RealClimate logo

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).

Paul Krugman probably has the main issue right:

…it looks like is that Levitt and Dubner have fallen into the trap of counterintuitiveness. For a long time, there’s been an accepted way for commentators on politics and to some extent economics to distinguish themselves: by shocking the bourgeoisie, in ways that of course aren’t really dangerous.


Clever snark like this can get you a long way in career terms — but the trick is knowing when to stop. It’s one thing to do this on relatively inconsequential media or cultural issues. But if you’re going to get into issues that are both important and the subject of serious study, like the fate of the planet, you’d better be very careful not to stray over the line between being counter-intuitive and being just plain, unforgivably wrong.

Levitt was on NPR at the weekend discussing this chapter (though not defending himself against any of the criticisms leveled above). He made the following two points which I think go to the heart of his thinking on this issue: “Why would anyone be against a cheap fix?” and “No problem has ever been solved by changing human behaviour” (possibly not exact quotes, but close enough). He also alluded to the switch over from horse-driven transport to internal combustion engines a hundred years ago as an example of a ‘cheap technological fix’ to the horse manure problem. I deal with each of these points in turn.

Is geo-engineering cheap?

The geo-engineering option that is being talked about here is the addition of SO2 to the stratosphere where it oxidises to SO4 (sulphate) aerosols which, since they are reflective, reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the ground. The zeroth order demonstration of this possibility is shown by the response of the climate to the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991 which caused a maximum 0.5ºC cooling a year or so later. Under business-as-usual scenarios, the radiative forcing we can expect from increasing CO2 by the end of the century are on the order of 4 to 8 W/m2 – requiring the equivalent to one to two Pinatubo’s every year if this kind of geo-engineering was the only response. And of course, you couldn’t stop until CO2 levels came back down (hundreds, if not thousands of years later) without hugely disruptive and rapid temperature rises. As Deltoid neatly puts it: “What could possibly go wrong?”.

The answer is plenty. Alan Robock discussed some of the issues here the last time this came up (umm… weeks ago). The basic issues over and above the costs of delivering the SO2 to the stratosphere are that a) once started you can’t stop without much more serious consequences so you are setting up a multi-centennial commitment to continually increasing spending (of course, if you want to stop because of huge disruption that geo-engineering might be causing, then you are pretty much toast), b) there would be a huge need for increased monitoring from the ground and space, c) who would be responsible for any unanticipated or anticipated side effects and how much would that cost?, and d) who decides when, where and how much this is used. For point ‘d’, consider how difficult it is now to come up with an international agreement on reducing emissions and then ponder the additional issues involved if India or China are concerned that geo-engineering will cause a persistent failure of the monsoon? None of these issues are trivial or cheap to deal with, and yet few are being accounted for in most popular discussions of the issue (including the chapter we are discussing here).

Is geo-engineering a fix?

In a word, no. To be fair, if the planet was a single column with completely homogeneous properties from the surface to the top of the atmosphere and the only free variable was the surface temperature, it would be fine. Unfortunately, the real world (still) has an ozone layer, winds that depend on temperature gradients that cause European winters to warm after volcanic eruptions, rainfall that depends on the solar heating at the surface of the ocean and decreases dramatically after eruptions, clouds that depend on the presence of condensation nuclei, plants that have specific preferences for direct or diffuse light, and marine life that relies on the fact that the ocean doesn’t dissolve calcium carbonate near the surface.

The point is that a planet with increased CO2 and ever-increasing levels of sulphates in the stratosphere is not going to be the same as one without either. The problem is that we don’t know more than roughly what such a planet would be like. The issues I listed above are the ‘known unknowns’ – things we know that we don’t know (to quote a recent US defense secretary). These are issues that have been raised in existing (very preliminary) simulations. There would almost certainly be ‘unknown unknowns’ – things we don’t yet know that we don’t know. A great example of that was the creation of the Antarctic polar ozone hole as a function of the increased amount of CFCs which was not predicted by any model beforehand because the chemistry involved (heterogeneous reactions on the surface of polar stratospheric cloud particles) hadn’t been thought about. There will very likely be ‘unknown unknowns’ to come under a standard business as usual scenario as well – another reason to avoid that too.

There is one further contradiction in the idea that geo-engineering is a fix. In order to proceed with such an intervention one would clearly need to rely absolutely on climate model simulations and have enormous confidence that they were correct (otherwise the danger of over-compensation is very real even if you decided to start off small). As with early attempts to steer hurricanes, the moment the planet did something unexpected, it is very likely the whole thing would be called off. It is precisely because climate modellers understand that climate models do not provide precise predictions that they have argued for a reduction in the forces driving climate change. The existence of a near-perfect climate model is therefore a sine qua non for responsible geo-engineering, but should such a model exist, it would likely alleviate the need for geo-engineering in the first place since we would know exactly what to prepare for and how to prevent it.

