Fair warning: tl;dr.
Novelist Jonathan Franzen walked up to a hornet’s nest and hit it with a baseball bat in his recent New Yorker essay “Carbon Capture,” which you should read. Go ahead. I’ll wait. It’s a longish piece, but that’s fine. I’ll go make a sandwich.
When I read it approximately fifteen minutes after it came online, but not before I had a dozen emails asking me if I’d read it, my reaction was a little nuanced.
I wished he’d avoided the doom argument — not because he isn’t correct, but because people would attack it and miss what I thought was his main argument.
I wished he hadn’t taken on the National Audubon Society’s study on climate change and birds, but mostly because there are bigger, juicier, slamdunkier, lowhangyfruitier targets he could have chosen, and more on those in a bit.
Lastly, I winced hard when I saw Franzen didn’t disclose in lauding the American Bird Conservancy that he is on the fundraising board of the American Bird Conservancy. That’s a basic bit of journalistic ethics there, and Franzen blew it by not so disclosing.
But those winces aside, the overwhelming sense of my reaction as I read the essay was this:
Finally, someone prominent is saying this.
Franzen’s main contention is that the overwhelming focus of most of the mainstream environmental movement on climate change has come at a steep cost: a shifting of that focus away from biological diversity issues.
Those of you who have been reading my work for a while won’t be surprised at my being pleased at this idea’s hitting the pages of the New Yorker. For a while, the climate change movement has seemed from my perch here in the desert southwest to have abandoned any concern for biological diversity. Those who bring up concerns that renewable energy development might actually harm wildlife or their habitat have been scoffed at, accused of being climate change deniers or (to cite an example from 2011 that my Coyot.es Network colleague Madhu still ribs me about on occasion) useful idiots.
And some, myself included, have been working to promote the idea that we can address both the perils of climate change and the rights of non-human species to continue existing even if they’re in our way. So I forwarded the piece around myself, gratefully.
I saw three basic kinds of reaction to Franzen’s piece in the days that followed.
Grassroots wildlife protection activists and their supporters sometimes expressed regret about the essay’s weak points, but on the whole said “yep.”
Scientists working on biodiversity issues, whether independent, university-employed, or agency staff, often expressed those reservations a bit more forcefully than us lay folk, but also basically said “yes.”
And people who identify with the climate change mitigation movement completely, as they say, lost their shit.
In The Guardian, Robert Manne wrote:
Franzen’s claim about a conflict between conservation and climate activism is psychologically-driven, a product of his private prejudices, irritations and resentments.
Rebecca Leber, a staff writer for the New Republic, chose as her main criticism of Franzen’s essay his concern over the wildlife impacts of wind and solar, saying:
He makes the strange assumption that wind turbines are destructive, but doesn’t make any mention of the harm fossil fuel development already causes to the environment (ClimateProgress’ Joe Romm pointed out fossil fuels kill many more birds than wind or solar energy do). Franzen doesn’t sound much different than Republicans who mock solar and wind, like Mitt Romney did in 2012—even though renewables are becoming an economic force. [Link added.]
Grist’s David Roberts was sophisticated enough to condescend to Franzen rather than ranting, saying:
A Climate Thing is not always wrong, though it frequently is. Just as often, it’s a kind of distortion, a lens that magnifies one aspect of the issue at the expense of all others. For some people it’s nuclear power. For some people it’s about models, how there was no warming when the models said there would be. For some people it’s Al Gore, or solar power, or consumerism, or population, or “I heard that we’re basically fucked no matter what,” which I’ve heard more times than I can count.
For Franzen it’s birds. His experience of climate change, in his social circles and intellectual orbit, is that it seems to be eclipsing bird-habitat conservation in the minds of environmentalists. And that bugs him.
So that’s his Climate Thing. And as with most people’s Climate Thing, it’s a little eccentric and a little myopic.
That accusation of myopia is a bit of irony I’ll come back to.
Roberts continues by invoking the big imaginary graph of deaths to birds leading climate activists seem to carry around in their heads:
Take one step back and you see that birds are far more threatened by the combination of fossil fuels and climate change than they are by any other threat, including cats and wind turbines combined. Times a thousand.
I have written a couple times on the problems involved when you use “dead birds” as a metric of ecological harm from different things. Here’s one essay from January 2013, and here’s another from August 2014. The elevator version: a starling is not a condor. Or as I said in that second piece:
Say you’re a person passionately concerned about African wildlife, and in particular the plight of the white rhino, and you’re talking to a friend about the threat to that magnificent animal from illegal poaching. “It’s a shame,” replies your friend, “but you know, domestic cats kill far more mammals.” You’d likely look at your friend as if he’d lost his mind. Who would lump a house mouse into the same category as a rhino just because they both fit into the taxonomic order of “mammals”? … [and ] birds are far more diverse than mammals.
That’s not a controversial assertion, or it shouldn’t be. It’s an issue of scientific fact. And yet the “more birds” trope gets trotted out every. single. time. a renewable energy facility is scrutinized over its potential harm to birds and other wildlife.
Every. Single. Time. Despite its being scientifically illiterate.
