The New Yorker Geoengineers Itself

Michael Specter has written a good and interesting New Yorker article about the history and current state of geoengineering, called “The Climate Fixers: Is There a Technological Solution to Global Warming?”

Let me rephrase:

Michael Specter has written a good and interesting New Yorker article about the history and current state of geoengineering, called “The Climate Fixers: Is There a Technological Solution to Global Warming?,” which is essentially a New Yorkerized version of Chapter 5 of SuperFreakonomics, all the way down to the Mount Pinatubo explosion and the reliance on scientists Ken Caldeira and Nathan Myhrvold.

Let me be clear: I have no problem whatsoever with Specter’s piece. It is very well done, includes plenty of original reporting in addition to the overlaps with SuperFreak, and is of course not obliged to acknowledge earlier writings on the topic. This is the way journalism is often done.

What’s interesting, however, is that The New Yorker was also home to a particularly nasty attack on Chapter 5 of SuperFreakonomics, by the environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, who argued that everything we wrote about climate change and geoengineering was wrong, wrong-headed, and morally bankrupt.

How to reconcile these two articles, separated by three years, in the same publication?

I have two possible explanations (perhaps you can offer more in the comments below):

1. Despite the conventional wisdom, publications like The New Yorker or even the Times are not remotely the monolithic institutions that readers believe, with baked-in ideologies that hold constant from one writer to the next, one editor to the next, or one year to the next.

2. Maybe even an old man like Eustace Tilley is able to keep learning new things and embracing new ideas.

Whatever the case — I love The New Yorker and am happy to see it publish an article like Specter’s even if it comes about three years too late for my taste. 

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  1. Howard Brazee says:

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    • Mike says:

      Wait, why are ‘deniers’ the big liars? I suppose the big truth in your view is that ‘…the science is settled…’, right? Can one not be a ‘man-made global warming’ skeptic/disbeliever without being a liar?

      I suppose we are to ignore the erroneous statistics around Al Gore’s hockey stick, or the faulty and criminal (or near-criminal) manipulation of data and statistics by ‘leading scientists’ for the sole purpose of publishing conclusions that they knew to be incorrect. And I suppose all those dying Polar Bears were proof that the Earth is doomed to a future of cataclysmic floods and death and misery for us all (oops – it turns out that there are more Polar Bears now than there has ever been in the history of Polar Bear counting).

      Fortunately the great debate over global warming, now rebranded as ‘Climate Change’, has died down and the alarmists are now being given less of a spotlight. The truth is that we don’t know, and actually can’t possibly know, whether climate change is unequivocally caused by my lawn mower. I am no scientist, but I find the sunspot theory at least as credible (if not more credible), than those theories that point to SUVs, and if we are going to do something about it then we should be focusing on the things that will fix it economically and reasonably, like that suggested in Super Freakonomics and the article referenced above.

      I tend to agree with scientists like Richard Lindzen or Bjorn Lomborg, who convincingly make the case that we are misguided in our attempts to focus on ‘Stopping Global Warming’ and should be spending our time and efforts elsewhere. I don’t see how that makes me a liar.

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      • James says:

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      • Mike says:

        James, would you care to enlighten me on my three outright lies and one attempt at a lie? I have never been accused of attempted lying, so this will be a first.

        Unless you don’t have access to anything written or discussed since 2006, I would hope that you are not going to make the case that the hockey stick has not been discredited, or that data was not fraudulently manipulated to serve political (and selfish) goals, or that we are running out of polar bears. Because on those three topics (I still can’t figure out which is the ‘attempted lie’), the science is indeed settled.

        And anyway, why the personal attacks and name-calling?

        Even if you believe that my contentions are false, that doesn’t make me a liar (real, or attempted). It simply means that my interpretation of facts differs from your interpretation of these same facts. I may think a 55 degree day in May is cold, you may think it’s warm. Does that mean that one of us is lying?

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      • James says:

        “would you care to enlighten me on my three outright lies and one attempt at a lie?”

        Sure. The lies:

        1) “erroneous statistics” – The statistics have been repeated demonstrated to be correct. Your problem is that you don’t like the conclusions.

