Chicken Little

by Henry on November 10, 2009

Paul Krugman links to an excellent take-down by Elizabeth Kolbert of the notorious climate change chapter in Superfreakonomics.

what’s most troubling about “SuperFreakonomics” isn’t the authors’ many blunders; it’s the whole spirit of the enterprise. Though climate change is a grave problem, Levitt and Dubner treat it mainly as an opportunity to show how clever they are. Leaving aside the question of whether geoengineering, as it is known in scientific circles, is even possible—have you ever tried sending an eighteen-mile-long hose into the stratosphere?—their analysis is terrifyingly cavalier. A world whose atmosphere is loaded with carbon dioxide, on the one hand, and sulfur dioxide, on the other, would be a fundamentally different place from the earth as we know it. Among the many likely consequences of shooting SO2 above the clouds would be new regional weather patterns (after major volcanic eruptions, Asia and Africa have a nasty tendency to experience drought), ozone depletion, and increased acid rain.

Kolbert’s closing words are, however, a little unfair.

To be skeptical of climate models and credulous about things like carbon-eating trees and cloudmaking machinery and hoses that shoot sulfur into the sky is to replace a faith in science with a belief in science fiction. This is the turn that “SuperFreakonomics” takes, even as its authors repeatedly extoll their hard-headedness. All of which goes to show that, while some forms of horseshit are no longer a problem, others will always be with us.

Not unfair to Levitt and Dubner, mind you, but to science fiction. After all, two science fiction authors, Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, had their number down way back in 1953 with The Space Merchants (Pohl, amazingly, is still alive and active).

The Conservationists were fair game, those wild eyed zealots who pretended modern civilization was in some way “plundering” our planet. Preposterous stuff. Science is always a step ahead of the failure of natural resources. After all, when real meat got scarce, we had soyaburgers ready. When oil ran low, technology developed the pedicab.

{ 194 comments }

1

AcademicLurker 11.10.09 at 7:22 pm

“Though X is a grave problem, Levitt and Dubner treat it mainly as an opportunity to show how clever they are.”

Isn’t this pretty much the definition of contrarianism?

2

yoyo 11.10.09 at 8:00 pm

Isn’t this pretty much the definition of contrarianism?

it has to be in defence of a right-wing idea. when was the last time an op ed suggesting taxes improve the economy or job market ‘flexibility’ is bad were considered ‘contrarian’ instead of Red?

3

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.10.09 at 8:07 pm

If the claims of Dubner and Levitt about the worthiness of climate engeneering are so outrageously WRONG, then why serious thinkers, gathering in prestigious forums like “Copenhague Consensus”, say it isn’t?

http://fixtheclimate.com/component-1/the-result-prioritization/

I think you gotta give some credit to this type of solution or at the very least adopt a more “agnostic” instance related to it, otherwise you risk giving the impression that you are becoming a bunch of secular fanatics.

4

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.10.09 at 8:11 pm

If the claims of Dubner and Levitt about the worthiness of climate engeneering are so outrageously WRONG, then why serious thinkers, gathering in prestigious forums like “Copenhague Consensus”, say it isn’t?

http://fixtheclimate.com/component-1/the-result-prioritization/

I think you gotta give some credit to this type of solution or at the very least adopt a more “agnostic” stance related to it, otherwise you risk giving the impression that you are becoming a bunch of secular fanatics.

5

Substance McGravitas 11.10.09 at 8:12 pm

The Copenhagen Consensus Center assembled an Expert Panel to consider the research presented here. The Expert Panel of five world-class economists – including three recipients of the Nobel Prize – meet in September to deliberate and form conclusions about which solution to climate change is the most promising.

Economists – is there anything they can’t do?

6

Henry 11.10.09 at 8:13 pm

bq. then why serious thinkers, gathering in prestigious forums like “Copenhague Consensus”, say it isn’t?

“Oh dear”:http://crookedtimber.org/2005/02/07/copenhagen-collapse/.

7

John Protevi 11.10.09 at 8:36 pm

Thiago Maciel Oliveira @3 and 4: I guess the second time really is farce.

8

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.10.09 at 8:54 pm

Well, Mr. Henry, I think you’re misunderstanding their propposal. As Mr. Lomborg explained in the article genteely linked by you: “the proposals on climate change fared poorly because they offered the lowest benefits for the costs incurred.”

ARGUABLY, they do fare poorly — at least when compared with such competitors as fighting malnutrition with “micronutrient supplements for children” (see note 1, below)

Anyway, I think this kind of attitude supply more heat than light, and seems to me dangerously close to infamous “ad hominem” falacies: Levitt dismissed as simply a ‘contrarian’ nutbag; a panel of international experts — three of them downright nobelized — pushed aside as “economists” (“Humpf!”), etc.

Note 1:
Helen Keller International is helping Guinea’s leading flour mill fortify its products with iron, folic acid and vitamin B (zinc is coming soon). We visited the mill, and managers said that the fortification costs virtually nothing — a tiny fraction of a penny per loaf of bread — yet it will reduce anemia, maternal mortality and cognitive impairments around the country.
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/24/opinion/24kristof.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss.
None of this is glamorous, but it’s hugely needed — and truly a bargain.

9

Walt 11.10.09 at 9:02 pm

Thiago, you would get a better response if you’d read the thousands of words written about the Copenhagen Consensus here and elsewhere. Also the thousands of words written about Levitt and Dubner. You clearly have rolled in here and read nothing anyone has said here before.

10

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.10.09 at 9:03 pm

John Protevi @7: The second post was just a correction and — of course — an opportunity to you exercise your awesome (daunting, terrific) witticism.

11

Bloix 11.10.09 at 9:08 pm

Shorter Lomberg: As long as we don’t spend money to fight child malnutrition, it would be wrong to spend money to stop global warming.

12

Substance McGravitas 11.10.09 at 9:09 pm

a panel of international experts—- three of them downright nobelized—pushed aside as “economists” (“Humpf!”), etc.

I’ll go even further: these international experts ARE NOT GOOD DENTISTS!

13

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.10.09 at 9:20 pm

Mr. Walt, seems like you have a “Crooked Consensus” here?

Well, I don’t want to reopen old discussions here. I just invoked the “Copenhagen Consensus” to defend Levitt from rather vociferous critics like Krugman or Kolbert (whose text is the subject of the topic, btw). The way they both put the issue, it seems like there is a consensus that geo-engeneering is just stupid and reduction of carbon and methane emissions are the only possible solution to global warming.

And what is good to Antonio is also good to Shylock: aren’t some of you just being equaly repetitive, in the Levitt-Dubner uproar?

As a great thinker used to say: “Every unanimity is just stupid.”

14

Walt 11.10.09 at 9:57 pm

What the fuck are you talking about? Geo-engineering may prove to be necessary. It’s Levitt and Dubner’s breezy handling of it, by casually advocating a solution that will lead to acid rain, and perhaps severe droughts in Asia and Africa, that’s just stupid.

15

bert 11.10.09 at 11:19 pm

BBC:

The American authors of Freakonomics are in the UK promoting the sequel, and are meeting David Cameron.

Of course they are. Should surprise noone.
Fraser Nelson appears to believe that they are restating ancient Conservative truths in modern, trendy language. Perhaps though that is the pitch their PR people have advised them to take for the UK market. The Tory resurgence is a news hook, without which a couple of look-at-me Yank contrarians might struggle to draw a crowd.

16

hellblazer 11.10.09 at 11:36 pm

When did it become acceptable to claim that since X is being castigated as idiotic, we should listen to X more carefully? “Every unanimity is stupid.” Right, electrostatic forces are keeping us from falling through our chairs. What’s stupid about that unanimity? Where’s the benefit in critiquing the hegemonic orthodoxy about semiconductor doping?

Also: what walt said @9 and @14.

17

will u. 11.10.09 at 11:48 pm

I see the contrarians have moved from “there’s no anthropogenic global warming” to “combating climate change is not worth the economic cost” to “with geoengineering, we can blithely carry on as before.” I suppose that’s progress.

18

Stuart 11.10.09 at 11:57 pm

Is there a term in logic for the opposite of “argument from authority”, i.e. when someone claims that because the people that study and investigate something says that X is most likely true, that fact alone implies that X is therefore most likely false?

19

John Quiggin 11.11.09 at 12:27 am

Lomborg manages to combine all the worst faults of contrarianism with a pretence of seriousness.

20

musical mountaineer 11.11.09 at 12:39 am

I like the carbon-eating trees idea. Hadn’t heard of it before today. But I already found a couple of carbon-eating-tree-opposing strawmen.

“Carbon-eating trees” certainly sound nice. But how, exactly, would they work? Dyson has never elaborated…

Cue strawman:

Would the trees take up CO2 while they’re alive, and release it back into the atmosphere only slowly, once they’re dead? If so, the world already has those sorts of trees. They are called, well, trees.

Could have skipped that part and got to what Dyson actually said:

Or would the trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air and convert it, as Dyson once vaguely suggested, into “liquid fuels,” so that instead of at gas stations we could fill up our cars at orchards?

That last bit, you’ll have to agree, is Dyson elaborating. But I wasn’t satisfied. I poked around and found this, which suggests that if we engineer carbon-eating trees we’ll have no choice but to pave New Mexico with a 10 cm thick sheet of graphite. Even I have more imagination than that! For instance, we could pave Nebraska instead. Better yet, we could make a graphite tractor tire and roll it through Beijing and on to Riyadh. Here’s yer carbon back, assholes! Boom!

This global warming stuff never fails to give me a chuckle.

21

musical mountaineer 11.11.09 at 12:45 am

One other thing from that article caught my eye:

Neither Levitt, an economist, nor Dubner, a journalist, has any training in climate science—or, for that matter, in science of any kind.

Ouch! And this was linked by Krugman and well-appreciated by our own JQ.

22

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.11.09 at 1:24 am

Hellblazer @16: Unanimity is stupid because it is inimical to critical thought. As J. S. Mill put it, on a famous essay (emphasis added):

“Popular opinions, on subjects not palpable to sense, are often true, but seldom or never the whole truth. They are a part of the truth; sometimes a greater, sometimes a smaller part, but exaggerated, distorted, and disjoined from the truths by which they ought to be accompanied and limited. (…) in the human mind, one-sidedness has always been the rule, and many-sidedness the exception. (…) Even progress, which ought to superadd, for the most part only substitutes, one partial and incomplete truth for another; improvement consisting chiefly in this, that the new fragment of truth is more wanted, more adapted to the needs of the time, than that which it displaces.”

So, if the great English philosopher is right, we are prone to misguided partisanship and one-sidedness. Against these evils, we have to guard ourselves. The best method I know to actually do this is to simply read bona fide what your “adversary” has to say. And, having read the fifth chapter of his last book, I think Levitt is not just a contrarian, or a man who feign foolishness/ignorance so he better can sell books or “épater la borgeouisie”.

Here is his most effective — if not the most serious — defense against his critics, so far: http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/29/steve-levitt-on-the-daily-show/

And here is the most serious — if not the most effective: http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/23/the-superfreakonomics-global-warming-fact-quiz/

23

Substance McGravitas 11.11.09 at 2:03 am

It is simply not the case that criticisms of the geo-engineering solutions that we highlight in the chapter arise because we get the scientific facts wrong, unless the critics think that any of the six statements above are false.

This is very much like saying that because

A) I like my room heated

and

B) that fire is hot

that I should set the room on fire. There are more than six things to consider.

24

nick s 11.11.09 at 3:42 am

The Tory resurgence is a news hook, without which a couple of look-at-me Yank contrarians might struggle to draw a crowd.

Though they’ve also done a thing with the Scoopies courtesy of John McFall. Snake oil finds buyers regardless of party.

25

Mitchell Freedman 11.11.09 at 3:44 am

Hail to “The Space Merchants”! That book should replace Orwell’s “1984” as “TSM” is about the United States, and “us.” It is not a book about “them” and “Oh, are THEY bad!”

Pohl, an ex-Red from the 1930s, had a fairly unique perspective about the absurdities of the Cold War, and far more faith in American capitalism to prevail over communism than the Red Scare mongers. That is a true irony. The book is clever, funny and above all profound in anticipating a corporatized culture.

Bravo for mention that wonderful book.

26

ckc (not kc) 11.11.09 at 4:17 am

…we are prone to misguided [sic] partisanship and one-sidedness. Against these evils [sic], we have to guard ourselves.

crap

27

Lee A. Arnold 11.11.09 at 4:20 am

I loved Pohl’s “Day after the Day the Martians came” which I read eagerly with the rest of Ellison’s Dangerous visions when Garden City’s Science Fiction Book Club sent it out to me in 1967 I can admire Lomborg’s policy entrepreneurailism and if he gets any politiciams to ponies up monies for helping the poor in the world well then he derserves to take a bow before the audience but I won’t be attending the his tripumphal procession because he has misinterpreted science indeed misled lots of peopl.e in what is obviously a complex systems science plus his panel of experts have never predicted anything of great consequence and their disciplines do not include climatology. Now THERE is an interesting science! and it is getting past the time where wpoeple who want to comment should actually get up to speed on it. I’m a technological optismist myself — perhaps we can bioengineer a Petri dish gelly that can suck CO@ out of the air and produce gasolin, making it a closed cycle But then at 14 I wwas a sceince fiction freak. Until something like that happens, the Lomborgian apprach of cst-benefitting without including all the costs and all the benefits and/or by fudging on the monetary values is a form of terriblee intellectual harm.

28

Lee A. Arnold 11.11.09 at 4:21 am

Sorry! I had too much martinis! All Hail Sloshalism!

29

bad Jim 11.11.09 at 4:54 am

There’s nothing like a global warming post to bring out people anxious to demonstrate the Dunning–Kruger effect, particularly in the comments to Krugman’s piece.

If we are in fact at the point of peak oil production, as some are now alleging, it will be interesting to see how the global warming dialogue changes.

30

Maurice Meilleur 11.11.09 at 5:01 am

@18: The opposite of ‘argument from authority’ is argumentum bad verecundiam, of course.

