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. 101
    Rod B says:

    Mark, I’m not sure I get your point. It seems like if overcoming human inertia presents a problem in implementing some solutions, you’re saying let’s just define that inertia away — pretend it doesn’t exist.

  2. 102
    Rod B says:

    Martin Vermeer, In a simple sort of way Ford emphasized safety in the mid- to late-fifties. The common expression was, “Ford sold safety. Chevy sold cars.”

  3. 103
    Mark says:

    No, I’m saying DEFINE the inertia, weigh it up against the need and work it out.

    You haven’t even defined if the inertia exists.

    And there was plenty of inertia against changing CFCs or Y2K fixing or WW1 or WW2, Gulf War 2, creation of Palestine and Israel (well, the intent was to create both, neither of which existed at the time) and so on.

    Yet they happened.

  4. 104
    Mark says:

    “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.”

    I’m not sure about anyone else here, but what sort of pressure would be needed? I’m sure my hosepipe would split if I put enough pressure on it to shoot water 100 ft in the air, never mind 16 miles…

  5. 105
    Mark says:

    “In the UK, the bicycle competed against horse drawn transport before the car.”

    And the early car was supposed (designed) to run on vegetable oil.

  6. 106
    mdc says:

    Re Jim Eage @ 49: That’s priamrily what I was talking about when I said that gavin still makes persuasive points in his article, and he may well be correct in his conclusion. But surely it’s worth investigating, on the basis of the presumptive maximum $200bn price tag for solving the warming issue, how much a geo-engineering solution to ocean acidification would cost? Since if it’s anything less than $1tn/year, geo-engineering is still beating the Stern report’s proposals for CO2 reduction.

  7. 107
    Fred Magyar says:

    JCH @ 33,

    I actually like horses, however there isn’t much chance each of us in this country can own a team of them to be our transportation. Let alone the 6.7 billion of us and growing in the rest of the world….

    Though something like this might work.

  8. 108
    Mark says:

    “But surely it’s worth investigating, on the basis of the presumptive maximum $200bn price tag”

    And who gets a cut of that?


  9. 109
    CM says:

    All this talk of hamster wheels takes me back. When I did high school debate, an argument that was really bizarre or unusual would be called a “squirrel case” (still is, Google suggests). The legend went that someone or other had won a big debate event on the topic of energy security by basing his solution on millions of squirrels running around in little cages, generating electricity. The opposing teams were woefully unprepared to meet that argument, and lost.

    The geoengineering debate reminds me of that a lot. “The affirmative’s plan is to cool the Earth with a garden hose to the stratosphere…”

  10. 110

    Regarding geoengineering, Dubner and Levitt are clearly off the farm
    in advocating it in place of other efforts to deal with the problem.
    However, research on various forms of geoengineering (including biochar)
    should continue, especially as we may need some more dramatic backup if
    the catastrophic tail event of a really massive global temperature increase
    comes to pass in the next century or so. While biochar is relatively
    “garden variety” (and harmless) the more dramatic forms should be viewed
    more as possible emergency backups rather than as the main approach.

  11. 111
    Chris Dudley says:

    RonalLarson (#12),

    I think that anything we do with intention to change the climate is geo-engineering. There may be other reason to do what we are doing, but so long as we are aware of the effect on climate, that makes it geo-engineering. So our current carbon dioxide emissions are geo-engineering even though they were not a couple decades ago. Now, when we burn fossil fuels, climate change is part of what we intend. Using biochar to change the climate back would be geo-engineering as well. Cutting emissions would be geo-engineering. There is sensible geo-engineering which focuses on reducing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere below 350 ppm, or there is crazy geo-engineering which increases the concentration of carbon dioxide. Those ideas which try to change albedo fall into the crazy group.

    “Geo-engineering” enthusiast don’t care much for this definition, but I’m not sure they should be charged with defining the term.

    A though on what Gavin had to say about perfect models: cutting the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere does not require a perfect model since we already have past experience to know how the system behaves.

  12. 112
    Eli Rabett says:

    Levitt and Dubner are not proposing research, they are demanding implementation. Besides which commenting here does little good, go over to the Times, or Amazon.

  13. 113

    Seeing as we are talking about motion detectors and cats, employees of an alarm installer in South Africa some years back set up a system that didn’t detect anything below a height of 1m to miss the pets. Some of them then ventured back to rob the place, keeping low to avoid the detectors. Unfortunately for them, one of them forgot to keep low and triggered the alarm.

  14. 114
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    To me a fix-it solution would be something that draws CO2 from the atmosphere and buries it for a long long time (hundreds or thousands of years) — without entailing more CO2 emissions than it draws down, and maybe throw-in solving the garbage, dog, horse, and human poop problems, and increasing agricultural productivity, giving us some clean energy, and saving & making us money, and … whatever else the human heart could desire.

