Climate emergency – too late? The controversy over Jonathan Franzen’s climate change opinions

Scientists are pissed at the novelist — and at the New Yorker for publishing him.

Vox: Future Perfect, by Sigal Samuel  Sep 11, 2019
Jonathan Franzen onstage making “air quotes” with his fingers.
Jonathan Franzen onstage making “air quotes” with his fingers. Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

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 controversial takes 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. Climate scientists and activists were especially pissed — at the author, and also at the magazine that published him. (A few people did defend himto 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 been bothering 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.

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 is not 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 logic by 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.

For anyone who cares to look, there are plenty of examples of organizations (like the Audubon Society) and individuals (like environmentalist Bill McKibben) who work on both climate and conservation at the same time. This is a non-zero-sum game.

Franzen is, well, Franzen

If the New 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:

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.