31

hellblazer 11.11.09 at 6:36 am

Thiago Maciel Oliveira @22

Neither chiasmus nor Mill seem adequate shields against the charge, that dumping sulphur dioxide to attempt global cooling can only seem a bright idea on a very superficial analysis. I notice that in the NYT post/article/column you link, there seems to be no discussion of the effect that might have on ocean ecosystems. Given how little a sentence along the lines of “we anticipate criticism on the lines of acid rain, and counter thus” would cost, I can only assume that Levitt doesn’t find it worth his time discussing.

Stupid technological fixed are easy to come up with, and to think that such ideas are original but shouted down through inertia/closed-mindedness is plain hubris. It’s the less ruinous and more robust technical fixes that require consideration and experience, if such can be found.

Having not read Levitt’s work I am in no position to judge his intelligence, charm, learning, etc etc. I just don’t understand your seeming belief that we should hear him out because he is speaking against consensus, or “unanimity” as you (pace Mill) are metaphorically describing it.

You still haven’t said if it’s OK for us to accept the stifling consensus on electrostatic repulsion and models of nuclei, I notice.

32

astrongmaybe 11.11.09 at 7:14 am

Pohl, amazingly, is still active and alive. (A die-hard pedant writes…) Put in this order, “active and alive” seems a bit tautological. Hard to imagine circumstances in which he would be active and dead.

33

joel hanes 11.11.09 at 7:38 am

As the years pass, I grow more convinced that the two most truly prescient and insightful SF treatments of environmental issues are Chad Oliver’s short story King of the Hill (1972, in Harlan Ellison’s amazing anthologyAgain, Dangerous Visions), and John Brunner’s 1972 novel The Sheep Look Up

That is to say, I can no longer find much reason for optimism.

34

Walt 11.11.09 at 8:04 am

astrongmaybe: Shows that you’re just not familiar with the late career of L. Ron Hubbard.

35

bad Jim 11.11.09 at 8:47 am

As regards geoengineering, there are safer options. Solar-powered fog-producing ships circulating in the Arctic Ocean could counteract the decrease in albedo of the melting ice cap in a local, scalable, temporary fashion. Photovoltaic canopies over parking lots or freeways in the southwestern US would provide both shade and juice. Sheer spectacle is the sole advantage of artificial volcanic pollution.

36

NomadUK 11.11.09 at 8:50 am

joel hanes@33: Soylent Green didn’t do too badly, either.

And, yes, optimism is decidedly contraindicated.

37

John Meredith 11.11.09 at 10:00 am

“Pohl, amazingly, is still active and alive. “

And I suppose he must take a grim satisfaction in living to see the meat and oil run out as predicted.

38

Alex 11.11.09 at 10:12 am

There really should be a band called Dunning-Kruger Effect, or just Dunning-Kruger by analogy to Sleater-Kinney. The only problem would be carrying it off without disappearing into your own sense of humour – the temptation to be deliberately sloppy and amateurish would be intense.

If I’ve done nothing else, I’m proud to have helped popularise the DKE.

39

JoB 11.11.09 at 10:56 am

36 – I find Soylent Green a comforting fable. The scary part of the story was that all the humans in it still behaved as if it was the XXth century. In the end we’re all going to die so we’d better be rational about it and optimize the part where we live, that is including the part where we are young & don’t want to continuously be in an open geriatric ward (consider the ‘we’ there as a veil-of-ignoranced ‘we’).

40

JoB 11.11.09 at 12:08 pm

In fact – you can only be optimistic knowing our generation is not going to last so very much longer; maybe next generations can learn to relax in our absence.

41

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 11.11.09 at 12:12 pm

nick s – I e-mailed both the Scoopies and McFall regarding the Freakonomics seminar in Westminster, and got a reply from one of McFall’s functionaries. The Scoopies have not got back to me as of yet. One of McFall’s staff replied to me:

“The meeting with Steven Levitt did not focus on climate change. Mr Levitt did not mention that particular chapter in his book until Mr McFall asked him to explain the chapter and the reasoning behind it, given the controversy surrounding it.

Furthermore, by hosting the meeting with the Henry Jackson Society, Mr McFall was in no way endorsing or agreeing with the views of the authors. Indeed, by hosting the meeting, Mr McFall intended to give an audience in the House of Commons (which included a number of MPs) the chance to question those views, as well as to give the authors a chance to respond to their critics. He does not necessarily share their views on climate change or any other subject.”

Sounded like a “just wanted to start a conversation” platitude, really.

42

Zamfir 11.11.09 at 12:47 pm

Count me among the people who do not see the big problem with Soylent Green. The whole movie could have been made with nicer paint on the buildings, merry faces on the people and food the quality of rice with fried tofu in sauce.

In that setting, eating old people would have been just a weird cultural quirk, that could even be spun with some wholesome circle-of-life ethic.

43

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.11.09 at 2:07 pm

Hellblazer @31:

Here is the controversial chapter five of the book Superfreakonomics, by Levitt and Dubner: http://enviroknow.com/2009/01/14/superfreakonomics-chapter-5-what-al-gore-and-mount-pinatubo-have-in-common/

Remember that even the rather partial Elizabeth Kolbert recognizes that Levitt and Dubner “have a point” when they emphasize that “It’s not that we don’t know how to stop polluting the atmosphere. We don’t want to stop, or aren’t willing to pay the price.”

I anticipate that geoengeneering discussions (stupid or not) will increasingly pervade public debates about climate change, as more and more it will become clear that people and nations — alas! — simply aren’t eager to sacrifice their style of life for medium/long run/future generations gains. Specifically, the developing world will not do it.

Call people and nations short-sighted. And that’s exactly what they are: Jared Diamond explained in his book “Collapse” that since Neolithic Period Homo sapiens have sistematically impoverished his environment, and that civilizations as ancient as Maya have succumbed to a kind of malthusian-ecological collapse.

The last ten thousand years since agricultural revolution do not authorize overly optimism about the prospect of our species dealing well with climate change merely on behavioral adaptation basis. Maybe is time to seriously discuss “not-so-politically-correct” issues like: “Are politicians in a representative democracy ready to deal with problems that concern vast temporal horizons, since they are mainly responsive to short sighted electoral polls?” and “Can geo-engeneering be our way out?”

Would not it be hilarious (and somewhat tragic) that maybe we’ll have to “terraform” Earth itself?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terraforming
Terraforming (literally, “Earth-shaping”) of a planet, moon, or other body is the hypothetical process of deliberately modifying its atmosphere, temperature, surface topography or ecology to be similar to those of Earth to make it habitable by terran organisms.

The term is sometimes erroneously used more generally as a synonym for planetary engineering. The concept of terraforming developed from both science fiction and actual science. The term was coined by Jack Williamson in a science-fiction story (“Collision Orbit”) published during 1942 in Astounding Science Fiction,[1] but the concept may pre-date this work.

44

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 11.11.09 at 2:19 pm

Would not it be hilarious (and somewhat tragic) that maybe we’ll have to “terraform” Earth itself?

Millions of people dead due to floods/drought/extreme weather! LOL!

Fuck your whimsy, you sociopathic twat.

45

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.11.09 at 2:59 pm

Freshly Squeezed Cynic @44.

Well. We are what we are. In my humble opinion, the concept of “terraforming Earth” is tragicomic — to the same extent that “Brave New World” is a tragicomic novel.

And your procedure of dismissing your interlocutor as a “sociopathic twat” remembers me what Bauman once said about — let’s put it mildly, hehehe — truth being “an eminently agonistic concept.”

“When it comes to disputing truth, the chances for an ‘undistorted communication’ as postulated by Jürgen Habermas become slim. The protagonists will hardly resist the temptation to resort to other, more effective means than the logical elegance and persuasive power of their arguments. They would rather do whatever they can to render the arguments of the adversary inconsequential, better still inaudible, and best of all never voiced in the first place due to the incapacitation of those who would have voiced them if the could. One argument that will stand the greates chance of being raised is the ineligibility of the adversary as a partner-in-conversation – due to the adversary being inept, deceitful or otherwise unreliable, harbouring ill intentions or being altogether inferior and substandard.”

46

JoB 11.11.09 at 3:45 pm

The temptation, fo instance, to go all pontifical on somebody quoting long stretches of text that have nothing to do whatever with the argument at hand.

PS: which reminds me of having heard somebody proposing to help Earth a bit in what will anyway be a new ocean in Africa, around Eritrea, somewhere – a planetary version of the flooding compensation areas – tragic?, comic? (certainly not hilarious)

47

onymous 11.11.09 at 3:53 pm

Thiago Maciel Oliveira wrote:

I anticipate that geoengeneering discussions (stupid or not) will increasingly pervade public debates about climate change

I expect so too — it’s becoming increasingly clear that this is one of the positions that the right-wing and denialist camps will retreat to once “global warming isn’t a problem” becomes completely untenable.

as more and more it will become clear that people and nations—alas!—simply aren’t eager to sacrifice their style of life for medium/long run/future generations gains. Specifically, the developing world will not do it.

If people repeat this enough, then “people and nations” might begin to think that they have to make huge sacrifices and see little benefit. Perhaps we should present a realistic cost/benefit analysis to them instead of telling them in advance what conclusion they will draw. Estimates tend to be on the order of 1-2% of GDP, or of slowing down economic growth on the order of 1 year over the course of decades. Mitigating climate change will take a major effort, but it really isn’t all that expensive. Not that anyone can expect a casual consumer of the news to know this, since the right-wing voices are constantly reiterating that we can’t expect people to make this terrible sacrifice (and completely avoiding any mention of the costs of inaction).

This is all aside from the fact that the “solar radiation management” approach to geoengineering could wreak utter havoc on the global climate in ways that we don’t understand.

48

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.11.09 at 4:14 pm

Job @ 46:

In citing Bauman, I was just defending myself against a strange claim — that I am a “whimsy, sociopathic twat”. Too much heat, too little light.

Really, I’m trying to be honest and polite in this debate. I’ve argued that Levitt-Dubner’s claim are not so “ludicrous” as Krugman at alii seems to imply. I’ve linked the controversial chapter of Superfreakonomics that so many apparently — and proudly — haven’t read but have criticized, the response of Levitt to the critics, the position of a prestigious international forum (“Copenhagen Consensus”) about the subject — which is congruent with Levitt-Dubner’s. I’ve argued that the past seems to imply that our species isn’t damn good in coping with environmental degradation (“spiral of destruction” being an apt image), that maybe we’ll have to try creative solutions never tried before, etc, etc.

49

Substance McGravitas 11.11.09 at 4:38 pm

I’ve argued that Levitt-Dubner’s claim are not so “ludicrous” as Krugman at alii seems to imply.

Everyone else has pointed out that they are. Time to take note of that.

50

JoB 11.11.09 at 4:42 pm

48 – suggesting that what you suggested might be hilarious well deserves a little bit of a hyperbole, doesn’t it?

51

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.11.09 at 5:03 pm

Job @ 50:
That was an unwise choice of words. I didn’t imagine some people would judge unhilarious the notion of “Terra-forming Earth” (“Terra” meaning literally “Earth”, in Latin).

Substance McGravitas @ 49
That is a hyperbole.

52

MG 11.11.09 at 6:17 pm

Hey, quote all of what Jared Diamond wrote about societies!

I can’t recall the book off the top of my head, but it might where he wrote about how mideval Japan (in contrast to Greenland) when faced with a ecological crisis (trees = fuel) reacted by: changing building styles to use little wood or renewable wood, started using charcoal as fuel and building more energy-efficient houses and protected the remaining of the forests to such an extent that Japan has far more trees for similarly densely-populated nations in Europe.

So it’s not as if people can’t change behavior.

53

Ahistoricality 11.11.09 at 6:40 pm

Is there a term in logic for the opposite of “argument from authority”, i.e. when someone claims that because the people that study and investigate something says that X is most likely true, that fact alone implies that X is therefore most likely false?

Ironically, it’s called The Galileo Gambit

54

JM 11.11.09 at 7:13 pm

The only reason Levitt and Dubner are known was a mistake. Their abortion/crime correlation was based on their failure to adjust for population growth. Nevermind that, though: it was provocative and they became unjustly famous.

They are, jointly, a mental abortion.

55

perianwyr 11.11.09 at 7:18 pm

The last ten thousand years since agricultural revolution do not authorize overly optimism about the prospect of our species dealing well with climate change merely on behavioral adaptation basis. Maybe is time to seriously discuss “not-so-politically-correct” issues like: “Are politicians in a representative democracy ready to deal with problems that concern vast temporal horizons, since they are mainly responsive to short sighted electoral polls?” and “Can geo-engeneering be our way out?”

Fad diets are objectively a better solution to obesity by this standard than exercise and calorie counting. Even if they don’t work at all, they have the appearance of sudden action.

Also, using the term “politically correct” means your entire statement is vacuous. Sorry!

56

JM 11.11.09 at 7:18 pm

I’ve linked the controversial chapter of Superfreakonomics that so many apparently—and proudly—haven’t read but have criticized …

… which refers to the work of Dr. Caldeira that the authors were proud not to have read, too.

57

JM 11.11.09 at 7:23 pm

Fad diets are objectively a better solution to obesity by this standard than exercise and calorie counting.

Yes, and “short sighted electoral polls” are so much less reliable than the short-term planning of those who have purchased enough political cover to avoid pricing in negative externalities, which the rest of us will have to pay for them.

Damned democracy, getting in the way of our Natural Leaders.

58

jeremy 11.11.09 at 7:38 pm

i don’t know. i think it’s fairly obvious the world’s populations (with or without america’s consent and/or leadership) aren’t going to cut greenhouse gases to the extent most scientists concur it needs to be cut (for this or that reason). so i’m fairly open to alternatives. haven’t a clue whether dubner/levitt/dyson/copenhagen consensus are all full of shite, though. the copenhagen consensus seems like the most reasonable dissident voice out there, but i’m sure most of y’all would disagree. but, am i still the only one in this thread (with the exception maybe of thiago) who doesn’t believe al gore and company are going to get their way (whether or not their way is the right way)? and for reasons that go well beyond the relatively inconsequential quarrels of the intellectuals and the pseudos?

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Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.11.09 at 8:00 pm

JM @56:

I’m not against representative democracy because I concur with Churchill’s witty statement that it’s “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

But it has many shortcomings like giving too little weight to medium/long run environmental policies that imply present costs. The benefits of this kind of policy are diffuse and its targets often haven’t born (or can’t vote) yet.

