Freakonomics Sequel Gets Climate Change Wrong

The Freakonomics guys have apparently either really dropped the ball when it comes to understanding science, or they're willfully ignoring it. Either way, I'm pretty disappointed.

The sequel's contrarian take on climate change--and the bad science it's steeped in--have been analyzed in exquisite detail by everybody from Paul Krugman, Berkeley economist J. Bradford DeLong, to the Union of Concerned Scientists, to various climate scientists spread hither and non about the Web.

That's a lot of links, but they're there so you can go back and read page-by-page breakdowns of the mistakes and inaccuracies, by experts, if you want. I think that's important, because I know at least some of you are going to assume that any criticism of this book and its contents is all about some violation of pseudo-religious orthodoxy. I want you to be able to go see that this is about science. If you just want a quick summary, though, read on...

There's a lot of stuff that the chapter on climate change gets wrong, but we can break it down into three key problems.

First, Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt argue that carbon dioxide isn't really the cause of climate change. It's not really "the bad guy". They cite Stanford climate scientist Ken Caldeira as supporting this, but Caldeira says what he actually told them was that carbon dioxide wasn't the only bad guy. And that's true. There are several gases in the greenhouse gas family and they're all a problem to varying degrees. But that doesn't mean that CO2 isn't a problem. (If you read the links, there's some journalism "Inside Baseball" about whether Dubner and Levitt knew they were misrepresenting Caldeira and, if not, what happened instead.)

Second, they make the claim that the planet has actually been getting cooler for the last 10 years and, thus, climate change projections are wrong. That idea is based on data from a single study and is contradicted in others. Either way, short-term cooling doesn't invalidate a global warming trend. Why? Because global warming isn't a straight line going up. On a graph, this is a series of peaks and valleys. Close up, on the scale of decades, the trends appear to fluctuate up and down fairly randomly. Pull back and look at the last century, though, and there is clear upward movement. It doesn't really matter how hot or cold it was this year, or in 1999. What matters is what's happening, on a grand scale, between 1900 and 2009. (This link has the best in-depth explanation.)

The last thing I'm going to talk about is Dubner and Levitt's assertion that geoengineering is a better way of dealing with climate change than any attempts to change energy use or sourcing. This one, I'm less well-versed in, particularly when it comes to the economics of such an endeavor. Although, the J. Bradford DeLong links provide some context. But let's put it this way: Geoengineering is cool, but it's a big risk. You're basically running a massive, one-time experiment and hoping the models caught all the possible consequences. Not saying it's evil. Not saying we won't maybe need to try something like that someday. But it's not exactly a first-line-of-defense kind of weapon.

So, why do I care? Well, frankly, because I really enjoyed reading the original "Freakonomics" book. Dubner and Levitt are engaging writers, and they have a big audience. And that means they have a lot of influence. Part of me would like to ignore the problems with this new book, because it kind of comes across as an attention-grabbing ploy and I hate to bite the marketing stick. But, it's factually wrong. They're influential. And so their factual inaccuracies will enter into public debate as "fact". And so I feel the need to make a big, damn long post about it.


  1. So the defense is that they’re not denialists, they’re just doing the freakonomics schtick. This still seems awfully tin-eared.

    Take, for example, the suggestion that environmentalism is a religion. Here’s why it’s dumb to make this trivially obvious and irrelevant point: Imagine if you will, writing a similarly styled piece in the 1950s and 1960s about the civil rights movement. You might, as a clever dick type looking for unusual freakonomical human interest angles, make light of that movement as a “religion” on similar grounds. Whose agenda would that serve, contemporaneously?

    It’s reminiscent of smart people who complain about “smug” scientists who should learn to listen to the heartbeat of america if they want to “defeat” creationism. In both instances, it’s the science that matters, not the assumed worldview of the various interests. If adding a humane angle results in a narrative that disregards the facts, no cigar for you, bunky.

  2. Also, the Freakonomics PR people did pitch this mess to Boing Boing as evidence of the book’s success. Not in the best taste, no.

  3. You are repeating a series of strawman arguments that are floating around the interwebs. This is a classic example of what happens when you read blogs about something without actually reading the original. You get stuck in a self satisfied echo chamber.

    First, there has been a lengthy discussion about Ken Caldeira’s quote, but thats all missing the forest for the trees. The point made in the book is that our understanding of CO2’s greenhouse causing effect is incomplete, and many bits of common wisdom like a purely linear relationship between warming and C02 are actually wrong.

    Second, the fact that the climate models don’t agree is exactly the point the book is trying to make. It isn’t saying “lulz global wamrings r fak”, rather we are in the middle of something that we have a rather limited understanding of.

    Third, given all the unknowns it is really difficult to figure out what will be more effective to combat global warming. In that light why is the reduction of carbon production so much more popular than technical innovations that might fix the problem? This is a valid question that very much needs to be asked.

    There is a lot of really good science being done about climate change, but there is also a lot of snake oil being sold inside and outside the scientific community to rally popular support. That charlatanism is already making political debates about climate change problematic and it will only get worse. Portraying excessive certainty might seem politically expedient but it is bad science and will only lead to trouble.

    1. “In that light why is the reduction of carbon production so much more popular than technical innovations that might fix the problem? ”

      Geoengineering won’t “fix” the problem of global warming. All geoengineering will do is mask the heating effect of greenhouse gases for a period of time. The acidification of the oceans, for instance, can’t be solved by geoengineering.

