NEWS Kammen disputes the veracity of Jonathan Franzen’s essay on climate change.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished on the KQED news & dis­cus­sion pages, Sept 10, 2019.

Screen Shot 2019-09-10 at 7.26.54 PM

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, titled “What if We Stopped Pre­tend­ing?,” tapped into a fear about 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 prac­ti­cally impossible.

Franzen writes:

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 two degrees Cel­sius of warm­ing above prein­dus­trial lev­els rep­re­sents a tip­ping point that will push the Earth past the point of no return.

Sean Hecht is the co-​​director of the Emmett Insti­tute on Cli­mate Change and the Envi­ron­ment at UCLA Law School:

Daniel Kam­men, a UC Berke­ley cli­mate physi­cist and co-​​author of pre­vi­ous IPCC reports, who also served as sci­ence envoy for the U.S. Depart­ment of State under Pres­i­dent Obama, 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 one-​​and-​​a-​​half or two-​​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 gases.

With advances in elec­tric vehi­cles, solar and wind power, and energy stor­age, 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.

Doom and Gloom

Some of Franzen’s crit­ics say the kind of apoc­a­lyp­tic rhetoric he employs 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 it’s 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 thread, Jack­son said, “so we should vote and act like it.”

Not every­one thought Frazen’s argu­ments were so 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.


Browse News

Main Menu

Energy & Resources Group
310 Barrows Hall
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720-3050
Phone: (510) 642-1640
Fax: (510) 642-1085


  • Open the Main Menu
  • People at RAEL

  • Open the Main Menu