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BooksMarch 15, 2019

‘We don’t really have the luxury of time to rely on elections’ – David Wallace-Wells


Rebecca Macfie talks to the acclaimed, alarm-sounding David Wallace-Wells, author of the extraordinary new book The Uninhabitable Earth

“It is worse, much worse, than you think.”

With these words, New York journalist David Wallace-Wells proceeds to pound the reader of The Uninhabitable Earth with brutal truths about climate change. About how much more rapidly it is occurring than you have been encouraged to think. About how much more pervasive the impacts will be, how much more immense the human suffering it will cause, and how utterly unprecedented it is in the span of human history.

“There is no analogue to the scale or scope of this threat,” he tells those of us who intuitively search for known parallels to help us comprehend the existential challenge at hand.

“The story of the industrial world’s kamikaze mission is the story of a single lifetime,” he writes. Forget about tracing the history of carbon pollution back to the Industrial Revolution – we’ve done more damage to the climate in the 30 years since Al Gore published his first book on climate change than in the entire span of human history prior to that point.

It’s an insight as confronting as it is full of promise. We’re on a trajectory to chaos and calamity. Humanity has made a promise to itself to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but on the current course we are speeding towards 4 degrees or hotter by the end of this century.

But we have our hands on the carbon controls and we can, and must, drastically change the direction of travel. Starting now.

Every day of delay is a contribution to a future hellscape: whole regions of the globe so afflicted by extreme heat, desertification and flooding they will be rendered uninhabitable; unknown viruses awakened from melting permafrost; 200 million climate refugees afoot by the middle of this century, perhaps a billion or more by 2100; the inundation of Shanghai, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Miami, Jakarta and plenty more, depending on the speed and extent of ice-sheet melt.

The hotter we allow it to get, as a result of our ongoing emissions, the more hellish it will be. And the more severe the climate damage, the more disrupted our economic, political and social systems.

Wallace-Wells has been called alarmist, and the epithet fits. That’s because the story he tells – a remarkable, intensively-annotated scientific narrative on the damage we are doing to the climate – is alarming. Read, and be scared into action.

I talked to Wallace-Wells in New York by Skype, the day before the students’ climate strike. This is a shortened and edited transcript of the interview.


Rebecca Macfie: On a scale of one (“a little protest that won’t help the world one bit”) to five (a moment that will change the course of history), how do you see the school climate strike movement?

David Wallace-Wells: I think it’s a bit hard to put a number on it now, because we don’t know how it will unfold. But I would say it’s enormously moving, exciting, even exhilarating. It’s become a major global story, and one of the few things that has made climate change a running daily conversation point in much of the world. And that’s basically unprecedented. Incredible, remarkable, laudable and encouraging.

But protest alone gets you only so far, and it’s a matter of exactly how all of our national politics respond to that pressure that will determine just how effective it is.

But in general I think that we don’t really have the luxury of time to rely entirely on elections to bring about change on this issue. Especially in the interval between elections we can really transform the perspective and priorities of our leaders, and the collective goal of our societies, by showing up in public and saying at the top of our lungs that we really care about this issue deeply and pre-eminently.

The fact that the climate strike movement is led by kids, by teenagers, gives it even more moral authority. There is something so pure about a teenager saying ‘you are leaving a desecrated planet to us. That is irresponsible’.

RM: So you think we are witnessing an important moment, a pivot to something new in response to climate change?

DWW: I absolutely do. Not just the climate strike, but there are grassroots movements everywhere you look. Extinction Rebellion has been really powerful in the UK and it’s spreading more globally. In the US we’ve had Sunrise, and here we are already seeing the impact of that with the Green New Deal legislation. It’s a complicated piece of legislation and there are huge questions about how it would achieve some of the goals that it set out, but if you compare it to the legislation that the Democratic Party was behind in the US just five years ago, it’s an enormous sea change. It’s a completely different category of ambition, and most excitingly it really puts the science first. That in itself is a major shift here, that we would be building a climate policy from the science rather than from a sense of what we thought was politically feasible.

And you are seeing that in much of the world as extreme weather has awakened many more people to this threat that now seems much more imminent, much more local, much more immediate than most people appreciated a few years ago.

RM: The terrible northern hemisphere summer of 2018 – hurricanes, heatwaves, wildfires in the Arctic. Has that been part of this shift?

