“It is, I promise, worse than you 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 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 Robertsexplained 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.
“OUR BEST-CASE SCENARIO IS BASICALLY ONE IN WHICH WE LOSE THE EQUIVALENT OF 25 HOLOCAUSTS — AND THAT’S JUST FROM AIR POLLUTION ALONE”
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.
“IT’S TOO LATE TO AVOID A 21ST CENTURY THAT IS COMPLETELY TRANSFORMED BY THE FORCES 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 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.