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Jonathan Franzen writes about climate change. Twitter erupts in anger. It’s the circle of life as we denizens of the internet have come to know it in recent years.
Franzen is most famous for authoring novels like The Corrections and Freedom, but he’s also developed a pattern of writing controversialtakes on the environment. His latest is an opinion essay for the New Yorker titled, “What If We Stopped Pretending?” The subtitle sums up his argument: “The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.”
The author starts from the premise that if we let Earth warm by two degrees Celsius, the climate will spin completely out of control and there’ll be no coming back from it. He says “human psychology and political reality” are such that we will indeed let Earth warm by two degrees, so it makes no sense to talk about “saving” the planet anymore. What’s more, he argues, it’s actively harmful to talk like that because it gives us the sense that climate change mitigation “needs to be everyone’s overriding priority forever” — and that’ll make us ignore adaptation efforts like disaster preparedness, and smaller-scale goals like helping animals suffer less right now.
He wants us to keep doing what we can for the planet, but also to adopt “a more balanced portfolio of hopes, some of them longer-term, most of them shorter.”
Immediately after the essay went live Sunday, people began to express their ire online. Climatescientistsandactivists were especially pissed — at the author, and also at the magazine that published him. (A few people did defend him, to a point.) The critics’anger seemed to coalesce around four main complaints, three of them empirical in nature: Franzen is wrong on the science, on the politics, and on the psychology of human behavior as it pertains to climate change.
The fourth complaint was more about credentials and identity: If a prestigious magazine like the New Yorker wants to allocate precious space to a conversation about climate, great! But why give it to a novelist and not a climate scientist? And why give it to yet another white man instead of elevating the voices of people we rarely get to hear from, like women of color?
These four complaints are significant because, as much as they’re about Franzen — a man whose comments have beenbothering more and more people over the years — they’re about a lot more than just Franzen. They reflect a broader public fight over how we should talk about climate change and who should get to do the talking. (Perhaps infighting is a better term, since much of this squabbling happens within progressive circles.)Let’s unpack it.
Franzen is wrong on the science
Franzen is the kind of man who says he feels guilty about his carbon footprint when he flies or drives, the kind who advocates for land conservation and animal welfare, the kind who, in his words, “cares more about birds than the next man.” He is no fan of climate denialism.So it was strange to see him propounding a view that, while different from denialism, can lead to the same conclusion: Stop focusing so much on cutting emissions.
“Our resources aren’t infinite. Even if we invest much of them in a longest-shot gamble, reducing carbon emissions in the hope that it will save us, it’s unwise to invest all of them,” Franzen writes. “All-out war on climate change made sense only as long as it was winnable.”
His apocalyptic rhetoric starts to sound like it’s sliding into a breed of denialism (or “de-nihilism,” as Mary Annaïse Heglar of the Natural Resources Defense Council dubbed it): the denial that there’s any sense in focusing on the fight for a better climate.
1. Climate change is dubious and irrelevant –> no point cutting emissions
2. Climate change is apocalyptic and impossible –> no point cutting emissions
Seems like society’s move from denial #1 to denial #2 has happened in barely the blink of an eye😒
Franzen repeatedly returns to the notion that our damage to the climate is sure to pass a “point of no return” and so we might as well admit that we’re just not going to be able to “solve” the climate crisis. Here’s how he expresses his understanding of the scientific consensus on climate:
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.
But as some climate scientists noted on Twitter, this isnot an accurate representation of what the IPCC says. Two degrees of warming is not meant to be treated as a scientific threshold, a “point of no return.”As sustainable business expert Andrew Winston wrote, Franzen focuses with a strange insistence on “two degrees” as if it’s a magic number beyond which everything instantly turns to hell. But it’s not the case that passing the two-degree mark means we should all just throw our hands up in despair. “If we miss 2, we fight for 2.1, then 2.2, etc.,” as Winston put it.
To his credit, Franzen does acknowledge that “even if we can no longer hope to be saved from two degrees of warming, there’s still a strong practical and ethical case for reducing carbon emissions. … If collective action resulted in just one fewer devastating hurricane, just a few extra years of relative stability, it would be a goal worth pursuing.”
That’s logical, and yet the overall thrust of his essay flies in the face of this logicby arguing that although mitigation is a goal worth pursuing, it would be unwise to invest too much in it. That’s because he believes putting all our eggs in the mitigation basket will undercut our ability to pursue adaptation (“preparing for fires and floods and refugees”) and conservation of wildlife that’s at risk right now. More on that strawman argument in a bit.
