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Bashing environmentalists always pays
I generally don’t indulge in blog rants, mostly because I’m just not very good at them. David Roberts, on the other hand, is good at them, and he puts to words some of the deep disgust I’ve been feeling over the foofaraw kicked up by the new book *Superfreakonomics*, the sequel to the fairly awful and inexplicably bestselling *Freakonomics*.
I’m not going to rehash the *Superfreakonomics* episode in detail. For the gory details, go here or here and follow the thread. Better yet, check out the rigorous and entertainingly smug scientific takedown at Realclimate. In very brief: the book’s authors spend a few pages flirting with — but not explicitly endorsing! — various crusty old climate change denial talking points, and then glibly announce that we should forget about fossil fuels and just pump a few million tons of tons of sulfur into the sky to cool the planet. Cue Roberts:
> Mainstream media outlets seek one thing above all else, and that’s the unexpected, the contrarian. When it comes to climate change, that generally means taking a poke at greens (or better yet, at Al Gore). It’s even better if you’re a purported green bashing other greens. That’s the kind of media crack Nordhaus & Shellenberger dealt on their way to fame and funding. Bash the greens, no matter your qualifications or the merits of your arguments, and you will find yourself on television and in opinion sections from the *New York Times* to *Washington Post* to *Wired*.
> Helpfully, when you offer facile dismissals of science and policy to which people have devoted their lives—“We could end this debate and be done with it,” sighs Dubner, “and move on to problems that are harder to solve.”—they get angry, and they express that anger. Then you get to be the Brave, Persecuted Freethinker battling the Quasi-Religious Orthodoxy, and the press loves you all the more.
What’s amazing is how *unfailingly successful this strategy is.* It’s like the lottery ticket that always pays. I don’t really care that the Superfreakonomists have endorsed geoengineering. There’s a fine discussion to be had, blah blah blah. No, my disgust stems from how readily the authors have assumed the mantle of aggrieved victimhood, and how eagerly this narrative is taken up by the peanut gallery. No one ever goes broke beating up on the environment.
> On the other hand, simply repeat the broad global consensus— climate change is an urgent problem that warrants coordinated action to reduce GHG emissions—and you get nowhere. Boooring. (I can’t tell you how many back-and-forths I’ve had with media outlets where I try to explain that the thing most people think is right actually is right, and they say, maybe so, but that’s not going to titillate our readers.)
What’s the correct response here? I really don’t know. Certainly in the case of Superfreakonomics, bored disregard would have starved the episode of the media oxygen it needs to survive. Realclimate’s attempt to embarrass one of the co-authors by calling into question his academic credibility seems like a promising avenue. I’m not sure either strategy works in the general case, though.