The author of a new book on climate change says if people don’t mobilise to tackle the issue immediately, the planet will face untold disasters, wars, droughts and famines.
David Wallace-Wells has written widely on why he believes global warming will change life as we know it. His 2017 cover story for New York Magazine 'The Uninhabitable Earth' is the most widely read article in the online history of the magazine. He’s followed that up with a book and joined Kathryn Ryan to share his views.
The book begins with the lines: “It’s worse, much worse than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale.”
He tells Nine to Noon that his basic perspective on climate change is that it’s a story that’s too big to be told in any one way.
“I felt that the story seemed much bigger than any kind of conventional story telling on climate change allowed. It’s not just one story among many, it’s probably the dominant story of our time, of the century.”
His approach to telling the story is to inspire fear and alarm, not only because it could spur action, but because he feels it.
“I was someone who, until a few years ago, was concerned about climate but also complacent. The thing that shook me out of that complacency was fear … it seems quite clear to me that there are a lot of people like I was just a few years ago who are maybe concerned but are still behaving in ways that let the problem continue. They’re not mobilising, they’re not engaging in advocacy, they’re not really putting pressure on political leaders.
“I know from my own experience that fear and can shake you out of complacency and I know that from history.”
He gives the example of the US environmental writer Rachael Carson who wrote Silent Spring which was criticised for being hyperbolic and alarmist, but led to the eradication of DDT and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.
“The UN report that suggests we need to halve our carbon emissions by 2030 says that the only way to do that is through a global mobilisation at the scale of World War II which was not a war - as we know - that was fought out of hope and optimism, it was fought mostly out of fear and alarm.”
That’s not to say Wallace-Wells is always alarmed by the crisis. He says he can feel hopeful and optimistic when he reads about carbon capturing technology, how much cheaper green energy is becoming and the grassroots movements entering the political sphere.
However, he says climate change is a lot scarier and bigger than he was led to believe and he worries people don’t appreciate the scale of the disaster that awaits.
The planet is currently at 1C of warming over pre-industrial levels and the Paris Agreement aims to limit further warming to under 2C. However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says limiting warming to 1.5C is the only way to prevent widespread climate disasters and the world has only 12 years to take action to avoid breaching it. We’re currently on track for 4C of warming.
“2C is what most scientists describe as the threshold of catastrophe. It’s the level of warming that the island nations of the world have described as genocide. The UN projects that it could mean 200 million climate refugees by just 2050. It would mean at least several of the world’s major ice sheets would begin a permanent and irreversible melt. If all the ice sheets melted, we could be dealing with 50 or even 80 metres of sea level rise that would take centuries to unfold but would be made inevitable if we cross some of these thresholds that are just north of 2C. We could have agriculture that is 30 to 40 percent less bountiful than it is now. We could have annual heatwaves and droughts and famines. It would be quite catastrophic. It would mean a level of suffering that anyone in the world today would say was unconscionable.”
Limiting to 1.5C would still involve a lot of climate suffering, but wouldn’t melt the permanent ice sheets and would have less of an effect on agricultural yields. However, Wallace-Wells says the IPCC report is a bit of a distraction because we have no path to staying below 2C this century.
“It’s conceivably possible we might be able to stay under 2C through the mass deployment of what’s called negative emissions technology; a variety of approaches that allow us to suck carbon out of the atmosphere rather than putting it into the atmosphere, but those technologies are basically untested at scale so we’d be putting our faith in what has been described in some of the best academic journals in the world as magical thinking.”
Paralysed by fear
But the business as usual case of 4C rising is just as unthinkable.
“To give you a sense of what that would mean, one recent estimate suggested $600 trillion in climate damages which is double all the wealth that exists in the world today. There could be parts of the world that could be hit by six simultaneous climate driven disasters at once. We’d have twice as much warfare as we see today because there’s a relationship between temperature and conflict - and, in fact - that relationship holds not just at the level of states, but at the level of individuals, so you’d see murder rates and rapes going up.
“It would be a world made basically unrecognisable by the force of climate change. Looking from the vantage of today, we see that world and can think of it basically as a hell. Something that would be unlivable, and yet we almost certainly will find a way to live through those disasters.”
How humans would cope under the effects of climate change is a big focus of the book. He says it presents a set of questions about how humans will live and organise their lives that hasn’t been explored yet.
“I think it will govern our lives for the rest of this century in the same way that modernity governed life in the nineteenth century, or that financial capitalism dominated life in the end of the 20th century. That’s how total a story it is, how all encompassing. There really won’t be anywhere on earth you can escape it, or any life on earth that will be unaffected by it. That’s what I’m really interested in exploring - how we will continue to live, how we will endure and transform and deform in certain ways.”
Wallace-Wells says that to contain climate warming to around 2C would take “maximal” efforts on the part of every nation in the world to decarbonise in all sectors of their industries and economies, and it would have to start this year. He says that while it’s technically possible, there are too many political, economic, and social obstacles to doing it. And when disaster strikes, we’ll only have ourselves to blame.
“When I walk through some of these climate horrors; the droughts, the famines, the wildfires - which, in America, could get 64 times worse by the end of the century than they were this past year - all of these things sound so large and terrifying that it almost paralyses you with fear and despair. But the scale of that suffering, the scale of those hours, is a reminder of our power over the climate because if they come to pass, it will be because we have bought them into being. It will be because we collectively have produced more carbon rather than less.
“Absolutely every aspect of modern life imposes a carbon burden on the climate and we need to reimagine all of those systems. That means not pouring concrete, it means inventing a new way to fly airplanes because we can’t use jet fuel, it means figuring out a way to move the world off of beef, or to eliminate the carbon footprint of beef cattle in another way.”
He says anyone wanting to eat less beef to be a better person or have more responsibility towards the climate should be applauded, but there are ways the government could enact meaningful solutions with much more impact. For instance, small amounts of seaweed fed to cattle have been shown to offset their methane emissions. If it was legislated that all farmers must do that, no one would have give up beef because it would be carbon neutral.
“The crisis is too big to be solved through individual choice, it has to be solved by policy, which means it has to be solved by politics.”
New World Order
While there have been encouraging environmental campaigns and developments in politics in places like Europe - and the proposed Green New Deal in the United States, it needs to happen at a much faster pace. He says politicians, like individuals, are also paralysed when it comes to climate change.
“It’s really hard for anyone to wrap their heads around the scale of suffering that is likely to unfold with unabated warming. That’s because we’re basically trained by our psychology and by our culture to avert our eyes from bad news and serious warnings. We have an optimism bias.
“The world we see outside our window and the world we all grew up in is not at all a good guide to thinking about the life of humans on the planet a decade, two decades, three decades from now. The best guide that we have is science, so we need to stop anchoring our expectations for the future on our experience of the present and start anchoring in the scientific projections which are really, really bleak.”
Wallace-Wells believes we’re heading into a new world order where climate change will govern “absolutely everything” about the way we live, even if we don’t recognise it in the moment.
“That seems quite bleak but I think it’s also quite interesting; that we’ll have an opportunity to invent an entirely new politics and new culture in response to a true new era that we’re entering into now.”
He says modern life has given us the expectation that we can live outside of nature and protected from nature. Nature is a place we can go and visit when we feel like it. But the coming climate horrors will show us how much nature really encloses us.
“When that system - which was so stable for so long - is disturbed, we don’t yet know how many features of modern life it will disturb along with it. I think we’ll learn in the next few decades that everything we take for granted in modern life is built on this climate foundation which is falling away beneath us. And who knows what that will mean for the way we live.”