Climate Change Skeptics Embrace ‘Freakonomics’ Sequel

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Friday, October 23, 2009 at 6:00 am
Superfreakonomics and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oka.) (HarperCollins, WDCpix)

SuperFreakonomics and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) (HarperCollins, WDCpix)

The early reviews for “SuperFreakonomics” have been harsh. The book, wrote Brad Johnson in The Guardian, is a “super freaking mess.” According to environmental journalist Joe Romm, it contains “many, many pieces of outright nonsense” and “major howlers.” In The New Republic, Brad Plumer attacked the book for “garden variety ignorance.” And all of those pans appeared before the book actually hit the shelves this week.

Image by: Matt Mahurin

Image by: Matt Mahurin

Authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner didn’t face anything like this three years ago when they published “Freakonomics,” a surprise smash that sold 4 million copies. Unlike that book, which was based entirely on Levitt’s economic research from the University of Chicago, “SuperFreakonomics” is a guided tour of other peoples’ contrarian research and ideas. The final chapter deals with global warming, characterizing the beliefs of pessimistic environmentalists as “religious fervor,” and arguing that the climate change solutions proposed by Al Gore and many Democrats are ineffective and unworkable. It repeats claims that environmental journalists have debated or debunked for years. As a result, the authors are getting some early support from climate change skeptics who feel that attitudes toward their stances are getting brighter.

“It reminds me of what happened when Michael Crichton wrote ‘State of Fear,’” said Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, which gets some of its funding from the energy industry. “The problem for the left is that there are still some people who don’t toe the party line who have megaphones. And anyone who has a megaphone, they’re going to go after.”

Ebell’s reference to “State of Fear” demonstrated just how meaningful “Freakonomics” could be to people who challenge conventional wisdom about climate change. The late author’s novel, published in 2004, cast as villains environmentalists and eco-terrorists who were perpetrating hoaxes to maintain their power. Coming after Crichton had made some well-publicized and much-maligned remarks skeptical of climate change science, the book was pilloried by environmentalists. It sold more than 1.5 million copies anyway.

In the years since, many climate change skeptics feel that the environmental movement has lost ground culturally and politically. A Pew Research poll released on Thursday found that the number of Americans who believed that man-made global warming was occurring, or that a hotter planet was a serious problem, had fallen precipitously. In April 2008, 71 percent of Americans said that global warming was happening, and 47 percent said it was man-made. In the new poll, only 57 percent of Americans said any global warming was happening, and 36 percent said it was man-made. Many skeptics are taking that poll as a sign that their message is getting through.

“There’s just so much … skepticism now,” said Matt Dempsey, a spokesman for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the Environmental and Public Works Committee and one of the most prominent skeptics of climate change in Washington. In making the case that Americans are growing more skeptical, Dempsey said, “the Pew poll is one data point. This book is another data point.”

Levitt and Dubner have engaged their critics in the environmental movement, accusing them of “smears” for suggesting that the climate change chapter of “SuperFreakonomics” makes them “global warming denialists.”

“I think anyone who actually reads that chapter will come away with a better fact-based understanding of the actual issues surrounding global warming,” Levitt told TWI. “That said, I also think that partisans love to cherry-pick, regardless of what side of the aisle they sit on.”

Indeed, the climate change skeptics who are excited about “SuperFreakonomics” and the environmentalists who are criticizing the book are focusing on some of the same material. The controversial chapter opens with ironic quotes from Newsweek and New York Times articles from the 1970s that published frightening, if slapdash, research about “global cooling.” That phony scare is a favorite of climate change skeptics, who have attempted to bring it back from obscurity in books and in films like the just-released “Not Evil Just Wrong.”

“The man who came up with that theory, Stephen Snyder, is now one of the people scaring everyone about global warming,” said Martin Hertzberg. The retired meteorologist, who lives in Colorado, has been skeptical of man-made global warming for decades. He has converted the liberal journalist Alexander Cockburn to the belief that, as Cockburn quoted him saying, “the greenhouse global warming theory has it ass backwards,” while getting into scraps with environmental journalists like George Monbiot.

