Steve Levitt has followed in Dubner’s footsteps with a response to his critics that fails to respond to their arguments. Levitt first restates his argument and then asserts that their conclusions are different because:

We are answering a different question than our critics.

Our question, at noted above, is what is the cheapest, fastest way to quickly cool the Earth. Like every question we tackle in Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics, we approach the question like economists, using data and logic to conclude that the answer to that question is geo-engineering. …

But that is not the question that Al Gore and the climate scientists are trying to answer. The sorts of questions they tend to ask are “What is the ‘right’ amount of carbon to emit?” or “Is it moral for this generation to put carbon into the air when future generations will pay the price?” or “What are the responsibilities of humankind to the planet?”

Unlike the question that we are asking — How can we most efficiently cool the Earth fast? — the types of questions that environmentalists are trying to answer mix together both scientific issues and moral/ethical issues. If you have any doubts about this, watch Al Gore’s movie, in which he says explicitly that reducing carbon emissions is not a political issue, but a moral issue.

That is why someone like Ken Caldeira can agree with the facts presented in our chapter, say that the chapter is written in good faith, but still disagree with the conclusion that geoengineering is the answer. It is because the question Ken Caldeira is trying to answer is not the question we are trying to answer. The same is true of our critics. But instead of just making this simple point — that we are asking different questions — the critics have either intentionally or unintentionally confused the issues by making all sorts of extraneous arguments.

Firstly, in the book L&D say that Caldeira endorses geoengineering. It’s good to see that Levitt now concede that Caldeira does not. Levitt does not link to what Caldeira or any other critic says so it isn’t easy for his readers to find out that the critics aren’t just answering a different question — they are saying that Levitt is answering the wrong question. Look at what Caldeira says about this specific point:

e360: I was struck by something one of the authors said on NPR the other day — that he got interested in geoengineering when he realized that the problem with global warming is not that there is too much carbon in the air; it’s that it is too hot. Do you agree with that?


Caldeira: The reason it is too hot is that there is too much carbon dioxide in the air. Now the carbon dioxide itself, of course, has big negative implications for ocean acidification and ecosystems, including coral reefs. So there are direct CO2 effects.

But I think if we had some magic thing that would reverse all effects of CO2 perfectly, then you could say, “Well the problem is not CO2.” But nobody really expects that we are going to have some magic, perfect CO2 nullifier. And it’s clear to me that if we continue allowing greenhouse gas concentration to grow in the atmosphere, and try to engineer our climate to counteract those effects, that as the greenhouse gases accumulate, and our counteracting system grows ever larger and larger, that the risk of some kind of catastrophic failure of this offsetting — or the imperfections in this offsetting — would grow in time and the net result would be pretty negative, I would imagine.

So, I do see CO2 as the problem. I think to present it as if, “Well, it not’s really CO2, but the effects of CO2,” it’s like if you got shot by a bullet and you said, “Well, it wasn’t really the bullet that was the problem, it was just that I happened to have this hole through my body…”

Gavin Schmidt has more on what’s wrong with geo-engineering. Levitt has failed to address any of this.

Comments

  1. #1 Roger Jones
    October 29, 2009

    It’s a risk question and to understand the risk you need to address the science correctly, which Levitt and Dubner do not do.

    By reducing it to a simple economics problem, you address only one aspect of the risk ignoring the rest.

    Very similar MO to Lomborg.

  2. #2 toby
    October 29, 2009

    Levitt & Dubner are the latest casualties of “Silver Bullet Syndrome” – the belief (which used to be at its highest in medicine) that for every ailment there is a magic bullet that will cure it totally without complications or knock-on effects.

    Quite honestly, I did consider their “solution” and read what Levitt had to say. But the thought that sulphur dioxide could be pumped into the atmosphere for years without any ill-effects, I find a bit rediculous. At least, a lot more science would need to be done before it could be attempted. Meanwhile, time’s a-wasting.

    There is also a good article on Climate Progress how L&D completely ignore the obvious benefits of abandoning a carbon-based economy – for example, we cease being in hock to a bunch of authoritian and brutal Middle-Eastern regimes.

