Earth's Climate Future

David Wallace-Wells writes about climate change for New York Magazine. In 2019, he published The Uninhabitable Earth, a book exploring what life will be like after continued global warming. The Journal of International Affairs spoke with Mr. Wallace-Wells about how the climate crisis will disrupt economies and livelihoods. 

David Wallace-Wells
February 15, 2020

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): You’re best known for your writing about the future of the climate, both at New York Magazine and in your book The Uninhabitable Earth. Can you explain for our readers what questions you set out to answer when you wrote these?

David Wallace-Wells (DWW): Well, the first big piece that I wrote, published in 2017, was really meant to answer the question “How bad can it get?” Most climate story-telling from scientists, advocates, and journalists focused on the optimistic end of the spectrum of possibility. As a result, it seemed to me that the public simply didn’t understand the gravity of the threat we were facing.

As I understand it, we hold three big delusions. The first is about the speed of change. I think most people understand climate change to be a very slow process, that it is up to us to clean up the mess left behind by our grandparents so that our grandchildren won’t have to deal with it. But half of all the emissions that have ever been produced from burning fossil fuels have come in the last thirty years, and we are now already beginning to see the effects of climate change in extreme weather, so this is happening currently.

The second big delusion is about the scope of change. I had heard a lot about Arctic ice melt and sea levels rise, but the deeper I got into the research, the more I understood that that was just one of many problems that would arise from climate change. There are economic impacts, agricultural impacts, effects on cognitive performance, and public health issues. Just about everywhere I looked in the modern world, I saw some kind of destructive impact about to unfold, and that meant we couldn’t consider the climate crisis as a single issue among many. It is really the theater in which all of our lives were being conducted, and which all of our lives will be affected by as it unfolds. 

The third big delusion is about the severity of change. It is rare to find coverage of warming scenarios north of two degrees Celsius. Scientists called that level catastrophic, island nations of the world called it genocide, but given where we are now, it’s a best-case scenario. What I set out to do was to explore what it would mean to end up at three or four degrees. I realized that this is not a story that could be confined to climate science. It would shake out through our politics and our geo-politics, our culture, our relationship to capitalism, our sense of our place in nature and place in history. Climate change is going to be the defining meta-narrative of the entire twenty-first century. 

JIA: Briefly, what will life be like if we fail to mitigate global warming? 

DWW: The best-case scenario is that we limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius this century. In this scenario, the UN expects that damages from sea level rise and storms would multiply by a hundred. Many cities in South Asia and the Middle East would become so hot during summer that regular heat waves would make it impossible to walk around outside without risking heat stroke or death. Between 200 million and a billion people could be turned into climate refugees. We would be approaching the point at which we would permanently lock in the loss of all of the planet’s ice sheets; that process would take centuries, but ultimately would produce 250 feet of sea level rise, which is enough to drown two thirds or more of the world’s major cities. Two degrees of warming would mean 153 million additional deaths due to air pollution. 

All of those impacts that I just described are, practically speaking, a best-case scenario. How far beyond that we go is up to us. One of the basic misconceptions of the climate crisis is that it’s a binary. But it’s not; it’s a spectrum of suffering, and where we end up on that spectrum is a matter of how much carbon we put into the atmosphere. 

The planet has already heated 1.1 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. That doesn’t sound like very much, but it means that the planet is already hotter than it’s been in all of human history. Everything we’ve ever known as a species, everything that we know about ourselves is the result of climate conditions that we’ve already left behind. We are more vulnerable to climate disruption than we tend to imagine when we look out our windows. We tend to dismiss anything but marginal changes to the status quo as really hard to credit. I think that has handicapped all of us in our ability to really process what it is that the scientists of the world are telling us about how fundamentally our lives will change if this story unfolds as we expect it to. There’s been good research suggesting that by the end of the century, parts of the planet could be hit by six climate-driven natural disasters at once. It’s hard to imagine any kind of social structure or political structure resilient enough to handle those assaults and still emerge stable. 

JIA: I’d like to talk more about what you’ve described as our collective state of denial. I think a lot of people from the younger generations have come of age with a sort of existential dread about climate change. What would you say to people who feel that way and feel overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis? 

DWW: You’re right to feel that we are facing an existential challenge. I don’t think humans will go extinct on a timescale meaningful to us, but our existence will be defined by our encounter with this crisis. The scale of the impacts that are possible this century are terrifying, but ultimately they are also a reflection of our power over the climate. These are not scenarios that are going to come to pass no matter what we do, they will only come to pass if we choose to continue producing carbon. That means that we can make another set of choices as well. That may sound a little naïve. There are enormous obstacles to the kind of change that would be necessary to avoid a catastrophic level of warming, but all of those obstacles are human ones. We can overcome them if we choose to. This is not a story that’s already been written, it’s a story that we will be writing in the decades ahead, based on the choices that we make. 

We’ve begun to see, over the last year or so, a dramatic amount of political progress that suggests that we are already living in a very different political environment than we were a year or so ago. We’re still really far behind, but much more seems possible today than seemed possible a year ago. If we continue on this trajectory, what today seems impossible will seem possible next year. What seems impossible in 2025 may seem totally achievable in 2030. The best antidote to fatalism and despair is progress. I see a lot of reasons for hope, because our politics have really changed dramatically, opening up a lot more possibilities going forward. 