“The idea of man-made global warming is fear-mongering and hysteria,” said Hertzberg. “There are a large number of know-nothing journalists and environmental lobbyists working hard on this, and they’re completely wrong. Al Gore is not a meteorologist. He knows nothing about science.”

Levitt and Dubner do not challenge all of Gore’s arguments about climate change science. What they do challenge is the idea that man’s use of carbon is speeding along a major catastrophe, and that something like cap-and-trade could be the answer. “It’s illogical,” they write, “to believe in a carbon-induced warming apocalypse and believe that such an apocalypse can be averted simply by curtailing new carbon emissions.” Prominent skeptics told TWI that such an argument, from such high-placed experts is long overdue.

“They’re absolutely right,” said Patrick Michaels, a senior fellow in environmental studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. “Look at the numbers. If every nation that has obligations under the Kyoto Protocols adopted the restrictions of Waxman-Markey [cap-and-trade legislation], you’d see a 7 percent drop in warming by 2100, about 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Michaels, who has not read the book but is planning to pick it up, saluted Levitt and Dubner for tackling an issue that few popular economists touch. “It’s about time that people who do popular economics tell people the truth,” he said. “Fortunately, the planet is not warming.”

While Levitt and Dubner do not actually argue that the planet is not getting warmer, some skeptics are hopeful that the book could direct people to studies that suggest that. “I think it is very important to question the [environmentalist] true believers,” said Patrick Moore, an early member of Greenpeace. Now, as the chairman of Greenspirit Strategies, he does some work for energy companies and supports new nuclear power. “[It's important] as they display all the qualities of doomsday fanatics. There is ample reason to be skeptical, including the fact that the world has been warmer than today for most of the history of life, and the fact that CO2 has been much higher than today through most of the history of life.”

The controversial phrasing and criticism in “SuperFreakonomics” is in the book to make another point. Levitt and Dubner present research into geoengineering, a Gordian Knot solution to a warming planet that, for example, would replicate the effect that a massive eruption of volcano ash can have in making the planet cooler. It’s not a popular idea among some skeptics, who argue that bogus data is responsible for much of the global warming panic. One of those skeptics is Ross McKitrick, a professor at Canada’s University of Guelph whose research suggests that numbers suggesting a spike in global temperature are out of whack. He was hopeful that “SuperFreakonomics” could cut through the “groupthink and political correctness” and expose environmental journalists such as Joe Romm as dishonest activists who can’t accept criticism.

“He’s a former Clinton staffer who runs an attack blog funded by Soros money,” said McKitrick of Romm, whose ClimateProgress blog is a project of the Center for American Progress. “He’s only respected by people who approve of his inflammatory tactics and relentless politicization of the issue.”

Climate change skeptics are excited by the prospect of the general public reading Levitt and Dubner, but they’re expecting the authors to remain targets of an active and desperate green movement. “It will make people think and say, yeah, that’s right, it doesn’t make sense to do this,” said Ebell. “But that will just make the environmentalists even angrier.”

Phelim McAleer, the director of “Not Evil Just Wrong,” said his movie had begun to inspire protests and interruptions. His advice for the authors: Develop tough skin.

“Be prepared for it to get worse before it’s going to better,” said McEleer. “They don’t like questions, as Al Gore showed. Enviromentalist journalists are environmentalists, and they will always side with the environmental establishment. Don’t expect fairness from journalists.”

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Comments

51 Comments

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jeffinohio
Comment posted October 23, 2009 @ 11:36 am

Superfreakonomics and State of Fear are to environmental science what Angels and Demons and The DaVinci Codes are to theology.


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Aaron Huertas
Comment posted October 23, 2009 @ 4:31 pm

The chapter in question was available through review copies well before it was available in stores. Now we know that Levitt and Dubner's major sources both contradict their argument that we can ignore the need to reduce heat-trapping emissions.

It's no surprise that climate contrarians are latching onto this flawed book. Peer reviewed science and scientists themselves do not back their views, so they have to grab onto whatever they can to justify their anti-science positions.

More here: http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/science_an….