      Moreover, as others have said, geoengineering poses a risk. The climate system is complicated and even experts don’t understand it fully. Most geoengineering solutions pose some risk of unintended consequences (like, say, causing an extreme reduction in rain over the continent of Africa).

      There’s also the political problem of geoengineering. Who gets to decide how these technical innovations are used? Maybe nations in warmer regions would like to cool the planet a little more. Maybe Russia or Canada would like things a bit warmer. Who gets to make the call on something that will affect everyone? What about countries that are highly populated, but with low GDP and technological innovation? Will they have a voice in what goes on, or is it okay to risk a nation that hasn’t particularly contributed to the CO2 problem in the first place?

      In the best-case scenario, geoengineering will provide a short-term hold on rising temperatures so that reductions in CO2 production can be put into effect. It is not a long-term solution and there are still a lot of questions about its viability.

    2. Yawn. I still haven’t figured it out yet–why people derive such gratification from their professing to the world that global warming does indeed exist. As if merely proving correct on stating a problem really amounts to anything.

      So there is global warming? What do you suggest we do about it? And if you even think about mentioning the word ethanol I will transfer to the side with the people who don’t care about our environment. Wind energy blows, unless of course you would enjoy paying utility bills 23 times more expensive. Solar energy is worse, and biomass is even worse than that. Sure, they create energy–I can rub my butt cheeks together and create energy, but it would quite expensive to power the city of Chicago with such a method.

      As for “research,” you can rest assured the invisible forces of capitalism have been and will be hard at work to find a viable alternative to fossil fuels. However, while such a notion may be completely and utterly beyond possibility to so many people, it is likely that we will never find anything as good as oil or coal. Energy is a rather big market–powering the world is pretty important, so you can bet your central heating and air conditioning that someone will discover it, presuming of course “it” exists.

      The point is: there is little reason for the source of pride so many feel when shouting out how much the Earth’s temperature has risen. Unless you can come up with a solution or perhaps commit to a lifestyle completely devoid of all things energy-related, then please, zip it up.

      It’s all pointless anyways–we are all going to die. We are going to run out of oil, the big ice things are going to continue to melt like I see them doing on TV, and China is going to overtake us. Also, swine flu, SARS, shark attacks, kidnappings, Russia, communists, excessive CEO salaries, seasonal flu, Halloween candy with razor blades hidden inside, drunken drivers, lack of universal health care, west nile virus, Ebola virus–there are just too many forces we must face in today’s dangerous and difficult times. Simply put, sure we may die from the rising sea levels caused by the melting ice cap things caused by driving too many cars, but prevent global warming and we will still die from something else–probably from lung cancer from second hand smoke or something like that.

      Statistically speaking, given that our planet has been around for several hundred years, it is quite remarkable that we will live to see the end of the world, or at least our children will. The odds of that happening is like winning the lottery…

      1. Anonymous, your ennui is getting in the way of our panicking. Could you just sit in a corner and not bother anyone until you fade away, while the rest of try not to fade away? Thanks.

  4. im not sure in the interest of describing the billions of years of our planets existence, that anyone should be using the words “grand scale” when referencing a period of 100 years.

    we are after all, still far far cooler than we were at other points in the planets life, yet warmer than the last ice age.

    and more importantly, how accurate is the first chapter on prostitution?

  5. So these guys are just economists after all? More loyal to their assumptions, and the contrived conclusions following from those assumptions, and the system those conclusions prop up, than to inconvenient, y’know, “externalities” that cause problems that might “cost” too much “money” to solve?

    Any data that interfere with my ability to draw this exponential curve infinitely upward forever MUST be wrong or irrelevant!

  6. Maggie, it is with the utmost respect that I point out your detailed link goes back to 1980, not 1900, at least as far as I can tell.

  7. Interesting discussion. I feel that you could have linked to their response, at least as a way to balance things out or to allow them to explain themselves. I haven’t yet read the book (have you?), but the response seems well thought out at least, and not at all alarmist. He simply states that geoengineering is a possibility and that science should be treated as science and not politicized.

    The politicization seems to work, since it feels really weird to be defending this in the face of the current … er.. climate.

  8. Here is a link form the freakonomics guys rebutting some of these claims. I haven’t read it and will wait till I do to judge.

    They seem to phrase it in such a way that they believe that global climate change is occurring and that CO2 is a cause of it. However they believe there are other, more important issues.

    I’m not sure if I buy their spiel but I’m not an environmental scientist so I usually sit back and wait a few years to see how things play out instead of finger pointing and SHOUTING…as that doesn’t really solve anything

  9. i think i heard these guys on NPR last weekend, and the argument made there about climate was that in terms of difficulty, geoengineering the problem away would be easier than social-engineering away the habits that created the problem.

    while i can see what they mean, i don’t agree, but i’m responding to a (hazy) paraphrase of an interview about the book, not the book itself.

    i think the you’re right, maggie: some, perhaps many, people will point to this book and shrug their shoulders when the subject of climate change comes up, and that is a shame.

  10. Climate change?

    Here’s how you address the unbelievers: in 1883 the volcano Krakatoa erupted, sending an estimated 11 cubic miles (21 cubic km) of debris into the atmosphere. A good amount of that was simply rock that fell back to earth, but much of it was ash and SO2 (sulfur dioxide) that remained in the atmosphere and circled the globe, causing a 1.2 C drop in temperature (as well as spectacular visual effects recorded by several artists.)

