Cimate Hawk Response to Franzen Misses the Big Picture

Reading the climate hawk response to conservationist Jonathan Franzen makes it clear that we cannot make progress on climate or conservation if we do not recognize a broader sustainability deficit and take responsibility for our own participation in growing environmental disasters.

The New Yorker published an article this month written by Franzen, who expressed concern that the focus of attention and resources on climate change comes at the expense of traditional conservation efforts to protect wildlands and wildlife.  A wave of criticism followed, with self-styled "climate hawks" slamming Franzen as being too "myopic," and "birdbrained."   If you haven't been following the debate, Chris Clarke has an excellent blog post on Franzen and the critical response: "Orthodoxy in the Climate Movement: Franzen and his Deniers." 

The ongoing discussion among those concerned about climate change and conservation exposes a fault line in the environmental community that some climate pundits have created with their refusal to recognize that climate change is part of a broader sustainability deficit.  Any mention of other environmental problems  - and especially any discussion of the environmental impacts of renewable energy - is usually slapped down with assertions that these problems are minuscule compared to the effects of climate change.   We do indeed need to take serious steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but browbeating conservationists that want to synchronize our climate movement with a broader ethos of sustainability is counterproductive.  Unfortunately, I don't think Franzen's piece does a good job of communicating this broader problem, either.

I do not agree with everything Franzen said or how he said it.  I don't like his pessimism, or what seems to be his lack of faith in our options to significantly reduce our impact on the climate and wildlife. And, above all, I do not agree with Franzen that our contribution to climate change as individuals "makes no difference." I thought this was a shocking contradiction of the points he makes later (I will get to this...hang with me).

But it was the response to Franzen's piece by self-appointed referees in a much broader environmental discussion that frustrated me the most.  Pundits like David Roberts and Joe Romm frequently go on the defensive against conservationists' concerns, and are perfectly happy with the needless sacrifice of wildlands and wildlife in service of human society (they frequently dismiss concerns about wildlife impacts at renewable energy facilities as a "distraction").  These pundits borrow from the same themes and tactics employed by ultra-conservative war mongers.  Just as some are quick to abandon civil liberties and social justice in the face of threats to our safety, some climate pundits argue that it is okay to sacrifice biodiversity and wildlands for what is ultimately a temporary fix to our sustainability problem.

Roberts, Romm, and some other climate hawks preach to environmentalists as if climate change is some new problem that we do not understand, and accuse environmentalists of being myopically focused on birds or other wildlife.  They completely miss the point that it is often environmentalists that see the big picture - climate change is not the problem, but a piece of a much bigger problem - our unsustainable, and often selfish expectations of what this planet can and should provide to humans.   We dig up and burn oil and coal with the same feverish and blind ambition that we drain wetlands for subdivisions and office parks, dam rivers for energy and recreation, and bulldoze woodlands for strip malls and highways.  Replacing fossil fuel energy with renewable energy is a necessary upgrade to our way of life, but it is ultimately just a temporary patch for what is actually an outdated operating system that will continue to undermine the vibrance of our planet long after the last coal power plant is shut down.

I know how bad climate change is, and the people, wildlife and places I care about are already being impacted.  I am not arguing that we should ignore climate change, but rather that our solution to climate change is mindful of, and corrects the underlying cause of climate change.  When I argue for distributed generation and energy storage as a higher priority than bulldozing wildlands for utility-scale solar and wind turbines, it is because I don't want to repeat the same mistakes that got us into the climate mess.  Climate pundits like Roberts and Romm believe that deploying the renewable energy patch is good enough.  Most environmentalists know that we have more work to do beyond fixing our emissions.

Climate Change - Illness or Symptom?

Let's be clear.  Climate change is indeed a serious threat to the people, wildlife, and places that I care about.  But claims by climate hawks that climate change surpasses all other threats to the richness and viability of our planet is ridiculous.  Swapping out coal plants with utility-scale wind turbines and solar plants will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it will not necessarily stop the severe decline in biodiversity, the loss of habitat or ensure the health of ecosystems.  This is because climate change is not the central threat to the environment, but a symptom of a dysfunctional human way of life that shows no respect for the planet upon which we live.  And a persistent effort by climate hawks to deny this is the reason that they are just as incapable of leading an environmental debate as Republican climate deniers on Capitol Hill are incapable of making sound policy decisions about greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change will worsen the cycle of drought and wildfire in the west, but even if we find a way to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to below 350 parts per million we will still struggle to live within our means.  We will struggle to share water between humans and wildlife, and protect the open spaces that wildlife need to survive, let alone thrive.  Even before the impacts of anthropogenic climate change began to significantly impact our air, water and land, we had already found other ways to devastate wildlands and wildlife.  The World Wildlife Federation found that between 1970 and 2010, populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish around the globe dropped 52 percent.   Habitat loss is the greatest threat to biodiversity, and the WWF identifies it as the main threat to 85% of all species described in the IUCN's Red List (those species officially classified as "Threatened" and "Endangered").  Climate change will contribute to habitat loss - but solving climate change will not end habitat loss.

