RealClimate logo

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.

As quoted by you, Mr. Myhrvold claimed, in effect, that it was pointless to try to solve global warming by building solar cells, because they are black and absorb all the solar energy that hits them, but convert only some 12% to electricity while radiating the rest as heat, warming the planet. Now, maybe you were dazzled by Mr Myhrvold’s brilliance, but don’t we try to teach our students to think for themselves? Let’s go through the arithmetic step by step and see how it comes out. It’s not hard.

Let’s do the thought experiment of building a solar array to generate the entire world’s present electricity consumption, and see what the extra absorption of sunlight by the array does to climate. First we need to find the electricity consumption. Just do a Google search on “World electricity consumption” and here you are:


Now, that’s the total electric energy consumed during the year, and you can turn that into the rate of energy consumption (measured in Watts, just like the world was one big light bulb) by dividing kilowatt hours by the number of hours in a year, and multiplying by 1000 to convert kilowatts into watts. The answer is two trillion Watts, in round numbers. How much area of solar cells do you need to generate this? On average, about 200 Watts falls on each square meter of Earth’s surface, but you might preferentially put your cells in sunnier, clearer places, so let’s call it 250 Watts per square meter. With a 15% efficiency, which is middling for present technology the area you need is

2 trillion Watts/(.15 X 250. Watts per square meter)

or 53,333 square kilometers. That’s a square 231 kilometers on a side, or about the size of a single cell of a typical general circulation model grid box. If we put it on the globe, it looks like this:


So already you should be beginning to suspect that this is a pretty trivial part of the Earth’s surface, and maybe unlikely to have much of an effect on the overall absorbed sunlight. In fact, it’s only 0.01% of the Earth’s surface. The numbers I used to do this calculation can all be found in Wikipedia, or even in a good paperbound World Almanac.

But we should go further, and look at the actual amount of extra solar energy absorbed. As many reviewers of Superfreakonomics have noted, solar cells aren’t actually black, but that’s not the main issue. For the sake of argument, let’s just assume they absorb all the sunlight that falls on them. In my business, we call that “zero albedo” (i.e. zero reflectivity). As many commentators also noted, the albedo of real solar cells is no lower than materials like roofs that they are often placed on, so that solar cells don’t necessarily increase absorbed solar energy at all. Let’s ignore that, though. After all, you might want to put your solar cells in the desert, and you might try to cool the planet by painting your roof white. The albedo of desert sand can also be found easily by doing a Google search on “Albedo Sahara Desert,” for example. Here’s what you get:


So, let’s say that sand has a 50% albedo. That means that each square meter of black solar cell absorbs an extra 125 Watts that otherwise would have been reflected by the sand (i.e. 50% of the 250 Watts per square meter of sunlight). Multiplying by the area of solar cell, we get 6.66 trillion Watts.

That 6.66 trillion Watts is the “waste heat” that is a byproduct of generating electricity by using solar cells. All means of generating electricity involve waste heat, and fossil fuels are not an exception. A typical coal-fired power plant only is around 33% efficient, so you would need to release 6 trillion Watts of heat to burn the coal to make our 2 trillion Watts of electricity. That makes the waste heat of solar cells vs. coal basically a wash, and we could stop right there, but let’s continue our exercise in thinking with numbers anyway.

Wherever it comes from, waste heat is not usually taken into account in global climate calculations for the simple reason that it is utterly trivial in comparison to the heat trapped by the carbon dioxide that is released when you burn fossil fuels to supply energy. For example, that 6 trillion Watts of waste heat from coal burning would amount to only 0.012 Watts per square meter of the Earth’s surface. Without even thinking very hard, you can realize that this is a tiny number compared to the heat-trapping effect of CO2. As a general point of reference, the extra heat trapped by CO2 at the point where you’ve burned enough coal to double the atmospheric CO2 concentration is about 4 Watts per square meter of the Earth’s surface — over 300 times the effect of the waste heat.

The “4 Watts per square meter” statistic gives us an easy point of reference because it is available from any number of easily accessible sources, such as the IPCC Technical Summary or David Archer’s basic textbook that came out of our “Global Warming for Poets” core course. Another simple way to grasp the insignificance of the waste heat effect is to turn it into a temperature change using the standard climate sensitivity of 1 degree C of warming for each 2 Watts per square meter of heat added to the energy budget of the planet (this sensitivity factor also being readily available from sources like the ones I just pointed out). That gives us a warming of 0.006 degrees C for the waste heat from coal burning, and much less for the incremental heat from switching to solar cells. It doesn’t take a lot of thinking to realize that this is a trivial number compared to the magnitude of warming expected from a doubling of CO2.

With just a little more calculation, it’s possible to do a more precise and informative comparison. For coal-fired generation,each kilowatt-hour produced results in emissions of about a quarter kilogram of carbon into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. For our 16.83 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity produced each year, we then would emit 4.2 trillion kilograms of carbon, i.e. 4.2 gigatonnes each year. Unlike energy, carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere, and builds up year after year. It is only slowly removed by absorption into the ocean, over hundreds to thousands of years. After a hundred years, 420 gigatonnes will have been emitted, and if half that remains in the atmosphere (remember, rough estimates suffice to make the point here) the atmospheric stock of CO2 carbon will increase by 210 gigatonnes, or 30% of the pre-industrial atmospheric stock of about 700 gigatonnes of carbon. To get the heat trapped by CO2 from that amount of increase, we need to reach all the way back into middle-school math and use the awesome tool of logarithms; the number is