    Eleven cubic miles is a relatively small speck of mass when compared to the size of the globe, and yet it caused a measurable drop in temperature by blocking just a tiny portion of the suns rays. How much CO2 are we pumping out into the atmosphere around the clock, seven days a week, from cars alone? Look at that traffic jam on the freeway, and remember that every city in America is having that same traffic jam, and every city on Earth has similar traffic jams every day. Furthermore, at the same time we are removing forests that convert CO2 to O2, compounding the problem. Do you think all that CO2 is bigger or smaller than 11 cubic miles? And unlike Krakatoa, it’s not ash or sulfur dioxide (that blocks the sunlight), it’s CO2 that’s clear and traps heat.

  11. Anonymous, I don’t think anyone seriously claims that “purely linear relationship between warming and C02.” That’s an incredible straw man.

  12. Global warming hasn’t been about about science or logic for a long time. People argue about global warming in the same way they argue about religion. I keep hearing words like “believe” and lots of mockery from both sides of the argument. Both sides have endless sets of experts and numbers proving, disproving and counter proving. No one is willing to consider what the other side, as if even thinking about is sinful.

  13. It appears that the book in question came out today. That raises the question, Maggie: did you actually read the offending chapter of the book before posting this? Did you even try to see if the authors had posted a rebuttal to their critics on their rather well-known blog?

    I’m not trying to defend what they wrote, but it seems like you’re being pretty harsh for someone that has apparently read only one side of the story.

    1. dbx: “It appears that the book in question came out today. That raises the question, Maggie: did you actually read the offending chapter of the book before posting this?”

      @ dbx (and that goes for Aaron, too): Do you know about this thing called “advance reading copies” (ARC), sent to high-profile reviewers quite a time before the book hits the stores? It’s pretty common in the book publishing business, you know. In fact, it’s how the publishers get pithy phrases by a few celebrities to put on the dust jacket in the hope to grab the attention of people who browse in the bookstores…

  14. As Kirk Vonnegut put it, man will go down in history as the first species to stare its demise in the face, have the ability to do something about it, and stand idle.

  15. Add me to the chorus of people who’d like to know if Maggie read the offending chapter in Superfreakonomics, or is merely repeating talking points from people offended by it?

    Given that the book came out today, it seems mighty irresponsible to run a headline declaring the book “gets climate change wrong” if you haven’t even read the chapter to determine for yourself whether the critics are even characterizing the book fairly.

    I have a great deal of respect for both sides in this argument. So far, I find Levitt and Dubner’s responses (which Maggie didn’t even see fit to link to) far more convincing than their critics.

    As I understand it from their responses (and I’m looking forward to purchasing the book to find out if this is a fair characterization), Levitt and Dubner are hardly global warming deniers. Their logic is as follows: If you believe that human-caused global warming is a serious threat to humanity, it’s foolish to believe that merely curbing carbon emissions will solve the problem. Our climate change models aren’t advanced enough to make that prediction with any certainty. Even if that turns out to be the case, changing human behavior is very, very difficult, especially within the timeframe necessary to stop global warming. Therefore, the prudent course of action is to investigate and develop mitigation technologies, because by the time we need it, it will be too late to start from scratch.

    Levitt and Dubner’s characterization of their chapter makes it sound like Joe Romm read a completely different book than the one that was published. Since Romm refuses to quote more than one sentence at a time from the chapter, while Levitt and Dubner quote paragraphs at a time to prove Romm is taking sentences wildly out of context, I’m giving Freakonomics the benefit of the doubt on this one.

  16. Wasn’t the original Freakonomics just a huge correlation driven analysis rant? I picked up the book and only read a little before I started yelling at the top of my lungs (in my head) “CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION!”

    Was Superfreakonomics supposed to be different?

  17. If you don’t understand why increasing levels of CO2 can be a problem when considering global warming but need to rely on the say-so of a scientist to decide whether CO2 is a “bad guy” or not, then you shouldn’t write about global warming.

    It’s not exactly rocket science – the Stefan-Boltzmann equation, the notionb of emissivity and a back of the envelope calculation will easily demonstrate why greenhouse gases lead to global warming.

    Complications do exist, of course – melting ice and increase or decrease of clouds, to mention two – but basically it’s not hard to understand. If the Freakonomics guys didn’t even get so far in their research, they haven’t been doing their homework for the book.

  18. human behavior doesn’t need to be changed, it needs to be harnessed to accomplish the goal. we’re very easily manipulated en masse and go through a lot of trouble to accomplish arbitrary things, every day, all the time. make action something people get behind without having to think about it.

    not saying that’s easy, but we already have an entire industry dedicated to it.

  19. Let’s do the math.

    C02 as a fraction of all greenhouse gases is 3.42%.
    Man-made CO2 as a fraction of all CO2 is 3.2%.
    0.0342 * 0.032 = 0.1%
    So, if humankind went 100% nuclear and solar power tomorrow, we’d reduce greenhousing by 1/10 of one percent.

    CO2 is a below-average greenhouse gas; HFCs are far more powerful (and were forced upon us by ‘greens’ to replace the lass powerful CFCs).

    CO2 absorbs roughly the same spectra as dihydrogen monoxide (a dangerous substance which kills thousands yearly, and which is NOT classified as a pollutant). So, even if we stopped all CO2 production tomorrow, dihydrogen monoxide would just fill in for the missing CO2.

