climate change

Jonathan Franzen’s Climate Pessimism Is Justified. His Fatalism Is Not.

Residents of the Bahamas boarding a cargo ship for evacuation after Hurricane Dorian. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Nine months ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told a crowd at the Riverside Church in Manhattan, “The world is going to end in 12 years if we do not address climate change.” In some respects, the congresswoman’s statement was excessively optimistic.

If the climate crisis were as binary and undiscriminating as AOC suggested, it would be much easier to avert. If 1.5 degrees of warming marked an unambiguous dividing line between a “healthy” climate and total ecological catastrophe — which is to say, an equal-opportunity extinction event that would wipe out Xi Jinping’s daughter and Barron Trump just as surely as it would peasants in Bangladesh — then carbon-dioxide emissions probably wouldn’t have risen by 2.7 percent last year. The absence of a single do-or-die climate deadline, from which no country or class is exempt, enables complacency and procrastination, especially among the aging plutocrats who rule so much of our world.

Meanwhile, the ambiguities and inequities of the ecological crisis also pose challenges for mobilizing activists behind climate action. The facts of our predicament don’t always make for punchy slogans. No one is ever going to rally a crowd by pumping her fist and shouting:

“We have already burned an unsafe amount of carbon, and nothing we do now is likely to prevent the climate from growing evermore inhospitable for the rest of our lives. We cannot know with certainty quite how much ecological devastation we’ve already bought ourselves, or exactly how much carbon we can burn without triggering mass starvation, civilizational collapse, or human extinction. Those 1.5- and two-degree warming targets you’ve heard so much about are informed by science, but they’re still inescapably arbitrary. Keeping warming below 1.5 degrees won’t be sufficient to prevent wrenching ecological disruptions (some of which will be tantamount to “end of the world” for those most severely afflicted). And at the rate we’re going, we almost certainly not going to keep warming below even two degrees, anyway. A better climate (than our current one) is not possible; at least, not for us, or our children, or their children. But the faster we decarbonize the global economy, the better our chances of sparing the world’s most vulnerable communities from near-term destruction — and our civilization from medium-term collapse — will be.”

So, instead, climate activists say things like, “We have 12 years to save the planet.” And heads of state solemnly swear to “solve” climate change by keeping warming below two degrees. We tell ourselves stories in order to do politics.

But Jonathan Franzen is sick of it. In an essay for the New Yorker, the novelist takes exception to the left’s “pretending” on climate change. Franzen argues that when figures like Ocasio-Cortez frame the Green New Deal as “our last chance to avert catastrophe and save the planet,” they are promulgating a form of climate denial because there is no serious prospect of humanity keeping warming below two degrees, and thus “the radical destabilization of life on earth” is already inevitable. Instead of imagining that a globe-spanning revolution is waiting in the wings, Franzen implores environmentalists to accept that the political dynamics that have obstructed climate action for the past three decades aren’t going to disappear in the next 16 months. The “war on climate change” is no longer “winnable.” Activists should carry on fighting to reduce emissions through “half measures,” the novelist explains, since it is still possible to delay the onset of apocalypse. But it no longer makes sense for the left to insist that climate change must be “everyone’s overriding priority forever” — or that “gargantuan renewable-energy projects” must take precedence over the conservation of “living ecosystems.”

There are a lot of problems with Franzen’s thinking on this subject. But the biggest — and most ironic — is that the novelist has himself mistaken politically expedient rhetorical tropes for scientific truths.

Some of Franzen’s arguments bear a vague resemblance to cogent points.

Before looking at where Franzen goes astray, however, it’s worth noting what he gets half-right. Franzen writes that climate change is already guaranteed to produce “the radical destabilization of life on earth — massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought.” It is unclear what it means, scientifically, for a flood to be “epic,” or a fire, “apocalyptic.” But I imagine many residents of Houston, Texas, or Butte County, California, would say that much of Franzen’s dark prophecy has already been realized. And the warming we’ve already bought ourselves will likely be sufficient to implode some economies, cause significant crop failures, and displace large masses of people. If these are the defining features of climate disaster, then climate disaster is already inevitable. And one can plausibly argue that progressive rhetoric elides how much trouble we’re already in. Climate reporter Emily Atkin assembled a version of that case for The New Republic last year:

“The whole idea that everything’s going to work out isn’t really helpful, because it isn’t going to work out,” said Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Climate change is going to worsen to a point where millions of lives, homes, and species are put at risk, she said. The only thing humans can do is decide how many lives, homes, and species they’re willing to lose due to climate change — how long they’re willing to allow their respective governments to stall on what we know to be technically achievable.

Further, Franzen’s assessment of our prospects for averting two degrees of temperature rise is very likely correct. If every signatory of the Paris Agreement honored its emission-reduction commitment under the accord, the Earth would still be at least three degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels by 2100. And only a tiny fraction of signatories are on pace to honor those commitments.

Thus, Franzen’s pessimism on this score is neither uncommon nor novel. In fact, New York Times climate reporter Brad Plumer declared that keeping warming below two degrees was all but impossible back in 2014 (when he was still writing for Vox):

By now, countries have delayed action for so long that the necessary emissions cuts will have to be extremely sharp. In April 2014, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that if we want to stay below the 2°C limit, global greenhouse-gas emissions would have to decline between 1.3 percent and 3.1 percent each year, on average, between 2010 and 2050.

To put that in perspective, global emissions declined by just 1 percent for a single year after the 2008 financial crisis, during a brutal recession when factories and buildings around the world were idling. To stay below 2°C, we may have to triple that pace of cuts, and sustain it year after year.

