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The law of unintended juxtapositions

From the introduction to SuperFreakonomics:

One of the most powerful laws in the universe is the law of unintended consequences.

From Steven Levitt's recent appearance on the Diane Rehm show:

Of course, ocean acidification is an import issue. Now, there are ways to deal with ocean acidification, right, it's actually, that's actually, we know exactly how to un-acidifiy the oceans, is to pour a bunch of base into it, so, so if that turns out to be an incredibly big problem, then we can deal with that.

Right, just pour a base into it! Keep in mind, this will be after we've begun pumping sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere.

By Ezra Klein  |  October 29, 2009; 9:08 AM ET
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Posted by: adamiani | October 29, 2009 9:34 AM | Report abuse

I have a couple of good sized buckets of base in my basement (that's why I call it that), and I'd be happy to contribute them to the big de-acidification ocean dump!

Posted by: bdballard | October 29, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

Right! Because oceans are just like small lab beakers and they aren't complicated with ecosystems and stuff and don't have interesting circulation cycles and we don't need no damn complicated skience and stuff, we can just get some glib econo-hack to repeat what he remembers from high school chem lab! Done! Simple! Solved!

Next up, the solution to cancer: stop cells from multiplying uncontrollably with some sort of anti-multiplier or something! Done!

Posted by: En_Buenora | October 29, 2009 10:13 AM | Report abuse

Yeah I listened to that interview as well. And at that very moment when he started talking about pouring "base" into the ocean I started to have visions of the Apocalypse. Oh crap, we poured too much base in the ocean? Well, lets just pour in some more acid. What this sulfur stuff is making the earth too cold? Better emit some more CO2 or methane, that will warm things up.

Posted by: Castorp1 | October 29, 2009 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Acid + base = salt + water.

Lots of new salt = screwing up the thermohaline circulation by wrecking the density gradient.

Thermohaline circulation moves heat from the equators to the poles and, among other things, keeps Europe liveable (it is, after all, at the same latitude as northern Canada).

Thermohaline circulation also governs the rate at which deep ocean water is exposed to the surface, which in turn plays a major role in regulating the rate at which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere. Shut it down and the C02 concentration will skyrocket.

Why do economists think they are experts on everything?

Posted by: pj_camp | October 29, 2009 10:23 AM | Report abuse

I can hear the krill sreaming, "All your base are belong to us!"

@adamiani: also, facepalm.

Posted by: ajw_93 | October 29, 2009 10:26 AM | Report abuse

Acid + base also makes heat. So we should add some ice cubes too! And we should use indicator to make sure the pH is right, but nothing too dark, or the oceans will absorb more heat- I'm thinking a nice magenta ocean would be good.

Posted by: _SP_ | October 29, 2009 10:29 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: ajw_93 | October 29, 2009 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Let's see: a quick look suggests that the volume of the oceans is 1.3 billion cubic kilometers. That's a cube a bit over 1000 kilometers per side, or 1.3 x 10^21 liters.

To raise the pH of a liter of water from 7.9 to 8.0 (about the change in ocean pH since preindustrial times) means getting rid of 75% of the H* ions in 7.9pH water. There are 55 moles of H20 in a liter. So that's one seven-millionth of a mole of hydrogen ions you need to counteract with a base.

Going back to the ocean: there are 7.1 x 10^22 moles of water. So you'll need roughly 5.0 x 10^16 moles of a highly soluble base (say, hydroxide ions) to do the trick. Sodium hydroxide would do it, and its mass is 40g/mole, so that's 2x10^17 grams, or 200 billion metric tons. For reference, world production is about 50 million tons, so it would take 4000 years to do the job.

Posted by: FunkyGawy | October 29, 2009 10:37 AM | Report abuse

So, let me get this straight. We've been inadvertently geoengineering on a massive, lifestyle-threatening scale since the dawn of the industrial revolution in the 1860s. But it took us more than 100 years to notice we were doing this. And it then took about 10-15 years after that for us to realize wow, this geoengineering was an ENORMOUS problem. Our science can't tell you what the scenario 40 years out will be, but our science can tell you the range of probabilities is in the "lousy to catastrophic" range.

So, knowing all this, we're now supposed to believe that our comprehension of the basic science underlying climate change--something we were so grossly ignorant of until recently that we DIDN'T NOTICE we were making massive, life-threatening changes to it--is now something we understand so well that we can do precision geo-engineering on it?

Is this a joke?

Anybody else got "there was an old lady who swallowed a fly...." running through their head?

Posted by: theorajones1 | October 29, 2009 10:40 AM | Report abuse

And futher: the Royal Society article linked by Ezra's link suggests that it would take 20 billion tons of CaC03 a year (a much weaker buffer) to simply counteract current C02 uptake - or 60 square kilometers of 100m thick limestone deposits, every freaking year. Pour some base in it, indeed.