    Atmospheric CO2 by no means matches temperature; we’ve had far higher CO2 levels with far lower temperatures.

    Lastly, Ahrrenius’ original greenhouse gas theory’s never been disproven; without greenhousing, Earth would be far, far colder and a much less livable planet.

    Let’s not tinker with a fragile economy to reduce greenhousing by 0.1%, folks. It makes no sense.

    1. Kiloseven, before you do the math, you should do the science. Although CO2 is about 3.5% of the greenhouse gases (most of the rest is water vapour, as you say), that is not to say that all greenhouse gases have the same effect. A glance at the infra-red spectrum of the Earth shows that, while water vapour covers a much broader band of absorption frequencies than CO2, CO2 has a much more profound effect. Not only that, but the effect is additive, so that the water vapour absorbs some infra-red and the CO2 absorbs some infra-red, together. And if we shovel more of either into the atmosphere, they will absorb more infra-red, raising the temperature.

      And we have shovelled an awful lot of CO2 into the atmosphere. An increase of 280 ppm (pre-industrial) to 387 ppm (modern day), I make that to be an increase of 38%, not 3.2%.

      As you say, we already have a greenhouse effect that adds about 30K to the Earth’s effective temperature. But thankfully nobody is calling for the total abolition of the greenhouse effect. What we want to avoid is a greenhouse effect that adds, say, 34K to the effective temperature instead, since this will bring a lot of ecological change that will result in a lot of people drowning, or starving, or being buried in mudslides, or dying of preventable diseases because of the economic disruption that is sure to follow climate change.

      And, finally, now is probably a good time to tinker (though earlier would have been better), since it’s proven very hard to change the course of our industry when things were apparently going so well for the economy. When things are more uncertain, economically, it might be easier to find a new direction.

    2. am i the only one who got the dihydrogen monoxide bit? hillarious. im actually bringing some to the verge of vaporization right now. for tea.

  20. Nope sorry Levitt and Dubner apologists. Every economist (myself included) I’ve talked to recently is fuming about the chapter. Not only does it get it wrong but they misrepresent data to fit their story. Shame, Levitt is meant to be an academic, and whilst honesty should be one of the desirable qualities it seems that they threw their weight behind the pessimist, we’re too lazy to be able to change our behaviour. Surely this goes against their whole incentives makes the world-go-round-thread throughout the first freakonomics.

    For a quick read of some economists views of this book:

    on the paper they have misrepresented:

    Krugman’s thoughts on the book:

  21. Let’s also not give therapy to the kid who kills animals in his backyard for fun, because it would be expensive and there’s no real proof that he’ll become a serial killer one day.

    I’m sorry, but I am less than sympathetic to arguments such as “Oh, our economy is fragile and therefor we shouldn’t be messing about with it”. People were whining about how any kind of climate change measure would hurt the economy long before we hit the recession. Is it going to take dollars out of people’s pockets? Sure. But ultimately, as with the kid, we’re going to be a lot happier if we at least make the effort.

  22. @kiloseven, i hope for the sake of us all that policy on climate change is decided upon much more complete information and without such a cavalier attitude, just as you would have the economy treated. surely neither system is so simple that some off-the-cuff analysis of a single variable is enough to dismiss all advocacy. and while no one person has all the answers on either issue, certainly doing nothing at all does not equate to indefinite stability.

  23. “Atmospheric CO2 by no means matches temperature; we’ve had far higher CO2 levels with far lower temperatures”

    But at that time the sun’s output was 30% less than it is today.

    and quotes like this on the Climate Change ‘religion’.

    “No one is willing to consider what the other side, as if even thinking about is sinful.”

    I’m sorry, but are we willing to hear about the views of flat earth believers or creationists? Would you like to have ‘alternative’ treatments to say cancer over proven treatments? – science isn’t about compromise or accommodation. Truth is about whether the arguments stand up or the data or theory can be falsified. I’ve spoken to scientists in Iceland and people in the field in the MET office in the UK and elsewhere. The only ‘debate’ on this is in forums like this. Asking for an accommodation or calling it a ‘belief’ is a continuing obsfucation of this subject on the web.

    Likewise to address there ideas directly, polluting the atmosphere with sulphur to bring down temperatures was once proposed as a sort of joke which they’ve taken seriously. Apparently the costs to human health, acid rain, deforestation and so on are far ‘cheaper’ than changing behaviour. This is really silly thinking as it doesn’t ‘solve’ the problem but instead puts a sticking plaster on it with some steampunk Dickensian smog filled future. It does nothing about ocean acidification for example.

    1. To bogusphotographer

      “Would you like to have ‘alternative’ treatments to say cancer over proven treatments? – science isn’t about compromise or accommodation.”

      That’s not what I said. “Both sides have endless sets of experts and numbers proving, disproving and counter proving.” Another way to put it: whether you’re a global warming believer or a denier, you’re scientists/charts/graphs are right and the other scientists/charts/graphs are wrong. Global warming isn’t about rationality and logic but about orthodoxy, emotion and the political party you voted for last year.

  24. kiloseven: “Atmospheric CO2 by no means matches temperature”

    Doesn’t it, now?

    This figure shows temparature fluctuations (lower graph) and CO2 content (upper graph) for the last 600 years based on samples taken by drilling in Greenland’s inland ice:

    I’d say there’s been a pretty tight coupling if not always, then at least for the last 600.000 years.