JIA: When we talk about addressing climate change, there’s often a debate that goes on under the surface. There are those who believe that smart policy and technological advancement will allow us to mitigate climate change but more or less maintain our economic structure and our current standard of living. On the other side, there are those who think that we need to restructure our economy and our livelihoods. Where do you stand on this debate?

DWW: I’m personally not ready to say that we need to give up on a culture of economic growth in order to achieve dramatic mitigation of climate change. I also think that, in general, wealth produced by economic growth will empower us and enable us to adapt to the level of warming that we can’t mitigate. It’s not just a matter of growing while combating climate change; it’s a matter of directing our patterns of growth such that they combat climate change. But we certainly can’t continue to behave the way that we’ve behaved over the last number of decades and expect that we’ll get a handle on this crisis. 

That’s not to say I’m a pure free marketeer, where I think the only thing we need to do is to put a fair carbon price and everything will work itself out. I think it’s more complicated than that, but I also think that the choice between a market driven approach and a de-growth approach is also a false one. It would probably be dangerous to say there’s only going to be one workable approach going forward. 

I think the systems that we live in today are toxic and poisonous. I think we need, at the very least dramatic reformation, to give us a chance of really controlling this crisis. When I read that the International Monetary Fund estimates that globally we’re subsidizing the fossil fuel business by 5.3 trillion dollars a year, I don’t think that means we need to give up on capitalism. I think it means we’re living in a crony capitalist system in which certain business interests have reoriented political power for their own interests. That is not a sustainable model if we want to give ourselves a chance of addressing this crisis. 

JIA: Climate action has been a major topic in the Democratic primary this year, with most candidates releasing their own plan to combat climate change. As you evaluate these plans, what are you hoping to see? 

DWW: The more ambition the better for me. I think we should have a carbon tax, and I think we should have significant research and development. I think we should be legislating to reduce agricultural methane emissions. I also think that we should encourage cultural changes. I think we should think about housing policy differently, and industrial policy differently. I think it is an all-encompassing challenge and that requires us to attack it from as many different angles as we can manage at once. I think the great rhetorical brilliance of the Green New Deal is that it presents climate action as a public investment program. I think that’s quite powerful, because for a very long time, conservatives fought climate action by saying that it would be costly, but the Green New Deal suggests that the payoffs will be dramatically larger than the “costs” of those investments at the outset. 

I was recently talking with Christiana Figueres, one of the major architects of the Paris Accords. She said we can’t rely on the nations of this world to understand their shared fate. She said what we really need to do is appeal to their sense of self-interest, and the best way to do that is to talk more about public health concerns, because unlike climate impacts, which are distributed globally, public health impacts are, for the most part, contained within national borders. So American action on air pollution will actually improve the well-being of Americans, and the same for every nation in the world. 

JIA: Do you share Ms. Figueres’ opinion? Do you think there is a chance for successful climate action without meaningful international cooperation? 

DWW: The short answer is no. The impacts are distributed globally, so every individual nation is incentivized to only take action if everyone else is taking part. That means getting a handle on this will require global action, but I also look at the state of the Paris Accord and see very little hope for that kind of non-binding, “every nation of the world counts roughly equally” kind of an arrangement, since no major industrial nation in the world is on track to meet its commitments. 

We could see the establishment of something like a World Trade Organization for climate, which would include enforcement mechanisms. I think it’s possible that something like the Paris Accord could move forward with a more dramatic enforcement mechanism. I think it’s possible that you see individual nations or communities of nations start to take that kind of approach individually. In the case of the US, I saw that Senator Ed Markey just proposed a bill that would allow the US to impose sanctions on nations for bad climate behavior. Other countries are also considering similar things. 

JIA: Addressing climate change means both mitigating warming and adapting to the warming that is already inevitable. What should governments be doing to plan for adaptation? 

DWW: They should be doing everything that is possible and they should be addressing each climate impact. We’ve heard a lot about sea walls and levies, but that sort of action is less necessary because 50 years from now we’re likely to only be seeing a few feet of sea level rise, and most cities will be able to adapt to that somewhat. 

The thing that worries me more is agriculture. It’s estimated that for every degree of warming, grain yields will decline by ten to fifteen percent. So, if we end up at three or four degrees warming at the end of the century, we could have only half as much food as we do today being produced in about the same acreage. Additionally, extra carbon dioxide in the air causes much more weed and parasite activity and much less growth of the plants we like to eat. Climate change has already begun to make the plants we eat less nutritious. We could invest in new seed lines and new GMO food that could grow better under these different conditions. 

In the case of wildfires, we need much better housing policy, something that will stop development at the “wild land-urban interface,” where most of the damage from wildfires takes place. We’d also be better served by a fire policy that allowed more controlled burns. This would have the knock-on effect of reducing emissions by causing people to live more densely. 

In the case of hurricanes, at the very least we should be rethinking the national flood insurance policy. That policy is essentially incentivizing development in flood-prone areas that are going to only become more flood-prone, rather than allowing market forces to work on their own by making sure that that real estate is priced more accurately. 

There are policy tools like that for every impact that you can imagine. Ultimately, they will only be helpful if we can limit the extent of warming. So I hope that the governments of the world don’t think of this challenge as an either/or. We don’t have to choose between mitigation and adaptation; we should be doing both maximally and immediately.