DWW: Last year was just an insane year. We had that unprecedented northern hemisphere heatwave. We had an entire island in Hawaii totally wiped off the map. We had 3 million people evacuated in China from a typhoon. We had historic flooding in south Asia and Japan.

For me the wildfires were the most vivid, powerful image from that whole year. There is something powerful about fire – it just feels like such a biblical threat. It does not seem like something that most people can just normalise and understand as a feature of weather.

For a long time climate change was invisible. You can’t see carbon. And I think wildfires may be useful in that way, in that they offer a tangible, terrifying picture of what a climate change future could be like. Even if you live very far from a forest that’s likely to be at risk, it’s hard to see the photos of the devastating fires and not feel threatened. That is especially true for the ones in California because they have hit residential communities hard. It’s showing people how all-encompassing climate change is, that it will come for you no matter where you are in some form, and the question is with what intensity and with what regularity.

RM: A central point in your book that should have been blindingly obvious, but was somehow new and hard to take in, is how much damage we have done to the climate so recently. You say “we have now engineered as much ruin knowingly, in the last 30 years, as we ever managed in ignorance”. Why is that insight new? Have we spent too much time looking to the past to blame our forebears?

DWW: I think there are a lot of reasons we haven’t seen that fact of our behaviour when it comes to carbon. One is that we are really resistant to understanding our own responsibility for this crisis, to the extent that people like you and me have benefited from the burning of fossil fuels and therefore have watched this damage done in our names.

I don’t say that to mean that you and I share an equal amount of responsibility as the CEO of Exxon. I think while responsibility is universal, it is distributed unequally, and there are surely individuals, corporations, financial interests and policy makers who have dragged their feet that bear much, much more responsibility than the average individual.

Yet I do think there is a global liberal nimbyism about this, which is to say that everyone wants climate action, but do you want a wind farm adjacent to your property, do you want to pay a gasoline tax?

But also I just think the story-telling about climate just wasn’t very good. We have been taught to think about climate change as a really, really slow process. It was often said by scientists that this was a messaging problem, that we couldn’t communicate about climate change effectively because it unfolded over such long time scales. But when I looked at the same story, the same data, I thought ‘this is not unfolding on a long time scale, it’s unfolding extremely rapidly’. We are putting carbon in the atmosphere at least 10 times faster than at any point in planetary history.

I don’t understand why scientists for so long were so focused on talking about it as a many-century story. One reason is because sea level rise takes a long time to unfold and Arctic melt is a long story, and it was also the case that for a long time they were very much focused on sea level rise and not on some of the other impacts.

But that’s not the only reason that we haven’t looked squarely at the problem. I think it’s because every one of us, even those of us concerned about the climate, really like a lot of the features of our lives and are incentivised to continue living them as we have. And that’s not to say that the job of solving this falls to the individual taking different consumer choices – I think those actions are laudable but functionally trivial compared to the difference that  policy can make. But we have a status quo bias and resist meaningful change because it would mean giving up some things we really like.

RM: You write about the research showing that the cost of taking action to reduce emissions will be much, much lower than doing nothing and bearing the cost of climate damage. Yet we have surely known this since the Stern report in 2006.

DWW: That report was incredibly important because it said climate change will have an economic impact, and no-one was talking in those terms before that. But the scale of that impact is now known to be much, much bigger, and the scale of the opportunity that lies in front of us by avoiding those impacts is also much bigger.

The work of Solomon Hsiang, Marshall Burke and Edward Miguel estimates that if we continue unabated warming, global GDP will be at least 20% smaller, and possibly 30% smaller, than it would be without climate change by 2100. Thirty percent would be an impact twice as deep as the Great Depression, and it would be permanent. It would mean in much of the world – basically the entire equatorial band, the entire global South, the possibility of economic growth would be completely eliminated. So whereas in places like perhaps the US, New Zealand, the UK and a few other places we would still be growing at a sluggish pace, there would be whole parts of the world where there would be no chance of growth at all. That’s a very different portrait than was painted by Stern in 2006.

And I suspect given the trajectory of that research we will be revising those estimates up rather than down in the next few years. There is one study suggesting that by the end of this century we will be seeing $600 trillion in damages from climate disasters globally, which is twice as much as all the wealth that exists in the world today.

