Fight for Climate Action or “Stop Pretending”?

As far as future-building strategies go, Greta Thunberg’s passionate optimism beats Jonathan Franzen’s placid pessimism any day.

September 13, 2019

South Shetland Islands

NOAA

Next Friday, as global leaders prepare for the upcoming United Nations Climate Summit in New York City, millions of people around the world plan to walk out of their classrooms and workplaces as part of the youth-led Global Climate Strike, an international, intergenerational display of righteous anger and resolve. The timing of the strike is no coincidence. The strikers hope to pressure attendees of the U.N. summit into crafting policies that will slash greenhouse gas emissions, speed the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and secure climate justice for vulnerable communities and future generations.

The strikers believe that their collective action has the power to move the climate needle by pushing world leaders to act more quickly and forcefully. I think of them as angry optimists: individuals who haven’t yet given up hope, but who have given up on the idea that hope all by itself is enough. It’s hard to witness their dedication and remain unmoved. Accordingly, what began as a singular act of protest by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg just over a year ago has now evolved into a bona fide movement, with supporters on every continent (including Antarctica) expressing their solidarity.

But not everybody’s feeling it—and I’m not just referring to the usual climate-denying suspects.

On Sunday the New Yorker published an essay by Jonathan Franzen, the celebrated novelist and essayist, that serves as a testament to climate defeatism, that passive, rationalizing cousin to climate denialism. “What If We Stopped Pretending?” asks the headline, which is paired with an even more provocative sub-headline: “The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.”

Franzen’s thesis can be summed up thusly: Despite having known for decades that we need to drastically curb our carbon-emitting habits enough to slow the earth’s rising mean temperature, we haven’t been able to do so; this inability suggests that we have already lost the war against climate change and that we should turn our attention to other environmental and social battles that might help us fare better in the coming climate storm. The essay, appropriately, has been met with rage and derision on social media, where Franzen has been accused of distorting science, dismissing the significance of harm reduction, succumbing to debilitating fatalism, and even (in so many words) aestheticizing the suffering of millions.

And then there’s the matter of that one word—pretending—in the headline: how casually it’s been placed there, how much it assumes. The idea that millions of deeply concerned people all over the planet somehow know, deep down, that fighting climate change is a lost cause, but are either too cowed or too cowardly to admit it, feels like condescension of the highest order.

Top: Jonathan Franzen. Bottom: Greta Thunberg (center, with pink shirt).

Top: Arpad Kurucz/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images. Bottom: Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

But it’s more than that. Underlying Franzen’s supposition is a dangerous fallacy: that because we haven’t yet seen the kind of action needed to stave off the worst climate impacts, we’re never going to see that kind of action. This assumption ignores the fact that nearly all the signatories to the Paris climate agreement are demonstrably committing themselves to meeting the emissions targets that will save literally millions of lives, even as they acknowledge that more must be done to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius. It furthermore ignores the technological revolution taking place all around us—including in Franzen’s own hometown—creating and optimizing ways for us to transition from a fossil fuel–based economy to one rooted in renewable energy. Both of these phenomena are signs not of a failed idea but of an idea coming to fruition.

Sure, we’ve had a slow start. But momentum is building, from all appearances, to a tipping point. This is something that members of the Global Climate Strike movement genuinely (and strategically) grasp: that the action Franzen thinks we’ll never see can only materialize once leaders are made to understand that the people are demanding it—and won’t take no for an answer. Greta Thunberg has opened a floodgate of citizen activism that won’t be dying down anytime soon. As more people join the movement—whether they do so as strikers, marchers, protesters, organizers, letter writers, donors, or even just outspoken town hall participants—those in power will have no choice but to respond. And the arc of history will have no choice but to bend toward climate action.

It’s one thing to be afraid of failing to fend off the merciless feedback loops that rising global temperatures could trigger; that’s a fear that many of us share. But it’s quite another thing to process this fear by psychologically and emotionally disengaging from the fight—and then encourage others to do the same. Jonathan Franzen is free to spend the rest of his days writing novels in the relative comfort of intellectualized surrender, if he chooses. The rest of us have other kinds of work to do.

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