(4 Watts per square meter) X log2(1.3)

or 1.5 Watts per square meter. In other words, by the time a hundred years have passed, the heat trapped each year from the CO2 emitted by using coal instead of solar energy to produce electricity is 125 times the effect of the fossil fuel waste heat. And remember that the incremental waste heat from switching to solar cells is even smaller than the fossil fuel waste heat. What’s more, because each passing year sees more CO2 accumulate in the atmosphere, the heat trapping by CO2 continues to go up, while the effect of the waste heat from the fossil fuels or solar cells needed to produce a given amount of electricity stays fixed. Another way of putting it is that the climate effect from the waste heat produced by any kind of power plant is a one-off thing that you incur when you build the plant, whereas the warming effect of the CO2 produced by fossil fuel plants continues to accumulate year after year. The warming effect of the CO2 is a legacy that will continue for many centuries after the coal has run out and the ruins of the power plant are moldering away.

Note that you don’t actually have to wait a hundred years to see the benefit of switching to solar cells. The same arithmetic shows that even at the end of the very first year of operation, the CO2 emissions prevented by the solar array would have trapped 0.017 Watts per square meter if released into the atmosphere. So, at the end of the first year you already come out ahead even if you neglect the waste heat that would have been emitted by burning fossil fuels instead.

So, the bottom line here is that the heat-trapping effect of CO2 is the 800-pound gorilla in climate change. In comparison, waste heat is a trivial contribution to global warming whether the waste heat comes from solar cells or from fossil fuels. Moreover, the incremental waste heat from switching from coal to solar is an even more trivial number, even if you allow for some improvement in the efficiency of coal-fired power plants and ignore any possible improvements in the efficiency of solar cells. So: trivial,trivial trivial. Simple, isn’t it?

By the way, the issue of whether waste heat is an important factor in global warming is one of the questions most commonly asked by students who are first learning about energy budgets and climate change. So, there are no shortage of places where you can learn about this sort of thing. For example, a simple Google search on the words “Global Warming Waste Heat” turns up several pages of accurate references explaining the issue in elementary terms for beginners. Including this article from Wikipedia:


A more substantive (though in the end almost equally trivial) issue is the carbon emitted in the course of manufacturing solar cells, but that is not the matter at hand here. The point here is that really simple arithmetic, which you could not be bothered to do, would have been enough to tell you that the claim that the blackness of solar cells makes solar energy pointless is complete and utter nonsense. I don’t think you would have accepted such laziness and sloppiness in a term paper from one of your students, so why do you accept it from yourself? What does the failure to do such basic thinking with numbers say about the extent to which anything you write can be trusted? How do you think it reflects on the profession of economics when a member of that profession — somebody who that profession seems to esteem highly — publicly and noisily shows that he cannot be bothered to do simple arithmetic and elementary background reading? Not even for a subject of such paramount importance as global warming.

And it’s not as if the “black solar cell” gaffe was the only bit of academic malpractice in your book: among other things, the presentation of aerosol geoengineering as a harmless and cheap quick fix for global warming ignored a great deal of accessible and readily available material on the severe risks involved, as Gavin noted in his recent post. The fault here is not that you dared to advocate geoengineering as a solution. 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.

May I suggest that if you should happen to need some friendly help next time you take on the topic of climate change, or would like to have a chat about why aerosol geoengineering might not be a cure-all, or just need a critical but informed opponent to bounce ideas off of, you don’t have to go very far. For example…


But given the way Superfreakonomics mangled Ken Caldeira’s rather nuanced views on geoengineering, let’s keep it off the record, eh?

Your colleague,

Raymond T. Pierrehumbert
Louis Block Professor in the Geophysical Sciences
The University of Chicago

807 Responses to “An open letter to Steve Levitt”

  1. 401
    David B. Benson says:

    KevinM (382) — THe generation costs for old plants, paid off long ago, is much less than for new construction for two reasons: (1) investors must earn interest and return of capital (like a conventional house mort-gage) over the first 20 years (typically) of the life of the plant; (2) construction costs have soared over the last several years. Therefore estimates of the costs for contemplated power plants will always compare unfavorably with the costs associated with existing power plants.

  2. 402
    tharanga says:

    An additional thought on electricity generation: comparing ‘levelised’ energy costs (including building the plant as well as running and maintaining it) is appropriate for deciding what kind of new plant to build.

    However, we’ll want utilities to shutter already existing coal plants before their expected lifetime, and replace them with newly built alternatives. There, the economic comparison is different: the initial costs of the existing plant have already been sunk, so the utility will really want to continue operating the coal plant for the duration of its expected lifetime. It’ll really take a carbon price to get that switch to happen. As it is, production does tend to swing between coal and natural gas, depending on the relative costs of the two fuels, so I think we’ve seen that pricing can get a utility to slow down the use of an existing plant. Whether it be cap-and-trade or a simple tax, some sort of carbon price is needed.

  3. 403

    I read this post as: “How dare you propose a solution (to alleged AGW problem), not endorsed by us!”

    [Response: You are misreading it completely. It is actually saying that if you want to propose solutions, do your homework first. The idea that there is something trivial that none of the professionals have ever thought about is…. optimistic, to say the least. – gavin]

  4. 404
    Rod B says:

    Rene, since “denier” is such an emotionally satisfying word for the group (even if not recognized as a word in this context), there is no motivation to come up with a “skeptic” replacement.

  5. 405
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    Martin, #397, the proposal that old people tend to be denialists at a greater rate due to their fear of death and denial of such, esp in the context of reminders of death (news about GW, etc), and making them even take greater life-threatening risk is a good example of what I mean by (subconscious) psychological drives leading to denialist perspectives.

