Al Gore
Al Gore

I just finished SuperFreakonomics, the sequel to Freakonomics.  It’s an entertaining book that I highly recommend.  In chapter 5, they discussed whether global warming is even a threat, and took on both conservatives and environmentalists.

the movement to stop global warming has taken on the feel of a religion.  The core belief is that humankind inherited a pristine Eden, has sinned greatly by polluting it, and must now suffer lest we all perish in a fiery apocalypse.  James Lovelock, who might be considered a high priest of this religion, writes in a confessional language that would feel at home in any liturgy:  “[W]e misused energy and overpopulated the Earth…[I]t is much too late for sustainable development; what we need is a sustainable retreat.”

A “sustainable retreat” sounds a bit like wearing a sackcloth.  To citizens of the developed world in particular, this would mean consuming less, using less, driving less—and, thought it’s uncouth to say it aloud, learning to live with a gradual depopulation of the earth.

If the modern conservation movement has a patron saint, it is surely Al Gore, the former vice president and recent Nobel laureate.  His documentary film An Inconvenient Truth hammered home for millions the dangers of over-consumption.  He has since founded the Alliance for Climate Protection, which describes itself as “an unprecedented mass persuasion exercise.”  Its centerpiece is a $300 million public-service campaign called “we,” which urges Americans to change their profligate ways.

Any religion, meanwhile, has its heretics, and global warming is no exception.  Boris Johnson, a classically educated journalist who managed to become mayor of London, has read Lovelock—he calls him a “sacerdotal figure”—and concluded the following: “Like all the best religions, fear of climate change satisfies our need for guilt, and self-disgust, and that eternal human sense that technological progress must be punished by the gods.  And the fear of climate change is like a religion in this vital sense, that it is veiled in mystery, and you can never tell whether your acts of propitiation or atonement have been in any way successful.”

So while the true believers bemoan the desecration of our earthly Eden, the heretics point out that this Eden, long before humans arrived, once became so naturally think with methane smog that it was rendered nearly lifeless.  When Al Gore urges the citizenry to sacrifice their plastic shopping bags, their air-conditioning, their extraneous travel, the agnostics grumble that human activity accounts for just 2 percent of global carbon-dioxide emission, with the remainder generated by natural processes like plant decay.

That last sentence caught my attention.  What’s the biggest culprit of global warming if humans account for just 2 percent?  According to Levitt and Dubner,

It is generally believed that cars and truck and airplanes contribute and ungodly share of greenhouse gases.  This has recently led many right-minded people to buy a Prius or other hybrid car.  But every time a Prius owner drives to the grocery store, she may be canceling out its emission-reducing benefit, at least if she shops in the meat section.

How so?  Because cows–as well as sheep and other cud-chewing animals called ruminants–are wicked polluters.  Their exhalation and flatulence and belching and manure emit methane, which by one common measure is about twenty-five times more potent as a greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide released by cars (and, by the way, humans).  The world’s ruminants are responsible for about 50 percent more greenhouse gas that the entire transportation sector.

Even the “locavore” movement, which encourages people to eat locally grown food, doesn’t help in this regard.  A recent study by two Carnegie Mellon researchers, Christopher Weber and H. Scott Matthews, found that buying locally produced food actually increases greenhouse-gas emission.  Why?

More than 80 percent of the emissions associated with food are in the production phase, and big farms are far more efficient than small farms.  Transportation represents only 11 percent of food emissions, with delivery from producer to retailer representing only 4 percent.  The best way to help, Weber and Matthews suggest, it to subtly change your diet.  “Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more greenhouse-gas reduction than buying all locally sourced food,” they write.  [emphasis in original]

So is it even a problem?  The real question is whether it will be the catastrophic apocalypse portrayed by Al Gore, or is it something made up as Rush Limbaugh likes to claim?  Levitt and Dubner think that both positions are extreme.  They write that from 1945-1968, scientists were warning of global COOLING because there was a large increase in snow cover and a decrease in sunshine in North America.  Scientists then were worried that we couldn’t grow enough crops.  But even with that cooling period, global temperatures are up over the past 100 years.  It does appear that the ice caps are melting, but it doesn’t mean that Florida is going to be under water any time soon.

So how do we fix global warming (if it is even a problem worth fixing)?  Rather than buy into Al Gore’s economy-wrecking carbon tax plan, Levitt and Dubner have a much less expensive plan.  It is well-known that volcanoes can affect the weather.  In 1991,

Mount Pinatubo was the most powerful volcanic eruption in nearly one hundred years.  Within two hours of the main blast, sulfuric ash had reached twenty-two miles into the sky.  By the time it was done, Pinatubo had discharged more than 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere.  What effect that hat have on the environment?

As it turned out, stratospheric haze of sulfur dioxide acted like a layer of sunscreen, reducing the amount of solar radiation reaching the earth.  For the next two years, as the haze was settling out, the earth cooled off by an average of nearly 1 degree Farenheit, of .5 degrees Celsius.  A single volcanic eruption practically reversed, albeit temporarily, the cumulative global warming effect of the previous hundred years.

They write that Nathan Myhrvold, former chief technology officer at Microsoft has devised a plan where we can use the waste sulfur from coal burning power plants and spray it into the stratosphere, much as a volcano does, without the ash.  Myhrvold writes that we could essentially put an 18-mile hose in the sky, pump the sulfur dioxide up there, and it would cool the earth.  (Myrvold says this could be accomplished with a series of weather balloons and inexpensive pumps like people use in swimming pools.)  We could actually use the pollution from coal-burning plants in a beneficial way!  And it would cost a whole lot less than Al Gore’s plan:  rather than “1.2 trillion that Nicholas Stern proposed spending each year to attack the problem”, Dubner writes, “Budyko’s Blanket could effectively reverse global warming at a total cost of $250 million”, which is just 20% of that cost.  Put another way, “It would cost $50 million less to stop global warming than what Al Gore’s foundation is paying just to increase public awareness about global warming.”

So what do you think?

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