Does reducing global warming imply changing human behaviour and is that possible?

This is a more subtle question and it is sensible to break it down into questions of human nature and human actions. Human nature – the desire to strive for a better life, our inability to think rationally when trying to impress the objects of our desire, our natural selfishness and occasionally altruism, etc – is very unlikely to change anytime soon. But none of those attributes require the emission of fossil fuel-derived CO2 into the atmosphere, just as they don’t require us to pollute waterways, have lead in gasoline, use ozone-depleting chemicals in spray cans and fridges or let dogs foul the sidewalk. Nonetheless, societies in the developed world (with the possible exception of Paris) have succeeded in greatly reducing those unfortunate actions and it’s instructive to see how that happened.

The first thing to note is that these issues have not been dealt with by forcing people to think about the consequences every time they make a decision. Lead in fuel was reduced because of taxation measures that aligned peoples preferences for cheaper fuel with the societal interest in reducing lead pollution. While some early adopters of unleaded-fuel cars might have done it for environmental reasons, the vast majority of people did it first because it was cheaper, and second, because after a while there was no longer an option. The human action of releasing lead into the atmosphere while driving was very clearly changed.

In the 1980s, there were campaigns to raise awareness of the ozone-depletion problem that encouraged people to switch from CFC-propelled spray cans to cans with other propellants or roll-ons etc. While this may have made some difference to CFC levels, production levels were cut to zero by government mandates embedded in the Montreal Protocols and subsequent amendments. No-one needs to think about their spray can destroying the ozone layer any more.

I could go on, but the fundamental issue is that people’s actions can and do change all the time as a function of multiple pressures. Some of these are economic, some are ethical, some are societal (think about our changing attitudes towards smoking, domestic violence and drunk driving). Blanket declarations that human behaviour can’t possibly change to fix a problem are therefore just nonsense.

To be a little more charitable, it is possible that what was meant was that you can’t expect humans to consciously modify their behaviour all the time based on a desire to limit carbon emissions. This is very likely to be true. However, I am unaware of anyone who has proposed such a plan. Instead, almost all existing mitigation ideas rely on aligning individual self-interest with societal goals to reduce emissions – usually by installing some kind of carbon price or through mandates (such as the CAFE standards).

To give a clear example of the difference, let’s tackle the problem of leaving lights on in rooms where there is no-one around. This is a clear waste of energy and would be economically beneficial to reduce regardless of the implications for carbon emissions. We can take a direct moralistic approach – strong exhortations to people to always turn the lights off when they leave a room – but this is annoying, possibly only temporary and has only marginal success (in my experience). Alternatively, we can install motion-detectors that turn the lights out if there is no-one around. The cost of these detectors is much lower than cost of the electricity saved and no-one has to consciously worry about the issue any more. No-brainer, right? (As as aside, working out why this isn’t done more would be a much better use of Levitt and Dubner’s talents). The point is changing outcomes doesn’t necessarily mean forcing people to think about the right thing all the time, and that cheap fixes for some problems do indeed exist.

To recap, there is no direct link between what humans actually want to do and the emissions of CO2 or any other pollutant. If given appropriate incentives, people will make decisions that are collectively ‘the right thing’, while they themselves are often unconscious of that fact. The role of the economist should be to find ways to make that alignment of individual and collective interest easier, not to erroneously declare it can’t possibly be done.

What is the real lesson from the horse-to-automobile transition?

Around 1900, horse-drawn transport was the dominant mode of public and private, personal and commercial traffic in most cities. As economic activity was growing, the side-effects of horses’ dominance became ever more pressing. People often mention the issue of horse manure – picking it up and disposing of it, it’s role in spreading disease, the “intolerable stench” – but as McShane and Tarr explain that the noise and the impact of dead horses in the street were just as troublesome. Add to that the need for so many stables downtown taking up valuable city space, the provisioning of hay etc. it was clear that the benefits of the horse’s strength for moving things around came at a great cost.

But in the space of about 20 years all this vanished, to be replaced with electrified trolleys and subways, and internal combustion engine-driven buses and trucks, and cars such as the Model-T Ford. Almost overnight (in societal terms), something that had been at the heart of economic activity had been been relegated to a minority leisure pursuit.

This demonstrates very clearly that assumptions that society must always function the same economic way are false, and that in fact we can change the way we do business and live pretty quickly. This is good news. Of course, this transition was brought about by technological innovations and the switch was decided based on very clear cost-benefit calculations – while cars were initially more expensive than horses, their maintenance costs were less and the side effects (as they were understood at the time) were much less burdensome. Since the city had to tax the productive citizens in order to clear up the consequences of their own economic activity, the costs were being paid by the same people who benefited.