    Oh yeah, it seems we do have that solution. I’m not totally up on it, but I think “bio-char” can do all that and more.

    But, of course, that requires changing human behavior….like someone has got to make the equipment and man the works.

    Meanwhile, I much prefer NOT to change my behavior bec I’m so lazy, so I bought a SunFrost refrigerator (uses 1/10 the electricity of other frig’s & $aves bundles) and later (after the frig had paid for itself) moved to Texas when a better job opportunity opened up, and got on Greenmountain 100% wind energy, which also $aves me money. And many other intall-it&-forget-it measures. Problem is I don’t consider myself much of an environmentalist, bec I not really doing anything, & I forget I did these no-brainer/no-work things.

    It seems to me that pumping up SO2 would require a lot of work and planning and effort…not at all for people who don’t want to change their behavior, esp not for those who disdain all that work involved.

  15. 115
    L. David Cooke says:

    Dear Dr. Schmidt,

    I humbly disagree that economics are the primary driver or the way to change from the current technology base. In fact I believe that economics are not the correct measures or motivation for change if the current technology is found to be hazardous.

    A staged tax increase is not the way forward either. In order to create the proper motivation requires that the hard decisions be made. First the scientists that want to prompt change through economics need to get motivated to instead offer a economic equivalent technological path forward. Too often I see well educated physicists standing on the side of the road claiming if we could only make it more expensive to use mineral carbon versus organic carbon the way forward will be better.

    Often I watch these same folks suggest that there is a high amount of waste. Yet if that were the case then the recent Oil price spike should tell us how much waste was in the system, 3-4 million barrels out of 87.3 million barrels per day or less then 4.5%. Of that 4.5% no more then 3% were actual waste the rest was the attempt to offset costs for materials for manufactured products.

    If anything the way forward is for these self same experts to get off the side of the road and start devising the way forward and stop wasting time exclaiming how bad the current technology is. When we have a clear alternative way forward and Congress has a form of a consumer tax base created then we may see a change.

    Without a defined direction and infrastructure plan there is no focus for investment or planning for government regulation and tax base legislation. Who better to define the direction then the self proclaimed experts? As to the issue of the technology base for moving forward we need to keep in mind that at the turn of the century the initial fuel sources were going to be Soy Bean Oil and Alcohol. The decision to change over to mineral oil was not an economic one 100 years ago and should not be one today…

    Dave Cooke

  16. 116
    mdc says:

    Mark @ 108:

    While I refuse to confirm or deny that I am an Evil Capitalist(tm), you, I and everyone else (inc. the developing world) would get a cut of the potential $1tn/year savings.

  17. 117
    mike roddy says:

    Martin, #90, thanks for your thoughts. A strategic partnership is something I hadn’t even thought of, except with engineering firms, but it makes sense.

    I’m a terrible salesman too. Too cranky!

  18. 118
    socold says:

    There is no horse manure problem. Speak of it increasing and “disease risk” is just a scare devised by All The King’s Men to levy a new tax on horses.

    Horse manure has been much higher in the past. During the Medieval Manure Period for example we can safely assume all the streets of London were meters deep in manure.

    As for a “disease risk”, did you know horse manure makes up just 0.3% mass in a typical street? So how can it be a problem anyway? Don’t refer to the germ theory of disease please, everyone knows it’s just a theory and one that has been disproven time and time again by tavern gossip.

    Increased horse manure can only bring benefits. Horse manure is an excellent fertilizer for example. So if we switch to automobiles we may very well run out of food – is this perhaps part of a population reduction agenda by the powers that be?

    Alarmists and so-called “men of science” just want to take away our horse-drawn carriages and force us to walk around like cavemen. Alternative transport such as so-called “automobiles” are far too expensive and will bankrupt the economy of the country.

    Even if there was a problem with more manure there is nothing we can do about it. It’s arrogant to assume humans can upsurp nature and replace the horse with metal and steam.

    Horse manure. They call it a disease risk, we call it life.

  19. 119
    Jim Eager says:

    Except for the fact that we would be living on a planet with a chemically completely different atmosphere and ocean.
    It also presupposes near-perfect understanding of the coupled atmosphere-ocean system to be able to fine tune both.
    Sounds like as good a definition of the word hubris as any I’ve read.

    Geoengineering proposals remind me of a conversation I once had with a chemist who worked at the EB Eddy paper mill across the river from the Houses of Parliament in Ottawa. The mill produced pastel coloured toilet tissue, and the chemist’s job was to figure out how much green dye to add to the effluent when they were making a run of pink tissue so that the effluent would be a neutral grey-brown colour that would not be noticed, and visa versa. In other words, double the dye load rather than stop dumping dye into the river.

