Words and Pictures on Climate Change

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The reasons that stories told with pictures and text are called “comic books” in English, and the reasons that the medium is not taken seriously in the English-speaking world, are related but need not concern us here.

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 7.19.20 PMOne, The Carton Introduction to Climate Change by “stand-up economist” cheerfully written by Yoram Bauman and winsomely illustrated by Grady Klein, starts out with the good news.

“Two stories are going to dominate the 21st century. Story #1 is about economic growth, especially in poor countries in Asia and Africa. Capitalism and free-market economics are going to create a lot of new wealth and give many more people the opportunity to pursue their seams. As families get wealthier they tend to have fewer children so the work population is likely to peak at about 10 billion people and then slowly decline. As a result, story #1 points in a direction that is nothing short of miraculous.

But what about story #2?”

This book, endorsed by a motley crew of climate celebrities (Jim Hansen, Bill Nordhaus, Annie Leonard, Jane Lubchenko, Mark Reynolds) does proceed to take on the daunting issues of climate change, giving a competent birds’ eye view of the situation for those who have just arrived on the planet. (Don’t mock them. This is an important audience; I would say a crucial one.)

With an amusing drawing attached to almost every sentence, the book starts with a paleoclimate perspective, covers the greenhouse effect, the energy problem, impacts, the deep future, the uncertainty issue and the “insurance” (risk management) perspective, and mitigation strategies, with a broad brush but memorably. Despite the cheerful tone, it avoids being polyannish:

Make no mistake, our task is daunting. […] The amount of warming caused by humans is related to population and to activity levels. That’s why business as usual could result in a tripling of annual CO2 emissions this century. And remember that CO2 stays in the atmosphere for a long, long time …and that the problem is compounded by deforestation… …and feedbacks… …and that any solutions will have to overcome the tragedy of the commons. But daunting doesn’t mean impossible.

Philippe Squarzoni’s Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science is obviously (but mostly well) translated from the French. This gives Squarzoni a leg up, as the French (despite their reputation for arrogance) have long taken what we call “comic books” seriously as an art form. And Squarzoni, while he does attempt a very broad overview of the science, makes no effort to be comic. Given what is at stake, surely that is arguably appropriate.

Indeed, the book cover claims that it won the “Jury Prize at the 2012 Lyon Graphic Novel Festival”, even though it isn’t a novel at all, not by any definition. But try imagining a “Jury Prize” at ComiCon.

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 7.14.59 PMSo we end up with a perspective that is serious, melancholy, and distinctly European.

It starts with a rumination on cinema, only eventually getting (on its seventh page) to

Yes. There are many ways to start a book. For this one I should start, well, at the beginning. With a memory. Actually, for this book, it’s not the beginning that’s the most difficult. The hardest thing is… how to end it.

There follow several pages of childhood memories of growing up in a beautiful ancient mountain town in the southeast of France, evocatively rendered. And this leads up to the author/artist, revisiting his birthplace, explaining to his wife why his next book (the one the reader is holding) will be about climate change. An odd topic for an artist.

This guy works alone, but he works hard. Every page, almost every frame (except for the odd completely blacked out one) is carefully thought out, precisely rendered, and in some way beautiful. Most of it is high contrast pen drawing, but some brush images and some photographs appear here and there. And as a fairly serious “comic book” reader I will assert that among these are some of the finest and most evocative drawings I have seen in a storytelling context.

The book has another innovation – lengthy interviews with scientists and professionals. For the most part these seemed legitimate. (I was a bit jarred by the “peak uranium” talk by one interviewee, which I believe is nonsense, but on the whole they knew what they were talking about, and they were uniformly meticulously drawn, talking heads varying only slightly from frame to frame, with the most daunting stuff in their word balloons.

I found Stephane Hallegatte the most terrifying of them.

For instance, on pages 246 – 247, in a series of ten frames showing him talking and gesturing, he tells us

There’s also rural exodus. Over the last fifteen years, large numbers of the farming populations of poorer countries have migrated to the cities because agriculture is no longer economically viable. But if, due to global warming we see more and more people who cannot make a living from farming pile up in the cities looking for jobs that, for the most part, do not exist… this situation is going to get very complicated.

Rural exodus leads to urban infrastructure that cannot stain the growth, so that’s no running water, no sanitation… so: illnesses, flooding as soon as there is a slight bit of rain, etc.

If rural exodus happens too fast, it’s certain that the cities will explode. Then we’ve fallen into a system that no longer functions in either the cities or the country.

[…]

There are […] scenarios where the impacts of climate change force people to move from one country to another. Then the problems take a big jump. We’re talking about a different thing altogether. If 20 million people leave Bangladesh and head for India, what do we do? These are the sorts of things we aren’t really thinking about today, because they would be very difficult to manage.

