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An open letter to Steve Levitt

Filed under: — raypierre @ 29 October 2009

Dear Mr. Levitt,

The problem of global warming is so big that solving it will require creative thinking from many disciplines. Economists have much to contribute to this effort, particularly with regard to the question of how various means of putting a price on carbon emissions may alter human behavior. Some of the lines of thinking in your first book, Freakonomics, could well have had a bearing on this issue, if brought to bear on the carbon emissions problem. I have very much enjoyed and benefited from the growing collaborations between Geosciences and the Economics department here at the University of Chicago, and had hoped someday to have the pleasure of making your acquaintance. It is more in disappointment than anger that I am writing to you now.

I am addressing this to you rather than your journalist-coauthor because one has become all too accustomed to tendentious screeds from media personalities (think Glenn Beck) with a reckless disregard for the truth. However, if it has come to pass that we can’t expect the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor (and Clark Medalist to boot) at a top-rated department of a respected university to think clearly and honestly with numbers, we are indeed in a sad way.

By now there have been many detailed dissections of everything that is wrong with the treatment of climate in Superfreakonomics , but what has been lost amidst all that extensive discussion is how really simple it would have been to get this stuff right. The problem wasn’t necessarily that you talked to the wrong experts or talked to too few of them. The problem was that you failed to do the most elementary thinking needed to see if what they were saying (or what you thought they were saying) in fact made any sense. If you were stupid, it wouldn’t be so bad to have messed up such elementary reasoning, but I don’t by any means think you are stupid. That makes the failure to do the thinking all the more disappointing. I will take Nathan Myhrvold’s claim about solar cells, which you quoted prominently in your book, as an example.

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Putting the recent Antarctic snowmelt minimum into context

Filed under: — eric @ 27 October 2009

Guest Commentary by Andrew Monaghan and Marco Tedesco

Our study published in mid October in Geophysical Research Letters (Tedesco and Monaghan, 2009) documents record minimum snowmelt for Antarctica during austral summer 2008-2009 and lower-than-normal melt for several recent years, based on a 30-year satellite microwave record. Numerous blogs have cited the results as a challenge to previous studies reporting Antarctic warming, while also steadfastly ignoring other studies with similar results (e.g. Barrett et al., 2009). They have overlooked that these studies show that Antarctic warming has occurred mostly in winter and spring, whereas melting of course occurs in summer. And they oversimplify the causality and hence confuse our prediction for the future. We found that the same mechanism that has primarily caused low snowmelt in recent years will likely change in a manner that will enhance snowmelt in forthcoming decades. A brief summary follows. More »

350

Filed under: — gavin @ 27 October 2009

I was quoted by Andrew Revkin in the New York Times on Sunday in a piece about the 350.org International Day of Climate Action (involving events in 181 countries). The relevant bit is:

Gavin A. Schmidt, a climate scientist who works with Dr. Hansen and manages a popular blog on climate science, realclimate.org, said those promoting 350 or debating the number might be missing the point.
“The situation is analogous to people trying to embark on a cross-country road trip to California but they’ve started off heading to Maine instead,” Dr. Schmidt said. “But instead of working out ways to turn around, they have decided to argue about where they are going to park when they get to L.A.”
“If you ask a scientist how much more CO2 do you think we should add to the atmosphere, the answer is going to be none.”

I’ve been told that some readers may have misinterpreted the quote as a criticism of the 350.org campaign itself. This was not the intent and in fact my metaphor wouldn’t have made sense in that context at all. Instead, it was a criticism of people who are expending effort arguing about whether 350 is precisely the right number for a long term target, or whether it should be somewhat higher or lower. Since we aren’t currently headed anywhere near 350 ppmv (in fact we are at 388 ppmv CO2 and increasing by about 2 ppmv/yr), we need to urgently think of ways the situation can turn around. Tapping into the creativity and enthusiasm shown by the 350.org campaigners will certainly be part of that process.

We discussed some of the thinking behind this ‘Target CO2‘ when Jim Hansen and colleagues’ paper first came out, where I think we made it clear that picking a specific CO2 target to avoid ‘dangerous’ climate change is an inexact science at best. The comments by Robert Brulle and Ray Pierrehumbert at DotEarth and James Hrynyshyn also highlight some of that complexity. And I think the suggestions by ‘Paulina‘ for how a tweaked article might have been clearer are very apropos.

However, as the final line in my NYT quote should make clear, personally I think the scientific case not increasing CO2 any further is very strong. Since the planet has not caught up with current levels of concentrations emissions (and thus will continue to change), picking an ultimate target that is less than today’s level is therefore wise. Of course, how we get there is much trickier than knowing where it is we should be going, but having a map of the destination is useful. As we discussed in the ‘trillionth ton‘ posting a couple of months back, how we get there also makes a difference.

In my original email to Andy Revkin, I had actually appended a line:

If you ask a scientist how much more CO2 do you think we should add to the atmosphere, the answer is going to be none.

All the rest is economics.

(and technology, and sociology, and psychology and politics etc.) but the point is that working out how we get there from here is the real challenge and the more people who are aware and involved in developing those solutions the better.

Climate Cover-Up: A (Brief) Review

Filed under: — mike @ 20 October 2009 - (Español)

We often allude to the industry-funded attacks against climate change science, and the dubious cast of characters involved, here at RealClimate. In recent years, for example, we’ve commented on disinformation efforts by industry front groups such as the “Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Fraser Institute, and a personal favorite, The Heartland Institute, and by industry-friendly institutions such as the Wall Street Journal editorial board, and other media outlets that assist in the manufacture and distribution of climate change disinformation.

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Why Levitt and Dubner like geo-engineering and why they are wrong

Filed under: — gavin @ 18 October 2009

Many commentators have already pointed out dozens of misquotes, misrepresentations and mistakes in the ‘Global Cooling’ chapter of the new book SuperFreakonomics by Ste[ph|v]ens Levitt and Dubner (see Joe Romm (parts I, II, III, IV, Stoat, Deltoid, UCS and Paul Krugman for details. Michael Tobis has a good piece on the difference between adaptation and geo-engineering). Unfortunately, Amazon has now turned off the ‘search inside’ function for this book, but you can read the relevant chapter for yourself here (via Brad DeLong). However, instead of simply listing errors already found by others, I’ll focus on why this chapter was possibly written in the first place. (For some background on geo-engineering, read our previous pieces: Climate Change methadone? and Geo-engineering in vogue, Also the Atlantic Monthly “Re-Engineering the Earth” article had a lot of quotes from our own Raypierre).
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