Levitt took this example to imply that technological fixes are therefore the solution to global warming (and the fix he apparently favours is geo-engineering mentioned above), but this is a misreading of the lesson here in at least two ways. Firstly, the switch to cars was not based on a covering up of the manure problem – a fix like that might have involved raised sidewalks, across city perfuming and fly-spraying – but from finding equivalent ways to get the same desired outcome (transport of goods and people) while avoiding undesired side-effects. That is much more analogous to switching to renewable energy sources than implementing geo-engineering.

His second error is in not appreciating the nature of the cost-benefit calculations. Imagine for instance that all of the horse manure and dead carcasses could have been easily swept into the rivers and were only a problem for people significantly downstream who lived in a different state or country. Much of the costs, public health issues, etc. would now be borne by the citizens of the downstream area who would not be benefiting from the economic prosperity of the city. Would the switch to automobiles have been as fast? Of course not. The higher initial cost of cars would only have made sense if the same people who were shelling out for the car would be able to cash in on the benefits of the reduced side effects. This is of course the basic issue we have with CO2. The people benefiting from fossil fuel based energy are not those likely to suffer from the consequences of CO2 emissions.

The correct lesson is in fact the same as the one mentioned above: if costs and benefits can be properly aligned (the ‘internalising of the externalities’ in economist-speak), societies and individuals can and will make the ‘right’ decisions, and this can lead to radical changes in very short periods of time. Thus far from being an argument for geo-engineering, this example is an object lesson in how economics might shape future decisions and society.


To conclude, the reasons why Levitt and Dubner like geo-engineering so much are based on a misreading of the science, a misrepresentation of proposed solutions, and truly bizarre interpretations of how environmental problems have been dealt with in the past. These are, in the end, much worse errors than their careless misquotes and over-eagerness to shock highlighted by the other critiques. Geo-engineering is neither cheap, nor a fix, and the reasons why it is very likely to be a bad idea are ethical and legal, much more than its still-uncertain scientific merits.

406 Responses to “Why Levitt and Dubner like geo-engineering and why they are wrong”

  1. 51
    david says:

    A garden hose ? 100,000 tons of SO2 per year comes to about 200 kilograms/minute, which is about 10 times more than your average garden hose. That’s still a tiny amount though. If we can really cool the climate by 3 degrees or so with such a small amount, we would want to be very sure the calculations were right, lest we accidentally put a little too much out and plunge the earth into an ice age.

  2. 52
    Alex A. says:

    I’ve been following the blog postings around this, and I’m glad to see RC weighing in. DISCLAIMER: I have not read the Levitt and Dubner chapter in its entirety… I am relying on the summaries available on the internet.

    Anyways, I remembered seeing this video of David Keith (U. Calgary) last year, and I wonder if this is the catalyst for the Myhrvold “Intellectual Ventures” geoengineering plan that L&D think has so much potential:
    Nathan Myhrvold or others from IV were likely in attendance. Ken Caldeira is mentioned.

    Note also: this other lecture at the same event contains mention and images of the sulfur stockpiles at the Athabasca tarsands:
    What exactly is Caldeira’s connection to Intellectual Ventures?

  3. 53
    Patrick 027 says:

    I’m concerned that the US version of policy shaping up so far is highly imperfect, but at this late stage, I’m afraid that making a big fuss could be counterproductive (Especially with Copenhagen potentially in the balance). Is it better to let it be for now, and then replace it down the road with something better, or will there be a problem of entrenched interests standing in the way at that point (I’ve heard that ‘Wall Street’ is looking forward to the opportunity of trading on emissions markets. Well, there is an advantage to having a special interest to protect the policy in the future against the remnant fossil fuel lobby. But I’d much prefer a straight tax as the heart and core of the policy, and let Wall Street direct money into clean technology, etc, in response.)

  4. 54
    Richard says:

    I think this analysis is fair enough on current knowledge, but I believe the Royal Society, no less, did give credence to geoengineering as a solution at some point in the future, depending on future technological developments. Just like the impact of the invention of the internal combustion engine on horses – the game can change. Because it isn’t a solution now, we shouldn’t dismiss it as a possible option in the future. I don’t think this article gives enough credence to this possibility.

  5. 55
    Richard Steckis says:

    Mark says:

    “Access to space is not cheap. We do not have space elevators and fuel rockets are expensive. Especially in terms of CO2.”

    1. We use rockets to put communications into orbit. It is relatively inexpensive these days.

    2. How is it expensive in terms of CO2? My understanding is that the main fuel for rockets is liquid Hydrogen and liquid Oxygen. A hydrogen/oxygen reaction does not produce CO2. Solid fuel boosters are very minor in terms of CO2 production. CO2 production in providing launching infrastructure is almost non-existent as the infrastructure is already in place.

  6. 56
    Richard Steckis says:

    If you give an engineer a problem they will solve it. That does not mean the solution is a good one for the ecosystem. The solution may well turn out to be worse than the problem.

