As the health care debate nears its climax, it’s only natural to look ahead to the next big political showdown in D.C. — energy reform. It’s an issue with far reaching environmental implications, and one that contemporary society seems hard-pressed to tackle head-on.
Whatever legislation emerges from the Senate, it’s a good bet it will be watered down and ineffectual, owing to the ubiquity of the energy lobby in our nation’s capital. Which begs the question: What can realistically be done to combat the growing carbon specter? Distinguished University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt wondered as much himself, and set out to get some answers.
You’re probably most familiar with Mr. Levitt as the brains behind the best-selling Pop-Econ treatise, Freakonomics. Levitt’s method applies the rigors of the dismal science to seemingly whimsical or outlandish topics like sumo wrestling and the crack-cocaine trade. While counter-intuitive, his approach proves both entertaining and, often times, insightful.
Great! Big problems call for big solutions. And who better to solve climate change than a dude with mondo smarts and problem solving panache, right?
Well ... not so much.
Far from inspiring hope, the results of Levitt’s inquiries have instead caused controversy, and for good reason. In his new book, Superfreakonomics, the economist argues that carbon dioxide is “the wrong villain” in the fight against receding ice caps and rising temperatures — that emissions reduction is too costly and slow to achieve the quick results the world needs. Thus, he suggests an alternate approach to our climate conundrum: dim the proverbial lights.
More specifically, Levitt promotes a branch of science called geo-engineering, which studies ways to manipulate our atmosphere in order to stem climate change. He notes, in particular, a theory that suggests we could effectively neutralize the warming effects of carbon dioxide by pumping gases called sulfate aerosols into the sky. Supposedly, these aerosols would lower temperatures by a process colloquially referred to as “Global Dimming” — that is, by blocking out a portion of the sunlight that normally warms our planet.
At this point, feel free to pause ... think ... and reread the previous sentence.
Block out the sun? I beg your pardon?
If this proposal strikes you as completely and unambiguously insane, you are by no means alone. In spite of the supposedly rock-solid economic analysis at the core of his assertions, Levitt’s ruminations on global warming have engendered near-universal contempt from the scientific community. It turns out that there are a host of reasons — environmental, economic and geopolitical, to name a few — why such a strategy is patently ridiculous and incredibly dangerous. The clear consensus is that geo-engineering, while potentially useful as a supplement to emissions reduction initiatives, is an utterly unrealistic solution on its own.
Nonetheless, Levitt continues to encourage strategies like geo-engineering as quick fixes for global warming, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
And that’s alarming — to me at least — because he’s such a remarkably smart guy. Shouldn’t our academic luminaries be immune to this sort of colossal misjudgment?
Truth is, Levitt fell victim to one of the oldest pitfalls in academic inquiry: overconfidence. Like countless scholars past, he has inched uncomfortably close to the notion that the mysteries of nature are no match for man’s power of deduction. Smart people can apparently solve any problem, no matter how daunting, simply by manipulating the numbers properly. Given the right set of data and the right theoretical framework, a shrewd economist can identify and solve all society’s ills.
Except, well, no.
Since the beginning of time, people have been trying — and failing — to understand and overcome forces beyond their comprehension: Icarus, for instance, learned the hard way that wax can melt and that gravity’s a bitch. Likewise, medieval in-patients suffered through tortuous sessions of bloodletting without even a hint of improvement in their dysentery and leprosy. Even in the modern era, we still don’t have all the answers. A pertinent example is seen in atmospheric scientists, who — to this day — are still dumfounded by the chaos that governs weather systems.
So when the Freakonomics guy proposes a theory for ending global warming — quick and easy, no strings attached — it’s time for some good ol’ fashion incredulity, despite his impressive resume.
It is the arrogance of intellect that leads us to believe we can understand the universe, abounding as it is with unknowable complexities, through brute mathematical force alone. The notion that a regression equation can isolate the causes of all the world’s problems is foolish at best. More to the point, such attitudes are symptomatic of unrestrained intellectual hubris — the pervasive sense that we can dictate our environment through science, when all indications point squarely in the opposite direction.
Washington insiders are searching for an easy answer to the problem of global warming, just like they hoped against hope for simple solutions to any number of other complicated problems, from illegal immigration to finance reform. The truth is, though, that it’s looking more and more like there are no easy answers, especially with regards to climate change.
Our species has spent the better part of a century digging itself into this hole, and even the cleverest, most counter-intuitive manipulation of data won’t change that. It’s about time we stopped digging ourselves deeper and finally begin the long climb out.
Peter Finocchiaro, a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is a former Arts and Entertainment Editor of The Sun. He may be reached at email@example.com. Everyone Choose Sides appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.