Bird man cries wolf
Jonathan Franzen has written yet another fatalist essay about climate change. Cock-a-doodle-BOOOOO.
Welcome to the first official issue of HEATED, a daily newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis.
If you like it, please forward it to a friend—it would mean the world to me. If you’ve been forwarded this, you can sign up here:
Hello and happy Monday, hot stuff!
First, I want to give a quick shout out to everyone who read the pre-launch issue on CNN’s climate crisis town hall. You made watching seven hours of television worth it. And we got some great feedback! Like this, from North Carolina’s state climatologist Kathie Dello:
Yeah, that was braggy, but it’s cool to see climate content resonating with people, isn’t it? If you’ve followed the climate space for awhile, you know that hasn’t always been the case. I really consider this an exciting and motivating time for tackling the climate crisis.
You know who doesn’t, though? Jonathan Franzen!
What a flock of shit.
Credit: Quinn deEskimo/Flickr
Jonathan Franzen is a famous novelist. He is also famous for loving birds. He loves birds so much that in 2015 he wrote an essay for The New Yorker arguing that environmentalists should focus less on solving climate change, and more on saving birds. His reasoning was that the climate was probably doomed either way; at least we could save some birds in the meantime.
Franzen got roasted pretty hard for this take, but not hard enough, because yesterday The New Yorker published what amounts to Jonathan Franzen’s Fatalist Fact-Free Climate Manifesto Part Two. No birds this time, but also no science either. Hooray!
Here’s some of what Franzen wrote:
“The radical destabilization of life on earth” is “all but guaranteed” within many of our lifetimes.
We can’t “solve” climate change, and thinking we can is “denial.”
We should give up hope that climate catastrophe will be averted, “accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.”
New hope means thinking small, not big—focusing less on preserving a livable climate for future generations, and focusing “most of” our activist efforts toward “smaller, more local battles that you have some realistic hope of winning.”
“All-out war on climate change made sense only as long as it was winnable,” Franzen concluded. “Once you accept that we’ve lost it, other kinds of action take on greater meaning.”
It’s the most brilliantly unintentional fossil fuel industry propaganda I’ve ever read.
The pessimism itself is not the problem.
I’m not going to pretend like Franzen doesn’t have good reason to be pessimistic about the future of this planet. I’m a climate pessimist, too.
Based on the research I’ve read, the scientists I’ve spoken to, and the observations I’ve made about how society works right now, I think it’s unlikely we’ll stop global warming at the 2 degree Celsius mark, the point at which irreversible catastrophe begins.
But I’m also not a coward.
Maybe it’s because I’ve watched too many superhero movies, but Franzen’s logic—that all-out war against the fossil fuel industry only makes sense if it’s “winnable”—seems incredibly (sorry) pigeon-hearted to me. If Captain America taught us anything, it’s that you shouldn’t need the guarantee of success to fight for what you know to be right; especially when that fight will determine whether millions of people live or die.
And maybe it’s because I’ve read Dr. Kate Marvel’s gorgeous essay about courage too many times, but Franzen’s prescription to simply “rethink what it means to have hope” seems like a real convenient way out of accepting our moral responsibility to future generations. The hardest thing in the world is to have courage—to work toward a goal despite pain, or grief, or really crappy odds. But that’s what solving the climate crisis will require.
That’s why I don’t think pessimism itself is the problem. Because we’re not going to find the resolve to mobilize if we’re all falsely hoping that everyone is going to be OK.
The problem is irrational pessimism.
We’re also not going to find the resolve to mobilize if we falsely believe we’re all hopelessly doomed. Because we’re not hopelessly doomed. It’s objectively not true.
Here is how Franzen justified his claim that the climate apocalypse is inevitable. It is basically the climate science version of “I have an iPod—IN MY MIND.”
As a non-scientist, I do my own kind of modelling. I run various future scenarios through my brain, apply the constraints of human psychology and political reality, take note of the relentless rise in global energy consumption … and count the scenarios in which collective action averts catastrophe.
So Franzen based his predictions off… brain modelling scenarios… which to me is proof enough that his pessimism might be questionable. If you need more, though, several climate scientists and experts wrote a bunch of Twitter threads about everything Franzen got wrong on Sunday night. This is the most thorough one I’ve read so far (click it to read the whole thing):
It is rational pessimism to believe that 2 degrees of warming is coming no matter what we do. But it is irrational pessimism to say, as Franzen does, that once we hit 2 degrees Celsius of warming, human civilization is screwed forever, game over, goodbye. It is even more irrational to say, as Franzen does, that we have failed to “solve” climate change once we pass that mark.
We have to redefine what “winning” means.
It seems to me that journalists, activists, and politicians need to communicate better what “winning” the climate war means. Because the war does not stop at 2 degrees Celsius. It stops when the planet becomes entirely uninhabitable to humans.
As long as we exist, we have the power to stop emitting carbon dioxide. The sooner we stop, the less human casualties will be lost in the war. Whether we stop at 2 degrees, 3 degrees, 6 degrees, or when there are no humans left to emit carbon, is entirely up to us. But the latter scenario is the only one in which we lose.
I’m a climate pessimist because I think we’ll see casualties. Technically, we already have. But I also know that the war’s still winnable. And not just because my brain models told me so.
And even if it weren’t winnable, wouldn’t you still rather go down fighting?
Steve Rogers would. Just sayin’.
OK, that’s all for now—thanks so much for reading the first official issue of HEATED! If you liked it, hated it, or want to pitch me a story idea, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See you tomorrow for edition number two, which hopefully won’t be about Jonathan Franzen.