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. 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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