What's Tony Thinking

Telling the Truth from Jonathan Franzen


One of the country’s leading literary figures, novelist Jonathan Franzen, is exasperated by Republican and Progressive positions on climate change.

If the right denies there’s any problem, the left fosters what Franzen’s sees as a different illusion: that we can fix this thing.

Franzen believes the climate apocalypse is coming. We ought to stop pretending that it’s not. And we need to prepare ourselves to live as humanely and justly as we can amid an entirely new and terribly difficult reality.

Here’s Franzen:

“The goal has been clear for thirty years, and despite earnest efforts we’ve made essentially no progress toward reaching it. Today, the scientific evidence verges on irrefutable. If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing 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. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.”

I take no comfort in being older than 60. I grieve for our world and for my children and grandchildren, and for yours.

But I agree with Franzen. Let’s stop pretending. Trouble is coming, already here in many respects, and we’d better prepare ourselves to deal with as best we can.

Climate change deniers and climate change saviors are both in denial.


“Some of the denial, however, is more willful. The evil of the Republican Party’s position on climate science is well known, but denial is entrenched in progressive politics, too, or at least in its rhetoric. The Green New Deal, the blueprint for some of the most substantial proposals put forth on the issue, is still framed as our last chance to avert catastrophe and save the planet, by way of gargantuan renewable-energy projects. Many of the groups that support those proposals deploy the language of “stopping” climate change, or imply that there’s still time to prevent it. Unlike the political right, the left prides itself on listening to climate scientists, who do indeed allow that catastrophe is theoretically avertable. But not everyone seems to be listening carefully. The stress falls on the word theoretically.”

Which is not to say we shouldn’t take real and serious action to reduce carbon emissions. We must. But the fundamental alteration of the earth is happening and going to happen. How, then, shall we respond?

At this point, Franzen’s argument takes a surprising turn. We should not, he argues, put all our resources into the battle against climate change.

” . .  . a false hope of salvation can be actively harmful. If you persist in believing that catastrophe can be averted, you commit yourself to tackling a problem so immense that it needs to be everyone’s overriding priority forever. One result, weirdly, is a kind of complacency: by voting for green candidates, riding a bicycle to work, avoiding air travel, you might feel that you’ve done everything you can for the only thing worth doing. Whereas, if you accept the reality that the planet will soon overheat to the point of threatening civilization, there’s a whole lot more you should be doing.”

A bit further on Franzen spells out what that “whole lot more” is:

“All-out war on climate change made sense only as long as it was winnable. Once you accept that we’ve lost it, other kinds of action take on greater meaning. Preparing for fires and floods and refugees is a directly pertinent example. But the impending catastrophe heightens the urgency of almost any world-improving action.

“In times of increasing chaos, people seek protection in tribalism and armed force, rather than in the rule of law, and our best defense against this kind of dystopia is to maintain functioning democracies, functioning legal systems, functioning communities. In this respect, any movement toward a more just and civil society can now be considered a meaningful climate action. (italics added)

“Securing fair elections is a climate action. Combatting extreme wealth inequality is a climate action. Shutting down the hate machines on social media is a climate action. Instituting humane immigration policy, advocating for racial and gender equality, promoting respect for laws and their enforcement, supporting a free and independent press, ridding the country of assault weapons—these are all meaningful climate actions. 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.”

I find this turn in Franzen’s argument not only wise but — oddly perhaps — hopeful and encouraging. We are going to need the best possible functioning institutions and healthiest human communities to face the manifold consequences of climate change. Hence, “Any movement toward a more just and civil society can be considered a meaningful climate action.”

This seems to me a very important observation and insight. “The sky is falling” hysteria will not help at this point. Doing all that we can to build and maintain just and civil society is the great challenge if we are to face what’s coming.

P.S. Today’s NYT features an article about a new in Canadian policy to keep people from re-building in flood zones. A bit of the realism that Franzen counsels.


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