The subtitle of novelist Jonathan Franzen’s commentary in The New Yorker last week succinctly captured his assertion about climate change: “The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.”
Why the pessimism? Franzen sees human behavior driven by individual self-interest as anathema to the collective action needed to keep global temperatures from rising two degrees above pre-industrial levels—net zero carbon emissions by 2050. He suggests that scientists’ sophisticated climate models—which run thousands of emissions scenarios to look at a range of possible outcomes—are trafficking in unrealistic hope if they incorporate complete decarbonization by mid-century.
By doing his “own kind of modelling” (thought experiments), Franzen identifies myriad reasons why complete decarbonization will not occur: widespread climate change denial, the inherent disconnect between costs incurred today and benefits largely received by future generations, and non-actors free-riding on the emission reductions of others. He looks back at thirty years of strong global emissions growth even after the scientific community started warning of a serious climate problem as evidence that future efforts to rein in emissions are destined to fail.
Franzen’s bleak view is not entirely without foundation—collective action is daunting even when the threat is clear to all and immediate. And reorienting the economy in 190+ countries (or even the 20 largest countries accounting for the vast majority of emissions) to zero out carbon emissions is indeed a mind-boggling challenge.
So yes, society must account for the very real possibility that the transition to a decarbonized economy will not happen fully or fast enough. It makes sense to prepare for the possible consequences of this, investing in adaptation, and perhaps geoengineering of the atmosphere, as many before Franzen have noted.
But Franzen’s argument about the futility of emission reduction efforts hinges on his belief that a two-degree Celsius increase in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels—an eventuality he believes is guaranteed—will trigger a series of irreversible climate feedbacks, culminating in apocalypse.
Point Of No Return?
Franzen writes, “In the long run, it probably makes no difference how badly we overshoot two degrees; once the point of no return is passed, the world will become self-transforming.” In essence, he suggests society as we know it can survive at plus 1.99 degrees Celsius, but not at plus 2.01.
This binary characterization of the climate problem is curiously out of step with climate science.