Follow-up on Superfreakonomics and Climate Change

Chapter 5 of Superfreakonomics must be the most discussed pre-release book chapter ever. And I have participated in debates before but nothing as seemingly intense as this. My Sunday morning thoughts on the whole matter were picked up by Brad DeLong (who classed me as a defender of Levitt and Dubner), Paul Krugman (who didn’t) and Tim Harford (who was reflective). The discussion has moved on from anger and resignation; near as I can tell. Stephen Dubner has responded but somehow he and Levitt have both come out of this somewhat tarnished. Brad DeLong summarises what many are thinking and that is disappointment.

And I think disappointment is the word. The Chapter was always going to be controversial. Indeed, that is the point of the chapter as it tries to argue that the climate change debate has been distorted by emotion rather than evidence in so many places. This is why the extreme alarmists and denialists are just that and the scientific debate is caught in the middle trying to lay out the options and risks in a more level headed manner. But what that meant is that Levitt and Dubner had to be extra-careful. “A strong but one-sided story” as Tim Harford so aptly put it (enough interestingly for him to also be labelled a defender of Levitt and Dubner by DeLong) was not going to cut it as a contribution to the debate.

In retrospect, there are many, including myself, who think they could have done much better. Indeed, what they wanted to say was what Nathan Myhrvold wrote today:

The point of the chapter in SuperFreakonomics is that geoengineering might be good insurance in case we don’t get global warming under control. Nobody can tell you today exactly how much CO2 we can emit without causing grave environmental harm. Nobody can tell you at what point the world will find the political will, the money, and the technological innovation to solve the problem. In a situation like that, can the world afford to turn its back on what could be a promising approach should we fail with our other efforts?

But it does not come out that way and that is a pity.

The Superfreakonomists should take heart on one matter. This disappointment arises because of high expectations and a high reputation. Economists know that whatever they might think of these popular books, they have lifted economics in the eyes of the public. It is a platform that has assisted many of us. I just wish that the stewards of that platform had been more careful in their stewardship. Reading by sceptics and other economics colleagues would surely have been a start. The one thing we know from academia is that peer input prior to wide dissemination is valuable and a good insurance policy.