It is absolutely time to panic about climate change

It is absolutely time to panic about climate change

‘It is, I promise, worse than you think.’

Which was was the first line of David Wallace-Wells’s horrifying 2017 essay in New York magazine about climate change. It absolutely was an endeavor 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 a far more terrifying book, titled The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. And it’s also a brutal read. Wallace-Wells was criticized in 2017 if you are too hyperbolic, too doom-and-gloomy. But as Vox’s David Roberts explained in 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 when we don’t radically change course.

The thing that makes the book so very hard to read is not just the eye-popping stats, such as the fact that individuals could potentially avoid 150 million excess premature deaths by the end of century from air pollution (roughly the same as 25 Holocausts or twice the number of deaths from World War II) when we could limit average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius or hold warming at 2 degrees without depending on negative emissions. Additionally it is the revelation that individuals’ve done more problems for the environment considering that the United Nations established its climate change framework in 1992 than we did in every the millennia that preceded it. Or, as Wallace-Wells puts it, ‘We have now done more injury to the environment knowingly than we ever managed in ignorance.’

I spoke with Wallace-Wells about just how dire the specific situation is, what it indicates for humans to survive in a climate that no longer resembles 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.

America is warming fast. See how your city’s weather will be different by 2050.

Sean Illing

Your 2017 essay along with your book both start out with the same sentiment: Things are much, much worse than we realize. How dreadful will it be, really?

David Wallace-Wells

It really is bad. The future looks pretty dark from where our company is now. So we are only 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 plenty of really extreme climate events.

Last year in the summertime of 2018 when you look at 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 significantly more than a million acres. So we’re really only just starting to see these types of effects.

When we keep on the track we’re on now, with regards to emissions, and we just take the wildfire example, conventional wisdom says that by the end of this century we could be seeing roughly 64 times the maximum amount of land burned on a yearly basis even as we saw in 2018, a year that felt completely unprecedented and inflicted unimaginable damage in California.

So we see trajectories similar to this in basically other areas 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 nearly all conceivable metric, things are going to get considerably worse. And if we don’t change course rapidly, they are going to get catastrophically worse.

The UN says we’re on course to access about 4 degrees or 4.3 degrees of warming by the end of this century when we continue even as we are. I don’t genuinely believe that we are going to make it, this century at the very least. I do believe that individuals’ll take enough action to avert that. But i do believe this really is important to know what it would mean to land there, because that is a more reasonable anchor for our expectations.


Sean Illing

Part of the problem when discussing climate threats is that so much of it feels abstract or distant. But once you commence to quantify the damage, it really is pretty harrowing. For instance, you cite a recently available study showing that individuals could avoid 150 million excess deaths from air pollution by end of century when we could limit warming to 1.5 degrees or hold warming at 2 degrees without depending on negative emissions.

How long away from a 2-degree warmer world are we?

David Wallace-Wells

Well, on the path that individuals’re on now, there are some experts who believe we are going to make it as soon as 2030. I do believe which is probably a little fast, I think 2050 might be a safer assumption. But again, as I said earlier, I don’t think it really is at all possible that individuals 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 have there.

Sean Illing

Why don’t we clarify the stakes for readers here, as you do in the book. 150 million people could be the same in principle as 25 Holocausts, significantly more than twice the death toll of World War II.

David Wallace-Wells

That’s right. It really is an uncomfortable comparison for a lot of men and women, but it’s the fact we’re facing. Our best-case scenario is simply one in which we lose roughly the same as 25 Holocausts — and that’s just from air pollution alone.

Sean Illing

I often hear people say climate change is mostly about ‘saving our planet,’ but that seems utterly misguided to me — our planet is likely to be fine, we will not be. Plus in the book, you outline a number of ‘comforting delusions,’ one of which is that climate change is a crisis of this natural world, not the human world.

I’m curious everything you mean by this.

David Wallace-Wells

I think one of the great lessons of climate change is that even those of us anything like me who spent my youth over the last few decades living in today’s modern world, in cities, and felt the whole time that individuals had kind of built our way out of nature. And that while there were what to be concerned about, with regard to climate, as well as other environmental issues, I still had this deep belief that individuals had built a fortress around ourselves that will protect us against a hostile world.

I felt that even if climate change unfolded quite rapidly, those impacts could be felt far away from where I lived, therefore the way I lived.

I do believe, especially aided by the extreme weather that we’re seeing over the last year or two, all of us are starting to relearn the fact that we live within nature, plus 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 results of this.