Thanks,
Aaron Huertas
Union of Concerned Scientists


Tim Warren
Comment posted October 23, 2009 @ 5:20 pm

“There is ample reason to be skeptical, including the fact that the world has been warmer than today for most of the history of life, and the fact that CO2 has been much higher than today through most of the history of life.” This statement is not only misleading, it's factually incorrect. CO2 in the atmosphere has never risen above 300 parts per million, ever. Since the industrial revolution, it has risen to 380 parts per million–a huge percentage increase–and it is still rapidly climbing. As for temperature–of course the temperature has fluctuated throughout the history of life with the cycles of the ice ages due to long term changes in the earth's orbit, but the critical fact about this is that the temperature has always fluctuated over the course of 40,000 years. That gives life enough time to adapt. Now, because of our CO2 emissions, temperature is rising over the course of decades, and life cannot keep up.


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Comment posted October 23, 2009 @ 7:47 pm

I guess they've seen how many rubes have bought into the Birfer scam & are now ready to expand the franchise…


Swami_Binkinanda
Comment posted October 23, 2009 @ 8:04 pm

So Chicago School economists are pushing conspiracy theories. Not a big surprise. My question is, when their conspiracy theories (e.g. global warming and climate change concerns are really about making money for Al Gore, a typical ad hominem based on hot air and conservative funding) crash into existing conspiracy theories from the other Cockburn, namely that the government is controlling the weather (using HAARP, chemical seeding of jet aircraft contrails, etc.) becomes a reality in the form of purposeful release of sulfates in the atmosphere? Isn't this just a back door plot by right wing extremists to make conspiracy theories come true?


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BenV
Comment posted October 23, 2009 @ 9:43 pm

Tim,

http://www.bris.ac.uk/news/2009/6546.html
760 parts per million 33.5 million years ago.


markbyrne
Comment posted October 23, 2009 @ 10:26 pm

That should be Stephen Schneider (not Snyder).


Patrick Moore
Comment posted October 23, 2009 @ 10:27 pm

In response to Tim Warren's claim that CO2 “has never risen above 300 parts per million, ever” it is he who is entirely incorrect. There is ample information in scientific literature that show CO2 levels up to 20 times higher than today in the past. See:http://earthguide.ucsd.edu/virtualmuseum/climatechange2/07_1.shtml
As I stated, “CO2 has been higher than it is today through most of the history of life on earth”.


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JG
Comment posted October 24, 2009 @ 9:18 pm

Arguments against global warming based on CO2 levels from millions of years ago are misleading. Heck, millions of years ago the earth was primarily molten lava, life couldn't exist on molten surface. Millions of years ago the atmosphere was primarily hydrogen sulfide – life as we know it today did not exist, it took millions of years for different forms of life to make the atmosphere breathable.

What they ignore are TIMESCALES, changes that take place over millions of years cannot be compared with changes that take place over decades. Simply because life adapted to a hydrogen sulfide atmosphere over millions of years does not mean life (without mitigation or technology) will be able to adapt to extreme CO2 levels in a couple of decades.

Real Climate has addressed the issues raised in the book:

http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2…


jeffomatic
Comment posted October 24, 2009 @ 10:53 pm

Arguments fror global warming based on CO2 levels from the last 50 years are misleading. The temperature variations in no way follow the same curve as CO2 level. This shows that other factors are predominant.


Patrick Moore
Comment posted October 25, 2009 @ 2:13 am

JG has a rather fanciful idea of the earth's evolution. The earth was not primarily lava millions of years ago, if ever. The earth is about 4.5 billion years old. Life began about 3.5 or more billion years ago. I am just talking about the last 500 million years when most of the present life forms evolved and the atmosphere was similar to today (79% nitrogen, 19% oxygen) except CO2 was much higher, as it has been during most of the evolution of modern life forms such as fish, mammals, birds, etc.
All I am saying is that there are good reasons to be skeptical about the certainty of the true believer's doomsday predictions. The crystal ball is actually a mythical object. Nobody can predict the future with certainty.


zplonk
Comment posted October 25, 2009 @ 11:27 am

What I always wonder is, how do MMGW-skepties and deniers explain the melting glaciers and North Pole then? That's right they don't or desparately claim 'sun spots' before retreating with their tails between their legs.

