Author Archives: Tom Olson

When Books Collide: Sloppy 'Superfreakonomics' Meets its Match in Lucid 'Climate for Change'

This is a tale of serendipity.  About two brand-new books on climate, written independently, that mysteriously collide.

One of them, Superfreakonomics, manages – despite the fame and brilliance of its authors – to enthusiastically endorse two notorious misconceptions about climate science.

But here’s the serendipitous part.  Even though the authors of the second book, A Climate for Change, had never seen Superfreakonomics, they managed to write spot-on rebuttals on both points.

Freaknomics and its brand-new sequel

Unless you’ve been trapped in a bomb shelter the past few years, you’ve heard of Freakonomics, the best-selling book by a star economist (Steven Levitt) and his journalist co-author (Stephen Dubner).

Levitt, a professor at the University of Chicago, is a brilliant guy.  He’s already won a “best young economist” prize, which often foretells a future economics Nobel.  And Dubner is a gifted writer.

Freakonomics gave us colorful accounts of some of Prof. Levitt’s own quirky research.  Like his study of Japanese sumo wrestling records, which showed that top-rank wrestlers deliberately lose certain matches to help their opponents remain in the elite top tier.  Presumably in the hope that they’ll return the favor.

So far, so good.

Now our best-selling authors have written a sequel: SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance.  Its official release date is Tuesday, October 20, 2009.

As you can guess from the title, one chapter is about climate change.  That chapter has been the subject of what diplomats would call a spirited debate over the past few days.  You can read the chapter for yourself (PDF, sorry, not the best quality).

What are people saying about the Superfreakonomics take on climate?

Well, here’s Professor Paul Krugman (who actually has a Nobel in Economics):

[T]here’s an average of one statement per page [in the Superfreakonomics chapter on climate] that’s either flatly untrue or deeply misleading.

The respected climate science blog, RealClimate.org, says this about Superfreakonomics’ proposed fix to climate change:

the reasons why Levitt and Dubner like [their solution] so much are based on a misreading of the science, a misrepresentation of proposed solutions, and truly bizarre interpretations of how environmental problems have been dealt with in the past.

And here’s The New Republic’s Brad Plumer:

Levitt and Dubner just parachute into the field of climate science and offer some lazy punditry on the subject dressed up as ‘contrarianism.’  There's no original research.  There's nothing bold or explosive.  It's just garden-variety ignorance.

Then there’s economist Brad DeLong:

I have a little unsolicited advice for Levitt and Dubner.  If I were them, I would abjectly apologize.

Statistical genius Nate Silver, of FiveThirtyEight.com, says that

the chapter on climate science is by far the weakest material in either of the two Freakonomics books.

Not to mention the tireless Joe Romm of ClimateProgress:

New book pushes global cooling myths, sheer illogic, and ‘patent nonsense.'

Meanwhile, an actual climate scientist writes A Climate for Change

While an economist and a journalist were busy writing Superfreakonomics, a real-life climate scientist and geoscience professor, Prof. Katharine Hayhoe, was writing A Climate for Change.  (Actually, co-authoring it with her husband, Andrew Farley, an evangelical pastor.)  It’s out on October 29, and you can order it here.

You may not know Hayhoe, but you should.  She’s an outstanding young climate scientist, so well-regarded that she was chosen to be a principal author of the recent report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States.  And both she and her husband have golden pens.

A Climate for Change is designed to communicate to everyone with a special focus on people of faith – what they need to know about climate change.  In plain, crisp English.

Sloppy Superfreakonomics blunders mysteriously anticipated by brilliant climate scientist

Now for the serendipity.

Superfreak blunder #1:  “Carbon dioxide doesn’t necessarily warm the earth.”

Here’s what Levitt and Dubner say on p. 183 of Superfreakonomics:

“[C]hanges in carbon dioxide levels don't necessarily mirror human activity.  Nor does atmospheric carbon dioxide necessarily warm the earth:  ice-cap evidence shows that over the past several hundred thousand years, carbon dioxide levels have risen after a rise in temperature, not the other way around.”

That second sentence?  Though written by Levitt and Dubner, House Republican Joe Barton – a fervent climate change denier – often says the same thing.  Like the Superfreakonomics authors, Rep. Barton hasn’t done his homework.