  25. Another thing: C02 levels have risen from 275 ppm around 1800 to about 275 ppm in 2000. This increase is rather dramatic and believed to be mainly man-made.

    It IS accompanied by a dramatic increase in temperature, as would be expected from the graph I linked to in the previous comment. Frankly, I think the only “religious” people here are the denialists.

  26. C02 levels have risen from 275 ppm around 1800 to about 275 ppm in 2000

    Hrmmpf, good ole tyoe. Should have been 375 in 2000, of course.

  27. @Maggie Koerth-Baker

    RE: Geoengineering

    You need to read Plankton Evangelist by Charles Platt. Make Vol. 18, pg. 32. Maybe someone can lend you a copy.

    Geoengineering seems to be scorned largely because it conflicts with a major tenant of environmentalism: Legislating the behavior of individuals.

  28. Sounds like the Freakonomics guys should be able to place their Pulitzer on the shelf next to Al Gore’s Oscar shortly.

  29. rekinom – That is BS slur on environmentalists. Here’s why…

    A) Most legislation is about the behavior of individuals (at some level).

    Think about it – Laws are made to change how people act. (Don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t engage in massive Ponzi schemes, etc).

    So to say the “environmentalists” (I guess that means someone who wants to a livable, sustainable planetary environment) are bad for using the same tool (legislation) that everyone else does is ridiculous.

    B) Actually, I (as an environmentalist) prefer technological solutions. That’s why we’re so big on energy efficiency, solar, wind power, etc.

    As for geoengineering – Maybe as a last ditch desperation thing. But keep in mind the law of unintended consequences. The Earth’s biosphere is incredibly complex. There’s a high likelyhood that any large scale geoengineering will have unexpected results.

    First off, we should address the causes of climate change (coal, oil, etc). If we can do that fast enough we’ll be fine. Keep the forests around as well – they’re good for sucking up CO2.

    And the easiest way is to use existing institutions (like governments and corporations) to get things going.

  30. Regarding geoengineering: the point that this is risky is valid. But an even more important point is that geoengineering and social change is not a matter of either or. If people choose to eat less or no milk and meat then that lessens climate impact. That’s compatible with attempts at geoengineering.

  31. Thanks, Maggie for adding to the science-based analysis of this flawed and misleading book.

    The Dubner / Levitt defence seems to be increasingly common tactic from Deniers:

    “I’m not a Denier – I just don’t think CO2 is the problem!”

    They just make it a bit worse by thinking that pumping billions of tons of SO2 in to the atmosphere is a good idea. Idiots.

  32. Levitt and Dubner make one very good point – externalised consequences mean that we are not incentivised to cut CO2 emissions.

    If the proposed solution is “cut eminssions by 80% in the next 40 years” then that just won’t work.

    Unfortunately, L&D make a complete hash of the rest of the evidence and support dubious claims from a proponent of a particular technology (which won’t work).

    Looking for bioengineering solutions is an important part of protecting against harmful climate change. Bad bioengineering shouldn’t be supported though. Ideas like sulphate seeding just don’t work.

  33. @ADavies

    It’s a “BS slur” against environmentalists because lots of other people try to legislate individual behavior for other reasons? What if I don’t think that is acceptable either? May I still use the “slur”, especially if I broaden its use against people who want to stop gay marriage or stop smoking or ban dirty movies?

    If something like recycling is cost effective, people will be motivated to do it without legislation. People are motivated to sell their scrap metal. Metal recycling works.

    You don’t need legislation. Unless you want to force people to do something that isn’t cost effective, like sorting their garbage for recycling when some of the sorted materials end up in landfills anyway.


    I agree. Unintended consequences is the perfect argument for caution in geoengineering and for every other bright idea someone comes up with.

    Speaking of unintended consequences, were there environmentalists urging caution when biofuel was first suggested? Before or after the rainforests were slashed so farmers could grow soy for fuel?,9171,1725975,00.html

  34. Aloisus: “Wasn’t the original Freakonomics just a huge correlation driven analysis rant? I picked up the book and only read a little before I started yelling at the top of my lungs (in my head) ‘CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION!'”

    Of course, but, like Michael Pollan, it’s OK because “they write really well.” Who cares if it’s essentially one person saying “Hmm, what if? Isn’t that crazy?!” They can afford the soap box, so they set the discourse. You can’t expect people to actually read science publications directly!

  35. Let’s not tinker with a fragile economy to reduce greenhousing by 0.1%, folks. It makes no sense.

    Whenever I hear this argument I think of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People.”

  36. Why is it that the response to global warming is either: Eliminate the CO2! OR Geo-engineer the planet!

    Neither are feasible. Even if we could turn off every single factory and car, feedback loops from melting perma-frost and other such things will continue the release of C02, and we certainly have no accurate enough model to know what effects various geo-engineering techniques would have (nor will they solve all the problems).

    But there is a third way. We have to come to accept that the world might change no matter what we do, and we should invest money and research into adapting to those changes, not trying to prevent them. We should be building sea-walls and weather resistant housing, preparing for environmental refugees BEFORE they start showing up. We need to stop pretending that we can reverse time, and start acting on the changes we KNOW will happen no matter what.

  37. As I read through this post and comments, I am saddened by our civilization’s inability to understand basic logic and use reasoning to understand a problem. Frankly, I’m amazed we’ve made it this far when the prevailing attitudes seem rooted in the dark ages.

