Jonathan Franzen is a novelist and also writes essays that are published in places like The New Yorker. As he admits, he's not a scientist or a policy wonk, but that doesn't keep him from putting his oar in on climate change.

In a recent essay posted on The New Yorker's website entitled “What If We Stopped Pretending?” Franzen gives what at first glance appears to be a counsel of despair.

First, he admits that anybody under 30 is “all but guaranteed” to witness what he calls 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.” This will happen when “climate change, intensified by various feedback loops, spins completely out of control.”

The only way to keep this from happening, according to authorities he cites such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is if every major greenhouse-gas-emitting nation on the planet imposes what amounts to a climate dictatorship: instituting “draconian conservation measures, shut[ting] down much of its energy and transportation infrastructure, and completely retool[ing] its economy.”

And that means everybody, not just folks who agree with the idea. And here he gets personal: “Making New York City a green utopia will not avail if Texans keep pumping oil and driving pickup trucks.” (I live in Texas, but I don't personally drive a pickup truck.)

Then he says in effect, “Hey, I'm a realist. This isn't going to happen. So you know what? I'm giving up on it. We might as well face it: the apocalypse is coming, and we better just get ready for it.” We shouldn't quit trying to reduce carbon emissions, but we also shouldn't con ourselves into believing that our little token individual actions are going to make much difference.

He winds up his essay by encouraging people to make your own little corner of the world better in whatever way you can—improving democratic governance, helping the homeless, and just generally being a good citizen, whether or not it makes a difference in climate change. “To survive rising temperatures, every system, whether of the natural world or of the human world, will need to be as strong and healthy as we can make it.” In other words, we should fight smaller battles we have a reasonable chance of winning instead of putting all our eggs in the basket of averting climate change.

There is a syndrome that workers in the helping professions call “compassion fatigue.” Even if a naturally compassionate person chooses a job such as assisting Alzheimer's patients or children with terminal cancer, constantly having to come up with sympathy for someone who isn't going to get better can be tremendously draining. And after months or years of such work, some people simply burn out—they can't take it anymore.

Something like this seems to have happened to Franzen. If he's like many people who see climate change as the most important existential threat to humanity, it's the kind of thing that you can never quite put out of your mind. If you're not actively part of the solution, out there with Greta Thunberg protesting on the steps of the United Nations, then you're part of the problem merely by living a normal life in the US. It's understandable that Franzen would choose to unburden himself by saying publicly, “Look, let's face it. The train's coming at us in the tunnel and there's no way out. Let's use the time we have to make things better, rather than fooling ourselves into thinking we can stop the train.”

I'm not a climate scientist either, but I'm willing to make a prediction that I feel very confident about. The way that climate change actually plays out is not going to fit anybody's prediction exactly, simply because it's far too complicated and long-term for anyone to predict with accuracy.

In 2018, the peak level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 407 parts per million, up about 2.5 ppm from the previous year. Twenty million years ago, it was about that high, and the all-time high record for carbon dioxide, according to various estimates that scientists have made, was around 2000 ppm some 200 million years ago. So it's not like the planet has ever seen such high levels before. Life survived, although many species went extinct and others arose to take their places.

Now admittedly, we are doing a radical thing to the planet, and there will be consequences. But just as the way an individual human deals with a threatening crisis affects the outcome, the way human beings deal with what may turn into a climate crisis will also affect the future of humanity.

When Franzen writes that climate change may “spin out of control,” I would point out that strictly speaking, climate has never been under our control. True, you can adjust a thermostat that is labelled “Climate Control,” but its influence is limited to your house.

For all of human history, the weather is something that human beings have simply had to accept, not something they could control in any meaningful sense. We are now engaged in the first-ever unintentional attempt at climate control, or at any rate climate influence, by emitting so much carbon dioxide, and in the coming years and decades we will be scrambling to deal with the consequences.

But not in the way Franzen fantasizes in his scenario to stop worldwide emissions. If the world really shut down much of its energy and transportation infrastructure, that is in itself would cause economies to implode. So in that case the cure for climate change would be just as bad as the disease.

The only way humans have survived on this planet as long as we have is that we are adaptable. If crops start failing in some parts of the world, other parts will get better. If coastlines shrink, people have the ability to move, assuming their governments will let them. Franzen has caught a lot of flak for his essay, but I think he ends up in a better place than a lot of other people who keep banging the same drum in favour of a global climate dictatorship.

I agree with his advice to do what you can to limit climate change, but mainly, start with yourself to be a better person and to make the part of the world you can control to be a better place, no matter how warm it gets.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet