The new book SuperFreakonomics by Drubner and Levitt has become more than a mere book – it is a news event itself because of the chapter about climate change. The blogosphere and mainstream media are crackling with controversy over this section, practically guaranteeing huge book sales. This is no accident I imagine.
The book takes on climate change like other topics the authors address – they are intentionally provocative and good at it. They question the basic science behind climate science, question the value of addressing it, and question the value of carbon dioxide emissions. They question whether cap and trade will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tout the advantages of pumping particles into the atmosphere to simulate the cooling impact of a volcano. Given the prominence of the authors, the heated nature of the climate discussion, and its profound global importance, it’s no surprise that this chapter has earned such a dramatic response.
They are authors, and best-selling authors at that; they know what they are doing when it comes to selling books. The authors know that getting people excited or angry gets attention, interviews, airplay, and book sales. I liked Freakonomics, which used the same strategy, describing Levitt as a “rogue economist”. Last time it was abortion, and this time it’s climate change. Same strategy though.
It’s like a lot of our public discourse. The discussion gravitates toward the extremes because the extremes get attention. The extremes sell books, draw web clicks, and draw TV viewers.
I haven’t read the whole book, just the part about climate change, but if the rest is anything like Freakonomics it’s probably a good read. You really can’t go wrong with monkeys learning how to use money and using it to buy sex. Ka-ching. One thing the book shouldn’t do though is to drive climate policy. As talented as Drubner and Levitt are as writers, they aren’t climate scientists. Not many of us are, so a lot of what we hear about climate is from second, third, and fourth-hand interpretations of the science, or completely disregards it. Climate change is a complicated story and an extremely important one. We need to listen much more carefully to scientists, and craft policy based on the consensus scientific opinion.
Dubner claims to only want to stimulate discussion, and its hard to argue against discussion without sounding like one of the climate change acolytes they describe, but the danger is that they will drive the climate conversation off course at a critical juncture.
A recent poll found that only 57% of Americans believe that climate change is happening. That’s a big drop from other polls, and may reflect the complexity of climate change, and reluctance to deal with it now, when people are still worried about their jobs and mortgages. That’s where the middle is, and that’s where the discussion needs to be, talking about what climate change really means for them. We need to have discussions based on solid science and looking for cost effective solutions that work for everyone. We need to make sure the incentives are right to drive the right economics that ensure both a strong economy and a healthy environment. There are immense opportunities ahead for businesses inventing cleaner and more efficient ways of doing things, opportunities driven by putting the right economic incentives in place. That’s something that would have been interesting to read about.
There are solutions that can get us away from extreme polarization and back toward making real progress. In a recent New York Times Op-Ed Senators John Kerry (D – Massachusetts) and Lindsey Graham (R – South Carolina) proposed how to do this, saying we should grow renewable energy and take care of energy efficiency, but also consider nuclear, clean coal, and offshore drilling. I don’t love all of this, but if a compromise like this can get action on climate change moving forward, we should consider it.
Maybe the authors themselves hold the key to understanding the current controversy. Levitt and Drubner write in their books about the ways that incentives and punishments drive the choices we make. Sumo wrestlers cheat and monkeys learn how to use money because of the incentives they are faced with. The key to understanding SuperFreakonomics is to apply the authors’ own principles.
What are the economics of SuperFreakonomics? Look at the incentives and punishments that might influence authors of best-selling non-fiction, and then trace them to their impact on behavior. Stimulate controversy and you nab big book sales. Fail to stimulate controversy and you might be on your way out faster than you can say “yesterday’s news”. Viewed in this light, the whole thing makes perfect sense, just like the cheating sumo wrestlers.
I feel like a big of a rogue economist myself now. I’d write a book about the surprising impact of incentives in media, except that they’re not really that surprising at all. Maybe I’m just a little superfreaking jealous. I’ve written a couple of books myself – I’ll have to take a lesson from these guys for my next book. I’m going to call it “In Your Face Stuff Guaranteed to Get Your Goat, and Your Money.” Look for it soon at bookstores near you.
Glenn Croston is the founder of StartingUpGreen.com and the Green Biz Blast, and the author of “75 Green Businesses” and “Starting Green”, helping people to start and grow successful green businesses.