    I myself have focused on the self-esteem need in people, and that would also make GW ideas push the elderly into greater denialism….since they’ve contributed much more to the problem & are more guilty than younger people.

    So it could be a combo of less stake in the future, fear of death & its ramifications, AND threats to self-esteem in AGW is correct. Plus the economic & political fears I noted above, plus they might be more reliant on their mutual funds (than work-based income), etc. and tied into the economic system as is, and cannot afford even slight down-turns.

    It’s sort of like a hypothetical women with cancer caused by Corportation X’s pollution, but esp needing those dividends from Corp X to pay medical bills for her cancer, and not wanting Corp X to put the expensive anti-pollution devise on that may prevent furthering her cancer with more pollution bec it would lower her dividends. I guess this is the story of many global warming denialists. They’re like trapped rats. Reality is the cage. And they’re too afraid to address it or even try to imagine a way out, so they lash out irrationally.

  6. 406
    tharanga says:

    Here’s another table for comparison.
    Look at page 42/136, labeled as page 28. You’ll see costs for coal in line with what I originally said. The costs are given in Australian dollars.

    I don’t think you’re on the right track saying I’m quoting fuel costs, not final costs. Coal is currently US $2.20/MMBTU. That comes to 0.76 cents/kWh. Taking an efficiency of 35%, one gets to 2 cents/kWh.

    The *retail* price of electricity in the US averages 10 cents/kWh; 11.6 for residential use. If you hope to make any profit, your production, transmission and distribution costs must be lower. Solar just isn’t there, yet, unless you offer tax credits galore.

    Just think about what you’re saying. It doesn’t pass any sniff-test. If fossil fuels were actually as expensive as renewables, then fossil fuels wouldn’t have the dominant market share, worldwide. If fossil fuels were being made artificially cheaper than wind/solar/etc by subsidies in every single country, then the policy thrust would be to remove those subsidies, not add a carbon price. In reality, it’s the alternatives that pretty much live and die by the availability of subsidies.

  7. 407
    Julia Isaak says:

    Mark : the rational man of economic theory doesn’t exist.

    He does. It’s only the straw rational man that doesn’t exist – the one with the straw requirement of perfect information. The real-world one persues his objectives making the best of whatever info he does have. Time for us to move on.

  8. 408
    Mark says:

    Rod B, since skeptic is already defined as

    someone who questions an assumption NO MATTER WHERE IT IS ON THE CLAIM OF AGW.

    (all the way back in 200, which Rene in 201 had read but then forgot he had), why do we have to come up with another definition?

    You are not a skeptic since you are uncritical of papers purporting to prove AGW wrong.

    Rene likewise.

    So in neither case would skeptic fit. Yet denier does.

  9. 409
    Mark says:

    ” is appropriate for deciding what kind of new plant to build.”

    Good. Agree.

    “However, we’ll want utilities to shutter already existing coal plants before their expected lifetime, and replace them with newly built alternatives.”

    Don’t see how that turns up as a reason to make new coal power stations, however.

    “the utility will really want to continue operating the coal plant for the duration of its expected lifetime. It’ll really take a carbon price to get that switch to happen.”

    Yup. Probably will. It’ll be held up as proof that this is all a scam to tax people and concern trolls with go “what about granny who can’t afford to heat her house this winter”.

    “As it is, production does tend to swing between coal and natural gas, depending on the relative costs of the two fuels”

    I don’t know what you mean by prediction here because any form of interpretation makes no sense with the previous statements.

    How about “production should swing to renewables”?

    Example why:

    Old Smokey Coal Station: CO2: 5 boggles a year.
    3 Boggles to reduce to 4 boggles a year.

    New Sleek Coal Station: CO2: 3 boggles a year + 5 boggles to make

    New Spiffy Renewable Station: CO2 0 boggles a year + 2 boggles to make


    Build new Sleek Coal Station and improve Old Smokey:

    CO2: 8 boggles build, 7 Boggles a year CO2.


    Build New Spiffy twice and remove Old Smokey who paid for this (1 year)

    Build: 5 (Old Smokey)+4 (Spiffy) = 9 Boggle Build
    CO2: 0 Boggles

    Cost per kWh: pretty close to same in 2008.

    Isn’t that better overall?

    Wind is cheaper than Gas, Solar about the same as Coal (probably now cheaper).

    Cap-and-trade will get the money down now rather than later. Carbon tax can fund development of future renewables technology (including fusion, why not).

  10. 410
    Mark says:

    “The *retail* price of electricity in the US averages 10 cents/kWh; 11.6 for residential use. If you hope to make any profit, your production, transmission and distribution costs must be lower”

    What does it average in California?

    Funny how California can manage Solar and Wind power so much more cheaply than anywhere else.

    Lets just say you have your figures I have mine and nobody goes building wind farms out of spite.

  11. 411
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    Another psychological perspective that might give insight is Adler’s. He suggested that people strive for perfection and to overcome their sense of inferiority (which we all have as little, incompetent children)…which accorindg to him is what led to sociocultural evolution, industrializion, and this GW fix we’re in now (which Adler didn’t know about back then).

    Accoring to Adler, psychologically healthy and well-adjusted people have “social interest” and the welfare of society as their ultimate goal, but the abnormal don’t have this social interest and are overly sensitive to self-esteem threats; they violate reason and live in fictions.

    Maybe the “freak” in freakonomics at some subconscious level is referring to this — the psychologically abnormal mind that violates reason and refuses to mitigate AGW.