Watching wildlife go extinct is not just some sentimental issue, even though I'd like to think that wildlife have an intrinsic value just as humans do.  KCET ReWild highlighted a study by UC Santa Barbara that a loss of biodiversity has cascading impacts on how well ecosystems function, putting extinction on par with many other human-caused environmental calamities.  We're in for a bad ride as climate change will accelerate extinction, but to argue that it is okay to add to the loss of biodiversity with our renewable energy solutions is short-sighted.  What most environmentalists argue for is not a zero-impact solution to climate, but a smart one that prioritizes energy efficiency and the most sustainable deployment of clean energy.  So why do we get attacked by climate hawks when we raise this point?  Because they have adopted - and reinforce through their writings - an anthropocentric ethos that absolves individuals of their own role in this environmental disaster.

Anthropocentric Ethos Dominates; Conservation Ethic is Dismissed

Climate pundits' unwillingness to recognize a broader sustainability problem is a severe handicap for them because it undermines their own ability to move people to action even on the climate piece of the sustainability pie.  Some climate pundits, and apparently even Franzen, seem to ignore the culpability of individuals in environmental disasters.  I assume that this stems from hierarchy of considerations prevalent in our society that gives right-of-way to consumption and economic growth, in which our own materialism plays an important role.  It is politically taboo to question the mantra of growth, the persistence and strength of which depends upon consumption.

In Roberts' criticism of Franzen, he asserts that Franzen doesn't get it because climate change is "incredibly complex." Roberts believes the complexity of climate change is why we all have a "climate thing," like some sort of safety blanket.  He argues that a "climate thing" is "a lens that magnifies one aspect of the issue at the expense of all others."  Isn't that ironic?  Roberts is telling environmentalists arguing for sustainability that they lost sight of the real problem.   But the irony doesn't stop there.  Roberts says Franzen's "climate thing" is birds, and for others it is "consumption." Yes, Roberts views consumption as irrelevant, or perhaps some small subset to the climate problem. 

Roberts then laments in his critique of Franzen that "nobody gives a shit" about bird deaths or climate.   But why should we be surprised? One of the most popular voices on climate change implicitly defends needless waste.  Wind turbines can kill all the birds they want because we need them to power our DVRs and charge our iPads.   He absolves us all of any guilt for the damage caused by wind turbines, presumably because we have more important things to worry about.  In a Roberts tweet that Chris Clarke highlights in his blog post, Roberts tells another writer that he is perfectly okay with the idea of cutting down a grove of redwood trees or bulldozing the desert to build solar projects.  Roberts is telling his readers and followers that they should feel no guilt for their consumption; we just need to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy without any regard for a conservation ethic. 

Roberts then states that he nodded to one paragraph in Franzen's piece, which happens to be the one paragraph with which I strongly disagree:
"Shouldn’t our responsibility to other people, both living and not yet born, compel us to take radical action on climate change? The problem here is that it makes no difference to the climate whether any individual, myself included, drives to work or rides a bike. The scale of greenhouse-gas emissions is so vast, the mechanisms by which these emissions affect the climate so nonlinear, and the effects so widely dispersed in time and space that no specific instance of harm could ever be traced back to my 0.0000001-per-cent contribution to emissions."
I don't know if Franzen intended that passage to absolve individuals of responsibility or if he was trying to make another point indirectly.  But the words send the same message that climate pundits repeat when they say that bird mortality at wind farms is minuscule compared to climate change, and therefore don't make a difference.

An article on climate change and moral judgement - that Roberts has praised in a separate piece - identifies the reasons we cannot motivate people to give a shit about climate, and it is precisely because of the point that Franzen makes in the paragraph above.  Because people either don't recognize their role in the problem, or they get defensive.  The study found that the blamelessness of unintentional action or consequences makes it difficult for people to grasp climate change (and other environmental problems).   It also states that discussion of the human role in climate change provokes a "self-defensive bias."

It is a lot easier for climate pundits and environmentalists alike to focus our actions on policymakers and corporations, rather than on the impact of our own participation in the economy.  I'm not saying that we should give corporations and misguided politicians a break.  Far from it.  I am saying that our efforts to cut fossil fuels and chart a more sustainable path requires that we actually confront the fact that each of us, as individuals, need to do a lot more to reduce consumption.  Then we can actually assume more power power over politicians and CEOs.

But I don't think that we have had that reckoning yet in the discussion about climate change and what to do about it.  There is deep acceptance of the fact that we need to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, but we tend to tread more lightly on the topics that address our actions as individuals, such as energy conservation and the impact of meat consumption, for example. So here we are, wondering why nobody gives a shit about birds or the climate as we shrug off the impacts of wind turbines and solar power towers on wildlife.  The same shrug of indifference that climate pundits give to birds is what millions of people do when they leave video game and DVR consoles running, or drive to the store when they could walk or take the bus.  It's not their problem, or it's too minuscule to matter.

As Franzen said in his New Yorker article:
"Americans today live far from the ecological damage that their consumption habits cause, and even if future consumers are more enlightened about carbon footprints, and fill their tanks with certified green fuel, they’ll still be alienated. Only an appreciation of nature as a collection of specific threatened habitats, rather than as an abstract thing that is “dying,” can avert the complete denaturing of the world."
I'm not saying that we should turn and browbeat readers for every transgression they commit against the climate.  But our ethos and message needs to accept that climate change is one of many symptoms of an unhealthy way of life on this planet, and that CEOs, policymakers, and every other neighbor shares responsibility.


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