And even those numbers under-count in some respects, because real estate in Bangladesh doesn’t add up to as much as real estate in Miami Beach, so there is an enormous amount of suffering, particularly in the global South, that is effectively trivialised by economists’ accounting.

RM: In New Zealand we have a centre-left coalition and one of the first things they did was announce a ban on new offshore oil and gas drilling. Subsequently there has been endless lobbying about what the cost of that ban to the New Zealand economy will be. The latest is it that it will cost NZ$30 billion. You probably hear the same thing with every policy in the US that seeks to stop some fossil fuel endeavour that would otherwise have happened. But these debates seem unable to properly set the short term local cost of a climate policy against the global cost of doing nothing on climate.

DWW: What they are doing is comparing a big dirty project with no project, but the proper comparison is a big dirty energy project with a big clean energy project. If you are spending the same money you can theoretically create just as many jobs and circulate that investment through the economy just as efficiently. And in most of the world clean energy is cheaper than dirty energy, so it would be more efficient than new drilling. Everywhere in the world we have major entrenched fossil fuel interests who lobby for these kinds of investments to be made, and we don’t yet have similar forces lobbying  for new green and renewable projects with anything like the same clout and political connection that the fossil fuel business has.

When you are talking about, for instance, doing new offshore drilling, you are really talking about extending the reign and power of old businesses, who we all understand – even those business themselves – cannot survive another 75 years doing exactly what they are doing. We don’t believe that at the year 2100 there will still be all these oil companies producing as much oil as they do today – we know that has to end, so why not start now on the new energy frontier?

RM: A curly bit here is that the oil is all exported, and they say if we don’t export it will be drilled and burned somewhere else and we will have made no difference to emissions.

DWW: That is the collective action problem, which is that even if every country in the world is committed to doing everything to stop climate change, there will still be local economic opportunities that you will have to forego to stay in line with those commitments. I don’t think we have a good system yet for managing that. The Paris accord is one approach, but since no major industrial nation is on track to meet their Paris commitments, we would have to say that approach is probably not working. But we are also not yet at the point where the global community is going to impose sanctions on a country that  is behaving poorly when it comes to carbon, or even consider some kind of military action – as unthinkable as that seems.

I do think we are likely to see over the next few decades a new political order emerge that is really centred around carbon and climate change in the same way that the one that you and I know so well was centred around human rights and peace and prosperity. It does seem like some stronger policing of countries’ behaviour on carbon is probably necessary, because if we let everyone police themselves there are all these perverse incentives that draw them towards worse action than better action.

RM: And won’t the same be true of the economic system? We are in a highly globalised economy, which is deeply reliant on us as consumers buying stuff, doing stuff that is fuelled by carbon. That has to change, doesn’t it?

DWW: If we are going to be living in a stable, prosperous, healthy, peaceful world 50 years from now, it will require a transition of unprecedented scale and speed – in our politics, in our economy, in our diets, in our travel habits, in our infrastructure.

There is nothing in the modern world that can continue unreformed if we want to live in a way that you and I would recognise as fulfilling. And that’s really intimidating. The UN uses this analogy of global mobilisation against climate change on the scale of WWII, which makes you think that’s been done before, and that’s true – but it’s only been done once before and it was done in the face of a really imminent military threat.

I’m enough of an embarrassed neoliberal that I think there are a lot of encouraging signs from the market – energy is really moving in the right direction, although other areas are going to a lot harder to renovate. It’s not as if the transitions aren’t happening, they are just not happening nearly fast enough.

RM: Although you tell an alarming story about vast climate damage and enormous human suffering, you have enough optimism for the future to have become a father while writing this book. How so?

DWW: Part of the answer to that is that I live in compartmentalisation and denial like everyone else in the world. But I also think it’s really important to keep in mind that when you survey the set of horrors that are likely to unfold if we don’t take action quickly, those can feel paralysing, they can feel terrifying large, but they are also just a reminder that we retain that much power over the climate.

If we get to 4 degrees by the end of the century it will be because of what we do now.

That’s an incentive for action. The story is not yet over. It’s still being written. And it’s certainly still possible that we can write that story in a responsible, empathic way that minimises the amount of suffering.

The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells (Allen Lane, $35.00) is available at Unity Books

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