The following article by The Economist magazine gives an example of the shortcoming at issue: http://rss.economist.com/PrinterFriendly.cfm?story_id=13824446
A recent study of some 300 municipalities in the Brazilian Amazon, published in the latest edition of Science, shows that deforested areas enjoy a short economic boom, then quickly fall back to previous levels of development and productivity as the frontier moves on.

However it is very difficult to break down this vicious cycle, since local elections at Brazil occur every four years and the economic boom lasts twelve to sixteen years, according the article. Therefore politicians are not willing to interrupt the relatively short-lived “boom” as they won’t reap any political dividends from their good actions (quite the contrary).

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politicalfootball 11.11.09 at 8:34 pm

Not unfair to Levitt and Dubner, mind you, but to science fiction.

Robert Heinlein addressed this issue decades ago in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The Professor warns that Luna faces ecological catastrophe, but the sentient computer Mike projects that technological progress could solve the problem painlessly. Mike adds, however, that such progress can’t be counted on to take place in a timely fashion. From page 93:

Prof sighed. “Mike, amigo, I don’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed. Then that projection didn’t mean anything?

“Of course it means something,” said Wyoh. “It means we’ll dig it out when we need it. Tell him, Mike!”

“Wyoh, I am most sorry. You’re assertion was, in effect, what I was looking for. But the answer still remains: Genius is where you find it. No, I am sorry.”

Mind you, Heinlein writes this passage as a discussion of ecology and trade policy. Wyoh starts out advocating for free trade, but ultimately is compelled to acknowledge that the environmental situation requires that the government take drastic action to halt exports.

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politicalfootball 11.11.09 at 9:12 pm

I should add, for those who aren’t familiar with him, that Heinlein was something of a myopic libertarian extremist.

So just as it is unfair to blame science fiction, it is also unfair to blame Dubner and Levitt’s myopic libertarian extremism. I say: blame arrogant assholishness.

62

JM 11.11.09 at 9:22 pm

However it is very difficult to break down this vicious cycle, since local elections at Brazil occur every four years and the economic boom lasts twelve to sixteen years, according the article.

Oh, that’s why! And here I thought it was because most of the good arable in Brazil was dedicated to export crops and that anyone who talks about land reform in South America is called a “communist,” of the type that used to just disappear in the night in Brazil year after year.

Silly me. It’s all because the political cycle is out of rhythm with the slash and burn agriculture cycle. It’s all so simple, now.

63

JM 11.11.09 at 9:24 pm

So just as it is unfair to blame science fiction, it is also unfair to blame Dubner and Levitt’s myopic libertarian extremism. I say: blame arrogant assholishness.

It’s amazing how many of my favorite childhood sci-fi authors were fascists of one sort or another. I guess I was too young to detect that among all the competitively selected, genetically superior, steely-eyed defenders of civilization they kept writing about.

64

yeem 11.11.09 at 10:49 pm

soyaburgers would leave people too nutritively depleted to make use of pedicabs (currently processed soyaburgers make lots of people quite ill. go technology!)

it was consensus not to wash one’s hands before performing deliveries, and it was also consensus that animals don’t experience pain.

it is currently consensus that saturated fat is unhealthy, despite all the Real Science to the contrary.

consensus is not a useful way to assure information is reasonably likely to be correct.

65

bianca steele 11.12.09 at 1:12 am

@JM: You didn’t get a hint that Heinlein might not be 100% correct when he implied that you can tell how morally and spiritually “advanced” a man is by how well he kisses?

66

John Emerson 11.12.09 at 1:29 am

Honest, guys, I did not send you Thiago Maciel Oliveira.

67

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.12.09 at 2:47 am

John Emerson @65
Unless you are sending a new species of meta-referential trolls, hehehe.

68

Lee A. Arnold 11.12.09 at 2:58 am

Thiago Maciel Oliveira,

#4 “prestigious forums like ‘Copenhague [sic] Consensus'”

#48 “a prestigious international forum (‘Copenhagen Consensus’)”

Prestigious to whom, exactly? We saw The Economist’s unwise decision to promote Lomborg’s first scientific mistakes. Perhaps now wiser, they have refuted many environmental points in Skeptical Envir. — refuted de facto, by the evidence in their other articles; of course it is not their policy to explicitly call-out their own writers to embarrassment and disadvantage. Indeed they gave him another by-lined slot to clean up his policy entrepreneurialism (not their usual policy either, but then, policy entrepreneurialism may be coming to us all.) He’s picked-up some Nobel economists for conferences and I would imagine they know it’s a policy chop-shop. After all, any cost-benefit in this neighborhood is always a bit of a phony fudge — and any geoengineering study would have to branch out along n-dimensional avenues. Worse yet (and a tell-tale clue about that entrepreneurialism) is that the ringleader of the Copenhagen Consensus doesn’t admit when he gets the facts and the science wrong. But you have to start with that — we all do. Indeed we would have seen that first book remaindered to the discard bins. So the overall public impact of Lomborg has been that the readers, far from gaining intellectual clarity, are caught instead in their own ignorance of complex systems science. Indeed some are still down, tripped on their trousers and haven’t got up. George Will now likens it to shark attacks. Even so, all of this would be under the definition of “notoriety,” not “prestige.” The Economist was at one time considered a prestige journal (perhaps because USians found it exotic and it was written at a higher educational level) but I venture to say there are none in existence now, with the possible exceptions of Nature and Science, which at least try to hew to standards of logic, entrainment, and correction of errors. I think one of them dutifully reports Copenhagen Consensus press releases but never in the serious science section. So: prestigious to whom, exactly?

69

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.12.09 at 3:46 am

Lee A. Arnold @67
It was not just Economist’s “error” as Danish government co-sponsored the original project. Your harsh verdict against Copenhagen Consenus is… er. TOO harsh. Even critics like Henry Farrell recognize that the project has produced “a set of well-informed papers, and thoughtful comments, dealing with some of the most serious problems facing the world, and assessing some possible responses.”

But it seems you have already discussed at length all issues Copehangen-Consensus-related so that in order to avoid criticisms a la Walt @9 (“Thiago, you would get a better response if you’d read the thousands of words written about the Copenhagen Consensus here and elsewhere. (…) You clearly have rolled in here and read nothing anyone has said here before.”) I will follow Hamlet’s last words in this issue.

70

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.12.09 at 4:11 am

Apropos: Don’t you think that maybe “The Rhetorical Use of ‘Sic’s’ — Typo’s as last resort arguments” is a title in search of an academic paper?

71

Phillip Hallam-Baker 11.12.09 at 4:31 am

I find the geo-engineering approach as somehow an alternative to slowing carbon emissions to be bizarre. If we were going to attempt geo-engineering at any level, the first essential foundation would be vastly better models of the effect on the atmosphere. After all we have empirical evidence to check our CO2 models against, it took us thirty years to get where we are today. How do we predict what happens when SO2 is being spewed out?

Its not just the global warming you have to get right, you have to make sure that you do not cause another environmental catastrophe that you hadn’t expected.

There is a reason we no longer favor using introduction of non native species to control some pest. Too many histories of habitats destroyed introduced species by well meaning types who trusted that no bad results could come of good intentions.

It really isn’t that difficult to meet the C02 targets, wind power is capital intensive but dirt cheap to run. We currently have an economy that has huge amounts of unoccupied capital. If worst comes to worst they can always shut down on fifth of the Pentagon and the redirect the resources to renewable power. How many wind, solar power stations can you build for $150 billion/year? More than enough I suspect.

Why is the idea of returning the military budget to the same level it had before the neocon crazies took over somehow more ludicrous than the idea of constructing 18 mile hoses?

72

bad Jim 11.12.09 at 4:33 am

I will follow Hamlet’s last words in this issue.

That would have been an improvement.

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Lee A. Arnold 11.12.09 at 5:13 am

Thiago Maciel Oliveira #68,
There are all sorts of government projects, conferring a government’s prestige I suppose — but the Danish judgment came down that it is unscientific, though it escaped censure on a genre technicality. And the quote is John Quiggin’s assessment, not Henry Farrell’s, about the papers in the later 2003 book, although you neglected to include John’s comments that the papers are worth reading only if you keep in mind that most of the experts “were not experts under the fields of discussion,” that they didn’t have enough time to consider the fields in depth, and that it is packaged as an exercise in “political propaganda,” slanted to deny the importance of mitigating climate change in the face of other dire human problems, which are then given some up-to-date treatments. Fair enough — as I wrote, I hope for technological solutions too, and I noted the virtues of policy chop-shops. But it is just this sort of continual misinterpretation of facts and events that is troubling, from both the viewpoint of expecting a policy chop-shop to put scientific accuracy foremost, not least upon climate change where we are talking about a good deal of money and strife, and from the viewpoint of getting a coherent argument out of its admirers. In this debate, the rest has always been silence.

74

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.12.09 at 6:06 am

Phillip #70
You mentioned in passing “non native species”, and I this brings something on the tapis. Syphilis was probably brought to Europe by Columbus fleet and in return native americans received influenza. Once upon a time wheat was just a puny seed from Fertile Crescent and potatoes just tuberous plants from distant, undiscovered, America. Dogs (“dingoes”) were introduced in Australia as early as four thousand years ago, and probably contributed to the extinction of several marsupial species.

Biosphere has already been so drasticaly changed since the dawn of “Civilization” (au fond, just a pompous name for “agricultural revolution”). There isn’t, properly speaking, a way back to a prelapsarian world in which man and nature lived together in harmony.

We live in an increasingly artifical/human-generated/out of balance world. That’s the vibe I got from the great movie by Godfrey Reggio. But unlike him, I think we don’t need to be necessarily pessimistic about it.

At least, not without argument.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koyaanisqatsi
In the Hopi language, the word Koyaanisqatsi means ‘crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living'[6], and the film implies that modern humanity is living in such a way.

75

bad Jim 11.12.09 at 6:54 am

“More honored in the breach than the observance” is another generally misused phrase from Hamlet. We usually use it to note that we don’t actually do that, but what Hamlet actually meant was that celebrating the king’s toast with a cannonade did the Danish court no credit.

76

JoB 11.12.09 at 8:19 am

74- I confess: I was as pompous as you were but, speaking as an unrepentant optimist, I am sure the next generation can get by without it.

77

steven 11.12.09 at 9:07 am

Further to musical mountaineer @ 20 — it is clear in this article by Dyson (which Kolbert presumably read because it contains the “converting into liquid fuel” idea) that “carbon-eating trees” are not Dyson’s invention but one of several ideas he discusses from a book under review by William Nordhaus, and he does actually give more explanation than Kolbert pretends, whatever one thinks of its plausibility:

Carbon-eating trees could convert most of the carbon that they absorb from the atmosphere into some chemically stable form and bury it underground. Or they could convert the carbon into liquid fuels and other useful chemicals. Biotechnology is enormously powerful, capable of burying or transforming any molecule of carbon dioxide that comes into its grasp. Keeling’s wiggles prove that a big fraction of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes within the grasp of biotechnology every decade. If one quarter of the world’s forests were replanted with carbon-eating varieties of the same species, the forests would be preserved as ecological resources and as habitats for wildlife, and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be reduced by half in about fifty years.

78

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 11.12.09 at 10:24 am

Thiago,

Fuck me. I’ve never met anyone so sure of his own – hehehehe – utter superiority to the rest of us worthless peons, burying facile points in reams of sesquipedalian loquaciousness in an attempt to look big and clever, when it’s just the same old irritating, trollish contrarianism, smugly sneering at our poor, misguided idealism whilst endorsing utter crackpottery and bad science, that adds nothing to the discussion. My problem with you is that you are utterly, interminably boring.

I dismissed you because I had you marked out as a troll from the moment you started commenting, and I seem to have been proven right by the way you interact with other people on this thread; you twist what others say, quote people out of context, and if someone undercuts something you’ve said (for instance, MG’s suggestion that Diamond has written about peoples who did adapt by changing their behaviour without driving themselves to ecological extinction) then you simply ignore it.

To quote Hemingway, since you seem to play a constant game of “whose literary dick is bigger”, He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use. Twat.

79

toby 11.12.09 at 11:07 am

Thiago,

I am sure you would have got 100% agreement from the Easter Islanders who cut down the last stand of trees so another massive head could be erected on the shoreline. No doubt, they thought God, the ancestors or some form of technology would bring them more trees.

Toby

80

skidmarx 11.12.09 at 12:13 pm

toby – or by the time they got to the last stand of trees they didn’t think there was any point in saving them.

Thiago#74 – I found that the movie is better if you turn off the soundtrack and play the Sisters of Mercy instead, plus get somewhat intoxicated.
#70 shouldn’t that be “typos” rather than “typo’s”?

Pohl’s Gateway begins with its central character escaping the coalmines of the American North-west, with remarks about how people used to burn hydrocarbons instead of converting them to food.

81

Phillip Hallam-Baker 11.12.09 at 1:09 pm

Thiago #74 Yes we have changed the ecology of the planet in major ways. C02 being an example. The changes you cite were unanticipated and unintended, except for the introduction of the potato which led to unanticipated negative consequences when it became a monoculture in Ireland.

The point is that we have a lousy track record on projects of this type and to prefer them to moving from fossil fuels to renewables is simply perverse.

Building contraptions is not the solution here. As an engineer I have seen enough engineers who are over-infatuated with their own inventions. Such people are very bad at requirements capture and resist looking at possible negative effects.

The nuclear industry is a prime example of this type of behavior. They were so infatuated by the idea of free limitless power that they ignored the problem of nuclear waste as a detail to be solved later. Having begun the process by building the bomb, it was impossible to ignore safety completely. But it was much easier to declare their designs intrinsically safe and fail safe than redesign the military technology from scratch to make it so. By the mid 1950s the nuclear incidents at Windscale started to pile up. It took another thirty years before they were uncovered and the authorities forced to admit them.

Pumping pollutants into the atmosphere is an inherently unsafe approach to geo-engineering. It should be a last resort even amongst geo-engineering options. We are nowhere close to exhausting the carbon sequestration options. But reducing carbon emissions is by far the most preferable approach.

