Climate change skeptics embrace ‘Freakonomics’ sequel

The early reviews for “SuperFreakonomics” have been harsh. The book, wrote Brad Johnson in The Guardian, is a “super freaking mess.” According to environmental journalist Joe Romm, it contains “many, many pieces of outright nonsense” and “major howlers.” In The New Republic, Brad Plumer attacked the book for “garden variety ignorance.” And all of those pans appeared before the book actually hit the shelves this week.

Superfreakonomics and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) (HarperCollins, WDCpix)

Superfreakonomics and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) (HarperCollins, WDCpix)

Authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner didn’t face anything like this three years ago when they published “Freakonomics,” a surprise smash that sold 4 million copies. Unlike that book, which was based entirely on Levitt’s economic research from the University of Chicago, “SuperFreakonomics” is a guided tour of other peoples’ contrarian research and ideas. The final chapter deals with global warming, characterizing the beliefs of pessimistic environmentalists as “religious fervor,” and arguing that the climate change solutions proposed by Al Gore and many Democrats are ineffective and unworkable. It repeats claims that environmental journalists have debated or debunked for years. As a result, the authors are getting some early support from climate change skeptics who feel that attitudes toward their stances are getting brighter.

“It reminds me of what happened when Michael Crichton wrote ‘State of Fear,’” said Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, which gets some of its funding from the energy industry. “The problem for the left is that there are still some people who don’t toe the party line who have megaphones. And anyone who has a megaphone, they’re going to go after.”

Ebell’s reference to “State of Fear” demonstrated just how meaningful “Freakonomics” could be to people who challenge conventional wisdom about climate change. The late author’s novel, published in 2004, cast as villains environmentalists and eco-terrorists who were perpetrating hoaxes to maintain their power. Coming after Crichton had made some well-publicized and much-maligned remarks skeptical of climate change science, the book was pilloried by environmentalists. It sold more than 1.5 million copies anyway.

In the years since, many climate change skeptics feel that the environmental movement has lost ground culturally and politically. A Pew Research poll released on Thursday found that the number of Americans who believed that man-made global warming was occurring, or that a hotter planet was a serious problem, had fallen precipitously. In April 2008, 71 percent of Americans said that global warming was happening, and 47 percent said it was man-made. In the new poll, only 57 percent of Americans said any global warming was happening, and 36 percent said it was man-made. Many skeptics are taking that poll as a sign that their message is getting through.

“There’s just so much … skepticism now,” said Matt Dempsey, a spokesman for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the Environmental and Public Works Committee and one of the most prominent skeptics of climate change in Washington. In making the case that Americans are growing more skeptical, Dempsey said, “the Pew poll is one data point. This book is another data point.”

Levitt and Dubner have engaged their critics in the environmental movement, accusing them of “smears” for suggesting that the climate change chapter of “SuperFreakonomics” makes them “global warming denialists.”

“I think anyone who actually reads that chapter will come away with a better fact-based understanding of the actual issues surrounding global warming,” Levitt told TWI. “That said, I also think that partisans love to cherry-pick, regardless of what side of the aisle they sit on.”

Indeed, the climate change skeptics who are excited about “SuperFreakonomics” and the environmentalists who are criticizing the book are focusing on some of the same material. The controversial chapter opens with ironic quotes from Newsweek and New York Times articles from the 1970s that published frightening, if slapdash, research about “global cooling.” That phony scare is a favorite of climate change skeptics, who have attempted to bring it back from obscurity in books and in films like the just-released “Not Evil Just Wrong.”

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David Weigel

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