  38. Somebody, please, for the love of God, provide some scientific analysis of these issues! I am really tired of being told I’m going to get that, and instead get nothing but rhetoric. Maggie, I am a huge fan of your stuff, but you have let me down here.

  39. @ The5thElephant: Please read just one report on the impacts of unabated GHG emissions, and then come back and try to suggest that mitigation-only is an option. It would be many, many times more expensive and less effective than both reducing emissions AND mitigation. Any approach that disregards emissions-reductions is a death sentence for many hundreds of thousands in the developing world. The Global Humanitarian Forum has compiled some compelling research on this.

    @ MadRat, micmac, and anyone else who apparently believes that this debate is in some way bogged down in emotion and rhetoric:

    Be happy, because lucid, dispassionate and empirically sound explanations of climate change – and the necessity of rapid emissions reductions – are not hard to come by.

    RealClimate is an excellent place to start. The link I’ve posted gives some great suggestions for explanations pitched at various levels of knowledge, and also links to debunkings of some constantly-resurrected climate change myths (including Levitt & Dubner’s supposed 1970s-global-cooling “consensus”).

  40. Also, the chapter in question is still available for download here
    via Brad DeLong’s blog, by the way. (Links directly to 15mb pdf).

  41. The reason people get so emotional about global warming – inappropriately emotional, according to some of the commenters here – is that these people have understood that global warming represents a real and *urgent*, massive threat to our civilisation. It’s not something distant, inconsequential, merely academic – it’s real, it’s here, and it may kill millions, maybe billions of us – yes, us who are alive today, not distant future generations. And even if it doesn’t kill us, it will make life bloody miserable for many of us.

    So, yes, those of us who have understood this do feel a bit strongly about it, and yes, we ‘politicise’ the issue, because to fight this existential danger we need political and social change on a large scale. We’re not going to achieve that kind of change by polite conversation in the drawing room, or proper, disinterested scientific analysis at conferences alone.

  42. Why is everyone so surprised that a pop science book written on a topic which the authors aren’t even experts in is imprecise and misleading? A complex topic like this cannot possibly be addressed in a short book written for a lay audience, regardless of your opinions on the subject.

    I agree that it’s disheartening that they’re taking this standpoint with possibly questionable science (I’ll save my criticisms for when I can see the original source for myself) and publishing them in a way that a significant amount of people will take it on faith, but any science geek should have long ago given up on this kind of book bringing “Truth” to the masses. Look at how science is reported in conventional news media – if we were to believe them there’s a new cure for cancer every week!

    Bet you any fictional money you like the editors pushed to appeal more to the denialist side and then leaked the first chapter to create controversy and thus match the sales of the first book.

  43. First, don’t you guys even read the chapter in the book?

    OK, to Maggie’s three points.

    One – Is CO2 a problem? I would have to ask – what science is there, other than computer simulations, that shows CO2 to be a significant factor in any current warming? Don’t point to propaganda that is meant to be confusing here. Just give an answer that all of us can understand even if we don’t go into all the technical details. This should not be all that difficult, if, indeed, there is an answer.

    Two – Are you really saying that since 1998 global temperature has risen? Or that 1998 was the hottest year ever? Or that we have seen a hotter decade than the 30s since then? I may be wrong here, but I was under the impression that NASA had to (reluctantly) correct their data when an error was pointed out by Steve McIntire.

    As far as temperatures since 1998, it seems clear that the only data that we can rely on is satellite measurements, and they clearly show no warming since then. You are right that this might be a short pause. Then again, it might be a more significant trend change. One thing for sure is that it goes against all the predictions of the people sitting in front of computers playing SimEarth. And people playing SimEarth seems to be what “the science” consists of. Don’t take my word for it – do a search for Dr. Joanne Simpson and read what she said about the sorry state of climate science. IMHO, no one had a better seat for observing it than she did.

    Three – Did you actually read the whole chapter in the book, or did you merely skim something you did not wish to consider?

  44. the earth has been a lot hotter than it is now, and a lot colder than it is now, so why is it that our attitude towards any change in the average temp that we’ve observed in our blink of an existence on this planet is that its our duty to change it?

    if the earth heats up, the water levels rise, the beach gets closer to my house, and i can wear sandals year round

    the earth cools, i can drive a snowmobile to work, and snowboard year round.

    no matter what happens to this pale blue dot, the universe is indifferent.

  45. @Anonymous: It’s not about pride, it’s about wanting to *survive* (not just individually, but also collectively). I like humans; I like civilisation; and I like nature. I’d like to see as much of all three as possible survive this century. I am always surprised to find that not everybody does, especially on a site that is, or at least used to be quite officially about ‘wonderful things’. Don’t you have a sense of wonder, and of enjoyment, and doesn’t that usually entail a desire to see the things you enjoy have a future?

    @klj1945: this may make me part of the naive, clueless sheeple who will believe just any kind of silly rubbish in your worldview, but: I don’t actually have to understand every last detail of climate science myself. If 18 major science organisations come together to write a letter to the U.S. senate about the threat and causes of climate change – not to mention all the other professional scientific organisations that support the conclusions of climate scientists around the world – that is enough for me to conclude that yes, we do have a severe climate problem, and the main driver is excessive human CO2 production.

    I don’t have to become a dentist myself to accept a dentist’s opinion that something needs to be done about a cavity, either.