Franzen is wrong on the politics
Franzen also angered many progressives by comparing the climate denial espoused by the Republican Party to “denial entrenched in progressive politics”: denial that the climate crisis is unsolvable. He writes: “The Green New Deal, the blueprint for some of the most substantial proposals put forth on the issue, is still framed as our last chance to avert catastrophe and save the planet.”
According to Franzen, the problem with this framing is that we’re too late to save the planet — and even if we’re not actually too late, we’re certainly too stubborn to accept the massive changes to our lifestyles that saving the planet would require. For example, he thinks Americans would revolt against the idea of paying higher taxes to underwrite the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has suggested raising the tax rate for the wealthiest Americans to pay for the plan.
But as critics pointed out, Franzen didn’t seem to have a firm grasp of the details of the Green New Deal, and failed to offer a full and fair characterization of the plan.The Deal notes that we’re actually facing two crises: climate change and growing economic inequality. It sets out a series of goals for heading off the first crisis (like achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions) and, in the process, seeks to tackle the second crisis by designing our transition to a greener economy in a way that creates jobs for people.
“I suppose Franzen didn’t actually read the Green New Deal resolution. Or any of the climate plans that the Democratic candidates have put out. Who has time to read policy proposals when you’re busy building your climate apocalypse bunker!?” wrote Leah Stokes, a climate researcher at University of California Santa Barbara. “He has no idea what is in the Green New Deal. He says: ‘Americans need to accept high taxes and severe curtailment of their familiar lifestyles without revolting.’ The entire point of the Green New Deal is to marry industrial policy with social policy to avoid this outcome.”
Stokes is referring to the aspect of the Green New Deal that acknowledges that transitioning away from fossil fuels will cause some Americans to suffer job loss — and that describes all the ways they’ll be protected, like public employment and universal health care. Here’s a Vox video that explains this in greater detail:
Franzen is wrong on the psychology
Franzen seems to presume that we human beings can’t hold more than one idea in our minds at the same time. That’s why he argues that “a false hope of salvation can be actively harmful.” Here’s his reasoning:
If you persist in believing that catastrophe can be averted, you commit yourself to tackling a problem so immense that it needs to be everyone’s overriding priority forever. One result, weirdly, is a kind of complacency: by voting for green candidates, riding a bicycle to work, avoiding air travel, you might feel that you’ve done everything you can for the only thing worth doing. Whereas, if you accept the reality that the planet will soon overheat to the point of threatening civilization, there’s a whole lot more you should be doing.
But where is this mythical person who, because he rides a bike or avoids air travel, thinks he’s done his duty and doesn’t bother to do anything else that’s good for the world? How many such people have you actually encountered?
Critics took Franzen to task for this straw man. “Virtually every climate group that’s currently agitating for rapid decarbonization also supports investments in adaptation and resilience,” wrote Eric Levitz in New York Magazine. “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.”
Franzen has actually been banging this drum for years.In another climate essay he wrote for the New Yorker in 2015, he gave the example of a blogger who said there’s not much point installing special patterned glass in a new stadium’s windows because the gravest threat to birds is not collisions but climate change. Franzen used this example to argue that climate change is making it harder for people to care about conservation — to take care of animals that are dying right now of causes that are less PR-friendly but no less real than climate change.
It’s hard to believe, though, that most people really find it difficult to care about climate change and care about conservation (or adaptation) at the same time. If anything, people who are passionate enough about the world to avoid air travel tend to be those who are also passionate about doing other commendable things — including the things Franzen says he cares about: taking care of animals, supporting refugees, donating to homelessness charities.
If theNew Yorker wants to publish Franzen, that’s its prerogative, but, some people asked, why not hear from a climate scientist? If not a climate scientist, why a well-off older white man and not, say, a young woman of color whose opinion is less often heard and who’s likelier to actually suffer ill effects from global warming?
“It’s hard to imagine major outlets publishing essays declaring efforts to reduce poverty hopeless. Or telling cancer patients to just give up,” John Upton, an editor at Climate Central, wrote on Twitter. “Yet this Climate Doomist trope flourishes — penned, best I can tell, exclusively by older, comfy white men.”