There are still individuals who give attention to sea level rise and imagine that they can be fine provided that they don’t really live on the coastline. But this is pure fantasy. No one will prevent the ravages of warming, therefore the reality for this is likely to be impossible to ignore in the coming decades.

Now, you can find countries in the world that are going to, at the very 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 reap the benefits of 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 also in the short term, the balance of benefits and costs is so dramatically out of whack that the overwhelming majority of the world is likely to be suffering hugely from the impacts of climate change. Even if you can find a few locations that benefit.


Sean Illing

What could you say could be the biggest or most consequential error in our popular discourse on climate change?

David Wallace-Wells

The discourse is changing a bit, so it is hard to say precisely right now. It really is a less strenuous question to answer historically, and I would say there are basically three misapprehensions regarding the scale of this threat. The very first is in regards to the speed of change. We were told for a very few years that climate change was slow. Plenty of policymakers and advocates would often complain that the public was reluctant to take aggressive action because they didn’t genuinely believe that there was urgency behind it.

So the response was to just wait a while, we are going to do have more economic growth, more technological innovation, and then we are going to just invent our way out of this problem. But in fact, more than half of this carbon emissions which were made out of the burning of fossil fuels in the history of humanity have now been stated in the last 25 or 30 years.

And that implies that we have brought our 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 individuals’re doing that damage in real time, therefore the extreme weather we’re seeing now demonstrates that the impacts are happening in real-time as well. And this is a really fast problem, not at all a slow problem.

The next big misapprehension is about scope. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve been taught the thing of climate change is actually a question of sea level rise, and thus we felt like we could escape it when we were anywhere nevertheless the coast. But we could see clearly that which is a delusion and no corner of this planet will go untouched by climate change.

Therefore the third big delusion is in regards to the severity. The scientists talked about 2 degrees of warming as some sort of threshold of catastrophe, and that meant that the sort of conventional understanding among journalists and among the public was that 2-degree level was in regards to the worst case that we could possibly imagine. But in fact, that science suggests that this really is much more like a floor than a ceiling, and that we’re headed towards 4 levels of warming.

And yet there is very little storytelling that sketched out exactly what that range of temperatures would mean — 2 degrees, 3 degrees, 4 degrees. And I think it is rather important to think about those impacts, not merely directly with regards to what it would mean for sea level rise for instance, or what it would mean for public health. But in addition how much it will probably transform the way that we relate to the other person, our politics, etc.

Things are moving much faster than a lot of people realize, therefore the picture is far darker than the public understands. I’m not anyone who has ever really understood himself to be an environmentalist. I happened to be concerned with climate change similar to liberals, nonetheless it felt like a thing that could possibly 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 could be solved.

But the more that I looked at the investigation, the greater amount of I realized that the portrait of this planet which was emerging from our best science was just much, much scarier than that.

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Sean Illing

You spoke to a huge amount 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 role?

David Wallace-Wells

The short answer is no. The book is full of research, and lots of of these findings will no doubt be revised so we can never be 100 percent sure what will happen. But I can inform you that I’ve poured over this material for a couple of years now, therefore the overwhelming majority of new research does be seemingly moving in a darker, bleaker direction.

I really don’t genuinely believe that like every single detail in the book is totally true and can be counted on as helpful tips to your future world. And you can find certainly scientists who I spoke to who had different interpretations and perspectives on particular findings. But we’re not planning to get below 2 degrees, so we’re on course for something such as 4 by the end of this century. I don’t genuinely believe that any climate scientists would argue with any one of that.

Sean Illing

Also to those that say our planet has been warmer than that in the past …

David Wallace-Wells

I say our planet has been warmer than that in the past, nonetheless it was a long time before human beings appeared. No humans have walked the planet earth in a climate as warm as this 1. I’m not sure humans would have evolved to start with in a climate like this, and I’m even less sure civilization, even 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 actually so hot that it’s hard to grow crops.

Human society is resilient, so we’ll continue to find ways to live and prosper. But we’re marching into a completely unprecedented environment. So we simply do not know what it will seem like or how it will probably impact us.

Sean Illing

Have we crossed an ecological threshold? Is it, in fact, too late to produce a meaningful difference?

David Wallace-Wells

My feeling about that is kind of ambiguous. I still think we could change lives, but it’s important not to see this in binary terms. It is not a matter of whether climate change is here or perhaps not, or whether we’ve crossed a threshold or perhaps not. Every upward tick of temperature is likely to make things worse, and so we can avoid suffering by reducing it whenever you can.

