Skip to content

Annals of Annihilation

The climate crisis according to The New Yorker

The Fragile Earth: Writing from The New Yorker on Climate Change, ed. David Remnick and Henry Finder. Ecco, 560 pages.

An old adage about Hemingway avers that half of all writers try to sound like him and the other half try not to sound like him. In modified form, this assertion might apply just as well to The New Yorker, a magazine that has established a standard for feature writing from which any deviation, whether successful or unsuccessful, must be intentional. Its armada of supercilious correspondents and commentators, each writing in more or less the same lepidopterist-on-safari house style, have since the editorship of William Shawn limned (as they might put it) not just a set of journalistic conventions but an entire discursive schematic. For a generation of upper-middle-class liberals—power-wielders and -loathers, realpolitik goons and doe-eyed undergraduates, Boswash lawyers and arts interns in the Pacific Northwest—The New Yorker represents not only an aesthetic or a politics, but an epistemology. Even for those of us whose unread issues sit stacked and soggy under the coffee table, the magazine in its David Remnick era is a lens through which we see the world, the magnifying glass through which we conduct our own butterfly safari.

Thus the collective output of the magazine functions as a kind of barometer for the American liberal psyche: the hefty political features give voice to an abiding though naive moral conscience, the Talk of the Town to a sustained but dilettantish notion of civic engagement, and the Anthony Lane reviews to an id-fueled sense of humor ultimately British in derivation. The magazine’s positions, to the extent it takes them, represent the substrate of an almost unspoken center-left consensus.

Nowhere does this thesis hold truer than when it comes to the issue of climate change, a topic The New Yorker has covered doggedly for more than thirty years, ever since Bill McKibben was a zany young writer churning out half the Talk of the Town section by himself. Presumably it was pride over this impressive pedigree that led Remnick last year to pack the highlights of the magazine’s climate coverage into a single-volume anthology. As he has it, The Fragile Earth: Writing From The New Yorker on Climate Change aims “to tell the story of the [climate] crisis—its past, present, and future.” The claim, in other words, is that everything you need to know about the story of climate change thus far can be found in these pages. In a profoundly frustrating way, this turns out to be correct: the reporting collected here reflects both the triumphs and the flaws in our understanding of the climate crisis. Said within is everything we know how to say; left unsaid is everything we do not.

For a generation of upper-middle-class liberals, The New Yorker represents not only an aesthetic or a politics, but an epistemology.

The collection begins with McKibben’s original climate broadside, “Reflections: The End of Nature,” the piece that launched his career and made him a sworn enemy of the fossil fuel industry. The essay was published in 1989, the year after scientist James Hansen testified before Congress about global warming; today, it reads not only like a masterpiece, but a recent masterpiece. The essay veers between familiar projections for the scale of carbon saturation in the atmosphere and unexpected exegeses on termites, treeline migration, and the genetic code. “[The] translation [of global warming] into the weather of New York and Cincinnati and San Francisco will change the life of each of us,” McKibben writes, sketching almost the same dystopian vision outlined thirty years later in David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth. He is just as concerned, however, with “the end of . . . a certain set of human ideas about the world and our place in it,” mourning by way of punctuation that the coming ecological die-off means “there is no future in loving nature.”

A reader who has more recent New Yorkers to catch up on could be forgiven for closing the book right there: in a very meaningful sense, that is the story thus far.

But every new week brings another issue in the mail, and thus there must always be something more to say. Taking the reins after McKibben is Elizabeth Kolbert, the magazine’s flagship climate correspondent and the writer who has done the most to translate the profound facts of climate change into language the average person can understand. In a trio of pieces collected here, Kolbert accomplishes the same unenviable task faced by a subsequent generation of climate writers: explain in sober terms the half-dozen scientific phenomena that account for our present crisis, then shift to a doomsday register to explain just how bad things could, might, or will get. She often resorts to the use of helpful metaphors (“Imagine trying to build a house when someone keeps stealing your bricks”; “Imagine trying to thaw a gallon of ice cream or warm a pot of water using an Easy-Bake oven”), but in characteristic New Yorker fashion, Kolbert gives you the truth straight from the mouth of some guy at an academic conference, or some other guy in an observatory office. Nowhere else but The New Yorker, for instance, would a reader be asked to endure sentences like the following and enjoy it: “In September, two dozen paleooceanographers met with a roughly equal number of marine biologists at a conference hosted by Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.”