Building the contraption is a one shot deal. If it does not work we are screwed. Building renewable power systems is an incremental approach built on well understood technology. And it has the side benefit of reducing demand on a scarce resource that comes with expensive political dependencies. There is simply not enough oil produced in the world for China to reach US levels of per capita consumption.

82

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.12.09 at 2:30 pm

Phillip Hallam-Baker #81
Woow! Now, that is a post you can learn and argue with. All points are well put and well-written (no irony intended), and there is not a hint of ad hominem fallacies.

About potato introduction in Ireland bringing “unanticipated negative consequences when it became a monoculture in Ireland” — yes, you’re right, but I think it brought “good” unanticipated consequences as well — e.g.: a diet based merely on potatoes and dairy products was probably the cheapest and healthiest you could have at Ireland (or any other European country) at that time, as it contains almost all micronutrients needed to maintain health and body together (italians of that time suffered for instance, of “pellagra” and other diseases caused by deficient diet), . Sticking to the point: maybe is better not to ascribe moral terminology to technological progress, as “It’s not that we use technology, we live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe.”

Which lead us to your second point: “The nuclear industry is a prime example of this type of behavior.” Again, nuclear power brought to the surface tragedies like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island (and I’ll not mention Hiroshima or Nagasaki — ops, seems like I just did ;-). At the same time, it is in a way one of the cleanest sources of energy, as each pound of radiactive substances given as input to the process generates quazillions of horsepowers as output. That’s why France seems so more beautiful than EUA or China, when we gauge global carbon emission statistics.

As for your third point — “Pumping pollutants into the atmosphere is an inherently unsafe approach to geo-engineering.” — I would like to emphasize that that’s what volcanos blithely and (a)periodically do. As we learn more and more about the effects of these kind of “polutants” (must we really use so “moral-charged” a term?), maybe we’ll gain the confidence indispensable to “tweak a little bit their dynamic.

Or we will not. But I thing the debate is valuable and to dismiss it with a sneer of contempt — a la Krugman and Kolbert — isn’t the better path to tread.

Thank you for this fine opportunity of discussion.

83

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.12.09 at 2:33 pm

Skidmarx #80 “shouldn’t that be “typos” rather than “typo’s”?

A title about rhetorical uses of typos that contains a typo. Can you see now why the paper has to be written?

;-)

84

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.12.09 at 2:49 pm

There is a fourth point in the well-written and well-argued post by Hallam-Baker that I forgot to approach: “Building the contraption is a one shot deal. If it does not work we are screwed. “

It is not inevitably so in view of the fact that some of these “pollutants” have a rather short half-life in atmosphere — and fortunately so as otherwise we would had been suffocated a long time ago by the cumulative activities of volcanos.

There are some “geo-engeneering” proposals that are quite irreversible, indeed.

85

politicalfootball 11.12.09 at 3:20 pm

Its not just the global warming you have to get right, you have to make sure that you do not cause another environmental catastrophe that you hadn’t expected.

When I was a kid, conservatives used to cited “unintended consequences” all the time as an argument against government action. Nowadays, conservatism is defined by the will to forcefully intervene in any situation without contemplating the consequences at all.

No doubt after we dump massive amounts of SO2 into the atmosphere, we will be greeted by the environment with candy and flowers.

86

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.12.09 at 4:17 pm

Freshly Squeezed Cynic #78 and Political Football #85
I concur with this witty remark made by The Economist in a review of Superfreakonomics: “Fools rush in where climatologists fear to tread. That, at least, is what critics are saying about a book called “SuperFreakonomics”.

However, I think this witty remark is a double-edged sword as so many people — from the right, center, left, whatever — seems so anxious to dismiss this or that kind of solution, without much argument whatsoever. I do not think geoengeneering needs to be approached as a panacea that by “fiat” will save us from the brink of an abyss. That’s just one among various strategies we’ll wanna try, sooner or later.

All in all, I think it is very funny people speaking out against Levitt-Dubner’s one-sidedness in a topic kick-started by a reference to Krugman — certainly not(!) my platonic model of a dispassionate and objective thinker. Yours?

Although I do not pray in either Levitt’s or Krugman’s madrassas I like to read both, as they are intelligent people writing about interesting issues from wildy different perspectives. As a Montesquieu-Mill hybrid would had said: “Partisanship ought to serve as a check to partisanship.”

87

Barry 11.12.09 at 6:04 pm

“All in all, I think it is very funny people speaking out against Levitt-Dubner’s one-sidedness in a topic kick-started by a reference to Krugman—certainly not(!) my platonic model of a dispassionate and objective thinker. Yours?”

IIRC, the original criticism was that L&D were not climate scientists, and didn’t bother to learn from climate scientists. Not being an expert in the field was only a problem because L&D didn’t bother to learn from the few that they talked to. Or rather, deliberately distorted what they were supposed to have learned.

Meanwhile Krugman has set a standard for being right about reality that has been met by few columnists in the last decade.

88

Henry 11.12.09 at 6:53 pm

the “alive and active” bit as well as a misspelling of Pohl’s first name have been corrected – thanks.

89

politicalfootball 11.12.09 at 7:00 pm

However, I think this witty remark is a double-edged sword as so many people—from the right, center, left, whatever—seems so anxious to dismiss this or that kind of solution, without much argument whatsoever.

Yeah, you keep saying that, but you refuse to identify why you think the thousands of words that have been linked here are insufficient.

You’ve got an epistemological problem here that I don’t suppose I’ll be able to talk you out of, but I will note it here. You want to evaluate claims by the reputation of the people making them, and you don’t want to do any serious investigation into the merits of those peoples’ reputations.

So the Copenhagen Consensus Center is highly regarded, and the merits of their reports aren’t really worth discussing – so not worth discussing, that you are unable to recognize the existence of a voluminous discussion about them. Krugman is not an objective thinker, not because you have an example of his lack of objectivity, but because everyone knows this.

I’m probably more sympathetic to appeals to authority than most – especially on climate change, where I’m not an expert. But if that’s the mode you’re going to operate in, it seems to me that you’re compelled to acknowledge that there’s a remarkable amount of unanimity among actual climate change experts, and that when people like Levitt and Dubner lock horns with the experts, they tend to make mistakes so basic that even non-experts like me can spot them.

90

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.12.09 at 7:19 pm

Political Football #89
About Krugman’s lack of objectivity I recommend the following texts:

http://correspondents.theatlantic.com/richard_posner/2009/06/the_good_paul_krugman_and_the_bad_krugman.php
“The effect of Krugman’s partisanship on his “public intellectual” writings is an old story, but a true one. See, for example, my book Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline 96-99, 103-105,138 (2003 ed.). It is illustrated anew by “Reagan Did It.”

http://correspondents.theatlantic.com/richard_posner/2009/05/depression_aftershock_and_paul_krugman.php
“Krugman is an able economist. He is also a fiercely partisan liberal. He is the gingham dog to Milton Friedman’s calico cat. His column of today is slash and burn economics.

I suspect the author I just linked is not very popular here. Nonetheless I think he is some kind of genius and like very much his writings so…

At any rate, is not like I want to win some sort of debate.

91

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.12.09 at 7:31 pm

Political Football #89:

You said: “So the Copenhagen Consensus Center is highly regarded (…) so not worth discussing, that you are unable to recognize the existence of a voluminous discussion about them.”

Well, I’ve cited Copenhagen Consensus not with the intent of reigniting old wars of yore, but with the sole purpose of making a very, very specific point, which is: it is hard to believe that Levitt-Dubner’s claims about geoengeneering are so ludicrous since very intelligent and capable people can concur with some of them — and Copenhagen Consensus came from the top of my hat.

Having said this, I will not discuss substantive matters related to Copenhagen Consensus ( #69 supra).

92

politicalfootball 11.12.09 at 7:59 pm

I suspect the author I just linked is not very popular here. Nonetheless I think he is some kind of genius and like very much his writings so…

So … what? He may be a genius whose writings you like, but his argument rests on its merits, not on your appeal to his authority.

And wow, what a weak argument. In the first link, he says that Krugman blames Reagan solely for the recent economic crisis. That’s not merely a silly misreading of that particular Krugman column, but it’s absolutely nonsensical in the context of Krugman’s body of work.

And, if Krugman is absolving the Bushes I and II of all blame for the mess, then how is he being partisan by blaming Reagan?

Yes, you are correct that Posner calls Krugman a partisan, and you are no doubt correct that you admire Posner. But that doesn’t speak in any way to the merits of Posner’s argument or Krugman’s partisanship.

Well, I’ve cited Copenhagen Consensus not with the intent of reigniting old wars of yore, but with the sole purpose of making a very, very specific point, which is: it is hard to believe that Levitt-Dubner’s claims about geoengeneering are so ludicrous since very intelligent and capable people can concur with some of them—and Copenhagen Consensus came from the top of my hat.

Right. That’s just what I said. Naked appeal to authority and imperviousness to actual argument. Read what I said again:

So the Copenhagen Consensus Center is highly regarded, and the merits of their reports aren’t really worth discussing – so not worth discussing, that you are unable to recognize the existence of a voluminous discussion about them.

If you’re going to gripe that people here “dismiss this or that kind of solution, without much argument whatsoever,” and on the other hand refuse to acknowledge the existence of their lengthy arguments (not just on Copenhagen, but all the rest, too), people are going to say mean things to you. I’m sorry about that, but it’s just the way the world works.

93

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.12.09 at 8:09 pm

PoliticalFootbal #92
So … what?>

Therefore I’ll link him, nevertheless so you can read the interesting things he has to say about Krugman’s partisanship — although I know the mere act of citing Posner can be offensive to some kind of people.

Wooow! You aren’t the biggest fan of ellipsis, are you?

94

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.12.09 at 8:25 pm

Incidentally, PoliticalFootbal: sometimes meta-discussions become kind of boring. If you are really so fervently interested in argument perhaps it is time to you bring one or two actual arguments or points (and not simply claims that your interlocutor is this or that, that he argues blue not red, etc).

Make your points, claims arguments. I’ll read them respectfully and I’ll try to respond.

95

politicalfootball 11.12.09 at 9:13 pm

Make your points, claims arguments. I’ll read them respectfully and I’ll try to respond.

I’m not sure what you want here. I’ve made my claims and I don’t expect a better response out of you than what you’ve provided.

But okay, I’ll play along: What do you think of the actual arguments in the Kolbert piece?

Raymond T. Pierrehumbert is a climatologist who, like Levitt, teaches at the University of Chicago. In a particularly scathing critique, he composed an open letter to Levitt, which he posted on the blog RealClimate.

Kolbert provides the link to RealClimate:

http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2009/10/an-open-letter-to-steve-levitt/#more-1488

To this layman, Pierrehumbert’s critique seems devastating, as does most of the rest of Kolbert’s argument.

But you’ve already responded quite directly to this, to wit:

If the claims of Dubner and Levitt about the worthiness of climate engeneering are so outrageously WRONG, then why serious thinkers, gathering in prestigious forums like “Copenhague Consensus”, say it isn’t?

Now of course, I’ve pointed out the manifest inadequacies of this response, and I don’t have anything to add, so I don’t really see the point of this exercise. But if you’ve got a substantive response that isn’t just another appeal to an authority whom we aren’t permitted to rebut, I’d certainly be interested in hearing it.

96

Freshly Squeezed Cynic 11.12.09 at 10:23 pm

politicalfootball – It is fairly clear by now that Thiago Maciel Oliveira’s argument is a very odd appeal to authority, where the only authority we can appeal to is the Copenhagen Consensus as the only sane and rational group.

The immediate problem is with that is even members of the project itself had problems with the way global warming was treated by that body; Thomas Schelling and Robert O. Mendelsohn criticised Robert Cline’s use of discount rates, making global warming seem like less of a problem, and his estimates of damage estimates. Mendelsohn went so far as to say that “global warming was set up to fail” because the position put forward was seen as one out of the mainstream which was not seriously being proposed by anyone; in other words, the global warming position paper was a strawman.

Outside the panel itself, Jeffrey Sachs noted that firstly, the sum of money that the economists had to allocate was paltry considering the scale of some of the problems, biasing the results towards smaller-scale interventions, and secondly, hardly any of the economists involved had expertise in development economics, and so were not the “experts” on the issues that Lomborg portrayed they were.

So, either Mendelsohn, Schelling, and Sachs are all “partisans”, or the Copenhagen Consensus was not the gold standard of rationality that Thiego is suggesting it was.

97

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.12.09 at 11:14 pm

Well, at least in this particular discussion, it is the first time somebody brings to game Real Climate. So I’ll play along.

First Mr. Pierrehumbert expends 1639 words to trash the following section of Levitt-Dubner’s controversial chapter:

“A lot of the things that people say would be a good thing probably aren’t,” Myhrvold says. As an example he points to solar power. “The problem with solar cells is that they’re black, because they are designed to absorb light from the sun. But only about 12 percent gets turned into electricity, and the rest is reradiated as heat—which contributes to global warming.”

Pierrehumbert argues very persuasively that “waste heat is a trivial contribution to global warming whether the waste heat comes from solar cells or from fossil fuels”, because “the extra heat trapped by CO2 at the point where you’ve burned enough coal to double the atmospheric CO2 concentration is (…) over 300 times the effect of the waste heat.”

So, Myhrvold (apud L&D) isn’t actually wrong, but misleadingly overstated the contribution of wast heat to global warming. But I really cannot see how this utterly collateral excursion made by an interviwee undermines L&D the central arguments. Seems to me a classical example of “typo-like” arguments, in which a disloyal disputant picks up very tiny little puny insignificant straws and concocts a pandemonium out of them — “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.”; “Can possibly a man that writes “mam” be right?”

Then Pierrehumbert tries to redress the following statement by Myhrvold (apud L&D):

Although a widespread conversion to solar power might seem appealing, the reality is tricky. The energy consumed by building the thousands of new solar plants necessary to replace coal-burning and other power plants would create a huge long-term “warming debt,” as Myhrvold calls it. “Eventually, we’d have a great carbon-free energy infrastructure but only after making emissions and global warming worse every year until we’re done building out the solar plants, which could take thirty to fifty years.”