And here’s Rhiana Gunn-Wright, policy lead for the Green New Deal, and Katharine Wilkinson, vice president of communication and engagement at Project Drawdown:
i am actually incensed about this franzen piece. the hoops i see my climate writers who are women and POC go through to get published and the New Yorker is going to spare space for jonathan franzen to talk about climate? WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY *sexism and racism* WHY WHY WHY
Know what we haven’t tried “at scale” to address the climate crisis?? ✨feminist leadership✨ So to all Franzen & Co. “we’re toast” bros, why not work for a world free of patriarchy instead of going🤷🏼♂️😴? Great way to help: pass the mic to folks with real vision, especially WOC. https://t.co/ejGYg95diw
Meanwhile, Leah Stokes asked why our most prominent outlets “continue to publish these bad takes, which invariably come from privileged, western, white men? Is this what is going to replace airtime for deniers?”
This critique is really two critiques. One is about credentials: Franzen is a novelist, not a scientist, so why should we be paying special attention to his analysis of the climate crisis?
The other is about identity: Franzen is a privileged white man writing for a magazine that has long bolstered the power and prestige of white men. Many people — especially women and people of color — have been frustrated for ages at how much harder it is to get their voices heard in prestigious outlets, even when they’re more credentialed on the topic at hand. So when someone like Franzen comes along and pens yet another take for the New Yorker on a topic he’s no expert at,the long-simmering frustration erupts into an online conflagration.
The anger is partly about Franzen’s actual arguments. But it’s also partly not about his arguments or even about his person. It’s about what he and the New Yorker have come to symbolize: a culture of prestige that only wants to hear from those it has already deemed prestigious.
Instead, utilities and energy companies are continuing to invest heavily in carbon-polluting natural gas. An exclusive analysis by USA TODAY finds that across the United States there are as many as 177 natural gas power plants currently planned, under construction or announced. There are close to 2,000 now in service.
All that natural gas is “a ticking time bomb for our planet,” says Michael Brune, president of the Sierra Club. “If we are to prevent runaway climate change, these new plants can’t be built.”
It also doesn’t make financial sense, according to an analysis by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based think tank that focuses on energy and resource efficiency. By the time most of these power plants are slated to open their doors, the electricity they’ll provide will cost more to produce than clean energy alternatives.
By 2023, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates the average cost of producing a megawatt hour of electricity will be $40.20 for a large-scale natural gas plants. Solar installations will be $2.60 cheaper and wind turbines will be $3.60 cheaper.
Catastrophic effects ahead unless we make changes
The world needs to reduce its carbon emissions rapidly – by 50% within the next decade – or face the prospect of a global temperature rise of more than 2.7 degrees within decades, said Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Pennsylvania State University.
That’s enough warming to kill off the coral reefs, melt large parts of the ice sheets, inundate coastal cities and to yield what Mann calls “nearly perpetual extreme weather events.”
“By any definition, that would be catastrophic,” he said.
We’re seeing the start of it now. There’s strong data to suggest that global warming is already causing changes in the jet stream and other weather systems. That can cause hurricanes to slow down and wreak devastation in single areas for longer, said Marshall Shepherd, director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia.
“With Dorian, we saw it stall over the Bahamas. We saw that with Harvey in Houston and Florence in the Carolinas,” he said.
More gas = more carbon dioxide
Adding dozens of new natural gas plants in the coming decades is going in the exact opposite direction of what we need, clean energy advocates say.
“If the current pipeline of gas plants were to get built, it would make decarbonizing the power sector by 2050 nearly impossible,” said Joe Daniel, a senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
An analysis by the Rocky Mountain Institute published Monday looked at 88 gas-fired power plants scheduled to begin operation by 2025. They would emit 100 million tons of carbon dioxide a year – equivalent to 5% of current annual emissions from the U.S. power sector.
The institute calculated the cost of producing a megawatt-hour of electricity of a clean energy portfolio in each state that would provide the same level of power reliability as a gas plant. It determined that building clean energy alternatives would cost less than 90% of the proposed 88 plants.
It would also save customers over $29 billion in their utility bills, said Mark Dyson, an electricity markets analyst who co-authored the Rocky Mountain Institute paper.
“If you look at how things pencil out, we’re at a tipping point,” he said. “Here’s evidence that the switch from gas to clean energy makes economic sense and is compatible with utility companies’ need for reliability.”
