The journalist and author has claimed climate change will soon render the world uninhabitable, leading his supporters to say he’s telling the terrifying truth and critics to brand him a reckless alarmist. Why is he so worried?
— David Wallace-Wells’s apocalyptic depiction of a world made uninhabitable by climate chaos caused an outcry when it was published in New York magazine in 2017. Based on the worst-case scenarios foreseen by science, his article portrayed a world of drought, plague and famine, in which acidified oceans drown coastal homelands, dormant diseases are released from ancient ice, conflicts surge, economies collapse, human cognitive abilities decline and heat stress becomes more intolerable in New York City than in present-day Bahrain. Critics called this irresponsibly alarmist. Supporters said it was a long-overdue antidote to climate complacency. Whatever your view, it was among the best-read climate articles in US history. Now he is back with a book-length follow-up.
Jonathan Watts: You have written a hell of a book. Your now-famous opening lines – “It’s worse, much worse, than you think” – are like a voice from a nightmare. Are you deliberately upsetting people about the climate?
David Wallace-Wells: That is one of the intentions. My hope is first of all to tell the story as I see it. That has a couple of components. One is to show the crisis is happening much faster and is more all-encompassing than people think. And then also to think how those dramatic changes are going to cascade through the lives we live, the way we relate to one another, our politics, our culture, our psychology, all that stuff. I would like people to be scared of what is possible because I’m scared. And because I am motivated by fear, I also hope they will be motivated.
The sense of speed comes across very strongly. It is as if people have got used to seeing the climate crisis as an old horror film with slow-lurching zombies but, in your version, the zombies are the much faster, scarier ones you see in modern horror films. You address the risks of heat death, hunger, drowning, wildfire, dying oceans, economic collapse and conflict, and suggest the climate problem driving them has super-accelerated beyond what many people think.
That is the thing that first opened my eyes to the change. When I learned the astonishing fact that more than half of the carbon we have emitted into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels was emitted in the past 25 years, that really shocked me. This means we have burned more fossil fuels since the UN established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) than in all of the centuries before – so we have done more damage knowingly than we ever managed in ignorance. That is a horrifying fact. It also means we are engineering our own devastation practically in real time. How much will depend on how we act, how we behave, how we respond.
The book is based on the piece you wrote for New York magazine last year that focused on worst-case climate scenarios. Were you prepared for the storm that caused?
It had about 6m page views. Within a couple of days, it was the most-read article we had ever published. It was a true phenomenon. That was thrilling in a way because the conventional wisdom about climate writing – at least in American journalism – was that it was traffic Kryptonite, that nobody would read these stories. I felt that was in part because we had left a lot of storytelling tools on the table and weren’t embracing a certain kind of writing that might reach people dramatically. I felt the article was a proof of concept for that.
In the book, you focus more on warming of around 2-4°C, which is more likely than the worst-case scenarios, though still bad enough. Was this different approach an attempt to tighten up because there was quite a lot of scientific pushback on some of the claims you made in the original article?
I had anticipated a pushback. I wrote in the original article about scientific reticence and the way many researchers were reluctant to talk about their own scary findings in public in the terms they might have included in their papers. But I do not feel the science of my story was irresponsible. We ended up publishing four corrections to the piece. What it motivated me to do – and not just me, but my fact checker and the editor – was to publish this fully annotated version of the piece within a couple of days, in which we footnoted every fact with a paper. I do believe that basically answered that first reflexive criticism of the piece as being scientifically irresponsible.
There were also questions about rhetoric. Scientists said your article was “hyperbolic” and “exaggerated”, and your alarmism was as irresponsible as climate denial. In the book, you are unapologetic. You write: “The facts are hysterical” and the only way to address them is with the language of theology and mythology. Is this Armaggeddonizing a way to reach new audiences and break down barriers?
Yes, and to activate people who are only casually engaged. To me, that is the most important messaging mission. It is important to mobilise people who at the moment are concerned, but basically complacent, and turn them into people who are much more activated and essentially voting about climate as a first-order political priority rather than a third- or fourth-order priority – judging politicians on the basis of their climate policy.
Disruption is important. But to what extent? You talk of last year’s UN IPCC 1.5°C report. It is a science paper and it is sober. It spells out the huge – and horrifying – differences between 1.5°C and 2°C of warming, and the actions we need to take right now if we are to avoid the extra half a degree, which will require a 45% reduction in emissions by 2030. You say the message of the report is: “It’s OK now to freak out.” But I guess most scientists would say: “Don’t freak out! Act! Focus! Do not succumb to paralysing fear.” Is “freak out” what you really mean?