  20. 120
    RichardC says:

    104 Mark said, ” I’m sure my hosepipe would split if I put enough pressure on it to shoot water 100 ft in the air, never mind 16 miles…”

    Eyeroll. Repeater pumping stations are kinda easy to visualize. Why did you miss it? Hmm, lift VS lift!

    And NO, your hose wouldn’t split at 100ft. That happens to equate to standard water pressure – a bit above 40 psi.

  21. 121
    _Arthur says:

    “Repeater pumping stations are kinda easy to visualize.”

    If you put a pump, say, every 250 meters of your hose, that will increase the weight significantly. (Don’t forget to add one-way valves, too). I expect the “hose” will be supported by balloons at each pumping station too.

    Helium costs quite a bit nowadays. It would be much cheaper to use hydrogen. Oh, wait, SO2 is mildly flamable…

  22. 122
    dhogaza says:

    socold: sweet!

  23. 123
    Jim Eager says:

    Oops, my post @119 was meant in respose to mdc’s reply to me @106.

    And to socold @118: brilliant!

  24. 124
    Gail says:

    I have a friend who is a vegetarian and quite scornful of omnivores. She likes to pronounce that other people shouldn’t eat meat (although she eats fish!) because it is environmentally unsustainable.

    On top of which, she has horses and several dogs!

    What does this have to do with anything? Well, everyone has their own personal understanding of what is necessary, and what is an expendable luxury.

    None of which is going to matter, very soon, when we all find out that the necessary, however we are pleased to define it, is unobtainable.

    Given the intractable nature of our global warming problem, I personally plan to worship ever more frantically here,, maybe even buy a t-shirt. What else is one to do?

    May you be touched by His Noodly Appendage.

  25. 125
    Thomas says:

    115: “Often I watch these same folks suggest that there is a high amount of waste. Yet if that were the case then the recent Oil price spike should tell us how much waste was in the system, 3-4 million barrels out of 87.3 million barrels per day or less then 4.5%. Of that 4.5% no more then 3% were actual waste the rest was the attempt to offset costs for materials for manufactured products.”
    Now why would you think that a short term price spike would have captured all (or at least most) os the waste? Many attempts at changing patterns take a great deal of time. Think of moving closer to work, or buying a more efficient vehicle -you don’t do that in response to a few month long price spike, but you might if you think the cost savings will be good for the rest of your life. And even then, things like replacing your car, are usually defered until the old one wears out, time lags are really very substantial.

    The people on The Oil Drum did an analysis of horse drawn cultivation versus bio-fuel fueled tractors. Before oil drawn tractors came along roughly a third of farmland was pasture for the draft animals. Much less land than that would allow biofuel based cultivation. So clearly the overall efficiency of animal power is pretty poor. So switching to animal power is just not a way to make energy progress. Its only real advantage is that it requires only very low technology to support.

  26. 126
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re Gail, Paul UK, Thomas, others…

    I forgot that in addition to the 20 % efficiency of muscles, there’s the rest of the metabolism.

    Well, that would be analogous to the indirect fuel usage of a car, via the supply of fuel itself (energy used to process and transport and maintain the infrastructure), and the production, maintence, and disposal of the car. Except the horse has some of those too (medical, shelter, etc.). And both can serve purposes besides transport (nice car, pretty animal). But anyway…

    I wasn’t exactly thinking of those devices that people can wear or a hamster wheel; I was just joking, really. Although that brings to mind those springy things people can wear so that they can walk really fast…

  27. 127
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re Schmert 63 –

    Increased greenhouse forcing results in stratospheric cooling, which could increase/amplify ozone depletion by allowing more polar stratospheric clouds. Could you have been thinking of that?

    It would be essentially impossible for us humans to do anything to affect atmospheric oxygen levels except maybe if we had thousands of years for a cummulative effect (?).


    Rod B. – the point wasn’t that we can change human nature, but that we can know human nature and change human behavior.

  28. 128
    Russell Seitz says:

    35;Gavin re
    “Myrhold …thinks that 100,000 tons of SO2 (a year?) in the polar region stratosphere is enough to cool the planet…II find this very hard to believe and have seen no studies that would support a significant forcing from such a small amount (for reference, Pinatubo – peak forcing around -3 to -4 W/m2, put something like 20 million tons of SO2 into the stratosphere – 200 times as much.”

    Volcanic sulfate aerosols have wide droplet size (and hence lifetime ) distributions. Since the backscattering scattering cross section for a given aerosol mass, or number density , scales inversely with radius squared, a monodisperse aerosol of micron-sized droplets might backscatter more than an order of magnitude more sunlight per unit mass than a larger natural cloud droplet population

  29. 129

    I went to a talk recently where the speaker put up a graph showing demand elasticity. For some hypothetical situation of energy cost vs. demand, as the price went up, demand dipped very slowly (inelastic demand). But in a real situation, demand may drop very suddenly when price goes to high (e.g., you leave your car at home when running it suddenly becomes too expensive, and you switch to using the train every day).