More power plants coming to a state near you
USA TODAY compiled its own list of 177 planned and proposed natural gas plants through August, using data from S&P Global Market Intelligence, which tracks power plants that have been officially announced, and the Sierra Club, which tracks proposed plants.
Of those, 152 have a scheduled opening date of between 2019 and 2033, though only 130 have specific locations chosen. An additional 25 are part of companies’ long-term planning processes and don’t have estimated opening dates yet.
The plants are a mix of large-scale installations meant to provide lots of electricity much of the day and smaller plants used for short periods when demand for energy is particularly high.
Texas has the most proposed plants, with 26. Next is Pennsylvania with 24, North Carolina with 12, Florida with 10, California with nine and Montana with eight.
Not all will be built. Power companies are required to estimate future needs and plan as much as 15 years out, and this list includes plants which the companies may eventually decide they don’t need.
But the numbers show that greenhouse gas-producing natural gas is still on the table for many power producers, despite warnings that the energy sector needs to be quickly moving away from carbon-producing power sources.
Another concern raised by clean energy advocates is that once built, natural gas plants typically have a 30-year lifespan. Many of these plants will end up as “stranded assets,” unused because they’re too expensive to run, while consumers will still be on the hook for the cost of the construction, said Daniel.
It’s also true that power companies are building out solar and wind generation. Over the next two years, clean energy is expected to be the fastest-growing source of U.S. electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Even so, that will only bring the share of wind and solar in the United States electricity market to slightly under 11%.
By 2020, EIA expects natural gas will make up about 36% of U.S. electricity generation. In comparison, coal is at 23%, nuclear at 20% and hydroelectric at 7%.
Why are we still building natural gas plants?
If natural gas plants contribute to global warming and most of them are going to be more expensive, why are so many still on the drawing board? The reasons are varied.
Energy companies say gas is more reliable than renewables and cheaper and less carbon polluting than the coal it often replaces.
But renewable energy advocates say the incentives for utilities and energy producers aren’t always in line with those of consumers.
For regulated utilities, one of the easiest ways to make money is to invest capital in large building projects, such as natural gas plants. Regulators allow utilities to set rates so that they get a return on invested capital of about 10%, Dyson said. That gives energy companies an incentive to build as much as possible.
In contrast, utilities that procure wind and solar power via commonly available purchase contracts earn no returns for these projects.
“There’s a perverse incentive for some utilities to build as big as they can, rather than to build as smart as they can,” said Ben Inskeep, an analyst with EQ Research, a clean energy policy consulting firm in Cary, North Carolina.
Companies also focus on reliability. Duke Energy, a power company based in Charlotte, North Carolina, has more than 7 million customers. As it transitions away from coal, it has embraced natural gas, announcing last week that it was considering as many as five new gas plants.
Today 5% of Duke Energy Carolinas’ electricity comes from solar, a percentage it plans to increase to between 8% and 13% by 2034, according to its most recent filing with state regulators. The state has almost no wind energy because of laws restricting the placement of wind turbines.
“We know our customers and communities want cleaner energy, and we’re doing our part to deliver that,” said spokeswoman Erin Culbert.
But she emphasized that Duke doesn’t believe solar and wind can be cost-effective and reliable enough to meet all its customers’ energy needs.
“Continued use of natural gas is key to our ability to speed up coal retirements, and its flexibility helps complement and balance the growing renewables on our system,” she said.
Government regulators favor gas
Another hurdle for renewable energy, some supporters say, is a combination of state-level rate-setting requirements and regional market rules that have led to a compensation structure for companies that favors coal and natural gas.
Who sets those rules depends on where the plant is.
In states where retail utilities own their own power generation facilities, the rates are approved by public utility commissions. Commissioners are typically appointed by state governors.
The process is less clear in the Midwest, Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, California, and Texas, where utilities buy and sell their power through organized markets run by regional transmission organizations.
These are run by boards that by law must be independent. They are typically composed of people from the business and energy world and are chosen by complex systems. In some cases they are voted on by existing board members.
The boards set the rules, which are then approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Ultimately these commissions and boards are supposed to decide what’s cost-effective for both the companies and ratepayers, said Scott Hempling, an adviser to regulators, law professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and author of two books on public utility law and regulation.
“A utility’s preference for profit is neither surprising nor wrong. But it’s not the utility’s job to balance its self-interest against the customers’ interest. It’s the job of regulators to constrain the private profit impulse with public interest principles,” he said.