    Which is to say: if the vast, *vast* majority of the world’s scientists with some expertise in the area of climate (note: this does not include TV weathermen – because they are usually *not* experts on climate!) – agree on this topic – and they do; the contrarians’ beloved Oregon petition and similar lists are dominated by people who are decidedly not experts on climate science – then I don’t need to see the same old contrarian talking points that have been debunked a dozen times before debunked yet another time (which is what you’re asking Maggie to do here).

    But. Because people who are genuinely confused may be reading this: I don’t want to flood this thread with links, but please check out this page: It contains refutations for every single one of klj1945’s points (and for plenty of others that you’ll hear around the blogosphere).

    And, @cognitive dissonance: nobody said the universe cared about our survival. The point is, *we* should care about our survival – *particularly* because the universe does not care, and will not protect us from our own stupidity.

  46. Hmpf, that link is as good an example of more smoke and mirrors as can be found anywhere. I keep asking when I run into links like this – like the little old lady in the TV ad who said – WHERE’S THE BEEF?

    One of the headings in that link did catch my attention, so I clicked on “The satellites show cooling.” The latest study I saw verified that there is a definite difference, and that the ground stations have been overestimating temperature. I was curious about how they would address this, and now I see that it with more smoke and mirrors.

    But, let’s keep this simple and not just link to propaganda sites, ok? What science, other than some people playing SimEarth, shows CO2 to be a significant driver of any current warming?

    Now before you go on and on about not needing to get technical, this should be an extremely easy question for you to answer in fairly simple language. We don’t need the scientific proof in all it’s detail. Just a simply overall view of what the science actually consists of will be fine.

    Or, you can simply say “I believe!” and call it good. (g)

    1. @ klj1945: your instant dismissal of clear explanations of global warming as “propaganda that is meant to be confusing” suggests that you’re unwilling to explore anything that challenges your beliefs.

      On temperature trends, you seem to be deliberately focusing on a short range of recent temperatures. Although recent data in no way contradicts the evidence for global warming, it is important to understand that what counts is the long-term trend. The available data (including NASA’s, corrected after McIntyre pointed out the error caused by a switch to a new data-collection system) clearly show a warming trend that, if continued, will have serious – possibly catastrophic – consequences. Data collected by many, many different organisations and many different methods (including weather balloons, boreholes, glacial melt, arctic sea ice, sea levels, ocean temperatures, etc.) all agree that global temperatures are following an upwards trend:
      (e.g.1: since 1950, corrected for El Nino events;
      e.g.2: last 2000 years.)

      Despite the above, if you are really concerned with post-1998 temperatures, you should note that:
      – The eight warmest years in NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Science dataset have all occurred since 1998;
      – As this article explains (in a non-confusing, non-propaganda way) temporarily falling surface temperatures (with continuously rising heat content of the oceans) do not refute the current understanding of global warming.

      On CO2 (we should really say GreenHouse Gases (GHGs):

      Starting from the absolute basics:
      Heat from sun – radiated from earth’s surface – GHGs – warms Earth/Earth’s atmosphere. More GHGs –> higher temperatures.

      The objection, of course, would be that other things also can cause warming. This is true, but when we look at the data, none of these other processes (solar activity, naturally-occurring gases, orbital changes, changes in the Earth’s core, etc) are able to explain the observed changes. Sorry to keep referring back to ‘the data’ and ‘observations’ in a way that can seem unhelpful if you’re not a climate scientist who knows the numbers off by heart (I’m not and I don’t), but that’s science for you, and in the end, the theory that best explains observable data wins. Anthropogenic Climate Change is that explanation.

      I understand that you might not be won over by this brief summary; unfortunately, the BB comments section is not the place to go into a full explanation – I can only urge you to read further. If you’re unwilling to read scientifically valid explanations of global warming because you regard them as propaganda, then you will have to accept a permanently impaired understanding of this topic (and others).

      Two final points:
      1) This explanation for observed phenomena (rising temperatures, ocean acidification etc) is supported by virtually all climatologists and corroborated by mountains of independently gathered data. In order to seriously challenge our current understanding of global warming, its opponents would have to come up with a persuasive alternative that can explain these phenomena. So far, they have not been able to do so (see also: evolution).

      2) Given the above, what would it take for opponents of global warming to admit that they are wrong? I suspect the die-hards will never admit it – but they’ll die out and be replaced by their children and grandchildren, who’ll be living in a world where denial is all but impossible.

  47. Only because recent years are doing exactly the opposite of what was predicted. As far as “short range of temperatures”, how did the Vikings farm Greenland for longer than this country has existed?

    This, however, is still a diversion. Your explanation is like a cartoon I once saw where a boy and his father are looking at a picture of a road where the road continues to narrow down all the way to the horizon. The father says to the boy “Let me explain that to you son – it’s called perspective.”

    I guess the best I get from your post verifies what I already have read. All other possible independent variables have been looked at and only adding CO2 as an independent variable makes the models work. Well, IMHO, that is junk science, and I fully understand why Dr. Joanne Simpson, after retiring from NASA, said what she said.

    Admit being wrong? Simple. Tell us about some real science, other than a few people playing SimEarth, that demonstrates the additional CO2 in the atmosphere being a significant cause of any warming. Don’t just say that, because it can’t be anything else we have looked at, it must be the CO2.

    1. klj1945:

      First, you are clearly and demonstrably wrong when you say in an earlier comment that satellite data “clearly show no warming since [1998]”, and that this “goes against all the predictions of the people sitting in front of computers”, and in your latest comment that “recent years are doing the opposite of what was predicted”. The total heat content of the earth’s surface+oceans+atmosphere continues to rise, as predicted. This is ordinary, perfectly understandable science, not “smoke and mirrors”.

