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Jonathan Franzen’s @NewYorker diatribe re #birds & #climate change is for the birds

April 1st, 2015 · 5 Comments

The New Yorker has been a bright spot, in many ways, in the media disaster that has been global warming reporting. Elizabeth Kolbert is not just a beautiful writer, a pleasure to read, but insightful and thoughtful about the climate crisis and energy issues. (See, for example, her wonderful The Island in the Wind.)  From exposure to great literature, to amazing looks at societal issues, to insight on foreign policy, to great science report, it remains legitimately on the reading list. Sadly, on occasion, the editors chose to put out pieces that stain the quality that Kolbert (and other) bring to its pages on climate change and many other science issues.

Yesterday, I received an email entitled “Load of codswallop in the New Yorker” from a trusted acquaintance. With a link to an article entitled “Carbon Capture: has climate change made it harder for people to care about conservation?“, my acquaintance commented:

In a supremely shitty piece, Jonathan Franzen shows inadvertently how the conservation community (heavily weighted toward hyper-wealthy landowners and extractive-industry billionaires) is overrun with a twisted form of climate denial.

That doesn’t indicate that I headed to the (long) article (both on line in and then in my dead-tree copy) with the most open of minds.

To step back, for a moment, in a generous fashion, there is an interesting core element:  how can and should “traditional” conservation approaches coexist, interact with, reinforce, and benefit from climate mitigation and adaptation efforts?  That is an interesting and difficult issue … but really is not where Franzen’s energy and attention is devoted.

For a moment, I questioned the use of “climate denial” when I read these Franzen words:

 As a narrative, climate change is almost as simple as “Markets are efficient.” The story can be told in fewer than a hundred and forty characters:

We’re taking carbon that used to be sequestered and putting it in the atmosphere, and unless we stop we’re fucked.

Hmm … that isn’t a bad tweet to summarize the situation.

However, in reading the article, this tweetable moment might remind one of the racist / sexist / xenophobe / etc who comments “some of my best friends are …” before launching into an offensive diatribe.

In other words, sadly, the “Codswallop”  introduction was on the mark.

A fatally flawed article?

Franzen’s piece is, again, long and books could be dedicated to debunking the illogic and misguided nature within it.  Following are just a few examples of what a detailed analysis would cover.

A new museum exhibit?

In what  could be the center piece of a Koch-funded Smithsonian avian exhibit, Franzen writes.

The responses of birds to acute climatic stress are not well studied, but birds have been adapting to such stresses for tens of millions of years, and they’re surprising us all the time—emperor penguins relocating their breeding grounds as the Antarctic ice melts, tundra swans leaving the water and learning to glean grains from agricultural fields.

Sure, they’ll just adapt and evolve — thinner birds, penguins with less plumage for warmer water, …. Evolution in real time.  Perhaps birds will learn to evolve and adapt faster than glaciers and icepacks are retreating.

Why bother actually reading a report that you attack?

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,

Using the words “credulously retransmitted” is a pretty serious attack, with an implication that the substance just wasn’t there to support Audobon’s calling climate change “the greatest threat” to birds and that it threatens habitats. (That press release based, by the way, on peer-reviewed research.)  This wording certainly implies that any research done was at best shoddy. To make that sort of assertion typically requires some serious looking at the research documents and laying out clearly what the problems are.

The climate-change report was not immediately available, but from the Web site’s graphics, which included range maps of various bird species, it was possible to deduce that the report’s method

Huh ….???  The New Yorker’s editors choose to publish an article that makes rather serious accusations about sloppy — if not outright skewed — research and analysis without the author (from the evidence in hand) having made any serious effort to read the actual research or contact the authors?

Logical leaps of faith …

After attacking the study’s modeling (again, from “deductions” about methodologies), Franzen comments in a great example of that “twisted form of climate denial”:

Although, in any given place, some familiar back-yard birds may have disappeared by 2080, species from farther south are likely to have moved in to take their place. North America’s avifauna may well become more diverse. [emphasis in original]

Sure, don’t worry that climate change will eliminate the habitats of the birds that you grew up with as there is a chance that the newly created habitats will have an even more pleasant and diverse set of species for your grandchildren to enjoy … a chance.

What kills birds?

Franzen talks about human impacts on bird populations. He mentions windows, cats, and wind turbines killing birds, but — an article with climate in the title, seems to have forgotten that the exploitation and burning of fossil fuels kills birds along with devastating their habitats (now and into the future) actually is killing the birds (just as fossil fuels poison and kill humans as a corollary to the services they enable).  As to bird deaths, ….

Oversight or convenient omission from Franzen’s diatribe against trying to address climate change and, instead, focusing on making things better in the near term no matter the implications for the day after tomorrow?

The reviews are coming in and they aren’t positive

Today’s Guardian had an article where leading ‘bird lover’ after ‘bird lover’ panned Franzen.