Skeptics have glorious retreated from “It's not getting warmer at all” to “It's getting warmer, but 'It wasn't me'-defense, like that Shaggy song or any 6 year olds reaction for the missing cookies in the cookiejar.
Some really skilful deniers have discovered that this retreat makes their position weaker, so they have even more foolishly returned to the “it's not getting warmer at all” folly.

Ultimately, it's easier to be in the SUV driving, hamburger eating, anything goes camp of the deniers. Putting on restraints on one's life, not going on a holiday 3 times per year, that whole Calvinist, sober way of life, is much harder.

Irresponsibility is easy. Responsibility is hard.


zplonk
Comment posted October 25, 2009 @ 11:33 am

omg, patrick, you actually believe this whole “Nobody can predict the future with certainty.”??? Wait, that is just a theory, innit? Maybe nobody can, but that's why we developed science. Scientists all over the world are telling us it's warming, we see the picture of melted glaciers, drowing Pacific Islands and drowning polar bears, but just to be contrary and with “Gawd”, no doubt, you think it's all a hoax? Sure, there might be mistakes here and there. That's no logical argument for leaving the main hypothesis. That's like saying : “Hey a few bricks are missing, so it's not a house, it's a tent!”


zplonk
Comment posted October 25, 2009 @ 11:45 am

@BenV
from your link:
“New carbon dioxide data confirm that formation of the Antarctic ice-cap some 33.5 million years ago was due to declining carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. “

If you were arguing against the existence of a greenhouse effect, then this shows that these actual scientists have found EVEN MORE arguments for the finding that temparatures rise with CO2, and fall without it.
If you weren't, if you were arguing that its not man-made, then please look at the last 500 years or so. It's fluctating too fast for it to be natural.

Essentially you're saying:
Global warming is not man made because the earths temparature fluctuated just the same over periods of 40,000 years, millions of years ago. Yes, maybe.

But I don't wanna live in an era that killed off dinosaurs. Or even one remotely like it.


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the_Lorax
Comment posted October 25, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

Patrick:
Clearly 500 million years ago is not an important enough number for you to reference. Carbon Dioxide levels were higher 500 million years ago, and there were ZERO humans living, let alone the fact that vertebrates were only first evolving on the planet. Even 100 million years ago there were ZERO humans. and very few recognizable species in existence. This might have been habitable, but certainly not for us or any of the food that we need to survive. The problem with your argument remains the time scale and the rate of change, and they are staring you in the face.


Bill in San Diego
Comment posted October 25, 2009 @ 3:12 pm

As an engineer, attorney, and long-time environmentalist, I'm appalled at the tone of the AGW debate. I expect liberals to be able to argue science rationally, unlike right wingnuts, and I'm embarrassed that liberals are so often arrogantly rude in AGW arguments. Scientifically, both sides had good points and concerns; but as the facts emerge and the dust settles the skeptical position seems stronger. GW still bears watching, but a drastic policy change is not warranted. It would be like attacking Iraq when the evidence for WMDs is weak! FWIW, I support a stiff tax on oil consumption to stop enriching our enemies, and protecting our country from coal industry pollution and extraction damage. But scientific issues need to be considered dispassionately; and I'm quite worried that the environmental movement is going to lose a great deal of credibility if, as appears likely, they've been so bullyingly certain of the incorrect position.


Patrick Moore
Comment posted October 25, 2009 @ 3:40 pm

I suppose I should have said “no one can predict the future climate with certainty.” Of course we can predict when the sun will come up, when the tide will be high, and a few other things. There are too many variables at work to predict the climate in the future.
The glaciers have been melting, off and on, for the past 13,000 years. We only began to measure Arctic sea ice in 1979 with satellites so we have a very short record. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Arctic sea ice also shrank in extent during the warm 1930s.
Take a look at this website:http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/
You can see that Arctic sea ice was at its lowest since measurement began in 2007. It has recovered somewhat since then. You will also see that Antarctic sea ice has not been shrinking but actually growing a little.
When you add the area of Arctic sea ice and Antarctic sea ice there has been virtually no change since 1979.
I agree with Bill, especially zplonk has a bad attitude, as if anyone who has a different point of view is an idiot.
If it would be so bad for the climate to warm a little then why are most of the people living in warm climates and hardly anyone in Siberia or northern Canada?


jeninoh
Comment posted October 25, 2009 @ 6:18 pm

They're talking about meteorology like it's an exact science???