That seems to me an important point. But –lo!– Pierrehumbert does not really address this claim as he assert that “the carbon emitted in the course of manufacturing solar cells” isn’t “the matter at hand here.” Why not? It most certainly is.

However, Pierrehumbert decides to abruptly change subject as he rebukes L&D for a (putative) belief that “the blackness of solar cells makes solar energy pointless is complete and utter nonsense”, and that L&D believe that solar cells are black when actually they aren’t. Well, I’ve trancribed the relevant passages of the book and cannot see this kind of utter stupidity.

98

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.12.09 at 11:23 pm

Freshly Squeezed Cynic #96
You make a charge that I most happily would like to prove wrong. But first and foremost you have to put your arguments (or at least a link for them) over the table. I’m getting tired of meta-discussion and ad hominem.

99

politicalfootball 11.13.09 at 12:14 am

97: See, there you go. That’s a substantive response to the argument. Well done. The problem is, in every relevant particular, you agree with Pierrehumbert. Pierrehumbert doesn’t say so explicitly, but I feel certain that he would agree with you that he only addresses the issues that he addresses.

I have a little trouble with this, though:

So, Myhrvold (apud L&D) isn’t actually wrong, but misleadingly overstated the contribution of wast heat to global warming.

You’re using some exotic definition of the phrase “isn’t actually wrong” that I haven’t seen before. I would say that massively overstating the variable under discussion is “actually wrong.”

As for the entirely separate issue of building the infrastructure, I’m interested in that and don’t know much about it.

Pierrehumbert dismisses the issue as being similarly trivial, and your only response to Pierrehumbert is, alas, to fall back on an appeal to authority. We’ve already established the value of Myhrvold’s authority on this subject compared to that of Pierrehumbert, so I’m not sure what you would want to do that, but here’s what I’d want to know:

-What is the carbon cost relative to the benefit? Levitt, Dubner and Myhrvold got this wrong (or, as you say, “not actually wrong”) with waste heat. What do they say about this, and why should we believe them?
-What is the carbon cost of (say) solar energy construction relative to the carbon cost of construction of current technologies? Do they consider this issue at all? What do they say?

100

Phillip Hallam-Baker 11.13.09 at 1:20 am

My point re the contraption being a one shot deal is that the purported benefit of the contraption is that we can continue on as before while we build it. Since the engineering required is way beyond our current capabilities it would be at least twenty, more likely forty years before the contraption was ready.

By that time the climate change would already be in the positive feedback zone where carbon sequestered in the antarctic is being released and sea levels have risen to the point where we have major issues. So if we place our bets on the contraption as a first resort – as the economists propose, we stand a very large chance of failure.

But even in the case that the contraption works, we still start to run out of fossil fuels long before it is finished. There is not enough oil in the world for China to use as much per capita as the US does. So we are going to face rising prices and a need to move to sustainable energy regardless.

101

musical mountaineer 11.13.09 at 1:35 am

steven @77: Thanks for the link. Dyson is my kind of writer. Both Dyson and Nordhaus seem to be on the right track here, rejecting the “ambitious” options in favor of some plan involving a low-cost backstop. (I only skimmed the article yet, it’s pretty long.)

I think the objections to geo-engineering are pretty cogent, actually. Of the proposals I’ve read about, carbon-eating life-forms actually seem the most feasible. Assuming you want to sequester the carbon and not re-use it, it seems to me that for several reasons you’d want to do it with algae and sink the crud in the ocean, rather than use trees and bury it in soil. Presumably, if your tech is advanced enough to make graphite or charcoal using biological processes, you could also engineer a genetic half-life into the organisms (and hope to God it’s mutation-proof), so as to control the quantity of carbon removed.

All this is highly speculative, of course. But anything (including no solution at all) is preferable to “let’s just fix it with Good Old-Fashioned Political Power”.

102

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.13.09 at 2:01 am

Wooow! Seems like we finally have a real debate going on here! PoliticalFootball #99 posed two very interesting questions that deserves some chewing.

As for But anything (including no solution at all) is preferable to “let’s just fix it with Good Old-Fashioned Political Power” I really wanted to be the author of that sentence.

103

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.13.09 at 2:11 am

Musical Moutaineer: Of the proposals I’ve read about, carbon-eating life-forms actually seem the most feasible.

What kind of “carbon-eating life-form” candidate that would be?

104

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.13.09 at 2:19 am

I mean, do you have any link about the kind of oceanic algae that you just mentioned so I can enlighten myself?

105

Lee A. Arnold 11.13.09 at 2:50 am

It would be a genetically engineered one. But it would be on land in a laboratory, and produce gasoline, as I wrote above. Craig Venter among others has mentioned it.

But “no solution at all” is NOT an option.

Wildlife ecosystems are already in an increased extinction-debt, because of habitat diminution and fragmentation. It looks like we don’t know enough about ice-shelf dynamics to predict sea levels. Sudden shifts in the hydrological cycle may endanger water availability and agriculture. The U.S. Defense Dept. has even done a study on some alarming security issues.

Against this, we read boilerplate that the world has always been changing, anyway. We read phony cost-benefit arguments against climate mitigation — phony, because they cannot estimate the full benefits of innovations which are spurred by new preferences and because they don’t include the reduced social transaction costs of new institutions. Indeed we read that it is not useful to try to come to agreements, because humans will never agree. We read misinterpretations of the position of modellers, such as Nordhaus.

Perhaps there is a poisoning, a fatal flaw in not owning-up to basic prior errors, such as misinterpreting the mechanisms of wild species extinction and the argument for its acceleration by climate change. Very serious stuff, and probably beyond any real cost-benefit.

106

engels 11.13.09 at 2:53 am

Couldn’t we just terraform the moon? And then shrink everybody so we could all fit on it?

107

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.13.09 at 3:18 am

Well. Living in a Third World Country that had just discovered the greatest oil field that will ever be discovered in this century ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tupi_oil_field ), and knowing that my fellow countrymen are as eager as their american counterparts were in similar occasions ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/There_Will_Be_Blood ), I cannot help myself but glimpse some streks of truth in Levitt-Dubner’s statment that “those” (3rd World Developing — especially BRIC — “countries can hardly be blamed for saying, Hey, you got to free-ride your way to industrial superpowerdom, so why shouldn’t we?

As a president american once put it: “It’s the Economics, Stupid”

Now, I know how short-sighted this sound. But maybe climatologists should here and there listen to economists and vice-versa.

108

Lee A. Arnold 11.13.09 at 3:21 am

You can terraform the moon as soon as you increase its gravity.

But there’s also an emotion in our Romantic turn of the late Enlightenment, against instrumental rationality and the technological fix — scientific delirium madness, the Byrds sang. “I saw the great blunder my teachers had made.” It’s very ancient and profound, a recurrent intellectual complement to mysticisms and religions. Perhaps because it screws up the ego, too. Instrumental rationality always has its thumb up its ass.

I’m convinced that rationaltiy is instantaneously always flat — in a sort of Husserlian sense of a line-segment at the horizon. Two-ended, dipolar, pairwise. It can make links, we can follow flows, we can even picture a cycle of return, like the water cycle. But then, cycles logically can’t compute unless you add gaps in computations, steps in time. Computers are good for this, but then it is more like you are building a simulacrum, and making less of a deductive prediction.

109

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.13.09 at 3:21 am

ops. “american president”, hehehe.

110

Lee A. Arnold 11.13.09 at 3:31 am

Thiago Maciel Oliveira #107,

What would climatology learn from economics? What does climatology have to do with the equity issue? And why should the equity issue be decided by economists?

111

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.13.09 at 3:37 am

Lee A. Arnold #108
I think Byrds’ song you just having been alluded to is almost as beautiful as William Blake’s

http://www.progressiveliving.org/william_blake_poetry_jerusalem.htm
“And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?”

But as the greatest writer from my country has once put it: “It’s better to fall from clouds in the sky than from a third floor window.”

112

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.13.09 at 3:41 am

Climatologists should learn from economists the concept of “externalities”. Economists should learn from climatologists FACTS so they don’t “rush in where climatologists fear to tread”.

113

politicalfootball 11.13.09 at 3:43 am

All this is highly speculative, of course. But anything (including no solution at all) is preferable to “let’s just fix it with Good Old-Fashioned Political Power”.

I’m trying to visualize this. Okay, we invent the magic algae without the aid of government-backed research. I’m with you – corporations are known for their concern for public well-being, and their willingness to forgo profit if there are negative externalities associated with that profit. I’m sure they’ll band together in some non-governmental kind of way to address this issue, just as they did to fight the Nazis and end the Great Depression.

But once you’ve got your technological fix, who’s going to implement the solution, if not governments? You figure that benign terrorists will steal the magic algae from the benevolent corporations and seed the environment with it?

114

politicalfootball 11.13.09 at 3:49 am

PoliticalFootball #99 posed two very interesting questions that deserves some chewing.

Why thank you. I realize that you can’t be expected to have all the answers, so let’s throw this open to the rest of the participants in this thread:

Levitt, Dubner and Myhrvold got this wrong (or, as you say, “not actually wrong”) with waste heat. What do they say about this, and why should we believe them?

So, everybody, Thiago Maciel Oliveira apparently isn’t able to tell me why he thinks we should believe them. Can anyone else explain to me why Thiago Maciel Oliveira thinks we should believe them?

115

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.13.09 at 4:10 am

PoliticalFootball #114
Levitt-Dubner’s flamewar-catalystic-chapter’s central argument was –in my humble opinion– essentially an economic argument — and a very Eco 101, indeed. Something like “a market failure will exist when there is an inefficient allocation of resources due to the presence of an externality.”

Global warming is indeed a GIGANTIC market failure and their central claim are not thwarted by a “solar cells aren’t really alwalys black” sort of argument.

As Levitt-Dubner put it:

Once again, as with pollution, the answer has to do with externalities.

When a doctor fails to wash his hands, his own life isn’t the one that is primarily endangered. It is the next patient he treats, the one with the open wound or the compromised immune system. The dangerous bacteria that patient receives are a negative externality of the doctor’s actions—just as pollution is a negative externality of anyone who drives a car, jacks up the air conditioner, or sends coal exhaust up a smokestack. The polluter has insufficient incentive to not pollute, and the doctor has insufficient incentive to wash his hands.

This is what makes the science of behavior change so difficult.

116

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.13.09 at 4:20 am

Taking in consideration this dreadful-gigantic-global-externality, Levitt-Dubner think it is more probable finding a technological-tweaking solution. In a nutshell that’s it.

117

musical mountaineer 11.13.09 at 5:29 am

Okay, we invent the magic algae without the aid of government-backed research.

But once you’ve got your technological fix, who’s going to implement the solution, if not governments?

You overstate my opposition to government. Like you, I don’t immediately see how a free market can fix what is basically a problem of the commons, if the fix is mere sequestration of carbon. Back to that in a moment.

Now, if carbon-eating trees will produce fuel, leading to carbon recycling, then the economic incentive is obvious. Indeed, there are already businesses on this model: power plants powered by wood from specially-bred crop trees. But suppose we can get octane from trees: well then, whoever has the trees can sell the fuel. I’m sure Monsanto would be more than willing to front the R&D to get that business. You don’t reduce atmospheric carbon this way, but at least you don’t increase it any more.

Sequestration of carbon could be profitable, but not on a large-enough scale. Since we’re pie-in-the-skying here, why not have plants that convert atmospheric carbon into graphene, buckyballs, diamonds, etc? Grow a space elevator and use it to transport blocks of graphite into orbit so they can be cheaply propelled into the sun. No, I don’t really believe it either. I just don’t think the market for carbon products will get big enough to consume the amounts of carbon we’re talking about here.

So, whatever, government steps in. That’s okay. What I’m arguing against is the notion that we should preemptively bankrupt ourselves and establish a global regulatory bureaucracy to forcibly solve everything using current technology minus nukes. I don’t think that approach will save the planet, and I would expect it to make life not worth living. As far as I know, nobody has yet been killed or even seriously inconvenienced by global warming. So for now, I say we should keep an eye on it, and keep polluting, and keep getting rich. We won’t ever have carbon-eating trees or much of anything else if we’re all broke.

Someone on this thread said something about a cost of 1-2% of GDP. To achieve what, I’m not sure. But I don’t believe this number. There’s magical accounting going on there: failure to reckon opportunity costs or something. Wind and solar are outrageously expensive. A forced transition to those power sources would raise energy prices (and the cost of everything), by a far greater factor than 1 or 2 percent. GDP might not be affected, but that’s just a money number, not a measure of wealth or well-being. If forty percent of what you produce is solar panels, you’re poor. You can’t eat solar panels. If you replace your car with an electric car (and pay your share to build electric infrastructure to charge the thing), you’re not better off. You still just have a car. The money you spent to get there is GDP, but if you left well enough alone you could have spent the money on carbon-eating tree research. Now you’d have the option of the electric car OR the trees. Or both, if you’re rich enough.

118

alex 11.13.09 at 8:26 am

“Wind and solar are outrageously expensive.”

No, you’ve got that wrong. We have lived for 200 years under the mistaken impression that fossil fuels were ridiculously cheap. Now we’re finding out that they weren’t.

119

Zamfir 11.13.09 at 9:20 am

There’s magical accounting going on there: failure to reckon opportunity costs or something.
Actually, you are simply wrong there. I worked a little bit with some of the pretty detailed models and calculations that lead to such 1 or 2% figures (perhaps estimates is a better word), and opportunity cost is exactly what they calculate. The models look a lot like the models used to estimate the effects of taxes on the economy: putting a cost on greenhouse gas production leads to shifts in supply and demand curves, and the new equilibrium has a lower GDP, by means of lost opportunities compared to free CO2 spewing

I don’t put to much trust in these models and estimates, even if they are the best we can do. But they are a lot more subtle than you appear to think, there are learning effects, depreciation of the existing capital infrastructure, estimates of unexploited and undiscovered fossil fuel reservoirs and theri effects on prices, and hosts of other relevant factors.

The error margins on such claculations are of course huge, perhaps so huge to make the effort of limited value. This is especially true on time scales where the current captial base (power plants, oil refineries, distribution ) is no longer a constraint to the possibilities, and where slight differences in discount rates start to add up. But they are not forgetting something extremely obvious, like opportunity costs or Myhrvolds’ carbon debt from construction.

