The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells
By Dan Clendenin
The following interview by Luke Darby with David Wallace Wells appeared in GQ (May 10, 2019).
“It’s worse, much worse, than you think.”
That’s the first sentence of David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, and it’s all downhill from there. Wallace-Wells sets out to knock down an entire mythology about climate change that has helped make people feel safe insulated from it. It’s not happening slowly, there’s nowhere to hide from it, there’s no part of how we live our lives as humans that will be left untouched, and it’s not even something that’s barreling down on us — it’s already here.
The Uninhabitable Earth is a catalog of speculation, but all of it grounded in science. Yes, sea levels will rise and coastal cities will flood, and yes, temperatures around the globe will both rise and fluctuate more wildly than at any other time in human history. But if you’re only considering those details, you’re missing the bigger picture. A hotter world means a world with less food, and what food remains will be less nutrient-dense per calorie. The number of refugees globally — already driven in large part by resource scarcity and civil strife in response to that scarcity — will spiral even more out of control. Farmable land south of Siberia and north of Patagonia will all but disappear. And how we respond to those changes will only make the crisis worse.
Wallace-Wells starts his analysis with a bleak conclusion: We’ve been behind where we need to be for decades now, and the fact that we’ll be living in a hotter, less hospitable world is an inevitability. The only uncertainty left is how quickly we respond and how much damage we’re going to be able to prevent. Despite all that, he’s cautiously optimistic that, as a species, we’re up to the challenge.
GQ: I really enjoyed your very depressing book.
David Wallace-Wells: Thanks, try writing it.
What made you want to write it?
The really short answer was just as a journalist who’s interested in the near future and tries to follow news about that as much as I can, I started seeing a lot of really alarming papers in 2016, the severity of which weren’t being reflected in conventional writing and storytelling about climate. It felt, to me, like it was missing in a few fundamental ways, the first of which was climate change is happening much faster than we had been told. This was arriving basically in real time. It’s sort of impossible to believe, but half of all of the emissions in the atmosphere [came from] burning fossil fuels in the last 30 years.
The conventional wisdom around climate change is that the way we fight it is by making an individual choices, like flying and driving less. But there are obviously huge obstacles to that, since not every city has reliable public transportation. And buses and subways still put out a ton of emissions. How can we deal with this really basic first step?
There are quite a lot of things that the average person, even the average engaged person, doesn’t quite understand about this issue. One of the really big ones is that in order to stabilize the climate — at some temperature level that we would find tolerable globally — will require much more than just reducing our emissions. It will require us to zero out on our emissions.
Any additional emissions that we put into the atmosphere will continue to heat the planet, and so even if we cut our global emissions by 80 percent, we’re still going to be making the planet hotter. The example that you cite is a really good illustration of that. We don’t just need transportation systems that are less carbon intensive than the ones that we have now, we need — in relatively short order — to have transportation systems that have no carbon footprint at all. And to me, that says something about exactly what kind of infrastructure and R&D we need to invest in, and what kind of choices we need to make as as societies, and as a planetary society.
Even if you and I completely give up flying by plane tomorrow, even if everyone we know, every American, every Westerner completely stopped flying tomorrow, there would still be hundreds of millions of people in the world who are eager to use air travel in the decades ahead. If we want to solve that, it requires figuring out an entirely new form of traveling, something that flies on totally zero carbon fuels. And that will require R&D spending, probably by the public sector, and legislation and regulation to require it to come to pass.
But reducing emissions as an individual still does something, right, as long as it’s not pitched as a cure-all?
That’s obviously worthwhile. It makes the burden on us going forward smaller, and helps us. It gives us a little more time to make the harder investments and do the harder infrastructure work that we need to do. But it is ultimately insufficient. What we need to do is much bigger than just reduce our footprint. We need to make it so that we have no footprint at all.
And it makes me a little uncomfortable when I see advocates who say things like “71 percent of all emissions are being produced by hundred companies.” I think there is certainly math that says that’s true. But it’s not the case that if all the airlines went out of business then the only people who would be suffering or complaining would be CEOs. We are all dependent on a network that is very dependent on fossil fuel. And we enjoy our lives and appreciate material comforts that are the result, in part, of the energy that is produced by the burning of fossil fuels. We eat food that is produced by agriculture that has carbon impact. Even when we take public transport, we are traveling [using] infrastructure that has a carbon impact. There is basically no aspect of modern life that you can zero in on that doesn’t incur a debt for future generations. I think it’s going to be really hard for us to make those transitions. There are activists who think we need to really start talking about “degrowth,” like really winding back our expectations for economic growth in the future, and our understanding of what modern life and modern comforts could be.
You’ve written that climate change denial is a uniquely American thing, but no country in the world is on track to meet its commitment for the Paris Accords. Why are people moving so slowly even when they understand climate change is real?
