Climate

The Corrections: Jonathan Franzen’s Deeply Irresponsible Climate Change Article

CREDIT: National Audubon Society

The New Yorker has published one of the most bird-brained and hypocritical climate articles ever, “Carbon Capture: Has climate change made it harder for people to care about conservation?” Quick answer: No!

Awareness of and action on climate change are entirely about conservation — conserving a livable climate for humans and all other species. Aggressive climate action now would be an immediate boon to the overwhelming majority of living things, although I do think some tropical diseases, jelly fish, pests and other invasive species might lose out.

But the New Yorker and the blinkered author of this piece, one Jonathan Franzen, actually would like to “preserve nature at potential human expense.” Franzen frames our choice this way: “The Earth as we now know it resembles a patient whose terminal cancer we can choose to treat either with disfiguring aggression or with palliation and sympathy.”

In the distorted “through the looking glass” view of this piece, sharply reducing most air pollution ASAP would be “disfiguring” while the most sympathetic approach is allowing us to destroy a livable climate capable of sustaining a multi-billion human population and most existing species! And yes, Franzen actually argues that destroying a livable climate irreversibly will allow us to focus on preserving nature temporarily.

There is zero chance the New Yorker would publish such easily-debunked nonsense if its author were anyone other than Jonathan Franzen, a fiction writer of some acclaim, with several popular books rated 3 stars on Amazon. But as I came to learn — and as the New Yorker should have known — his entire essay is a stunning exercise in hypocrisy.

Franzen is a bird lover, of sorts. A 2012 Slate headline explained, “Jonathan Franzen Is the World’s Most Annoying Bird-Watcher.”

How annoying? The New Yorker piece begins with an extended attack on the Audubon Society and its recent report on Climate Change. Franzen argues that somehow this is a distraction from Audubon’s main mission of bird conservation. Yet Franzen’s palliative “give up” approach to climate change would doom a large fraction of bird species to extinction. And, as we will see, Franzen is on the board of a different bird conservation group that argues climate action is essential to bird conservation.

David Yarnold, president and CEO of the National Audubon Society, called Franzen’s entire analysis “Woody Allen-esque” and “out of touch with reality.”

Franzen, we learn, “came to feel miserably conflicted about climate change.” Why? In part it was Audubon’s press release for their study, which said “nearly half” of North American bird species risked habitat loss by 2080, and that climate change poses “the greatest threat our birds face.”

The press release did warn that nearly half of species were at risk of losing much of their habitat. As an aside, I’m reasonably confident that the impact of climate change on birds would be far worse than that over the next hundred years if we adopted Franzen’s “it’s hopeless” posture. If coastal wetlands are inundated, and much of the best land in this country turns into a near-permanent dustbowl, and forest fires increase multi-fold, and temperatures rise some 9°F, I don’t see most birds doing very well. Humans won’t do well either, but that simply isn’t Franzen’s concern. I digress.

How did Audubon’s peer-reviewed report help make Franzen miserable?

“What upset me was how a dire prophecy like Audubon’s could lead to indifference toward birds in the present,” he wrote.

Seriously! This is NOT an April Fool’s piece. In his next piece, Franzen will argue the Surgeon General’s dire science-based prophecy that cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health could lead smokers to indifference toward obeying traffic lights because, like, why bother?

Yarnold explained to me that Audubon — and its 1 million members and the 4 million people it reaches through its publications — were fully capable of helping birds in the short term and long term: “Audubon’s members can chew gum and walk at the same time.”

Indeed, Yarnold explains that the message of the report — and Audubon’s overall message — is “we have to protect the places birds need now and reduce the emissions causing climate change” that will destroy the places birds need in the future.

Yarnold explained that “our members say this report has energized them,” to work on both bird conservation and climate change. “Members say this has localized and personalized the issue” of climate change.

Certainly readers of Climate Progress understand that the key to real, sustained action on climate change is broadening the group of people who want to take action. There are, Yarnold tells me, 47 million birders in this country. That seems like a very important group to inform, to engage, and to energize.

Ironically or, rather, tragically, Franzen’s piece seems to be aimed at shrinking the group of people who want to take action on climate change, by arguing our situation is hopeless. Rather than the “disfiguring aggression” of cutting carbon pollution, Franzen offers up this option:

“… we can settle for a shorter life of higher quality, protecting the areas where wild animals and plants are hanging on, at the cost of slightly hastening the human catastrophe.”

Après nous, le déluge.

