Ponder the onrushing disaster of climate change, and the towering task of getting greenhouse gas emissions down in time to avoid existential calamity, and one can be led very easily to an enervating political despair. The battle is basically lost, or so says the famed novelist Jonathan Franzen in a New Yorker essay this week. While we should try to reduce emissions, he writes, "All-out war on climate change made sense only as long as it was winnable."
Just like his similar effort from four years ago, Franzen's argument is sloppy, muddled, and premised on elementary factual errors. But it makes a good reason to consider some historical occasions in which human societies have faced and overcome similarly-long odds in the past—like the French Revolution, when ordinary people, pulsing with furious revolutionary energy, flung themselves at seemingly-invulnerable adversaries and won.
First, let's examine Franzen's case. He says that "consensus among scientists and policy-makers is that we'll pass this point of no return if the global mean temperature rises by more than two degrees Celsius" which we will almost certainly blow past, and hence the game is basically up. He then reasons that climate policy should not now be too aggressive, because there is often an inherent trade-off between green developments and environmental preservation. "Our resources aren't infinite. Even if we invest much of them in a longest-shot gamble, reducing carbon emissions in the hope that it will save us, it's unwise to invest all of them," he writes, saying some should be saved for humanitarian aid and that renewable mega-projects that threaten ecosystems should not be built.
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There is just one problem: Neither premise is true. The science on tipping points is very unsettled, but as the University of Exeter's Timothy Lenton (perhaps the top climate researcher on this particular point) explains in a Climatic Change paper, there are lots of potential tipping points, some are a lot more sinister than others, they will be reached at different temperatures, and, while we can't rule out tripping some at under 2 degrees, the likeliest early tripwire is between 2-4 degrees. Now, that is not at all comforting, but it means there is no certain climate doomsday point—every tenth of a degree of warming means worse direct impacts and a greater likelihood of extreme disaster.
Second, it is simply false to say there is a trade-off between climate policy and environmental preservation, because unchecked climate change will obliterate the biosphere. One should avoid wrecking key ecosystems, but if the energy payoff is sufficiently high, it still might be worth doing, because if climate change is not stopped the ecosystem will be wrecked anyway. High levels of warming will do orders of magnitude more damage to Franzen's beloved bird population than all the windmills in the world. Climate writer David Roberts carefully explained this to Franzen back in 2015, but apparently it didn't sink in.
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