David Wallace-Wells: “If we get all the way to hellish scenarios it will only be because we have chosen to’’

Interview with the journalist expert on climate change, author of `The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming’ (Crown Publishing Group, 2019).

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This interview was first published on paper as part of #LaMarea73 (November-December 2019). You can buy the complete magazine through the online store.

Also available in Spanish here.

“It’s worse, much worse, than you think”. With this phrase begins ‘The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming’ (Crown Publishing Group, 2019), the book published this year by climate-crisis journalist David Wallace-Wells (New York, 1982). Eight words that serve as a trailer to the almost 350 pages that make up the writing. Of those, around 80, are dedicated only to the notes that gather the scientific evidence mentioned.

It all began in 2017, when he published in New York Magazine, of which he is Deputy editor and climate columnist, an article with the same name than the book. The essence of that text was the same: to demonstrate, in journalistic style and using all available scientific evidence, that the consequences of the climate crisis can be devastating if nothing is done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

That article earned him not a few criticisms from society, but also from the scientific community itself, who called him an alarmist. However, time and successive scientific studies have proved he was right. October this year marked the one-year anniversary of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report, a landmark document warning of the importance of limiting the temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, making the planet much more habitable than if warming exceeded 2°C.

Sea level rise of up to one metre, ocean acidification, glacier melting, record monthly temperatures, endless droughts, increasingly frequent and severe storms and fires, forced displacements by extreme climatic events, increased world hunger, diseases that spread to new regions, disappearance of species… The list of the effects of climate change is long. For some of these future scenarios -although many are already present- Wallace-Wells surpasses in ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’. He does not consider himself an ecologist or a great lover of nature. Nor is he an activist. But he is a journalist who is aware of the seriousness of the climate crisis, hence his desire to make that reality reach as many people as possible.

What is your first memory of climate change?

It’s funny, while I’m old enough to have been alive for more than half of all the emissions that have ever been produced from the burning of fossil fuels in the entire history of humanity, I’m young enough to not remember a time before I became aware of climate change—I was probably taught about it in elementary school, perhaps even relatively early. I remember more clearly hearing George H.W. Bush talk about countering the greenhouse effect with what he called the “White House effect,” and of course the way that Al Gore gave voice to climate concerns throughout his time as vice president and during his campaign for the American presidency in the year 2000. Nevertheless, like a lot of people I knew, his Inconvenient Truth documentary was a tremendous eye-opener for me—making what had previously been talked about mostly as a slow-moving, distant and compartmentalizable threat, manageable through conventional technocratic means as something much more immediate and potentially catastrophic.

Yet even so when I first began writing about climate change a few years ago, I felt that mainstream journalism and advocacy around the issue still fundamentally misrepresented the state of the science in each of those three areas.

The first is about the speed of change. Global warming is not a slow process, unfolding over centuries, but a very rapid one, with more than half of all the emissions from the burning of fossil fuels that have ever been produced in the entire history of humanity having been produced in just the last 30 years—since Al Gore published his first book on warming, since the UN established the IPCC.

The second is about the scope of change. For a very long time, we were warned about climate change almost always in terms of sea level rise, but while that is concerning it is only one of many, many impacts (heat waves, droughts, famines, effect on conflict and economic growth) that make global warming an all-encompassing system that no one on the planet will be able to “escape” in the decades ahead.

And the third big misunderstanding is about the severity of change. Still today we hear so much about the thresholds of warming of 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees Celsisus, when the first is impossibly optimistic and the second is, practically speaking, unachievable, meaning that the future we will be almost certainly living in just a few decades from now will be warmer than almost any communication about climate impacts has described: many of the biggest cities in South Asia and the Middle East so hot in summer simply walking around outside would mean risking heatstroke and even death, which is one reason the UN believes we will have 200 million climate refugees or more, just by 2050; damages from storms and sea-level rise would grow 100-fold; there would be 150 million additional deaths from air pollution, a scale of suffering 25 times the size of the Holocaust; and we’d have locked in the inevitable loss of the planet’s ice sheets, which would bring, over centuries, perhaps 80 meters of sea level rise, enough to drown two-thirds of the world’s major cities, if we didn’t move them. That is not a depiction of a worst-case scenario but, practically speaking, a best case, and we haven’t even begun to process what that would mean for our politics and geopoltiics, our culture and relationship to capitalism and technology and sense of our place in nature and of the shape of history. Those impacts in what I think of as “the humanities of climate change” may be even more profound than any direct climate impacts.

Does that first memory coincide with your awareness of the magnitude of climate change?

I can’t say it does, really. For a very long time, I understood climate to be an important subject, but merely one political challenge among many—and probably not as pressing as a lot of other things we spent our time debating in the political arena.

That changed for me only in 2016, when I started seeing reports from new climate science that seemed much scarier to me than anything I had seen before — or was even seeing then — in conventional climate journalism. Given just how fast climate change was happening, just how universal and all-encompassing it seemed, and just how bad it was likely to be, I started thinking of the crisis less as a political issue and more as the political issue. Perhaps even more than that: not a political issue at all, but the theater in which all of our lives are already being conducting, and one that promises to shape, distort and deform the way we live even more dramatically in the decades ahead.

