Sunday, April 05, 2015

Franzen attacks Audubon's attempt to do something about climate, withholds info that he's on the board of competing organization

There have been repeated attempts to find a "Third Way" between doing something about climate change versus not doing much. They haven't worked. Now in comes Jonathan Franzen with another rambling take that isn't denialist but insists that people not deal with climate change except to the extent it involves things he personally cares about, like tropical habitat protection. He also disses National Audubon, repeatedly.

As Dave Roberts says, it's really bad, intellectually empty, and factually wrong (tho it does have some interesting stories about people not named Jonathan Franzen who are doing some helpful things for the planet). Roberts' description of people having a Climate Thing hangup is potentially helpful, but I think it may more be that many people just have a Thing. For Franzen it's helping birds immediately, for some technophiles it's pushing nuclear power, for Naomi Klein it's fighting capitalism* - and either climate change must serve that Thing or climate change must be secondary to that Thing. He's got a round hole and that better be a round peg coming its way, or he'll muddle to a reason why it should be round.

Joe Romm has the corrections to Franzen, and he also calls out the issue that hasn't had enough emphasis:

Yarnold was especially annoyed with the New Yorker for running this extended attack on Audubon supposedly neglecting bird conservation in favor of climate change without bothering to mention that Franzen sits on the fund-raising Board of Directors for the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), which Yarnold calls “a group that views itself as a competitor to Audubon.”

According to its website, “ABC is the only U.S.-based group with a major focus on bird habitat conservation throughout the entire Americas.” I know you probably thought the National Audubon Society — with its motto “Protecting Birds and Their Habitats” — did that, too. Such is avian eco-politics today.

In making his case that the National Audubon Society has lost its way, Franzen does explain that “I gave my support to the focused work of the American Bird Conservancy and local Audubon societies.”

Here is where things get very hypocritical — because there’s something much worse than the New Yorker not mentioning Franzen is on the board of ABC. Franzen never mentions that the conservation-focused bird group he is on the Board of … wait for it … also has a major effort to combat climate change! Indeed, ABC’s webpage devoted to “Threats to Birds – Global Warming” explains that “ABC has conducted research in conjunction with partners to ascertain what the ongoing and potential future threats are to birds from rising global temperatures, and has published reports detailing the concerns that have been revealed.”
Definitely read the whole thing. While this isn't a financial conflict of interest, I think it should have been disclosed. I'm also curious if Franzen has connections to the various projects he praises in the piece.

I'll add just one Franzen paragraph for the refuse pile:

But climate change is seductive to organizations that want to be taken seriously. Besides being a ready-made meme, it’s usefully imponderable: while peer-reviewed scientific estimates put the annual American death toll of birds from collisions and from outdoor cats at more than three billion, no individual bird death can be definitively attributed to climate change (since local and short-term weather patterns have nonlinear causes). Although you could demonstrably save the lives of the birds now colliding with your windows or being killed by your cats, reducing your carbon footprint even to zero saves nothing. Declaring climate change bad for birds is therefore the opposite of controversial. To demand a ban on lead ammunition (lead poisoning is the foremost cause of California condor deaths) would alienate hunters. To take an aggressive stand against the overharvesting of horseshoe crabs (the real reason that the red knot, a shorebird, had to be put on the list of threatened U.S. species this winter) might embarrass the Obama Administration, whose director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, in announcing the listing, laid the blame for the red knot’s decline primarily on “climate change,” a politically more palatable culprit. Climate change is everyone’s fault—in other words, no one’s. We can all feel good about deploring it.
Well, that makes no sense. The difficulty attaching identifiable harm to climate change in light of random weather that might have had the same effect anyway makes climate change even harder to use, not easier to use. It isn't impossible to attach that harm by the way, and Franzen also makes the typical mistake of saying that if you can't identify with certainty any specific incident as caused by your GHG emissions, then harm generally cannot be attributed to your emissions.

And as for FWS and the red knot, just read what FWS has to say:
The rufa subspecies of the red knot now will receive protection as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, the Service announced today. “Unfortunately, this hearty shorebird is no match for the effects of widespread emerging challenges like climate change and coastal development, coupled with the historic impacts of horseshoe crab overharvesting, which have sharply reduced its population in recent decades,” said Service Director Dan Ashe.
The article shouldn't have been published.

*Might be unfair to Klein - I've read a lot about her most recent arguments but haven't read the book. Seems though that it's just what I read from her before.


Dan said...

Vaguely related to finding a "third way", I do think the climate change debate has (so far) been something of a gift to the carbon fuels industry.

There's pretty general agreement among economists that, without even considering climate change, US carbon fuels consumption is priced well below the full cost. That means the oil companies are getting richer at the expense of the rest of the economy; the US would be a wealthier nation if carbon consumption were priced to reflect all the externalities, though the oil companies might be a bit poorer for it. Hence Mankiw's "Pigou Club". It's important to note that this conclusion is independent of climate change or the actions of other nations--it is simply in our own selfish interest to move the US price of carbon fuels consumption closer to the real cost. (And, a simple corollary, advocates of growth now to pay for adaptation later ought to be in favor of phasing in a revenue-neutral US carbon tax or cap immediately--it's a win-win for everyone except the carbon fuels industry.)

