SuperFreakonomics Authors Take Heat on Global Warming

Last night I attended a Hooks Books event with Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the authors of SuperFreakonomics, the sequel to Freakonomics. The book has stirred early controversy with its portrayal of the global warming debate. Levitt and Dubner suggest that carbon dioxide's role in warming the planet is vastly overrated and they take a long look at geoengineering to help reverse climate change. Opponents think they're willfully misrepresenting science.

The night's only question on climate change came from a young man at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit that wrote this long blog critique of SuperFreakonomics. He acknowledged the two sides' differences and asked the authors to help clear the air and work toward a common understanding of climate change. Dubner took the response, which crescendoed from a sound discussion of carbon dioxide basics to surprisingly defensive repudiation of the question.

"If [global warming] is a big enough problem to worry about, which we think it is, and if the goal is how to cool the earth in time, what do you do?" Dubner began. "We realized the most common idea ... carbon mitigation ... is probably too little, too late and too optimistic." He said small improvements like driving a Prius were easily off-set. "If you drive to the store and buy  a hamburger, you cancel it out," he said, because of the ecological cost of producing meat.* The solution to our climate change crisis is more likely in the field of geoengineeing than the currently discussed methods of carbon reduction.

But that's where Dubner took a turn, claiming he felt "attacked on crazy, made up, ideological ... falsified grounds." He added, "it's hard for us to know who to take seriously ... Your job is to attack us. I want to have a meaningful dialogue. Your tactics do not suggest that you are of a like mind. Our publicist loves it." To smatterings of laughter he added, "Maybe we just deeply misunderstand Washington."

I don't want to make premature verdicts about Dubner and Levitt's research, because I have not read the entire climate change chapter. But I was disappointed that Dubner failed to address a single specific criticism of the book in his response. (He has responded to some criticism on the Freakonomics blog.) A more complete write-up of the event will follow later this afternoon.

*While I didn't see Matt Drudge at the event, Madeleine Kennedy points out that Dubner's hamburger claim anticipated today's headline news: