SuperFreakonomics generates heat on global warming

Even before publication, the book SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance is the topic of hot debate – on economists’ blogs, including Krugman’s, on Amazon, and, of course, on environmental sites.  SuperFreakonomics’ authors are Steven D. Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and Stephen J. Dubner, a former writer and editor at The New York Times Magazine.

The heat was generated by Chapter 5 of the book, which deals with global warming and mitigation techniques, such as geoengineering.  Since the chapter is no longer available for perusal on Amazon, it’s hard to take part in the debate.  But here’s one of the co-authors, Dubner, defending the chapter:

Our global-warming chapter has several sections. We discuss how it’s a very hard problem to solve since pollution is an externality – that is, the people who generate pollution generally don’t pay the cost of their actions and therefore don’t have strong incentives to pollute less. We discuss how even the most sophisticated climate models are limited in their ability to predict the future, and we discuss the large measure of uncertainty in this realm, given that global climate is such a complex and dynamic system. We discuss some of the commonly held misperceptions about climate and energy, including the fact that the historic relationship between global temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide is more complicated than is generally thought.

The real purpose of the chapter is figuring out how to cool the Earth if indeed it becomes catastrophically warmer.

Here’s how Krugman, with his usual understatement, puts down the authors:

. . .they didn’t even look into the debate sufficiently to realize what company they were placing themselves in.

And that’s not acceptable. This is a serious issue. We’re not talking about the ethics of sumo wrestling here; we’re talking, quite possibly, about the fate of civilization. It’s not a place to play snarky, contrarian games.

Here’s a review of the whole book in the Financial Times this past weekend.