Jonathan Franzen pissed off a lot of environmentalists by criticizing the strategy of the environmentalist movement, which is committing wholesale to climate change remediation at the expense of biodiversity. I think fighting to get CO2 emissions down is essential, but the problem is that bit about “at the expense of”. How we achieve a sustainable climate is as important as getting there.
He starts off with an example that is close to home.
Last September, as someone who cares more about birds than the next man, I was following the story of the new stadium that the Twin Cities are building for their football Vikings. The stadium’s glass walls were expected to kill thousands of birds every year, and local bird-lovers had asked its sponsors to use a specially patterned glass to reduce collisions; the glass would have raised the stadium’s cost by one tenth of one per cent, and the sponsors had balked. Around the same time, the National Audubon Society issued a press release declaring climate change “the greatest threat” to American birds and warning that “nearly half ” of North America’s bird species were at risk of losing their habitats by 2080. Audubon’s announcement was credulously retransmitted by national and local media, including the Minneapolis Star Tribune, whose blogger on bird-related subjects, Jim Williams, drew the inevitable inference: Why argue about stadium glass when the real threat to birds was climate change? In comparison, Williams said, a few thousand bird deaths would be “nothing.”
How about that? Williams is making the environmentalist version of a “Dear Muslima” argument! And that, of course, is a recipe for paralysis, which is exactly what the anti-environmentalists want. How can we possibly lobby for bird-safe glass on a stadium when the wetlands in Minnesota are drying up? How can we campaign for the wetlands when the arctic ice is melting? How can we worry about the arctic when the oceans are warming? Dammit, how can I get up in the morning and drink a cup of tea when the WHOLE PLANET IS DYING??!? And the Minnesota Vikings cheered.
Of course, there is no reason to think that asking a ridiculously profitable sports organization to make a minuscule investment to protect local birds detracts in any way from efforts to combat global warming, any more than that making my morning tea means I am incapable of doing anything else.
Read the rest of the Franzen article. There are tradeoffs everywhere, and progress requires taking a balanced, long-term view.
Here’s another local example. When I first moved to Minnesota in 2000, every Fall was lit up with the arrival of the monarch butterflies. They were everywhere. You’d find them fluttering solo in every yard, and every once in a while you’d find a tree that had been arbitrarily chosen to be the group meeting place, and every branch and twig would have a butterfly clinging to it, while clouds of them would be swirling about. They were so ubiquitous that we actually incorporated them into our introductory biology course, and we’d send out our students with nets to carefully capture and tag them.
We don’t do that anymore. Only a few years after I got here the population had crashed so much that it was an exercise in frustration to send students out: they’d come back disappointed with no butterflies found. Last fall, I saw no monarchs at all the entire season.
No, I take that back. I saw one dead one alongside the road.
Is it global warming that’s killing the butterflies? Maybe. It could contribute to habitat shifts and disruption of their migration patterns. But a bigger factor has to be that we’re starving them to death. Monarchs only live on milkweed, and that’s not a cash crop. We’re spraying everything with herbicides. We’re eviscerating the Conservation Reserve Program, which encouraged maintenance of some plant diversity in the state, all in the name of dedicating more and more acreage to corn (which, you may know, does not help the monarchs at all).
And why is there so much emphasis on planting more corn, corn, corn? For ethanol and biodiesel production, to reduce our dependency on foreign oil, and to supposedly shift our oil habit from fossil fuels to renewable sources (an illusion, though: corn ethanol isn’t a net energy gain for us). So, in the name of combating global warming and putting food on our table, we’re turning the Midwest into vast sea of nothing but corn, soybeans, and wheat.
We lose monarch butterflies. We gain ethanol pumps at our gas stations.
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.
That is not a statement that climate change denialists can take solace in — no one with any sense is denying the pressing importance of climate change remediation. The issue is how. If your solution to reduce the Earth’s temperature is to pave over the prairies with corn, to cover the deserts with sheets of photovoltaics, or to geoengineer the oceans, you don’t get to ignore the cost to life on Earth in your proposal. Paneling the planet in silicon might cool us down, but at a terrible cost to species other than our own (and unless you’re a fan of minimalist/modernist sterility, to us as well).
And come on, environmentalists. If you can’t convince the Minnesota Vikings to spend one tenth of one percent on reducing bird deaths, how can you argue that you’ll get the world to invest even more on major changes in how we produce and use energy?