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Dr. Steven Levitt, Freakonomics, and the Propagation of Uncertainty


Tyler Hess ’13, Louisville, KY.

As if the topic doesn’t already get enough attention, author Steven Levitt address global warming in his new book. A sequel to Freakonomics, SuperFreakonomics mentions global cooling directly in the subtitle on the book’s cover.

On a recent visit to DePauw, I asked Levitt to explain his position further on the subject. Recognizing that the following is a summary of my notes on his comments, Levitt stated the following:


The high degree of uncertainty on the topic of climate change leads it to much scrutiny despite the seemingly global effort to reduce the man-made contribution to global warming. However, before addressing the specifics on the argument, it is important to take note that economists like myself do not take into effect the future or the ramifications current problems have on the distant financial future. Also, if anyone has to pay a high amount of money for a small change that would eventually materialize distantly in the future, there must be an immense amount of danger that this problem creates. Thus, global warming must create an unimaginable sense of damage in order to justify the massive expenses the world is wanting to shell out.

Technological improvements must be considered for we could be thousands or even millions of times more effective in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 2050. Who knows the specifics, but there should be hope placed in natural technological advances. For the global estimates show that 1-2% of GDP would be needed yearly to fight global climate change. Counting up to the trillions, this would be an immense amount of money put toward a problem that may have benefits in the distant future. Plus, United States’ behaviors can’t be the only to change. We must have global agreements on this subject if we are to follow the current mode of negotiations. However, it is absurd to think that the global community, particularly China or India, are willing to altruistically reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; not to mention the impossible change of consumerist American GHG causing behavior.

Instead of investing in this current and flawed negotiating method for reducing GHG emissions, the best proposal stands to focus ourselves on the concept of ‘geo-engineering.’ This subject area’s goal is to reduce the temperature of the earth, cheaply. Following the natural concept of volcanoes, such pioneering projects are being started. For when volcanoes erupt, they emit massive amounts of sulfur dioxide that create a worldwide haze that reflects increasing amounts of sunlight and thus reduces the heat absorbency of the earth. Therefore, projects are being started to look at the possibility of injecting sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere for the purpose of artificially and temporarily cooling it. Assuming the hopeful progression of technological advances in carbon dioxide mitigation, temporarily reducing the global temperature through sulfur dioxide injection would help to more effectively reduce carbon dioxide concentrations in the future; for our current methods are rather dumb and too extreme.

Specifically, one study that holds a degree of promise involves artificial sulfur dioxide release at the poles. Because the amount of the gas that you would need to inject is so small in order to affect global temperature change, only a tube the size of a garden hose would be needed leaking at both the North and South Pole in order to counteract the global rise in temperature. So in theory, we could easily and artificially control the temperature of the earth. However, the hose would need to release the gas at levels of 100,000 feet high in the troposphere. If it were to release below this level, the stratosphere would form clouds around the sulfur dioxide particles and produce acid rain. Thus, a method has been developed for the placement of the hose at 100,000 feet. Large and strategically placed helium balloons would maintain the height of the hose in the troposphere. Two hundred million dollars is the estimated cost for a project such as this. Only occurring in one payment due to the complete lack of cost of sulfur, the operating costs for the system would be almost nonexistent; thus you are comparing trillions annually in the current methods versus an initial payment of around two-hundred million for the placement of a 100,000 foot hose placed in the troposphere by large helium balloons releasing a constant stream of sulfur dioxide in order to anthropologically control the temperature of the globe.


The realization that Steven Levitt is a Harvard educated economist and not in any way a climate scientist is obvious by his above statements. Many flaws exist in his thinking that must be addressed:

  1. The consideration, both financially and environmentally, of the future MUST be considered especially in a problem such as global climate change. When concerning yourself with a problem that is entirely focused on preventing future damage upon many aspects of our current society, having someone who focuses on immediate financial patterns and disregards far-reaching and longer lasting benefits should not have too much of a place in this area of this discussion.
  2. Hoping that technology develops in the future in order to solve a current problem is simply an ineffective and absurd way to think about solutions to a problem. Either you have deep-rooted irrational objections to the current proceedings and hope to stymie current progress on the given subject, or you’re just a capitalistic optimist.
  3. Sulfur dioxide produces acid rain. Currently in the United States, we have a cap-and-trade (gasp!) system in place that has successfully reduced the national emission rate of sulfur dioxide gas. Why would such a system or thought pattern be in place if not for protection of the American citizens? What Levitt fails to notice is that sulfur dioxide, a cause of acid rain, has been shown to have adverse impacts on forests, fresh waters and soils, killing insect and aquatic life-forms as well as causing damage to buildings and having impacts on human health. Yet, we should instead be injecting this toxic gas artificially into our atmospheres in order to temporarily cover up for continued selfish and anthropogenic patterns of over-consumption and decades of energy waste? I think not.
  4. Levitt wishes to question and exploit the small amount of uncertainty on the theory of global climate change. However, I would question the amount of research done on the effectiveness, efficiency, and outright feasibility to launch massive helium balloons that carry behind them a 19 mile long hose that is transporting toxic gases into our skies.

