Humans Have 30 Years To Stave Off Climate Catastrophe: ‘It’s worse, much worse than you think’

By Robin Young, May 13, 2019
National Public Radio – Here & Now
"The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming," by David Wallace-Wells. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
“The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming,” by David Wallace-Wells. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

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

That’s how David Wallace-Wells‘ new book “The Uninhabitable Earth” opens. It’s a painstakingly researched look at the catastrophic consequences global warming is already having on the planet — and the even worse ones that are coming unless drastic action is taken over the next three decades.

“Projections estimate that if we don’t change course on global warming, we could have a global GDP that’s 30 percent smaller than it would be without climate change,” Wallace-Wells tells Here & Now‘s Robin Young. “That’s an impact that’s twice as big as the Great Depression, and it would be permanent.”

What can humans do to mitigate that kind of damage? Wallace-Wells says the short answer is “political change producing policy change.”

“We need such dramatic interventions in every sector of our world, from our energy, to our transportation, to our infrastructure, our agriculture,” he says. “Absolutely every aspect of modern life has a carbon footprint, and we need to not just reduce those carbon footprints, we need to eliminate them entirely.”

  • Scroll down to read an excerpt from “The Uninhabitable Earth”

Interview Highlights

On how he became interested in exploring the impacts of climate change

“I’m a journalist who’s interested in the near future, and I’m also a lifelong New Yorker, which meant that I spent most of my life — I was concerned about climate change. I knew it was an important issue. But I was deluded in the sense that I felt I lived in an urban fortress outside of nature in the modern world, and that while there were people elsewhere on the planet who were going to be really in harm’s way from some of these impacts, that I wasn’t going to be one of them and probably most of the people I loved weren’t going to be among them. And as a result, I thought, ‘This is an important issue, but it’s not an all-encompassing, all-governing issue.’ The deeper I got into the research just as a journalist, the more I realized, it’s everywhere. And every aspect of life — even those that we take so eternally for granted as permanent features of the world — are subject to the forces of nature. So when I walk down the street, on a concrete street, look up at steel buildings, I’m still living in nature. Especially if you’re on the coast, you’re vulnerable from sea level. But really that’s just the start.

“Absolutely everything needs to be transformed and will be transformed either by the force of climate change, or by the force that we put into avoiding climate change.”
David Wallace-Wells

“Projections estimate that if we don’t change course on global warming, we could have a global GDP that’s 30 percent smaller than it would be without climate change. That’s an impact that’s twice as big as the Great Depression, and it would be permanent. We could have twice as much war as we have today because there’s a relationship between temperature and conflict. Our agricultural yields could be only half as bountiful, and we’d be using that half as much food to feed 50 percent more people. There are public health issues, there’s a relationship between temperature and mental illness. There’s an effect on cognitive performance. Really everywhere you look — wildfires, extreme weather, hurricanes, droughts, heatwaves — every aspect of life as we know it on this planet is changing already. The planet is already hotter than it’s ever been in all of human history, and it will surely change more, which means that everything we know about human life and human civilization grew up under conditions that no longer preside, and we’re living in a different enough environment — it may even be better to think already that we’re living on a different planet — and given where we’re headed, things are going to change even faster, even more dramatically in the decades ahead.”

On how rapidly climate change impacts have intensified just in the last 30 years, despite climate change awareness also intensifying

“It’s really amazing to think, I’m 36 years old, which means my life contains this whole story. I have memories that are more than 30 years old. I remember driving and flying more than 30 years ago, and since I formed those memories, we’ve done more damage to the climate than in all of the centuries, all of the millennia before in human history. That’s a really dispiriting fact to know in terms of how powerful knowledge is, because this is the same period of time since the U.N. established its [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] body, and really advertised to all of the leaders of the world that this was a pressing, dramatic problem. But those 30 years have brought us from a stable climate to the brink of catastrophe, which is where we are now. We have about that much time again to avert some of these worst scenarios — 30 years ahead of us — and that means really, again, it’s not just the story of the first half of that story that’s going to take place in my lifetime. It’s the second half, too.

“This is a drama of a scale that really we only used to understand or recognize in mythology or theology. The main driver of the future climate of the planet is what we do, and all of us are protagonists in that story and we’ll determine what kind of future not just our children live in, but our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren. That is how consequential the decades ahead of us will be.”

On what needs to happen in order to avert a worst-case scenario

“Most scientists would say we need to zero out on carbon globally by about 2050 in order to have a chance of stabilizing the planet below this threshold of a catastrophe. I think it’s unlikely that we’d do that. But that’s not a reason for slowing down now.

“I think it’s really important to understand that this is not a binary system, it’s not a matter of whether we pass that threshold or not. It’s not a matter of whether we reach a hellish climate scenario or not. Every tick upward of temperature produces more suffering, more pain, and every tick that we can avoid will make the world a better place in the future. So while I think it’s unrealistic that we entirely zero out on carbon by 2050, I think we should marshal as many resources as we possibly can to achieve that goal. … The story of climate change is so big that we can’t solve it through small actions. We need a big policy response.”

On humanity having to adjust to the new living conditions climate change could create, regardless of what kind of action is taken

“I think that we will be on a different planet no matter what path we choose. Which is to say, even if we take quite dramatic action and really transform our trajectory on climate change — which is possible, everything is within our control, everything is up to us. It’s not outside of our power. But even if we do that, we will be left with a world that is dramatically shaped by climate change, because it will mean huge new plantations of solar panel plants. It will mean plantations of carbon-capture technology which suck carbon out of the atmosphere. It will mean an entirely new infrastructure. It will mean new kinds of airplanes, new kinds of public transportation. It will mean a new approach to diet and agriculture.

