Could Passive House make climate doomer Jonathan Franzen feel better?

September 12, 2019


I love the New Yorker, so I was pretty disappointed that they just gave more ink to novelist Jonathan Franzen’s climate doomism, “What If We Stopped Pretending? The Climate Apocalypse Is Coming.” Still, it has been heartening to see the avalanche of spot-on critiques of his piece roll out over the past couple of days. Two of my favorites: Dr. Kate Marvel’s “Shut Up, Franzen” in the Scientific American, and Ula Chrobak’s “What if we stopped pretending the New Yorker’s essay makes sense?” in Popular Science.

Franzen’s climate “de-nihilism”—that it’s too late to avert apocalypse so let’s just give up and focus on other things—is simply not supported by the science. Franzen writes:

“Every one of the world’s major polluting countries [would have to] institute draconian conservation measures, shut down much of its energy and transportation infrastructure, and completely retool its economy…All-out war on climate change made sense only as long as it was winnable.”

You gotta feel for the guy, but he’s just wrong. Not only does the science suggest that halting climate change is still possible, on balance the actions we take to do so won’t lead to hardship and suffering but rather abundance and health.

To me, that was the most important conclusion from last fall’s IPCC report about the unprecedented reductions in emissions necessary to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C. A key focus of the report was on IPCC’s finding that the co-benefits of climate action will far outweigh any sacrifice required.

IPCC graphic showing that that the synergies (co-benefits) of climate mitigation far outweigh the tradeoffs (sacrifice).

IPCC graphic showing that that the synergies (co-benefits) of climate mitigation far outweigh the tradeoffs (sacrifice).

It’s not hard to find examples of these synergies. Just in the past week my Twitter feed unearthed two significant new examples of climate mitigation co-benefits:

  1. Solar panels and crops, when “planted” on the same plot of land, result in both higher energy and crop yields. (Remember that the next time someone pits solar energy against food production.)
  2. Offshore wind farms seem to dramatically increase sea life in beneficial ways.

Furthermore, Project Drawdown is full of opportunities for climate mitigation that don’t require draconian sacrifice but rather involve smart investments in our collective well-being.

And then there’s my favorite example, Passive House, a method of dramatically reducing the operational carbon emissions from buildings (90% reductions are routine) that also brings lots of important co-benefits: healthy filtered air, excellent indoor environmental quality, great comfort, passive survivability, superior durability, lower utility bills, and happier occupants.

Does Passive House construction require draconian measures? No. The incremental cost differential of Passive House compared to conventional construction is usually somewhere in the single digit percentages. In heating dominated climates like Pennsylvania, it may even be no more expensive to build a Passive House than a conventional building, because the savings from the smaller mechanical equipment required for a Passive House building offsets the extra investment in the Passive House building envelope. According to data from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, the per square foot construction cost of the Passive House affordable housing projects in its 2018 portfolio was actually lower than for its conventional projects.

A crippling sacrifice Passive House is not.

If climate doomers opened their eyes to the real world solutions to the climate crisis right in front of us, maybe they’d feel a little better. When we’re successful as a Passive House movement, maybe Franzen will come around.

One thing is for certain: we will have transformed buildings from being a big part of the problem to being a big part of the solution.

Free Hugs image © J3SSL33 Creative Commons


Zachary Semke
Zachary Semke
Zack Semke is Director of Passive House Accelerator and a member of Al Gore's Climate Reality Leadership Corps. He writes and speaks about…

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