Yes, somehow eliminating the vast majority of air pollution would shorten our lives and reduce our quality of life. As readers know, that is the exact opposite of the truth — as countless studies make clear. Indeed, the health and productivity benefits alone of the switch to efficiency and carbon-free energy sources are larger than the energy savings, as a 2014 report by the International Energy Agency documents.

Yarnold was especially annoyed with the New Yorker for running this extended attack on Audubon supposedly neglecting bird conservation in favor of climate change without bothering to mention that Franzen sits on the fund-raising Board of Directors for the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), which Yarnold calls “a group that views itself as a competitor to Audubon.”

According to its website, “ABC is the only U.S.-based group with a major focus on bird habitat conservation throughout the entire Americas.” I know you probably thought the National Audubon Society — with its motto “Protecting Birds and Their Habitats” — did that, too. Such is avian eco-politics today.

In making his case that the National Audubon Society has lost its way, Franzen does explain that “I gave my support to the focused work of the American Bird Conservancy and local Audubon societies.”

Here is where things get very hypocritical — because there’s something much worse than the New Yorker not mentioning Franzen is on the board of ABC. Franzen never mentions that the conservation-focused bird group he is on the Board of … wait for it … also has a major effort to combat climate change! Indeed, ABC’s webpage devoted to “Threats to Birds – Global Warming” explains that “ABC has conducted research in conjunction with partners to ascertain what the ongoing and potential future threats are to birds from rising global temperatures, and has published reports detailing the concerns that have been revealed.”

So while Franzen trashes Audubon for supposedly focusing on climate change at the expense of focusing on conservation, ABC argues on its website that the two are inextricable: “Because of the complex and global nature of this phenomenon, it falls under all three aspects of ABC’s conservation framework: Safeguarding the Rarest, Conserving Habitats, and Eliminating Threats.”

Franzen attacks Audubon for offering a “Climate Action Pledge,” which he complains “was long and detailed and included things like replacing your incandescent light bulbs with lower-wattage alternatives.” That makes little sense to Franzen since according to him we’re doomed:

The dangers of carbon pollution today are far greater than those of DDT, and climate change may indeed be, as the National Audubon Society says, the foremost long-term threat to birds. But I already know that we can’t prevent global warming by changing our light bulbs. I still want to do something.

Let’s set aside the fact Franzen never says what he wants to do other than convince people there’s nothing anybody can do. The amazing thing is that the organization on whose board he sits, ABC, has a report on its website, “The Birdwatcher’s Guide to Global Warming,” which explains the solution to global warming is to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” It has a section explaining “10 Steps You Can Take To Combat Global Warming–Save Energy and Money While Protecting the Environment!” which helpfully points out: “When you need to replace the light bulbs in your home, buy compact fluorescent bulbs, which reduce energy use by up to 75%.”

Go figure.

While Franzen is a notable writer, he apparently isn’t much of a reader. As Yarnold notes, “Franzen clearly did not read our report.” I would add it’s even clearer that Franzen doesn’t read either the website or the reports of ABC, a group he in theory helps govern.

Finally, it’s dismaying to see Franzen whine that climate action requires we “blight every landscape with biofuel agriculture, solar farms, and wind turbines.” It’s climate inaction that will blight every landscape. And yes, Franzen brings up the hoary complaint about wind turbines killing birds. What about the vastly larger number of birds that are killed by fossil fuels?

birds killed

How many birds are killed each year by different fuel sources.

CREDIT: U.S. News & World Report

In case you were wondering, Franzen does hate the greatest of all bird-killers. He has written that cats are “the sociopaths of the pet world, a species domesticated as an evil necessary for the control of rodents and subsequently fetishized the way unhappy countries fetishize their militaries.” No visits to “LOLCats.com” for him.

Franzen has birds on his brain. In the opening sentence, he describes himself as “someone who cares more about birds than the next man.” That turns out to be literally true. He apparently cares more about birds than homo sapiens.

As mentioned earlier, Franzen’s preferred solution is “we can settle for a shorter life of higher quality, protecting the areas where wild animals and plants are hanging on, at the cost of slightly hastening the human catastrophe.” Sure we are going to curtail human life and speed up the human catastrophe, but, hey, we may save some birds for a short while.

And to make sure you get his message, he immediately follows up by saying “Choosing to preserve nature at potential human expense would be morally more unsettling if nature still had the upper hand.” Actually, it still is morally very unsettling — but more to the point it is an utterly false choice.

We can’t preserve nature by failing to act to preserve a livable climate.

If Franzen wants to do something productive for birds and homo sapiens, he should spend some time talking to experts in climate science and climate solutions. Then he should use the platform his fame affords to urge people to action, not urge them to inaction.