Author David Wallace-Wells on the dystopian hellscape that awaits us
That was was the first line of David Wallace-Wells’s horrifying 2017 essay in New York magazine about climate change. It was an attempt to paint a very real picture of our not-too-distant future, a future filled with famines, political chaos, economic collapse, fierce resource competition, and a sun that “cooks us.”
Wallace-Wells has since developed his terrifying essay into an even more terrifying book, titled The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. And it is a brutal read. Wallace-Wells was criticized in 2017 for being too hyperbolic, too doom-and-gloomy. But as Vox’s David Roberts explained at the time, those criticisms were mostly misplaced.
Wallace-Wells isn’t counseling despair or saying all is lost; he’s merely laying out the alarming facts of what is likely to happen if we don’t radically change course.
What makes the book so difficult to read is not just the eye-popping stats, like the fact that we could potentially avoid 150 million excess premature deaths by the end of century from air pollution (the equivalent of 25 Holocausts or twice the number of deaths from World War II) if we could limit average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius or hold warming at 2 degrees without relying on negative emissions. It’s also the revelation that we’ve done more damage to the environment since the United Nations established its climate change framework in 1992 than we did in all the millennia that preceded it. Or, as Wallace-Wells puts it, “We have now done more damage to the environment knowingly than we ever managed in ignorance.”
I spoke with Wallace-Wells about just how dire the situation is, what it means for humans to survive in a climate that no longer resembles the one that allowed us to evolve in the first place, and if he believes we’ve already crossed a fatal ecological threshold for our species.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Your 2017 essay and your book both begin with the same sentiment: Things are much, much worse than we realize. How bad is it, really?
It’s bad. The future looks pretty dark from where we are now. So we are a little north of 1.1 degrees C of [average] warming above the preindustrial baseline, which is the historical temperature conditions that we measure global warming against. And already at 1.1 degrees, we’re seeing a lot of really extreme climate events.
Last year in the summer of 2018 in the Northern Hemisphere you had this unprecedented heat wave that killed people all around the world. You had the crazy hurricane season. In California, wildfires burned more than a million acres. And we’re really only just beginning to see these sorts of effects.
If we continue on the track we’re on now, in terms of emissions, and we just take the wildfire example, conventional wisdom says that by the end of the century we could be seeing roughly 64 times as much land burned every year as we saw in 2018, a year that felt completely unprecedented and inflicted unimaginable damage in California.
And we see trajectories like this in basically every area of potential climate impact — from impact on agricultural yields, to public health issues, to the relationship between climate change and economic growth, climate change and conflict. On virtually every conceivable metric, things are going to get considerably worse. And if we don’t change course rapidly, they’re going to get catastrophically worse.
The UN says we’re on track to get to about 4 degrees or 4.3 degrees of warming by the end of the century if we continue as we are. I don’t think that we’ll get there, this century at least. I think that we’ll take enough action to avert that. But I think it’s really important to know what it would mean to land there, because that is a much more reasonable anchor for our expectations.
Part of the problem when discussing climate threats is that so much of it feels abstract or distant. But as soon as you begin to quantify the damage, it’s pretty harrowing. For instance, you cite a recent study showing that we could avoid 150 million excess deaths from air pollution by end of century if we could limit warming to 1.5 degrees or hold warming at 2 degrees without relying on negative emissions.
How far away from a 2-degree warmer world are we?
Well, on the path that we’re on now, there are some experts who believe we’ll get there as soon as 2030. I think that’s probably a little fast, I think 2050 is probably a safer assumption. But again, as I said earlier, I don’t think it’s at all possible that we stay below 2 degrees without some dramatic transformation in the state of our technology with regard to negative emissions. So I think we’re basically certain to get there.
Let’s clarify the stakes for readers here, as you do in the book. 150 million people is the equivalent of 25 Holocausts, more than twice the death toll of World War II.
That’s right. It’s an uncomfortable comparison for a lot of people, but it’s the reality we’re facing. Our best-case scenario is basically one in which we lose the equivalent of 25 Holocausts — and that’s just from air pollution alone.
I often hear people say climate change is about “saving the planet,” but that seems utterly misguided to me — the planet will be fine, we will not be. And in the book, you outline a number of “comforting delusions,” one of which is that climate change is a crisis of the natural world, not the human world.
I’m curious what you mean by this.
I think one of the great lessons of climate change is that even those of us like me who grew up over the last few decades living in the modern world, in cities, and felt the whole time that we had sort of built our way out of nature. And that while there were things to be concerned about, with regard to climate, and other environmental issues, I still had this deep belief that we had built a fortress around ourselves that would protect us against a hostile world.