The short answer is yes. We should not sit back and feel complacent that the world beyond us will figure this out without political pressure. We cannot continue on the path we are on and believe our future will be secure and stable. We need to dramatically change our climate policy globally. That was the very clear message of the UN report. You are right that, in a certain way, it was written soberly, but it is also the case that it was saying we need mobilisation on the scale that we saw in the second world war in Europe and the US – and that is not a keep-calm message. It is saying we have to light the fuse and get going.
On the question of what kind of motivation is most effective, I don’t believe fear and alarm are the only options; there is a place for hope and optimism. There are many shades in between. But fear is what animated me. We do not tell people only about the positive benefits of quitting smoking. We tell them about what will happen to them if they smoke. And to go back to the second world war analogy, we did not mobilise in that way because we were optimistic about the future. We mobilised in that way out of fear, because we thought nazism was an existential threat. And climate change is obviously an existential threat and it is naive to imagine we could respond to it without some people being scared. I think it is silly to throw that rhetorical tool away. My basic perspective is that any story that sticks is a good one. If you can get people engaged, it is good, however you do it.
But I also come to this subject not as an advocate, not as an environmentalist. I have been drawn into that role to some extent as a result of this work. I come into it as a journalist and as a storyteller and, at some level, the imperative for me is to tell the story true, to tell it as I see it. As you say, and as I wrote in the book, it is simply the case that the facts are hysterical. To shy away from that, I think, is irresponsible – in part because it would encourage complacency but also from the basic truth-telling level. We know these things are true to the extent that scientists can know them. I don’t think the public should be shielded from them.
What struck me in the book was that you shake the reader up and say, “Look, wake up, get going!”, and yet there isn’t much there in terms of where to go next. You delved into solutions, but you didn’t give them much chance of achieving anything. Do you believe there isn’t much out there that could help us?
I think the book does a fair amount of hope-giving. The most important thing anybody can do is vote. If people are mobilised, we can relatively quickly usher in – perhaps not globally, but in many of the more important nations – a much stronger commitment to a more aggressive climate policy.
My hope is that the US and China, with support from some other countries, start making dramatic investments in [negative-emissions] climate technology in the near future. I’m sceptical of conventional decarbonisation. We will need these additional technologies. We need to invest in them quickly.
Putting hope in technology is the excuse George HW Bush gave for not doing anything decisive in the late 1980s when he was president and it is the message of the Trump administration. You don’t sound as if you are aligned with them. What about a carbon tax?
We have to do everything we can. I would absolutely support a carbon tax and what we are talking about now in the US: a green new deal of massive investment in renewable energy. But when you look around the world, small taxes on carbon haven’t had a meaningful impact. I think we have to learn from that and realise we need much more aggressive taxes or other solutions.
In the past year, we have seen more radical action such as student strikers led by Greta Thunberg and protests by Extinction Rebellion. Do you think groups like this are useful?
Absolutely. I’m an enormous admirer of Thunberg and I am in awe of how much energy and attention Extinction Rebellion has generated in such a short time. I think their imperative to tell the truth is very important and powerful.
Would you join?
They are organising another major event soon in New York that I will be going to. Temperamentally, and by background, I am not an activist and I still think of myself primarily as a journalist and storyteller. But no matter how disinclined you are, how temperamentally reluctant you are to be a joiner, it is hard to think about the state of the climate and not be called to action.
What about individual choices? Early in the book, you state very clearly you are not environmentalist, you eat meat, and you think it is better to have economic growth than protect nature. But then you write: “Like many Americans, I am fatally complacent and wilfully deluded.” That was your starting point. How has writing this book changed you?
Everybody should live according to their values. There are people who want to radically change their lives to reduce their carbon footprint, and there are people who want to make symbolic gestures. Air travel is the one thing that I really do feel guilty about. I make choices about travel with that in mind in a way that I didn’t even a year ago.
Personally, I don’t feel that it is my thing. I admire people who give up meat for this reason. I think globally we need to be eating less meat, especially those of us in the wealthy parts of world who eat too much of it; for health reasons, too. But if I go from eating three hamburgers a year to zero, the impact on my carbon footprint is quite trivial. I have to say right now it feels so overwhelmingly the case that political action is the most important thing anyone could do, including me, that it overwhelms any of the other things.
In the book, you ask whether it is moral to have children in this climate. In the past year, you have done just that. What hope do have that your child won’t live in the uninhabitable world of your title?
I come at the question of hope from the perspective that truly total devastation is possible and something close to that is where we are heading now. So every degree cooler, every tick of temperature that we prevent, is an improvement and therefore a reason for hope. So, if we stabilise the planet at 3°C that is better than 3.5°C, 2.5°C is better than 3°C, and so on.
For reasons independent of climate, I wanted to have children. Most people do. I don’t think this is an impulse we need to disavow before we have finished the final act of this story. I think it is a reason to fight now so that we can continue to have those children and continue to live in the ways we want to live. It is possible regardless of how bad the news from science is.
by Jonathan Watts | The Guardian