On Franzen's Theory and Uniting Our Climate Things

04/17/2015 04:49 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2015

In a recent New Yorker piece, author Jonathan Franzen sparked a necessary conversation for people that care about climate change. His premise is that climate change has overwhelmed every other conservation issue, hijacking attention and resources that could be directed more usefully at solving other pressing problems like deforestation in the Amazon. Assuming that the climate fight is already lost, he argues that we should stop obsessing about cutting carbon and turn to the "Franciscan" work of nurturing living creatures in their natural habitats for as long as we still have them.

Naturally, this message elicited a strong reaction from environmental advocates, including me. Caring about climate is like living with a latent condition. Most of the time you feel fine, but every so often, you have a flare up of existential despair. Franzen caught me on a bad day and brought on a full-fledged attack. As someone who came to the climate fight through years of work to protect endangered species and wild lands, I was profoundly frustrated by the suggestion that climate and conservation are in opposition instead of integrally linked.

Given that Franzen is a self-described puritan, the puritan in me was outraged at the luxurious suggestion that we should give up on the planet and shirk the relentless work of remaking our energy system. But fueling my reaction was the same grief that silently animates his essay. Also, I was wrecked by the realization that we can't win the climate fight if we are alienating kindred spirits like Franzen. Channeling the outrage but not the anxiety, I sent the following response to the New Yorker:

Franzen presents a false choice between conservation and climate action. Fighting climate change does not inevitably entail damming the last free-flowing rivers and commandeering the last wild lands to farm energy. Distributed power generation, most prominently rooftop solar, has become affordable, and it is taking off around the world.

Energy storage is scaling up fast, and that will unleash the full potential of intermittently available resources like the sun and wind, at the same time enabling vehicles to run on clean electricity as opposed to fossil fuels or biofuels.

Nevertheless, Franzen ignores the good news and insists that the Earth is a "terminal" patient. In support of his diagnosis, he cites the fact that "no head of state has ever made a commitment to leaving any carbon in the ground." That fact is subject to change if the public insists on it.

At the core of Franzen's fatalism is the complaint that "it makes no difference to the climate whether any individual, myself included, drives to work or rides a bike" -- in short, that individuals acting alone cannot tackle the most wicked of challenges.

This is a commonly expressed sentiment in the climate context, and it is unaccountable given that transformational social changes have never happened without collective action.

What can individuals do to make a difference? Organize, vote and seek recourse in the courts. Across America, individuals are now acting together successfully to force coal plants, the world's biggest carbon polluters, to shut down. Franzen touts the virtues of pragmatic, place-based work to fight deforestation.

Why not apply the same principle to climate change and engage locally to influence the decisions that utility commissions are making daily to determine our energy future? Until we have exhausted the potential of public as opposed to private engagement, a terminal diagnosis is unacceptable. Young people should seek a second opinion.

I stand by this critique of what Franzen's essay gets wrong, but I didn't credit what it implicitly gets right ⎯- that is, the climate fight is disconnected from what we individually cherish. My heart, too, rebels at the idea that tons of carbon avoided trump everything else.

I don't mean to diminish the importance of that metric. But we all need to take climate much more personally. Until climate becomes personal for more of us, we won't have the political intensity we need to make progress fast enough.

In a correctly sympathetic response to Franzen's piece, David Roberts published a very thoughtful piece in Grist ("Everybody needs a Climate Thing"). His key insight is that climate is too big to care about in the abstract and that people will show up for the climate fight only when it impacts something they really care about -- i.e. their "climate thing." His conclusion is that we can't hope for a climate movement analogous to the civil rights movement, and that the way forward is "as many people as possible working on their passions in a way that is oriented in the direction of climate mitigation or adaptation."

I respectfully disagree. Our various climate things can and must propel us to come together in a collective, old-fashioned fight for transformational change. What else can work to defeat the influence of fossil fuel money and inertia that always favors the status quo?

At Earthjustice, we and our clients have a lot of climate things. We want to stop blowing the tops off mountains to mine coal. We want to stop coal plants from poisoning our air and water. We want to protect the Arctic from oil drilling. We want oil trains to stop exploding. We want people to be able to keep their homes off limits to fracking. We want to restore native salmon runs in the face of historic droughts. We want to use solar power with energy storage to keep the lights on when the next superstorm hits vulnerable neighborhoods.

These are just a few of our climate things, and the intensity of our commitment to all of them doesn't preclude an all-in fight to get off fossil fuels. Just the opposite, it creates a shared sense of urgency and genuine solidarity in creating the kind of powerful climate movement we desperately need. I have to believe it's a model that can scale.

In the meantime, thank you Jonathan Franzen and David Roberts for spurring the right conversation.

Based out of Earthjustice's Northeast regional office in New York, New York, Abigail Dillen leads the organization's litigation docket and legal advocacy work on climate change and reducing carbon pollution, identifying strategic opportunities for the expansion of clean energy and bringing down barriers to clean energy nationwide. She directs Earthjustice's work to lead the country's transition away from fossil fuels toward cleaner sources, to improve energy efficiency, and to equip our nation's electrical grid to deliver clean, safe renewable energy.