Which most crucial climate-change stories have we still not learned how to tell ourselves? Which of “our inner as much as our outer landscapes” might see the most change? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to David Wallace-Wells. This present conversation focuses on Wallace-Wells’s book The Uninhabitable Earth. Wallace-Wells is deputy editor at New York magazine, and a national fellow at the New America foundation. He was previously the deputy editor of The Paris Review.
ANDY FITCH: I’ve never learned proper grammatical terminology. But I can sense the profound difference between sentences that do or do not contain conditional clauses such as “Barring a change of course on fossil fuels…” Your book’s first page (especially that prodigious second sentence) does not dwell in such conditionals, particularly when it characterizes the premise that “technology will allow us to engineer our way out of environmental disaster” as a “comforting delusion.” Though the rest of this book does remain, as it itself describes, “so oppressively caveated with possiblys and perhapses and conceivablys.” So in which contexts does it make sense, at this point, to discard the conditionals and the maybes about what might still sound to us like extreme climate-change scenarios?
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: To start, I consider it really important to keep in mind, for context, how long we have known, inarguably and at the highest levels of policymaking and culture, about global warming as a potentially catastrophic phenomenon — and how little we’ve done to respond. That is, essentially, nothing. We’ve known precisely which actions of ours bring about global warming at which speeds, for at least a few decades. And half of the emissions produced in the entire history of humanity have come from the past 30 years, which means both that we’ve done as much damage in our own lifetimes as humans did in all previous millennia, and that we’ve done so knowingly.
Of course, from here, there is a wide range of possibilities — from merely a bit more grim than we have today, to truly horrifying. And so it is important to keep caveating these predictions, and to see them as potential scenarios on a spectrum of possibility. But we also need to keep in mind this basic truth that, for the whole time we have known about global warming, we’ve behaved as badly as you could possibly imagine in response.
So how meaningful are those caveats? It depends on your perspective. Technically speaking, staying below 1.5 degrees of warming is still, probably, possible. Staying below, say, 2 degrees — again, technically possible, but given the political and cultural and economic obstacles, extremely unlikely, I’d say. And so I’d consider it misleading in a pretty profound way to foreground those more optimistic possibilities, since we haven’t yet done anything to earn any faith that we might honor them.
And in what ways should Malthusian or mid-20th-century “population bomb”-style pessimistic overreach still check our potentially self-defeating predictions?
Right, I also do think we should always remember that earlier doomsaying — and, to the extent we can, make it make us more modest in our own. I do say all of this as someone who has watched with a sense of awe the political progress made on climate just over the past nine months or so. I turned in this book’s manuscript last September. We rushed the book to press, but in a more traditional publication cycle, my book wouldn’t even have come out yet. And since September 2018, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has published its report citing the drastic differences between a world 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees warmer. Anyone who had been following this story already would have absorbed most of those findings. But the report itself, and especially the way its authors talked to the press, offered this much more alarmist and urgent rhetorical positioning than anything produced by a similar body ever had.
In its aftermath, we have seen what looks to me like unprecedented political mobilization around climate. We’ve also had the school climate strikes producing a promise from the EU president to devote a quarter of all its spending (from not a huge, but still a significant budget) to climate mitigation and adaptation. We’ve had the Extinction Rebellion protests in England sort of directly lead to the UK’s declaration of a climate emergency, and to Theresa May’s commitment to zero out carbon by 2050 (still not as fast as I would like, but kind of an incredible step beyond what we could have contemplated just a year ago). In the US, with our own grotesque political inertia, we’re of course not moving quite as quickly yet, but we have seen the emergence of the Sunrise movement and, as a result, this Green New Deal debate — and the Democratic presidential candidates all engaged in a kind of arms race to produce the most ambitious climate plan. To me that signals an incredible, incredible (though of course provisional) step forward on climate policy.
But even with all of that good news, we also have to step back and recognize these astonishing developments as still completely and hopelessly inadequate to deal with the challenges we face. I don’t like making predictions, but of course as a psychological reflex it’s very hard to resist, and while my median prediction has improved a bit since finishing this book, if I then make a slightly more holistic assessment (if I factor in what limited concrete progress we’ve made even over the last dramatic year), I find it hard to justify a future prognosis that doesn’t start from… maybe “worst-case” sounds a bit too strong, but certainly a kind of complacent business-as-usual scenario.
