Nonstop Silliness

October 30, 2009

[white+paint+can.jpg]Levitt and Dubner apparently don’t back down. Here’s their article from Wednesday’s USA Today. I’m sure they’re selling a lot of books, but in doing so, they’re being disingenuous: acting one way and simultaneously decrying what they’re doing; doing ethics and claiming not to do ethics. For what follows, I’ll ignore their scientific claims. As I’ve said, I’m not qualified to criticize the climate science. Let’s just start here, with their scenario:

Imagine for a moment that a terrible, unforeseen threat to humankind had suddenly arisen, one so grave that it endangered the very future of the planet. Two teams of respected scientists immediately set to work, trying to find a solution to the impending disaster.

The first set of scientists returned with a potential solution, but it had some shortcomings. It was expensive, with a price tag in the trillions of dollars. It also required nearly every human being on the planet to change his or her behavior in fundamental ways. And even if the scientists’ scheme worked, it would take decades for the benefits to be felt.

The second set of scientists returned with a very different answer. Their solution cost less than one-thousandth as much to implement and did not require anyone to change his behavior. The scientists could get their solution up and running in roughly a year, with the benefits to be felt immediately. And if the simple fix turned out to not work as expected, it was quickly and easily reversible.

Fair enough. Fun example. From what I can tell, it has nothing to do with climate science, but okay. Deltoid has the full scoop on why it’s a terrible comparison.* I’ll just mention a few points…

First, their comparison stacks the deck in favor of option two, suggesting that climate change is sudden and unforseen. Nearest I know, climate change is not at all like that. It will unfold over decades, where our individual decisions will make a difference as those decades unfold. It’s not an impending cataclysm, and we shouldn’t pretend or act like it is. Inapt comparisons are likely to lead to incredibly draconian policy solutions.

Second, the first set of options doesn’t necessarily require every human being on the planet to change his or her behavior in fundamental ways. Broad public policies can be implemented that will shift the balance of GHG output without widespread impacts on individual actions. Maybe Levitt and Dubner mean that, as a result of these actions, prices will change, and in doing so, our behavior will change. But if that’s the case, geoengineering will also require every human being on the planet to change his or her behavior in fundamental ways, since the ways in which we’ll be changing the planet will presumably change behavior. If it rains when it wasn’t going to rain, that’ll change what we do.

There’s more to the weakness of this comparison, but I’ll spare you.

Instead, let’s ignore all that. Let’s just take their silly example on its face.

On its face, the second set of scientists appears to have the clear and winning solution. Nobody has to change their behavior. It’s cheap. It works. It’s fast. Awesome. Ethics is easy! (Even though, mea culpa, Levitt and Dubner are not doing ethics.)

Alas, we’re given no details about the means through which the solution functions. This relates in part to the aptness of the comparison, of course (and facts matter here, since L&D are using the comparison to urge us to accept one set of real-world solutions over another); but it also relates to the upshot of their claim. To help see how their example smuggles in a bunch of moral assumptions, strip the scenario of any link to the geoengineering proposals they discuss. If the scientists’ chosen solution allows something terrible, then maybe we should re-think whether it’s the morally better alternative.

Is it a final solution, for instance? Maybe their clever solution is this: Nuke China. That’s a great scientific solution! Meets all of the criteria — cheap, fast, functional, and nobody has to change his or her behavior.

What? No likey? Uneasy about that ambient radiation? No sweat. How about a deadly pandemic instead? That’d do it too. What if we open that door? C’mon. No muss, no fuss.

Nope? Still worried about those solutions?

Here’s something a bit less risky: just let millions of people starve to death. Outrageous? None less than the great biologist Garret Hardin proposed such a solution, much to the excoriation of the ethical community.

Still have problems with those wacky proposals (maybe they grate against your view of human rights)? Perhaps then we can find something more fantastical, involving non-human changes to our friendly globe. No problems with human rights there.

What if the solution to global warming involves killing all of the fish in the ocean; or, better yet, painting the mountains and rivers a shiny white? Should we do that?

Suppose that we could. Suppose that our intrepid team of scientists suggests that if we just paint all of the rocks on every continent white, we could stave off global warming and continue living just as we always have. Nobody would have to lift a finger. We could paint the mountains and roads by hiring leagues of zombie boy scouts. The government would handle everything. Might even be nice to see the Grand Canyon all dolled up Christo-style. Could inspire a new wave of tourism. Would that then be a good solution?

I say no.

Oh, sure, you can go on for quite a while talking about the “environmental costs” of painting all of the mountains white — I’m sure our economist friends would — but that’s not what concerns me. What concerns me is that steering the climate in this way, even though it may bring our climate to stability, opens many, many doors to violate the rights and interests of other people. I say more on that here.

Point being, it’s not just that D&L’s comparison is inapt, but that the logic supporting their preferred resolution is extremely weak. Because the thought experiment is intended to bring us to the conclusion that we should prefer or entertain geoengineering solutions over other solutions, we not only need to have an apt comparison, but we also have to know more about what the wise scientists suggest. Simply bringing about a stable climate through a clever engineering strategy is nowhere near enough to permit such an action.

Incidentally, I think Deltoid is stretching to find a lede when he says that L&D “liken climate scientists to flat earthers.” I think he’s maybe even doing so when he says that the image is of a flat earth. The point can be argued, but it doesn’t strike me as important.



  1. OK, I’ll bite. L&D argue that “geoengineering solutions deserve a seat at the table in the global-warming discussion” and I think that their analogy was designed to explain why it deserves a seat. I’ll grant that it is not a great analogy, but any argument for geo is going to involve some intellectual calisthenics.