  3. #3 Dave
    October 29, 2009

    I loved Caldeira’s bullet analogy :)

  4. #4 bruced
    October 29, 2009

    I fear that pretty well having sent the denialist crowd off to the corner to play with their piers in the flat-earth, anti-vaccine, no moon landing, etc groups, we now face those with the “magic or silver bullet”-type solutions to rising CO2. These are the solutions which will allow us to go on burning fossil fuels for as long as they exist because X, Y or Z provides the ultimate solution. In Australia a very-learned Wentworth group this week produced a report that stated that if we could only make all the soils in Oz take up a small percentage of carbon every year from now to whenever, the problem of the OZ emissions is solved. How soils can be induced to take up a constant amount of carbon year after year in a linear fashion with no release and no saturation was not addressed. They also want to promote biochar – another magic bullet method – whereby we produce and bury a renewable fuel (charcoal) so that we can continue to burn fossil fuels. So Tim, maybe we need to be focusing more on shooting down the magic-bullets than concentrating just denialistic delusionists. Because I fear governments will lack onto such solutions rather than face the real and more difficult issue of closing down fossil fuel use.

  5. #5 Donald Oats
    October 29, 2009

    In Australia the opinionators in the newspapers love to bang on about “unintended consequences” (usually as part of a ramble against something that the neo-conservatives do not want – pretty much any Labor policy as far as I can tell). Ironically geo-engineering with an orbiting sunshade, or iron filings dumped at sea, or the current sulphur dioxide and hose pipe crazy dream, seems to be acceptable by comparison.

  6. #6 Mark
    October 29, 2009

    > They also want to promote biochar – another magic bullet method – whereby we produce and bury a renewable fuel (charcoal) so that we can continue to burn fossil fuels.

    That’s given me a terrible thought:

    What if the reason for pushing biochar is so that they can burn oil now and later, when the oil has run out, they’ll dig UP the charcoal and burn it too.

  7. #7 Eli Rabett
    October 29, 2009

    At this point Levitt is fighting for his intellectual reputation (see bottom of page at link). What we need to do is continue to point out to him that his reputation is in tatters and not provide any easy way out. Crap has consequences

  8. #8 DavidCOG
    October 29, 2009

    Eli:

    > What we need to do is continue to point out to him that his reputation is in tatters and not provide any easy way out.

    That’s where I’m at. The Deniers and Delayers – and now the Magic Bullet Gang – fear nothing more than loss of credibility. If people start pointing and laughing at them, they’re going to be a lot more reluctant to flap their gums.

    Even the WaPo is getting in on the act – re. James Inhofe – “It must be very lonely being the last flat-earther.” – http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/27/AR2009102702845.html?hpid=opinionsbox1

  9. #9 carrot eater
    October 29, 2009

    I really do wish Levitt and Dubner were right: that there was a cheap and easy way out, without having to deal with the political, economic and technological difficulties of reducing emissions. If there really were a silver bullet, we’d use it without a second thought.

    However, they fell so in love with the thought that geoengineering was a silver bullet that they didn’t do any proper research to see if that actually was the case. Which is all the more odd, as one of their sources, Caldeira, could have told them all about it. Perhaps their tunnel vision was such that they didn’t hear what he was saying, or didn’t understand it, or just brushed it all off as Caldeira ‘answering the wrong question’.

  10. #10 Brian Schmidt
    October 29, 2009

    I think L+D weren’t defining their question correctly. It really is about the “best” (defined as cheapest, without taking into account side effects) way to cool the earth in a hurry, without considering the long-term effect of your choice of action. Only phrased that way can they make the fact a feature out of the bug that sulfates drop out quickly while CO2 stays in the atmosphere for centuries.

    My caution for those of us in the real world is to avoid overreacting – just because some are glibly promoting a silver bullet that doesn’t actually work, doesn’t mean we should insist on the hardest solutions either. Biochar and carbon sequestration both have potential, maybe, to play a significant role. They’re no silver bullets, but to the extent they can provide solutions that don’t require a massive reworking of our economies, that’s a feature, not a bug.

  11. #11 Berbalang
    October 29, 2009

    I think the production of bio-char to be plowed into fields is a good thing because it helps hold nutrients in the field so less fertilizer is needed, which is made from oil. Maybe not a Magic Bullet, but it is a step in the right direction.

  12. #12 WAG
    October 29, 2009

    I actually agree with the line of reasoning that concludes “the problem with global warming is not that there is too much carbon in the air; it’s that it is too hot.” We’ve got a saying in sales and marketing consulting that “oil companies don’t need drills – they need holes” – the important thing is not the method/product, but the outcome it achieves. So Levitt is right that you need to be asking the right question.