120

bad Jim 11.13.09 at 10:14 am

Under most scenarios millions of people simply starve to death. As glaciers shrink, rivers dry up. Weather patterns change. Sea levels rise. Drought and flooding alike result in famine.

People have already died as a result of climate change, of course: even we are a sensitive species. What about fish? We’re nearly out – mostly because we ate them, but also because the things some of them eat are migrating as sea temperatures change and others disappear as their habitat is destroyed.

Tinkering at the edges, which is all that unbridled capitalism offers us, isn’t going to do shit. We need prompt heavy lifting, and only international cooperation among governments can pull that sort of weight.

Look, if Bush could inveigle so many nations into joining the invasion of Iraq, why should it be so hard for Obama to get us to band together to save the population of the planet?

121

musical mountaineer 11.13.09 at 10:56 am

Zamfir, to judge by your spelling, you’re drunker than I am. Though I do allow mitigation for English as a second language. English is hard.

Care to provide a cite?

122

musical mountaineer 11.13.09 at 11:07 am

why should it be so hard for Obama to get us to band together to save the population of the planet?

Because Obama doesn’t give a fuck. He’d distill your blood to get water to flush his toilet.

He does not care. At all. Realize that, and suddenly everything he does and says makes sense.

123

alex 11.13.09 at 11:45 am

“He’d distill your blood to get water to flush his toilet.”

Cite?

124

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.13.09 at 12:22 pm

Alex #123
Let’s turn on some irony detectors here, please. I think someone was poking fun at New Age blather like “Why should it be so hard for Obama to get us to band together to save the population of the planet?”

Really! It seems so SIMPLE! Why not!?

125

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.13.09 at 12:30 pm

Maybe because the typical american voter would trash him in the polls and even Palin or Limbaugh could be America’s next president if Obama dare a more radical carbon reduction approach?

126

alex 11.13.09 at 1:01 pm

Yeah, whatever, I think you should turn on your irony detector.

127

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.13.09 at 1:17 pm

In this case, my meta-irony detector. I beg your pardon.

128

JoB 11.13.09 at 2:31 pm

What the hell is meta-irony? Is it like a double double spy who is finally just a spy who believes that he is not just a spy because there are so many spies that are just spies.

129

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.13.09 at 2:42 pm

JoB #128. Like when somebody makes an irony and somebody else piles up an irony upon the first one. I didn’t have in mind nothing so convulated as your tale about spies. Anyway, I’ve already apologized Alex so let’s not convert this incident in another meta-discussion.

130

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.13.09 at 2:49 pm

ops. “convoluted”

131

Walt 11.13.09 at 2:54 pm

Did somebody leave the nitrous oxide on in this thread?

132

lemuel pitkin 11.13.09 at 3:41 pm

Musical mountaineer — you could start by googling the Stern Review, or reading the various posts about it on this blog.

133

Barbar 11.13.09 at 5:17 pm

I thought economists were all about “people respond to incentives.” You know, silly idealistic liberals think that you can just change the world by wanting something to be true, but hard-headed economists understand that people behave the way they do for good logical reasons.

Now it turns out that “changing behavior is impossible.” You know, silly idealistic liberals think that you can just tinker with taxes and government policies, but hard-headed economists understand that human behavior is what it is and should be treated as inflexible and unchanging. Only technology can bring about change.

134

alex 11.13.09 at 6:49 pm

I think the trouble may be a belief that “people respond to incentives by voting out the sunsabitches who dare interfere with their standard of living/rate of return…”

135

Barbar 11.13.09 at 7:12 pm

Well, the real problem is that by itself “people respond to incentives” is vacuous nonsense, because people face many incentives and it is highly unclear a priori which ones will really matter. And yet I can think of a couple of millionaire economists (Mankiw, Levitt) whose fortunes were built on writing books that were “about” the fact that people respond to incentives.

136

MG 11.13.09 at 7:23 pm

This “changing behavior is impossible” school of economic thought is driving me insane.
It’s as if every woman in the US still still behaves like Betty Draper — staying home with the kids, smoking and drinking while pregnant, driving without seatbelts, bottle feeding and throwing trash from a picnic on the ground.

137

lemuel pitkin 11.13.09 at 7:43 pm

MG-

Right. And in the case at hand, Levitt/Dubner and their admirers here also ignore the fact that in the past decade, while overall US power generation has been esstinally flat, wind power has grown at a steady clip of 30% annually. In 2006, according to the EIA, nearly half (5.3 out of 12.1 gigawatts) of net new generating capacity was from wind. Arguing in 2009 that replacing fossil fuels with renewables is impractical or cost-prohibitive is equivalent to arguing that no one will ever debate politics on the Internet.

138

lemuel pitkin 11.13.09 at 7:48 pm

139

JoB 11.13.09 at 8:02 pm

129 – stackable irony, heh, comes in handy when you have to store it for later use!

(thanks MG, that ís a good one)

140

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.13.09 at 9:07 pm

Barbar #133
Your point was made by Joshua Gans (apud) Krugman as follows:

But come on. Isn’t the whole point of the Freakonomics project that prices work and behaviour changes in response to incentives? Everywhere else, a few pennies will cause massive consumption changes while when it comes to a carbon price, it is all too hard.

This is actually a pretty damn unfair claim since everyone that have read Levitt and Dubner know that their WHOLE POINT was: incentives don’t work very well in the presence of an externality. This is not beautiful, but seems to be true.

For example:

A raft of recent studies have shown that hospital personnel wash or disinfect their hands in fewer than half the instances they should. And doctors are the worst offenders, more lax than either nurses or aides.

This failure seems puzzling. (…) In a 1999 report called “To Err Is Human,” the Institute of Medicine estimated that between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans die each year because of preventable hospital errors—more than deaths from motor-vehicle crashes or breast cancer—and that one of the leading errors is wound infection. The best medicine for stopping infections? Getting doctors to wash their hands more frequently.

In the wake of this report, hospitals all over the country hustled to fix the problem. Even a world-class hospital like Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles found it needed improvement, with a hand-hygiene rate of just 65 percent. (…)

Silka and the other administrators at Cedars-Sinai set out to change their colleagues’ behavior. They tried all sorts of incentives: gentle cajoling via posters and e-mail messages; greeting doctors every morning with a bottle of Purell; establishing a Hand Hygiene Safety Posse that roamed the wards, giving a $10 Starbucks card to doctors who were seen properly washing their hands. You might think the highest earners in a hospital would be immune to a $10 incentive. “But none of them turned down the card,” Silka says. (…)

Why did it take so much effort to persuade doctors to do what they have known to do since the age of Semmelweis? Why was it so hard to change their behavior when the price of compliance (a simple hand-wash) is so low and the potential cost of failure (the loss of a human life) so high? (…)

Once again, as with pollution, the answer has to do with externalities.
When a doctor fails to wash his hands, his own life isn’t the one that is primarily endangered. It is the next patient he treats, the one with the open wound or the compromised immune system. The dangerous bacteria that patient receives are a negative externality of the doctor’s actions—just as pollution is a negative externality of anyone who drives a car, jacks up the air conditioner, or sends coal exhaust up a smokestack. The polluter has insufficient incentive to not pollute, and the doctor has insufficient incentive to wash his hands.

This is what makes the science of behavior change so difficult.

141

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.13.09 at 9:15 pm

I forgot to mention: the text from “A raft of recent studies” to “behavior change so difficult” is an excerpt from Levitt and Dubner’s controversial chapter on global warming.

142

Walt 11.13.09 at 9:25 pm

$10 Starbucks cards to millionaire doctors do prove it’s hard to change human behavior.

143

Walt 11.13.09 at 9:27 pm

And global warming is caused by an unpriced externality? Seriously, you think this is a new argument that we needed to hear from Levitt and Dubner? Next up, Levitt and Dubner explain the economic concept of “payday”, and how it occurs on “Fridays”, thus finally resolving the mystery of the money that appears in my bank account every week.

144

engels 11.13.09 at 9:39 pm

Next up, Levitt and Dubner explain the economic concept of “payday”, and how it occurs on “Fridays”, thus finally resolving the mystery of the money that appears in my bank account every week.

Sounds like it will be a hit, but if they want to make sure it sells they’d better work in some prostitutes and sumo wrestlers.

145

Barbar 11.13.09 at 10:01 pm

incentives don’t work very well in the presence of an externality

Come on. When there are no externalities, no one cares what anyone else does. We live in a nice little Econ 101 bubble where we create the most social benefit by looking out for ourselves. Since presumably most people have fundamental biological, psychological, and logical incentives to look out for themselves, there are no social problems and no social solutions.

The whole point of analyzing incentives is to adjust for the externalities created by self-interested behavior. If you pollute too much because you don’t pay the full price of pollution, then a tax that increases the price you pay may help rectify things. Why is that? Because you respond to incentives. The more you pay for pollution, the less you pollute. If the “people respond to incentives” crowd can’t get behind that, then who cares that people respond to incentives?

146

lemuel pitkin 11.13.09 at 10:28 pm

Everyone agrees that private incentives are not creating an optimal outcome. The debate isn’t about that, but about how government should rectify the situation.

Levitt and Dubner prefer a Soviet style approach, where the government picks a single technological solution and makes a large investment of public resources in it.

Most climate scientists, economists, and CT commenters prefer a market-based approach, where the government simply puts a price on carbon — via taxes or permits — and then lets private actors develop & implement whatever technologies they think will be most cost-effective.

(Of course many enviros agree with Levitt and Dubner that public investment is needed, but think it should mainly take the form of research into the proven technologies of renewable energy, rather than the speculative technologies of geoengineering. But that’s not the central debate here.)

147

politicalfootball 11.13.09 at 11:58 pm

And global warming is caused by an unpriced externality? Seriously, you think this is a new argument that we needed to hear from Levitt and Dubner?

In TM Oliveira’s desperation to make L&D seem non-despicable, he attributes an argument to them that nobody criticizes. Obviously, concern about climate change is motivated by the acknowledgment of externalities. People who think L&D are full of shit think so because L&D are full of shit – not because some aspect of their argument agrees with people who are not full of shit.

TM Oliveira’s specific charge – that opposition to L&D is a result of opposition to this the externalities thesis – is really despicably dishonest. One wonders if TM Oliveira can come up with one single example where this is the case. I haven’t seen one, and I’ve seen a lot of the criticism.

148

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.14.09 at 12:02 am

Walt #142
They’d tried other things as well. I didn’t transcribe all the section, for brevity’s sake, but let’s do it so that you can see is pretty difficult change behavior in the presence of an externality:

In a 1999 report called “To Err Is Human,” the Institute of Medicine estimated that between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans die each year because of preventable hospital errors—more than deaths from motor-vehicle crashes or breast cancer—and that one of the leading errors is wound infection. The best medicine for stopping infections? Getting doctors to wash their hands more frequently.

In the wake of this report, hospitals all over the country hustled to fix the problem. Even a world-class hospital like Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles found it needed improvement, with a hand-hygiene rate of just 65 percent. Its senior administrators formed a committee to identify the reasons for this failure.

For one, they acknowledged, doctors are incredibly busy, and time spent washing hands is time not spent treating patients. Craig Feied, our emergency-room revolutionary from Washington, estimates that he often interacted with more than one hundred patients per shift. “If I ran to wash my hands every time I touched a patient, following the protocol, I’d spend nearly half my time just standing over a sink.”

Sinks, furthermore, aren’t always as accessible as they should be and, in patient rooms especially, they are sometimes barricaded by equipment or furniture. Cedars-Sinai, like a lot of other hospitals, had wall-mounted Purell dispensers for handy disinfection, but these too were often ignored.

Doctors’ hand-washing failures also seem to have psychological components. The first might be (generously) called a perception deficit. During a five-month study in the intensive-care unit of an Australian children’s hospital, doctors were asked to track their own hand-washing frequency. Their self-reported rate? Seventy-three percent. Not perfect, but not so terrible either.
Unbeknownst to these doctors, however, their nurses were spying on them, and recorded the docs’ actual hand-hygiene rate: a paltry 9 percent.

Paul Silka, an emergency-room doctor at Cedars-Sinai who also served as the hospital’s chief of staff, points to a second psychological factor: arrogance. “The ego can kick in after you’ve been in practice a while,” he explains. “You say: ‘Hey, I couldn’t be carrying the bad bugs. It’s the other hospital personnel.’”

Silka and the other administrators at Cedars-Sinai set out to change their colleagues’ behavior. They tried all sorts of incentives: gentle cajoling via posters and e-mail messages; greeting doctors every morning with a bottle of Purell; establishing a Hand Hygiene Safety Posse that roamed the wards, giving a $10 Starbucks card to doctors who were seen properly washing their hands. You might think the highest earners in a hospital would be immune to a $10 incentive. “But none of them turned down the card,” Silka says.

After several weeks, the hand-hygiene rate at Cedars-Sinai had increased but not nearly enough. This news was delivered by Rekha Murthy, the hospital’s epidemiologist, during a lunch meeting of the Chief of Staff Advisory Committee. There were roughly twenty members, most of them top doctors in the hospital. They were openly discouraged by the report. When lunch was over, Murthy handed each of them an agar plate—a sterile petri dish loaded with a spongy layer of agar. “I would love to culture your hand,” she told them.
T
hey pressed their palms into the plates, which Murthy sent to the lab. The resulting images, Silka recalls, “were disgusting and striking, with gobs of colonies of bacteria.”
Here were the most important people in the hospital, telling everyone else how to change their behavior, and yet even their own hands weren’t clean! (And, most disturbingly, this took place at a lunch meeting.)

It may have been tempting to sweep this information under the rug. Instead, the administration decided to harness the disgusting power of the bacteria-laden handprints by installing one of them as the screen saver on computers throughout the hospital. For doctors—lifesavers by training, and by oath—this grisly warning proved more powerful than any other incentive. Hand-hygiene compliance at Cedars-Sinai promptly shot up to nearly 100 percent.

As word got around, other hospitals began copying the screen-saver solution. And why not? It was cheap, simple, and effective.

A happy ending, right?