    What we really need to do is amplify these inflexion points by choosing cleaner technologies that are a little too expensive (even if they confer other benefits) and adjust their cost relative to dirtier options so demand drops quickly from the dirty technology. An example: double tolls on roads, and simultaneously halve train fares. Peak oil and carbon taxes or emissions trading will get us there eventually but with the risk that an inelastic demand curve will simply mean people will pay more. Add in the behaviour tipping points like cheaper public transport and you get a rapid change that will stick if the system is good.

    Here in Brisbane, we are doing just the opposite. Much of the city budget is going into new roads, bridges and tunnels (some but not all with tolls) and public transport is going to cost 20% more from next year.

    It helps a lot if you actually want to solve the problem.

  30. 130
    The Wonderer says:

    Re: “You obviously don’t have a cat”

    I do have a teenager, and have found that motion detectors at home solve the problem well. The cat sleeps most of the time anyway, although, so does the kid.

    On a related note, I’ve always wondered why people don’t use motion detectors in parking lots. Seems like low-hanging fruit.

  31. 131
    Hank Roberts says:

    > 100,000 tons of SO2 (a year?) in the polar region stratosphere

    Sometimes I think these proposals are the answer to

    “Now, what to propose next, to make their planet even less habitable?”

    “…. ah, let’s propose putting the SO2 in the _descending_ air, so it enters the ocean faster and falls out where much of the primary production happens, and where pH change from CO2 is already going out of bounds.”

    “… photosynthetic carbon fixation by marine phytoplankton leads to formation of ~45 gigatons of organic carbon per annum, of which 16 gigatons are exported to the ocean interior. Changes in the magnitude of total and export production can strongly influence atmospheric CO2 levels (and hence climate) on geological time scales, as well as set upper bounds for sustainable fisheries harvest. The two fluxes are critically dependent on geophysical processes that determine mixed-layer depth, nutrient fluxes to and within the ocean, and food-web structure. Because the average turnover time of phytoplankton carbon in the ocean is on the order of a week or less, total and export production are extremely sensitive to external forcing and consequently are seldom in steady state….”

  32. 132

    Re Gavin’s article: 18 October

    Your discussion about changing people’s behaviour makes important points that I find very appropriate. I think that the solution is here, but it is not going to get done by changing lightbulbs, recycling bottles, or any of these feel good kind of things.

    The hybrid car that is well designed to cut the use of energy offers the only real possibility for change of a magnitude that would really matter, and it could come at a negative cost, even without rebates, due to the gasoline cost savings. Wise government could rescind the oil depletion allowance to move along a shift to such cars.

    I continue to point out that by converting hybrids to plug-ins is a step backwards, since the marginal response to the added electric load is ultimately an increase in coal fired power generation, yes, even in California. In some of the well known examples, the economies that were built into the Prius (and probably the Ford Fusion hybrid) are ignored in such cars as the Fisker, thus taking things another step backwards.

    We then move on to what I consider to be unconscionable deception by those who are interested in reducing use of foreign oil, where they would play on the need to reduce CO2 to motivate change. Energy guzzling cars remain energy guzzling cars even though they are powered by plugging them into the grid. The fact that large “-money to be paid back-” (unlikely to be paid back since they are to corporations of doubtful future) have been given to Fisker and Tesla (half a $Billion each) as well as the huge -money to be paid back- to GM and Chrysler for the same supposed purpose, is a demonstration of unwise government action in response to a false hope generated by that deception. This kind of stimulus might help with jobs and reduce oil dependence, but it is very likely to lead to worsening of the CO2 levels. This seems like a demonstration of the worst of capitalism coupled with the worst of democratic government.

    The IEA report excerpt,

    shows that a very aggressive campaign to limit CO2 will result in 2030 with a significant amount of coal fired power production, and implicit in this is a significant reserve capacity that would use very low cost fuel. This is stark evidence that the marginal response to new loads would be coal fired power.

    Curiously, the remaining coal fired generation in 2030 could be eliminated by NOT changing from hybrids to plug-ins. Of course, additional CO2 from oil to run the hybrids would be more, but not so much as the CO2 from coal that would be eliminated.

    My approaches would require the kind of behaviour modification that you speak of, but would also have the kind of economic incentive built in that you point out as being a necessary part of the change process. These include high efficiency car and truck systems using measures to nearly eliminate aerodynamic drag, measures to nearly eliminate rolling resistance for trucks, and distributed cogeneration of electricity using natural gas powered small engines in the small cars where discharged heat from the car engines would be fully used by respective households. The magnitude of CO2 reduction from these measures ranks high enough to really make progress. And use of such measures would be very profitable to their users.

