Editor's letter: The more ideas on climate change, the better

The reality is, what we don’t know about climate change still far outweighs what we do.

As usual, when it comes to climate change, tempers are rising a lot faster than sea levels.

In this issue, senior writer Matthew McClearn reports on a recent study estimating the costs of various climate change policies. Published by economists at the Toronto-Dominion Bank, the report has triggered a wave of fear and loathing in Ottawa (emphasis on the loathing). Politicians are upset that the report suggests the cost of scaling back carbon emissions will be high, and will be disproportionately born by western provinces. Naturally, a report of this kind makes all sorts of debatable assumptions, which is why some in Ottawa have been quick to rubbish it.

But that’s nothing compared to the brawl that has broken out over the new book SuperFreakonomics by economist Steven Levitt and writer Stephen Dubner. The authors are contrarians and provocateurs, who use economic analysis to provide new and fascinating ways of thinking about well-known quandaries. That was all well and good when they were analyzing New York’s declining crime rates and explaining why certain names go in and out of fashion. But when they applied their approach to climate change, they triggered a ferocious backlash.

The book makes a rather optimistic case that we should not be fighting to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, but rather we should be using technology to re-engineer the planet. As you might imagine, this idea makes environmentalists apoplectic.

Dubner and Levitt have been accused of everything from shoddy research and poor math skills, to outright dishonesty. Perhaps the most stinging rebuke came from Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker. She ends her scathing review by observing that “while some forms of horseshit are no longer a problem, others will always be with us.”

The hostility is understandable, but it’s also counterproductive.

The reality is, what we don’t know about climate change still far outweighs what we do. That’s not an excuse for inaction, but it’s clear that any solution is likely to be complicated, incremental and difficult. It’s also sure to be expensive, and there is a legitimate debate to be had over whether we should focus our efforts (and trillions of dollars) on slashing greenhouse gases, or on technologies to help us cope with the effects of a warming planet, or both at once.

In December, the world will gather in Copenhagen to debate these very issues. The divisions over strategy, responsibility and cost are deep. We’re still all talk and little action, so any attempt at animating the discussion ought to be welcome.

Whatever their flaws, both SuperFreakonomics and the TD report served an essential function in getting people thinking and talking in concrete terms about climate change. You might find the analysis unconvincing, even outlandish, but the point is, you’re thinking. And right now, we need as much thinking as we can get.