But here’s the great part:  Hayhoe wrote the rebuttal without even seeing the Levitt/Dubner book.  Here’s your first sneak preview of A Climate for Change:

The Chicken or the Egg?"

"[Looking at the historic record, some people say that] [c]arbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are just following suit rather than leading the hand.  . . ."

Within this line of reasoning, there is a partial truth. So, first, let’s look at the true part.

Scientists believe that the last ice age ended thousands of years ago when Earth’s orbit shifted, altering the distribution of sunlight received by the earth. Temperatures rose a few degrees over several hundred years, with little or no change in greenhouse gases. So, as far as we can tell, it is indeed true that greenhouse gases have never initiated a climate warming before.

Now, for the rest of the truth. That initial temperature change caused by the sun was only one-third of the total temperature difference between that ice age and today. So what caused the rest of the warming?  The answer is:  carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

So the truth is that increases in carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases have caused temperatures to increase in the past. And realizing this has many scientists worried.  If just a slight warming caused by the sun could be amplified threefold by natural carbon dioxide . . . way back then, what might happen today?”

So much for the chicken and the egg.  What about this claim from the Superfreakonomics authors:  “Nor does atmospheric carbon dioxide necessarily warm the earth.”

Here’s what Hayhoe told me what I asked her about that today:  “That’s a complete non sequitur.  Carbon dioxide molecules absorb infrared, or heat, energy; this has been understood since the 1700s. And as far as we can tell from the data, carbon dioxide increases have always warmed the earth.  No exceptions.”

Superfreak blunder # 2:  “Global temperatures are now declining."

On page 187 of Superfreakonomics, the authors say this:

“Then there’s this little discussed fact about global warming:  as the drumbeat of doom has grown louder over the past several years, the average global temperature reading over that time has in fact decreased.”

To call this claim “little discussed” is a bit strange.  The “global warming is over” claim is a staple of climate change deniers.  It’s a constant mantra on Fox News, among other places.  In fact, not long ago, anchor Laura Ingraham threw it at Hayhoe at the end of an interview on The O’Reilly Factor – while giving her no time to respond.

But the mantra is wrong.  And once again, Hayhoe managed to anticipate the Superfreakonomics mistake:

“No Cooling in Sight"

Despite the evidence for a warming trend from the global record, some still claim that global warming has slowed down, or that ‘it’s not much of a problem anymore,’ or even ‘It’s stopped.’  Talk of global cooling . . . has recently resurfaced.

It’s true that, if the sun alone were controlling our climate, there would be reason to suspect that we’re headed for a new ice age—eventually.  . . .

But today, we know the sun is not the only factor.  As we’ll discuss later, the idea that greenhouse gases are driving climate has been around for more than 150 years.  And this theory has been the subject of tens of thousands of scientific journal articles.

Even still, the notion of global cooling has recently resurfaced, and Figure 4 helps explain why.  This graph zooms in on global temperatures over the last fifty years.  The red line shows how temperatures have been rising from 1960 to 2010, while the blue line shows how you can use this same record to support an argument that the world actually cooled from 1998 to 2008.  Some carefully select these two data points to argue that climate change isn’t occurring.  Or they even claim that the world is cooling.

Graph - The Truth of Warming: No Cooling in Sight

It’s true that the blue line from 1998 to 2008 slopes downward.  At first glance, one might think this suggests that global warming is slowing down.  But climate change is about what is happening across decades and centuries.  It’s certainly not about the difference between two specifically selected years, [especially when 1998 was a strong El Nino year.]

The true change in global temperature—an undeniable warming—is seen by drawing a line across multiple decades. Here, we see 1960 to 2008, for example. . . .  These longer-term graphs accurately depict the warming trend we are experiencing, and illustrate the problem with selecting two individual years that are a decade apart, connecting the dots, and then arguing for global cooling.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

By now, you’ve figured out the moral of this little story:  if you want a clear, lucid explanation of climate change, the book you want is Professor Hayhoe’s A Climate for Change.

As for Superfreakonomics, let’s wait for the second edition and see if they can get their science right.

Posted in News| Comments closed

Best Economic Analyses: Economy Can Thrive as We Cap Carbon

When you want to find out which cars are best, you look to honest experts who do their homework – like Consumer Reports or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

At EDF, we do the same thing when it comes to analyzing how the economy will fare under a carbon cap:  we look at what the neutral, nonpartisan economists are saying.

