Saturday, October 24, 2009

Acklin and Freakonomics

Over at the Pittsburgh Comet, Bram has had a series of posts on Kevin Acklin’s accusations that John Verbanac has wielded undue influence over the Ravenstahl administration, and Our Mayor’s denials. A glance at the PG indicates some attention is being paid, but even as they notice Verbanac’s connection to Rick Santorum (!) they dismiss the seriousness of the accusations. Apparently what Acklin has released includes, and is possibly limited to, a portion of emails Verbanac has sent to Ravenstahl. Acklin alleges this indicates the degree of influence Verbanac has.

As a general geek, and a geek familiar with Star Wars, I want to see the email from Verbanac that reads: “Luke, I am your father” and Our Mayor’s reply:

There is another thing I have been thinking about in the last week or so (well, several things, but I am only going to talk about one for now). The authors of Freakonomics (Levitt and Dubner) have written a sequel, Superfreakonomics. As far as I am concerned, they might just as well have borrowed a line from Mel Brooks, and subtitled it “The quest for more money” (or at least “The quest to maintain the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed”). Now, I thoroughly enjoyed the first Freakonomics, although even I had trouble slogging through all of it. I am looking forward to the new one, but I gather in their last chapter they cross some lines that may have been ill considered.

Before I discuss what I know about that, a brief tangent. I knew a guy who was interested in bicycles, and in fact wavered between what would have been a good career in classical music and running a bike shop (I believe the shop may have won). One time, I praised Consumer Reports, the magazine that won’t take advertising to be able to produce unquestionable objective reports to my friend/acquaintance. He responded that the bicycle community did not like Consumer Reports because while they might employ very smart scientists, they only knew a little about a lot of things. As far as he was concerned, the CU guys did not know enough about bikes to produce good recommendations.

The reason I told that story is the last chapter of Superfreakonomics, on how to address climate change. Smart guys Levitt and Dubner reference a scientist named Ken Caldeira, who has suggested injecting sulphate into the atmosphere for the purposes of blocking some of the sun rays. An apparently very smart guy Nathan Myhrvold also weighed in in the book, pointing out that because solar panels are (often) black and also take energy to manufacture, rather like hybrids they take some time to become carbon neutral and then carbon positive. Also Myhrvold calls for at least research into this sulphate injection thing.

And for what it is worth I agree. But apparently Levitt and Dubner suggested people suggesting we need carbon taxes and sacrifice are ignoring, deliberately or otherwise, this sulphate thing. Myhrvold has been taken to task by a climate change person (even though even Myhrvold does advocate using solar power, he just disputes the timing of the payoff), this Calderia says he was mischaracterized (he in fact thinks our carbon footprint needs to be near zero even for his idea to work), and Levitt and Dubner must be delighted by all his publicity.

But someone, I think a conservative, suggested that Levitt in particular is an economist that makes his living by punching holes in conventional wisdom; rather like Consumer Reports makes a living by deflating industry claims. However, sometimes when you try to skewer an accepted wisdom, like the accepted wisdom in climate change that reduction in burning fossil fuels with taxes and switching to new methods of power like solar and wind will have a positive effect on climate, you end up stretching the claims of another person, in this case Calderia, past where that person intended they go.

I am suspicious of any panacea for climate change. I think that a more measured and retrained use of our natural resources (burning carbon more frugally) by driving smaller cars, driving less than we do now, driving slower on the highway than we do now and gradually switching over to electric power provided by solar and wind (perhaps with supplemental nuclear until wind and solar get efficient enough) is a good idea. Future generations will appreciate both having oil, coal and natural gas available, and a cleaner, temperate planet to live on. Now, sulphate injection into the air may be necessary at some point. But I would like to give the reduction thing a chance, even while scientists look at a variety of ideas (sulphate injections, biodiesel using non-food parts of plants like corn, etc) as either factors in reduction or supplements to it. And shame on Levitt and Myhrvold for belittling the efforts of mainstream climate change scientists, and giving aid and comfort to entities like that American Petroleum Institute.

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