Yes, but…think about it for a moment. Why did it take so much effort to persuade doctors to do what they have known to do since the age of Semmelweis? Why was it so hard to change their behavior when the price of compliance (a simple hand-wash) is so low and the potential cost of failure (the loss of a human life) so high? 108
Once again, as with pollution, the answer has to do with externalities.

149

musical mountaineer 11.14.09 at 12:12 am

you could start by googling the Stern Review

Well…okay.

Let’s turn on some irony detectors here, please. I think someone was poking fun at New Age blather

I’m pretty sure you’re wrong about that, Thiago.

150

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.14.09 at 12:14 am

Barbar #145: “If you pollute too much because you don’t pay the full price of pollution, then a tax that increases the price you pay may help rectify things”

I think you are minimazing a little bit the the dimension of the problem here. The externality is really freaky because it is a GLOBAL externality.

L&D: “But when it comes to actually solving climate-change externalities through taxes, all we can say is good luck. Besides the obvious obstacles—like determining the right size of the tax and getting someone to collect it—there’s the fact that greenhouse gases do not adhere to national boundaries. The earth’s atmosphere is in constant, complex motion, which means that your emissions become mine and mine yours. Thus, global warming.

If, say, Australia decided overnight to eliminate its carbon emissions, that fine nation wouldn’t enjoy the benefits of its costly and painful behavior unless everyone else joined in. Nor does one nation have the right to tell another what to do. The United States has in recent years sporadically attempted to lower its emissions. But when it leans on China or India to do the same, those countries can hardly be blamed for saying, Hey, you got to free-ride your way to industrial superpowerdom, so why shouldn’t we?”

151

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.14.09 at 12:17 am

Musical Mountaneer #149
Well, seems like I’got this twice wrong. But just to confirm: do you think it would not “be so hard for Obama to get us to band together to save the population of the planet?”, that’s it?

152

Barbar 11.14.09 at 12:21 am

I think you are minimazing a little bit the the dimension of the problem here. The externality is really freaky because it is a GLOBAL externality.

You are confusing the scope of the problem (externality) with the difficulty of changing people’s behavior (incentives). The greater scope of the problem doesn’t make it intrinsically any harder to change anyone’s behavior, it just raises the stakes. This is a fairly simple logical point, it’s strange to see you miss it after you’ve made 100 comments in this thread proclaiming how other people aren’t as smart as they think.

Oh wait, it’s not actually strange at all.

153

politicalfootball 11.14.09 at 12:38 am

TMO begins thus:

They’d tried other things as well. I didn’t transcribe all the section, for brevity’s sake, but let’s do it so that you can see is pretty difficult change behavior in the presence of an externality:

And ends thus, after a filibustering transcription:

Why was it so hard to change their behavior when the price of compliance (a simple hand-wash) is so low and the potential cost of failure (the loss of a human life) so high? Once again, as with pollution, the answer has to do with externalities.

TMO’s excerpt says absolutely nothing about externalities making behavior more difficult to change. Had there been no externality, hospitals would have had at least as hard a time getting doctors to wash their hands.

Externalities make it more important to make change – not more difficult. In a badly run political system, polluters can benefit because the costs of pollution are external, and don’t impose an incentive to behave otherwise. In a sensible political system, externalities are taken into account. If you think carbon in the air is costly, you impose a carbon tax, or do something else to align incentives with costs. This is so basic even Levitt and Dubner understand it.

154

politicalfootball 11.14.09 at 12:40 am

Barbar is quicker than I am, and more brief. I am humbled.

155

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.14.09 at 12:40 am

PoliticalFootball #147
I’m playing devil’s advocate here, actually. I really don’t like seeing people misquoting and generally misrepresenting their adversary’s points so they better can “win” an argument.

Actually, this attitude is delusional, in my humble opinion, as passionante debates aren’t really great ways of convincing people (see http://www.slate.com/id/2219486/ ).

Anyway you can learn a lot engaging in discussions, as people here and there try to coalesce some of their ideological hunches in something more substantial — all of us included.

156

Substance McGravitas 11.14.09 at 1:53 am

I’m playing devil’s advocate here, actually. I really don’t like seeing people misquoting and generally misrepresenting their adversary’s points so they better can “win” an argument.

You may wish to investigate chapter 5 of Superfreakonomics.

157

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.14.09 at 2:31 am

Substance McGravitas #156
The claims of misquoting and misrepresenting adversary’s points were greatly focused on Ken Caldeira, which had said:

“I believe all of the ideas attributed to me are based on fact, with the exception of the ‘carbon dioxide is not the right villain’ line,” he wrote. “That said, when I am speaking, I place these facts in a very different context and draw different policy conclusions.” He added that “I believe the authors to have worked in good faith. They draw different conclusions than I draw from the same facts, but as authors of the book, that is their prerogative.”

I think very insightful this piece — http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/18/global-warming-in-superfreakonomics-the-anatomy-of-a-smear/ — that, if proven correct, would be an excellent example of how some people can retreat to ecological trotskysm — as though worthwile ends could possible justify sordid means.

158

Substance McGravitas 11.14.09 at 2:35 am

The claims of misquoting and misrepresenting adversary’s points were greatly focused on Ken Caldeira

There is something way up at the top of the thread which makes the same assertion and does not mention Ken Caldeira.

159

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.14.09 at 3:22 am

Barbar # 152 and politicalfootball #153
Unfortunately, when Politicalfootball says that an externality does not hinder attempts of changing behavior, he is just fooling himself. In fact, by its very definition externalities imply inefficient allocation of resources and counteracting them will always depend on some sort of governance mechanism — be it the government, the market or communities themselves.

I think it is relevant to mention that Elinor Ostrom co-winned a Nobel Prize showing that sometimes people can internalize the externalities concerning the administration of common goods and identified eight conditions that made that kind of solutions more likely. But unluckly — and forseebly — they are not remotely met in our Global Warming conundrum.

Now, the fact the the externalities involved in Global Warming are… well… GLOBAL actually render the problem one or two orders of magnitude more complex. First, the governance problem now has to come to terms with the “coasian” nature o Public International Law, consisting in the fact that it is fundamentally based on self imposed sanctions and as such does not have anything remotely similar to central enforcement by a state-like agency. Secondly, I would like to restate what I’ve said on #107 supra.

That of course does not imply that changing behavior is an impossible task but only that it is actually harder to do than some people misleadingly seems to suggest.

160

Lee A. Arnold 11.14.09 at 3:23 am

Thiago Maciel Oliveira #157, please stop linking to other writings which you hope will be proved truthful, before you have proved them so yourself. We aren’t required to do each others’ homework, are we?

Dubner wants to cool the earth and dispute the statistics of disasters. What we have to do is get CO2 out of the atmosphere, because it is also changing the pH of the oceans and affecting coral reefs and other sealife.

Dubner writes “it’s a very hard problem to solve, since pollution is an externality”. But that would make it neither necessarily hard nor necessarily easy.

Indeed you yourself wrote at #112, “Climatologists should learn from economists the concept of “externalities”.”

Okay then so let’s take externalities (and this will have nothing to do with the study of climatology!) but let’s make a quick overview of the subject of externalities. This is the economics term for any cost or value effect, caused by a transaction, but not priced in the transaction. The externality in question is the assignment of more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, which changes Earth’s energy flux and also changes some of its biogeochemical distributions and concentrations.

But there are also good or positive externalities, as well as bad ones. My favorite instance of a positive externality is not usually classified as an externality although it is completely analogous. Instead it is called “increasing returns to an industry,” industry meaning a collection of business firms. External increasing returns were fingered by Alfred Marshall, and since his time, economists have identified the well-known positive externalities of: industrial standards on weights and measures, trade journals which share insider information, and an attracted pool of specialized workers. These are forms of external increasing returns that accrue to the benefits of all the firms. Now by definition, an externality is thrown off by a transaction, and external increasing returns to an industry (or a geographic cluster, for that matter) are, to some extent, both called out and conditioned by the transactions and transformations that are the basic processes of that industry.

On the other hand, negative externalities, such as environmental problems that are caused by economic processes, are more happily curtailed. But this can only be done in a finite number of ways: by pricing the externality back into the transactions, by making it illegal, or by resource substitution or technological innovation or new institution. And you can price it back into the transactions by a tax-or-subsidy, or by regulating it, to make some degree of it illegal. A decision about exactly what to do will be based on many factors.

We should also say that externalities both negative and positive are but one kind of the “collective” market failures. The other collective market failures are: public goods, free-rider problems, prisoner’s dilemma problems, increasing returns to scale causing monopoly, and lopsided distribution of income. And the other big division of market failure is “impaired” transactions: such as by asymmetric information, by rational ignorance, by high transaction costs, or by no property rights.

Now it’s important, when analyzing an externality and what to do about it, to consider the possible influence of the other market failures. For example, a carbon tax to increase the price of carbon will “price the atmospheric externality back into the transactions” — which is just another definition, not a result. The result will be to make other resource substitutions and technological innovations comparatively cheaper — so they will be pursued; and after they start-up, there will most likely be increasing returns to scale (i.e. a new positive externality) in the new energy sector.

But before we get to your analyses of specific cases, does the above appear to be a good short overview of externalities, or have I left anything out?

161

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.14.09 at 3:41 am

Lee Arnold #160
Generally, I like to put a link when I mention or actually attach some fragment from another website so that–as in Ken Caldeira’s public acknowledgment that Levitt & Dubner don’t wi(l)dely misquoted his research– you can check it or assess its full original context . I think that is the most transparent course of action.

162

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.14.09 at 3:53 am

Lee Arnold #160
I liked very much you short overview. Please proceed.

163

Lee A. Arnold 11.14.09 at 6:32 am

Okay, now in chap 5 of Superfreakonomics the authors liken negative externalities to doctors not washing their hands, a preference which was corrected to a 100% compliance rate by the placement of a screen-saving reminder. In other words, the behavior turned out finally to be easy to change. This outcome is in direct contradiction of the authors’ prior insistence that “when people aren’t compelled to pay the full cost of their actions, they have little incentive to change their behavior.” Now it’s pretty clear that, quite aside from their silly reportage of climatology, the authors are relying on cost-benefits of carbon dioxide mitigation that undersell the possible dangers of the warming, while overselling the likely economic disamenities of the mitigation. In fact there may be no net disamenities, when everything is finally tallied — they simply don’t know, and economics models are in far worse shape than climate models when it comes to predictions. (Indeed they are most concerned about the plight of the poor in other countries, though it is just those countries which poll highest on the need to reduce global warming: here again, it is hard to credit the authors’ insistence on respecting people’s preferences.) So, aren’t these economists fooling themselves with talk of “externalities” into falling-back upon the language of economic incentives, when their chief illustration shows that altruism works with reminders?

164

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.14.09 at 12:13 pm

Lee Arnold #163: “This outcome is in direct contradiction of the authors’ prior insistence that “when people aren’t compelled to pay the full cost of their actions, they have little incentive to change their behavior.”

Not really. Doctors know they’d better wash their hands since Pasteur’s germ theory of disease became conventional wisdom. Doctors are often quite intelligent and learned people but yet every hospital that want them not to infect their patients with germs by simply washing their hands have to keep jostling them them into this behavior.

The screensaver “solution” is just simple as long as you don’t frame it as an hospital struggling hard to discover ingenuous ways to convince doctors to comply to a behavior that they know is very benefical for their patients but not (directly) for them. As a governance problem it is not simple at all: the “solution” was hard to achieve, and achieved it is hard to publicize. I think there are very few hospitals — most certainly here in my country, but probably in EUA and other places as well — which actually apply this ingenuous solution, and this is a shame.

I think we should not minimize certain aspects of the problems we confront. Fighting Global Warming is hard. Let’s NOT go shopping.

165

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.14.09 at 2:03 pm

Ops. I meant “ingenious solution” not — of course — “ingenuous solution”.

166

Lee A. Arnold 11.14.09 at 6:09 pm

“Not really?” Come on, it’s a direct contradiction: the doctors were not compelled to pay the full costs of their actions, and even the hospitals’ long struggles didn’t amount to much in the way of expenditures.

Now it is true that the patients suffered, but in the global warming debate, the hinge of the contrarians is to suppose that the suffering might not occur.

In fact there are two hinges to this. One is to DISPUTE that global warming will be a negative externality that is strong enough or fast enough to make us alter our present course. In other words, to argue that the preference of people is not there — although polling rates in excess of 70% worldwide show for a preference to mitigate climate change — or ought NOT to be there.

And the other hinge is to bring up the discussion of externalities and what to do about them, and to worry about the mechanics of people’s incentives in these things. And, though polling rates in excess of 70% worldwide show for a preference to mitigate climate, in the developed countries there is a full-court press of faulty arguments to make us change the preference, to disbelieve that climate change is strong enough or fast enough to make us alter the present course. Indeed now we have a book chapter full of facts but assembled rather illogically.

167

Barbar 11.14.09 at 7:34 pm

There’s really no point in having a discussion with someone who thinks that the more patients who die when doctors don’t wash their hands, the harder it is for hospitals to get doctors to wash their hands. Dunning-Kruger effect indeed.

168

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.14.09 at 9:12 pm

Barbar #167: It seems that you think “the more patients who die when doctors don’t wash their hands”, the easier “it is for hospitals to get doctors to wash their hands” — that is it?

Well, I think there is no relation between one thing and another. You can have lots of people dying of infections that could easily be prevented by adoption of simple hygienic measures and and, at the same breath, you can have hospitals doing nothing about it. As a matter of fact, if this relation you are suggesting really existed, the problem would had disappeared a long time ago — in fact, at least since germ theory of disease became a central part of the dominant paradigm in medical sciences.

Nudging a doctor to wash more often his hands; convincing people that consumption of meat on a daily basis can hurt very badly the environment; and inducing legislators to approve impopular statutes that will hinder growth prospects in the short run in exchange for long term/future generations welfare — all these measures involve negative externalities and their solutions don’t naturally “emerge” just because people know the problem exists and they have to do something about it. Just look around your shoulders.

But it seems you think I’m an arrogant fool so I even don’t know why I’m trying to reply you. Isn’t a little of respect the least we can expect from our interlocutor in a debate?

