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Drawing Ire
The French graphic novelist Philippe Squarzoni presents a moral case for tackling climate change in stark black and white.

In April, a highly unorthodox comic book was published. Climate Changed is a 480-page memoir-cum-treatise on global warming by the French graphic novelist Philippe Squarzoni. The book traces the education of the author as he absorbs the implications of reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicating the extent and severity of anthropogenic global warming. By populating his story with real characters and telling it in line drawings and word balloons, Squarzoni distills complex data into the stuff of intimate, compelling narrative.

Summer 2014

On the first day of spring, I traveled from my home in Germany to meet the 42-year-old Squarzoni in his hometown of Lyon. Only one day earlier it had technically been winter, but on the day of my visit the temperature in southeastern France was 70 degrees.

I took a plane here today to talk to you about how we really shouldn’t be taking planes anymore. Does that count as one of the “daily contradictions” in our lives that you’ve said inspired you to write Climate Changed?

This question came up when I was writing the book. At one point, I was invited to visit Laos. Everything had been paid for, but I turned the offer down. I just couldn’t get myself onto a plane so soon after I’d learned all these facts about climate change. But what made me start this book, specifically, was my research for another project, on the question of how much—or rather how little—the French government under the conservative president Jacques Chirac had done for the environment. As I dug deeper into the subject of climate change, I realized that I didn’t know enough about this important issue. So the subject imposed itself on me, in a way.

There are countless books on climate change. Why do a comic book?

The audience is different. Some people would rather read a 500-page comic book on climate change than a 300-page book written by scientists. My readers, adult comic-book fans, already tend to be interested in documentaries, autobiographies, and political issues.

And how have those readers reacted to this book, which combines all three?

Many people have told me they’re moved and impressed by it. After reading it, they have many of the same feelings I had—feelings like “Wow, I didn’t know things were so bad.”

Do you think this book has the potential to change something?

No.

No? Why not?

Things don’t change simply because 10,000 people suddenly realize something. These 10,000 people—my readers—aren’t the people who have the power to change things. And this feeling of being worried doesn’t tend to last; it gets covered up by our daily concerns and routines. I honestly don’t think that a book or a film can change anything. If it could, Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth would have changed something.

Many people would say that it changed the terms of the public debate.

It was important as a first step. But it’s not enough.

There’s no single image that sums up climate change symbolically. Did you worry you might not be able to convey it?

There’s actually an abundance of pictures that can be used to represent climate change, but yes: none of them stands in for it explicitly. Pictures of floods and droughts can work, but such events can often be attributed to other causes. In the first part of the book, which deals with science, I needed neutral imagery. But in the second, more political, part of the book, I felt free to use images and symbols that were much more controversial. Drawing a smokestack is easy—everybody’s against smokestacks—but you’re pushing people’s buttons when you draw something like an SUV, because people do love their cars.

Every writer wants to think that his or her book can have an impact on readers. But I’m curious to know what sort of impact the book has had on you, its writer.

I avoid taking airplanes now. It’s an absurd rule I make for myself. But I’ve established it as a matter of principle. Otherwise, there hasn’t been so much in my life to change. I don’t have a car. I work from home.

What about your views on politics and economics? Have they changed?

Oh, yes, definitely. I can’t help but notice how absent the subject of climate change is in the public debate here in France. A few years ago, everybody was talking about it, but the international financial crisis swept it all away. The current Socialist government under President [François] Hollande is probably the least ecological government France has seen in decades.

You say you don’t think books can change the world. Yet in your own book you make a plea to change our economic system. You don’t seem to put much faith in capitalism, for instance—even “green capitalism.”

I do believe that deregulated capitalism has reached its limits. That integrated system of political, ideological, and economic beliefs has us up against the wall. We have to start recognizing the limits of the planet. We can’t have endless growth. We have to consume less and save energy. Too often, “green capitalism”—emissions trading, so-called clean coal, et cetera—just feels to me like a continuation of the same business.

The original, French title of your book translates to Brown Season. What does that mean?

It’s a borrowed expression from the United States. Some people in the state of Montana refer to a “brown season,” or a fifth season—the transition time between winter and spring, when the ice has started to melt but spring hasn’t yet arrived. I feel like humankind is in a similar state of transition. The old idea of endless economic growth through the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels is coming to an end. A new era is dawning, one that will see us respecting natural limits. But we’re not there yet. And the transition is going too slowly.

But according to that scenario, we need only to wait: spring is just around the corner, and soon it will arrive.

There are limits to the comparison. The book says we must do something; it won’t happen by itself. The next phase is sure to come, but the question is, how will we enter that phase? Too late and badly prepared? Or informed and responsible? That has yet to be determined.

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image of Bernhard Poetter
Bernhard Poetter worked for 12 years on the environment/economy desk of the national daily paper die tageszeitung in Berlin, Germany. He specialized in topics such as nuclear policy, agriculture, international sustainability, and climate change. Poetter is now a freelance author for German and Austrian media. MORE STORIES ➔
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This is a great article - thank you. I think Climate Changed probably falls within the emerging climate fiction (cli-fi) genre. I'm looking forward to reading the novel. If you're interested in finding out more about cli-fi and its potential, it would be great to see you at the Facebook cli-fi group (Cli-fi Central). Here's a link https://www.facebook.com/?ref=tn_tnmn#!/groups/320538704765997/ Paul