  7. 57
    Steve says:

    Unfortunately, on our current course, geo-engineering is going to be needed anyway. Not as a solution, because it is not a solution for all the reasons Gavin mentions. But rather, to buy us time because we’re doing such a lousy job of getting anthropogenic emissions under control. Jason Blackstock gave a very well reasoned talk on this at the EGU meeting in April, and has a detailed report out of the feasibility of geoengineering with sulphate aerosols, and the preliminary modeling results of their effectiveness. But he warned that people would misunderstand the suggestion, and took great pains to point out that we need a lot more research in the next decade to understand much better the pros and cons, to be ready to deploy in the 2020s, when things get desperate. And only then to buy us a few years of time to get the greenhouse gases sorted out.
    Pointers to all the reports here:
    Oh, and the oceans will be dead by then anyway, I reckon.

  8. 58
    MarkB says:

    Good post. My only minor contention is: “The people benefiting from fossil fuel based energy are not those likely to suffer from the consequences of CO2 emissions.”

    It seems most, including many benefiting from fossil fuel usage, will suffer the consequences of CO2 emissions, to varying degrees.

  9. 59

    Horse-drawn transport didn’t cease to be popular because horse manure became a problem; cars became increasingly convenient especially as good roads were built and cars became safer, faster and more reliable. This did not all happen because the market favoured cars. Roads are heavily subsidised by governments and in many countries, the competing rail infrastructure was allowed to go broke without government help.

    Some of this is reversible: we could stop subsidising roads, and spend the same money on public transport and clean energy to power it.

    Many of the geo-engineering “solutions” strike me as worse than the original problem. And probably more expensive than going to low-emissions technology. I can see a case for keeping them on the research agenda but there are much simpler and more direct solutions: why not focus on those? Remember, the whole reason for all this is rescuing the environment from destruction. A “solution” with major environmental negatives is no better than curing a headache by decapitation.

    I keep hearing the mantra “governments should not pick winners”. Fine. But why then pick losers?

  10. 60
    Charles says:

    Gail, in comment #42:

    “Here is the definitive answer to crazy desperate plots to geoengineer.
    Now, just stop it! Shut up! Dead oceans = dead people, period.”

    Well, well–look who’s in the video! It’s Ken Caldeira talking about the dangers of increased anthropogenic CO2 production … Somebody outta tell Levitt & Dubner.

  11. 61
    Jim Eaton says:

    OK, so I need 10 garden hoses instead of one to deliver the SO2. But my garden hose is only about 20 feet long. I’m not a civil engineer (my wife is, but she is asleep), but it seems I would need each of my 10 garden hoses to be some 1500 times longer. I expect these incredibly long hoses will have quite a loss of flow due to friction, so I’ll really need lots and lots of garden hoses. And we also need to find a way to hold my cluster of garden hoses six miles up into the atmosphere.

    And if we need to recreate Pinatubo with 200 times more hoses than proposed… We’re gonna need a bigger hose.

  12. 62
    Mark says:

    “1. We use rockets to put communications into orbit. It is relatively inexpensive these days.”

    Oh Skeksis, how big a mirror would they make? And how far away do they have to go? LEO like the satellites we put up inexpensively? Or geostationary (actually, would have to be an L point or refuelled quite often). Sunlight pressure, you know.

    And define “cheap”.

    I couldn’t afford one lift. Could you?

    And you complain of the expense and potential ruination (alarmism? from your kind??) of mitigation but do not bat an eye at the expense here.

    Tut tut.

  13. 63
    Schmert says:

    Their was an article in New Scientist a few months ago, claiming that one of the CO2 issues was directly attributal Ozone Depletion, which is causing CO2 to hang higher in the atmosphere than it normally would be, this is causing the Biosphere’s Carbon Sinks to play a limited role in the scrubbing process, so the theory being, more 02, more 03, and consequently less CO2 due increased Carbon sink effeciency.

    [Response: I don’t think you are remembering this right. I think it was ground level ozone impacting plants ability to take up excess carbon. However, this is a very small term and is balanced by any number of additional minor impacts related to nitrates for instance. The big issue for taking up carbon is how much is being taken up by the deep ocean. – gavin]

  14. 64
    John S says:

    You state “The cost of these detectors is much lower than cost of the electricity saved and no-one has to consciously worry about the issue any more.”

    A motion detector costs $A 52.80 (just to grab the first price for one that came up in Australia). The cost of an electrician to fit one of these is generally a minimum of $100 (tradesmen don’t come cheap). The electricity saved can be calculated on the basis of a 11W compact fluorescent globe. Lets assume that you save 16 hours a day even though that is probably too high an estimate of the saving. At $0.15 per kWh you will save 64kWh per year which is a saving of $9.60 per year. Allowing for 7% interest per year on capital costs you have an interest cost of $10.50 per year. So the interest costs on the initial outlay exceed the electricity saving. That is not a no brainer. The installation will never pay for itself.