One could reasonably decide that it’s used not so much as a way of advancing a scientific position on the issue of wildlife mortality at renewable energy facilities as a facile way of shutting down discussion of wildlife mortality at renewable energy facilities.
I certainly have decided that, because that has definitely been my own experience of the trope. In fact, after a couple days of climate change activists’ ranting about Franzen’s piece, I felt compelled to detail some of my experience since 2008 or so on Twitter. First, I tried sardonic and then, when the furor showed no signs of slowing down, I got more verbose. There’s a series of 15 tweets at that second link, detailing reactions I’ve gotten from climate activists and renewable energy advocates, including demands that I be fired and emailed threats.
The vast majority of people concerned about climate change I have met are quite concerned about the currently accelerating mass extinction. And Franzen’s detractors made much of that fact this week, with (for instance) David Roberts saying:
Ultimately, every green-minded person wants to save bird habitats and mitigate climate change. The big problem is that people who care about climate change and people who love birds are both vastly outnumbered by people who don’t give a shit about either.
An interesting choice of phrase, that “wants to.” Wanting to do something costs nothing. Making that thing a priority, on the other hand?
Roberts just left the popular online environmental publication Grist this month after working there since 2004. Grist is an interesting environmental publication for our purposes here: it devotes a huge percentage of its editorial attention to climate change, and a scant amount to the issues of habitat protection or dwindling wildlife populations — unless the threat to that wildlife or its habitat happens to be climate change.
Here’s a screenshot of Grist’s navigation menu:
What Grist thinks we need to know about.
That’s a pretty human-centered list of options in the middle between “Climate & Energy” and “Science,” focusing on what humans eat, where humans live, how humans entertain themselves, how humans argue, how humans make money.
I’ve always found it a bit odd that Grist doesn’t have a “wildlife” or “nature” top heading, but if we look at the likely category that reports on endangered species and such would be filed under, Science, we find that Science is almost wholly given over to reports on climate change. Of 105 Science stories published on Grist since April 17, 2012 — a date I picked because I got tired of counting at that point — 47, or a full 45 percent, are about climate change. Ten of those concern climate change’s likely impact on wildlife or its habitat. 25 stories concern wildlife outside of a context of climate change, of which only seven — six percent of total Science stories — are reports on non-climate-related threats to wildlife or its habitat. The rest are “cool wildlife” stories.
Since January 1, 2010, if the site’s onboard search engine is at all accurate, Grist has run just 28 stories that even contain the phrase “Endangered Species Act,” one of which is David Roberts’ description of how everything changed for the U.S.’s premier wildlife and habitat protection law when environmentalism “gave way to … well, no one knows what to call it yet” in the face of climate activism. Another is Roberts’ interview with Atlantic writer Alexis Madrigal, in which Madrigal says:
I also think — and this may be a more controversial suggestion — that it might be worth trading some of the landmark ’60s environmental legislation for stronger support for green technology. The way the Endangered Species Act works right now is sometimes counterproductive. It rests on this odd structure of one animal standing in for whole ecosystems, at a local level, preventing changes we might need to prevent global-scale environmental change.
(By way of self-serving contrast, since July 2011, KCET has run 167 pieces that include the phrase “Endangered Species Act,” and some of the best ones weren’t even written by yours truly.)
Grist has some mighty fine writers, Roberts included, and it’s not fair to assume that those writers necessarily share the editorial policy sentiments of the site’s management. But my pal Judith Lewis Mernit did, in the course of an informative debate with Michelle Nijhuis on the Franzen piece, unearth this exchange she had on Twitter about six square miles of the best habitat in the Mojave Desert being destroyed for a wildlife killing power plant that turns out not to work:
For those of you unfamiliar with Twitter conversations, that’s Roberts answering “Yes” to Judith’s question whether the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System was worth the cost in habitat loss adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve — one example of dozens in the southwest of climate mitigation undercutting wildlife protection, any of which Franzen would have done much better to focus on.
Mernit asked Roberts a clarifying question, and he answered:
Sure, we all want to protect bird habitat. But reading sites like Grist, or listening to climate pundits like Roberts, we may never learn that anything other than climate change and fossil fuels threatens that bird habitat — and if we start to find out that our efforts at climate change mitigation may actually cause further harm to that habitat or the birds in it, our concerns over that cost are dismissed with a monosyllabic answer.
Grist has a right to whatever editorial focus it desires. But it’s not just Grist. Take a look at this graph, which shows the frequency of the phrases “climate change” and “biodiversity” in all the books and periodicals indexed in Google’s database, charted by the year in which those works were published:
Sometime just before 2006, probably not coincidentally the year Al Gore’s movie came out, climate change overtook biological diversity as the main topic of discussion in the environmental field. And since then, biodiversity’s importance in the public mind has actually waned.
People will think about topics that are being discussed. People will tend to lose track of topics that are not being discussed.