169

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.14.09 at 9:22 pm

I’m putting here a link to the (in)famous stratoshield paper by Intellectual Ventures Corporations in order that you assess the (un)reasonableness of their proposal:

http://intellectualventureslab.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/Stratoshield-white-paper-300dpi.pdf

170

Barbar 11.14.09 at 9:30 pm

Unfortunately, when Politicalfootball says that an externality does not hinder attempts of changing behavior, he is just fooling himself.

and then later:
Well, I think there is no relation between one thing and another.

Yawn.

171

Lee A. Arnold 11.14.09 at 9:52 pm

It’s what happens when you try to mini-ha!-ha! the higher water…

What shall we call the market failure of misinformed consumer preferences that result from the propaganda of an oligopoly, (such as the fossil fuels industry) — “rational ignorance” wielded by the “lopsided distribution of income?”

172

Lee A. Arnold 11.14.09 at 9:54 pm

mini-haha the higher waters

173

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.14.09 at 10:18 pm

I’ve been skimming Stern Review (a very good economic report about climate change endorsed by someone above in this thread) and I think this passage is particularly relevant:

Large-scale uptake of a range of clean power, heat, and transport technologies is
required for radical emission cuts in the medium to long term. The power sector
around the world will have to be least 60%, and perhaps as much as 75%,
decarbonised by 2050 to stabilise at or below 550ppm CO2e.

According to the report, this will require not only the reversion of the current historical trend of emissions growth but also a decrease “of 25% or
more against today’s levels” of carbon emission.

Cutting to the chase, I think you can discriminate two large groups of people, as they believe (or not) that the reversion and decrease of carbon emissions just mentioned are
(or not) feasible.

As for me, I suspect that we will be capable of reducing the rate of increase but not the absolute emissions per se, as Third World Countries — first and foremost BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) but others as well — are as a general rule increasing their pace of economic growth and countries in the middle range of economical development tend to be the most polluting — a trend that recede as these countries become more technological-intensive and services-oriented. Until then, however, it is very difficult to imagine that they will actually reduce their emissions.

Besides, economic growth brings new patterns of consumption. Meat become more importante on the daily diet and people star to buy their own cars. That’s what is happening in China, India and Brazil at the last fifteen years, at least, and I think this trend will actually spread widely to other Third World Countries.

And –alas– ambiental claims have not the same weigth in the South as they have in the North, because people here are still trapped in quite unsatisfactorily (“unacceptable” being an even better word) standards of life.

Finally, world population will stabilize and begin to decline as late as 2050 or latter.

That’s why I’m rather sceptical we’ll achieve Stern Review’s reduction target of at least 25% by 2050.

174

Martin Bento 11.14.09 at 10:46 pm

On the narrow question of handwashing, it seems what Thiago is saying is that the solution was hard to discover because it was not obvious to anyone. However, once known, it is very easy to implement. Such situations are not unusual. The solution, though, is replication. Now that an effective approach is known, it can be applied cheaply; the marginal cost is very low. To the extent the risk of loss is in discovery rather than the implementation, there is a good argument for government involvement. Really, though, I don’t this has any significance to the broader debate. Ultimately, changing behavior proved easy, but knowing how to do it easily proved hard. How generalizable this is is not obvious. If it is generalizable, I think it calls for more refined research on behavior modification through incentives, aiming at generalizable findings.

175

Martin Bento 11.14.09 at 10:52 pm

The problem with the massive geoengineering approach, though, is that it is drastically not robust to errors. If the sulfur dioxide approach works perfectly as planned, its utility compared to other approaches is debatable, but if it has unforeseen effects, those could easily be disastrous and may not be detectable until the thing is at full-scale, and even then perhaps not immediately.This is the general problem with large-scale geoengineering: it is too immodest regarding human understanding of complex systems. It is amusing to see economists jump on this, as it is so unlike their skepticiswm of central planning.

176

Martin Bento 11.15.09 at 3:14 am

One more thing on the handwashing. It is interesting that what worked was not reward nor punishment, but simply reminders: not really an incentive to do what incentives failed to do. Sort of calls into question the economist’s reliance on incentives. Of course, one could define the reminders as an incentive that augments the guilt over carelessness (the guilt itself could not be so counted to the extent that it would still exist absent the reminders). But at that point we are saying: “To get the doctors to want to change their behavior, we have to use incentives”, which are defined as “anything that makes the doctors want to change their behavior”. If we define incentive so broadly, we are playing with tautologies.

177

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.15.09 at 5:49 am

I cannot respond. Help me!

178

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.15.09 at 5:51 am

Yeah! It seems like the ban has been lifted off. So:

I’ve been skimming Stern Review (a very good economic report about climate change endorsed by someone above in this thread) and I think this passage is particularly relevant:

“Large-scale uptake of a range of clean power, heat, and transport technologies is
required for radical emission cuts in the medium to long term. The power sector
around the world will have to be least 60%, and perhaps as much as 75%,
decarbonised by 2050 to stabilise at or below 550ppm CO2e.

According to the report, this will require not only the reversion of the current historical trend of emissions growth but also a decrease “of 25% or
more against today’s levels” of carbon emission.

Cutting to the chase, I think you can discriminate two large groups of people, as they believe (or not) that the reversion and decrease of carbon emissions just mentioned are
(or not) feasible.

As for me, I suspect that we will be capable of reducing the rate of increase but not the absolute emissions per se, as Third World Countries—first and foremost BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) but others as well—are as a general rule increasing their pace of economic growth and countries in the middle range of economical development tend to be the most polluting—a trend that recede as these countries become more technological-intensive and services-oriented. Until then, however, it is very difficult to imagine that they will actually reduce their emissions.

Besides, economic growth brings new patterns of consumption. Meat become more importante on the daily diet and people star to buy their own cars. That’s what is happening in China, India and Brazil at the last fifteen years, at least, and I think this trend will actually spread widely to other Third World Countries.

And—alas—ambiental claims have not the same weigth in the South as they have in the North, because people here are still trapped in quite unsatisfactorily (“unacceptable” being an even better word) standards of life.

Finally, world population will stabilize and begin to decline as late as 2050 or latter.

That’s why I’m rather sceptical we’ll achieve Stern Review’s reduction target of at least 25% by 2050.

179

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.15.09 at 5:51 am

Yeah! It seems like the ban has been lifted off. So:

I’ve been skimming Stern Review (a very good economic report about climate change endorsed by someone above in this thread) and I think this passage is particularly relevant:

“Large-scale uptake of a range of clean power, heat, and transport technologies is
required for radical emission cuts in the medium to long term. The power sector
around the world will have to be least 60%, and perhaps as much as 75%,
decarbonised by 2050 to stabilise at or below 550ppm CO2e.

180

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.15.09 at 5:52 am

According to the report, this will require not only the reversion of the current historical trend of emissions growth but also a decrease “of 25% or
more against today’s levels” of carbon emission.

Cutting to the chase, I think you can discriminate two large groups of people, as they believe (or not) that the reversion and decrease of carbon emissions just mentioned are
(or not) feasible.

As for me, I suspect that we will be capable of reducing the rate of increase but not the absolute emissions per se, as Third World Countries—first and foremost BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) but others as well—are as a general rule increasing their pace of economic growth and countries in the middle range of economical development tend to be the most polluting—a trend that recede as these countries become more technological-intensive and services-oriented. Until then, however, it is very difficult to imagine that they will actually reduce their emissions.

Besides, economic growth brings new patterns of consumption. Meat become more importante on the daily diet and people star to buy their own cars. That’s what is happening in China, India and Brazil at the last fifteen years, at least, and I think this trend will actually spread widely to other Third World Countries.

And—alas—ambiental claims have not the same weigth in the South as they have in the North, because people here are still trapped in quite unsatisfactorily (“unacceptable” being an even better word) standards of life.

Finally, world population will stabilize and begin to decline as late as 2050 or latter.

That’s why I’m rather sceptical we’ll achieve Stern Review’s reduction target of at least 25% by 2050.

181

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.15.09 at 5:53 am

According to the report, this will require not only the reversion of the current historical trend of emissions growth but also a decrease “of 25% or
more against today’s levels” of carbon emission.

Cutting to the chase, I think you can discriminate two large groups of people, as they believe (or not) that the reversion and decrease of carbon emissions just mentioned are
(or not) feasible.

182

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.15.09 at 5:54 am

As for me, I suspect that we will be capable of reducing the rate of increase but not the absolute emissions per se, as Third World Countries—first and foremost BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) but others as well—are as a general rule increasing their pace of economic growth and countries in the middle range of economical development tend to be the most polluting—a trend that recede as these countries become more technological-intensive and services-oriented. Until then, however, it is very difficult to imagine that they will actually reduce their emissions.

183

Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.15.09 at 5:54 am

Besides, economic growth brings new patterns of consumption. Meat become more importante on the daily diet and people star to buy their own cars. That’s what is happening in China, India and Brazil at the last fifteen years, at least, and I think this trend will actually spread widely to other Third World Countries.

And—alas—ambiental claims have not the same weigth in the South as they have in the North, because people here are still trapped in quite unsatisfactorily (“unacceptable” being an even better word) standards of life.

Finally, world population will stabilize and begin to decline as late as 2050 or latter.

That’s why I’m rather sceptical we’ll achieve Stern Review’s reduction target of at least 25% by 2050.

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Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.15.09 at 5:55 am

Besides, economic growth brings new patterns of consumption. Meat become more importante on the daily diet and people star to buy their own cars. That’s what is happening in China, India and Brazil at the last fifteen years, at least, and I think this trend will actually spread widely to other Third World Countries.

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Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.15.09 at 5:55 am

And—alas—ambiental claims have not the same weigth in the South as they have in the North, because people here are still trapped in quite unsatisfactorily (“unacceptable” being an even better word) standards of life.

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Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.15.09 at 5:56 am

Ambiental claims have not the same weigth in the South as they have in the North, because people here are still trapped in quite unsatisfactorily (“unacceptable” being an even better word) standards of life.

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Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.15.09 at 5:59 am

Well. I’ve met some kind of difficult posting, and have been trying to sail around the “Your comment is awaiting moderation.” ban. But it is getting harder…

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Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.15.09 at 6:01 am

Particullarly this one:

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Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.15.09 at 6:12 am

[There is a comment about South-North relationthips that seems banned, so I’ll skip it]

Finally, world population will stabilize and begin to decline as late as 2050 or latter.

That’s why I’m rather sceptical we’ll achieve Stern Review’s reduction target of at least 25% by 2050.

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Thiago Maciel Oliveira 11.15.09 at 6:14 am

I’ll try to change the order of the phrases: “People here in the South are still trapped in quite unsatisfactorily standards of life and that is one reason why ambiental claims have not the same weigth in the South as they have in the North.”

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Lee A. Arnold 11.15.09 at 11:16 pm

I am live tweebblogfeeding my reading of Superfreakonomics Chapter 5. A stylistic howler a page:

p. 166 — The authors move directly from an extreme statement by Lovelock to the “consensus of climate scientists” — will most readers know that these are NOT the same thing?

p. 167 — They state that buying meat cancels buying a Prius — without remembering the previous paragraph, when the old farts had been driving to the store at 10 miles a gallon. And they don’t mention that methane farts, while being far more powerful a greenhouse gas, have a tiny “atmospheric half-life” by comparison with CO2. The authors SHOULD know this, since friends always stand near each other, and always discover this sort of thing.

p. 167 — “And think how hard the cattle ranchers would lobby Washington to ban kangaroo meat.” No, really — this is printed there, on that page. This is a big problem coming, babes.

p. 168 — Suggests that the economic models are in better shape than climate models — oh no don’t get me started, who in hell is running this damned internets exactly. this would take a book to examine. does everybody have to write a book back?

p. 169 — Suggests that a terrible case scenario kicks in at 10 degrees Celsius. But no: probably at around 1 or 2 degrees Celsius, if species attempt to migrate from diminished and fragmented ecosystems, for their own reasons of temperature or moisture, and then run into various human barriers, causing cascades of localized species extinctions of those organisms not compatible with humans. But of course! the terrible case 10-degreewise is from Economists, who are infamously ignorant of Ecology, and so I suppose we shall have to let it pass just one more boring time. How long ago did Weitzman write it anyway?

p. 170 — Here again, Lovelock’s call for a “sustainable retreat” appears to be imputed, by an unclear segue, to be the opinion also of the “patron saint” Al Gore — who as far as I know isn’t calling for that. I think Gore is in favor of growth, but along different avenues. I haven’t read all the way through Earth in the Balance, though. Did he go on to express “belief?” I hardly doubt it were not Christianphilic. Yes, I know these sorts of comments are longer than tweeps.

p. 171 — Externalities are adumbrated in a curious manner, as heretofore animadverted. (77 characters)

I am discontinuing my preference to do this, for now. If there is demand for more of this sort of sad pallbearing, I suggest you hire an advertiser to correct the incentives! Perhaps we have found another book which shall have to be excused upon principles of literary genre? Well you might have expected this sort of thing, in a science fiction future.

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a concerned brazilian 11.16.09 at 5:54 am

Dear Thiago,

As a fellow brazilian I must say you´re intelligent and argumentative, but risks to be classified by the timberites (or by any average people as well) as a boring person, or worse, as a troll. That´s usually what happens to people that try to kidnap the flow of the discussion as you do _ and the above 73 comments in a thread of 185 (186 now) comments are a impressive testimony of this. Curb your enthusiasm. :)

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David in NY 11.16.09 at 8:10 pm

You’ve all seen that grand success, Reagan’s “Star Wars”! Now the sequel, “Climate Wars”!

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Martin Bento 11.18.09 at 8:10 pm

Thiago, There are forms of carbon sequestration even from the atmosphere that probably make sense. For example, not just blue-green algae for fuel, but for food. Water shortages and soil depletion are likely to lead to serious food shortages this century, and bg algae increases in biomass, and therefore absorbs carbon, faster than any other “plant” (technically it’s bacteria). Nutritional content varies, but many forms are complete proteins, over half protein by dry weight, provide EFA’s including omega-3’s (eggs that have omega-3’s usually come from chickens fed algae oil), and a pretty good variety of vitamins and minerals. Cue someone to go “Oh my God! But the taste!” – usually someone who has not tasted it. Strains vary, but some taste fine to my buds, and, even if you don’t like the taste, it is not a strong taste; it is easily overpowered.

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