I think it’s because there is resistance to aggressive action at just about every level of the equation. It’s not unusual that in many Western democracies, fossil fuel interests have a really significant role in the energy policy of their countries. It makes political action slower. But I think it’s misleading to think of that as the sole cause of the problem. There has been economic conventional wisdom that held that action on climate was quite expensive. And many of the policymakers sort of leading things, not just in the U.S, really focused on economic growth as the main directive of public policy. And I think I believe that that logic is changing. There’s this real new, economic conventional wisdom about climate that just faster action will be much better for us even in the relatively short term. We haven’t yet seen that really transform policy decisions.
At the international level, there’s what economists call a collective action problem, which is to say that even if every nation in the world agreed that this was a really serious threat and required a completely superhuman response, it will still be the case that individual nations would be perversely incentivized to move more slowly, and to let the other nations of the world clean up the mess. The Paris Accords seemed quite exciting to me when they were signed in 2016. But now, no major industrial nation in the world is on track to meet those commitments. If they were met, all of them would only bring us to about 3.2 degrees of warming, which would mean hundreds of millions of climate refugees, wildfires that could be as much as 16 times worse in California than they are today.
What do you mean that countries will be incentivized to let others pick up the slack?
It’s a little hard for me to see the motivation of, say, India. Of all the nations, India is scheduled to be hit hardest by climate change. They’re going to have about a quarter or more of all of the climate impacts this century. But what they can do to address it is quite limited because they’re only responsible for about four or five percent of these numbers… If you take completely dramatic action, totally decarbonizing in a decade, your sea levels are probably going to rise basically as much as they would otherwise.
So some countries obviously have a much bigger responsibility than others then?
China and the U.S. are the world’s most powerful economies, probably the two most powerful nations by any standard. And each of them also has imperial ambitions: America’s imperial perspective is a little bit in retreat under Donald Trump, who is a kind of a nativistic, closed borders person but he still wants to rule as the world’s preeminent superpower. And China is growing into that role as well. If these two nations, which are responsible for almost half of all global missions, see themselves as stewards of the world — and if they’re motivated by securing a prosperous world for their empire to rule over — I think that would be productive. I guess my hope is that Chinese and American leadership can really lead the way towards something that feels like a global governance structure on carbon.
Is there a country that’s moving in a positive direction at least?
I take heart at the experience of Indonesia. This plan the government of Indonesia put out just a couple of weeks ago was really exhilarating to me. They said that they could halve their carbon emissions by 2030, which would put them ahead of their commitments under Paris, and still grow at 6 percent per year, which is faster than they’ve grown in the last two decades when they’ve doubled their their per capita income. So I think that there is this new paradigm that is emerging and which policymakers are embracing. And my hope is that they embrace it quickly because, unfortunately, we just don’t have that much time to avert some really terrible, terrible impacts.
Something like that would require a lot of central planning though, right? Even if market forces were pushing in the right direction, and they’re not, that wouldn’t get us to a safer place in time?
Well, yeah, I think individual nations need to do as much as they can. The UN and their IPCC report from last fall said that to avoid two degrees of warming, which is the level that most scientists in a world called catastrophic — and which the island nations of the world called genocide — will require a global mobilization against climate at the scale of World War II. That means nationalization of industry; redirecting of industrial priorities such that factories that were making when products were just told to make another product; obviously, the entire male, young male adult population was drafted into the army and huge part of the female population of the country was drafted into the workforce. It was a massive, massive, centralized planning effort. And the UN says that in order to do that, on timetable that could safely land us below two degrees, would require that that mobilization begin this year, 2019.
What do you think about the Green New Deal?
I find it really exciting. I mean, it’s a huge step forward and a categorically more ambitious proposal than anything that has ever come before in American climate policy. It puts the science front and center and tries to build a politics and a policy that can get us to meet targets, rather defining our goals by what we think is politically possible. That is critical, because if we define our goals through what we think is politically possible, we really will get only very little done. But it is still a early stages document, basically a position paper rather than a piece of legislation. Exactly what it would entail is very much up in the air.
But the Democratic Party just isn’t all that invested in it. You have all the presidential candidates who are eager for support of the activist left making some show of commitment to it. I think it’s got 100 signatories in the House, and that’s still far from the whole Democratic Caucus. So, you know, I think that the politics are complicated. I think it’s important to keep in mind that like, basically everything in the bill, when you pull it in particular and its particulars, commands at least majority support among the American public.
Do you see anything happening politically that gives you reason to be optimistic?
Well, I think that the political movement that we’ve seen, even just over the last six months honestly, has been exhilarating. We mentioned the Green New Deal. Just a couple of years ago, it was considered impossibly radical for a democrat to support cap and trade, and now we’re talking about a bill with at least the nominal support of the major presidential candidates that calls for a total decarbonization of the American economy in just a couple of decades. That is quite fast movement. You see 73 percent of Americans believe climate change is real and happening now, 70 percent of them are worried about it. And those numbers are up about 15 percent since 2015, which is quite dramatic movement by any political science metric. Gretta Thunberg’s climate strike, Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement here in the US: These are protest movements of a completely different scale and intensity than we’ve seen on this issue ever before. I think all that’s quite heartening. And overall, I do think that I’m optimistic.
Dan Clendenin: firstname.lastname@example.org
Image credit: The Guardian.
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