Many of Squarzoni’s experts are happy to assert frank anti-capitalism. They are French after all, and the sort of radicalism that would be career suicide in America is expected of French academics. But in the end, with a whole bunch of personal ruminations and spectacular drawings, Squarzoni ends up telling in greater detail the same story that Bauman does, and coming to a slightly more honest, vastly more disturbing version of the same conclusion: it’s daunting.

But if I’m being honest with myself, I believe three things.

One: There’s a doorway we need to pass through. Technically it’s still possible to avoid the worst consequences of climate change and to take the necessary measures to manage the upheavals that are already inevitable.

Two: The doorway is not very wide. It closes a little more each day. And we have only a little time to pass through it.

Three: I don’t think we will pick that door.

In conclusion – if you know an open-minded person who hasn’t thought much about this stuff, especially a young person, you would be doing them a favor to give them the Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change by Klein and Bauman. Meanwhile, as someone seriously interested in the topic, and/or as someone interested in the words-and-pictures medium as a way of communicating, I highly recommend Squarzoni’s Climate Changed. Even though it is daunting.

Comments:

  1. That Stephane Hallegate vision - is more or less the same as mine. But he is somewhat better qualified:

    http://www.worldbank.org/en/about/people/stephane-hallegatte

    I note that he is lead author on the AR5 chapter on the Economics of Adaptation.

    My variant on his ideas is that the levels of extended migration (the quotation refers to 20 million from Bangladesh to India), taken on a continental scale, in Africa and Asia, is likely to rise as things progress, until the time comes when there isn't any more capacity to absorb left. By this time, the number of permanently transient displaced people could be anything - just guesses - from 100 million up to half a billion.

    The implications of this are far reaching. When I sound 'doomist', this is the human and environmental 'disaster' I am envisioning, and which I am struggling to see a solution to. This would be a transformation in the dynamics of human society on a massive scale. It suggests (to me) adaptation becoming the creation of continent-spanning borders like the one splitting Korea, and a World of massive division between the 'saved' and the 'abandoned'. And he asks the pertinent question; if this, then what do we do about it?

    No, I don't think the World is going to end. Yes, I think our future is dark, difficult and divided.

  2. Fergus,

    It is just because everybody, like you, does not believe the world will end, that mankind is going to be wiped of the face of this planet. By the time we accept what is happening it will be too late to stop it. 🙁

  3. So, to remind myself of my own stance, I recall that I recently wrote this:

    ===
    I'm not an optimist. I do not predict a good outcome. Nor am I a pessimist. I do not predict a bad outcome. I think the whole question is wrong-headed in the extreme.

    The whole point of calling our time the anthropocene is to emphasize that we control our destiny. Good, or bad? It's our decision and our responsibility.

    I believe a tolerably good outcome is possible, if and only if we work together toward it. It's not a question of predicting. It's a question of deciding.

    Though some losses are already behind us and many more are inevitable, there is still much we can celebrate and build upon. We must stop treating the natural world as something to exploit, and start realizing that it is our home. If we do that, we can thrive. The other choices look dire. Why not choose to do our best?
    ===

    This said, I think there is no saving the ocean.

    I think that there is no saving countries like Bangladesh or Egypt so that they support their current populations - that's already the case really.

    I think there is no saving low-lying islands.

    I think few coastal ecosystems will remain intact, and most forests will take a lot of damage.

    I think this may take a bit longer than some people expect, but I think these things are already unavoidable. I hope I'm wrong, but there it is. So I guess I am pessimistic by most people's lights.

    My objective is that we can somehow redesign our global culture to cope. I am not trying to be Polyannish about these problems.

  4. "Capitalism and free-market economics are going to create a lot of new wealth and give many more people the opportunity to pursue their [dr]eams."

    But it is going to create many more poor people too. As Mitt Romney pointed out 47% of US citizens are not rich enough to pay taxes! People in the UK have to be fed from food banks. This is the what the Reganomics/Thacherism/neocon free market produces. The Free Market of Adam Smith was one where the suppliers were competing for customers and prices are held low (by the invisible hand.) But in a free market that does not happen. The suppliers, as Karl Marx predicted, become monopolies and distort the market. The confusion arises because Free Market and free market sound the same.

    In order to maintain full employment in a free-market the economy has to grow. That is why growth is so important to economists. But the Earth's resources are finite, Peak Oil will be followed by Peak Uranium, and unlimited growth is impossible. The answers may be in this book out shortly This Changes Everything Capitalism Vs. The Climate.

  5. Alistair, I would instead contend that it is because of people like us, who hold faith in our fellow humanity and strive to understand as much as possible what is at risk, that action is already under way and will continue for many decades to come, and that we can and will save the planet and our species.