“I think he’s talking nonsense,” says former director of conservation at the RSPB Mark Avery. “All the evidence suggests that climate change will be very harmful to birds.”

A spokesman for the RSPB says enthusiasm for bird conservation and membership was at an all time high. He says the organisation wants “massive growth in renewables”, to counteract the effects of climate change and the majority of projects, if well planned, do not threaten birds.

[UPDATE] Over at Climate Progress, published shortly after this post, Joe Romm’s The Corrections: Fixing Jonathan Franzen’s Deeply Flawed New Yorker Climate Article eviscerate’s “one of the most bird-brained and hypocritical climate articles ever,”

In the distorted “through the looking glass” view of this piece, sharply reducing most air pollution ASAP would be “disfiguring” while the most sympathetic approach is allowing us to destroy a livable climate capable of sustaining a multi-billion human population and most existing species! And yes, Franzen actually argues that destroying a livable climate irreversibly will allow us to focus on preserving nature temporarily.

There is zero chance the New Yorker would publish such easily-debunked nonsense if its author were anyone other than Jonathan Franzen… . But as I came to learn — and as the New Yorker should have known — his entire essay is a stunning exercise in hypocrisy.

And, then Romm moves through the article tackling a few of the issues above and addressing others.

[update 3 April] See Audobon’s Marc Jannot’s Friends like these: “Bird lover” Jonathan Franzen commits an act of extreme intellectual dishonesty. Jannot focuses on the core opening of Franzen’s piece, that climate change concerns made environmentalists care less about the potential for glass at a stadium to kill birds:

It’s a provocative statement—intentionally so. And yet, it turns out, it is based on a piece of intellectual sleight of hand (or, at best, clumsiness) that one might have expected the New Yorker’s vaunted fact-checking apparatus to have caught and spat back out. Because, by my reading at least, Jim Williams didn’t actually dismiss the deaths of thousands of birds as “nothing.” Not even close. ….

The temptation I’ve wrestled with is to simply dismiss this silly thing, New Yorker or no, as the sad ravings of a man trying to escape his guilt-ridden Protestant Puritan heritage and justify his consumerist lifestyle. But I can’t. It’s not about defending Audubon’s honor against this weird ad hominem assault—or not primarily that, anyway. It’s about defending an idea against the false dichotomy Franzen tries to advance in his essay.

There is no evidence that a robust climate movement has been or could become the soul-sucking force Franzen claims

UPDATE 8 April:

In New misguided opponent of renewables: famous novelist Jonathan Franzen, Gordon Smith writes:

Franzen also wants to give up on climate change because the problem is too big for any one person’s actions to have any effect: “The scale of greenhouse-gas emissions is so vast, the mechanisms by which these emissions affect the climate so nonlinear, and the effects so widely dispersed in time and space that no specific instance of harm could ever be traced back to my 0.0000001-per-cent contribution to emissions.”

He probably thinks voting is a waste of time too.

Partying as Titantic sinks?
… we can settle for a shorter life of higher quality, protecting the areas where wild animals and plants are hanging on, at the cost of slightly hastening the human catastrophe.
One have to wonder if Franzen’s is simply an odd variant of the fatalistic choice to party on as the Titantic sinks.

Mr Frantzen is entitled to his point of view but I think few thoughtful people will share it,” says Bob Ward. “As a 55-year-old writer, he may feel he can live out the remaining years of his life in comfort, while ignoring the risks that climate change will pose to those who are poorer or younger than him.”


NOTE:  David Roberts, at Grist, entered the discussion with a piece, subtitled “Sympathy with Franzen”, Jonathan Franzen is confused about climate change, but then, lots of people are. While castigating The New Yorker for publishing it (“The essay is … not good. Just qua essay, really not good. I can’t imagine The New Yorker publishing it under any other byline.”), Roberts uses it for a rather intriguing discussion of “The Climate Thing”.

lots of people have a Climate Thing, that one tidbit of info or argument that they read somewhere, or heard somewhere, the thing that somehow resonated with their own concerns and beliefs. It’s the thing they latched onto, the thing they know about climate, like the proverbial blind people surrounding the elephant. They build on it and it becomes their Climate Thing.

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.

Worth the effort to look at Dave’s take on “The Climate Thing”.

ANOTHER UPDATE/NOTE: There are many people reacting to Franzen’s article. See a range at Keith Kloor (anda vehement 11 April 2015 defense of Franzen by Sean Carmen at Huffington Post). Now, some view such a “balanced” approach as Kloor’s as unbalanced:

At the core, Ramez Naam’s tweet might the best ‘core’ lesson from the situation:

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Tags: Energy

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jonathan Franzen is confused about climate change, but then, lots of people are | Grist // Apr 2, 2015 at 2:08 pm

    […] More to the point, the essay pivots on several misconceptions: that climate mitigation is in fundamental tension with conservation and biodiversity; that aggressive deployment of renewable energy would be “disfiguring” to the earth; that continuation of current energy trends would be palliative and sympathetic to ecosystems. To see the essay beat about the head and shoulders with facts, see Joe Romm, Karl Mathiesen, and Adam Siegel. […]

  • 2 Meteor Blades // Apr 6, 2015 at 10:24 am

    Great job, Adam.

