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Horse-Manure Crisis

Freakonomics author Steven D. Levitt suggests science and market forces will eliminate the climate-change problem with minimal effort.

Fortnightly Magazine - December 2007

gone into developing technology for the war on AIDS or cancer.

My conjecture is that our grandchildren will not have heard the words “global warming.” By the time I have grandchildren, global warming will be so thoroughly taken care of, no one will even have heard of it.

That doesn’t help you, right? In the short run, you are dealing with a question that is really about politics.

My impression is the people who are most worried about climate change want to punish mankind for being bad. We are bad people because we are hurting the environment and we should be punished for that. It’s not fair if we can just solve the problem with technology. What I’m proposing for climate change is the equivalent of bariatric surgery for obesity. You don’t have to change your behavior, just find ways to fix the problem. If you can do it, it’s a good solution.

Audience question: Do you think global warming would be bad?

Levitt: That’s an interesting question. Certainly in Chicago I wouldn’t mind it being a little warmer than it is. For most of the developed world I think global warming is probably a good thing. The problem is for most of the developing world, around the equator, the evidence is it’s going to be pretty disastrous for people in low-lying areas.

Change in the climate is bad in general, because people have made investments in the world we live in now. If it got colder it certainly would be bad. If we had another ice age it really would be quite bad. If it’s warmer I think it’s bad because people in Bangladesh live in low-lying areas.

A lot of it is transition costs, though. It’s not clear that once we moved from a transition of one state to the other, living in a cold world to a warm world…

The thing you really fear though is we throw things out of whack and everybody dies. That’s out there and we don’t know if it’s going to happen or not. That is ultimately the real issue. If we just knew it would get hotter by 5 degrees, I don’t think it would be that bad.

The fearsome [risk] of climate change is not in the middle, but at the extreme. The kinds of investments we can make today would be the kinds that reduce the uncertainty. If we could come up with ways that moderate climate change bit by bit, those would be the right kinds of solutions, to see whether they would work.

Audience question: It occurred to me when you were telling that story, the solution to the manure problem a short 100 years later produced a carbon problem from exhaust. So did it solve the problem or just delay it and make it worse?

Levitt: It certainly changed the nature of the problem. But it’s OK if we start other problems by solving the first one.

The overwhelming problem in human existence has been malnourishment and death by disease. Even back at the turn of the century,