    The real problem with Levitt’s reasoning is that he’s (1) not asking the right *follow-up* questions, and (2) he’s not using the right success metrics. If all you care about are temperature and dollars expended, then geoengineering may be a fine solution. But when you stop there, and don’t ask, “what unintended consequences may result from our geoengineering solution?” and “are there other costs besides dollars on which to evaluate our solution?” then it’s a shallow analysis. In short, he’s only looking at one aspect of the problem, without considering systemic effects.

  13. #13 Majorajam
    October 29, 2009

    toby,

    To your point, there is more in the way of benefits to reducing our carbon consumption than starving the undemocratic regimes that fuel international terrorism of the funds required to remain so undemocratic. There is also the considerably positive implication for the stability and sustainability of the global economy.

    Few people doubt, and fewer still amongst those that are informed, that the dearth of savings in the US created the conditions that allowed for the massive credit and housing bubble. The costs of those massive malappropriations of wealth are only beginning to be understood, notwithstanding their publicity (in any case, certainly well in excess of the global $1tn cost that Levitt considers beyond the pale as the cost of emissions reductions). Those imbalances are inextricably tied to the US’s persistent trade deficit in petroleum- circa half its entire trade deficit- something that would be considerably aided by an appropriate mitigation strategy, (this is the flip side of the effect of incentivizing ‘green jobs’).

    The best part about these consistently ignored and downplayed external benefits of a carbon mitigation policy- not, by the way, the only ones, given the considerable non-C02 pollution externalities of burning fossil fuels- is that they are not even required to make a case for the efficiency of aggressive cuts to carbon consumption, a point Martin Weitzman has made abundantly clear. That only goes to show just how open and shut is the case for mitigation that these two clowns dismiss high-handedly having studied it for a few weeks.

    PS Tim, you may have missed this. But it is pretty choice. The quote that sums it all up- “We realized the most common idea … carbon mitigation … is probably too little, too late and too optimistic.”

    Their powers of perception are truly astounding given that what I understand to be the three most important sources for that chapter- Caldeira, Weitzman and the polymath’s polymath- all disagree with that statement, in the former cases, as strongly as is humanly possible. And yet these guys don’t misrepresent sources. The bounds of credulity here must’ve snapped some time ago.

  14. #14 Mark
    October 29, 2009

    > I think the production of bio-char to be plowed into fields is a good thing

    > Posted by: Berbalang

    However, biochar only removes CO2 as long as it is removed from the carbon cycle.

    Which means it isn’t being plowed into fields.

  15. #15 Eli Rabett
    October 29, 2009

    WAG gets right to it, better, faster, cheaper. Pick two

  16. #16 Mark
    October 29, 2009

    > just because some are glibly promoting a silver bullet that doesn’t actually work, doesn’t mean we should insist on the hardest solutions either.

    Massive reduction fossil fuel use is not hard at all.

    Renewable energy production is not hard at all.

    All it requires is some thought and some 20th century technology.

    “Not burning fossil fuels is expensive” is 19th century thinking. Stop living in the Victorian era.

  17. #17 Russell Seitz
    October 29, 2009

    I take Ken’s point – his views have been traduced, but silver bullets are mostly used in the climate P-R wars to shoot messengers bearing facts that lead off-message. Cap and trade has become less a case of macroeconomic debate than asking those so beastly as to insist on quantitative risk assessment” are you with us, or a werewolf?”

    Expect the howling to increase in volume in the rhetorical run-up to Copenhagen.

  18. #18 Brian D
    October 29, 2009

    Updates from trawling reactions to this:

    There’s been a lot of attention on Levitt’s Daily Show appearance, but the real winner was an appearance on Diane Rehm’s show earlier (audio link).

    At 20:15 in that audio, Levitt finally addresses ocean acificiation. Unsurprisingly, he’s in the Julian Simon “magic bullet” camp:

    “Of course, ocean acidification is an import issue. Now, there are ways to deal with ocean acidification, right, it’s actually, that’s actually, we know exactly how to un-acidifiy the oceans, is to pour a bunch of base into it, so, so if that turns out to be an incredibly big problem, then we can deal with that.”

    Emphasis mine.

    In other news, I should have put my drink down when I read that the first time. Nearly ruined a lab laptop with the resulting spit-take.

    This comes on the heels of their recent op-ed in USA Today, which has been characterized as “frantic back-pedaling disguised as elaboration”. Adam Seigal does a brilliant dissection of it here, but even with the factual flaws, the shift in defense tactics is rather striking.

    I’ll continue to hunt down responses to Superfreaks and update my list as I find them.