    But it is going to be a long, hard, determined slog. I'll keep fighting for the best possible result till my last breath. Will you?

  6. A couple of minor quibbles, but then you'd probably expect that. 🙂

    I suspect that we have a little less control than we need.

    To understand what we want and how to get there, we need to have a sense of what we don't want and why we appear to be heading there; imagining possible futures is an important part of this. It does give answers, but it does help set the agenda. The Hallegate/Brown future vision seems a plausible place we are heading for, as things stand.

    But this marries well with your objective, to do a redesign - if what is envisioned is not acceptable, we must answer. And I agree, that we can and will answer.

    Final thought; Nature/the Earth as an exploitable resource is so deeply embedded in existing culture it seems likely that ending this will require a whole new way of seeing the world and our place in it, a process which is under way, but faces huge obstructions. But in the end we are of like mind; we will get there, eventually.

  7. Fergus,

    What is under way? More fossil fuels are being burnt, more water is being extracted from underground aquifers which can not be replaced, more meat is being consumed which adds methane to the atmosphere and destroys forests, the grand Banks have been fished leading to the extermination of cod.

    You ask "I'll keep fighting for the best possible result till my last breath. Will you?" I am fighting, against complacency!

  8. That's quite a statement. Remembering to believe six impossible things before breakfast, I'd concur that there's a lot of heedlessness about and it's going to cost us a bundle, but that put up against a wall, humanity can be surprisingly resilient.

    Meanwhile, the little pinpricks of animosity from various shades of this spectrum - things are bad but we mustn't give up - directed at each other are decidedly unhelpful.

    I would say that the Tobis refusal to give in to unfocused dismay has stiffened my spine, and I hope a good few others.

    Thanks!

  9. Her new push since she's had a baby is surprisingly focused on throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Go figure! Wholesale criticism of those falling short of perfection is never helpful.

  10. Thanks for the recommendation. Michael. I bought the Kindle version of the Squarzoni and am about half way through it. The only negative is that comic books are hard to read on a Kindle for iPad and you can't read it for some reason on Kindle for PC. The hardcopy version is more expensive, but maybe worth it.

    I can't quibble with the science so far and if does turn out to have a pessimistic ending, I probably won't be able to argue with that, either. The hard work that must have gone into the excellent drawings is incredible.

  11. I finished the Squarzoni book and continue to heartily recommend it. I think he and his sources are unduly pessimistic about renewable and nuclear energy and are too dismissive of green capitalism. They talk an awful lot about drastically reducing consumption, but do not point to a feasible way of getting from here to there, given the reality of contemporary human society.

    I don't qualitatively disagree with most of the book's "solutions" assessments, it's just that they go too far and are not sufficiently balanced. However, it is nice, for once, to read a viewpoint to the left of where I am comfortable to stand. I can't help sharing the overall pessimistic conclusion, though. I know it is bad form in activist circles to admit despair, but sometimes hope feels like denial. As Larkin wrote about facing death: "nothing more terrible, nothing more true"

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178058.

  12. I don't think that we should despair, but unless we are willing to accept that catastrophe is possible/likely then we will do nothing to prevents it. By we, here I mean Mankind not we greenies.

    In other words, we have to accept that we (greenies) will be called alarmists because the prospect is alarming. We have to counter the message from the stink tanks that there is nothing to fear, because that is the best way they can prevent action against them.

  13. I have been trying to read all the way through the Squarzoni book, which is excellent. I'm distracted by the high-quality technical drawing which I find dry and largely unappealing, but that's just my prejudice; it's impossible to fault its excellence, it just lacks a certain soupcon of feeling to me.

    However, it is superb. It's a terrific format for conveying a vast amount of information, and I found myself using it just now in rebuttal to an appalling new article from Andy Revkin, who posts a fine presentation on lifetime coal plant accounting and then enables Pielke Jr. and Breakthrough to say, more or less, must have fossil because ... the developing world. How exactly backwards, and dangerously so!

    Coal accounting manipulation

  14. The more I read this, the better it gets. The graphics make it easy, but the overall message is devastating.

    (in the interest of avoiding yet another post on QOTW, an apology for going a bit off the rails there. Got in a passion which was a bit off the wall and off topic as well. Food for thought. This is not entirely unrelated, as all consumption/use solution issues tend to blend together.)

  15. Still digesting Squarzoni, and for those finding the illustrations too dry, a friend has a great suggestion; it would make a wonderful coloring book! Don't mean to be flippant, it's truly a great read, and I wish I had dozens of copies to give away.

    Sounds like Bauman is the better vehicle, as those of us serious enough to digest the whole unpalatable mess are already if anything almost too well informed.