And even considering those outside drivers of our political concerns, most of us who are (justifiably) concerned about climate change are still also mightily concerned about the mass extinction in progress, when we’re reminded that it’s taking place. But there’s a difference between people in general and those public or semipublic figures who have created an identity as Climate Activists, who too often respond to reminders of the importance of non-human species with impatient dismissals, Argumentam ad Petroleum, or subtly attempting to get the writer fired.
The climate change mitigation movement has become an orthodoxy, and environmentalists challenge it at the risk of ostracism or worse.
That orthodoxy even carries with it its own special flavor of the science denialism with which it (again, justifiably) charges climate change deniers. One of the most frustrating responses to Franzen’s article has been the idea that instead of a novelist, the essay should have been written by an environmental journalist or a scientist, who would have done a better, more accurate job.
With regard to the “a journalist should have written it” idea, I’ll turn to Judith Lewis Mernit for a response, which she posted in a Facebook comment thread:
The problem… is that Chris and I, and many, many other writers *have* written that story, over and over and over and over. I think when you look up the phrase “Bleating Into the Void” in the Urban Dictionary you might see all of our faces lined up, as talking GIFs. It took a nationally famous fiction writer galumphing around in the issue from his personal slant to make it a Real Thing.
The scientists have written that story too, and there’s no better example than the one provided by a group of scientists that were solicited to provide feedback on early drafts of California’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), an ungainly and complex document — 12,000 pages in its most recent draft — that would have planned renewable energy development within 22 million acres of the California Desert. That panel of Independent Science Advisors came up with a report in 2010 that offered a sober, not-at-all hotheaded, appraisal of the likely ecological effects of some of the developments then proposed for the California Desert.
The 2010 report’s Executive Summary includes this passage:
[S]iting and developing energy projects must be done carefully to avoid unnecessary damage to fragile desert ecosystems. Desert species and ecological communities are already severely stressed by human changes to the landscape, including urbanization, roads, transmission lines, invasive species, and disturbances by recreational, military, mining, and other activities. Additional stress from large-scale energy developments, in concert with a changing climate, portends further ecological degradation and the potential for species extinctions.
And this one:
We also strongly advocate using “no regrets” strategies in the near term— such as siting developments in already disturbed areas — as more refined analyses become available to guide more difficult decisions.
And this one:
To the greatest degree possible, site all renewable energy developments on previously disturbed land (areas where grading, grubbing, agriculture, or other actions have substantially altered vegetation or broken the soil surface), and site all linear facilities within or alongside existing linear rights-of-way, paved roads, canals, or other existing linear disturbances, so long as this does not create complete barriers to wildlife movements or ecological flows. Habitat fragmentation and impediments to wildlife movements are among the greatest threats to desert communities and species, and maximizing habitat connectivity is essential to climate change adaptation. The combined effects of both new and existing linear features on wildlife movement should be mitigated with appropriate crossing structures or corridors to facilitate wildlife movement.
And this one:
To the greatest feasible extent, avoid and minimize any new disturbance of soil surfaces in the siting, design, construction, and maintenance of any and all project features. Arid ecosystems are strongly shaped by characteristics of soils and other geological surfaces that develop over millennia and that cannot be replicated by human actions. Ecological impacts of projects that disturb the soil surface should be presumed permanent, despite promises to decommission renewable energy projects at the end of their useful life and restore what came before.
How effective was the Independent Science Advisors’ 2010 report? To what degree has it been heeded? It’s worth noting that almost without exception, the large solar facilities that have broken ground on public lands in California are on sites that have been essentially wild, with largely intact desert soils and wildlife habitat, now lost. A few large solar projects on private lands in the Western Mojave and in the Imperial Valley have been sited on land that qualifies as “disturbed,” with a concomitant reduction in air quality downwind as those desert soils lift and blow away in the slightest breeze.
And the most recent draft of the DRECP places (energy) Development Focus Areas on important wildlife habitat and migration corridors, including the established Desert Tortoise Natural Area near California City.
The Independent Science Advisors report is just a very prominent example of scientific counsel going unheeded when renewable energy developers and climate activists see it as impeding their agenda. There are many others. In sum, the scientists have spoken, they have spoken in venues that should arguably be far more influential than a novelist’s essay in a literary magazine, and they have been — at best — thanked politely for their time and disregarded.
Federal land managers denied those scientists’ recommendations. Renewable energy companies want to deny independent scientists access to data on their projects actual effects on the environment. And now, by saying Franzen’s piece should have been written by a scientist when dozens of scientists have already weighed in, climate activists are in effect denying the scientists even exist.
Looks like no one side has a monopoly on science denialism.
Franzen may have made some mistakes in his piece, but his thesis — that a focus on climate change makes it harder to talk about preserving species and habitat — is essentially sound. If you don’t frame those threats to wildlife in terms of climate change or the fossil fuel use that causes it, climate activists simply do not want to hear it. They won’t write about it, they’ll criticize you for saying anything about it, and if journalists or scientists write about the conflict between climate activism and protecting wildlife, the climate activists will assiduously deny that that work even exists.
Which is why those climate pundits have reacted to Franzen’s piece with such outrage. His essay may have been a poorly aimed blast of buckshot, but a bunch of that shot nailed the Climate Orthodoxy in its ass.