In the world of economic forecasts, the honest brokers include the Environmental Protection Agency, the Energy Information Administration, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Congressional Budget Office.

In a just-released publication, EDF’s economics team looks at what these nonpartisan experts are saying about the House-passed American Clean Energy and Security Act (H.R. 2454, or ACES).  As you recall, that bill would put a gradually declining cap on emissions of heat-trapping gases.

Here’s what we found:  according to unbiased economic experts, if we adopt ACES, the US economy will reach $25 trillion in the spring of 2030 – just a couple of months after it would do so with no cap.  In other words, we don’t have to compromise between a strong economy and a better environment.  We can have both.

To help you see how tiny the impact of a cap on economic growth will be, check out this chart:

gdp_bars

The new EDF paper builds on our analysis last year of nonpartisan studies of earlier climate bills.  The new studies square up perfectly with last year’s:  fighting climate change is easily affordable.

So what about those wild numbers you hear tossed around – that if we cap carbon, the economy will crater and families will go broke paying ginormous utility bills?   Those numbers aren’t from these neutral, nonpartisan studies; they’re from “studies” by groups who want to kill climate legislation.

We’ve rebutted the crazy numbers elsewhere.  But this brief is about real economic studies done by serious, neutral experts.

The new paper also compares the tiny costs of protecting ourselves against potentially catastrophic global warming with the much larger amounts we spend to protect ourselves in other ways – like police and fire protection, life insurance, and national defense.  This chart tells the story:

dollar_penny

There are a lot more goodies in our economists’ new report — check it out.  And if you want the graduate-level course, you can learn still more about climate economics at http://www.edf.org/climatecosts.

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The Real Story: Home Energy Provisions in the Climate Bill

The Web and the Twitterverse are awash with nonsense about the clean energy bill that passed the House in late June.

The bill's opponents are trying to scare homeowners by making them believe an energy audit or retrofit is required before they could sell their homes.  That's nuts — the bill does nothing of the kind.  Here's what it actually does:

  • For existing homes, the bill creates incentives to encourage people to do retrofits of their homes. It doesn't require anything.
  • For new homes, the bill establishes federal guidelines for energy-efficiency labeling. It's up to local governments whether they want to have new homes in their area labeled or not.

See more details in our fact sheet on home energy in the climate bill.

Posted in Climate Change Legislation| Comments closed

Let's Just Give Up

That, in a nutshell, is Jim Manzi's prescription for climate change (see the June 8 National Review).  It's a really, really bad one.

I'll limit myself to three key points here, though there is much more to say about why Mr. Manzi is mistaken.

1. The damage from climate change in the United States is likely to be very large, and very bad. And it is coming soon.

Mr. Manzi may not have had the chance to take a look at the work done by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, a major scientific effort by prominent research scientists from around the country, coordinated by scientists at federal agencies.

One thing this project has done is to look hard, using the best available scientific tools, at the specific impacts of climate change in the United States.  The final draft report on that topic came out in early January 2009.  That is, it came out during the George W. Bush Administration, with the approval of President Bush's appointees across the federal government.  It's called Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States.  You can see the draft here. (The final version should be out soon.)

It's worth a close look.  (The graphics are spectacular.)  And it tells nothing like the Pollyanna-ish story that Mr. Manzi — a very successful entrepreneur, and obviously a smart person, but not a scientist — tells in his piece.

Just a few highlights of what we can expect during this century from the what-we-worry course that Mr. Manzi prefers:

  • By the period 2080-2099, devastating heat waves of the kind that killed more than 700 people in Chicago in 1995 will occur three times per year.
  • During that same period, the climate of Michigan will become like that of North Texas today.  Illinois will become like South Texas.
  • Florida will become stunningly and unrelentingly hot:  "By the end of the century, projections indicate that North Florida will have more than 165 days (nearly six months) per year over 90˚F, up from roughly 60 days in the 1960s and 1970s."
  • The Great Lakes are likely to lose up to two feet in depth by 2070, with devastating effects on shipping:  "up to 240 tons of capacity [per large ship] for each inch of draft lost."
  • "The combined effects of natural climate variability and human-induced climate change could turn out to be a devastating ‘one-two punch' for the [Southwest] region."

There is much more.  I urge you, and Mr. Manzi, to read the CCSP report to see for yourself.

