The premise of Climate Changed is that author/artist Philippe Squarzoni, while finishing up the last chapter of his previous graphic novel on the French government and its environmental policies, realizes that, even though he’s heard many of the words and phrases used (like “The Greenhouse Effect,” and “CO2,” and “carbon emissions”) that he, like many of us — or most of us — in fact doesn’t know exactly what they mean, or even necessarily how and why (or maybe even if) our climate is changing. So, rather than relying on the mainstream media or the government to explain things, he does something really radical: he does his own research.
Which takes him years, and Climate Changed, a huge book, is Squarzoni taking us along on his journey.
It’s a tricky undertaking, because can a graphic novel explain everything in understandable language and not just be a dense listing of facts, while still also being visually interesting and compelling? The answer is yes, and in fact, thanks to Squarzoni, we see that the graphic novel format might be the best way to explain this information (and there is a lot of it) to the general public.
The panel format actually helps the text be accessible to readers, because the information being shared simply has to be divided down into clear concise chunks—one or two sentences. In the hands of a careless writer, these simple statements of fact, the panels themselves, might just end up as kind of a list of factoids, which, though informative, might be mind-numbing to read. This is where the graphic novel format really works: Squarzoni’s artwork entices the reader to read on to the next panel.
Even more, the panels allows for a pause between pieces of text: You first see the image, then read the caption of text, look at the image again while you absorb the new information, and only then proceed on to the next panel. This pause gives each new fact or bit of information more impact, which is different from reading a regular book, say, where a paragraph can contain many facts or points.
To keep things interesting, Squarzoni varies up the visuals in his panels, sometimes showing images of things like cars or wind turbines, or landscapes (forests, or fields) or cities, anything that feels relevant to the text. Many panels feature portrait-sketches of people—experts on climate change (most from UN Committees—many of Squarzoni’s main sources are from the series of UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Reports) juxtaposing excerpts from interviews so that the people seem to be having a conversation with each other, and with us readers.
But Squarzoni doesn’t just cover the causes of climate change. He also covers the possibilities of what will happen when the Earth’s temperature rises, based on his sources’ computer models. And it’s not good: Millions of people will be displaced and water will be scarcer, among other problems. And the question is when, not if. His sources are in agreement that we’re already experiencing major changes (like Hurricane Katrina—which we all seem to have wiped from our minds) but that the really bad stuff will probably start happening by 2030. Yes, within our lifetimes.
Even worse, and unfairly, most of those people affected will be from poorer regions, like Africa. Yes, the people causing the least amount of damage to the climate will be the ones most affected, while regions like the US and Europe will be relatively unaffected, at least at first. Who knows what will happen with temperatures in Alaska rise fifteen degrees?
Most interestingly, Squarzoni devotes many panels to drawings of himself sitting at a desk and reading. You might think that wouldn’t be too visually compelling, but it is. There’s an intensity in his face, and I think in part that’s a message to us readers: that we too should probably be devoting some time and energy to understanding climate change, and that when we do, we too will find it compelling.
Because it is. It is all compelling. Also kind of horrifying and depressing, because once you’re about halfway through this book, if not before, you start to realize that we’re in serious trouble. We humans have in fact changed the Earth so much in the last century that even if we stopped consuming and using fossil fuels, that many things are already irreversible. Greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane (though there are others) take decades if not hundreds of years to be absorbed and dissipate. Many glaciers are now gone forever.
What do we do about this? What can we do? The most effective parts of the book are when Squarzoni includes his own doubts and despair, echoing dilemmas I myself have gone through. Should he, given that air travel is one of the worst producers of CO2, still fly to other continents? Should he deny himself life-changing experiences like visiting Glacier National Park? Even when it too becomes part of this narrative? Do individual sacrifices even affect anything? The answer is, mostly, no:
“Am I always consistent in my own actions? There’s a point where individual responses reach a limit. Sure, we can make some ‘responsible’ gestures with respect to our personal energy consumption. But they remain marginal. And in the end they let us dodge the
real issue….climate change is not just a matter of individual behavior. The problems lies in how our whole society is structured.”
Meaning a society where we consume and consume, in a world with limited resources. Btw, perhaps no surprise: Americans come off as way worse than any other country in this regard. Squarzoni quotes the famous line from George H. W. Bush’s speech at the Rio Earth Summit: “The American way of life is not negotiable.” And, unfortunately, that seems—no, it is—true: people—we—just are not going to change their lifestyles, are not going to give up anything, even if we know that we all should. I include myself in that split-personality thinking. But, according Squarzoni’s research, for all of us to give up enough to stop irreversible climate change, we would all have to live at “…the level of a malnourished person.”
Squarzoni does take us through options on mitigating the effects of climate change. He shares information on renewable resources, some of which may help, and some of which (like biofuels) are “a joke” and just part of “Green Capitalism”—corporations creating the façade of doing something while really just in it for the money, as usual. But even if we change completely over to renewable resources like wind and sun, that won’t be enough to offset out continuing growth and consumption. He especially devotes time to whether nuclear power is a viable alternative, and the answer is no, which is a complete rebuke of many mainstream environmental organizations, like say Greenpeace, who have now officially endorsed nuclear energy. And if we can’t trust a group like Greenpeace to make good decisions, what does that bode for our future?
There is some slim hope. Some of Squarzoni’s sources offer possible fixes, like just making everything more energy efficient, and it’s interesting that this is where Squarzoni’s artwork goes into fantasy, with he and Camille flying through air, wearing ninja gear: I think he thinks these possibilities are more in the realm of fantasy. The main things we need to do—consume less energy—will require huge shifts in people’s thinking. But, as he says, “Our world’s history of reactions to extreme events paints a sad picture of….what the world will be like.”
Exhibit A? Hurricane Katrina.
Exhibit B? Fukushima.
Squarzoni doesn’t even offer any of his own opinions for at least the first half of the book, and they’re rare and self-questioning anyways. It’s mostly just the facts, ma’am. I don’t see how any of the climate deniers/FOX viewers can dispute that there’s some serious shit going down. The answer is, in part, that they’re misinformed, they’re being misinformed, and don’t know where, or how, to look for straight answers. This book might help change that, by offering the facts in an accessible and easy to read (but not dumbed down) format.
At 472 pages, this is a tome—there’s a lot of information, a lot to absorb, and a lot to process. But you’ll want to process it. Squarzoni makes this compelling reading. And he’s done his homework. And made ours easier. Prepare to be changed.
Order Climate Change through your local bookstore, or order through Powell’s Books.