No matter how bad it gets, in spite of how hot it gets, we are going to still have the capacity to make successive decades relatively less hot, so we must not stop trying. Often there is something we could do. It really is too late to avoid a 21st century that is completely transformed by the forces of climate change, but we need to do everything possible to really make the future cooler, safer, and healthier.

I do believe everyone has to know this. This has to be our attitude. The alternative is just unimaginable.


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Sean Illing

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 anything like me?

David Wallace-Wells

I still think it really is in your power to change. If you want to secure the world for your child, we could accomplish that. None of this is written in stone. What exactly is stopping us is political inertia, which means that the clear answer is political action.

But I have a lot of the same feelings that you will do. Whenever I imagine my daughter’s life 20, 30, or 50 years later on, I don’t imagine it unfolding in some sort of on fire. Even as anyone who has spent several years really deep in this research, looking at it every day and great deal of thought, it still hasn’t completely shaken my own emotional reflexes, and emotional intuitions about what the world is likely to be like in my situation and my daughter, who is just 10 months old right now.


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All we could do is fight our personal complacency and status quo biases and take as much action as we could. In my situation, having a kid was a solid incentive to accomplish this, because I don’t want to leave some sort of on fire on her behalf or anyone else.

But make no mistake: Things will probably be bad, therefore the question is simply how dreadful will we give it time to get?


Sean Illing

I will be honest, your book leaves me in a kind of paralysis. I am aware the scope of this problem, is able to see the horrors over the horizon, but there’s nothing much I can do about any of 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 such as the urgency required. I suspect lots of people feel the in an identical way.

David Wallace-Wells

I do believe 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 genuinely believe that fear must be the only way that individuals talk about this issue, i do believe that obviously there are other parts of the story, as well as other people inform them very well. But I know, as one person, that being scared about what is achievable 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 extremely 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 significantly slower than you and i may like, but i need to say, on climate, it really is moving much faster than cynical me would have predicted after some duration ago. Yale does an annual study, plus in the most up-to-date one they unearthed that 70 percent of Americans believed global warming is real, and 61 percent were alarmed by it. So the numbers are reaching a spot from which it really is extremely difficult that even our dysfunctional bipartisan system can ignore.

Sean Illing

I truly don’t think those numbers are nearly high enough, nevertheless the disjunction between popular opinion and policy outcomes is precisely the problem. For instance, you say in the end of this book that ‘human action will determine the climate into the future, not systems beyond our control.’

I know everything you mean, but my worry is that we don’t obviously have control over the system dominating the planet; the device has control over us. That individuals’re committing suicide in slow-motion, have the equipment to limit it, and are nevertheless struggling to do this really sums it all up in my situation. (By the way, Vox’s climate team has done plenty of great work with the equipment we need to limit climate change. You can read more here, here, and here.)

David Wallace-Wells

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 within the last few several years. It used to be the case that economists would say the impacts of climate change could be relatively small and that taking action could be extremely expensive, but that’s no longer everything you hear. The economic incentives are now actually aligned with climate action, and that’s a problem with regards to motivating actual change.


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It’s also important to understand that it is not merely American political inaction that is driving this dilemma anymore. And that implies that the solution is likely to be unfolding on a geopolitical stage, and one of this big themes of this second half of my book is how the geopolitical map will alter as a consequence of climate change.

Most of the geopolitics of this coming century will be negotiated and navigated around the dilemma of carbon, in ways that individuals can’t yet anticipate. But hopefully this can produce much more meaningful global action than was generated in Paris in 2015 and 2016, that has been using a model really imported from the 20th century.

In the end, we need a new carbon geopolitics, and I think climate change is likely to be dramatic enough to get us there.

Correction 2/22:A previous type of this story stated that 2 degrees Celsius of average warming will lead to at the very least 150 million deaths from air pollution alone. In fact, we could potentially avoid 150 million premature deaths by the end of this century from air pollution (roughly the same as 25 Holocausts or twice the number of deaths from WWII) when we could limit average global warming to 1.5 degrees or hold warming at 2 degrees without depending on negative emissions. The interviewee also suggested in a previous version that our company is spending more electricity mining Bitcoin than is produced by all of the world’s solar panels combined. Which was based on a 2018 study suggesting we were on course to break that mark by 2019, but that is no longer the way it is.