  19. #19 Brian Schmidt
    October 29, 2009

    Re Levitt’s suggestion that we neutralize the oceans with base chemicals: I’ve been wondering when we’d hear that idea. The fact that we haven’t heard it before (maybe I’ve missed it somewhere) suggests that even denialists have problems with its feasibility.

    Still, it might be useful for someone to run the numbers on how much limestone would have to be crushed and distributed worldwide, and the consequences of doing that….

    Re reducing fossil fuels is easy and inexpensive: the average American isn’t willing to spend more $100/year on fighting climate change. Distributed solar isn’t cheap and has a large upfront cost.

    Do you really want to try and slay the coal industry dragon, as opposed to getting along with the dragon through carbon sequestration?

  20. #20 natural cynic
    October 29, 2009

    To use the medical analogy:

    Treating the major symptom is not the same as treating the disease.

  21. #21 Phila
    October 29, 2009

    In Australia the opinionators in the newspapers love to bang on about “unintended consequences” (usually as part of a ramble against something that the neo-conservatives do not want – pretty much any Labor policy as far as I can tell). Ironically geo-engineering with an orbiting sunshade, or iron filings dumped at sea, or the current sulphur dioxide and hose pipe crazy dream, seems to be acceptable by comparison.

    And of course, business as usual has no “unintended consequences” at all….

    It’s a popular talking point in the US, too.

  22. #22 G.R.L. Cowan
    October 29, 2009

    Still, it might be useful for someone to run the numbers on how much limestone would have to be crushed and distributed worldwide, and the consequences of doing that….

    As a cure, comminuted limestone in the oceans is definitely much less bad than the disease. Comminuted peridotite could work on land, and the resulting MgCO3 could then find its way into the sea and do the same

    CO3(2-) + CO2 + H2O —> 2 HCO3(-)

    thing as limestone can do. Thus it would give about twice as much ocean alkalinity protection and global warming prevention, per unit energy invested in pulverizing and dispersing, as with limestone.

    The energy requirements are small enough that one coal-fired electricity plant built on peridotite terrain, and dedicated to chewing it up, could make itself and seven others carbon neutral. 15 others, if the carbonate-to-bicarbonate part of the deal can be counted on.

    The problem is definitely CO2, and these two rock-crushing proposals address it directly; as such they are Barf-The-Rat-Out (BTRO) proposals rather than Swallow-A-Cat-To-Catch-A-Rate (SACTCAR) ones, which the superfreaks seem to be getting a rise by advocating.

    (How fire can be domesticated)

  23. #23 Mark
    October 29, 2009

    > As a cure, comminuted limestone in the oceans is definitely much less bad than the disease

    If you don’t stop the cause, there’s no point curing the disease.

    And where does limestone naturally grow crushed?

    If it doesn’t then part of your problem is going to be crushing it.

    And you’ll have to transport it.

    All of which takes energy.

    Where will you get such energy from…?

  24. #24 Katharine
    October 29, 2009

    The dude is an economist. That’s the first problem with anyone trusting his judgment about global warming.

    Second, it costs way the fuck more to ‘cool the Earth’ than to just produce less carbon dioxide. What is he going to use? A fucking giant umbrella?

  25. #25 Brian D
    October 29, 2009

    Katharine: His suggestion is SO2 dumping in the upper atmosphere. He openly mocks anyone who opposes this and presents a false dichotomy (he won’t, for instance, mention black carbon, which is cheaper still than aerosol seeding).

    He’s not just an economist. He’s from the Chicago School. They think that if we listen to them we’ll never run out of anything.

  26. #26 Brian Schmidt
    October 29, 2009

    Answering my own question, the Royal Society has run the numbers on what it would take to neutralize the acidification:

    “To counteract the changes in acidity caused by
    today’s ocean uptake of roughly 2 Gt C per year (IPCC
    2001) would require roughly 20 Gt CaCO3 per year
    (Caldeira & Rau 2000), which, for a limestone layer
    100 m thick, would require the removal of roughly
    60 km2 each year. This limestone would need to be
    coastally located, or transportation costs would likely be
    prohibitive (Rau & Caldeira 1999). Thus, features such as
    the white cliffs of Dover could be rapidly consumed.
    Therefore the introduction of limestone to offset ocean
    acidification would raise a host of additional
    environmental problems. Furthermore, limestone does
    not dissolve in surface waters, so additional processing,
    and energy, would be needed (Kheshgi 1995; Rau &
    Caldeira 1999).”