  33. 133
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re 76 Alexander Harvey –

    From a very pro-free market perspective, it might be good in the long term if an emissions tax happens to hurt the poor. Because it just corrects an externality, after all. Imagine if fuel just happened to cost that much. It would, by the same logic, hurt the poor.

    So it is quite ironic that some (not accusing you of this) conservatives argue against action based on the welfare of the poor. Of course, there are solutions to that (if even necessary – it depends on what is to become of the tax revenue), but conservatives may be ideologically against those solutions. Or they might be for charity, but not publically-enforced charity. Okay, so if they want to give, they should give; let the legislation go through and they can give more to charity – problem solved.


    Re 129 and other like comments – inelasticity of demand of energy.

    A tax can still work to reduce emissions even if demands are inelastic. How? By increasing the economic advantage of choosing a clean energy source over an emitting energy source. And so on for alternatives regarding agriculture and land-use. And if there is a more efficient device or method, the economic advantage will swing even more that way.

    And, of course, as demand increases for cleaner alternatives, the price of those alternatives may rise and the price of the dirtier options fall in response, but this changes the potential to profit by investing, so investments shift from the dirtier to the cleaner options, and this counters the aforementioned price tendency. If a threshold is reached (mass market advantage, technological breakthrough (hastened by investment)), the price of a cleaner option can even fall, but pulling more investment in as well as more demand.

    What would get in the way of this is the inelasticity of – proxy demand ? -image demand ? – I don’t know if there is a particular term for it, but it is demand for a quality or quantity which has traditionally been used as a proxy for real value – the actual object of the demand, which may now no longer be accurate. And then there is also the force of habit. And problems with large-scale organization (requirements that groups of people need to agree to change before any individual can benifit from a decision to follow that change – for example, if we abandoned neck ties, we might be more comfortable, but there would have to be an agreement reached to no longer use that as a signal for seriousness (?)…
    (it’s like deciding that a revision of word definitions would confer an advantage even after retooling/adaptation costs, but the retooling step cannot happen without some large scale agreement (although actually word usage does change over time in some cases)…)
    … – I don’t know if that would have any effect on climate or anything much, but it’s an example of how it is hard to change within a system. It may in a way be a negative sum game – without an understanding among parties to move together, those who venture out take a great risk.

    I don’t see those problems as arguments against the tax but as arguments for auxiliary policies, such as changes in building codes (skylights and, as conditions warrant, incentives for solar roofs (electricity and/or hot water, depending on latitude, climate, landscaping) (note that these policies can be formulated as functions of variables and thus avoid the one-size-doesn’t-fit-all issue) and targeted incentives for cars, buildings, and appliances. And demonstration projects.

    And the potential of future mass market advantage is a good reason for government support of related R&D at least. (the power source that will not be named that is used a lot in France doesn’t seem a good candidate for government R&D, since it is already a mature industry – or is there some reason they would not pay for research into new fuel cycles?)

    For domestic policy, the tax itself should come with a tariff on imports (and possibly subsidy on exports) in proportion to differences in the price signal among countries, being careful to note differences in where the price signal is applied (if country A taxes coal out the ground, country B taxes coal as it is sold to a utilities and industries, and country C taxes electricity bills for electricity from coal and sales on whatever comes from industries using coal (in proportion to coal usage), then coal produced in B and sold to A should have a tariff, etc. – PS I favor the policies of A and B – I think it reduces the bureacracy costs to regulate the stream where there is the greatest flow per pipe.)

    In the absence of actual internation agreements to an international price signal, an agreement to allow such tariffs and subsidies without reacting to them with retribution could be quite helpful.

    Anyway, it makes perfect sense to have a tax given that emissions have a public cost, regardless of the market response to the tax, except in so far as the externality value is a function of the emissions trajectory. That’s the elegance of it. It should be acceptable to pro-free market people, and if it isn’t to some, at least the rest of us have the pleasure of calling them out on their lack of reason.

    And the public cost itself is not evenly distributed, so part of the revenue should go to reparations for climate change-injury, for example, to climate change refugees and the countries that accept them. Part should also go to adaptation, such as R&D on crops and investment in water infrastructure (desalination, aquaducts, etc.), improvements in medicine, and efforts to protect biodiversity, and protect ecological refuges, perhaps such as those at the higher elevation/higher latitude ends of their current ranges, in particular. There is the problem of the time difference between revenue collection and payout. Some subsidy for long-term clean energy/infrastructure/efficiency investments (like solar power) above and beyond what could otherwise be justified can be justified by the economic benifit to future generations to compensate for climate-change costs. Other options for spending, such as the equal-per-capita payback and the cuts in other taxes, could also be seen as economic investments that could indirectly help future generations. And then there’s the economic aid to regions with fossil-fuel (or deforestation, etc.) dependent economies – one way to do that without hurting the overall purpose is to plan clean energy projects or related industries (solar power conditioner/inverter manufacturing) in those regions, whichever would make more sense on a case-by-case basis.

