Superfreakonomics Will Misinform Readers on Climate Science

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The forthcoming SuperFreakonomics, written by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, plays fast and loose with the scientific consensus on climate change. The book's fifth chapter, "Global Cooling," revisits a number of discredited arguments that misinform readers about the danger unchecked global warming poses to the United States and the world.

The authors also gloss over solutions available now that could help reduce global warming and instead promote a futuristic technology that makes for an interesting read, but, unfortunately, would do nothing to cut pollution now.

Muddling Climate Science

Excess carbon dioxide from burning gas in cars and coal in power plants and destroying tropical forests has increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere to levels unseen in millions of years and is largely to blame for the increase in global average temperature scientists have measured over the past century.

As the authors ably explain, damage from carbon dioxide production is an economic externality, something one person or one business does that affects everyone else in the world. But strangely, the authors spend a great deal of the chapter seemingly defending the idea of increasing levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

At one point they say more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will increase growth rates for plants. What they fail to mention is that weeds, allergens and invasive species are among the plants that may grow faster with elevated levels of carbon dioxide. Overall, the minor benefit for some plants pales in comparison to the major disruptions climate change could bring to agricultural crops, forests and natural ecosystems, as well as human society.

Whether intended or not, this is the same tactic that the oil and coal-friendly group, CO2 is Green, has adopted. It's also reminiscent of the tobacco industry's claims that "smoking is good for you." In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency has labeled carbon dioxide a pollutant because too much of the gas is changing our climate and setting in motion a series of changes that will have serious consequences around the world.

The authors also brush off the critical role carbon dioxide will play in determining our future climate when they criticize climate models for projecting what they say is too large a range for future temperatures -- between 2 and 10 degrees F above today's levels. But what they fail to mention is such projections depend almost entirely on how much more heat-trapping emissions go into the atmosphere. Models project that a decrease in production of heat-trapping emissions would lead to less warming -- around 2 degrees F by the end of the century--while continued high emissions would lead to greater warming -- closer to 10 degrees F.

A two degree shift is dangerous but tolerable. Ten degrees would be catastrophic. Nevertheless, Levitt and Dubner say, we should abandon efforts to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

These are just a couple of the many contrarian claims repeated in SuperFreakonomics.

Technical Fixes

Levitt and Dubner advocate the advantages of unproven technological solutions such as putting reflective particles into the atmosphere to bounce away sunlight and cool the Earth. When you ask scientists about so-called "geo-engineering" solutions they will tell you that we have no idea if it will work, that it might backfire and that even if we could do it, that it would be no excuse for failing to reduce the heat-trapping emissions that cause global warming now. It's worth noting that scientist Ken Caldeira says the authors misrepresent his views on geoengineering in their book. He does not support geoengineering to the exclusion of reducing emissions as the authors imply. Instead, he says we need to reduce excess carbon dioxide emissions to zero.

The authors appear to have taken a purposefully contrarian position on climate change science and economics. The scientific myths that Levitt and Dubner highlight will likely continue to persist in circles of people opposed to reducing emissions. It is far easier to believe there's no need to do anything about a problem if one believes the problem does not exist.

But science doesn't work that way. According to the United States' leading federal and academic scientists -- as well as the peer-reviewed scientific literature -- global warming is happening, it's hurting us now and the degree to which it will affect our children and grandchildren depends on the choices we make about how we use energy today.

While it's tempting to believe geoengineering may solve our problems, we need to work now to address climate change.

Luckily, the House of Representatives did pass legislation that would dramatically reduce heat-trapping emissions and momentum is building for the Senate to do the same. If all goes well, world leaders who meet in December's climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark will produce an effective international treaty to address climate change.