  • 3 @Newsweek editors publish hit piece on #wind. Do they even care basic facts wrong? // Apr 12, 2015 at 8:25 am

    […] readers more”.  Recently, The New Yorker’s editors failed their readers by publishing Jonathan Franzen’s Birds-Climate without — it seems — giving a serious look at assertions and basic failures. […]

  • 4 Nate // Apr 17, 2015 at 9:06 am

    For a perspective that isn’t often heard (i.e. that of conservation biologists), please see Chris Clarke’s response here:

    Bottom line is the Franzen is not as far out as you might think. “Birds” is a terrible metric to use because condors are not starlings. There are 10,000 species that will all respond to climate change in different ways.

    Also, Audubon’s “Climate report” is troublesome, as anyone with an interest in birds can see. For instance, it seems to think that birds don’t exist south of the Mexico-US border, which seems pretty notable. The Audubon’s predictions of ranges are deeply flawed at best, and have not been peer-reviewed despite claims.

    Look, I realize that climate people are getting worked up about this because Franzen made the unpopular, but likely accurate, prediction that shit is going to get real even if we stop burning fossil fuels today. Franzen is not saying to “give up” on climate change, only that, in the face of some serious warming coming down the pipe, maybe we should try to focus on some other issues instead of ripping up our wild places for solar plants and biofuel agriculture.

  • 5 A Siegel // Apr 17, 2015 at 9:52 am


    Thank you for your substantive comment and the link to Clarke.

    To address your points/discussion a bit.

    1. There is a reasonable overall discussion/debate to have: what is the interaction between “climate” focus and other “environmental” arenas? To what extent are these truly overlapping and where, such as potential threats to animal life/biodiversity from massive “renewable” projects (bulldozing land for large solar facilities, replacing rain forest with biofuel plantations, etc …). Thus, there is a reason that I wrote the words below.

    there is an interesting core element: how can and should “traditional” conservation approaches coexist, interact with, reinforce, and benefit from climate mitigation and adaptation efforts?

    2. Franzen’s argument, however, is not done in a ‘reasonable’ space — as an analyst who has done too many studies and (peer)reviewed a reasonably large number, I find the casual attack on a study without his providing any indication of actually looking at the substantive material to be something that The New Yorker should never have allowed through its publication path. Perhaps they could have challenged “well, you can’t attack it on this flimsy a basis” and forced him/fact checker to look at it more closer. Perhaps this might have led to the same level of disdain for the Audobon report but that ‘attack’ would have been based on something more substantive than the casual ‘I looked at charts on the web’ line.

    3. Writ large, as one of those alien-species “climate people” (you creating a tag line for a movie???), you have it pegged wrong here:

    climate people are getting worked up about this because Franzen made the unpopular, but likely accurate, prediction that shit is going to get real even if we stop burning fossil fuels today.

    “Climate people” call for mitigation (to reduce the extent of climate impacts) and adaptation (to reduce the damage from what will occur in the climate system) investments. Many (most) in the “climate people” species include mitigation and adaptation to protect biodiversity (for example) …

    There is absolutely no one with a serious understanding of climate science who would assert that a 100% percent stopping of the burning of fossil fuels would somehow magically mean that there would not be worsening situation for awhile and then a long haul back toward something resembling a Holocene-era balance state (fluctuating climate w/in the range that human civilization developed).

    4. Read his material again. Franzen’s words in the New Yorker do, in essence — with an extreme summation, say “we should just give up and party-hardy until total disaster strikes”. How else is a reasoning person to read the Franzen’s treatise?

    we can settle for a shorter life of higher quality, protecting the areas where wild animals and plants are hanging on, at the cost of slightly hastening the human catastrophe. One advantage of the latter approach is that, if a miracle cure like fusion energy should come along, there might still be some intact ecosystems for it to save.

    The point is that we know it will get worse — the issue that we have some say as to how much worse. Do we continue down the current path and assure that the train wreck is ever worse or do we take action (mitigation/adaptation) to reduce that damage (both in terms of humanity (directly) and wildlife/natural systems (humanity indirectly — in part??)).

    5. Your key point, it seems, is “ripping up our wild places for solar plants and biofuel agriculture”. There are many “climate people” who don’t like this, either, & who see much of that (such as “biofuel agriculture”) as counter-value when doing systems-of-systems analysis. If Franzen can have credit for sparking interactions like this — but there is a simple reality that Franzen’s piece, as published, should not have been published if there had been decent editorial oversight.