Let's face it folks, there are three professions where you can be wrong more often than you are right and still pretend to have credibility:

1. Politician
2. Pundit
3. Weatherman


Rich
Comment posted October 26, 2009 @ 9:05 am

Wrong.

A) The reason why there is no apparent direct correlation is because there is a time lag. When you turn on the heat pump in your room, you do not expect the temperature to get hot right away, but if you don't turn it off then it eventually will.

B) Humans have been around for millions of years, dinosaurs have been around for hundreds of millions of years. Life has been around for half a billion years, and the earth is 4billion + years old. That is exactly why it is scary when we see changes normally occurring in millions of years occurring in hundreds of years.


BenV
Comment posted October 26, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

All I was doing was responding to Tim's statement that CO2 levels have never risen above 300ppm.

Responding to a statement that is incorrect, quoting from a study that mentions a higher CO2 level, providing a link to the study quoted from does not make a person pro or con.

Are you saying that any person who actually looks at facts, hard numbers, field gathered data, and climate factors other than CO2 is a skeptic?


zplonk
Comment posted October 26, 2009 @ 10:08 pm

yes, you are a skeptic if your hard data has no bearing whatsoever on the present situation. In this case that will point to your bad faith.

Again:
You are basically saying: “Oooooooh, when the temparature
was a gazillion degrees, at that point in time, the CO2 was higher than 300ppm!” And your implication is that it is NOT a bad thing. That it, since it occurred naturally, it's a good thing, or a thing worth looking at, or a thing we should look at from “both sides”

But I don't wanna live in such a world. That was a world way too hot for mankind and it naturally developed over a period of 40,000 years. Don't you see anything wrong with the same or a highly similar situation enfolding, but articificially??? In a MUCH shorter time period?

In the short time that Mankind lived on the planet, the CO2 has NEVER been over 300PPM.
The fact that had been higher when we couldn't live here is just one more argument for OUR case, not yours.


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Adam
Comment posted October 31, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

One thing that has to be mentioned is the media's cross-investment in nuclear technology. Note the 'Day After Tomorrow' hyperbole, but an utter lack of 'Silkwood'-type movies in the last couple decades? The parent companies of media (news, movie studio, &c.) firms bought out Westinghouse's, GE's, and other firms' nuclear power divisions. Global warming hysteria makes dirty, dangerous, expensive nuke power generation a palatable alternative for the public.

The first 'Freakonomics' also pissed off both conservatives and liberals, for–among other things–pointing out that abortions led to fewer gangbangers and criminals. Often the truth IS ugly and politically-incorrect.


Nick P.
Comment posted November 14, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

After reading the above article and doing my own homework on what the authors had to say about their own work I have to congratulate the Mr. Weigel on continuing the right wing practice of misconstruing the debate. http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/1…
I never cease to find it amazing how so easily manipulate the science that supports their point of view while often debunking the very same science they disagree with.
The fact that climate variations have obviously existed historically is not disputed by anyone, yet the scientific fact that the current pace of climate change we are currently experiencing is unprecedented is debunked as junk.
Why do I believe we are going through man made climate change? Simply put I respect the willingness of climatologists and scientists to constantly question their ideals and answers.
Remember, it took decades of opposition and questioning my the tobacco industry to make us question our own judgement about the negative impacts of cigarettes. For many the truth came to late. The difference here is we will all suffer the consequences of the skeptics actions.


scheng1
Comment posted December 6, 2009 @ 5:09 am

The one factor missing from all the environment studies is the healing ability of the Planet Earth.
Fortunately Planet Earth does not behave accordingly to the computer model. However, it still uncertain how much pollution the planet can absorb.


scheng1
Comment posted December 6, 2009 @ 10:09 am

The one factor missing from all the environment studies is the healing ability of the Planet Earth.
Fortunately Planet Earth does not behave accordingly to the computer model. However, it still uncertain how much pollution the planet can absorb.


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