaches coral reefs.
Another big hole in the SuperFreakonomics theory is the simple fact that neither Levitt nor Dubner has any training in climate science or any science at all! Levitt is an economist while Dubner is a journalist.
But, as Kolbert explains, it’s the authors’ contention that they don’t need science. After all, “the whole conceit behind SuperFreakonomics and, before that, Freakonomics, which sold some 4 million copies, is that a dispassionate, statistically minded thinker can find patterns and answers in the data that those who are emotionally invested in the material will have missed,” writes Kolbert.
Throughout the article, Kolbert writes a thoughtful review based on facts and science, which is more than can be said for the SuperFreakonomics authors. And, in case there’s any doubt that real scientists may actually buy the authors’ opinions on climate change, check out climatologist Raymond T. Pierrehumbert’s scathing take on the book in a open letter to his University of Chicago colleague, author Steve Levitt.
Here’s just one of Pierrehumbert’s more biting comments to Levitt:
“There is a broad spectrum of opinion among scientists about the amount of aerosol geoengineering research that is justified, but very few scientists think of it as anything but a desperate last-ditch attempt, or at best a strategy to be used in extreme moderation as part of a basket of strategies dominated by emissions reductions. You owed it to your readers to present a fair picture of the consequences of geoengineering, but chose not to do so.”