“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark. The real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” – attributed to Plato
Like Jonathan Franzen, who authored a New Yorker article on climate change that stirred up the twitterverse, many people are just now coming to grips with the implications of the climate problem. With each new article that sheds light on the severity of the climate crisis, many are pushed further down the road to despair and defeatism. I should know, since these are issues I’ve been wrestling with for years — as a scientist, as an advocate, and as a parent. The fundamental question is this: Can we, as a society, really change course in time to avoid the climate catastrophe?
Fortunately, the climate youth movement arriving in New York for next week’s UN Climate Summit aren’t taking “no” for an answer. They’re asking hard questions of their elders, and they are displaying a remarkable maturity in their response to the climate crisis. In contrast to Franzen’s article, they are not falling into despair and defeat. Instead, they are rolling up their sleeves and working to build a better future.
Is this foolish naivete? Childish “pretending”? After years of probing the science, working with experts, developing the policies, and understanding the fundamentals of what a societal course correction would take, I’m convinced that it’s actually within our grasp. In fact, it’s already underway, and the path is proving easier than previously thought.
So before losing hope, one should understand that Franzen’s article relies on a few unnecessarily daunting premises. Here’s one: “The first condition is that every one of the world’s major polluting countries institute draconian conservation measures, shut down much of its energy and transportation infrastructure, and completely retool its economy.” This is demonstrably untrue – many countries in the world have already turned the corner on emissions without “shutting down” anything or employing “draconian” measures. The per capita carbon dioxide emissions of Germany are about 40% lower than the per capita emissions of the United States, while Germany continues to operate a substantial energy and transportation infrastructure system. The state of California is another example – its climate policies are working, while its economy continues to outpace all other states. Presenting climate change as a choice between ecological disaster and economic shutdown is a false choice. No credible authority has been talking that way for years—it’s a narrative conveniently perpetuated by those vested interests who want us to believe that we can’t shake our dependency on fossil fuels. It’s a narrative that is increasingly difficult to maintain, as country after country proves otherwise.
Why do these countries (and states) succeed? The key seems to be a sustained commitment to systemic change. Once they implement some early opportunities and those start working, they open up additional opportunities for further action. What once seemed impossible is suddenly within reach. This is why vested interests resist these small early actions – even to the point of stalling a transition to cheaper, better, more efficient light bulbs.
A sustained, systemic approach to the climate problem is possible, globally — in part, because many countries never enjoyed the benefits of a fossil-fuel-dependent economy in the first place, so they have nothing to lose and much to gain by growing in a sustainable way. Others, like India and China, are at a crossroads: they are heavily invested in fossil fuels, but they are also testing out more sustainable and systemic changes (albeit for different reasons).
Franzen’s article also implies that if we go beyond 2 degrees C of warming, it’s game over. That framing conceals the fact that every 10th of a degree matters, before 2 degrees and beyond. It’s true that, as temperatures warm, populations will experience more devastating impacts, as we have already seen in examples like Hurricane Dorian, or the rampant wildfires across the tropics this year, or horrific flooding in the Midwest, which nearly led to a major crop failure this year. These impacts are already happening – and if warming continues, they will ripple through the global economy with increasing frequency and strength, leading to famines, uprisings, and suffering. But 2 degrees is not a precipice that we fall over; rather it must be seen as an alarm bell, growing louder and more insistent as we draw closer to it. It warns us that complacency can no longer be an option, even for the most skeptical and the most jaded. The quality of life of every child on earth, and the rest of those unborn, depends critically on what we do over the next 10-20 years. On this point, Franzen agrees: every action we take now could benefit a child later – including the climate youth arriving in New York this week to make their voices heard.
To put this in perspective, I look at how generations of the past responded to crises. A century ago, the world had just endured an unprecedented geopolitical crisis, which incurred a massive and tragic loss of life. A generation later, humanity was convulsed again in an even more devastating conflict – one that produced weapons so powerful that they continue to threaten humanity’s very existence. Climate change is similar, in that it may pose an existential threat to humanity.
But we must remember that this historical era of crisis also ushered in new, positive transformations. Leaders of that era were forced to reckon with the full potential for catastrophe, and they built new institutions to reduce the risks of such wars breaking out again. Maps were redrawn and the most egregious, visible aspects of the colonial era ended. Fragile democracies took hold in places that had never known such freedom – and citizens of these new democracies had never grappled with such responsibilities. There was an increased recognition of the value of human life, later expressed through human and civil rights movements. In a swords-to-plowshares process, industrial processes that once supplied explosives for warfare were converted to supply nutrients for an industrial agriculture system that now has the capacity to feed billions more people (which, we have also learned, has contributed to its own suite of environmental consequences). Along the way, we rebuilt America’s transportation infrastructure in the process (though here again, we are now reckoning with the long-term climate impacts resulting from its design). Then we built a space program that put people on the moon. I’m not suggesting that these changes were made for solely altruistic reasons. My point is that these transformations could scarcely have been imagined in 1919 — but by 1950, they were all but complete. We need a similar process of transformation over the next 30 years. Just because we can’t imagine every mile of the road today doesn’t mean that the destination is unattainable. We know enough now to start down the path – and hopefully we are wise enough to avoid the tragic losses that motivated the changes in the last century.
So, while Franzen gets some facts right, and his reckoning is approximately of the right magnitude, the despair of his response feels sophomoric. Faced with the challenge of doing a hard thing, he confidently concludes that it can’t be done, rather than focusing on what it would take to do it. I get it – there are days when I don’t want to get out of bed and face the challenges of being an adult, let alone work to avert the climate crisis. But I keep doing it, day after day, along with thousands of others. And those of us who’ve been working on the hard thing for many years will tell you this: you should help us lay a few stones in this road before you turn your back on the destination. Try showing the kind of courage and moral conviction that our predecessors displayed in response to past crises. The climate crisis is dire, that’s true – but defeatism only plays into the hands of those who want to convince us that change is not possible. In fact, change is upon us, whether we like it or not. We can passively let it happen to us, or we can actively and intentionally shape it. (And make no mistake, intentionally shaping is what the fossil industry has been doing for years now, while we’re not paying attention. Their job becomes much easier if we accept defeat before we even get started.) For the youth arriving in New York this week, passive acceptance is no longer an option.
The path of fortitude does not involve either “a false hope of salvation” nor a weird “kind of complacency.” Rather, it requires us to act deliberately, intentionally, and with full awareness of the consequences if we fail. Real hope is not built in foolish naïveté; it is the only grown-up response to life in a risky and changing world. It’s time for Franzen – and everyone – to pick themselves up, take the measure of the challenge, and commit to the level of effort that can overcome it. This won’t happen in a day, or a year, or a political cycle. It will take visionary leadership, new innovations, clarity of purpose, and a commitment to a just outcome – the kind of qualities the climate youth are already displaying.
The commitment is the first step. So dry your eyes, abandon despair, and let’s get to work.
Jason Funk is the Principal and Founder at Land Use & Climate Knowledge Initiative a project of the Global Philanthropy Partnership and a former UCS climate scientist
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