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Climate Change Pessimism Is Useless, Even Coming from Jonathan Franzen

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For what it’s worth, I feel the need to proclaim up top, loudly, that I’m an unabashed Jonathan Franzen fan. I like his fiction, I like his nonfiction, and I even like his rare but potent turns as an Internet troll. I say this in an attempt to distinguish myself from the legions of dogpiling haters who rush to scold Franzen at every chance, and prove that I have not succumbed to the cult of the Franzen reactionaries. (If you are one of the exceptionally cool people who belong to that cult, consider this your chance to sneer at me like I’m a progressive Bret Stephens. But I will email your boss if you insult me publicly.)

Second, I want to establish what I consider to be a pretty incontrovertible point, which is that climate pessimism—”we can’t stop climate change”—is a Republican argument. What Republicans want, and have wanted for years, is to do absolutely nothing about climate change because it will cost them money, and there are only two rationales for adopting that position beyond “I’m greedy.” They are:

1. Climate change isn’t real.
2.Climate change is real, but we can’t do anything about it, so why bother?

They’ve been hitting no. 1 pretty hard for the last three decades or so, but as it becomes more and more obvious even to the idiots that it is real, the obvious segue for Republicans is toward the “too late, sorry!” argument. We’ve already seen it happening a little, and my guess is that over the next three years or so, they’ll flock to the school of insincere helplessness while they build their armed compounds in New Zealand.

Which brings us to Jonathan Franzen, who wrote a piece called “What if we stopped pretending?” for the New Yorker that asks…well, what if we stopped pretending? What if we accept that climate change is going to upend civilization, and try to do our best anyway? Using science plus his opinions about human nature, Franzen basically makes the case that humans are too awful to actually do the hard work necessary to reverse the worst effects of climate change. I won’t lie: He has a pretty solid case. Anticipating my argument that this kind of thing is not helpful, even if true, he writes the following:

Some climate activists argue that if we publicly admit that the problem can’t be solved, it will discourage people from taking any ameliorative action at all. This seems to me not only a patronizing calculation but an ineffectual one, given how little progress we have to show for it to date. The activists who make it remind me of the religious leaders who fear that, without the promise of eternal salvation, people won’t bother to behave well. In my experience, nonbelievers are no less loving of their neighbors than believers. And so I wonder what might happen if, instead of denying reality, we told ourselves the truth.

But what comes next is basically an argument that large-scale aggressive actions will take resources away from defensive actions, as in, every dollar we spend on high-speed trains is a dollar we couldn’t spend on sandbags and grain and automatic rifles for when the apocalypse comes. I’m being glib, and Franzen points to many eco-conscious actions that can be done on a small scale. What he doesn’t do is prove how these large-scale actions conflict with what we can do on a small-scale (high speed trains are not mutually exclusive with me not eating meat). “Our best defense against dystopia,” Franzen writes, is to to strengthen our current institutions:

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.

Yeah, sure, all true, but the lingering question is: Why not both? Why not the big things and the small? Why not all of this? In fact, one of things he mentions—the reduction of wealth inequality—would be an enormous step in making the rest of it happen. Franzen believes that hope in saving our planet from the ravages of climate change breeds a kind of complacency, and that we should commit our personal and financial resources to small-scale projects that will bolster when the end times arrive, but aside from some vague “marshal the resources for the right projects” gesturing, he doesn’t make a convincing case as to why we’d ever have to choose.

The crazy thing is, Franzen himself, though he doesn’t want to admit it, has not given up total hope:

Our atmosphere and oceans can absorb only so much heat before climate change, intensified by various feedback loops, spins completely out of control. The consensus among scientists and policy-makers is that we’ll pass this point of no return if the global mean temperature rises by more than two degrees Celsius (maybe a little more, but also maybe a little less). The I.P.C.C.—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—tells us that, to limit the rise to less than two degrees, we not only need to reverse the trend of the past three decades. We need to approach zero net emissions, globally, in the next three decades.

Great, so let’s do it!

Yes, as Franzen goes on to explain, this is a “tall order” that depends on conservative projections and total policy reversals of the entire global geopolitical community, and yes, if you want to make the argument that it’s simply not going to happen, you can make that argument.

But why?

Why not, instead of climate pessimism, commit yourself to Climate Alarmism? Franzen makes the case that we haven’t really accomplished much in three decades, but that’s a little disingenuous—even he would agree, I think, that the problem has at least gained a whole lot of urgency in the past five years. That may seem like a bromide, but the fact is that action isn’t really possible until people care, and now? People care. The only people that cared in 1992 were Al Gore and a collection of Chicken Littles, all of whom happened to be exactly right, so for Franzen to imply that the period from 2018-2028 will see that exact same amount of progress as 1992-2002 is just plain wrong. Climate change may accelerate, but our activism is going to accelerate too as our fear reaches a critical mass.

I’m not saying we can avoid dystopia, but if we can, Climate Alarmism seems to me a far more effective path. Boarding up the basement walls while preparing for Armageddon is not, I think, an inspiring message, and I disagree with Franzen that it’s likely to spawn the kind of community action that can preserve our society, or some vestige of it, for a little bit longer. I tend to think that convincing a majority of the world’s people that we’re screwed unless we act fast will have a greater effect, and that we’ll approach a popular tipping point much faster, and that certain goals that appear out of reach now will not be as fanciful as we imagine once the collective pressure mounts.

I don’t know exactly what Franzen is doing here, and a wishful part of me suspects that his essay wears the mask of climate pessimism while doing some covert Climate Alarmism. As in, “one of our great writers is saying we’re headed into Mad Max territory and our best bet is to start community gardens, so maybe we should take this thing seriously!” But we’re not a subtle people, we Americans, and if that was his aim, he missed the mark.

I don’t think he was being tricky, though. I think he has good intentions, and makes a lot of good points, but that in the end climate pessimism is discouraging and apathy-provoking. Franzen uses some religious parallels to argue against this point, but I think maybe he should look at poverty cycles in our country and around the world, and how it can become entrenched and hopeless and self-perpetuating in a million different ways. That’s a better parallel for hopelessness, and I have a feeling he wouldn’t support the notion that the best way to help the poor is to convey to them that poverty is unbeatable, but that forming a dumpster diving club can stave off starvation. In the real world, people need hope in front of them and fear behind them before they can act, and climate pessimism extinguishes the light of the future. I know that Franzen wants things to change, with all of his heart, but calling that change impossible, in any guise, is just carrying water for the agents of inaction.

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