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Angry Birds

04/11/2015 04:35 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2015

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Last week, Jonathan Franzen published a thoughtful personal essay in the New Yorker about the role of wildlife conservation in the era of climate change. Although it does his essay a disservice to reduce it to a bullet point, one of the central questions he raised was this: Given that some degree of climate change is now inevitable, does climate mitigation have to be the overriding priority of every wildlife organization? Or would it be OK for some organizations to focus their efforts on wildlife preservation?

I italicized the words "overriding," "every", and "some" because they get to the heart of the way in which, although Franzen's essay produced several balanced and informative responses, it was, for the most part, widely misunderstood.

That misunderstanding got a leg up from the Audubon Society, which rolled out a sophisticated publicity attack on Franzen the day the New Yorker issue hit the stands. Since then, Audubon, taking a page from the political playbooks of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, has been working to discredit Franzen as an authority on climate change and wildlife preservation. It has even devoted an entire page on its website to that task, on which it labels Franzen's essay a form of "climate neo-denialism."

Audubon's charge was led by its new content director Mark Jannot, who accused Franzen of committing an "act of extreme intellectual dishonesty." Franzen, he wrote, misquoted a critical source to support the erroneous argument that climate mitigation and wildlife conservation are incompatible, concealed a conflict of interest, and misrepresented Audubon's role in several conservation projects.

His claims were repeated, in one form or another, by a string of media outlets. David Roberts, Vox's new energy and climate reporter, in a commendable piece on Grist that treated Franzen's essay sympathetically, nevertheless added the unfortunate charge that, instead of reading Audubon's climate report, Franzen judged it from a set of graphics on Audubon's web site [Roberts later wrote an equally commendable follow-up post].

But there's a curious thing about these and other public criticisms of Franzen's essay, so curious, in fact, that in pointing it out I feel like the proverbial child at the emperor's parade. But here it is: Practically everything that Jannot wrote about Franzen's essay, and that others have repeated, doesn't fairly describe what Franzen said.

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For example, Franzen never said, as Jannot claimed, that "an 'overriding' focus on the longer-term peril to birds from global warming might undercut bird conservation today." He never wrote, as Roberts put it, "that climate mitigation is in fundamental tension with biodiversity and conservation." He never described climate action and conservation and zero-sum competitors.

Instead, Franzen argued that climate mitigation doesn't necessarily have to be the overriding concern of every organization. Yes, we need to reduce carbon emissions, but we also need to preserve wildlife, now and in the future. There should be room in the NGO world, Franzen argued, for organizations that, to whatever extent they join the larger battle, continue to make habitat and species conservation their top priority.

It's easy to miss Franzen's point, I think, because he's writing about the moral choices of individuals and NGOs, not the formulation of national environmental policy. When you translate the reasonable suggestion that an individual or an NGO can defensibly make wildlife conservation their top priority to the claim that, on the policy level, we have to choose between climate action and conservation, the idea naturally sounds absurd.

Moreover, as Rebecca Leber noted in the New Republic, Franzen's arguments sound suspiciously like the talking points of climate change deniers. This is especially true of his pessimism about stopping or reversing climate change, and the infinitesimal impact of individual actions. It sounds like Franzen is saying that it's hopeless and no one can make a difference, when in fact he's saying that governments and an army of NGOs are already fighting the larger battle, and therefore individuals can, if they wish, make a meaningful difference by supporting smaller projects that are just as essential to the cause.

But these difficulties with Franzen's argument arise from the wicked complexities of climate change itself. They don't undermine his arguments, they distract from them. They call for a careful consideration of what Franzen said, not the outright dismissal of what he wrote.

The other popular critiques of Franzen's essay are similarly off base. Franzen, for example, did in fact accurately quote bird blogger Jim Williams, who noted that the thousands of birds threatened by the windows in the new Vikings stadium were "nothing" compared to the millions of birds that, according to an Audubon report, were threatened by climate change. All Franzen did was draw from Williams' remark the obvious conclusion that the overwhelming catastrophic effects of climate change can make smaller conservation projects seem futile.

His further point was not, as some have said, that we should therefore give up on the climate. It was that such projects are still worth caring about, even if the looming catastrophe of climate change sometimes makes them feel pointless.

The suggestion that Franzen didn't do his due diligence by reading the Aububon report is also wrong. In fact, as Franzen said, the report is not available to the public, only a summary on the Aububon website is. Audubon's answer to the question "Where can I read the full report?" amounts to, "Sorry, but you can't." I couldn't find any place on Audubon's web site to request a copy. Even the summary Audubon provides is missing the report's findings (see page 5 on the PDF). They have been replaced by a note that they are unavailable because the report is still under peer review.

Instead of criticizing Franzen for not reading the report, we should be asking why Audubon is publicizing a report that hasn't actually been peer-reviewed (yet) and apparently isn't available, either to novelists writing New Yorker essays or to anyone else.

Finally, Jannot alleges that Franzen failed to disclose his membership on the American Bird Conservancy board. But Franzen wrote a personal essay, not a news report, and in any case he made his personal feelings about Audubon clear. I personally think he should have mentioned his position at ABC because it would have made the depths of his feelings and his political interests more visible. But his failure to do so was not the ethical transgression Jannot suggests.

There is one claim that Jannot and others made that is on target. Franzen did say that Audubon has made climate change, rather than local conservation, its top priority. He also took a poke at Audubon by describing it as a formerly activist organization that had been reduced to selling gift shop plush toys. Franzen may have only offered his examples of effective local conservation to illustrate the kind of work he wishes Audubon would continue to prioritize, but it's easy to get the incorrect impression from his recitation of them that Audubon had no role in them.

Still, we're talking about a few lines in a 7,000-word essay that, in the style of literary nonfiction, moved between multiple themes, only one of which touched in part on Audubon's shifting priorities. The organization could have responded by thanking a fellow bird lover and activist for shining a light on an important cause while at the same time correcting the record about its continuing devotion to conservation activism. Instead, it misconstrued his arguments and launched a publicity campaign against him.

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Just as Jannot mused about Franzen's true motives, I have wondered if NGO politics played a role in Audubon's ferocious response to Franzen's piece. But that is a blog post for another time. It's enough to note here that, even if it wasn't perfect, Franzen's essay deserved a more considered and respectful response. The issues he raised are complicated and important. They deserve our careful reflection, not hit pieces from angry content editors on the web sites of prominent environmental organizations.