    Some things can pay for themselves – compact fluorescents for example. But the easy gains are already taken there – the rest is increasingly expensive and isn’t a no brainer.

    My point is not to quibble with your example per se but to point out that when you start down that road you need to be vary careful. There can be lots of hidden costs associated with any given course of action and there can be a lot of unintended consequences. Levitt’s big claim to fame is pointing out the remarkable unintended consequences of some policy changes – Roe v Wade for example. It is never simple and rarely easy.

  15. 65
    Geronimo says:

    “…or let dogs foul the sidewalk. Nonetheless, societies in the developed world (with the possible exception of Paris…”

    Gavin, you will be pleased to know that there is now a Euro 180 fine for fowling the footpaths of Paris.

    On the geo-engineering front, although I’m a sceptic, I agree everything you’ve said. You will of course remember that the Royal Society in the UK was putting forward geo-engineering as a solution not so long ago. It was bunk then and it’s bunk now, as you say too many variables, too chaotic and lurking in the background is the Law of Unexpected Consequences.

  16. 66
    Geronimo says:

    oops! should have said “fouling the footpaths” I wouldn’t want to give the impression that Parisians went round putting chickens on the footpaths the the extent that a law was needed to stop them.

  17. 67
    Lakis says:

    Or we just stop pumping CO2 in the atmosphere. All those geoengineering proposals are bad because they divert the public from the real issue. How to reduce CO2 emissions.

  18. 68

    Gavin, excellent article!

    “… let dogs foul the sidewalk”
    Welcome to Holland:
    (in Dutch)

  19. 69
    Tom Johnson says:

    Re #27 motion detectors and you don’t have a cat.

    In Germany, many homes and most public buildings and hotels have narrow band motion detectors at chest level so cats and dogs are not a problem.

    They are way ahead of us in energy conservation.

    Most europeans drive fuel efficient, low sulfur diesels which get 40-50 mpg.

  20. 70
    Gustavson says:

    sorry, but what are you talking about?
    4-8w/m² in 2100 by adding CO2? Are you dreaming?
    Did you find some new absorbtion lines we don`t know?


    [Response: The net radiative forcings from the SRES scenarios are given here combined with some possible amplification from carbon cycle feedbacks. – gavin]

  21. 71
    Mark says:

    If you suspect a meal to be off, do you keep eating it until you’re CERTAIN that it’s off, or do you stop eating before you’re sick?

    Denialists would demand you chow down.

  22. 72
    steve1953 says:



    Any questions why it was so hot in 1998?

    [Response: You do know that 1998 was in a solar minima, right? – gavin]

  23. 73
    Stephen M says:

    To Pete Best, 18 October 2009 at 4:06 PM

    You wrote:
    “For the optimists we can do the following:
    Invest in CCS and clean up coal.
    Invest in renewable energy sources (CSP, Wind, Geothermal, wave etc)
    Mesh it all together via a new supergrid (HVDC Cables etc)
    Make efficiency a priority (electrical goods, new thermal homes and buildings etc)
    Eliminate the ICE vehicle and replace then with the electric vehiclce future.
    Change our eating habits and reduce our meat usage
    stop decimating our forests and even restore them
    Change some of our habits – consumption and materialism maybe”

    Curious — why would you leave off your list “build nuclear power plants (a la France)? Do you have a science-based reason, or are your reasons political?

    [Response: Not every thread has to discuss nuclear power. This is OT and further disccusion will be deleted. – gavin]

  24. 74
    mauri pelto says:

    One example where local geoengineering is underway is at a few alpine skiers, trying to preserve their glaciers. The two tactics are either more snowmaking capacity or covering the glacier with a protective blanket. Even on the smallest of scales geo-engineering is quite expensive. On these scales it does not have large drawbacks for the globe, but demonstrates how difficult it is to address climate changes on any spatial scale.

  25. 75
    gavin says:

    Going back to the possible effectiveness of a ‘polar-only’ sulphate, there are at least three issues which make it problematic. First off, the radiative forcing of stratospheric aerosols near the poles is small – the surface is already quite bright and so the extra reflectance has less impact in the short wave, and secondly, the during the polar night, you are only going to have the long-wave warming effect. There is a picture of the Pinatubo forcing as a function of latitude here:

    Finally, there is the lifetime of the aerosols. Injection into the tropics leads to a lifetime of a few years since the particles get carried up by the background circulation, but injection into the polar areas will lead to a much faster removal since the background circulation is downward there. Absent a study that shows that I’ve got this completely wrong, I find it hard to see how this could be expected to be effective.

  26. 76
    Alexander Harvey says:

    I am old enough (just!) to remember “The UK Clean Air Act (1956)” introduced to combat an obvious problem, smog, in the aftermath of the “Great Smog” (1952).

    The benefits and the solution were both pretty obvious and the effect of the act was almost immediate.