    http://royalsociety.org/displaypagedoc.asp?id=13539 (p. 45)

    On the same page:

    “It has been suggested that some of the chemical effects of
    CO2 addition could be mitigated with the addition of
    alkalinity to the oceans (Kheshgi 1995; Rau & Caldeira
    1999). However, this mitigation would be at best partial. If
    enough alkalinity were added to restore the mineral
    saturation state of ocean carbonate, only half of the pH
    change would be mitigated (Annex 1). If enough alkalinity
    were added to restore ocean pH, the oceans would
    become more saturated with carbonate minerals (Caldeira
    & Wickett in press).”

    and finally:

    “Although the vast amounts of carbonate minerals needed
    may make this approach infeasible at the scale required to
    mitigate global changes in ocean chemistry, this approach
    is widely used by salt-water aquarists to promote coral
    growth in fish tanks. Thus, it might be possible to use
    alkalinity addition to save specific coral reefs (Rau &
    Caldeira 2002), but such ideas have never been tested in
    situ and therefore must be regarded as speculative.”

    So if we’re down to just a few coral reefs, it might work as a local application, applied continuously for centuries. Maybe.

  27. #27 Katharine
    October 29, 2009

    I was attempting to skewer his ideas a little bit, Brian D. Hence the use of the hyperbolic ‘giant umbrella’ bit.

    I don’t think the height at which one dumps SO2 makes much of a difference as long as it’s in the atmosphere, or at least the height range which Levitt is talking about; correct me if I’m wrong. It’s still going to form sulfuric acid, which is responsible for acid rain.

  28. #28 Brian D
    October 29, 2009

    I’m no expert here, and I’m certainly not supporting Levitt, but my understanding is that it behaves differently if injected into the stratosphere rather than the troposphere, which has been used to argue that it won’t form acid rain. I’m skeptical, but maybe an atmospheric scientist could set us right.

    Brian Schmidt: Amusing to note whose research, exactly, is cited in that Royal Society work that so soundly debunks Levitt’s arguments. I wonder if Levitt will be taken to task over another statement contrary to Caldeira’s views.

  29. #29 Dave Andrews
    October 29, 2009

    Katharine,

    “The dude is an economist. That’s the first problem with anyone trusting his judgment about global warming.”

    Nicholas Stern, raised to the peerage for his work on climate change, is also an economist yet plenty of people seem to think that everything he says about climate change is ok.

    Oh, but of course, Stern is pro AGW so obviously his views must be better.

  30. #30 Berbalang
    October 29, 2009

    I think the production of bio-char to be plowed into fields is a good thing

    Posted by: Berbalang

    However, biochar only removes CO2 as long as it is removed from the carbon cycle.

    Which means it isn’t being plowed into fields.

    Posted by: Mark

    I don’t see how your statement follows. While you can burn biochar it has a lot of other uses, including being added to the soil where it can remain for thousands of years. There is a lot of interest and research into Terra Preta right now that has little to do with debates about Global Warming. But the production of biochar as a useful additive for soil does remove it from the carbon cycle and reduce our dependance on oil. If we combine this with a more widespread use of perennial crops (either natural or genetically engineered) we conserve even more oil that would otherwise be used to power farm machinery used for plowing.

  31. #31 dhogaza
    October 29, 2009

    Nicholas Stern, raised to the peerage for his work on climate change, is also an economist yet plenty of people seem to think that everything he says about climate change is ok.

    Oh, but of course, Stern is pro AGW so obviously his views must be better.

    Stern (or any economist) talking about economics related to global warming isn’t the same thing as economists pretending they’re experts on the science of global warming.

    Even you should be smart enough to understand that.

  32. #32 Dave Andrews
    October 29, 2009

    dhogaza,

    Stern regularly pops up on radio and tv here in the UK and is acclaimed as an expert on climate change.

  33. #33 bruced
    October 29, 2009

    Ah Berbalang the ghost of goebbels rises. Repeat a lie often enough and it will be believed. “biochar … being added to the soil where it can remain for thousands of years”. Such a beautiful line but look at reality. CArbon (charcoal) is preserved in anoxic environments. Ask you local anthropolgy dept where they would find charcoal to age-date to study palaeofire regimes. Of course its in swamps, lake sediments bogs, etc. And where are Terra Preta soils found? Amazon Basin. Whats the raihfall there? See a pattern developing?
    Now where I come from (Oz) the majority of soils are very oxidized (oxic) so carbon does not survive for long. That’s why soils where there are frequent natural fires (eg 100 km west of me) are not full of charcoal. Does not stop the magic bullet crowd claiming biochar is the answer.
    Another aspect of Terra Preta soil, on which biochar is based, is that, apart from occurring in small (<2 ha) areas, they comprise broken pottery, compost & fish bones. The enhanced property of these soils come not from one component, charcoal, but from a complex mix. I find it fascinating that the complexity of Terra Preta has been lost in the rush to proclaim it as the magic cure for global warming. Who gains from such a claim? Why our friendly neighborhood fossil fuel industry.

