Ponder the onrushing disaster of climate change, and the towering task of getting greenhouse gas emissions down in time to avoid existential calamity, and one can be led very easily to an enervating political despair. The battle is basically lost, or so says the famed novelist Jonathan Franzen in a New Yorker essay this week. While we should try to reduce emissions, he writes, "All-out war on climate change made sense only as long as it was winnable."
Just like his similar effort from four years ago, Franzen's argument is sloppy, muddled, and premised on elementary factual errors. But it makes a good reason to consider some historical occasions in which human societies have faced and overcome similarly-long odds in the past — like the French Revolution, when ordinary people, pulsing with furious revolutionary energy, flung themselves at seemingly-invulnerable adversaries and won.
First, let's examine Franzen's case. He says that "consensus among scientists and policy-makers is that we'll pass this point of no return if the global mean temperature rises by more than two degrees Celsius" which we will almost certainly blow past, and hence the game is basically up. He then reasons that climate policy should not now be too aggressive, because there is often an inherent trade-off between green developments and environmental preservation. "Our resources aren't infinite. Even if we invest much of them in a longest-shot gamble, reducing carbon emissions in the hope that it will save us, it's unwise to invest all of them," he writes, saying some should be saved for humanitarian aid and that renewable mega-projects that threaten ecosystems should not be built.
There is just one problem: Neither premise is true. The science on tipping points is very unsettled, but as the University of Exeter's Timothy Lenton (perhaps the top climate researcher on this particular point) explains in a Climatic Change paper, there are lots of potential tipping points, some are a lot more sinister than others, they will be reached at different temperatures, and, while we can't rule out tripping some at under 2 degrees, the likeliest early tripwire is between 2-4 degrees. Now, that is not at all comforting, but it means there is no certain climate doomsday point — every tenth of a degree of warming means worse direct impacts and a greater likelihood of extreme disaster.
Second, it is simply false to say there is a trade-off between climate policy and environmental preservation, because unchecked climate change will obliterate the biosphere. One should avoid wrecking key ecosystems, but if the energy payoff is sufficiently high, it still might be worth doing, because if climate change is not stopped the ecosystem will be wrecked anyway. High levels of warming will do orders of magnitude more damage to Franzen's beloved bird population than all the windmills in the world. Climate writer David Roberts carefully explained this to Franzen back in 2015, but apparently it didn't sink in.
Franzen's style of realistic fiction is all about writing about the miserable interior lives of middle-class people very much like himself — fussy, anxious bourgeois liberals who get in decades-long wars of passive-aggression over the color of their neighbor's roof. And at least one of his efforts in that vein is pretty dang good. But when writing a policy essay, it helps to have just the slightest clue what one is talking about.
Still, Franzen is certainly not wrong that it is hard to imagine the necessary kind of war-mobilization levels of aggressiveness on climate policy taking root across the world. Even Americans who believe strongly in climate policy are often gripped by depression and despair, or by less-than-relevant manias like banning plastic straws.
So let's turn our gaze back to the French Revolution — a time in which ordinary poor and working-class French citizens played a key role in overthrowing a monarchy that was eight centuries old, in large part by throwing themselves into great personal danger. It was not trained soldiers who stormed the Bastille or marched on Versailles to convince the king to return to Paris, it was infuriated masses of ordinary citizens — who often pushed their bourgeois liberal leaders to go much further than they would have liked.
One factor fueling this situation was the dysfunction and incompetence of the ancien régime, which had brought a shattering economic crisis on itself through wars and its inability to tax its wealthy elites. "All revolutions are the kicking in of a rotten door," as John Kenneth Galbraith famously said. Another was the fact that the old state structure largely disenfranchised the increasingly dominant economic class, the industrial capitalists.
But another, equally important factor was the spread of revolutionary moral and political ideas — liberalism, egalitarianism, democracy, human rights, and so on — which both energized the populace and undermined the loyalty of the monarchy's soldiers and police. At many points in the previous 800 years the French state was in similar or worse condition, and yet the masses did not rebel, or were mercilessly crushed if they did. (By contrast, many French soldiers stood by as the mob laid siege to the Bastille.) Even a rotten door will stand up if nobody musters a kick.
Urgency, desperation, suffering, and fear only create the potential for political action. The affected population must first come to believe that change is possible — only then can that potential be unlocked. Today the world is crying out for stories, symbols, and leaders to channel the current highly-intellectualized worry about climate change into something viscerally compelling — something that can dissolve suffocating anxiety into bold and joyful action. One budding example of this is the 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who recently inspired mass protests at state capitals around the world with a sailing trip across the Atlantic — in order to visit New York without taking a carbon-intensive flight.
Now, that is not to say that revolutionary zealotry is always a good thing. It can lead to horrible violence, and sometimes backfires spectacularly. But furious, burning passion can drive ordinary people to carry out astounding feats — like the French citizens who faced down entrenched guns in 1789, uprooted an ancient monarchy, and then manned the conscript armies that then fought off practically the entire rest of Europe at once. And astounding, revolutionary feats are what the day calls for — not Napoleon-style wars of conquest, or in overthrowing existing political institutions (at least not necessarily), but in drastic, breakneck reform away from carbon-based energy.
It will certainly be politically difficult, but it is definitely still possible to head off the worst of climate change, even at this late date. The technology is very largely there. All that is missing is the energy, commitment, and international coordination.
On the other hand, the longer fussy liberals in positions of power dawdle and drag their feet on climate policy — as Barack Obama frittered away almost his entire presidency — the more necessary revolutionary passion will become, and the likelier it will be to break out. Jonathan Franzen is too chicken and ideologically blinkered to imagine the kind of fervent energy necessary to carry out a climate revolution. But he might yet live to see one anyway.
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