SuperFreakonomics: Jon Stewart gets it wrong on climate change
Love the guy, but he’s wrong this time.
Steve Levitt, one of the authors of SuperFreakonomics, was nervous about going on The Daily Show. The last chapter of the book has come under heavy criticism and one supposes Levitt fretted that Jon Stewart would add his voice to the growing chorus of condemnation.
He needn’t have worried.
During the interview, Stewart echoes many of Levitt’s points. He calls worries about global warming a “secular religion,” and finishes the segment with an observation that “I’ve apparently frightened our audience by suggesting that conservation isn’t the only way out of any of the problem of the world.”
In short, Stewart misses the point completely. There’s no doubt the environmentalist movement is full of people who are ideologically opposed to consumption. But there are also plenty of people (like myself) who are no fan of hairshirts, but still worry about the potential catastrophic impacts of climate change. The problem with Levitt’s book isn’t that it attacked a holy cow (it may have done that, but that isn’t the problem). Where Levitt went wrong is that the solution he and his co-author Stephen Dubner propose isn’t actually a solution.
The technology they highlight in their book isn’t actually that controversial. You’d be hard pressed to find somebody who really worries about catastrophic climate change who doesn’t think that geoengineering isn’t something to be considered. After all, there’s a very good chance that we’ll fail to rein in our carbon emissions, and at that point using a long, long hose to spurt sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere may be the best option left.
The problem is, as I’ve written before, that geoengineering is no more a solution to climate change than air fresheners are a fix for second-hand smoke or antiretroviral medication are a cure for AIDS. If the only challenge posed by rising carbon dioxide level was simple uniform warming of the earth, then the solution proposed in SuperFreakonomics might work. But as Gavin Schmidt, NASA climatologist and blogger at RealClimate points out, the climate is a bit more complex.
Unfortunately, the real world (still) has an ozone layer, winds that depend on temperature gradients that cause European winters to warm after volcanic eruptions, rainfall that depends on the solar heating at the surface of the ocean and decreases dramatically after eruptions, clouds that depend on the presence of condensation nuclei, plants that have specific preferences for direct or diffuse light, and marine life that relies on the fact that the ocean doesn’t dissolve calcium carbonate near the surface.
Worse, if you start this type of geo-engineering, but don’t cut emissions, then you’re committing to continuing. If pumping sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere turns out to have unanticipated negative side-effects, you won’t be able to afford to shut the spigot. The accumulated greenhouse gases would trigger an accelerated rise in global temperature.
In other words, we have yet to find a simple solution to climate change. When people like Steve Levitt, Stephen Dubner, and now Jon Stewart, present geo-engineering as an easy fix, they’re undercutting the effort to find a real solution. This time, Jon Stewart has let down his viewers–and with them, the rest of the world. Conservation may turn out not be the only solution to global warming, but so far it’s the best one we’ve come up with.