    SO, on to you, far more interesting than L&D …

    Are you arguing that geoengineering does not deserve a seat at the proverbial climate policy table?

    Or that if it deserves a seat we can preemptively rule it out and thus use it seat for something else?

    That L&D are disingenuous fools?

    All of the above? Something else?

    To make my position clear, I am opposed to geoengineering (stratospheric aerosols) as I wrote in the Copenhagen Consensus exercise and subsequently in response to Lomborg. But at the same time I have no problem having geoengineering advocates at the table (because I think that the arguments for it won’t fall in their favor.)

    I have seen too many policy options kept away from the table (adaptation, air capture, carbon tax … etc.) because someone argues that they are being advanced by the disingenuous and even corrupt. And who cares about L&D anyway when the UK Royal Society, Paul Crutzen, Ken Caldeira and others say that geo deserves a seat at the table . . .

  2. I do think they’re being disingenuous, but I’m not arguing that here.

    I’m also not arguing that they don’t deserve a seat at the table, though on a very strong reading of my argument, I can see why you might infer that. I’m also not arguing that we should pre-emptively rule it out (even though I have strong inclinations in that direction). I’m really only demonstrating the weakness of their argument.

    One of the really specialized things that philosophers like to do is just look at itty-bitty arguments, one at a time. So I think I can hold that their argument is exceptionally weak without making strong claims about the overall legitimacy of allowing a discussion of geoengineering.

  3. Yep, fair enough.

    Though to be fair to L&D their “argument” seems to be why geo deserves a seat, and not why geo is the solution. I’d argue that geo deserves a seat because some people think that is might be part of a solution, not because the arguments that they advance are necessarily good ones.

    This also is an itty-bitty distinction that I think worth making for reasons above.

  4. I don’t know. Yes, they say that that’s what they’re arguing, but the upshot of their argument isn’t that we should bring both sets of scientists together and have them hash out the ethical implications, or the betterness and the worseness, of their views. The upshot is that we should clearly prefer one over the other; and that is not at all clear.

  5. I read the USA piece. I am not sure why you believe this is a silly example. I understood the context to be that both imagined solutions were merely potential solutions, both requiring further investment and exploration (I read this as verification that one or both will work).

    The Authors state:

    “Faced with these two options, most people would aggressively explore the latter solution (while possibly also investing in the first if the threat were deadly enough).”

    They appear to only be asking for the second option to be aggressively explored.

    Personally, I would like the Statoshield option explored. We already have many volcanic naturally occuring experiments to learn from, and know this technique will result in cooling for a one or two year period.

    The only question I have is what, if any, negative consequences will there be.

    Then a cost benefit analysis needs to be done to compare them to the negative consequences of the first solution. Higher taxes, changing fuel for heat, electricity and transportation and manufacturing are the least of the costs for the first option – so lets not assume it is the best option without studying all options before taking thoughtless action.

    By thoughtless action – I refer to attempting to sign the whole world to a treaty which will only deal with about 50% of the alleged cause. CO2 is only about 1/2 the forcing, and science is now indicating we need to also look at Methane, land use issues, black carbon and other items.

    One cannot help but get the feeling that the science on climate change is not all done yet – that we really do not understand whether natural variability encompasses our current warming period – that we do not really know whether a reduction of CO2 emissions to 1990 levels will actually fix the problem, as advertised.

    • No doubt, the science is nowhere near done. The problem is that the changes are out-pacing the science. If the changes out-pace the science too quickly, we won’t be able to catch up.

      But the problem is that we simply don’t want to go stumbling into the view that we can accept any old feasible geoengineering strategy, so long as it is cost effective and it works to keep our climate stable. Economics is ill-equipped to address the outrageous complications that such proposals would introduce.

      To maybe take the edge off here, I should mention that I’m actually supportive of technologies like atomospheric capture and carbon scrubbing. I think those are technologies fundamentally different than technologies like stratospheric SO2 injection.

  6. Very good point. In the usual faculty fights, Eli never says money, he always says resources because while money is fungible there can be other ways of meeting needs. Economists tend to lose sight of this which is why they undervalue non-monetary activity (volunteering, etc).

  7. I have to agree with Roger to a certain extent. Nominally, all L&D are doing is arguing that GE proponents deserve a seat at the table. They’re just doing it in their usual provocative way. At this stage, they’re probably correct that GE does deserve a seat at the table, even if their arguments are shoddy.

    And speaking of their shoddy arguments…

    I think the apparent strength of their argument comes mainly from loaded language. Compare ‘potential solution’ to ‘solution’ and ‘even if the scheme worked’ to ‘if the simple fix turned out not to work as expected’. If you take out the loaded language, I think it’s clearer that (as you argue) they haven’t provided us with enough information to make an informed decision.

    More importantly, though, I think their column exaggerates both the promise of and our understanding of GE.

    And finally, because I can’t resist the comparison, their argument by innuendo about flat earthers reminded me of this Onion article: http://www.theonion.com/content/node/49180 (Note the line near the bottom where the guy compares himself to Einstein and Copernicus.)

    • Problem is, as Ray Pierrehumbert shows, they are bringing childish nonsense to the table.

  8. Problem is, it’s not like it doesn’t have a seat at the table. I mean, philosophers are even talking about it. That says something. Check out this overview of all of the places it’s been taken up:


    • To extend the analogy, L+D are arguing that GE should be seated at the head of the table.

  9. […] now claiming to have sponsored its second major snowfall. So folks, here’s my entirely non-ethical argument for geoengineering: if we don’t do it, somebody else […]

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