    I know some people suffering from various personality disorders — borderline, narcissistic. You meet them, they seem normal, but when you get to know them, you find out they are not in touch with reality, and are illogical — all as defense mechanisms to protect and enhance their self-esteem. They treat people who suggest they might have some problem or flaw very badly, and the people respond even more negatively to that, and the BPD of NPD person retreats all the more into a fiction that they are right and those upset with their unreasonableness are wrong. It’s almost impossible to cure such people, bec they never will admit they have a problem.

    Some anthropologists in the 1940s were into national character studies (which were little more than stereotyping), so with all sorts of caveats, perhaps the American character is suffering from borderline or narcissistic personality disorder, and that’s why Americans are denying global warming. The more other peoples try to point out the threats of GW, the more the denialists retreat into their fictions and illogicalities.

    Later, I’ll get into more social and cultural causes, if I get some more time & Gavin allows…something beyond a perverse economic perspective. Because the real driver to climate change is US, and we’re not only economically rational beings.

  12. 412
    Julia Isaak says:

    388 Chris Colose:

    we know that dT = dT(log CO2, TSI, aerosols, CH4, volcanoes, …) plus the fact that the system has a non-zero amount of “noise.” … This involves a multiple regression problem if you’re only interested in correlation, and if you do that, you’ll find CO2 is the dominant explanatory variable. This is not why the modern temperature rise is actually formally attributed to CO2, but it’s something to chew on.

    OK. I do accept there are many factors, with CO2 perhaps comparatively small in scale, but ongoing. But “noise” here just means “factors we do not understand”. And since we don’t know what they are, how can we rule out that it is not they that are behind the 150-year rise currently attributed to CO2? Isn’t picking CO2 just like the drunk who only looks for his lost keys in the area just below the streetlight, since that’s the only place where he can see anything? Why are the unknowns/”noise” just assumed to be random – ie have no trend?

    Finally, you’ll note that models do a very good job of simulating the time-evolution of the 20th century temperature trend when you include all forcings. See Figure 2 in Meehl et al 2004 for example of how models fail to simulate the observed warming without anthropogenic influence. This is also not how formal attribution is done, but it’s at least a good test.

    As far I know, with no significant temp trend for almost the last 15 years now, the “noise”-assuming models no longer an anthropogenic influence at all.

    [Response: ‘noise’ doesn’t mean unknown – it means something that isn’t related to the forcings. El nino, NAO, AMO and all the other causes of internal variability. etc. And the temperatures over the last 30 years (even the last couple) are well within the envelope of the models over the same period. See upcoming post…. – gavin]

  13. 413
  14. 414
    Hank Roberts says:

    > 3-4c/kWh is far FAR lower than the figures for california.

    finds much pertinent. For just one example from the first page of hits:

    “California took the lead on this, effectively banning the importation of coal-fired electricity unless the carbon dioxide emissions were captured and sequestered.”

  15. 415
    Julia Isaak says:

    Mark : skeptic is already defined as someone who questions an assumption NO MATTER WHERE IT IS ON THE CLAIM OF AGW.

    The general topic being AGW, a skeptic is surely here taken to be an AGW skeptic. And you obscure that
    – doubting proposition X (X-skepticism), is not the same thing as
    – believing proposition ~X (~X belief, or X-denialism).
    X-skeptics need no necessary relation to X-denialism; they could equally be or not be X-deniers.

  16. 416
    Scott says:

    It’s time to be a little more serious about climate change.

  17. 417
    Chris Colose says:

    Julia Isaak (412)

    Internal variability is not synonymous with “things we don’t know.” It is not synonymous with measurement error. It has a real physical meaning and it exists in nature! Such is the climate system, with specific examples given in gavin’s response (e.g., ENSO, NAO, etc). A fundamental issue related to the detection of a trend, is in fact whether the signal has emerged from the natural noise of internal variability.

    The field of understanding yearly to decadal variability is still young, and as such, it’s difficult to say with confidence how the climate system will evolve on short timescales. We know that it is possible to have periods of roughly a decade (or more) which show a flat-line or even cooling in temperatures. Models (e.g., Easterling and Wehner 2009) capture this behavior, and as gavin noted (see the RC post on ‘what IPCC models really say’) there is still no inconsistency between model and observed behavior, at least for global mean surface temperature anomaly. The short term variability all depends on oceanic phenomena, or even the solar cycle. In the long-term, global warming will eventually win out, because excess energy continues to be available to heat up the planet, so you cannot delay the warming forever. You can do so temporarily (for instance, by upwelling some deep, cold ocean water to the surface) but the excess CO2 is going to stick around for hundreds to thousands of years, while things like solar cycles simply oscillate about a mean and show little secular trend.

    Finally, there is still sufficient uncertainty in aerosol forcing and climate sensitivity to make wiggle room for other possible-but-unknown forcings. They probably cannot be very important, but they might exist. But because CO2 will rise significantly in the coming century under business-as-usual emission scenarios, it is pretty easy to say that CO2 will evolve as the dominant forcing agent in the long run. And there’s not much uncertainty in the CO2 forcing, and its effect on climate emerges from basic radiative physics. Things we don’t know about the climate have no bearing on this basic fact, so even if we don’t know everything going on, this doesn’t negate the influence CO2 will have when it keeps rising.

  18. 418


    Everyone here seems to bristle at the term ’skeptic’, but still noone will offer an alternative word for : someone who questions or doubts whether AGW is a serious problem.

    Sometimes people won’t answer a question because they don’t know the answer. Sometimes it’s because they don’t want to answer a stupid question.

