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Dominic Lawson

Dominic Lawson: Here's another phoney war: the one on climate change

There's no glory in spending $10m a year on giant nozzles that squirt sulphur dioxide

The phrase "publishing sensation" is standard hyperbole from marketing men anxious to push book sales. Sometimes, however, a book comes along which justifies the term. One such is Freakonomics, which since its publication in 2005 has sold well over 3 million copies. This would be a remarkable figure for a popular fiction writer; but the author of this non-fiction work was a university economist called Steven Levitt, aided and abetted by the New York Times journalist Stephen Dubner.

Essentially their book applied basic economic theories of utility-maximisation to social issues which hitherto had been discussed purely in political terms. The essay which caused the most sensation was Levitt's analysis linking falling crime figures to the federal legalisation of abortion via the Roe v Wade constitutional amendment. Levitt claimed that these apparently unconnected statistics in fact represented a significant correlation: unwanted children tended to be neglected and thus turn to crime, so the great increase in abortions from the early 1970s was the main, but unheralded, reason for the drop in US crime rates in the 1990s.

It's fair to say that Levitt's analysis, while rapidly attaining the status of conventional wisdom, remains highly controversial: a number of his fellow economists argue that his "abortion-cut-crime" theory doesn't come close to meeting the burden of proof. It was, however, marvellously mischievous, causing consternation and fury in equal measure among the American religious right, first in downplaying the role of tough penal policies and second in portraying abortion as a socially valuable law-enforcement tool.

Now Levitt and Dubner are launching the follow up to Freakonomics – but this time it is conventional left-liberal thought which will be outraged by their assertions. A clue is given in the work's full title, Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance. Yes, the authors have this time addressed their dispassionate intellectual blowtorch to the conventional wisdom about climate change, its causes and remedies.

In this investigation they have called upon a number of experts with relevant expertise, including Nathan Myhrvold, a former colleague of Professor Stephen Hawking at Cambridge, who went on to become Bill Gates' futurist-in-chief at Microsoft; and Ken Caldeira, an ecologist from Stanford University and contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Caldeira points out that if our concern is for the planet, and if we choose to measure that concern by biodiversity, then increases in carbon dioxide can be a positive benefit. A rise in atmospheric CO2 means that plants need less by way of water for their growth; Caldera's study demonstrated that doubling the amount of carbon dioxide, while holding steady all other inputs, such as water and nutrients, yielded a 70 per cent increase in plant growth. This would not come remotely as a surprise to people of my generation, who were taught at school that carbon dioxide was the lifeblood of plants, but will perhaps be a shock to the present generation of schoolchildren who are being lectured that man-made CO2 is tantamount to poison.

Myhrvold goes on to tell the freakonomists that while the IPCC is fretting fearfully about the CO2 in the atmosphere increasing from about 280 parts per million to 380, our mammalian ancestors successfully evolved at a time when the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was over 1,000 parts per million. Myhrvold then commits true apostasy by pointing out that "nor does atmospheric carbon dioxide necessarily warm the earth: ice-cap evidence shows that over the past several hundred thousand years, carbon dioxide levels have risen after a rise in temperature, rather than before it."

This might help to explain why the recorded temperature of the planet has not increased at all over the past 11 years. As the BBC's climate correspondent, Paul Hudson, reported with thinly disguised amazement three days ago, "Our climate models did not forecast this." Hudson then spoke to Professor Don Easterbrook of Western Washington University, who explained that global temperatures were correlated much more with cyclical oceanic oscillations of warming and cooling than anything man does. Easterbrook argued that the global cooling from 1945 to 1977 was linked to one of these cold Pacific cycles, and that "the Pacific decadal oscillation cool mode has replaced the warm mode [of 1978 to 1998], virtually assuring us of about 30 years of global cooling."

Hold the front page! Global warming postponed for 30 years! Or possibly much longer! Or, if you prefer to remain terrified by environmental prognostications: hold the front page! New Ice Age approaches! Countless millions set to freeze!

Let's suppose, however, that our political leaders are not mistaken in taking the view that the threat to mankind does come from the greenhouse effect and its consequences. Here is where Levitt's friend Nathan Myhrvold (described by Bill Gates as "the smartest person I know") comes up with a plan almost appalling in its simplicity.

Myrhvold begins with the uncontroversial observation that the biggest sudden natural cooling events are eruptions from "big ass" volcanoes, which shoot vast quantities of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, which in turn leads to a decrease in ozone and a diffusing of sunlight, followed by a sustained drop in global temperatures. Why not bring about the same effect through engineering, asks Myhrvold. Thus he has designed a system of pumps, attached to gigantic hoses, which would be taken up into the atmosphere in helium balloons; they would then spray colourless liquid sulphur dioxide which would wrap around the North and South poles in less than a fortnight. Myhrvold estimates that this "save the poles" programme would cost roughly $20m, with an annual operating cost of $10m. Job done.

Alternatively, there is the British Government's suggestion that we spend $1.2 trillion a year globally on a decarbonisation programme. The trouble with this is that even if the British are happy to pay massively more for their electricity by foregoing coal – the world's most plentiful and cheap form of stored energy – the vastly bigger and growing economies of China and India have no intention of denying their people the life-changing benefits of cheap electrification.

You would think that the sort of innovative plan outlined in Superfreakonomics would be welcomed by leaders across the globe, with Nobel prizes in the offing for Myhrvold and his colleagues. You would be wrong. For the modern generation of politicians like to talk grandiloquently about the "war" against climate change (just as they do about the "war against terror" and the "war against drugs"): but there's no glory to be had in spending $10m a year on giant nozzles squirting sulphur dioxide around the poles. For that you need very little by way of international summits, or press conferences to the world's media.

Worse still from their point of view, such a solution would mean that they would be doing absolutely nothing to change the way we lead our lives. We would carry on going about our lives just as we are; and if politicians are doing nothing to change our behaviour they will feel bereft, devoid of mission, even (perish the thought) redundant.

Their fury at such redundancy would be shared by the conventional environmental movement, which regards any solution involving geo-engineering as an "offence against nature" and therefore axiomatically wicked – as if "nature" had the capacity to give a damn one way or the other. The authors of Freakonomics had better put on their hard hats; the ideological ordnance will soon be heading their way.