    But was it popular?

    Well for many including myself it had a clear downside. Post WWII England suffered a succession of unseasonable cold winters. Smokeless fuels were next to useless in the standard hearths of that time. Basically we froze.

    I think it was a measure that required legislation. For many it reduced the quality of life (not all of the London basin suffered from terrible smogs). Given a choice many would have continued to burn coal.

    Similarly, as mentioned, CFCs required legislation banning their use. They were arguable a better propellant (non-flammable) and in particular Halon was (and still is) an excellent extinguishant. Again I suspect legislation was necessary.

    Now I cannot see how we can ban GHG emissions, we could tax them more highly but the benefit to the tax payer is not very tangible. By this I mean benefit in its most immediate sense. How will it make my life better than it currently is? An immediate improvement (like an end to smogs) not just a reduction in how bad it might get (CFCs) (possibly followed by a return to the status quo ante).

    Also I suspect that it will be the same group to suffer disproportionately as it was with “The Clean Air Act” namely the poor. Taxation on life essentials can have that effect.

    Unless doing nothing results in a material diminishment of human happiness in the short term, I seriously doubt whether sufficient support for doing anything with a tangible downside is either sustainable or desirable.

    Also doing anything with a tangible downside that is not accompanied by an obvious mitigation of undesirable consequences is likely to prove to be unsustainable (at least in democracies). I suspect that if the “killer” smogs had continued after 1953 or had only been slightly abated there would have been riots in the streets or a repeal of the law and different approach to the problem.

    Another problem is that people can be awfully parochial when it comes to such matters. Around here, the general effect of our changing climate has been well received. You do not get many people wishing to be cut-off by snow most winters as was the case fifty years ago.

    Strangely just about the only vocal people suffering are those whose properties have been blighted, not by the here and now, but by the consequences of the models. Mostly enhanced fears of rising water levels (I should add that rising water levels are a local historic fact that has historically been mitigated), justifying the withdrawal of support for flood defences. Action justified by sea level projections but suspected of being financially motivated. Additional habitations would likely be lost under the new scheme whether there is enhanced sea level rise or not.

    I doubt whether one could maintain any policy that promises a slightly less worse future to people for whom the current trend has been largely well received.

    Now I am all for a reduction in the use of all finite resources and have been for as long as I can remember, or more accurately, for as long as I have understood what the “finite” bit meant. But anyway since a time before the fears of impending glaciation gave way to global warming.

    I doubt that much progress on sustainability in general, and a reduction in the burning of fossil fuels in particular, will be made until its more popular alternative becomes intolerable in a way that can not be mitigated. I also doubt the wisdom of governments failing to first trying to mitigate the consequences (mainly the financial hurt due to supply outstripping demand) before attempting legislation to curtail fossil fuel consumption. And as to the wisdom of using taxation to punish the use of fossil fuels to a degree would substantially reduce consumption, I doubt there is any.

    We need to find a way to a better world not just a less worse one.

    We need to address need, and let need take care of demand. We need to put in place the technology that will support a brighter future and wait for people to adopt it. Enforcing a narrow view of a “better than worse case” future through measures that are likely to be seen as unnecessarily harsh advocated by people likely to become characterised as spoil-sport zealots is not I feel a fruitful approach.


  27. 77
    Aaron Lewis says:

    Re 75 gavin
    One other issue is that:
    • the sulfates would change the albedo of the ice more then they decrease the incident radiation resulting in increased surface melt of the ice sheets.
    • sulfate deposition on the surface of the ice would result in depression of the melting point (small at the concentrations discussed) but if the local temperature is already at 0C then ANY depression of melting point could have a large effect.

    Over all, my guess is that injection of sulfates in to the atmosphere would increase ice sheet melt (if the surface temperature of the ice sheet is already near 0C).

  28. 78
    John McCormick says:

    As few others have commented (but Gavin’s post did not include)

    the reason geo-engineering is not a fix comes down to two words:


    [Response: Actually it did though possibly too subtly. – gavin]

  29. 79
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Steckis, It costs $20000/kg to launch a payload into orbit. This has not decreased appreciably in 30 years. Once a system is in space, it must cope with a variety of hazards ranging from radiation to thermal extremes to atomic oxygen. It must function autonomously and repairs will not be possible. Engineers for communications satellites worry about every gram they put up in orbit.

    With regard Levitt and Dubner, they seem to value provocation over accuracy, but then, their business in selling books rather than saving the planet. Perhaps the most interesting question is why they chose to listen to the “experts” they did. These ideas are well outside mainstream climate science. I fear what is going on here has much more to do with human psychology than with science or economics:

    Dunning and Kruger–it’s not just for dumb people anymore.