Different people will probably have different ideas about that. So personally, I do try as often as I can, especially when discussing mid- or late-21st-century scenarios, to include an “if” (“If we don’t change course,” or “If our emissions trajectory continues upward”). But ultimately I consider that distinction, that caveat, less critical than a lot of my colleagues in climate journalism, or people I know in climate communications and climate advocacy. I’d consider it pretty problematic right now to make a claim along the lines of: “We can avoid a three-degree temperature rise this century” without some quite profoundly surprising dataset to back it up, some technological breakthrough I don’t yet see available, and probably some equivalent political transformation that would allow us to deploy this technology very, very rapidly. I see us moving in the right direction on all of those points, but not nearly fast enough.
Still sticking on this topic of how we should talk about climate, of course many present-day difficulties in discussing climate change (even in a lucid, clear-eyed account such as this one) come out of a particularly fraught recent global history, as succinctly framed in your “Hunger” chapter: “to a large degree…the humanitarian growth of the developing world’s middle class since the end of the Cold War has been paid for by fossil-fuel-driven industrialization — an investment in the well-being of the Global South made by mortgaging the ecological future of the planet.” Here we grapple with having the poise and the privilege (given our society’s unprecedented destructive exploitation of natural resources both at home and abroad) to contemplate this need for reduced human consumption on a global scale. Here the discussion of “we” itself, again as your own book notes, gets increasingly awkward and potentially imperious. The Uninhabitable Earth consolidates years of expansive thinking on the mechanisms and contingencies and social consequences of climate change. Where has all that research brought you in terms of this perhaps most pressing political and moral dilemma of today’s escalating carbon emissions directly correlating to (and also directly threatening) improved living conditions for people in some of the world’s poorest countries?
Well, for good news, I would point to a growing conventional wisdom among economists that this grotesque dilemma (faster growth or more responsible growth) no longer need govern the developing world’s development. For a very long time there was an inevitable tradeoff. But today, in part because of renewable energy getting cheaper in much (but not all) of the world, and in part because you can see the opportunities for green growth in other sectors much more clearly, clean development looks like it makes good economic sense.
Take Indonesia: over the past two decades, that country has doubled per-capita income, and halved its poverty rate, but they’ve done so by doubling their emissions. A lot of the developing world has done, roughly speaking, the same. Though now Indonesia has pledged to halve those emissions by 2030, which would put them ahead of their Paris Accord commitments. No major industrial nation currently honors its Paris commitments. But Indonesia says it can do even better than its commitments, and still grow at six percent per year (so even faster than their five-percent average annual growth over these past two decades). So hopefully, going forward, that kind of grotesque growth-versus-responsibility tradeoff will no longer apply for developing nations or for a wide range of international cooperative networks.
Still I definitely do worry about the geopolitics of climate moving more into a zero-sum political theater, and the burdens of dealing with climate change getting increasingly imposed on the Global South — in part because many of those nations will be hit hardest by its impacts, but also because economists studying the costs of environmental impact often assume a lower value for each individual life in those nations, because of their lower incomes.
So how might these economic estimates then translate into on-the-ground impositions?
To be frank, I can see a nation like the US or China, or an entity like the EU, seeing strategic advantage (backed up by their international stature) in acting slowly themselves, but while asking the rest of the world to act more quickly. Increasingly you see the American right picking up this language, saying that we don’t want to handicap our own industries and businesses while China and India continue to behave so badly. From my own universalist, cosmopolitan, even in some ways neo-liberal perspective, I’d want the whole world to solve this problem together. But I also see the challenge in a community of nations haphazardly coordinating its activities on addressing a problem whose costs and benefits will get distributed so unequally — and with any particular country, even those taking the most aggressive imaginable climate action, still having a really limited impact on what kind of climate suffering it can mitigate for its own people in the coming decades (unless it can manage to persuade or coerce every other country in the world to take similar steps).