  34. 134
    Hank Roberts says:

    Ah, but maybe we’ll get an increase in erosion and flush of nutrients and excess nitrogen rushing into the oceans — and if so, perhaps will counteract some of the pH change by causing a rapid increase in, say, algae growth. Green is good, right?

    Uh, oh.

  35. 135
    Mark says:

    “(e.g., you leave your car at home when running it suddenly becomes too expensive, and you switch to using the train every day).”

    London Congestion charge was created to remove some cars from London, removing the endemic gridlock in the city.

    People stopped using their cars and took the train.

    Then they put in an extra charge because too many people were using the train at rush hour (the hour(s) before the 9 o clock start and the 6 o clock end of work).

    Demand isn’t ALLOWED to go elastic because they want the same revenue. Companies demand higher revenue growth, not just stasis, so it’s no good going there.

    It’s one reason why denialist lobbying works so well: the politicians know that a greener future mitigating AGW won’t be so easy to tax at the current levels. So they WANT it to be wrong. So the denialist lobby get a willing ear. If they’d had convincing proof, they’d have got their way 100%, but all they have is “we’re not CERTAIN”.

  36. 136
    Mark says:

    “And NO, your hose wouldn’t split at 100ft. That happens to equate to standard water pressure – a bit above 40 psi.”


    I can’t get the hose to shoot the water 100ft across the ground with standard water pressure, Richard.

    A fireman’s hose may be able to (though their limit, if it does go to 12 stories, isn’t much higher than that) and that requires a big engine and four people to brace and hold it.

  37. 137
    Chris S says:

    Gail @124: You may want to show the following paper to your friend:

    The Effect of Dairy Farming on Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica Abundance, Distribution and Reproduction
    Anders Pape Moller
    Journal of Applied Ecology, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Apr., 2001), pp. 378-389

  38. 138
    Ray Ladbury says:

    So, do Levitt and Dubner list Dunning and Kruger as co-authors on this chapter?

  39. 139
    Jesse says:

    It’s worth saying — and there are a number of interesting (and good) proposals that people have already put up — hat behavior change is not such an intractable problem.

    Look at it this way: in the US we had an unfortunate Civil War that ended the practice of slavery — even though the economic growth rates in the South were absolutely fantastic by 19th century (and even 20th century) standards. The South was once the equivalent of Saudi Arabia for cotton. The Brits reading this might remember that one of the big reasons for Britain seeking other countries to colonize was to find an alternative cotton source. (And they found one, which was one reason the British government was unwilling to go to war with the US to secure the supply from the CSA. The French were less squeamish about slavery, but also simply ramped up production in Ageria).

    But after the war we never went back to slavery, despite its obvious economic efficiency, assuming you disregard the horrific human cost. (Remember, the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to Missouri or Kentucky, or Oklahoma — all slave holding territories. What is now West Virginia was less so, but still).

    Brazil didn’t even need a war to get rid of slavery, though they were late about it.

    But we got along without slave labor and continue to do so — in fact, with relatively small exceptions (in relation to the world as a whole) slavery is almost extinct. That’s a pretty big change in human behavior and it was by no means apparent at the time it was a good idea, from an economic standpoint.

    Or take the attitude towards having children in the workplace, or treating women as property — both common occurrences in the US until the 20s and the 50s, respectively. The changes in attitude started with a minority of the population, but eventually — and in a short time — became the norm.

    Human behavior is subject to all kinds of influences. Some by law, some by social pressure.

    Another thing, re: space launches. They are not cheap — it costs $100m or more to put s single communications satellite into orbit. The Russians will do it for $80m at the cheap end and ArianeSpace will hit you up for $120m or so. A space mirror of any size – and in an orbit that would leave it in the stationary position relative to the sun and earth (really, essentially in its own orbit around the sun, as it would have to be in a “locked” aspect w/r/t the Sun, rotating once per year but remaining in place over a certain point on the earth’s surface) is an expensive proposition. The Iridium company went bankrupt because cell phones were cheaper than satellite. That was a 66 satellite system that cost $7.5 billion.

    ICO Global is bankrupt, by the way. So is Sea Launch (though they claim they have a way out now). It is far from clear that any satellite company can operate minus subsidies (or at least doing military work to keep the lights on — Sea Launch would not do that, which denied them $200m/year in revenue at least).

    While the carbon cost — at least in terms of the way fuel is used — is low for space launches, the dollar cost is gigantic. I am not saying it couldn’t be made cheaper. But right now, and for at least the next decade or so, $100m per satellite is going to be the norm. More to get to the orbit necessary for the mirror idea to work.