“Absolutely everything needs to be transformed and will be transformed either by the force of climate change, or by the force that we put into avoiding climate change. Now thankfully, there’s still time to imagine a world that is made prosperous and fulfilling and just through climate action.”

Book Excerpt: ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’

by David Wallace-Wells

It is worse, much worse, than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions: that global warming is an Arctic saga, unfolding remotely; that it is strictly a matter of sea level and coastlines, not an enveloping crisis sparing no place and leaving no life un-deformed; that it is a crisis of the “natural” world, not the human one; that those two are distinct, and that we live today somehow outside or beyond or at the very least defended against nature, not circumscribed and literally overwhelmed by it; that wealth can be a shield against the ravages of warming; that the burning of fossil fuels is the price of continued economic growth; that growth, and the technology it produces, will allow us to engineer our way out of environmental disaster; that there is any analogue to the scale or scope of this threat, in the long span of human history, that might give us confidence in staring it down.

None of this is true. But let’s begin with the speed of change. The earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are living through now, each so complete a wiping of the fossil record that it functioned as an evolutionary reset, the planet’s phylogenetic tree first expanding, then collapsing, at intervals, like a lung: 86 percent of all species dead, 450 million years ago; 70 million years later, another 75 percent; 100 million years later, 96 percent; 50 million years later, 80 percent; 150 million years after that, 75 percent again. Unless you are a teenager, you probably read in your high school textbooks that these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs involved climate change produced by greenhouse gas. The most notorious was 252 million years ago; it began when carbon warmed the planet by five degrees Celsius, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane, another greenhouse gas, and ended with all but a sliver of life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster. The rate is one hundred times faster than at any point in human history before the beginning of industrialization. And there is already, right now, fully a third more carbon in the atmosphere than at any point in the last 800,000 years—perhaps in as long as 15 million years. There were no humans then. The oceans were more than a hundred feet higher.

Many perceive global warming as a sort of moral and economic debt, accumulated since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and now come due after several centuries. In fact, more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades. Which means we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before. The United Nations established its climate change framework in 1992, building a political consensus out of a scientific consensus and advertising it unmistakably to the world; which means we have now done as much damage to the environment knowingly than we ever managed in ignorance. Global warming may seem like a distended morality tale playing out over several centuries and inflicting a kind of Old Testament retribution on the great-great-grandchildren of those responsible, since it was carbon burning in eighteenth-century England that lit the fuse of everything that has followed. But that is a fable about historical villainy that acquits those of us alive today—and unfairly. The majority of the burning has come since the premiere of Seinfeld. Since the end of World War II, the figure is about 85 percent. The story of the industrial world’s kamikaze mission is the story of a single lifetime—the planet brought from apparent stability to the brink of catastrophe in the years between a baptism or bar mitzvah and a funeral.

We all know those lifetimes. When my father was born in 1938—among his first memories the news of Pearl Harbor and the mythic air force of the industrial propaganda films that followed— the climate system appeared, to most human observers, steady. Scientists had understood the greenhouse effect, had understood the way carbon produced by burned wood and coal and oil could hothouse the planet and disequilibrize everything on it, for three-quarters of a century. But they had not yet seen the effect, not really, not yet, which made it seem less like an observed fact than a dark prophecy, to be fulfilled only in a very distant future—perhaps never. By the time my father died, in 2016, weeks after the desperate signing of the Paris Agreement, the climate system was tipping toward devastation, passing the threshold of carbon concentration—400 parts per million in the earth’s atmosphere, in the eerily banal language of climatology—that had been, for years, the bright red line environmental scientists had drawn in the rampaging face of modern industry, saying, Do not cross. Of course, we kept going: just two years later, we hit a monthly average of 411, and guilt saturates the planet’s air as much as carbon, though we choose to believe we do not breathe it.

The single lifetime is also the lifetime of my mother: born in 1945, to German Jews fleeing the smokestacks through which their relatives were incinerated, and now enjoying her seventy-third year in an American commodity paradise, a paradise supported by the factories of a developing world that has, in the space of a single lifetime, too, manufactured its way into the global middle class, with all the consumer enticements and fossil fuel privileges that come with that ascent: electricity, private cars, air travel, red meat. She has been smoking for fifty-eight of those years, always unfiltered, ordering the cigarettes now by the carton from China.

It is also the lifetime of many of the scientists who first raised public alarm about climate change, some of whom, incredibly, remain working today—that is how rapidly we have arrived at this promontory. Roger Revelle, who first heralded the heating of the planet, died in 1991, but Wallace Smith Broecker, who helped popularize the term “global warming,” still drives to work at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory across the Hudson every day from the Upper West Side, sometimes picking up lunch at an old Jersey filling station recently outfitted as a hipster eatery; in the 1970s, he did his research with funding from Exxon, a company now the target of a raft of lawsuits that aim to adjudicate responsibility for the rolling emissions regime that today, barring a change of course on fossil fuels, threatens to make parts of the planet more or less unlivable for humans by the end of this century. That is the course we are speeding so blithely along—to more than four degrees Celsius of warming by the year 2100. According to some estimates, that would mean that whole regions of Africa and Australia and the United States, parts of South America north of Patagonia, and Asia south of Siberia would be rendered uninhabitable by direct heat, desertification, and flooding. Certainly it would make them inhospitable, and many more regions besides. This is our itinerary, our baseline. Which means that, if the planet was brought to the brink of climate catastrophe within the lifetime of a single generation, the responsibility to avoid it belongs with a single generation, too. We all also know that second lifetime. It is ours.

Excerpted from the book THE UNINHABITABLE EARTH by David Wallace-Wells. Copyright © 2019 by David Wallace-Wells. Republished with permission of Tim Duggan Books.

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced this interview and edited it for broadcast withKathleen McKenna. Jack Mitchell adapted it for the web.