You don’t consider yourself an ecologist. Nor an activist. You admits not to be a great lover of nature. Veganism is not among your plans. You say that the ‘only’ thing that makes you feel guilty is traveling by plane, although you still do. Despite all these ‘contradictions’, you write about the consequences of climate change and the importance of climate action. Anyone who doesn’t know you and only read this description would call you a hypocrite. What motivates you to write this book?

Those are really two separate questions, and so I’ll try to answer the first one first. The science is quite clear about the relative importance of individual and collective action: if we have a hope of responding to this crisis at anything like the scale it demands, we can only do so through major policy transformations brought about by a profound reorientation of our politics. Individual consumption choices — what we eat, whether we fly, what kind of car we drive — are valuable for a number of reasons (to allow us to live within our values, to signal to those around us that we care about these issues, and to signal to politicians and policy makers that we want change) but really as a step on a path towards large-scale political action. That is because, to stabilize the planet’s climate at any temperature, even a quite horrific one, requires us to do more than simply reduce emissions–it requires us to eliminate, or zero out, on carbon. If we find ourselves 50 years from now, at 3 degrees Celsius for instance, still producing even a sliver of the emissions we do today, we will still be heating the planet further. And if we take the end-game target of a zero-carbon world seriously — which we must to have a hope of stopping warming at all — it requires something much more than the marginal adjustments to carbon footprints that can be achieved through lifestyle changes. That means that the most important thing that any individual can do is to engage politically, to try and prioritize large-scale transformational change; achieving that is much, much more important than what you buy in the supermarket or how often you travel.

To me, though, that shouldn’t be a reason for despair, or the basis for a charge of hypocrisy, since this is what politics has always been for: to allow us to live more responsibly together than we do as individuals. We don’t ask those who believe the social safety net should be expanded to first demonstrate their commitment to that cause by donating their whole incomes to charity before we contemplate the possibility of raising taxes, and we shouldn’t ask of those pushing for climate action to become themselves climate saints before we take seriously their advocacy for meaningful change. If we do, we will be restricting so dramatically the available pool of political support that no change of that scale is ever likely to come about. In America especially, we’ve been taught for so long that we make our mark on the world politically through what we buy and what we consume, rather than through actual politics, that we often think the only path forward is through changes to those consumption patterns. But of course we need something much, much bigger. Thankfully, at this point, still, it is possible to imagine a carbon transition that requires us only to change the source and basis of our present-day consumption preferences — so that power comes from renewable sources, our infrastructure is built with a new kind of cement, our planes are flown using a different kind of fuel — and not abandon those aspects of our relatively comfortable lives entirely. Of course, if we don’t move soon, some more dramatic transition may be required.

As for why I wrote the book… My own perspective is much more as a journalist and observer than as an activist, and what I’ve hoped to do is present the saga we are living through in all its epic totality—a story not just of extreme weather and sea level rise but an infinitely complex and interwoven fabric of human behavior and its consequences, one that promises to utterly transform nearly every aspect of modern life in the 21st century—as surely as you could say the 19th century was defined by “modernity,” or the late 20th by “financial capitalism,” this century will be defined and literally shaped by climate change, which will define the whole of human experience forever after.

But how much of an impact it has, and how deep the suffering it inflicts gets, is a result of choices we make now, which means I do hope that most people will respond to the terrifying news about climate not by falling into fatalism or, even worse, a zero-sum view of resource competition that generates a hard-hearted response to all of those suffering elsewhere in the world, but by embracing an empathic and engaged politics, demanding more action to alleviate as much of that suffering as is possible. The obstacles to change are enormous, but our hands are very much on those levers. The main driver of global warming is human action, and if we get all the way to hellish scenarios it will only be because we have chosen to. Which means, in theory at least, we can choose different paths forward, as well.

You don’t trust individual actions to mitigate the effects of global warming. Considers any personal gesture insignificant in the face of any political decision. So what role should people play?

A political one! That begins, at the smallest scale, with simple conversation—many polls suggest more people carry private climate anxiety around with them than ever talk about it even with those they love, which is one reason that so many feel so powerless to take action against warming. At the next step up is voting, and indeed voting for leaders who prioritize climate action. From there, we can do what we can to hold leaders accountable to those promises they made while campaigning, and in fact to get them to raise their own ambitions for action while in office. And beyond that, there is the mobilization and engagement of protest politics, which over the last year have radically transformed the landscape of climate politics across the west, and opened up whole new opportunities for action going forward.

At one point in the book, you describe climate change as a «hyperobject»: a fact so broad and complex that it cannot be properly understood. Is this misunderstanding responsible for climate inaction?