I felt that even if climate change unfolded quite rapidly, those impacts would be felt far away from where I lived, and the way I lived.
I think, especially with the extreme weather that we’re seeing over the last couple of years, we’re all beginning to relearn the fact that we live within nature, and in fact all of our lives are governed by its forces. None of us, no matter where we live, will be able to escape the consequences of this.
There are still people who focus on sea level rise and imagine that they’ll be fine so long as they don’t live on the coastline. But this is pure fantasy. No one will avoid the ravages of warming, and the reality of this will be impossible to ignore in the coming decades.
Now, there are countries in the world that are going to, at least in the short term, benefit slightly from global warming. Especially in the global north. Russia, Canada, and parts of Scandinavia are likely to see a little bit of benefit from warming, because slightly a warmer climate means greater economic productivity and higher agricultural yields.
But where we’re headed, we’re likely to even pass those optimal levels for those countries. And even in the short term, the balance of benefits and costs is so dramatically out of whack that the overwhelming majority of the world will be suffering hugely from the impacts of climate change. Even if there are a few places that benefit.
What would you say is the biggest or most consequential error in our popular discourse on climate change?
The discourse is changing a bit, so it’s hard to say precisely right now. It’s an easier question to answer historically, and I would say that there are basically three misapprehensions concerning the scale of the threat. The first is about the speed of change. We were told for a very long time that climate change was slow. A lot of policymakers and advocates would often complain that the public was reluctant to take aggressive action because they didn’t believe that there was urgency behind it.
So the response was to just wait a while, we’ll have more economic growth, more technological innovation, and then we’ll just invent our way out of the problem. But in fact, more than half of the carbon emissions that have been produced from the burning of fossil fuels in the history of humanity have been produced in the last 25 or 30 years.
And that means that we have brought the planet from what is essentially a stable climate position to the real threshold of crisis and catastrophe in just a couple of decades. And that tells you that we’re doing that damage in real time, and the extreme weather we’re seeing now shows that the impacts are happening in real-time as well. So this is a really fast problem, not at all a slow problem.
The second big misapprehension is about scope. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve been taught the thing of climate change is essentially a matter of sea level rise, and as a result we felt like we could escape it if we were anywhere but the coast. But we can see clearly that that’s a delusion and no corner of the planet will go untouched by climate change.
And the third big delusion is about the severity. The scientists talked about 2 degrees of warming as a kind of threshold of catastrophe, and that meant that the kind of conventional understanding among journalists and among the public was that 2-degree level was about the worst case that we could possibly imagine. But in fact, that science suggests that it’s really much more like a floor than a ceiling, and that we’re headed towards 4 degrees of warming.
And yet there has been very little storytelling that sketched out exactly what that range of temperatures would mean — 2 degrees, 3 degrees, 4 degrees. And I think it’s very important to think about those impacts, not just directly in terms of what it would mean for sea level rise for instance, or what it would mean for public health. But also how much it will transform the way that we relate to one another, our politics, etc.
Things are moving much faster than most people realize, and the picture is far darker than the public understands. I’m not someone who has ever really understood himself to be an environmentalist. I was concerned about climate change like most liberals, but it felt like something that could be dealt with slowly, on the technocratic margins. And if we implemented a carbon tax or if we passed a cap-and-trade bill that the problem would be solved.
But the more that I looked at the research, the more I realized that the portrait of the planet that was emerging from our best science was just much, much scarier than that.
You spoke to a ton of climate researchers in the course of writing this book. Did you encounter any skeptics, any credible data that at least gave you some pause and made you reconsider your position?
The short answer is no. The book is full of research, and many of these findings will no doubt be revised and we can never be 100 percent sure what will happen. But I can tell you that I’ve poured over this material for a couple years now, and the overwhelming majority of new research does seem to be moving in a darker, bleaker direction.
I don’t think that like every single detail in the book is absolutely true and can be counted on as a guide to our future world. And there are certainly scientists who I spoke to who had different interpretations and perspectives on particular findings. But we’re not going to get below 2 degrees, and we’re on track for something like 4 by the end of the century. I don’t think that any climate scientists would argue with any of that.
And to those who say the planet has been warmer than that in the past …
I say the planet has been warmer than that in the past, but it was long before human beings appeared. No humans have walked the earth in a climate as warm as this one. I’m not sure humans would have evolved in the first place in a climate such as this, and I’m even less sure civilization, as we know it, would have evolved. Because the parts of the world that gave rise to those developments, agriculture and civilization — that is, the Middle East — are now so hot that it’s hard to grow crops.