Mr. Levitt. Your thought patterns were intriguing and quite original in this subject area. However, I would recommend taking one your predecessors’ advice: that of John Maynard Keynes. During the times in which Keynes lived, WWI and WWII were two of the main topics and events. Keynes did not involve himself in the war and pretend to be knowledgeable of this specific subject area for his degree was in Economics and not Conflict Studies. Rather, he discussed and published findings on the economics of war and was eventually called upon by the British Government to testify on the economics of the war. Following in these footsteps, it is important Mr. Levitt to remember the distinction between the economic, environmental, scientific, and social aspects of climate change. Professionally commenting on economics is more than within your realm of sophisticated and western thinking. However, unpreparedly straying into areas of subjects not kin to yours will lead you back to your initial problem with this whole issue: quite the high degree of uncertainty.

    There is no issue on this planet for which we have perfect knowledge. In the absence of perfect knowledge and perfect certainty, people create a sense of uncertainty. This is dangerous.”
    – United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Achim Steiner.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. alopatka permalink*
    12/01/09 1:08 pm

    it was good to see Mr. Levitt’s points presented in a non-biased way. Nice analysis!

  2. Keelin Kelly permalink
    12/01/09 7:25 pm

    Great job! This is refreshing after hearing people gush about how awesome he was all day! Really, the course of human development is unsustainable and that is the real issue! You are right, his solutions is very selfish!

  3. 12/31/09 10:32 am

    Firstly: Acid rain is almost always a matter of local concentration combined with the wrong bedrock. Yes, it is a problem downwind from heavily industrialized high sulfur coal burning sites. No it it is not a problem on a world wide basis.

    Secondly: SO2 in the stratosphere has a fairly long residence time (years) compared to SO2 in the troposphere (weeks — where weather happens)

    Thirdly The amount of SO2 is small compared to current SO2 emissions world wide.

    SO2 should be considered in the same way ozone is: A pollutant at ground level, with local concentrations being a problem. (Ozone in cities is one of the big causes of smog) Beneficial at high altitude where it blocks UV.

    • depauw2013 permalink*
      05/13/10 2:49 pm

      First, Acid rain is not a good thing; and to use this as a temporary reliever is just like telling a drug addict, sure take a few more hits before you enter rehab. The US needs to decrease CO2 emitting now, not use science fiction ploys to delay its effects.

      Second, YEARS? That’s it. What a terrible idea. SO2 in our atmosphere is not a good idea. Especially when it falls on people years after it was produced. Delay, delay, delay/

      Third, SO2 emissions are decreasing in the US and to say “well a lot of other people emit a lot” doesn’t mean we should artificially increase them!

      Using SO2 to block UV rays is inherently a problems as it disregards to harms/needs to use such a hilarious concept. Attack the problem, don’t perpetuate the problem and indulge in comical cowards like Mr. Levitt. Commit ourselves to real solutions to our real problems. True sustainable communities is the only route; not a silly hose in the sky blocking the sun… silly Steven.

  4. 05/13/10 4:09 pm

    The quantities of SO2 required will NOT result in acid rain. The change in pH would be difficult to measure. The amount of sulfur involved is small compared to other sources of atmospheric sulfur. What is different is the location.

    Methane has a residence time of centuries. CO2 residence time is somewhere between 50 and 500 years, depending on how fast the oceans cycle it into deep water.

    Sulfur emissions are finally decreasing in the U.S. because we are limiting the amount of S in diesel fuel (Sulfur in the fuel solved some lubrication problems.) And we’ve started to insist on cleaner coal burning.

    You mis-read my post. SO2 has nothing to do with Ozone. I was making an analogy. Ozone in the stratosphere is beneficial — it blocks UV. Ozone at ground level is a health hazard and a smog former.
    SO2 at the ground level is also a pollutant. SO2 in the stratsophere may block enough heating to buy us some time, and thus would be a good thing.

    It’s easy to say, stop making CO2. Have YOU stopped driving a car? Flying on planes? Using electricity produced by coal fired plants? Has your boss? This is NOT an easy problem. And even if we stopped producing CO2 today, we will still be stuck with significant warming for at least a century or two.

    Methods to make this transition need to be investigated, experimented with, measured, and some sort of concensus reached for further action.

    We are changing the earth. We will continue to change the earth. WHICH changes we make are still up for grabs.

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