  34. #34 dhogaza
    October 29, 2009

    Stern regularly pops up on radio and tv here in the UK and is acclaimed as an expert on climate change.

    Accurately presenting the mainstream scientific view, then, I presume? Rather than Making Shit Up like the superfreakonomics guys, who have, after all, quite simply lied about what Caldeira believes and has said.

  35. #35 dhogaza
    October 29, 2009

    DaveA, to make it clear, the superfreakomics people aren’t being dissed for being economists. They’re being dissed for their dishonest treatment of Ken Caldeira, their scientific ignorance, and their arrogant attitude towards those who are showing them to be full of shit.

  36. #36 Katharine
    October 29, 2009

    It’s not the fact that they’re economists per se, DaveA.

    Whether Stern is an economist or not, he’s listening to scientists when he’s making his economic analyses. He’s recognizing the fact that his analyses should be beholden to the conclusions we in the scientific community draw.

    Levitt, on the other hand, is being all ‘hurf durf who cares lol economics yuk yuk’.

  37. #37 Marion Delgado
    October 29, 2009

    Oh, and Levitt is right – because the question they are answering is “How can we make more money and simultaneously help our sort of people by delaying climate action until it’s too late to be effective, at which point we can say, no point not living it up?”

    And the problem they are addressing is “what’s the most plausible, hard-to-attack stalling point at this time?”

    And they’ve oversolved it, because they’re solving “How can we take a crack at environmentalists in a defamatory way in the process?” as well.

  38. #38 russell Seitz
    October 29, 2009

    Has anyone proposed regulating the magnesium content of what goes into cement and agricultural ” lime” ? If rock burning to get alkaline earth oxides were mostly dolomite burning, the eventual runoff would benefit the HCO3 stressed ocean

  39. #39 guthrie
    October 29, 2009

    That the media would acclaim someone as an expert on climate change when they are an expert on the economic aspects of climate change is entirely believable, given the general lack of knowledge about the labels and differences. However it doesn’t change what anyone up thread has said about who knows what and why.

  40. #40 David Irving (no relation)
    October 29, 2009

    bruced @ 33, the fossil industry are doing even better out of Terra Preta than you’d think: a number of people are proposing adding brown coal (WTF?) to soil to increase soil carbon levels (which, as you’ve pointed out, gets oxidised pretty quickly in Australia anyway).

    That’s not to say that increasing soil carbon isn’t a good idea for a lot of other reasons, but it’s definitely Magic Bullet (or Magic Pudding) thinking.

  41. #41 Webster Hubble Telescope
    October 29, 2009

    You think geo-engineering is screwy, take a look at geo-statistics:
    http://mobjectivist.blogspot.com/2009/10/geostatistics-fraud.html

    Rockheads are not the people that we want solutions from. They will just dig us a deeper hole.

  42. #42 Steve Chamberlain
    October 30, 2009

    I admit that a lot of the science involved in the discussion of the merits of geo-engineering solutions goes over my head. But even I can understand the principles as Ray Pierrehumbert simply puts it in an open letter to Steve Levitt.

    Question is: if it’s that simple, why didn’t Levitt get it? And if he didn’t understand, it’s not as if he had to go all that far to find out.

  43. #43 Katharine
    October 30, 2009

    I think the question may be as simple as the fact that Levitt is making a big-ass claim in a big-ass book and now may be so afraid of being proven wrong that he’ll dig himself in a deeper hole just to not jeopardize his career.

  44. #44 Mark
    October 30, 2009

    Or simply: there’s no such thing as “bad publicity”.

    If you’re going to go on the lecture or bookwriting circuit, you need publicity far more than you need acceptance from your peers.

  45. #45 Mark
    October 30, 2009

    > > Which means it isn’t being plowed into fields.

    > > Posted by: Mark

    > I don’t see how your statement follows. While you can burn biochar it has a lot of other uses, including being added to the soil where it can remain for thousands of years.

