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The New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert is one of the best green writers out there--and in her recent joint book review of the controversy-ridden SuperFreakonomics and the maligned-by-default-by-Gore-haters Our Choice, she proves why. One book scoffs at our fears of climate change, and suggests that a miraculous silver bullet will be delivered unto us via geoengineering. The other meticulously outlines the challenges we face in fighting climate change, and the difficult choice we must collectively make to improve our behavior as a species. One of these books is horseshit. Okay, that's not just me being crass (though, for the record, no, I am not above that). It's the so-called Horseshit Parable that refers to the plight faced in urban areas like London and New York around the turn of the century: horse-drawn craft was the primary form of transportation, and the cities were growing to be knee deep in horse poop. No solution was in sight, world leaders threw their hands up in the air, and everyone assumed the cities to be doomed to a fecal fate. Then, out of nowhere, someone invented the automobile, and the cities were saved.
Point of the parable as drawn by Mr. Levitt and Mr. Dubner, authors of SuperFreakonomics: technology offers unforeseen, cheap solutions to expensive problems, and that some form of technology will come along to save us from climate change. You know, without us having to go through that pesky process of reducing emissions or modifying our consumption of fossil fuels. Kolbert writes:
Levitt and Dubner have in mind a very particular kind of "technological fix." Wind turbines, solar cells, biofuels--these are all, in their view, more trouble than they're worth. Such technologies are aimed at reducing CO2 emissions, which is the wrong goal, they say. Cutting back is difficult and, finally, annoying. Who really wants to use less oil? This sounds, the pair write, "like wearing sackcloth." Wouldn't it be simpler just to reëngineer the planet?Indeed not. And yet again, the problem returns to the pair's sloppy use of facts in their haste to prove their contrarian points about climate change:
Given their emphasis on cold, hard numbers, it's noteworthy that Levitt and Dubner ignore what are, by now, whole libraries' worth of data on global warming. Indeed, just about everything they have to say on the topic is, factually speaking, wrong. Among the many matters they misrepresent are: the significance of carbon emissions as a climate-forcing agent, the mechanics of climate modelling, the temperature record of the past decade, and the climate history of the past several hundred thousand years.Ouch. And finally, Kolbert cuts to the heart of the problem with the book, the one that I agree is at the root of the whole controversy--the authors' glee in starting up a controversy.
But what's most troubling about "SuperFreakonomics" isn't the authors' many blunders; it's the whole spirit of the enterprise. Though climate change is a grave problem, Levitt and Dubner treat it mainly as an opportunity to show how clever they are. Leaving aside the question of whether geoengineering, as it is known in scientific circles, is even possible--have you ever tried sending an eighteen-mile-long hose into the stratosphere?--their analysis is terrifyingly cavalier.Well, now I realized that I've excerpted about half of Kolbert's whole piece, which for the record is well worth reading and can be found over at the New Yorker's site. She devotes much less time to Gore's book, which, as you can imagine, is full of scientific data, thoughts on old-fashioned (well, for 2009, I guess) ways of reducing emissions via alternative energy, lifestyle changes, etc, and the politics of global warming.
Gore's book hasn't gotten a sliver of the press the SuperFreaks' book has--except for a few stupid claims that he's out to profit on climate change, it's been relatively quiet around Gore's book. Maybe because it presents a realistic depiction of the unpleasant reality climate change presents us with, and offers us no miraculous cure to quell rising temperatures. But at least it's not horseshit.