Reading Diary: Climate Changed: A Personal Journey through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni

"Even if a small fraction of the Arctic carbon were released to the atmosphere, we’re fucked...We’re on a trajectory to an unmanageable heating scenario, and we need to get off it. We’re fucked at a certain point, right? It just becomes unmanageable. The climate dragon is being poked, and eventually the dragon becomes pissed off enough to trash the place."
- James Box

The climate crisis is serious, no doubt about it. Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth from nearly a decade ago was a kind of rallying cry for the reality-based community but it appears that we might need another rallying cry as Gore's seems to have gone largely unheeded by major policy-developers the world over (mostly).

What could be that new rallying cry? I'd love to see Philippe Squarzoni's Climate Changed: A Personal Journey through the Science be that book. In other words, Climate Changed just might be important in a way that graphic novels very rarely are, books that can become part of the public conversation about social and economic issues on a large scale. In that sense, perhaps the only graphic novel to compare to Climate Changed is perhaps Art Spiegelman's Maus, though obviously in a completely different way.

[V]oluntary sacrifices are particularly difficult to make without an assurance that other people will follow suit or that the sacrifices serve some purpose. It's not possible to break away from the fundamental pillars of our civilization if the rest of society stays put. Changing all by yourself does nothing. (259)

How can a society structured politically and economically to produce more and consume more, whose development is dependent on fanning the desire to possess reconcile itself to a culture of sobriety and collective responsibility. How can a system dedicated to letting individuals freely maximize their personal advantages be compatible with any sort of self-restraint and material moderation. In the end, the freedom touted by a free-market model has become a symbol of rugged individualism. It is the freedom not to be held accountable. The rejection of all constraint. Of any limits. The rejection of a collective responsibility. As British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, "You know, there is no society." Increase taxes to ensure future public services? Increase contributions to help poorer populations? Reduce consumption to preserve the planet? The exact opposite of the cynical message that is repeasted to us daily. Climate change is also a symptom of a breakdown of solidarity, a sign of collective selfishness. Ironic hedonists, trained by the free downloads. Reckless and thoughtless consumerism. The rise in global warming reflects the rise of our desires. And of our indifference to the threat the world is facing. The rise of insignificance. And because we are innocent and heartless...because we think the climate crisis is only out there someplace else...but because it is inside us...we've created a monster. (288-294)

- Philippe Squarzoni, Climate Changed

The format is quite interesting. Basically, it's the story of the author making some travel choices about his work as a writer/illustrator and how he's going to approach the book on climate change that he's struggling. At the beginning he's lamenting that he really doesn't know what he's talking about. And how he solves his problems dealing with the book -- the one we're reading, of course -- is to start talking to experts, a whole bunch of them. And as he educates himself, he educates us too. The book is basically the story of all the various conversations he had researching the book. A bit odd, in that the book itself ends up relying rather a lot on illustrated talking heads coolly and calmly discussing very distressing facts. But it works. The talking heads are talking about very important issues. Step by step, conversation by conversation, we're riveted.

At the same time, the imagery that Squarzoni uses to accompany a lot of the damning explication of just how fucked we are is spare and beautiful line drawings of nature on the one hand. To contrast, he'll also use looming symbols of our overindulgence that will dominate pages, like SUVs or sports cars or fast food. The art is a perfect accompaniment for a book that is very dry and intellectual and yet very emotional and hard.

We live in a world of fictions. A fable, disconnected from reality. The material prosperity we've enjoyed over the last two centuries has been dependent on abundant and cheap energy, the accumulation of consumer goods and the destruction of nature. Whether we like it or not, our way of life and CO2 emmissions are inextricably linked. Whether we like it or not, there are greenhouse gas emmissions in every part of our lives, from our food, our homes, our pastimes. All our activities are part of the climate crisis, all our wants, every product we purchase, the way we eat, get around, keep warm. Eradicating so much CO2 from our way of life won't be easy. What do we cut out first. (215-217)

Devoured in advance by multinational corporations, the renewable energy sector exposes the true nature of "green capitalism," less concerned about climate change than about comfortable financial niches. This little game of "green capitalism" looks on to change the means of energy production, not question the overall issue itself. The thing we need to question is consumption. Why does our society need so much energy? Without profound changes in our way of life, wind turbines will remain an alibi for not changing the underlying issues. And we forge ahead. For how much longer. (334-335)

Whatever alternative energy sources or technologies are being considered, there are no replacements for oil, coal, and natural gas that would allow us to maintain our current level of energy consumption. (363)

- Philippe Squarzoni, Climate Changed

Squarzoni makes sure to go through the science very carefully, sketching out the realities of human-caused climate change. It talks about the numbers, the trends, the cold hard facts. But mostly Squarzoni very clearly and carefully reasons with himself about the consequences of climate change, the challenges of slowing it down and adapting to what is inevitable. Basically, that personal choice, greed and inertia and capitalism and rampant consumption are the problem and that "solutions" like the three Rs and renewables are not the answer. The tone is very quiet, maybe sad even, elegiac and tired, not really frustrated but heart sick and defeated.

And although he can really come to no answer for his own life, like us he's confused about what any one person can accomplish, he does frame the problem for society as a whole very clearly: how do we reconcile the climate crisis with a globalized hype-capitalist consumer economy that runs on carbon?

"If you stand to lose everything, then even a low probability event is high-risk. That's why people fund armies—just in case they get invaded. We need to invest in decarbonizing our energy system. We've got to keep this fucking carbon in the ground." - James Box

Ably translated from the French by Ivanka Hahnenberger, Philippe Squarzoni's Climate Changed is the kind of book that can make a difference, that can help us keep all that fucking carbon in the ground. If you've never bought any of the graphic novels I've recommended, pick this one. Read it, buy it for your library, buy another copy and donate it to your library, give it to all your friends, talk about it, blog about it, do what it takes. If you're a Canadian, give it to your local Conservative MP. Australians, well, you know you're just starting on your road to getting fucked, so maybe send a copy to your local Conservative as well.

Naomi Klein's forthcoming book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, looks to be a book that will take up the challenge and advance the what-do-we-need-to-do-as-a-society debate even further. It will certainly help frame climate advocacy towards a lower-carbon future in a new way, perhaps controversially but I think very usefully. Yoram Bauman and Grady Klein's The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change also looks interesting.

Squarzoni, Philippe. Climate Changed: A Personal Journey through the Science. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2014. 480pp. ISBN-13: 978-1419712555.

Other science graphic novels and illustrated books I have reviewed:


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