Low-Cost Tech Could Cool Planet

The following article originally was published November 9 by Grand Junction’s Free Press.

If planet did warm, low-cost tech could cool it

by Linn and Ari Armstrong

In our last column we expressed skepticism that human-caused global warming will ever amount to much. We have little trust in the politically subsidized computer simulations responsible for most of the fuss. Obviously, natural causes play a major role in climate change, and historically carbon dioxide levels have followed — not caused — warmer temperatures.

The “precautionary principle” counsels us to act even if the risk is uncertain. Unfortunately, few environmentalists practice much caution regarding the economy. While the harms of climate change are speculative, the harms of widespread political economic controls are certain and severe.

But what if? What if the earth did warm from man-made (or entirely natural) causes, and what if this caused significant problems for people? If that were the case, then low-cost technology could quickly solve the problem, argue Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in SuperFreakonomics.

Levitt and Dubner have been accused of claiming a consensus for global cooling in the 1970s, misrepresenting other people’s work, and other failings. We’ve read a number of these criticisms, and we’ve read the book. We conclude that various detractors are smearing SuperFreakonomics to suppress its information. Read the book and reach your own conclusions.

The book devotes the last of five chapters to climate change. However, Chapter 4 sets the stage by describing “cheap and simple” solutions to various problems. For example, better hand cleansing in hospitals dramatically decreased deaths. Forceps have saved the lives of babies and mothers. Fertilizing crops with ammonium nitrate has dramatically increased yields. The polio vaccine wiped out that disease. Seat belts curbed auto deaths.

The final example of the chapter is a proposal to control hurricanes. Nathan Myhrvold of Intellectual Ventures developed the idea based on a plan of British engineer Stephen Salter. The proposal is to employ a bunch of “large, floating” rings in troubled spots of the ocean. Waves of warm water lap into the rings, pushing the warm water down a tube and bringing cooler water to the surface. Goodbye hurricanes.

The chapter on climate change focuses on two other ideas floating around Intellectual Ventures for cooling the earth. One plan involves pumping sulfur dioxide through a long hose into the upper atmosphere, mimicking the cooling effects of natural volcanic eruptions. This would quickly cool the earth, yet the effects would rapidly disappear if pumping stopped. The other plan is to seed more clouds over the ocean.*

Cooling the earth with sulfur dioxide would cost an estimated $100 million per year, less than what environmentalists spend fear mongering. Dramatically cutting carbon dioxide emissions would cost an estimated trillion dollars per year, or 10,000 times as much.

Moreover, cutting carbon emissions wouldn’t accomplish much. Beyond the problem of getting developing nations such as China to curb emissions — fat chance — “the existing carbon dioxide would remain in the atmosphere for several generations,” Levitt and Dubner point out.

So, given that the sulfur dioxide pump is radically cheaper, safer, and more feasible, many environmentalists conclude that we should only limit carbon emissions instead. Al Gore thinks it’s “nuts” to explore geoengineering solutions like the pump.

Environmentalists don’t worry that volcanos emit sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, naturally cooling the earth. But many are dead set against humans doing the same thing. Why? Because, to the radical environmentalist, anything “natural” is good, and anything human is bad. Such environmentalists really don’t care about the earth’s temperature. What they care about is limiting human activity.

While geoengineering is the big take-home point, Levitt and Dubner challenge a number of environmentalist dogmas along the way. For example, “buying locally produced food actually increases greenhouse-gas emissions” because “big farms are far more efficient than small farms.”

Myhrvold believes that wind and other alternative energies — touted by our “New Energy Economy” governor as a pretext for corporate welfare — “don’t scale to a sufficient degree” to replace traditional energy. He adds that solar cells are not perfect: “only about 12 percent [of light] gets turned into electricity, and the rest is reradiated as heat — which contributes to global warming.”

Meanwhile, the authors suggest, we should not forget the benefits of modern energy. Before the gas-powered automobile, people used horses, and this generated a great deal of manure. Imagine vacant lots with manure “piled as high as sixty feet.” Imagine manure “lining city streets like banks of snow.” Thank human ingenuity for automobiles and the oil that powers them.

In the 1800s, American lights relied on harvesting thousands of whales each year. Our authors write, “The new oil industry… functioned as the original Endangered Species Act, saving the whale from near-certain extinction.”

We worry a bit about the book’s treatment of a few topics such as altruism. Yet, while SuperFreakonomics may be a fancy title for plain old economics mixed with clever research, it offers a wealth of fascinating insights.

* November 13 update: Here’s something not mentioned in the book: one young scientist thinks CO2-eating rocks might help.