Climate Change Is Such a Huge Threat We Don't Even Know How to Think About It
The good news, says author David Wallace-Wells, is that "civilization will endure." The bad news? Pretty much everything else.
A man on his rooftop watching a wildfire in California in 2013. Photo by David McNew/Getty
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming is a brutal and terrifying read. The new book from journalist David Wallace-Wells sets out to describe, in vivid and nightmarish detail, the hellscape that earth will become if we do not radically cut our greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decade. It directly addresses fears present in the back of many people’s minds, but which in everyday life we do our best to ignore or deny.
What if humankind fails to get its collective shit together on climate change? What if the future we’re locking ourselves into is monstrously more deadly, destabilized, and inequitable than the world we live in today?
Wallace-Wells made an earlier attempt to answer these questions in a 2017 essay for New York magazine, which was also titled “The Uninhabitable Earth” and went on to be one of the most widely read stories in the magazine’s history. In the book’s expanded version of the article, he draws from interviews with dozens of leading climate scientists, in addition to hundreds of scientific papers, to describe a near future pummeled by climate horrors—wildfires, hurricanes, drought, starvation, heat death, pandemics, air pollution, extinction, and flooding. Wallace-Wells considers what all this might to do to our social, economic, and political institutions, our ability to empathize with the suffering of others, the myths we tell ourselves about the future, our faith in neoliberal capitalism. It’s undeniably heavy stuff. But as I worked through the book’s 320 pages I started to feel a weird sense of calm. There is strange comfort in having someone transform your vague generalized sense of anxiety about the future into concrete, visceral imagery.
I recently spoke with Wallace-Wells over the phone to find out how writing The Uninhabitable Earth affected him psychologically and what he thinks society should do with all the doomsday evidence he’s summarized.
VICE: I found after reading your book I would go outside and experience this weird cognitive dissonance. Everyone’s just going around doing their business and I was kind of like, But the world is ending! What did you feel after immersing yourself so deeply in this science and then still being forced to go on and live your normal life?
David Wallace-Wells: In part because I'm a relative newcomer to writing about climate and studying climate, I still have many of the same cognitive biases and psychological reflexes that most other people do who are less immersed in it than I am. So I still, you know, I watch basketball. I go to the gym. I hang out with my baby and it's not as though my brain is preoccupied only by climate change. I live like everybody else does in the world in part through compartmentalization and denial about it. One thing that noticing that made me realize, though, is just how important that makes it for us to look directly at the science and to take it seriously.
We’ll be hopelessly blind about the crisis we're walking into if we don't really rigorously force ourselves to look at that science. And I think it’s fair to say that the big picture of that science is terrifying. Our expectations are anchored kind of falsely through our experience in the present-day climate. And we know that that's not likely to continue. I'd say it's guaranteed not to continue.
I think we will find a way to live. I think civilization will endure. I'm not somebody who thinks it’s about to collapse from these forces, but I think it will also be really radically transformed, especially looking forward from today.
Last summer I was in the interior of British Columbia and there were record wildfires. I was at this wedding and you could barely see across the street. We were literally sitting in this smoke. People were coughing and no one would acknowledge that this is climate change. Already I felt like people's expectations for what is normal had shifted.
I'm here in California now actually doing reporting on wildfires and I’m finding the same thing. I came out here motivated by the horror show of last year's fire season thinking that when I met homeowners here and talked to them, people in fire zones, that they would feel that they had entered into a new hellscape and that their whole lives would be affected by this force. People did seem concerned. They do acknowledge that the last couple of years have been worse than ever before. And that that's likely to continue. But they also seem strangely sanguine. I think some of that is that I'm someone from New York and the idea of a wildfire terrifies me. I can't get my head to a place where I can think of it as weather. I think of it as like a biblical disaster.
I spoke to one woman who has lived through nine fires in her time in Malibu and I just don't understand how you could do that. And yet she does and she's not an insane person. She's not an apocalyptic person. I think that in general that's a real challenge that we all have in dealing with this problem. The impacts are coming really fast, I think much faster than we'd ever been told would happen as recently as a decade or so ago. But the timeline of a year or two years, while extremely rapid from any climate perspective, is also enough time for human psychology to adjust.
I wonder if it will be harder to ignore economic suffering as we move further into this future. As your book points out, one of the myths that we use to justify inequality is a kind of endless growth. But climate could take away a lot of that growth. How do you think that could play out?
I think it's sort of a big open question. I don't personally feel confident in saying that we're likely to move in one direction or another direction. The thing that I feel most comfortable saying is that our whole world will be transformed by these forces such that our politics and our geopolitics would be really oriented around the forces of climate change in a way that, for instance, in the past, they may have been oriented around for the principle of human rights or economic growth.
The best research suggests that if we stay on the course that were on, that by the end of the century, global GDP could be at least 20 percent, possibly 30 percent smaller than it would be without climate change. Thirty percent would mean an impact that's twice as deep as the Great Depression and it would be permanent. So think about how totally transformed we were by that Depression—our politics, our relationship to capitalism, our culture. And then project that globally and make it permanent. That starts to give you a little bit of a sense of just how transformative some of these impacts can be.
We’ve had this explosion of interest recently in the Green New Deal. Climate change is becoming a major political issue again, or at least one that's talked about more. What are your thoughts about all of that?
It's maybe just a sign of how fast all this is moving. The fact that our climate politics have changed so radically in the US in such a short amount of time is really remarkable.
The Green New Deal is really more of a position paper than a piece of legislation. If we enacted it, that would be only the start of the program. There are many big questions about exactly how we implement policies to achieve the goals that it sets out. But what's really exciting to me about it is that it's a piece of climate legislation in the US that really opens with the science. It quotes at length the UN's recommendations and then tries to find policies that could fulfill the demands that the UN is making of us rather than defining our goals through the prism of what we can see as politically possible.
It's a radical but also a much healthier way of approaching the problem. Because you know, we need to halve global emissions by 2030 to avert the catastrophic level of 2 degrees of warming, which island nations of the world call “genocide.” And you know, 12 years, 11 years, is really not a lot of time. So I think the politics are moving quite quickly, much faster than I might've guessed just a couple of years ago, maybe even than I would have hoped for just a couple of years ago. But the speed of political science is one thing and this speed of necessity of action is another.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change. Follow him on Twitter.