Thursday, September 19, 2019

In Defense of Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen’s September 8, 2019 opinion piece in the New Yorker has raised hackles all across the expert — layperson spectrum. You’ve gotta hand it to the guy, he has wide ‘unappeal.’ But there were some people who resonated with what Franzen said. I was one of them.

My take away from the Franzen article was that in his opinion, our chances of limiting warming to ~2C are realistically nil, in which case, according to Franzen,
“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.”
If you disagree that we have no chance of limiting warming to ~2C, tell me why.

All told, our reliance on fossil fuels has actually increased since 1990, to the point where we are, at last approximation, adding almost 40 billion tons to the atmosphere every year. So, about 8 billion [molecularized] African Elephants a year.

Now while it’s true that these individual elephant molecules of carbon dioxide have a mean residence in the atmosphere of only ~5 years, when they leave they’re just replaced by other CO2 molecules, so that the lifetime of that extra 8 billion elephants of CO2 is on the order of centuries. And we’re still pumping all those elephants into the atmosphere!

The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing every year at an accelerating rate having now reached 415 ppm — a level unprecedented in human history. According to a survey done by The Guardian at a Copenhagen science conference in 2009, 85% of the 1756 experts asked said they didn’t believe holding global warming to 2C would be successful. So, nothing Franzen said about this is really controversial, is it?

What’s controversial about Franzen’s opinion is his calling out hopefulness. Franzen said, “The goal [2c] has been clear for thirty years, and despite earnest efforts we’ve made essentially no progress toward reaching it.” That’s correct, as I stipulate above. Franzen says we’re going to experience,
  • “massive crop failures,
  • apocalyptic fires,
  • imploding economies,
  • epic flooding,
  • hundreds of millions of fleeing refugees,”
And he hasn’t even mentioned,
  • ocean acidification,
  • the bleaching of coral reefs,
  • the die-off of anadromous salmon, and other species extinction,
  • the intensification of hurricanes,
  • the forced shutdown of nuclear reactors because their cooling ponds were too hot to effectively cool the reactors,
  • the fact that today’s babies will, by the time they are adults, live on a planet without an Arctic,
  • and that, according the NIH, "fossil fuel combustion is the most significant threat to children’s health, now and in the future, including impairment of cognitive and behavioral development, respiratory illness, and other chronic diseases."
USS Connecticut breaks though the ice in 2018. The US Navy has been recording the decline in Arctic sea ice thickness for decades, data that was at first secret, but has since been made public and proven useful to scientists. Official U.S. Navy Imagery on VisualHunt
Franzen is not saying give up hope and do nothing. He’s saying reorder our priorities. Fight your battles locally [and isn’t that what we here in Benton County are doing?]. Tackle specific problems for which we have a realistic chance of success. Celebrate those successes. In fact, what Franzen is saying is that by doing what we can, where we can, when we can, we can remain hopeful.

Jonathan Franzen is not a “doomsayer” as Bina Venkataraman says, he’s a truth teller. His article isn’t about defeatism, it’s about realism. Franzen is realistic about the inexorable global temperature rise, the inevitable crossing of the 2C boundary, and the consequences of that dubious achievement. And also about the inevitability of human organizations, agencies, governments, and movements failing to initiate "draconian conservation measures, shut down much of its energy and transportation infrastructure, and completely retool its economy." I'm not a climate scientist. I'm a behavioral scientist (PhD, Texas Tech, '74). I agree with Franzen.

Human behavior is shaped by its consequences. The more immediate the consequences, the more effective the shaping. The more distant and disconnected the consequences, the less effective the shaping (see B.F. Skinner on operant conditioning).

Moreover, entrenched interests have been unswerving in their efforts to cast doubt on the science of climate change, and when failing that, to slow the development and/or implementation of technology that threatens their bottom line. For example, according to Politico, oil-backed groups are countering utilities' plans to expand electric vehicle infrastructure, specifically charging stations, with regulatory and lobbying campaigns against the proposals in at least 10 states so far. 

When Kate Marvel in her September 11, 2019 SA “Shut Up, Franzen,” article says, “When we pass the 2C limit, as we certainly will without immediate action, we will receive no warning sign. Things will carry on much as before,” I have to ask, where and for how long has she been hibernating?

An aerial view of devastation after Hurricane Dorian hit the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas. Photo: Reuters
Before ending my defense of Franzen let me take him (and many others, for that matter) to task for talking in terms of “saving the planet” when discussing the climate crisis. As Barry Lopez has written in his autobiographical novel, “Horizon,” “In separating the fate of the human world from that of the nonhuman world…we come face-to-face with a biological reality…nature will be fine without us.”

When we consider what Lopez has called, “the throttled Earth — the scalped, the mined, the industrially farmed, the drilled, polluted, and suctioned land,” it isn’t the planet we are hoping to save, it’s us, the human race.

1 comment:

Steve Ghan said...

My problem with Franzen's piece is it assumes there is a cliff. Yes, there are multiple tipping points, but they aren't all at 2 C of warming. It will be bad, but not as bad as 3 C, 4 C, or 5 C. We should never give up hope in reducing the emissions driving the warming. It would just get worse if we do.

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