    I note also that daunting seems to be the word of the hour.

  16. I finished the Squarzoni last night.

    - Maybe I just live in a different milieu but the political economy didn't strike me as that far out, though maybe it is for the US. We - USers - are the outliers on that.
    - What struck me is that he didn't spend much time on concrete reasons why it's a problem. I suspect that reflects a more evolved starting point.
    - Some of the didactic bits could have taken more advantage of the graphic format instead of having talking heads recite numbers. This was a problem particularly with some of the double units (metric/US), which got to be a distraction ("tons CO2 per 0.6 mile"). Probably an unavoidable translation issue.
    - The remark about Montana's "brown season" lost significance without the French title: Saison Brune.

    Overall highly recommended, provided the reader has a grasp of the physical problem.

  17. Agree; the translation was too literal. Also agree the translation should have just stuck to metric; the translations appear over-precise in US measures.

    The thing Squarzoni does, as Klein (despite her flaws) does, is bring "capitalism" itself back into the conversation. In America even mentioning that there IS a system starts to feel subversive.

    Yes, of course this is a denial of free speech and free thought. But there it is. For some Americans, "freedom" has always been about freedom for their particular subculture.

  18. I love the idea of replacing those pages and pages of dry pictures of talking heads with supporting graphics, that would have been a vital improvement. You inspired me to digest the final pages in waiting, thanks. Oops, no I'm not eating them, just absorbing the information and point of view. It still feels too dry to me.

  19. Finally finished this a while ago, but it came to me what is bothering me about it, which is an accurate representation of our situation. Squarzoni, with his comic hero excellence in graphic rendering, and his spacing of material with personal reflection, is presenting a tragic situation.

    We all skirt around this problem, which is difficult to talk about. Because since it's everything for all of us, including those in denial about the problem, we don't want to emphasize the contradictions inherent in our daily lives or the difficulties of arriving at appropriate action. Squazoni faces those clearly. Except for the moment when he has his lady come in blazing like a superhero (silly and inappropriate in my opinion), he is very honest about the actual needs to address the situation and the actual likelihood that any of us, even the "good guys" are going to curtail our privileges to meet the increasingly narrow window of action that is necessary.

    I like that he spells it out. But the deep sadness that lingers is still there, and I finally was able to name it: it's a tragedy.

  20. a tragedy

    Alas not just a tragedy like many a human tragedy. It is a new kind of tragedy. A grotesque tragedy. What I suffer most, meanwhile, is my cynical disillusionment about mankind: We are the race of stupid. The suigenocidally stupid. And it's not due to a lack of intelligence. Again and again it amazes me how stupid some intelligent individuals can be. Summed up to the global collective facing the state of the planet, and I don't want to be a member of this race anymore.

    Yet each man kills the thing he loves
    By each let this be heard.
    Some do it with a bitter look,
    Some with a flattering word.
    The coward does it with a kiss,
    The brave man with a sword!

    -- Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol

    --------------------

    even the "good guys" are going to curtail our privileges to meet the increasingly narrow window of action that is necessary.

    Methinks this is dangerous nonsense: The longer it is believed, the more it will get true. Destroying the world by grasping at stupid privileges. This is the grotesque tragedy.

    The "privilege" we need(ed) to relinquish is the privilege of ridiculous waste. (E.g. the 'Merrican SUV is no privilege. If anything, it shows your privilege to look ridiculous.)

    It would be so easy. E.g.: Just be lazy. Laziness can be fun if you can stand a little suffering occasionally. Just don't listen to your stupid ego. (E.g. I'm too lazy to get myself a fridge. Yup, I got no fridge at home. The basement is cool enough to store my beer and nonexisting vegetables. The döner kebap shop is not far, and I only suffer when it's closed after midnight and Wednesdays and I can't get no frozen pizza from the nonexisting fridge. But I'm a grown up and can stand being slightly hungry for a few hours without throwing a tantrum. That's the prize I pay, but the heck with it... BTW, I never replaced my broken TV. That's why I got time to type this. And I have the dirtiest and rustiest car in the neighbourhood. Lazy and proud of it.)

    Of course, there's a limit to laziness:

    Let not anyone pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.

    -- John Stuart Mill

    The "do nothing" these days is to allow "do nothing" politicians have their office. To allow evasion of reality without proper ridicule. Here it is time to get real: Make denial socially unacceptable. Use the word "bullshit" more often...

    So join me: Put off the attic insulation job till January. Stop searching online for recycled gift wrapping paper and sustainably farmed Christmas trees. Go beyond green fads for a month, and instead help make green history.

    -- Mike Tidwell, pre Copenhagen 2009


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