    Prices by the way, I got by calling up the companies and insurance agents and asking. Fascinating method, that. :-)

  40. 140
    Gail says:

    Thank you Chris S. Many foot bassetters are of the opinion that the reduction in the prevalence of local dairy farms has led to the elimination of hare, forcing the hounds to chase bunnies, which race in tedious circles before going to ground. Thus those of us in the field can follow the sport by standing still, instead of running over hill and dale, which has led inexorably to weight gain, ill health, and the necessity of purchasing larger clothing.

  41. 141
    L. David Cooke says:

    RE: 125

    Hey Thomas,

    Your question regarding the assumption of how much can be attributed to waste in the recent Oil Price run up would have been valid, if indeed it had only been short term and there had been anticipation that eventually the prices would come back down. In essence that was never the case. There was a near certainty that instead the new price would become the baseline into the future with each plateau acting as the comparative base for the next round of increases.

    In essence, we saw in 2005 the return of the pre-Katrina price base for gasoline around the May/June time frame (roughly $2.15-2.40/gallon). However, there was not the return to the $40/barrel of crude, instead the new base line appeared to be about $60/barrel.

    We then got into the bidding wars in which Texas crude Oil reached as high as $144.00/barrel. (Who do you think was doing the bidding? Who do you think would have benefited most from the run up? What do you think was the motivation was it for immediate cash returns or was it intended to raise the baseline from the old $40/barrel to the new standard of $70/barrel…?)

    The point, is at the time of the last run up there was already a strong move to decrease Oil consumption and content in our products. With the cost to the consumer rising to 200% and the cost to the supplier rising to 360% of the pre-Katrina price and $240 of the post-Katrina price there has been nearly 4 years of effort to reduce demand to a minimum.

    With there being no indication of a future price drop it was clear that those who were concerned with a 3% decrease in margin in their budgets would have reacted quickly to try to minimize the impact, meaning that all waste would have immediately been addressed. The end result was only about a 4.5% reduction in the daily demand. That was because economically that was all people could do to reduce their demand. Hence, economic waste was very likely addressed with as much of non-essential petroleum products being removed from manufactured materials. (IF, there is additional waste it has to be contained within the current technology base and that is the component that needs to be addressed, not human behaviour.)

    The conclusion is if a 100% rise is not enough to curb Oil demand how much is enough, well lets try a linear regression if 100% increase decreases Oil demand by 4.5% then to achieve a 50% demand decrease then Oil would have to cost 1111% more or roughly $66,000/barrel or at the current estimated gasoline cracking content per barrel of crude at 45 gallons it would cost roughly $1480 per gallon of gasoline wholesale.

    Even is you were to make the curve non-linear the eventual cost would have to rise significantly above $5/gallon of gasoline to get many to start making changes and it would likely have to reach levels in excess of $10/gallon to eliminate it as the fuel of choice moving forward.

    In short, energy costs now have reached the point that energy consumes nearly 12% of the average families budget. In lesser economic circles it is reaching closer to 20% and in larger economic circles it is likely reaching 2-4%. As more then 87% of the population is in the average to low income brackets that would suggest the there is more then ample pressure to remove waste at even a 100% increase in cost that we saw over the last 3 years, in my humble opinion…, hence my suggestion that economic motivation is not going to be enough to make the necessary changes. Instead we need a new technology baseline, so lets get cracking…

    Dave Cooke

  42. 142
    mdc says:

    Jim Eager @ 119:

    I don’t think it does require perfect knowledge &c., it just requires us to be confident our inevitable mistakes will cost us less than $1tn/year worth of damage. I don’t think that rebuilding the world economy is much better understood or much less frought with danger (and it’s not just about frivolous ‘consumerism’, ultimately millions in the third world are going to die due to lost development that is instead used to pay for CO2 reduction): but the minimum price seems to be a lot lot higher.

  43. 143
    L. David Cooke says:

    RE: 141

    Hey All,

    Ooops, my poor diligence has caught up with me again… That is an increase of 1111% of $60 or an increase of roughly $666/barrel or around $16 per refined gallon of gasoline resulting in a price of about 2 pounds / liter. My apologies… (2 pounds / liter is intended to correct the initial error of 168 pounds / liter.)

    Dave Cooke

  44. 144
    Ray Ladbury says:

    mdc, What you fail to understand is that the current economy is not sustainable. It will collapse in the near term–and it would with or without climate change. Petroleum–which drove the economy for a hundred years–is basically finished. The question is what replaces it. If it’s coal, we’re cooked–literally. If it’s renewables and other non-carbon intensive energy sources we stand a chance.

    You seem to be succumbing to the delusion that what you don’t understand must be easier than what you do. The point is that we have clear scientific guidance on this issue. We can either go with what science tells us gives us the best chance of survival or we can go against it. Science or anti-science. Choose.

