It is absolutely time and energy to panic about climate change
‘It is, I promise, worse than you might think.’
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 rather 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 expected to happen if we don’t radically change course.
What makes the book so difficult to learn is not only 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 how many 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 environmental surroundings 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 environmental surroundings knowingly than we ever managed in ignorance.’
I spoke with Wallace-Wells about so 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 into the first place, if he believes we’ve already crossed a fatal ecological threshold for our species.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
America is warming fast. See how your city’s weather will be different by 2050.
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 long run 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, that will be 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.
A year ago 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, therefore 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 medical issues, towards the relationship between climate change and economic growth, climate change and conflict. On virtually every conceivable metric, things are going to get considerably worse. 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 could mean to land there, because that is a much more reasonable anchor for our expectations.
‘OUR BEST-CASE SCENARIO IS BASICALLY ONE IN WHICH WE LOSE THE EQUIVALENT OF 25 HOLOCAUSTS — AND THAT’S JUST FROM AIR POLLUTION ALONE’
Area 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. As an example, 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, regarding the path that we’re on now, there are 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 into the state of our technology with regard to negative emissions. And so I think we’re basically certain to get there.
Let’s clarify the stakes for readers here, as you do into the book. 150 million people is the equivalent of 25 Holocausts, more than twice the death toll of World War II.
That is correct. 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 may be fine, we will not be. And in the book, you outline a number of ‘comforting delusions,’ one of that will be 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 many great lessons of climate change is that even those of us like me who grew up throughout the last few decades staying in the modern world, in cities, and felt the complete time that we had sort of built our way out of nature. And that while there were things to bother 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 regardless of 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 throughout the last couple of years, we’re all beginning to relearn the fact we live within nature, and in fact most of our lives are governed by its forces. None of us, no matter where we live, will be able to escape the consequences with this.
You can still find 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 can be pure fantasy. No one will avoid the ravages of warming, and the reality of this may be impossible to ignore into the coming decades.
Now, there are countries on earth that are going to, at least into the short term, benefit slightly from global warming. Especially in the global north. Russia, Canada, and elements of Scandinavia will probably 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 expected to even pass those optimal levels for those countries. And even into the short term, the balance of benefits and costs is really so dramatically out of whack that the overwhelming greater part of the entire world may be suffering hugely from the impacts of climate change. Regardless of if there are a few places that benefit.
‘IT’S TOO LATE TO AVOID A 21ST CENTURY THAT IS COMPLETELY TRANSFORMED BY THE FORCES https://shmoop.pro/as-you-like-it-by-william-shakespeare-summary/ OF CLIMATE CHANGE’
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 rather 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 clearly urgency behind it.
Therefore the response was to just wait a little 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 into the history of humanity have been produced in the final 25 or 30 years.
And that means that we have brought the planet from what is essentially a stable climate position towards the real threshold of crisis and catastrophe in just a couple of decades. And that tells you that we’re https://123helpme.me/climate-change-essay-example/ 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 truly fast problem, not at all a slow problem.
The second big misapprehension is about scope. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve been taught the fact 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 a great deal 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 number of temperatures would mean — 2 degrees, 3 degrees, 4 degrees. And I think it’s very important to take into account those impacts, not just directly in terms of what it could mean for sea level rise as an example, or what it could mean for public health. But also simply how much it will transform the way that we relate solely to one another, our politics, etc.
Things are moving even more quickly than most people realize, and the picture is far darker compared to 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, regarding the technocratic margins. If we implemented a carbon tax or if we passed a cap-and-trade bill that the situation 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.
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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 those findings will no doubt be revised and we can never be 100 percent sure what is going to happen. But I am able to tell you that I’ve poured over this material for a couple years now, and the overwhelming greater part 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 certainly will 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 could have evolved in the first place in a climate such as this, and I’m even less sure civilization, as we know it, could have evolved. Due to the fact elements of the entire 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 techniques 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? Could it be, in fact, too late to make a meaningful difference?
My feeling about that is sorts of ambiguous. I still think we can make a difference, but it’s important to not ever see this in binary terms. It’s not a matter of whether climate change will be here or not, or whether we’ve crossed a threshold or not. Every upward tick of temperature is going to make things worse, and so we can avoid suffering by reducing it as much as possible.
In spite of 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 in order 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 in fact unimaginable.
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I’m going to be a father soon, and my fears in what my child will confront when he or she enters the entire world are so deep, so terrifying, that I’ve no choice but to suppress them. What do you realy say to someone like me?
I still think it’s within our power to change. Should you want to secure the entire world for your child, we can do that. None with 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 single day and thinking about it, it still hasn’t completely shaken my personal emotional reflexes, and emotional intuitions in what the entire world may be like for me and my daughter, who is just 10 months old right now.
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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 would you like 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?
‘WE’RE ALL BEGINNING TO RELEARN THE FACT THAT WE LIVE WITHIN NATURE, AND IN FACT MOST OF OUR LIVES ARE GOVERNED BY ITS FORCES’
I’ll be honest, your book leaves me in a kind of paralysis. I understand the scope of the problem, can see the horrors within the horizon, but there’s nothing much I am able to 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. So when a person 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 matter, I think that obviously there are some other elements of the story, and other people tell them very well. But i am aware, as one person, that being scared in what is possible as time goes by 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 even more quickly than cynical me could 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. Therefore 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. As an example, you say at the end of the book that ‘human action will determine the climate of the future, not systems beyond our control.’
I am aware 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 also 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. It is possible to read more here, here, and here.)
I have those same feelings and impressions, too. And obviously the record on climate action throughout the last few decades is really, really dispiriting. Here is 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 not any 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.
We could shift to sustainability and save $26 trillion. Why aren’t we doing it?
It is additionally vital to remember that it’s not merely American political inaction that is driving this problem anymore. And that means that the perfect solution is may be unfolding on a geopolitical stage, and another 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 round the issue of carbon, in manners that we can’t yet anticipate. But hopefully this will produce a great deal 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 require a new carbon geopolitics, and I think climate change may be dramatic enough to get us there.
Correction 2/22:A previous version of this story stated that 2 degrees Celsius of average warming will lead to at least 150 million deaths from air pollution alone. In fact, we could potentially avoid 150 million premature deaths by the end of the century from air pollution (the equivalent of 25 Holocausts or twice how many deaths from WWII) if we could limit average global warming to 1.5 degrees or hold warming at 2 degrees without relying on negative emissions. The interviewee also suggested in a previous version that we are spending more electricity mining Bitcoin than is created by every one of the world’s solar panel systems combined. That was centered on a 2018 study suggesting we were on track to break that mark by 2019, but that is not any longer the case.