Not sure that changes in salinity would be a problem - not that many ions compared to the 4% ocean salinity. Don't know about the heat issue, but that would definitely be an ironic consequence!

Posted by: FunkyGawy | October 29, 2009 10:46 AM | Report abuse

Cripes. Stick to the sumo wrestlers, Levitt, seriously. Why on EARTH does anyone think this man is credible when it comes to climate science? This is another one of those "economists are brilliant at everything" fallacies.

Posted by: Chris_O | October 29, 2009 10:49 AM | Report abuse

I think Levitt's main problem with that chapter is that he clearly doesn't have the expertise here as he does in economics. He knows that economic models don't work as simply in reality as on the computer screen. He seems not to grasp that the same is true for bio-physics.

Posted by: ideallydc | October 29, 2009 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Actually, we're going to get some Kyoto style agreement in place where all will comply, for no other reason than.... well..... we're hosed.

Ezra, you've said it many times yourself, we're likely not going to solve to problem through carbon abatement as we've shown no willingness to do so to date. I'm not sure why you're not embracing Geoengineering more.... maybe because lefty group think doesn't allow it?

Posted by: BeatKing11 | October 29, 2009 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Right. And this is how to play the clarinet: blow in this end and move your fingers up and down on these holes. There. That's how you play the clarinet.

"I'm not sure why you're not embracing Geoengineering more.... maybe because lefty group think doesn't allow it?"

I think it's more about pushing back on the industry groupthink that claims we need to do nothing to reduce emissions because magical sciencey geoengineering stuff will solve the problem. I think most lefties like me think you need an immediate, multi-pronged approach that's more about leaving more options on the table, not less.

Posted by: jeirvine | October 29, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

Are you not seeing the law of unintended consequences as something that could, should, must be applied to all these pie in the sky "reform" plans being created? Hello, is anyone in??

Posted by: truck1 | October 29, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Levitt missed his true calling as an infomercial pitchman.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | October 29, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

jeirvine... completely agree on multi-pronged approach. What I don't understand is why the liberal punditocracy, instead of embracing Levitt and Dubner as offering an interesting alternative that should be debated, discussed and considered, is fighting and mocking at every point possible.

Posted by: BeatKing11 | October 29, 2009 1:36 PM | Report abuse

Ocean acidification would be almost entirely due to CO2 not Sulfate. The additional acidification directly due to Sulfate would be a minor factor. Levitt is talking about a problem with CO2 other than warming. He is not talking about dealing with an unintended consequence of geoengineering.

Oh a quibble. The proposal is to produce sulfate in the stratosphere by pumping a precurser (SO2 or H2S up tubes). H2SO4 is a viscous liquid not suited to pumping up the tubes. Pure sulfate is a free radical which can't exist in significant quantities down here in the troposphere. So the proposal is to pump up SO2 or H2S (for simplicity I discuss SO2 below) not sulfate which can't be pumped up 18 mile tubes.

We are currently pumping Sulfur Dioxide into the lower atmosphere. The SO2 geoengineering proposal considers 5 Tg of SO2 equal to the reduction in US SO2 emissions since 1990 (also equal to half of current US emissions). It is a small amount of SO2 compared to world SO2 emissions. Ocean acidification due to SO2 is, in turn, a minor problem compared to global acidification due to CO2.

Aonly to a tiny degree would acidification of the Ocean be an unintended consequence of pumping SO2 into the stratosphere. It is relevant to the debate only if one advocates pumping SO2 *instead* of reducing CO2 emissions. The L and D proposal would not solve the carbonated sea water problem, so L discusses adding base to the Ocean. It would not make the problem notably worse than it would be with no 18 mile tall SO2 pumping tubes *and* no CO2 control.

L and D are walking (running) their proposal back. Now they say they want both reduced CO2 emission and pumping SO2. This is the proposal of all other SO2 enthusiasts. If we do that, we won't have to dump base in the Ocean. 5 terragrams (5 million metric tons) a year of SO2 won't due much to terra if they are spread over the whole planet.

SO2 does cause acid rain, which is a problem if there is a *concentrated* SO2 source 1000 feet off the ground but not if the concentrated source is 18 miles off the ground.

Posted by: rjw88 | October 29, 2009 2:44 PM | Report abuse

I'll second the *headdesk* with a *facepalm*

I'm sure pumping the ocean full of sodium sulfate won't have any unintended consequences.

Its a good thing that all the molecules of sodium hydroxide we dump in the ocean will just quantum tunnel their way over to the molecules of sulfuric acid. They'll just cancel out perfectly....

This guy is really stupid.

Posted by: zosima | October 30, 2009 12:49 AM | Report abuse

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