… “Ten years ago, it was possible to model a path to 2°C without all these heroic assumptions,” says Peter Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “But because we’ve dallied for so long, that’s no longer true.”

Five years later, the path to two degrees requires assumptions even more heroic. So, Franzen is probably right that we aren’t going to keep warming below that threshold. He’s just badly wrong about what that means.

Franzen’s understanding of climate science could use a few corrections.

Even as the author mocks the baseless optimism of progressive rhetoric on climate, he treats the center-left’s most convenient rhetorical contrivance on the subject as gospel: that two degrees of warming (give or take) marks a “point of no return,” at which the climate “spins completely out of control,” and near-term civilizational collapse becomes inevitable. “In the long run, it probably makes no difference how badly we overshoot two degrees,” Franzen writes. “[O]nce the point of no return is passed, the world will become self-transforming.”

This is extremely wrong. As David Wallace-Wells writes (in a book that Franzen cites in his essay, but perhaps did not read very closely):

[G]lobal warming is not binary. It is not a matter of “yes” or “no,” not a question of “fucked” or “not.” Instead, it is a problem that gets worse over time the longer we produce greenhouse gas, and can be made better if we choose to stop. Which means that no matter how hot it gets, no matter how fully climate change transforms the planet and the way we live on it, it will always be the case that the next decade could contain more warming, and more suffering, or less warming and less suffering. Just how much is up to us, and always will be.

But don’t take my colleague’s word for it — take co-author of the 2018 IPCC report Myles Allen’s. “Bad stuff is already happening and every half a degree of warming matters,” Allen recently wrote, “but the IPCC does not draw a ‘planetary boundary’ at 1.5°C beyond which lie climate dragons.”

Given both the technical feasibility of keeping warming below two degrees (or even below 1.5) — and the immense human consequences of every incremental increase in global temperatures — there is a strong argument for politicians and activists to hold the line on conventional warming targets, no matter how politically dubious or scientifically arbitrary they may be. That said, there is a difference between refusing to acquiesce to political probability, and refusing to make contingency plans in light of it. Given what the available evidence tells us about the prospects of rapid decarbonization over the next decade, it would be grossly irresponsible to oppose investments in carbon capture and other “negative emissions” technologies. We no longer have the luxury of forswearing such “moral hazards.” Similarly, given the certainty of wrenching ecological disruptions, Franzen is on firm ground when he calls on his readers to make comprehensive preparations for a world of climate chaos:

Preparing for fires and floods and refugees is a directly pertinent example. But the impending catastrophe heightens the urgency of almost any world-improving action. In times of increasing chaos, people seek protection in tribalism and armed force, rather than in the rule of law, and our best defense against this kind of dystopia is to maintain functioning democracies, functioning legal systems, functioning communities. In this respect, any movement toward a more just and civil society can now be considered a meaningful climate action. Securing fair elections is a climate action. Combatting extreme wealth inequality is a climate action. Shutting down the hate machines on social media is a climate action. Instituting humane immigration policy, advocating for racial and gender equality, promoting respect for laws and their enforcement, supporting a free and independent press, ridding the country of assault weapons — these are all meaningful climate actions. To survive rising temperatures, every system, whether of the natural world or of the human world, will need to be as strong and healthy as we can make it.

And yet, virtually every climate group that’s currently agitating for rapid decarbonization also supports investments in adaptation and resilience. Meanwhile, Franzen’s suggestion that supporters of a Green New Deal believe climate must be “everyone’s overriding priority” — such that no one is allowed to focus on combating wealth or racial inequality — would be news to both Ocasio-Cortez and her critics.

Some men just want to watch the world bird.

Franzen and climate activists do not disagree on the importance of fair elections and humane immigration policy. The author builds up the straw man of a green movement that disdains Black Lives Matter (for failing to focus on the one true crisis) to build a broader coalition behind his true, idiosyncratic complaint: that “renewable energy projects” are defacing his favorite bird preserves:

Every renewable-energy mega-project that destroys a living ecosystem — the “green” energy development now occurring in Kenya’s national parks, the giant hydroelectric projects in Brazil, the construction of solar farms in open spaces, rather than in settled areas — erodes the resilience of a natural world already fighting for its life. Soil and water depletion, overuse of pesticides, the devastation of world fisheries — collective will is needed for these problems, too, and, unlike the problem of carbon, they’re within our power to solve.

Franzen articulated this grievance more clearly in his previous, widely panned New Yorker essay on climate change, in which he voiced frustration at the Audubon Society’s misguided obsession with climate, and the ostensible willingness of some so-called environmentalists to “blight every landscape with biofuel agriculture, solar farms, and wind turbines.” At bottom, his new piece is just an elaborately elliptical rendering of the same objection. Like President Trump, Franzen has a visceral distaste for wind turbines and is willing to distort climate science to rationalize his opposition to massive investments in renewable energy.

In reality, stipulating that it is too late to avoid two degrees Celsius warming actually strengthens the case for prioritizing “renewable-energy mega-projects” over conservation; since there is no “point of no return” on climate (or at least, none that we can know in advance), the bleaker one’s assessment of the prospects for rapid decarbonization, the more committed one should be to reducing emissions by all practical means.

We don’t have 12 years to save the world. But we do have the rest of our lives to save as many of each other as we can. Franzen’s doomerism is for the birds.

Jonathan Franzen Almost Has a Point About Climate Change