The New Yorker published an essay earlier this week by the decorated novelist Jonathan Franzen that chastised climate activists and scientists for their “unrealistic hope,” and belief that “catastrophe is theoretically avertable.” Franzen, a “doomer dude,” views the “climate war” as unwinnable. Rather than doing everything we can to reduce carbon emissions, we should divert resources to adaptation and conservation, he says.
Franzen seems to be quite misguided. Vox’s Sigal Samuel wrote a great piece dissecting the criticism scientists and advocates voiced, from Franzen’s characterization of the science and the politics to his take on human psychology and behavior around climate change.
“[I]t is precisely the fact that we understand the potential driver of doom that changes it from a foregone conclusion to a choice, a terrible outcome in the universe of all possible futures,” Kate Marvel, a prominent climate scientist, wrote Wednesday in a piece for Scientific American titled “Shut Up, Franzen.”
The whole kerfuffle is a great reminder of how tempting it is for doomers to strip the conversation about climate change down to binaries, and zero-sum positions. Mitigation or adaptation. Naive hope or realistic pessimism.
Ultimately, these don’t serve the conversation well. We’re much better off in the realm of nuance, balancing awareness of the possibly catastrophic consequences of our past, current, and future emissions with the ongoing opportunity to prevent a mounting burden of suffering for future humans.
As Mary Annaïse Heglar, a climate justice essayist and the director of publications at the Natural Resources Defense Council, put it: “It is absolutely possible to prepare for the disasters already, terrifyingly, upon us while also doing our damnedest to quit baking more in.”
This is precisely the spirit of Vox’s recent series, the Big Ones, in which we lay out extreme weather scenarios for vulnerable parts of the US: an extreme heat wave in Arizona, a record-smashing wildfire in Southern California, and a Katrina-level hurricane in Florida. We know these disasters may be coming, but we need not cower in fear of them. We can learn about them, and feel empowered to soften their blow.
Phoenix, one of the hottest and fastest-warming cities in the US, is susceptible to a heat wave with temperatures peaking around the 120s and lingering for two weeks. Under these conditions, the power grid would succumb to brownouts and blackouts and many elderly would die in their homes. Umair Irfan’s stunning piece also explores how the heat island effect plays into just how high temperatures can get in Phoenix.
In part two, I look at a hypothetical wildfire for Southern California, one that starts in a national forest and burns a total of 1.5 million acres, most of them public lands. That is more than three times the size of the largest California wildfire to date, and is a truly worst-case, extreme scenario in terms of size. Smoke from the blazes would carry at least 100 miles west into Los Angeles and 100 miles south to San Diego, leading to hazardous air quality throughout Southern California. Many areas of California today have “very high wildfire hazard,” and are facing the loss of homeowners insurance, as climate change turns more vegetation into wildfire fuel.
Brian Resnick constructed a nightmarish hurricane scenario for Tampa Bay, drawing from a Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council plan for how to respond to a potential hurricane catastrophe. The reason for this plan: Tampa Bay is one of the areas in the US most at risk when hurricanes arrive because of its location, growing population, and the geography of the bay. If a Category 5 hurricane makes a direct hit on the bay, parts of Pinellas County — which is home to St. Petersburg — will temporarily become an island. People who choose to remain — or can’t evacuate — might be trapped. And the potential impact will only grow larger because we keep building and adding more people to hurricane-prone areas like Tampa Bay.
None of these disasters are likely to occur this year or next year, given current models. Each one is an outlier, a rare, extreme event, the far end of bad. But climate change is, broadly, rendering these kinds of events more severe, and in some cases more frequent, in many parts of the country.
And even if one of these events were to happen, even at a lesser degree of severity, it would still be extraordinarily costly, both in terms of human lives and other losses. The kind of event you’d wish you’d prepared for better, if you were a citizen, or a government official.
It’s clear these regions — Tampa Bay, Southern California, and Phoenix, along with countless others with similar vulnerabilities — are not doing enough to reduce the impact of these kinds of events, at this level of severity or at a milder but still damaging level. They’re still building in the path of tempests, still replacing heat-mitigating trees and soil with concrete. Government agencies are leaving millions of dead trees in the forest, ready to burn at the first spark.
With Hurricane Dorian, which recently slammed into the Bahamas as a Category 5 storm, most of the deaths have been recorded in the community of undocumented Haitians who work on golf courses but live in shanty towns. In the scenarios we’ve outlined, the poorest, most vulnerable people stand to lose the most as well.
Ultimately, these scary scenarios are worth contemplating because fear of impending disaster can be motivating; it can release us from the complacency that has kept us from insisting that our leaders get far more aggressive on reducing emissions. The growing threat of climate catastrophe can be a helpful nudge to leaders to up their ambition on decarbonization — and their disaster preparedness game at the same time — without succumbing to the Franzen-style cynicism of doom.