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Courage and Climate

In a recent New Yorker article, Jonathan Franzen asks us to accept that catastrophic climate change is unavoidable. Foundational to his reasoning:  “I can run ten thousand scenarios… and in not one of them do I see the two-degree target being met.”  In previous posts here and here I showed why he was misreading the science.  I also imagined for him a rapid, bottom-up transition to a clean energy future, one that beats 2 degrees Celsius. Why does it matter what kind of future we can see?

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Why We Fight

Franzen has an ethics coda to his article. He says that even if we accept as he does that civilizational collapse is now inevitable, nevertheless, we should still take “half-measures” to reduce carbon emissions to delay the inevitable and reduce some harm. This is the right thing to do, he says, as long as we don’t overdo it. But now is precisely the time to overdo it. To stabilize the climate at two degrees, we have a thirty-year war to wage: half measures will push us to three degrees, four degrees or beyond.  The outcome of this war will be uncertain until it ends: no one can assert a definitive future three decades out. But without the courage to envision winning, to imagine stabilizing the climate and what it will take to do that, we lose the will to change the world.

A dozen years ago, I wrote a book called Fighting for Love in the Century of Extinction. At that time, the first studies were just coming out forecasting species loss from climate change at a third to half of the creatures that live with us in this world. I needed to confront, to feel, the meaning of this modern day flood unleashed not by God, but by humans.

One chapter considers a worse-case scenario arising from all this loss: massive pest and disease outbreaks ravaging our global farming monocultures, with no store of biodiversity remaining to provide the seeds to save us.  An Irish potato famine writ large, on to a world-wide scale. That famine left a profound mark on history through the Irish diaspora. And yet, it came and it went. Climate-induced global famine possible? Yes. Likely at 2 degrees Celsius? No.

Much as it might seem like biblical-scale karma, the consequence of 2 degrees Celsius warming will not be the end of human civilization. Rather as climate change becomes the primary driver of mass extinction, many people will face food shortages, hunger and suffering. And if it does gets hotter and hotter-- beyond 2 to 3 or 4 or 6 degrees--  there will be other, staggering losses lasting much longer, lasting, in fact, the length of the the human journey itself: loss of scientific knowledge, of unrecoverable beauty, and of spiritual engagement with the natural world. Stemming these losses, and gifting to our children a still rich, still beautiful home: that is why I fight for the earth I love.  

Imagine a Finer Future

I have had enough recent conversations to know that Franzen speaks for an increasing number of grown-ups in climate despair, who can no longer see a way through to stabilizing the climate. But this is not grounded in what science tells us about climate change, or what markets are telling us about climate solutions. Absorbing apocalyptic visions served up daily on our news feeds, it has become easier for many to imagine billions of people homeless and human civilization in ruins then it is a world rewired with clean energy.  

By contrast, watch Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old talking terrible truths to the powerful. You can sense in her the internal balancing of a warrior, feeling in her young bones the costs of failure. Already bearing the pain of loss her generation faces, regardless. Above all, imagining that a stable climate is possible.

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About the Author

Eban Goodstein

Eban Goodstein

Dr. Eban Goodstein is an economist and the Director of the MBA in Sustainability and the MS and MEd programs at the Center for Environmental Policy at Bard College. He is known for organizing national educational initiatives on climate change, which have engaged thousands of schools and universities, civic institutions, faith groups, and community organizations in solutions-driven dialogue. Goodstein is the author of three books and numerous journal articles focused on climate change, sustainability and green jobs.