Some media buzz was recently generated around the U.S. senate’s historic vote to recognize the existence of climate change, but failure to attribute it to the actions of humanity. At the same time, a recent study has also shown that only around half of the U.S. population believes in humanity’s role in climate change. While the influence of dark money in U.S. politics certainly deserves a fair amount of the blame for these occurrences, there is still something to be said about a population full of citizens who are ignorant about climate change, voting into office a senate full of politicians who are ignorant about climate change. For better or worse, this direct representation of U.S. citizens and their lack of knowledge is the U.S. democracy working as intended, and that is just one of many reasons why climate change is such a troubling problem. Nevertheless, climate change is an issue so massive that the rising sea of ignorance surrounding it is not entirely surprising, and this is why a piece of literature like Philippe Squarzoni’s graphic novel / documentary, Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through Science, is so important.
As the title suggests, Squarzoni’s graphic novel is a “personal journey,” mixing facts and hard science with the author’s reflections on his own autodidactic experience of understanding the complicated processes behind climate change. In this way, the narrative moments of the graphic novel give the reader room to breathe between intense passages of climatology fundamentals and the political discourses carried on by the scholarly, expert subjects of Squarzoni’s interviews. More importantly, these moments also seek to bridge the gap between reader and author, that is, they remove the hierarchy of the author as the instructor of the reader, instead allowing the reader to learn about climate change alongside the author. Squarzoni begins his graphic novel by lamenting his prior ignorance about climate change: “I’m saying ‘global warming,’ I’m writing ‘greenhouse gases’ every other sentence, and ‘reducing emissions’… and I don’t have a clue what I mean”. (Squarzoni, 32). It is by questioning his own use of these important climate change buzzwords that he is able to introduce the reader to the jargon of climate change without being condescending, and this is in part how Climate Changed helps hook an inexperienced audience and bring them to his side.
Indeed, Squarzoni’s attempts to level himself with his readers serves him well, as one of his primary concerns throughout Climate Changed is the ways in which everybody, political elite and citizen alike, is intertwined with the creation and exacerbation of climate change. He does not so much admonish the common argument that everything is the fault of oil companies, but rather reminds the reader that those companies exist because we as a society are constantly demanding fuel and energy from them. He illustrates this on page 217 with a sketch of a human that is constructed entirely from the technologies and products that create this demand. If Squarzoni is ever accusatory of the reader, it is here when his drawing posits that we as a society are consumers, and that because our lives are so dependent upon the products that we consume, we essentially are these products.
There is something damning about this image of humanity reduced to its frivolous, technological obsessions, and while Squarzoni’s cynical critique of consumer culture may come across as alienating, Squarzoni is sure to emphasize his own role within this culture. His thoughts surrounding the image on page 217 emphasize role of “us” within this cultural-economic system, and through this important semantic distinction, he implicates himself: “Our way of life and CO2 emissions are inextricably linked… All our activities are part of the climate crisis, all our wants… every product we purchase.” (Squarzoni, 216. Italicization added.) When he condemns our role in climate change, he condemns his own role as well, and this is where Squarzoni’s work somewhat differs from writers of climate change who focus exclusively on the fault of the elite.
Such a difference can be illustrated through a comparison between Climated Changed and Christopher Hayes’ “The New Abolition”, in which Hayes is concerned about, (with very good reason), the disastrously large amount CO2 that the oil industry could potentially emit from the use of its untapped reserves. He suggests that one solution to this problem will be the collapse of the oil industry through divestment and political pressure, but he seemingly fails to recognize that regardless of whether the industry struggles, there will still be a demand for fuel as long as our society remains unchanged. The bottom line is that whether the oil industry does burn through all of its fossil fuel reserves or instead leaves them in the ground, there is an enormous economic price to pay, and that either scenario is incompatible with our society as it is today. Hayes recognizes this to the extent that his slavery analogy focuses on the unrivaled worth of cotton to the pre-civil war southern economy, but the analogy falters when considering that the material function of fossil fuels cannot be easily replaced. In other words, motor vehicles run on gasoline, not money, and this is where Squarzoni’s emphasis on “we” warns us that the oil industries are not going to be the only ones to suffer without fossil fuels. Indeed, he makes this point precisely when he states: “I’m just like everybody else. I don’t want to live like some poor person in an underdeveloped country.” (Squarzoni, 214), implying that society cannot sustain its technological, consumerist state without fossil fuels. Here the difference between Hayes and Squarzoni is that while Hayes’ conclusion applauds and encourages the work of environmental activists against large oil companies, Squarzoni’s work drives at why that activism is meaningless without the greater cooperation of society and why that cooperation is so hard to attain.
Perhaps then Squarzoni’s biggest challenge is to convince his readers to join that cooperation while his own skepticism towards progress nevertheless permeates his work. He emphasizes the importance of solidarity, but shows images such as the visual metaphor on page 378, where he and his companion Camille, acting as environmental superheroes, are defeated by insurmountable corporate interests. Likewise he talks about humanity’s gradually closing doorway to escape from climate destruction and asserts on page 452 that we are not going make it through. The one struggle of Climate Changed is thus how to deliver its dire news without giving way to despair.
While Squarzoni certainly indulges himself and his readers in a new found sense of pessimism, he nevertheless attempts to close the novel on a hopeful note by leaving the reader with an image of himself continuing his work. It may not be the kind of happy conclusion the reader wants to see, but it realistically depicts the current state of climate change, that things are not over yet and that there is still much left to do. After everything else Squarzoni tells the reader, solving climate change might seem impossible, but giving it a meager try does not seem like so much to ask, and that is the value of Squarzoni’s ability to break down the nuances of such a complex issue into an accessible dialectic.
Fischer, Douglas. “”Dark Money” Funds Climate Change Denial Effort.”Scientific American Global RSS. N.p., 23 Dec. 2013. Web. 03 Feb. 2015.
Goldenberg, Suzanne. “US Senate Refuses to Accept Humanity’s Role in Global Climate Change, Again.” The Guardian. N.p., 22 Jan. 2015. Web. 3 Feb. 2015.
Sampler, Ian. “Many Americans Reject Evolution, Deny Climate Change and Find GM Food Unsafe, Survey Finds.” The Guardian. N.p., 29 Jan. 2015. Web. 3 Feb. 2015.
Squarzoni, Philippe, and Nicole Whittington-Evans. Climate Changed: A Personal Journey through the Science. Trans. Ivanka Hahnenberger. New York: Abrams ComicArts, 2014. Print.