        2) “…Al Gore’s hockey stick…” – It’s not Al Gore’s hockey stick, it’s Mann et al’s. Note that this is also an attempt at ad hominem argument.

        3) “…faulty and criminal (or near-criminal) manipulation of data and statistics…” – Not.

        The attempted lie by misdirection involves polar bear counting. If recent counts show more polar bears (I don’t claim to know whether or not this is indeed so – would you care to offer support?), then it is quite possible that this is due to improved counting, not an actual increase in numbers. Yet you imply that the only explanation is more polar bears.

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    • klem says:

      “The obvious big lie is in the deniers. They don’t want it so they say it can’t happen.”

      Hmm, I’m a denier but I say that it can happen. Actually every denier I know says climate change has happened, it happens today and will continue as long as there is a climate to change.

      What I think is the obvious big lie is in the alarmists. They want it and they desperately want it to be our fault.

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  2. Danny says:

    so basically you wrote a post to gloat about how they are late to the party? i’m sure we all, as readers, agree with you. nice shot though.

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  3. Dan says:

    Kolbert’s issue with your chapter dealt largely with your acceptance of geoengineering science without acknowledging the pitfalls and your rejection of the threats caused by global warming. The Specter article acknowledges the threat of global warming and the shortcomings of geoengineering in a more factual and balanced manner. You can gloat if you like, but Kolbert’s points were valid, as are Specter’s. Your analysis is often shallow and filled with unearned certainty.

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    • Edward Boyce says:

      An excellent example is that the 1992 Pinatubo eruption disrupted rainfall patterns as well as reducing global temperatures. This is a major drawback with geoengineering – the climate would still be altered, even if the global temperature was held constant or nearly constant. Specter’s New Yorker article addresses the rainfall impacts of Pinatubo and Chapter 5 of SuperFreakonomics does not.

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  4. Clancy says:

    You should run the article and your chapter through the “bias analyzer” you discussed in previous posts. The same Idea might sound more appealing to New Yorker editors (and readers) if you increased the ratio of liberal buzzwords to conservative buzzwords.

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  5. Mike B says:

    Why don’t you go to the complaint department and tell them that the New Yorker is stealing your ideas.

    It’s funny because its real.

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  6. Quinton says:

    I could have the wrong impression. I’ve never worked there or anything like that but my understanding was that while The New Yorker maybe hires a particular type of journalist, they give a fair amount of leeway in what they write about, so it’s not unheard of for two New Yorker writers to disagree, and especially less surprising when it’s three years apart.

    Basically, my thinking is something close to your #1 above. I’m not really one to buy into “baked in ideologies” at an institution. Institutions are just people, and while people are maybe more apt to surround themselves with similar people, they a) aren’t perfect at predicting those people’s behavior initially (note supreme court justices), b) individuals are generally unpredictable anyways and c) people change with time (so some of your #2 above). This leaves a fair amount of room for institutional change, especially at a place as relatively undefined as the New Yorker, which has undergone numerous shifts in its history

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  7. joe says:

    or….The New Yorker isn’t a monolithic borg consisting only of identical thinkers?

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  8. Eric says:

    I thought that the leaked emails from the university in the UK that had collected and analyzed a lot of the “alarmist” data had pretty well indicated that the data was “massaged” to show the results that those providing the funding were Hoping for.

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  9. Owen says:

    The New Yorker article does a pretty good job sussing out the differences, but it’s frustrating how often all geoengineering techniques are lumped together and evaluated as equals. Albedo enhancement–the sulfate or sunshield solution–is massively difference from atmospheric Co2 reduction. Both are technically inferior to reducing our emissions, but the Co2 reduction at least mitigates that problem, while albedo enhancement merely masks it.

    To make an analogy, our current problem is that of a roommate who keeps leaving our apartment unlocked, just asking for burglars to come in. The real solution–CO2 emission reduction– is to get him to start locking the doors, but atmospheric reduction–locking the doors after he leaves–could be an acceptable temporary fix while he gets in the habit of locking himself. By contrast, albedo enhancement involves bribing the thieves to burglarize the neighbors. It may work for now, but you’ll eventually have to start locking anyway, and you’re not doing anything to solve the problem in the meantime.

    PS: can you tell I was recently robbed?

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