It’s not news that there is bias towards profit, which can disadvantage customers. “The question is why it’s allowed to persist,” he said.
There are signs that what clean energy advocates have called an automatic rubber stamp for natural gas is beginning to change.
In April, the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission denied a permit for a southern Indiana utility named Vectren South to build a $780 million natural gas plant. The regulators weren’t convinced the utility had chosen the best option to ensure its customers weren’t in danger of being “saddled with an uneconomic investment” in the future, it said.
In Michigan last year, local utility DTE won a bruising battle to build a 1,100 megawatt natural gas plant that will open in 2022 and cost nearly $1 billion. Critics complained the projections DTE used to make its case to regulators made wind and solar look less attractive.
The three members of the Michigan Public Service Commission, who are appointed by the governor, ended up approving the project. But the board’s 136-page opinion was not complimentary toward the utility, noting it was “concerned” about the constraints DTE built into the models it used to estimate whether renewable energy would be a viable alternative.
Some utilities choose clean energy
Not every utility company is ignoring warnings about the planet’s health, or customers’ pocketbooks.
Michigan utility Consumers Energy decided last year not to build new natural gas plants and instead focus on a combination of energy efficiency, renewable energy and batteries, which it says will be cheaper for customers.
The company, which has more than 4 million customers, plans to use 90% clean energy by 2040, said Brandon Hofmeister, senior vice president for governmental, regulatory and public affairs.
When the utility was putting together its existing energy plan, it took a new approach, balancing the cost to consumers and to the Earth.
“Honestly, there was some pushback. There were several pretty tense meetings,” Hofmeister said. “You’d hear someone ask in a meeting, ‘Is that really the right thing to do for Michigan and the planet?’”
A similar story played out in Indiana, one of the nation’s top 10 coal-producing states. A few years ago, Northern Indiana Public Service Company, based in Merrillville, Indiana, was getting ready to retire its old, expensive coal-fired power plants. An analysis in 2016 said they should be replaced with natural gas plants.
To be on the safe side, Joe Hamrock, president and CEO, checked again last year.
“We knew this is moving pretty fast and we needed to take a new look. A 30-year bet on a gas plant is a long time,” he said.
When his team sat down to look at the 90 project proposals that had come in, the answer came as a shock – natural gas wasn’t even in the picture anymore.
“The surprise was how dramatically the renewables and storage proposals beat natural gas,” Hamrock said. “I couldn’t have predicted this five years ago.”
The company is now set to retire all its coal-fired power plants, which produce 65% of its electricity today, and replace them all with renewables. In nine years, it expects to get 65% of its electricity from renewables and 25% from natural gas.
What will U.S. energy look like in the future?
Electricity generators counter that it’s impossible to get entirely away from natural gas because solar and wind are intermittent. When it comes time to turn on the lights, consumers can’t wait for the sun to come up or the wind to blow.
“We believe that natural gas has a role in a clean future because we believe it will be needed to balance out renewables,” said Emily Fisher, general counsel for the Edison Electric Institute in Washington, D.C. EEI is the trade association that represents investor-owned electric utilities in the United States.
“But we’ve also got to make sure the power supply stays affordable and reliable,” she said.
Electricity generators have a point, say energy analysts who aren’t necessarily in the pro-renewable camp. But those same analysts suggest a lot less natural gas is needed than we’re using today.
“The cheapest way to reduce carbon is to replace coal with a combination of renewables and as little natural gas as you can get by with to keep the lights on,” said Arne Olson, a senior partner with Energy and Environmental Economics, a San Francisco-based energy consulting firm that works with multiple states to craft energy plans.
That makes getting to the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change – cutting greenhouse gas emissions at least 26% below 2005 levels by 2025 – not quite so daunting. The United States initially pledged to join the agreement but President Donald Trumpsaid in 2017 that the nation would not uphold the deal.
In fact, the electric industry is already undergoing a major restructuring. Largely because of the rapid rise of cheap natural gas, coal went from producing almost 45% of U.S. electricity in 2010 to a predicted 23% next year, according to EIA data.
The energy sector has shown it can move quickly when the prices are right, said Dyson of the Rocky Mountain Institute. And, he said, it’s imperative that a similar shift happen now with natural gas – and fast.
“Constructing these gas plants is incompatible with a low carbon future,” he said.