    > Posted by: Berbalang

    If it’s sitting in the ground for thousands of years, how is it adding anything? If it were adding something that thing being added to the soil would be coming from the biochar you buried.

    If it’s coming from the biochar you buried, the biochar isn’t going to remain for thousands of years.

    And one reason why you put the ashes from a woodfire in your compost is because that charred material will be broken down and put back into the carbon cycle because it is enriching the soil which IS part of the carbon cycle.

    So your “it adds to the soil” is contraindicated by your “it stays for thousands of years”.

  46. #46 Mark
    October 30, 2009

    > Nicholas Stern, raised to the peerage for his work on climate change,

    > Posted by: Dave Andrews

    No, ducky, he was raised to the peerage for his work on the economics of climate change.

    You don’t have to be a nuclear physicist to make a paper on how the economics of energy production changes with the use of nuclear power stations.

    You DO have to be a physicist if you want to talk about the energy production or safety of nuclear power stations.

  47. #47 carrot eater
    October 30, 2009

    42, Steve: That open letter from Pierrehumbert doesn’t discuss the principles of geo-engineering at all. It explores a different assertion Myhrvold made about solar cells, which Levitt repeated without any critical thought whatsoever. Which is something of a recurring pattern in that chapter.

  48. #48 Berbalang
    October 30, 2009

    bruced @ 33 : You seem to think I am proposing just randomly plowing biochar into fields. Obviously there are places in the world that would not benefit from adding biochar to the soil. However there are a lot of places in the world where adding biochar would help restore soil that has been intensively farmed and poorly treated. Obviously nutrients need to be added to the soil along with it for it to help retain them. Again I am not suggesting it is a magic bullet, but it is a good thing to do but it is part of a mix of things that has to be done to improve soil.

    Just so we are clear on where I stand, I strongly agree that we need to get below 350 ppm as quickly as possible and that the quickest way to do that is by building plants that use wind or solar power and by using more energy efficent technologies. I see biochar as a step toward more energy efficent farming technology since it helps hold nutrients in the soil so less fertilizer(which is made from oil) is needed.

  49. #49 Berbalang
    October 30, 2009

    Mark @ 45 : As pointed out by my post at 11, adding biochar to the soil helps hold nutrients in the soil. This is better than having them washed out of the soil and eventually into the ocean.

  50. #50 Mark
    October 30, 2009

    > adding biochar to the soil helps hold nutrients in the soil.

    How?

    And how do you stop it rotting if it’s so intimately tied into the soil?

  51. #51 Berbalang
    October 30, 2009

    Mark @ 50 : Off hand I don’t know the precise mechanism by which biochar absorbs and holds nutrients to prevent them from being leached from the soil. The studies I’ve read have focused more on questions like how well it holds nutrients.

    To rot is to decompose. To decompose is to break down into simpler components. Biochar is mostly carbon, which if it starts breaking down, then something has gone horribly wrong with existence.

  52. #52 Mark
    October 30, 2009

    > Off hand I don’t know the precise mechanism by which biochar absorbs and holds nutrients to prevent them from being leached from the soil

    If it holds nutrients then they aren’t available for use.

    > To rot is to decompose. To decompose is to break down into simpler components.

    Not in organics.

    Nitrogen is converted by fungi into nitrogenous compounds by fungi. This has to occur for some plants before they can use the nitrogen.

    So rotting in that case makes more complex elements.

    > Biochar is mostly carbon, which if it starts breaking down, then something has gone horribly wrong with existence.

    Yes, let’s say the carbon is taken up by an organism which then turns this into a hydrocarbon by the inclusion of hydrogen and oxygen in water and sunlight or other unreliable energy source.

    After all, there is a surfeit of energy available.

    So the organic cycle uses the carbon as an energy store to allow energy to be transported away from where the source is to other places or to be released when other sources are unavailable.

    After its use it is reduced to simpler CO2, releasing the stored energy in the hydrocarbon and going out to the atmosphere.

    But as you say, biochar is mostly carbon. And there’s no process to put that CO2 back in the place it came from and no need for the organism to work out how anyway.

    And so the carbon goes back in to the carbon cycle.

    You are right that biochar is helpful to plant growth, but that growth removes the ability of biochar to be used as a long term carbon store.

  53. #53 Berbalang
    October 30, 2009

    If you look at the terra preta in the Amazon basin, it appeared between 450 BC and 950 AD, so we know that soil can hold the carbon at least that long.