  45. 145

    Of course I’m always pleased to get a link from the lead article on RC, but in the present case it’s a bit off base I’m afraid.

    I did indeed write an article concerning the conventional usage of the word “adaptation” as contrasted with geoengineering, but it was this one.

    The article you referenced was making a different point, and one which I consider more important, though alas there was a meandering preamble which I’d have left out had I known you were going to link to it!

    The important point is this one: two very different classes of proposal are commonly going under the rubric of “geoengineering” these days. The confusion stands to be quite consequential.

    There is intervention in the carbon cycle on the one hand, which is necessary, curative and unlikely to be dangerous to first order. On the other hand there is direct intervention to the radiative balance, which as you point out is necessarily imperfect and merely symptomatic, and which carries enormous risks and enormous demands on climate theory.

    There is some question as to whether investigation of the second class of project should be supported. Perhaps it should, but the arguments in its favor are far more speculative and weaker than arguments supporting various strategies toward carbon sequestration.

    Putting both classes of idea under the rubric of “geoengineering” without qualification is a grave error. It’s understandable that the press is making that error, but the relevant scientific and engineering communities should be at pains to maintain the distinction.

  46. 146
    Dave Rado says:

    Nice article, except that I think there is an unspoken implication that no form of geo-engineering has any validity. Some forms, such as may have the potential to buy us some much needed time, without any direct side effects. The Royal Society explored some of these in a
    recent paper

  47. 147
    Dave Rado says:

    PS – please could the Preview button be restored when submitting comments? It’s very much easier to proof-read one’s post properly when in preview mode.

  48. 148
    mdc says:

    Ray Ladbury @ 144: Neither coal nor renewables will replace oil. These are mass electricity generation systems, and oil is not used to generate electricity to any sigificant degree. The question of what we will use to power planes and trains, or make plastic, is an interesting one, but not one that is very relevant to this debate. Whatever it is, the energy required will either be solar (ie. biofuels) or more likely come from the electricity grid (ie. LH2, synthetic oil, etc.). Though I’m not sure what this has to do with what I said, if I’m entirely honest.

    As for science vs anti-science… no, not at all. Science can tell us what will happen if we do X. The people saying that ‘solution to CO2 problems’ will happen if we do ‘geo-engineering’ are apparently scientists. The question is then an economic and a political one. A cheap solution is better than an expensive one, all else being equal. Now it seems all else is not equal, but I’m not at all convinced that the downsides of geo-engineering cause more harm than the money saved does good.

  49. 149
    BJ_Chippindale says:

    re: nr 98


    Where did I claim we HAVE CATS? Ever? In ANY thread? I pointed out that we NEED it, and it would be easier to get it and a HELL of a lot safer than adding yet another massive change to the planet’s atmospheric chemistry.

    This isn’t an either-or issue. We’re up against it in terms of time and we CAN get CATS, it is more a matter of engineering refinements and engineering structures than it is a matter of scientific unknowns.

    Something like Venturestar for human transport and some form of mass driver for bulk transport and you’re already mostly done. We canned the project with all the major parts produced.. it was 95% built. One person appeared before a Senate sub-committee and it all-went-poof. All the science is done. What is left is Engineering.

    Besides which, the cost of simple medium sized mirrors using inflatable structures is quite small. There’s no “fixing” involved.

    The need is for something that buys us time to change (to cast iron underwear) once it becomes clear that Mother Nature is going to give us the spanking we have earned.

    PEOPLE, particularly in our media addicted population, aren’t going to respond until it starts happening in obvious ways and we know that THAT is going to be way to late to stop the process. The good news and the bad news is that they will then crucify any denialists they find and there will be no resistance permitted. The revolution will be profound. However, it WILL be too late then unless we have some way to rebalance the energy while the planet (and we) re-sequester the CO2. Somehow.

    The cost of ANYTHING up there once CATS is achieved is by definition, small. The first word is “Cheap”.

    The benefits are immense.

    But it isn’t scientific speculation or research… it is just engineering.

    Engineers. The “Rodney Dangerfield’s” of the community :-)


  50. 150
    Mark says:

    BJ Chippendale, when your theory is all “jam tomorrow” when we need “jam today”, you have nothing.

    You *pre-suppose* that cheap access to space (I assume that’s what CATS is) will happen.

    But that’s like pre-supposing that we will be able to cryogenically freeze people to fix ailments in the future.

    A wish.

    Nothing more.

    “Jam tomorrow” is not an answer.

    We don’t have cheap access, we can’t make a mirror in space.

    If we don’t know how to get cheap access today, we have to wait until we find out how. Then wait until it’s tested. Then wait until we get a mirror up there. Then wait to see if we did it right.

    It’s a lot of “jam tomorrow”.

    Why delay our jam today so that you can get your jetpack and flying space-car tomorrow?