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.
One, 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.
So 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.