In the best of these three pieces, “The Sixth Extinction,” Kolbert positions “climate change” as a pan-organic calamity, a form of ecological genocide that incidentally may inflict irreparable damage on human society. This is perhaps the most valuable piece of climate journalism ever written because it is the only one that accurately depicts the scale of a crisis too often rendered in narrowly human terms. Extinction is not a metaphor, but it functions like one, carrying with it a fearful connotation that has yet to be matched in subsequent accounts of the calamity.

Following on these overtures are more than a dozen reported pieces of uneven value: correspondent dispatches from scorched Saharan sandscapes, Himalayan ice deposits, and good old melting glaciers. In a strange and almost perverse way, these pieces demonstrate the value of The New Yorker’s climate coverage: because its budget is so stupendously large and its correspondents so fond of transcontinental travel, the publication over the years has had the opportunity to document the first real signs of climate change in places no other American reporters were able to go. Dexter Filkins accompanies some alpinists for a sneak peek at the collapse of a mountain glacier in the Indian Himalayas; Ben Taub diagnoses a combination drought-famine in the beleaguered nation of Chad; and someone named Fen Montaigne travels to Antarctica to investigate the demise of a species of penguin. These pieces often feel more like travelogues than reports on a changing climate—a romp through the Australian outback features only one glancing note that “global warming will make the problem worse”—but this deficiency also tells us a great deal about the past half-century of climate journalism: for decades, as the evidence mounted and the government did nothing, the problem was still framed in nearly every analysis as one whose effects were only visible somewhere else, at the bottom of a coral reef or in the far reaches of Antarctica, not yet within the temperate redoubt of human civilization.

Because this soon-but-not-yet viewpoint frames the crisis as something observed but not felt, visible but not tangible, the most intellectually honest essay in the collection turns out to be the one that is the least serious and the most solipsistic. As you might already have guessed, the essay in question was written by New Yorker number-one overall draft pick Jonathan Franzen, who, in a manner reminiscent of one of his most notorious contemporaries, boards a Lindblad National Geographic cruise ship bound for Antarctica. As he peers overdeck at Emperor penguins and plays bridge with his fellow passengers, Franzen filters every impression of the seventh continent through the lens of his own selfhood: he learns about global warming via a cruise-ship slideshow and processes existential terror by contemplating what it means for him—“the idea of ‘seeing it before it melts’ was dismal and self-cancelling: why not just wait for it to melt and cross itself off the list of travel destinations?”[1] Obnoxious as such notions might seem in the face of a global extinction event, they are not really that different from the conceit that animates a book like Jenny Offill’s Weather, which juxtaposes climate fear with the preoccupations of the Parent Teacher Association. Nor is it that different from the way that most readers of The New Yorker experience the climate crisis, at least thus far: “I know what’s going to happen, but I’m powerless to stop it! Aaaaahhh! Now, what was I going to make for dinner again? Ah, that’s right, NYT Cooking Gochujang Chicken Thighs.”

The anthology’s third section, on solutions to the crisis, points at this same dysphony between individual will and planetary chaos. From the very beginning, the solution to climate change has been obvious, if not easy to accomplish: stop emissions. The various pieces that round out the book are all attempts to deliver that same truth in five thousand words instead of two. Their datelines demonstrate just how long we have known that “an obvious way to reduce consumption of fossil fuels is to shift more people out of cars and into public transit”; that “personal choices, no matter how virtuous, cannot do enough”; and that few experts believe “that climate change can be successfully addressed solely by creating a market.” Digressions on designing a meatless burger (the inescapable Tad Friend) or delivering solar power to Africa (McKibben again) are both cool, but they won’t get us all the way there. So . . . what will? It’s the insolubility of that question that animates the anthology’s first and only white-flag article, published in 2012, which suggests that recourse to radical geo-engineering schemes like sulfur diffusion and carbon sinking is not a matter of if, but when. Almost nine years ago, before the Paris accords and the gigafires and the reign of fracking, we were already prepared to give up.

