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.
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.