      Second, on your demand for “real science”:
      If our current understanding of global warming is correct, we should expect that as humans increase atmospheric levels of CO2 increase ( I assume you don’t dispute this as well), that CO2 should absorb more longwave radiation, preventing it from escaping back into space and producing a heating effect. We can in fact directly observe this effect: both by measuring changes in outgoing radiation, and by measuring radiation that is re-radiated from the atmosphere downwards to the earth’s surface.

      This is direct experimental evidence for the increase in the Earth’s greenhouse effect. In fact, it would be simply incredible if, given these observations, we did not observe global warming. If you are accept these results, it is difficult to see how you can fail to accept the following argument:

      1. Human activities are raising atmospheric CO2 levels.
      2. These higher levels of CO2 (+ other GHGs) are absorbing more longwave radiation, preventing it from escaping back into space.
      3. The earth is warmed as a result, and (based on observed data above) to a degree consistent with the current consensus of man-made climate change.
      4. We observe consistent, long-term changes in global temperatures, CO2 levels, radiation levels, glacial melt rates, sea ice cover etc (trends remember, not isolated examples) that can only be explained by man-made climate change.
      6. Man-made climate change is currently the only valid explanation for the observed changes.
      7. Man-made climate change is happening.

      This is the same reasoning that explains how species evolve, how HIV causes AIDS, and why vaccinations can work. We can’t observe these things happening every step of the way, but we can gather evidence and use that to explain how and why they do happen. You’re free to say “that’s not enough for me!”, but I think you’re fighting a losing battle. I doubt I’ll post more here.

  48. You are referring to land plus ocean plus atmosphere, I see. I don’t know about the oceans, but I would certainly think that the circulations of the ocean would make it exceedingly difficult to get meaningful relative measurements. If this were indeed the greenhouse effect, wouldn’t the atmosphere show the effects first? Wouldn’t the global-average lower tropospheric temperature anomaly necessarily show the effect? I am suspicious of ocean temperatures, especially since the PDO has recently reversed. Looking at the Barents Sea Temperatures also – there appears to be no trend. As for the surface stations, there has been a great deal of documentation recently that casts doubt on the accuracy of these stations. A recent study by Dr. Roger Pielke Jr concluded that there is a significant warm bias in the global temperature record also. The paper has been accepted by the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres and is now in press.

    My conclusions, up to this point, are that Dr. David Evans was correct when he said that the only reliable temperature records were of the atmosphere recorded by satellites. His conclusion was that any warming could not have been caused by CO2, as I remember.

    But don’t the comments of someone like Dr. Joanne Simpson, obviously not what you might call a “denier”, indicate a lack of good science implicating CO2 as a major cause of any current warming?

    1. A recent study by Dr. Roger Pielke Jr concluded that there is a significant warm bias in the global temperature record also.

      The Roger A. Pielke, Jr.
      who said: “The IPCC has concluded that greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activity are an important driver of changes in climate. And on this basis alone I am personally convinced that it makes sense to take action to limit greenhouse gas emissions.”

      See, I can cherry pick factoids, too.

  49. I’m glad you quoted Dr. Pielke Jr., Antinous. He cannot be labeled a “denier” like the alarmists so want to do to anyone who comes out with anything contrary to their established party line. This is what makes research published by him difficult to simply dismiss, doesn’t it. He says that there are problems with the temperature record. This is certainly an inconvenient development for AGW alarmists.

    First, this has made me read about ocean temperatures, and it seems there is a great deal of disagreement about what they are indicating. A great deal of disagreement. So, when I open the link from self-propelled and get hit with that chart I get real suspicious that this is just another propaganda site not to be taken seriously. Contrary to his statement that “This is ordinary, perfectly understandable science”, it seems to be anything but “ordinary, perfectly understandable science” once a person starts reading. The fact sure seems to be that the global-average lower tropospheric temperature anomaly, if anything, shows slight cooling since 1998, contrary to predictions of AGW alarmists.

    Yes, no argument that human activities have been raising CO2 levels. Isn’t the added CO2 from humans equal to about 0.00005 of the atmosphere? I think it is agreed that CO2 is an inefficient greenhouse gas, and my question still is – what science is there that shows this to have caused any current warming we have seen? I don’t buy #4 – that “we have looked at everything else, and it can only be CO2” – this is not good science, especially when we have such poor proxy records of any of the independent variables. We don’t even have good data, it seems, for the dependent variable, as Dr. Pielke has shown.

    All this seems to fit with Dr. Simpson’s comments. It had to take some guts for her to come out and go against so many of the people she knew in the field. It would have been so much more comfortable for her to retire saying that “the science is in, the debate is over” and call it good. But she apparently could not do that. We seem to have a scientist in Dr. Simpson who finally had enough of the BS.

  50. I think the emphasis on cutting CO2 emissions and on clean energy solutions should not be seen as a deterrent to threat of global warming only… a more important fact is that there just isn’t enough oil to meet the energy needs of all of us in the future. Renewable sources of energy are essential to ensure an uninterrupted supply.

    Can you imagine what we are capable of doing for the last few barrels of oil left, if there are no alternatives by then? And what after that?

    Tackling global warming, to me is a short term management tactic, renewable energy, however, is a long term strategy which will lead to sustainable life…

Comments are closed.