    Thinking about it, if we are going to argue that biochar is not a long term carbon store, we might as well argue that coal is not a long term carbon store. So how long should the carbon be locked up?

    BTW, I had this weird mental image earlier of carbon atoms breaking down into protons, electrons, neutrons, etc. I have far too many of THOSE type arguments.

  54. #54 Dave Andrews
    October 30, 2009

    Katharine,

    “Whether Stern is an economist or not, he’s listening to scientists when he’s making his economic analyses.”

    Quite a few people might disagree with that. Have a look at Prof Richard Tol’s many discussions of Stern, for example.

    Mark,

    Likewise. And, BTW, I guess you must be a lawyer because you are so nitpicky about the precise language people use. It was because Stern provided the ‘right’ answer that the politicos wanted on climate change that he was elevated to the peerage. In my book that amounts to being elevated for his work on climate change.

  55. #55 Brian D
    October 30, 2009

    Every time I hear Tol’s name, I’m reminded of his encounter with Greg Craven. In Craven’s words:

    Well, I had the good fortune of having a brief email exchange with Prof. Richard Tol, a critic of the Stern report who has publicly said that the report is too pessimistic and “could be dismissed as alarmist and incompetent.” When I sent professor Tol my standard request for credible worst-case economic scenarios, he pointed me to the Stanford Energy Modeling Forum (EMF), calling it “the most authoritative source on these matters.”

    After digging around for a while in their reports, I couldn’t find any doomsday scenarios, but I did find this conclusion in a 1993 report:

    “Thus it is possible to reduce emissions significantly from their non-controlled level without significantly reducing the growth of the economy.

    (EMF WP 12.1 Global Climate Change: Impacts of Greenhouse Gas Control Strategies, Executive Summary, page iii)

    This was the exact opposite of what I was looking for! So I emailed the quote to Prof. Tol, telling him that and asking:

    “If Stanford’s EMF is ‘the most authoritative source on these matters,’ am I left with NO defense to the alarmist’s argument ‘No one knows for certain, so why not act, just in case’??!!? Help!!!”

    He never answered. I’m sure he’s a very busy guy, but still—I’d like to know his response.

    That was back in 2007. Just putting it out there.

  56. #56 Dave Andrews
    October 30, 2009

    Brian D,

    So what is you post about Craven meant to show? He asked Tol for a worst case scenario and Tol pointed him to some research that said there wasn’t one. What else did Tol say to Craven in his email and why should he have responded to the rubbish Craven sent later?

    Moreover, Tol and his co-contributors have done considerable work in this field, so why doesn’t Craven read some of that?

  57. #57 Steve Chamberlain
    October 31, 2009

    carrot eater #47: “That open letter from Pierrehumbert doesn’t discuss the principles of geo-engineering at all. It explores a different assertion Myhrvold made about solar cells,…”

    Errrmm, well, err (shuffles, looks at feet), yes I suppose it does :-)

    Told you this stuff went over my head (ahem).

  58. #58 Marion Delgado
    November 1, 2009

    Steve Chamberlain:

    He finished by mentioning that Gavin Schmidt had already covered their geoengineering solution, and linked to it.

  59. #59 Steve Chamberlain
    November 1, 2009

    Levitt’s response on that thread is interesting – he accuses Ray Pierrehumbert of intentionally misreading what he (Levitt) wrote on climate change. Poor misunderstood Levitt…

  60. #60 Mark
    November 2, 2009

    > It was because Stern provided the ‘right’ answer that the politicos wanted on climate change that he was elevated to the peerage.

    Bollocks, Ducky.

    Do you have ANY proof other than your own fevered ego that assumes there must be a nefarious reason for you being wrong?

    And it doesn’t even address whether Stern is right or wrong.

  61. #61 Dave Andrews
    November 2, 2009

    Mark,

    Tol addressed whether Stern was right or wrong in his analysis and came to the conclusion that he was the latter, ie WRONG.

  62. #62 el gordo
    November 13, 2009

    I believe Tol, but the carbonistas are intrenched and will not be swayed.

  63. #63 Chris O'Neill
    November 13, 2009

    el gordo:

    the carbonistas are intrenched and will not be swayed

    Certainly not by bad spelling anyway.

  64. #64 el gordo
    November 13, 2009

    Darn spellcheck.

  65. #65 Chris O'Neill
    November 13, 2009

    Darn spellcheck

    Your sciencechecker doesn’t work either.