Jonathan Franzen Says It's Too Late For Us on Climate Change. Scientists Immediately Push Back

Author Jonathan Franzen in 2013.  ( Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)

The climate apocalypse is coming and there's nothing we can do to stop it.

At least that's the thesis of writer Jonathan Franzen, whose recent essay in The New Yorker — "What if We Stopped Pretending?" — tapped into fear of a climate apocalypse that many people are grappling with.

But in the wake of Franzen's piece, published on the magazine's website Sunday, climate scientists, advocates and journalists quickly took to social media to pick apart his interpretation of the current scientific outlook, and his framing of the world's goal of reducing carbon emissions to the point of staving off global catastrophe as nearly impossible.

Franzen wrote:

The goal has been clear for thirty years, and despite earnest efforts we’ve made essentially no progress toward reaching it. Today, the scientific evidence verges on irrefutable. If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing 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. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.

Critics of the piece were quick to assert that Franzen's argument is based upon misreading reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and prominent scientific journals like Nature.

A particular sticking point for some was Franzen's assertion that roughly 2 degrees Celsius of warming above preindustrial levels represents a tipping point from which there is no coming back.

Sean Hecht, the co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA Law School, responded on Twitter:

Daniel Kammen, a UC Berkeley climate physicist and co-author of previous IPCC reports, says the reality is not that black and white. "No one has a precise year, has a precise number, that if you exceed this all hope is lost," he said. "That is just not the scientific fact."

"It's just really unfortunate because it doesn't reflect any of the current science. It's as if he ignored the comments of the IPCC reports," Kammen said. "This piece clearly got no fact checking."

Franzen argues that in order to collectively make a go at averting all-out disaster, "The first condition is that every one of the world’s major polluting countries institute draconian conservation measures, shut down much of its energy and transportation infrastructure, and completely retool its economy." He adds: "Call me a pessimist or call me a humanist, but I don’t see human nature fundamentally changing anytime soon."

But, Kammen says, it's far from a given that 1.5 or 2 degrees of warming is unpreventable.

"While the U.S. is ignoring this, the rest of the world is proceeding," Kammen said. And within the U.S., he pointed out, California, New York and New Mexico are making significant progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

With advances in electric vehicles, energy storage, and solar and wind power, Kammen said,  "the technology base to make it happen is there."

Franzen's essay does make a case for the benefits of reducing the world's carbon footprint.

"Even if we can no longer hope to be saved from two degrees of warming," he wrote, "there’s still a strong practical and ethical case for reducing carbon emissions."

Postponing what may be inevitable and mitigating the fallout of climate collapse are worthwhile pursuits, he says. As are investing in communities, local farming and conservation. But he also argues against putting all of our collective eggs (i.e., precious resources and hope) in a long-shot war against carbon when other, more addressable problems, such as water depletion and the overuse of pesticides, merit attention.

Franzen writes that, "a false hope of salvation can be actively harmful." Personal initiatives like biking to work and voting green, he says, may lure the public into a state of "complacency." Instead, he argues, we should be preparing for life in a radically different — and hotter — future, where wildfires and floods persist and the threat of destabilization looms over civilization.

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Doom and Gloom

Some of Franzen's critics say that kind of apocalyptic rhetoric can be dangerous.

"All the discussions of doom and gloom have not led to change we need," said Rob Jackson, chair of Stanford University's Earth Systems Science Department. "It almost relieves us of responsibility. If an apocalypse is inevitable, why should I do anything to stave it off, to minimize its effects? It reduces actions, rather than enhancing action."

While Jackson says he thinks Franzen is correct to point out that we need to better prepare for a changing world, "We are not locked into a Mad Max world.”

The fallout from climate change is on a continuum, he says, and "Every tenth of a degree matters. Every tenth of a degree increases the chances of runaway permafrost melt and methane release. Every tenth of a degree will increase the amount of ice melt and sea level rise we face over the next millennium."

"We don't know where all the tipping points are. A two degree threshold is an arbitrary threshold. The farther we go, the more likely we make it that catastrophic things will happen."

But Franzen is right that climate is an existential threat, Jackson said, "so we should vote and act like it."

Not everyone thought Frazen's arguments were completely off base. In an article published Monday by Mother Jones, Kevin Drum points out that while the use of renewable energy sources is on the rise — up from 19 to 22 percent of the world's energy capacity since 1990 — so is our dependence on fossil fuels.

"All told, our reliance on fossil fuels has increased from 62 percent to 65 percent," Drum wrote. "We haven’t even managed to stabilize carbon emissions, let alone reduce them."

But, Drum continues:

Franzen’s prescription is wrong: we shouldn’t give up hope. Success is still possible, even if it’s hardly certain. However, his assessment of human nature is something to be taken seriously and it should illuminate the way we approach climate change. Working with human nature is far more likely to produce results than fighting it, and that means finding new ways to make green energy cheap and plentiful instead of fruitlessly pleading with people to use less of it.

Here are a few more reactions from around the web prompted by Franzen's essay:

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