tocacco plant Native American Tobaccoo flower, leaves, and buds

tocacco Tobacco is an annual or bi-annual growing 1-3 meters tall with large sticky leaves that contain nicotine. Native to the Americas, tobacco has a long history of use as a shamanic inebriant and stimulant. It is extremely popular and well-known for its addictive potential.

tocacco nicotina Nicotiana tabacum

tocacco Nicotiana rustica leaves. Nicotiana rustica leaves have a nicotine content as high as 9%, whereas Nicotiana tabacum (common tobacco) leaves contain about 1 to 3%

tocacco cigar A cigar is a tightly rolled bundle of dried and fermented tobacco which is ignited so that its smoke may be drawn into the mouth. Cigar tobacco is grown in significant quantities in Brazil, Cameroon, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Indonesia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Sumatra, Philippines, and the Eastern United States.

tocacco Tobacco is an agricultural product processed from the fresh leaves of plants in the genus Nicotiana. It can be consumed, used as an organic pesticide, and in the form of nicotine tartrate it is used in some medicines. In consumption it may be in the form of cigarettes smoking, snuffing, chewing, dipping tobacco, or snus.

tocacco Cigarettes are smoking products consumed by people and made out of cut tobacco leaves. Cigars are typically composed completely of whole-leaf tobacco. A cigarette has smaller size, composed of processed leaf, and white paper wrapping. The term cigarette refers to a tobacco cigarette too but it can apply to similar devices containing other herbs, such as cannabis.
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What Does SuperFreakonomics Have in Common with Old Tobacco Ads?

In their follow-up to the best-selling Freakonomics, economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner exploit the public’s desiretobacco world for an easy fix to global warming and along the way, misrepresent basic facts about climate science.

Levitt and Dubner argue that rather than reducing heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions from human activity, we should “geoengineer” the climate by spraying sunlight-reflecting sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to cool the planet. It’s just the type of attention-grabbing contrarian argument Levitt and Dubner found success with in their first book.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t make any sense.

They say the problem is that the Earth is heating, so let’s cool it. But scientists understand that the real problem is that excess carbon dioxide is disrupting the Earth’s climate, making the planet warmer, stressing marine species by making the ocean more acidic, and changing the composition of the atmosphere. Levitt and Dubner are arguing for further disruption to correct an initial disruption. That may actually make matters worse. And in any case, their geoengineering proposal would do nothing to address ocean acidification.

Regardless of its merits, their argument is appealing at a surface level. Because scientific projections about global warming often focus on what will happen decades from now, too many people think global warming is a far-off problem and that we can wait to address it. The Los Angeles Times’ Rosie Mestel hits the nail on the head when summarizing a report on the psychology of climate change: “Our species doesn’t seem especially well-wired to act with long-term rewards in mind. We’re much better at seeking gratification right this second, which is why I ate that bag of trail mix five minutes ago even though I’d like to drop some pounds and had only just had lunch.”

Levitt and Dubner are essentially arguing that we can sit back, relax, and fix the climate later. But nothing could be further from the truth, according to the science. The carbon emissions we’re releasing into the atmosphere today will lock in climate change for generations. Policy and business decisions made today could significantly alter our future energy mix and resulting global warming emissions. We can’t simply turn the fossil fuel switch on and off. Addressing global warming is much more akin to steering a giant ship. We need to turn the wheel now so we avoid hitting the (melting) iceberg later in our journey.

To build their argument for geoengineering, Levitt and Dubner follow a simple structure: inaccurately minimize the role carbon dioxide plays in global warming, hype the potential benefits of geoengineering without noting the downsides, then mischaracterize solutions to reducing heat-trapping emissions to make them seem more implausible than geoengineering.

Misdirection on Climate Science

Most of the chapter’s scientific errors are committed in the authors’ attempt to give carbon dioxide a positive makeover. In particular, they make several narrowly true statements about carbon dioxide that, when presented out of their scientific context, will give readers the impression that excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is no big deal.

To cite a blatant example, Levitt and Dubner write, “…An increase in carbon dioxide means that plants require less water to grow.” And they cite a study that says excess carbon dioxide, “…yields a 70 percent increase in plant growth, an obvious boon to agricultural productivity.”

In reality, authoritative scientific reviews show that agriculture, along with human health, water resources, and natural ecosystems will suffer overall from climate change. One key finding from the United States Global Change Research Program’s climate science review is: “Crop and livestock production will be increasingly challenged. Agriculture is considered one of the sectors most adaptable to changes in climate. However, increased heat, pests, water stress, diseases, and weather extremes will pose adaptation challenges for crop and livestock production.”