  19. 419

    Richard Steckis:

    The fact is that average global temperature values have only been used in climate science relatively recently.

    Arrhenius used 15 C (288 K) in 1896, which is the modern estimate (288.15 K in the US Standard Atmosphere of 1976). Hulbert used 287 K in 1931; Hadley CRU agrees with that value. Apparently they’ve been calculating that number for at least 113 years.

  20. 420

    Lynn, yes, older people are more skeptical. I’ve heard this GW story in early 80s. In the early 90s AGW was part of Civization game. In the 2000s the same story (and lack of supporting facts) looks tiresome.

    Regarding younger people: Iranian students captured the US embassy in infamous protest against evil americans, and today they protest against their government failing to establish normal relationship with the rest of the world (including americans). It looks like younger people like to protest no matter the cause.

  21. 421


    how can we rule out that it is not they that are behind the 150-year rise currently attributed to CO2?

    Because we have a physical theory that predicted the correlation decades before it was found. AGW theory came out of radiation physics, NOT statistical studies.

    And your contention that CO2 is a minor factor is not correct. Did you read the links I provided? For 1880-2007, the correlation between ln CO2 and NASA GISS temperature anomaly is r = 0.87, corresponding to r^2 = 0.76. That means carbon dioxide accounts for three fourths of the changes in temperature over that 128-year period. Everything else, known or unknown, can only account for one fourth.

  22. 422
    Mark says:

    “The general topic being AGW, a skeptic is surely here taken to be an AGW skeptic. And you obscure that”

    Nope, because you have to be skeptical of AGW




    Of both the theory AGW and your proposition for replacing it.

    If you have nothing to replace it, you are NOT a skeptic, you’re a denialist.

    The aether skeptics didn’t say “I don’t think there IS an aether”. They said “I think it’s this, so I’ll go ahead and see if it explains things better”.

  23. 423
    Mark says:

    “Mark : the rational man of economic theory doesn’t exist.

    He does. It’s only the straw rational man that doesn’t exist”

    You just said rational man of economic theory doesn’t exist by labeling the rational man of economic theory a straw rational man. They are the same thing:

    Rational Man in economics is fully informed.

    You call the Rational Man who is fully informed “straw rational man”.

    Your “straw rational man” == Rational Man

    Who you say doesn’t exist. Just like Lynne did.

  24. 424
    Mark says:

    “Just think about what you’re saying. It doesn’t pass any sniff-test. If fossil fuels were actually as expensive as renewables, then fossil fuels wouldn’t have the dominant market share, worldwide”

    Yes it would.

    How long have coal and oil and gas power been available for industrial scale production?

    100 years? A little more?

    How long for solar power? 20 years less? Wind power? Same?

    So if they were created at the same rate, power production ratios would be 100+ parts coal etc, less than 20 parts Solar etc.

    Or 1/6th or less Solar etc.

    Your sniff test doesn’t pass the sniff test.

    And my alternative sniff would be: Why are China creating so much wind power capability if it were so much cheaper to use fossil fuels?

  25. 425
    David B. Benson says:

    Barton Paul Levenson (418) — How about “willfully ignorant”?

  26. 426
    tharanga says:

    Hank, 414: I was mainly looking at the Lazard presentation, which does not appear to be state-specific. Its low-end cost for coal electricity is plausible, if a tad high for the fanciest current coal plants (7.4 cents/kWh); the high end (13.5 cents) includes carbon capture, so of course that’s higher than the usual numbers. Presentation found here:

    I glanced at the spreadsheet of the CA analysis, and couldn’t quite make out what I was looking at. Perhaps it accounts for CA regulations that inflate the price of fossil fuel energy; I don’t know. CA has some interesting rules in electricity markets; read about ‘decoupling’ if you haven’t heard of it – they basically turned the incentives for utility companies upside-down. Utilities no longer get rewarded for selling more electricity.

    Mark, 409

    “I don’t know what you mean by prediction here because any form of interpretation makes no sense with the previous statements.”

    In the US, there is spare capacity in coal-fired and especially in natural gas-fired power plants. Plants are not run at 100% capacity. So if the price of natural gas falls, relative to the price of coal, then utilities buy less coal and buy more natural gas, and ramp up the use of the existing but underused natural gas plants. When coal is cheap, they go back the other way. Adding a carbon price would push them towards natural gas, and away from coal. Of course, not all utilities are in this flexible position.

    I have no idea what you’re trying to say with your Boggles. All I know is coal without CCS is usually the cheapest game in town, though more modern coal plants are more expensive than previous technology. Natural gas is a touch more expensive, wind (in the right places) can be pretty close as well, and then solar is currently bringing up the rear. Nuclear is a bit of an unknown. Adding a carbon price through cap and trade would do wonders by discouraging new construction of coal plants, and shifting usage of current coal plants towards current natural gas plants. Understanding that coal is cheap is requisite for understanding why we’re bothering to implement cap-and-trade.

  27. 427
    Mark says:

    I’ve used “selectively credulous” before.

    I’ve not trademarked it or anything…

  28. 428
    tharanga says:

    Mark, 423:

    “And my alternative sniff would be: Why are China creating so much wind power capability if it were so much cheaper to use fossil fuels?”

    They’re building more than just wind farms, Mark. You’ve not heard the saying that China builds a new coal plant every week? Well, it’s more than just a saying; it’s roughly true. Their consumption of coal is rising alarmingly quickly, and is expected to continue.