The 2080's may sound like a long time away to Mr. Manzi, but they don't to me:  odds are my grandkids, and I hope my kids, will be alive to see the world we've left them.

2. However much we spend on government research, private firms will have no incentive to reduce their greenhouse gas pollution if it continues to be free to dump it into the atmosphere.

Curiously, Mr. Manzi does not credit the so-called "Breakthough Institute" for his proposal to solve the climate problem exclusively through government-funded research.  But his advocacy suffers from the same fundamental problem as theirs:  if a firm can emit pollution without paying any price for doing so, it has no incentive to spend money on cutting its pollution – whether using government-developed technology or otherwise.

It is truly surprising to see a prominent National Review columnist so strongly opposing use of the most basic of all free-market economic tools — markets and prices, which a cap would create — in favor of a hypothetical, future, government-funded, Buck Rogers fix.  (Mr. Manzi's philosophy is popularly known as "pay-and-pray.")

Consider one (important) practical example.  Suppose the government devotes vast  resources to developing new and better ways to capture the carbon dioxide emitted by coal-burning power plants and burying it underground.  (This is called "carbon capture and storage" in the business.)  However advanced this technology may be, it will cost money.  Why would Duke Power, AEP, or any other utility spend a penny on this technology if they can simply dump their pollution into the air for free?

Every undergrad who takes Econ 101 learns it's bad if firms can impose their costs on other people – that is, externalize them.  Starting with the Clean Air Act in 1970, we've insisted that companies internalize the costs of other types of pollution — like mercury, sulfur dioxide, and dioxin.  But, in violation of the most basic rules of economics, we have yet to insist that firms internalize the costs of their global warming pollution.  That's what cap-and-trade — and the Waxman-Markey bill — does.  It's the right thing to do to protect us from the climate misery that the scientists tell us we are rushing towards if we continue, as Mr. Manzi urges, to do nothing.

3. Mr. Manzi's projections of costs are far off base. 

Lots of serious economists have looked at the economic impact of putting a ceiling on greenhouse gas emissions.  And the consensus is that, at worst, it will have a very small impact on incomes and on GDP.   I say "at worst" because no one knows how to model the ways in which necessity (a price on carbon) begets invention, and thus lower costs.

The EPA's analysis of the current (Waxman-Markey) bill is consistent with this consensus:  the Agency estimates that the bill is likely to cost households between $98 and $140 a year – less than a postage stamp a day.

Mr. Manzi says he can't believe that.  But the EPA's analysis relied on two of the most respected and sophisticated economic models available.  It is simply absurd for  Manzi to baldly pronounce that "he doesn't believe the numbers," as if he were competent to  judge what economic estimates are credible or not.

In any event, there's plenty of logic behind the EPA analysis, including the fact that there are huge opportunities to live the same lifestyle we live now, while using much less energy.

Here's a homely example:  the office building in which my organization rents space in Washington, D.C. is heated by an archaic, inefficient boiler that operates at about 60% efficiency.  Much more efficient boilers are available – boilers that save so much energy that they have payback periods of only a few years.  (And there are American jobs at every stage of replacing this dinosaur, from mining to manufacturing to installation.)

The respected consulting firm McKinsey & Co. did a big study showing there are similar opportunities throughout the economy.  With a little incentive from energy prices that internalize pollution costs, doing these sensible things becomes an easy lift.

There will always be voices telling us it's too much trouble to control pollution – pieces like Mr. Manzi's were commonplace before we cracked down on conventional pollutants in 1970, and before President George H.W. Bush used cap-and-trade to attack acid rain (very successfully) starting in 1990.

It would be a ghastly mistake to heed them.   

Posted in Economics| Comments closed

EPA Chief Stops Action on Global Warming – For Now

Tom OlsonThis post is by Tom Olson, a consulting attorney for the Climate and Air Campaign at Environmental Defense Fund.

Last Friday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally released its Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking – EPA's answer to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that greenhouse gases fall within the Clean Air Act's definition of "pollutant".

There are a number of differences between the final document and the leaked May 30th draft. (See this post from a Georgetown Law professor praising the draft's balance and expertise.) Most significantly, EPA chief Stephen Johnson prefaced the document with a series of denunciations by White House officials. And then, adopting the views of the White House, he disparaged the work of his own staff.

The final version also included some disturbing changes to the analysis itself.

Read More »

Posted in EPA litgation, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Policy| Comments closed
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