Part of the tobacco PR playbook is the use of conspiracy theories (many involving the UN) to polarize debate and justify opposition to regulation. The best conspiracy theories stick close to the truth, adding as few lies as possible (see, e.g., the smear campaign against WHO by way of Rachel Carson). Climate change (with the UN, WMO, and Al Gore) is practically tailor-made for a conspiracy theory justifying opposition to any kind of action: any regulation is a surrender to the "alarmists", and we can't unilaterally cut our emissions because China. Everything gets channeled into the debate over "doing something about climate change versus not doing much", never mind that the US unilaterally raising the price of carbon consumption today is in our own selfish interest.

My conclusion is that if anthropogenic climate change weren't real, the carbon fuels lobby might have invented something very much like it to serve as the nucleus for the ideation of paranoid conspiracy theories.


Poor choice of rhetorical weapons on both sides,, Brian- the sensitivity of a species to habitat change is inversely proportional to its mobility.

With parrots breeding in Brooklyn and San Francisco, nobody is blaming the demise of the Carolina parakeet on AGW- you have to kill a forest to put a woodpecker out of business, and conservation remains the business of conservation.

Dead right about the Thing thing though. Sulterers catering to Climate Wars reeneactors on all sides do a roaring business perveying Great Satan and Little Satan T-shirts and other shoddy sacramental goods to true believers of all persuasions.

Brian said...

Mobility is good for adapting to climate change, but dependency on multiple types of habitat (nesting, over-wintering, and migratory corridor) is not helpful.

A lot of the problem of climate change is the knock-on effect: we've created a lot of other problems for these species already, and then we throw climate change at them.

John said...

Is there some way I can treat you to Klein's book? (It would be a used copy.)

John Puma

david lewis said...

Franzen starts by stating that now that Audubon had warned that "the greatest threat" to American birds was climate change, many bird lovers would despair and give up on protecting birds now. He cited a Minneapolis Star Tribune blogger who he says is a bird lover who he says duly wrote give up now. Franzen: "what upset me was how a dire prophecy like Audubon's could lead to indifference towards birds in the present". The online version of the article has a graphic with a caption: "... But what about wildlife today?".

Why all the reaction in the climate hawk blogosphere?

Franzen describes his attitude to climate change as an issue: "I accepted its supremacy as the environmental issue of our time". His argument is: "to prevent extinctions in the future, it's not enough that we curb our carbon emissions. We also have to keep a whole lot of wild birds alive right now".

I don't see the big problem with this position.

He's questioning whether "the problem of global warming demands the full resources of every single nature loving group".

What's wrong with a person devoting all his time, except when he isn't writing for the New Yorker pissing various climate hawks off, to saving today's birds?

Franzen's critique of the Audubon climate report he didn't read is a low point in his piece.

However I don't see where Franzen "insists that people not deal with climate change except to the extent it involves things he [Franzen] personally cares about, like tropical habitat protection", as you say in your introduction to this blog post.

Franzen: "Its not that we shouldn't care whether global temperatures rise two degrees or four this century, or whether the oceans rise twenty inches or twenty feet; the differences matter immensely. Nor should we fault any promising effort, by foundations, or N.G.O.s, or governments, to mitigate global warming or adapt to it.

The question, he writes, is whether everyone who cares about the environment is obliged to make climate the overriding priority".

Perhaps when he argues that "drastic planetary overheating is a done deal", i.e. that all that is possible now is a postponement of human catastrophe, not prevention" is when he really got to the climate hawks.

We can claim he is wrong, but the evidence so far does seem to be on his side.

Tom Gray said...

Interestingly, ABC has also been the most strident anti-windpower group within the birding and wildlife NGO community (even going so far as to run anti-wind advertisements on the DC Metro system, something that isn't cheap).

I've watched with bemusement and, of course, some disappointment as it has taken this stance, which arguably is not a good thing for birds at all (bird collisions with wind turbines, a scalable source of zero-carbon electricity, are an infinitesimal part of the overall picture of anthropogenic bird deaths). I've chalked it up to ABC competing with Audubon for members and dollars, though I've always wondered if there were some fossil fuel money in the background somewhere.

EliRabett said...

The most amazing piece of evolution is how bird adapted to telephone and electric wires. IEHO putting nesting places onto windmills would be an interesting way of shutting the Franzens down.


Eli shuld give us Ethon's views on the evolutionary potential of adaptations to the emerging turbine blade habitat.

Selection for stronger sharper claw phenotypes should lead to blade perching raptors that let the wind do the work of moving them past flyby prey, the cost of the drag penalty being subsidized by species that pay electrical bills.

Brian said...

John - I'd love to read the book. Please shoot me an email, schmidtb98 at

Jim Steele said...

I think Franzen is right on about the bullying and misleading dominance of Co2 climate change and that it misguides our focus and funding from real issues affecting birds. Audubon's fear mongering should be a bigger concern as it's failed predictions will only reinforce distrust for good conservation concerns. Read: Audubon Society: Climate Science or just Sticking Feathers on PIGs

Nick Gotts said...

Klein's book has its faults (too much of it is about Naomi Klein for my taste), but it told me a great deal I didn't know about the fossil fuel industry's dire local and regional effects, as they go about extracting oil, gas and coal from ever more remote and difficult deposits, and the resulting battles with the inhabitants of the areas they wish to trash - mostly indigenous peoples. Moreover, its basic logic is both simple and, as far as I can see, irrefutable. The scientific evidence is clear that to be reasonably confident of avoiding catastrophic climate change, we need to leave much of the recoverable reserves of fossil fuels unburned. The logic of capitalism is that as long as it is profitable to do so, they must be burned.

Nick Gotts