    I think they’ll turn the corner, though – they’ve realised how badly polluting coal is; forget global warming, they’re already suffering all the other drawbacks of coal. What to do about rising emissions in China will be a central topic at Copenhagen.

    As for wind, they’re ramping that up, too, but it’s still more expensive than coal, see here: ““The on-grid price for wind power is about 0.5 to 0.6 yuan per kilowatt-hour compared with about 0.2 to 0.4 yuan per kilowatt-hour for coal,” Shi told reporters. ”

  29. 429
    Mark says:

    Remarkable how much the style of Steven Levitt # 47 above in response to being magisterially shown to be red-handed reminds me of someone else – um, , um , yes, that’s it – one Roger Pielke jr.

    The old notion given a new spotlight in the current omnipresent “truthiness” word seems useful here – it is all about you – so it is your truth. So as long as you never engage with the key points of your interlocuter’s case – hey, they didn’t happen!

    Enables you to stay functioning, I suppose but at what cost – to deep inside, and to how you are seen by others than you, that is, to your reputation.

  30. 430
    Shelama says:

    What an over-reaction to Leavitt’s chapter and what he actually said and meant to convey. Much ado about nothing.

  31. 431
    Steve Fish says:

    Shelama (#430, November 2009 @ 8:53 PM):

    I don’t doubt your sincerity regarding “Leavitt’s” chapter on global warming mitigation, but you haven’t actually said anything about what your concern is. Why don’t you state what he actually said and what he meant to convey. My take on it is that he was pretty fast and loose with supporting facts and, for me, this greatly reduces his credibility in all that he said.


  32. 432
    Mike Roddy says:

    Mark, #429, good one, thanks.

    When the Freakonomics authors realized that they had screwed up, it became a matter of damage control. We’re talking about a potential payoff of several million dollars apiece, and they probably had new penthouses picked out already.

    As you said, the best strategy was to bullshit their way out of it. Just as with bankers, it’s about the score: who cares about long term income or reputation, when you’ve got a shot to be set up for life no matter what happens?

    They may have lost their souls some time ago, who knows. Either way, it’s a sad reflection on them.

  33. 433
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re 351 Julia Isaak
    Re 407 Julia Isaak, and Re Mark, others –

    Let’s just say that ‘Rational Man’ is at times an approximation to reality, or alternatively, a person who shows up every once in a while, does some heavy lifting, and then gets tired and goes to sleep to let habits and instincts run the night shift.

    Although, sometimes ‘Rational Man’ morphs into his alter ego, ‘Metarational Man’. And sometimes he makes ‘Metadecisions’, which may include leaving some instructions for habis and instincts to follow before he takes his nap. This can include ‘rules of thumb’. Rational Man will delegate his responsibilities to habit and instinct according to what tasks he thinks they’re up to. He will also occasionally make a decision to shift resources away from his everyday job in order to invest in his own powers so as to do better in the long term. (Meta)Rational Man also leaves special instructions for the ‘snap decision department’ to settle for quick approximations when the value of a decision deteriorates quickly with time, etc.

    But he always gets tired eventually and has to take a nap, and sometimes unforseen circumstances (PS we were actually dealing with Probabilistic (Meta)Rational Man; he doesn’t have all the information but he has information about information – he makes decisions about how to make decisions…) habit and instinct were not prepared for, and they goof up. Sometimes Rational Man encouters a big chunk of Kryptonite and just doesn’t know enough…

  34. 434
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re 351 Julia Isaak – Your first paragraph, I somewhat agree. I mentioned earlier that what on the surface appears altruistic can actually be rationally self-interested.

    This can be through calculation (or a delegation of decision making task to rule of thumb, habitual response and generalizations based on experience, instincts) of the potential benifits compared to the costs.

    The potential benifit can be in the form of recip-rocal altruism.

    It can also be something else, though – it can be that the person values someone elses’ welfare. Even that could have multiple underlying factors. A person might simply feel good knowing that someone else is okay; somewhat differently, a person may gain self-esteem through an apparently altruistic act (this wouldn’t fall directly under the category of concern for others though). Or another person’s welfare might feedback to one’s own welfare even without an act of recip-rocal altruism – for example, you might want to do something with the other person that you couldn’t do if the other person is injured or…

    There is another cause of apparent altruism, however, which is the ‘rationally-self interested gene’. Altruism among relatives can be selected for in evolution because the same genetic variation in one person has some higher probability of being found in a relative, so a genetic variation (or a network of them) can act to help its reproductive fitness even when individual organism reproductive fitness is sacrificed. There are specific mathematic relationships that can be used to predict this phenomenon, which have been tested by observations, as I recall.

    And there’s a whole subset of behaviors regarding why babies are so cute, etc.

    Of course, if a person ‘looks like’ a relative, that might concievably trigger the same response. Or it might generalize to all humans. There might be group-selection in some cases that will select for behavior that is altruistic within a given social network.

    On the flip side, there can be fitness benifits to punishing another at one’s own expense.

    Now there is the question of how this might relate to rational self-interest of the person him/herself. If the person’s actual desires are not to achieve greater reproductive success or the same for relatives, friends, allies, neighbors, etc, then genetically-inherited instincts and drives (depending on phenotypic plasticity) may get in the way of rational behavior. (And onw could also consider cultural inheritances via upbringing, and any other inheritance pathway, like how an expectant mother’s diet, which can be passed along to children via culture and location, might act on phenotype. Etc.)

    On the other hand, the selective pressures of biological evolution might also have shaped some of the persons’ own values, bringing his/her rational self-interest somewhat in line with the self-interest of the genes.

    Of course, biological evolution is not forward-looking, and will be ill-equiped to help an organism handle novel situations.

