The end of 2009 found Mt. Mayon, in the Southern Luzon province of Albay, on the verge of erupting as molten magma flowed half a mile down from its crater and dark plumes of ashes filled the sky causing the evacuation of more than 20,000 residents in and around the 8,070 ft. volcano. But the feared eruption never came and the villagers returned to their homes.
Many feared that Mt. Mayon would go the way of Mt. Pinatubo which erupted on June 15, 1991 and which was considered the most powerful volcanic eruption in a century. As University of Chicago Prof. Stephen Levitt and New York Times Magazine editor Stephen Dubner describe it in their best-selling book on global cooling, Superfreakonomics, “within two hours of the main blast, sulfuric ash had reached 22 miles into the sky. By the time it was done, Pinatubo had discharged more than 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere.”
The eruption of Mt. Pinatubo devastated the Central Luzon provinces of Zambales and Pampanga causing the deaths of hundreds and the displacement of thousands of people. It also resulted in the decision by the US government to abandon its military bases in Olongapo (Subic Naval Base) and Angeles (Clark Air Force Base).
While the eruption caused severe damage to the rice fields and other crops, it was not a total environmental disaster. “As it turned out,” according to Levitt and Dubner in their book which has already sold 4 million copies, “the stratospheric haze of sulfur dioxide acted like a layer of sunscreen, reducing the amount of solar radiation reaching the earth. For the next two years, as the haze was settling out, the earth cooled out by an average of nearly one degree Fahrenheit, or .5 degrees Celsius. A single volcanic eruption practically reversed, albeit temporarily, the cumulative global warming of the previous hundred years.”
Because of Mt. Pinatubo, Levitt and Dubner concluded that carbon dioxide is not poisonous and not the culprit in global warming. They are joined in this belief by Intellectual Ventures CEO Nathan Myrvhold (former Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft) who agreed with them that “all the heavy-particulate pollution generated seems to have cooled the atmosphere by dimming the sun.”
In their book, they posed these questions: Do the future benefits from cutting emissions outweigh the costs of doing so? Or are we better off waiting to cut emissions later — or even, perhaps, polluting at will and just learning to live in a hotter world?
Their conclusion - found in the book’s most controversial chapter entitled “What do Al Gore and Mt. Pinatubo have in common?”- has been heavily criticized by scientists and economists including New York Times columnist and Nobel Laureat Paul Krugman and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The answer to the question above is that Al Gore and Mt. Pinatubo’s eruption both suggest a way to cool the planet, but with different cost-effective methods. The authors propose creating a “garden hose to the sky” to duplicate or replicate what Mt. Pinatubo achieved by funneling carbon dioxide directly into the stratosphere just as Mt. Pinatubo did.
They believe this is a cheaper more cost-effective way than to cap carbon emissions as Al Gore and virtually all of the world’s leading scientists recommend.
The authors do not dispute the reality of global warming. In an interview that was given after the book was released, Dubner clarified their position: “If global warming is a big enough problem to worry about, and we think it is, then the current proposed solutions (primarily carbon mitigation) will be too little and too late to solve the warming problem. That is a fundamentally different argument than what the carbon activists make. I don't blame them for attacking us: They have a lot at stake. What I'd like readers to walk away with is a better understanding of the scientific complexities of global warming as well as the economic realities — and, most of all, to understand how it would be a good idea to get a seat at the table for some other proposed solutions, including geo-engineering.”
Prof. Joe Romm, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) physicist questioned the authors’ enthusiastic embrace of geo-engineering and their dismissal of solar power as an effective tool to lower pollution. Romm criticized their contention that solar panels are ineffective “because they’re black” and thus generate heat that contributes to rising temperatures. In fact, as Romm points out, most solar panels are blue and the clean energy they generate greatly reduces the need to burn dirty coal or other hydrocarbons.
Their primary source for their belief that “carbon dioxide is not the villain” is Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution Department of Global Ecology but Caldeira disputes the quote attributed to him. According to Caldeira, "carbon dioxide emissions represent a real threat to humans and natural systems, and I fear we may have already dawdled too long.”
The authors of Superfreakonomics endorse the proposal of Myrvhold to create the garden hose to the sky they call “Budyko's Blanket” to reverse global warming at a total cost of $250 million which they contend is much cheaper than the estimated $1.2 trillion that capping carbon emissions would cost.
In response to their proposal, Al Gore responded: "If we don't know enough to stop putting 70 million tons of global-warming pollution into the atmosphere every day, how in God's name can we know enough to precisely counteract that?" The debates continue.
While the people around Mt. Mayon are anxiously waiting to see when, not if, the world’s most perfectly coned volcano will erupt and wreck havoc on their lives, there are people actually hoping that it will erupt just like Mt. Pinatubo did. Bust for the locals but a boon for the globals.