  30. 80
    Richard Steckis says:

    Mark says:
    19 October 2009 at 2:51 AM

    “Oh Skeksis, how big a mirror would they make? And how far away do they have to go? LEO like the satellites we put up inexpensively? Or geostationary (actually, would have to be an L point or refuelled quite often). Sunlight pressure, you know.”

    Oh Mark. Aside from you obvious insult (bastardising my name) you appeal to ridicule. This is a logical fallacy one resorts to when one cannot argue from a position of strength.

    NASA is retiring the Shuttle program in favour of the un-manned re-supply option for the space station. Therefore the logistics are already possible.

    I suggest you use a little logical thought instead of resorting to low level insult.

    Finally. I think that the whole geo-engineering thing is a complete madness that should not be entertained by sane people.

  31. 81
    Richard Steckis says:

    Ray Ladbury says:
    19 October 2009 at 10:13 AM

    “Steckis, It costs $20000/kg to launch a payload into orbit.”

    Ray. How much does it cost to lay a submarine cable between the U.S. and Australia? Multiply that by about 20 times for other destinations, then factor in maintenance costs, replacement costs and repair costs for each one. Then compare it to the cost of sending a satellite into orbit. They don’t do it because it is cost prohibitive Ray. They use the satellite option because it is cost effective.

  32. 82
    Richard Steckis says:

    Gavin says:

    [Response: You do know that 1998 was in a solar minima, right? – gavin]

    Sorry about the grammar correction but should you not have said minimum? Minima is a plural.

  33. 83
    Marion Delgado says:

    If we’re talking sheer efficiency, a bicycle is better than anything else I can think of. Neither horses nor cars can compete at all.

  34. 84
    Rod B says:

    I think you grossly underestimate the cultural changes that people will go through. Normally “with proper incentives” implies an appeal to logic. Yet your examples are predominately legislative and criminal. If leaded gasoline is outlawed (under criminal penalties) and unavailable, a “cultural change” of the people in not using leaded gas is obvious but not done with more benign incentives. Or if you outlaw the domestic production of CFCs and fine someone up to $25,000 for even possessing leftover or foreign produced CFCs, saying you’ve “changed human nature and cultural preferences with appropriate incentives” is really sugar-coating it. IMO you’d be better off realistically recognizing the tremendous inertia of human desires and homeostasis.

    On the other side, I agree with all (else) you say. I think it proper for people to look at and research geo-engineering — can’t hurt and who knows? But currently, in any reasonable fashion, I fully agree that what you say, “Geo-engineering is neither cheap, nor a fix, and the reasons why it is very likely to be a bad idea are ethical and legal, much more than its still-uncertain scientific merits” is right on target.

  35. 85
    Mark says:

    “I think you grossly underestimate the cultural changes that people will go through.”

    You’re entirely entitled to that thought.

    Now, is it strong enough to risk humanity and the civilisation we have created?

  36. 86
    Mark says:

    “Sorry about the grammar correction but should you not have said minimum? Minima is a plural.”

    And there are many times where the sun’s output has varied to a local minumum.

    Or is this the only minimum the sun has ever had?

  37. 87
    Mark says:

    “Ray. How much does it cost to lay a submarine cable between the U.S. and Australia?”

    Undersea cables aren’t interstellar mirrors.

    And when they get cut, they can be fixed.

    I really don’t know where you’re going, but it’s weird.

  38. 88
    Mark says:

    “I suggest you use a little logical thought instead of resorting to low level insult.”

    I suggest if you don’t want insult, don’t insult the intelligence of the others on here with your inanity.

  39. 89
    RichardC says:

    50 atrick said, “I suppose you could affix some devices onto a horse’s body that would collect and channel mechanical energy to reduce losses in stop-and-go traffic,”

    I can see it now… horse-sized hamster wheel collecting power for lithium ion batteries and an electric drive with regenerative braking!! (Just don’t expect a second date)

  40. 90
    Martin Vermeer says:

    Mike Roddy #34, that is an interesting (though a bit OT) problem. It made me think of the similar situation with automobile safety, where manufacturers were long loath to mention the car safety issue in advertisements. The conventional wisdom being that safety made people think of accidents, blood and gore — not conducive to concluding sales.

    IIRC it was Volvo who first broke the taboo. What they did was offensive rather than defensive: they made safety central to their advertizing, even featuring animated crash-test dummies etc. It paid off well then (though Volvo isn’t doing too well today :-( )

    Perhaps the same could be done with environment/climate friendly hotels. You need to find one chain, probably a small one, willing to conspicuously go against the conventional wisdom. There are prospective guests who want this kind of thing and who currently can go nowhere.