  35. 435
    Josh says:

    This is interesting, but I have one obvious question. If we can power the world (or even a just a meaningful portion of it) with just .01% of the earth’s surface covered in solar cells, why don’t we? It seems too obvious and simple, but if its that easy, let’s just do it.

    Start small and local, no need to call the G-20.

    I guess my real point is…..Isn’t this one of those simple solutions that Levitt writes about? The kind that does not require a mass change in human behavior. I guess I read the post and think it backs up Levitt’s point. Do I disagree that Levitt probably got some of the science wrong? NO, as stated in the book economists are generally net exporters of horse S&%H, but even a broken watch is right twice a day.

  36. 436
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re Mark – copyright/IP property is property. The question is how much should be considered property and how much should not; what are the limits. There is the concept of ‘fair use’ in copyright law, for example, and this is considered to have a public benifit. Some cultures (China, at least traditionally) may not treat any ‘IP’ as property, and within such a system, it would not be property. Certainly, it could go to far (people’s names?, people’s DNA…?, short little phrases…?). It makes sense to put time limits based on the probability that another person would have come up with the same idea anyway, for example. There might be cases where eminant domain applies – but there would be compensation offered. But it generally makes sense to protect a person’s right to the benifits of their labor.

    Re 401 tharanga, 402 David B. Benson, – Very good point; Thank you for highlighting it.

    Re 424 Mark – Yes, the mature industries have recieved a history of government support, but the ratio of subsidy to output at the present time or near past is an important consideration. Because whatever the past was, we have the infrastructure that we have and the techlogical development that we have now. We can’t change that. We can’t go back to 1950 and have solar cell investmensts in R&D, etc, increase twice as fast. We have to start where we are. Which is not to say that public investments now combined with the right price signals could get solar and the rest in a good place sooner than later.

    The thing about a lot of clean energy and efficiency is that much of the cost is realized before the benifit. If there were no capital costs (interest rates), and we were a bit less conservative in service lives (a standard for solar PV panels seems to be 30 years, but most of them will likely still be working after 60 years), the price of solar PV right now could send the market through the roof. Coal might be quickly dead and buried except for remnants in cold cloudy places.

    (I don’t know the installation and other costs offhand (I’ve read things but I don’t have perfect memory), let’s say total lifecycle costs, just for example, come to $6 per peak W, including some balance of system, etc., which at 200 W/m2 average comes to $30/average W; if over 100 years you get 60 years of equivalent installed performance, then 60 years * 8.766 kWh/(W-year) = 525.96 kWh/W, $30/525.96 kWh is less than 6 cents per kWh.)

    The cost of capital is real, because a decision to invest more is a shift in the production possibilities curve that reduces supplies of other things, and there is demand for investment, with a scarcity of supply (production possibilities curve), so there is a price and there is competition.

    However, solar PV could be seen as a good investment to make to get back money in the future. Might solar PV be used as a retirement account?

    There is also the possibility of using low interest lo-ans to solar/etc. companies in exchange for funds in the future to help deal with climate changes costs (though there are complexities with that line of thought – see comments in last post on “Superfreakonomics”).

  37. 437
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re 420 Tegiri Nenashi

    It sounds like you are not aware of all the evidence there is, not even roughly.

    And people have good reasons to protest…

  38. 438
    Mark says:

    “They’re building more than just wind farms, Mark.”

    This doesn’t counter this:

    “Why are China creating so much wind power capability if it were so much cheaper to use fossil fuels?”

    Although my counter to your sniff test did actually counter your sniff test.

    Since you’re not at all worried about working through an argument and just want to repeat your ASSERTION over and over again, get lost.


  39. 439
    Mark says:

    “I have no idea what you’re trying to say with your Boggles.”

    It’s a unit.

    And obviously made up.

    “All I know is coal without CCS is usually the cheapest game in town”

    And again that doesn’t make any sense as a counterpoint. Are you saying we should build CCS coal power stations rather than wind farms and solar panels because coal CCS is cheaper?

    “wind (in the right places) can be pretty close as well”


    How much cheaper can you get???

    When you can figure out how to be logical, please let me know.

  40. 440
    Mark says:

    Can I ask an open question here?

    Have I EVER said that being nasty was preferable to being nice?

    Because as far as I know I’ve said sometimes it’s necessary.

    But maybe I’ve not been clear and people (from my POV) pick on me about how I respond because they’re under the impression that I think that being nasty is preferable to nice because I see it as sometimes a good thing to get people to stop saying the first dumb crap that comes into their head by making them embarrassed to say it.

    So I see it as somewhat “Someone’s got to shovel shit so that the gentry don’t walk in it” and people see it as somewhat “WHOOPIE! I get to lord it over these targets!”. Not attacking the necessity or unfortunate efficacy of embarrassment as a thought provoker as I see it but attacking the glee in belittling that they see it.

  41. 441
    Mark says:

    the “because coal CCS is cheaper” should be “because coal sans CCS is cheaper”. Doesn’t make a lot of sense until you figure that part should have been there…

  42. 442

    While we are on elementary stuff people get wrong, a claim I’ve seen occasionally is that Venus is so hot because its atmospheric pressure is so high. My feeling is that this is wrong because Boyle’s Law does not create permanent a thermal state, i.e., if someone at some time a billion years ago squeezed a lot of CO_2 into Venus’s atmosphere creating this extremely high pressure, that event would have made Venus hot, but the excess heat would have radiated away until the planet arrived at a new equilibrium with its environment. Or in other words, Venus is not an isolated system, but a body radiating to space.