Human society is resilient, and we’ll continue to find ways to live and prosper. But we’re marching into a completely unprecedented environment. And we simply don’t know what it will look like or how it will impact us.
Have we crossed an ecological threshold? Is it, in fact, too late to make a meaningful difference?
My feeling about that is kind of ambiguous. I still think we can make a difference, but it’s important not to see this in binary terms. It’s not a matter of whether climate change is here or not, or whether we’ve crossed a threshold or not. Every upward tick of temperature will make things worse, and so we can avoid suffering by reducing it as much as possible.
No matter how bad it gets, no matter how hot it gets, we’ll still have the ability to make successive decades relatively less hot, and we should never stop trying. There is always something we can do. It’s too late to avoid a 21st century that is completely transformed by the forces of climate change, but we have to do everything possible to make the future cooler, safer, and healthier.
I think everyone has to understand this. This has to be our attitude. The alternative is simply unimaginable.
I’m going to be a father soon, and my fears about what my child will confront when he or she enters the world are so deep, so terrifying, that I’ve no choice but to suppress them. What do you say to someone like me?
I still think it’s within our power to change. If you want to secure the world for your child, we can do that. None of this is written in stone. What’s stopping us is political inertia, which means the solution is political action.
But I have a lot of the same feelings that you do. When I imagine my daughter’s life 20, 30, or 50 years down the road, I don’t imagine it unfolding in a world on fire. Even as someone who has spent several years really deep in this research, looking at it every day and thinking about it, it still hasn’t completely shaken my own emotional reflexes, and emotional intuitions about what the world will be like for me and my daughter, who is just 10 months old right now.
All we can do is fight our own complacency and status quo biases and take as much action as we can. For me, having a child was a strong incentive to do that, because I don’t want to leave a world on fire for her or anyone else.
But make no mistake: Things are going to be bad, and the question is simply how bad will we allow it to get?
I’ll be honest, your book leaves me in a kind of paralysis. I understand the scope of the problem, can see the horrors over the horizon, but there’s nothing much I can do about it. I take your points about collective action, but I’m deeply cynical about our political situation and question whether our system will respond with anything like the urgency required. I suspect a lot of people feel the same way.
I think complacency is a much bigger problem than fatalism. And as someone who was awakened from complacency into environmental advocacy through alarm, I see real value in fear. I don’t think that fear should be the only way that we talk about this issue, I think that obviously there are other parts of the story, and other people tell them very well. But I know, as one person, that being scared about what is possible in the future can be motivating.
The movement against nuclear proliferation, the movement against drunk driving — these are all movements that depended on fear and alarm to mobilize, and very effectively. And I do see signs that the extreme weather we’re witnessing right now is shaking people out of their complacency.
Political change is much slower than you and I might like, but I have to say, on climate, it’s moving much faster than cynical me would have predicted a couple of years ago. Yale does an annual study, and in the most recent one they found that 70 percent of Americans believed global warming is real, and 61 percent were alarmed by it. So the numbers are reaching a point at which it’s almost impossible that even our dysfunctional bipartisan system can ignore.
I actually don’t think those numbers are nearly high enough, but the disjunction between popular opinion and policy outcomes is precisely the problem. For instance, you say at the end of the book that “human action will determine the climate of the future, not systems beyond our control.”
I know what you mean, but my worry is that we don’t really have control over the system dominating the planet; the system has control over us. That we’re committing suicide in slow-motion, have the tools to limit it, and are nevertheless unable to do so really sums it all up for me. (By the way, Vox’s climate team has done a lot of great work on the tools we have to limit climate change. You can read more here, here, and here.)
I have those same feelings and impressions, too. And obviously the record on climate action over the last few decades is really, really dispiriting. Here’s what gives me hope: Conventional economic wisdom has changed dramatically in the last few years. It used to be the case that economists would say the impacts of climate change would be relatively small and that taking action would be very expensive, but that’s no longer what you hear. The economic incentives are now aligned with climate action, and that’s a big deal in terms of motivating actual change.
It’s also important to remember that it’s not merely American political inaction that is driving this problem anymore. And that means that the solution will be unfolding on a geopolitical stage, and one of the big themes of the second half of my book is how the geopolitical map will change as a result of climate change.
Much of the geopolitics of the coming century will be negotiated and navigated around the issue of carbon, in ways that we can’t yet anticipate. But hopefully this will produce much more meaningful global action than was generated in Paris in 2015 and 2016, which was using a model really imported from the 20th century.
In the end, we need a new carbon geopolitics, and I think climate change will be dramatic enough to get us there.
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