    BTW you could seek strategic partnerships with other providers, of double glazing, bathing equipment and other relevant stuff. One hint about showers: from my travels in the US I remember with fond affection (NOT!) the army-issue showerheads hardwired into the bathroom wall (yes, even in up-market places!). A detachable, regulatable showerhead with a joystick temperature control not only saves water (by making the showering process more flexible and efficient) but is just a better user experience, and especially females like it :-)

    Note that I never in my life successfully sold anything for money. My advice is worth what you paid for it ;-)

  41. 91
    Leonard Evens says:

    About cats:

    It is easy to install a motion detector system that ignores most pets. The companies that sell alarm systems including motion detectors solved that problem a long time ago. We had such a system in a house with cats as far back as the 80s.

  42. 92
    Paul UK says:

    In the UK, the bicycle competed against horse drawn transport before the car.
    In fact there were incidents in which coach drivers tried to run cyclists off the road because they feared for their jobs.

    Also the great expansion of the cycle population was an incentive to improve roads. Plus, the first modern road maps in the UK were created for cyclists!

    All in all, the bicycle was the big revolution in transport after the horse.
    Once cheap bikes were produced, the masses took up cycling.

  43. 93
    Steve says:

    If you don’t like the graphs in the chapter of that book, you can always turn the book upsidedown, so that the graphs then show warming! Oh, I see you already have.

  44. 94
    _Arthur says:

    “But my garden hose is only about 20 feet long. I’m not a civil engineer (my wife is, but she is asleep), but it seems I would need each of my 10 garden hoses to be some 1500 times longer.”

    And then some: the plan is to spew the SO2 from a 24 Km altitude, and the “hose” will probably be slanted, so more than 24Km long in total.

    If your wife is an engineer, ask her how she would pump 1 ton of liquid SO2 24km UP.
    There would be a slight problem to keep the SO2 liquid at all times, probably not much a problem at high altitude, but a serious problem in the first Km. The SO2 must be kept under -10C or else it boils.
    Having bubbles in the “hose” could be problematic for the pumps.

  45. 95

    Re #89 and the “horse-sized hamster wheel”–actually, I believe a kinesis-powered generator has been developed & demonstrated for humans. IIRC, it’s worn like (or incorporated into) clothing, and it harvests energy from incidental motion to charge small devices (such as cell phones.)

    Not huge power output, but maybe Patrick was thinking of something like that.

  46. 96
    Paul Klemencic says:

    Looks like another mistake in this book. Take a look at these paragraphs:

    Superfreakonomics excerpt from Page 176:
    “Mount Pinatubo was the most powerful volcanic eruption in nearly one hundred years. Within two hours of the main blast, sulfuric ash had reached twenty-two miles into the sky. By the time it was done, Pinatubo had discharged more than 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. What effect did that have on the environment?

    As it turned out, the stratospheric haze of sulfur dioxide acted like a layer of sunscreen, reducing the amount of solar radiation reaching the earth. For the next two years, as the haze was settling out, the earth cooled off by an average of nearly 1 degree Fahrenheit, or .5 degrees Celsius. A single volcanic eruption practically reversed, albeit temporarily, the cumulative global warming of the previous hundred years.

    I thought the majority of the heat buildup on earth due to AGW was ocean heating, followed by ice sheet and glacier melt, possibly some land heat absorption, and with thermal energy used to heat the atmosphere as a relatively minor buildup. Did the Pinatubo eruption reverse and remove the cumulative global heating over the last 100 years of all these heat sinks?

    [Response: No. Not even close. – gavin]

  47. 97
    Bob Doppelt says:

    Great article, but I think it may still leave an incomplete impression. ALL major shifts come about as a result of cognitive and behavioral changes. The way we plan our infrastructure, design our technologies, and form our policies are a reflection of our core assumptions and beliefs which are are formed in response to early childhood experiences, interactions with our environment, and other factors. And, big policy changes including the Montreal Protocol don’t happen by magic. They come about only after a sufficient number of people have altered their thinking and beliefs. That’s not to say we can every expect individuals to think about their carbon footprint all the time. But until enough people do we won’t get the policy and institutional changes needed to make low and no carbon goods and services culturally and legally accepted.

  48. 98

    Re #10 BJ Chippendale,

    If you are again pointing out that we have cheap access to space you are again wrong. You might have heard about some low cost communication satellites and are mistakenly extrapolating this to extremely big things of the sort we are talking about for electric power or mirrors. Mark has this right.

    There is no relevant cost experience for things of this size. However, defense related systems far smaller than these have been enormously expensive, and the cost of these is not generally known.

    However, I have to agree that the likelihood of these is higher than the likelihood of achieving meaningful cap and trade laws from Copenhagen or anywhere else.

  49. 99
    Paul UK says:

    Just to back up my post about cycling replacing horses in the UK.
    Do a search for Bacon’s Cycling maps. Bacon’s published ‘cycling’ road maps of different areas and counties of the UK in the late 1800s. Later when the car became more popular, Bacons started calling them ‘cycling and motoring’ road maps.

  50. 100
    Radge Havers says:

    RichardC #89

    “hamster wheel”

    Or you could just plug your electric car into a giant horizonal hamster wheel at night.