    If this is not the case, I am at a loss as to how my kitchen refrigerator works.

    A pointer to a reference on to post to sites making this claim would be useful.

  43. 443
    Hank Roberts says:

    Hmmm, some natural geoengineering recently took place — did anyone notice cooler weather in N. America or the N. Hemisphere in the past year since?

    “… Kasatochi has released quite a large flux of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. What effect this might have on climate is hard to tell, typically large SO2 fluxes will lower global temperature (or at least hemispheric temperature) by a fraction of a degree annually – which can actually still have a perceivable effect on weather.”

    (with a pointer to )

    Hat tip for the story and pointer to:

    who wrote:

    “… there has been a lot of discussion in the comments by readers about the study have claims that a mystery volcanic eruption might have played a significant role in climate during the early 1800s. It definitely is a quandary how such a prominent SO2 signal could be found both in ice from Antarctica and Greenland yet no obvious candidate for an eruption easily identified. However, remember that even in 1809-1810, great swathes of the world were unpopulated and unseen, so an eruption such as the Kasatochi eruption in the Aleutians, which released huge amounts of sulfur dioxide last year, might have never been recognized due to its remote location….”

  44. 444
    Mr Sh says:

    Chiris, #417, good explanation.

    Skeptics would still say, “so long as internal variability and observation error remain, and that non-predictability of nonlinear system exists, future climate could be dominated by these terms.”

    I think we can add one text that “even though uncertain term or factors not formulated yet remain, so long as such ‘noise’ terms show stationary, the long term trend will never be affected by them. The future climate can be predicted within the certain ranges.”

    Is my understanding correct?

  45. 445
    Alexandre says:

    Julia Isaak,

    “He does. It’s only the straw rational man that doesn’t exist – the one with the straw requirement of perfect information. The real-world one persues his objectives making the best of whatever info he does have.”

    The economic rationality in common-pool resource dilemmas is a bit more complicated than that. The uncoordinated use of the resource, instead of leading to a nice equilibrium like the “invisible hand”, leads to the overuse and destruction of the resource. Even if the destruction is an undesired outcome for all the agents.

    The work of the recent Nobel Prize Elinor Ostrom is specially rich in this field.

  46. 446


    Logically all very well & good, but the whole strategy of climate change denialism is to create–you guessed it–doubt. Exxon’s $20 million went for doubt. The US Chamber of Commerce is spending $30 million to create doubt.

    They, and all the other bad actors, are clearly set up to do nothing but systematically create doubt, and doubt where it need not exist based upon the strength of the evidence. That this is the case is pretty clear from their actions: they’ve spent millions on PR, and peanuts on actual research. And where they have spent on research–which they have from time to time done, on an “outsourcing” basis–there’s been a more-or-less clear message as to what the outcome of the research needed to be to receive funding. That’s not how science is supposed to work.

    Perhaps more directly to the point, doubt is not benign in the context of AGW–we have a potentially survival-threatening crisis in the works. Dithering is not a good survival strategy, and neither is denial.

    An analog:

    “They may distrust the fear, or it may impel them to some action that saves their lives.”

  47. 447
    Mark says:

    “Re Mark – copyright/IP property is property. ”

    No it isn’t, Patrick.

    It’s copyright. An artificial property created for a separate goal. It isn’t “intellectual property” it’s copyright.

    Why repeat the same old lie? It doesn’t make it any truer.

    Property can only be taken away from you by government act.

    Copyright can be “taken away” by government INACTION. Because it is only the action of government that gives your copyright some property protection.

    It isn’t property.

    “The question is how much should be considered property and how much should not; what are the limits.”

    Fair enough. But it isn’t property.

    “There is the concept of ‘fair use’ in copyright law, for example, and this is considered to have a public benifit.”

    Nope, COPYRIGHT is considered to have a public benefit:

    > To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

    “But it generally makes sense to protect a person’s right to the benifits of their labor.”


    When you flush your toiled the plumber who made this work and from which you benefit (to the tune of not having a whiffy plop in the bowl) doesn’t get paid for the benefits of his labour.

    And note the reason for copyright:

    NOT ONE THING about benefit of labour being the reason.

    If you don’t know copyright law, why are you acting like you do?

    “Some cultures (China, at least traditionally) may not treat any ‘IP’ as property, and within such a system, it would not be property.”

    Or, indeed, the US:

    > In January 1842 Charles Dickens and his wife, Catherine, travelled to the … to be published in the United States without his permission

    Or in the UK:

    > In Shakespeare’s time copyright didn’t exist, so the actors only got their lines as the play was in progress.

    This may help you understand:

    And through most of the 30,000 years of musical and creative history of modern man, we haven’t had copyright.

    But we HAVE had property.

  48. 448
    Mark says:

    Oh, and an EXCELLENT essay on how even if you consider copyright a necessary evil, read this man’s essay on why increasing copyrights has only down sides:

  49. 449
    dhogaza says:

    But maybe I’ve not been clear and people (from my POV) pick on me about how I respond because they’re under the impression that I think that being nasty is preferable to nice

    What I do know is that I believe you when you stated once that you don’t get invited to many parties.

    And you still have know idea what you’re talking about regarding copyright.

    To other posters: don’t bother discussing the issue with him. He’s not interested in learning.

    To the moderators: I would suggest that discussions of copyright are thoroughly OT here and all such posts such be deleted.

  50. 450
    Mark says:

    “And you still have know idea what you’re talking about regarding copyright.”

    Says the dude who said “DMCA brought in statutory damages”…