We certainly have a hard time looking directly at, and really reckoning with, the scale of the crisis as it presents itself today—and certainly at what the science tells us will be coming soon. The question of why that is is a fascinating and critical one, but I don’t know that it can’t be answered in generalities—each of us is different, with different cognitive biases and emotional and psychological reflexes, all of which conspire to prevent us from really looking squarely at some scary projections. But personally I think the complexity of climate change is not among the most important blind spots we have, in part because I don’t think the story is, ultimately, that complex: greenhouses gases make the planet warmer, we’ve been producing a lot of them, and the hotter the planet gets the worse conditions almost everywhere on it will be. The matter of what we should do about it is a bit harder to wrap your head around, I think, because nearly every aspect of modern life produces carbon and that means we need to eliminate all of that carbon, as soon as possible, which means a pretty thorough and immediate transformation of nearly every corner of the modern world—industry, infrastructure, power and electricity, agriculture and transportation.

Even so, I’m not sure it’s the complexity of that challenge that so confounds us, but just how large a transformation it is, and therefore how much it asks of us. Economists tell us, today, the action needn’t be that disruptive—in fact, that we’ll all be better of economically, even in the short term, through faster decarbonization. But in part because we struggle with so many of those cognitive biases, we have a very hard time seeing it that way.

Do you think the capitalist system is responsible for climate change? If so, can the same system lead the ecological and energy transition?

I think we need some significant reform and renovation, at the very least. Surely the system as it is today can’t continue if we hope to avoid terrible levels of warming—we’re still growing emissions, setting a new record each year, with very little time left to change course and avoid disaster. But I’m less sure than some others on the environmental left that market forces can’t help, and perhaps even drive quite a lot of the innovation and reform we need, in part because I think it’s not accurate to describe the system in which we live today, simplistically, as “capitalist.” For instance, the IMF estimates that, globally, the fossil fuel business is being subsidized to the tune of $5.3 trillion every year—that is an enormous distortion of markets, benefiting companies that happen to be poisoning our future, too. In the U.S. we have built infrastructure and developed zoning laws and regulations to support and entrench much of what we do to produce emissions—driving, flying, raising food in particular ways. To reorient those regulations isn’t an overturning of capitalism, but a reorientation of some of the priorities of our political economy—away from not just the principle of growth at all costs but also growth conducted in a particular pattern (and towards a stable, livable, relatively prosperous planet).

«If anything will save us, it will be technology’’. That sentence in his book has a lot to do with the widespread stasis that is being created around climate change.  But you also say that we cannot rely solely on it as a solution. Who could lead this technological development (corporations, governments…)?

We need leadership at all levels and in all sectors—that is how big the challenge is, and how complicated. But my point in the book isn’t that we can count on technology to save us, quite the opposite—that we can’t assume that simply because technology would be part of any response that therefore its development and implementation is inevitable. Technology is hard to deploy; building out new plantations of solar panels or constructing a new electric grid or erecting sea walls, these are infrastructure projects that will take decades, in most parts of the world. It took decades for cell phones to proliferate through the world; the internet the same. And the work required by the challenge of climate change is much more complicated and more logistically and capital-intensive. Which is why we cannot wait for new technology to be developed; though we do need to continue investing in R&D as well, we have to begin working with the tools we have, otherwise we will simply run out of time.

In addition to this technological development, what else should be done then? Who should assume this responsibility?

Our politics need to change quite dramatically, to make the matter of addressing this crisis the central project of our time.

His book is a kind of climate bible. There are many facts, predictions and evidences. 100 pages of annotations. Do you plan to adapt it to a format that can reach a wider audience?

It was written to be relatively accessible, not academic, and has been a sales success everywhere it’s been published so far (a best-seller in most of those countries). Down the line, we may choose to publish different editions, even more accessible, but there are no plans to do so now.

Do you think there is a true science fiction film about climate change? Why do they often represent unreal and apocalyptic scenarios? Would it make more sense for them to be based on IPCC reports?

Most storytelling about environmental degradation doesn’t depict in any precise way the particular drama we are about to embark on, but I don’t think the main job of those kinds of stories is to be precisely accurate—it’s not so important, I don’t think, that Mad Max takes place during an oil shortage, for instance, or that Blade Runner is not primarily about fossil fuels, we still see in them (and many other films and novels about the future) harrowing pictures of what life amidst climate change could look like. But presumably as the weather worsens and warming continues, we will start to see more storytelling that deals with those developments—presumably, I think, not just by depicting stories of climate change directly but by telling stories of all kinds that are simply set in a world defined by climate change.

There are many horrors that you describe in your book. What worries you most about the climate crisis?

That we won’t do nearly enough to stop it, and instead choose to define higher and higher levels of suffering as acceptable, in part by dehumanizing those in other parts of the world suffering already more intensely than we are in the wealthy west.

It has been two years since you published the article The Uninhabitable Earth, which resulted in your new book. Have we learned anything in all this time?

We’ve learned an enormous amount from scientists, who are publishing new research every day. And I think the public has begun to wake up, too—movement you can see in the protest movements and public opinion polls, both showing much more intense activity around this issue than has ever been seen before. And yet we’re still woefully short of addressing this problem at the scale it demands—that is the brutal math of the timeline we face, where anything short of total mobilization against climate will probably fail to save us from living lives, in the relatively near future, than we would all agree today are unconscionable.

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