Just as the publication of a writer’s Complete Works might imply the end of their career, so, too, does the release of this anthology imply the conclusion of what we might call the first era of climate journalism. The science is clear, and anyone who’s going to believe it is already convinced; the collapse of the ice sheets and the advent of monster hurricanes are now matters of global discussion; and decades of inaction have foreclosed all but the most dramatic measures to keep emissions below 2°C, a number thought to represent the ceiling for the continuation of human society as we know it. The publication of a few epochal climate reports and the frightening coincidence of a few major natural disasters have jolted the public into a renewed consciousness of the threat. So what comes next?

For decades, as the evidence mounted and the government did nothing, the problem was still framed in nearly every analysis as one whose effects were only visible somewhere else.

For one thing, journalists might focus their attention on making politicians and corporations afraid, and then on making them act; such journalism is a few steps removed from the direct calls to action made by writers like the activist-saboteur Andreas Malm, but it can still get the gears moving. (In a 2018 retrospective, McKibben cited indigenous-led pipeline protests as one of few developments in recent history that have given him hope.) This is the look-behind-the-curtain model favored by reporters like The New Republic’s Kate Aronoff and by Emily Atkin’s newsletter Heated. Both writers have done much to chronicle the pernicious influence of the fossil fuel industry and further the movement to divest from it. An emerging and related story is the transfer of wealth away from the oil majors and toward ever-cheapening forms of renewable energy, a transfer that increasingly appears to be happening not just because Sunrise Movement wishes it so, but because renewables are a good bet and oil is not. As climate legislation inevitably butts its head against the Senate filibuster, the ossified financial system that props up the principal emitters will become a subject demanding even further attention.

In a deeper sense, though, the time has come to stop framing climate change as a phenomenon whose effects can be seen only, as it were, cryptologically, in the demise of a frog species or the shattering of an ice sheet. The terrors of a warming world, and the expectation of future terrors, have already begun to shape where we live, how we live, and how we feel—not elsewhere but here, not for others but for us. Weather has a profound influence on human behavior, and so, too, does the perception of risk. Ask the thousands of Californians who have fled to Idaho since the most recent wildfires, or the residents of Charleston who can’t find buyers for their seaside homes, or the Iowa farmers who lost half their annual corn yield to last summer’s derecho.

If magazine journalism can help us see the invisible forces causing the cracks in the ice, then it can follow those same forces as they cause even deeper fissures in our economic and social structures. This is not to privilege our attention to the present at the expense of our concern for the future, nor even to suggest that humans are more important than penguins or coral, but merely to ask what climate journalism should seek to tell the risk-insulated middle class. One noble goal is to identify the barriers that stand between us and a solution to the ongoing crisis, threading a needle between an account of systemic causes that inspires the reader to take action and one that inspires her to shrug her shoulders and settle for recycling her takeout cartons.

It is also incumbent upon reporters to produce writing that accurately describes our relationship to the consequences of that crisis. If Fragile Earth portrays modern society as a hiker who hears something approaching in the distance, one would hope that the next volume, published however many years from now, will portray that same society as someone stuck beneath the folds of an avalanche, unsure which way is up. It remains to be seen whether the Franzens and Filkinses of the world can accomplish that task, accustomed as they are to a form of journalism that stands on the inside looking out.


[1] Franzen does not spare the reader some amount of exposure to his well-known enthusiasm for birding: at one point he makes a non sequitur argument that “a visitor from any other planet, observing a king penguin alongside even the most perfect human specimen, with vision unclouded by the possibility of sexual attraction, would declare the penguin the obviously more beautiful species.”