Such wildly out-of-context statements throughout the book have the potential to leave readers in the dark about what scientists are really saying about climate change. Presenting the positive aspects of carbon dioxide to the exclusion of its negatives may lead readers to believe that excess carbon dioxide is no problem at all.

Each ad is filled with statements that are individually true, but meaningless once you put them into context. Yes, carbon dioxide is in the oceans and we do breathe it out (and in!). But that doesn’t mean excess carbon dioxide from human activities isn’t also changing the planet for the worse.

Similarly, a decades old Camel ad campaign claimed “more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” Maybe that claim was true. But it leads viewers to think that there must be some medical advantage to smoking Camels, when, in reality, those doctors would have benefited from quitting smoking, just as their patients would have.

The book contains many similar errors, including oversimplifications of climate models, erroneous projections of sea level rise and misinterpretations of other scientific analyses.

Levitt and Dubner’s Sources Contradict Them on Geoengineering

Nathan Myhrvold, a geoengineering proponent that Levitt and Dubner cite extensively, has responded to criticisms on the Freakonomics blog. While the book goes out of its way to present geoengineering as preferable to reducing emissions, Myhrvold says, “Geoengineering is proposed only as a last resort to try to reduce or cope with the even greater harms of global warming!” And Ken Caldiera, the scientist on whom they rely for much of the chapter, also says his views were misrepresented in the book and that we must reduce emissions.

To be fair, Levitt and Dubner do note that Caldiera wants to reduce emissions. But then they inaccurately say he believes carbon dioxide is “the wrong villain.” And although they briefly quote Myhrvold comparing geoengineering to having “fire sprinklers” in a building, they mostly cite him dismissing low-carbon energy technology and promoting geoengineering technology.

To date, Levitt and Dubner have failed to account for the simple fact that their sources disagree with their suggestion that we should geoengineer instead of reducing heat-trapping emissions. And they have failed to explain how they think we should address ocean acidification.

Attacking the Wrong Solutions

Levitt and Dubner inaccurately portray solutions to climate change as solely involving personal behavior change. This is a classic straw man used to argue against action on environmental policy.

Yes, getting people to change their behavior is hard. Good thing that’s not the only way to reduce emissions. Getting people to use cleaner, better, more efficient technology is easy and that’s what a lot of global warming solutions are really about. Energy-efficient refrigerators still keep food cold, more efficient cars still get you to work, and lights that draw their power from wind turbines and solar panels work just as well as ones that rely on coal-fired power plants.

Climate change policy is largely about giving businesses and people incentives to reduce emissions. Current legislative proposals focus on capping emissions and letting businesses trade emissions allowances with one another so the market can find the most economically efficient way to reduce emissions. The first such system, implemented under the 1990 acid rain amendments to the Clean Air Act, was incredibly successful. The Economist called it “probably the greatest green success story of the past decade.” That program not only reduced acid rain pollution below the levels required, but did so at a cost that was less than a third of what the Environmental Protection Agency initially projected.

Ironically, one of those acid rain pollutants was sulfur dioxide, Levitt and Dubner’s proposed cooling gas.

Oddly, Levitt and Dubner don’t cite examples involving people making decisions about energy use to bolster their case. Instead, they focus on how hard it was for a hospital to get doctors to regularly wash their hands.

In fact, there are many examples of people voluntarily making decisions that help the environment. Voluntary recycling is now commonplace even though it was non-existent just a few decades ago. In recent months, people have shown an increased willingness to buy more fuel-efficient cars, drive less and take public transportation. Fuel-efficiency remains a top consideration for most car-buyers even though gas prices are much lower than they were last summer. And a company named Positive Energy has found that the simple act of giving people more information in their electricity bills induces them to lower energy consumption.

An Ill-Timed Argument

The book couldn’t have arrived at a more awkward time, given the momentum for reducing emissions in the United States and the rest of the world.

In June, the House of Representatives for the first time passed comprehensive climate and energy legislation that would dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions. And just a few days after the book came out, the Senate unveiled its complementary version of the same legislation. Meanwhile the world is gearing up for the next round of climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark in December.

Final Analysis

It’s fun to entertain contrary notions. Contrarian thinking even has a role to play in scientific thinking and public policy. But Levitt and Dubner’s purposefully contrarian and misleading arguments do not boost the quality of our public discourse about energy and climate policy. Worse, they degrade public understanding of science.

Levitt and Dubner have been rightfully corrected by a number of scientists. They would do well for themselves and their readers if they opted to distance themselves from this chapter and promise to correct it online and in later print editions.

Dr. Melanie Fitzpatrick is a climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Climate and Energy Program. Aaron Huertas is a press secretary at UCS.
October 26, 2009 Psychologytoday

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