This is the challenge that I find most dispiriting. I don’t yet see a clear way that we can coordinate all countries to solve this collective-action problem, even as I have grown somewhat more optimistic about addressing the economic-trade-off problem. Aside from China becoming a much more dominant world power and simply imposing some kind of climate regime on the rest of us (or the US and China operating as rival powers who nonetheless create overlapping pressure, and who really lean on the rest of the world to take action), I just can’t see a good path forward here.
But I do sense that, whatever happens with the geopolitics of climate (whether or not we manage to develop some legalistic or quasi-legalistic framework that truly can coordinate global activity, or at least move us closer), the most important diplomatic stories unfolding over our lifetimes will focus on negotiating these complex trade agreements, will emphasize the bad climate behavior of certain nations, will involve us and others weighing military action to depose bad actors — with carbon and climate becoming as central to how we see global politics as, say, human rights became after World War II. And of course human-rights discussions often served as an alibi for bad behavior. It’s not like every war fought in the name of human rights was a noble one.
Or that human-rights claims applied equally in all circumstances.
Exactly. And yet we have lived in a quite different world over the past 50 years because the most powerful countries at least nominally committed to this principle. So without wanting to present myself as some Nostradamus or prognosticator, I will say that one outcome I feel very sure about is that climate will become the defining force for the next century — not just in the sense of hurricanes and wildfires and droughts and famines, but also in terms of our politics and our culture, and all of our inner as much as our outer landscapes.
Here The Uninhabitable Earth also points to particularly dysfunctional public conversations happening within the present-day US itself: as the runaway worst contributor in terms of per-capita carbon emissions, the biggest diplomatic disruptor of proactive global initiatives, the only industrialized nation in which one of the major political parties still denies climate-change culpability. And yet, even though “one of the most heinous conspiracies against human health and well-being…in the modern world” has emerged from our own society, we still only contribute 15% of global emissions. So for the portion of our country who basically thinks that climate-change-denying Americans should do us all a favor and self-immolate (ideally in eco-conscious, soil-fertilizing ways), what do your years of research offer as rationale for why vengeful partisan rage is not the right (or certainly not a sufficient) approach here?
To start with that statistic about the US producing 15% of emissions: I probably should add that there are alternative ways to account for emissions, some of which make the American share quite a bit larger. For example, how should you account for Chinese-produced goods that get sold to the US? And more importantly, our historical share of emissions still stands out as dramatically higher. If we frame climate change as an accumulating problem, then our own culpability spikes. Yet as you say, I do think climate-conscious Americans often overstate the role that American climate policy has played and will play going forward.
Overstate where precisely?
You often see people on social media responding to bad climate news by basically posting: “There goes Donald Trump again.” And first of all, for sure, the policies Donald Trump has put into place have been terrible. But we haven’t really seen the climate impact of those policies yet, and even when we do, those policies will remain a trivial force in terms of the planet’s climate future. That definitely does not make these policies irrelevant — we could be moving much faster as a country, and the US moving faster as a country would, probably, spur much of the planet to somewhat faster action, too. But it does reinforce the point that when you look around the world (with so many nations not sharing our problematic climate-denial tendencies, with so many nations adopting a much more committed green rhetoric than we had even under Obama), you still find very few countries doing much better on emissions. A lot of left-leaning Americans might point to capitalism as the ultimate problem. But you can find socialist countries in the world doing worse, too.
So I do think of this problem as cutting across our whole ideological and international spectrum. I still see it coming down to the elemental fact that fossil fuels have provided (through their cheap abundance, and for a very long time) an essential engine for economic growth and material comfort. I still sense a great difficulty in getting people to agitate for fundamental change in their ways of life and in their government’s policies so long as they find themselves enjoying this cheap abundance, and can expect the future to offer more of it. I still see that basic dynamic holding true across the world, from the most advanced to the most rudimentary economies. So I don’t see a way for us to resolve this global crisis without continuing to offer people prospects for future prosperity and well-being — but now without doing such great damage to the planet. And even if we did develop the necessary technological capacities, I don’t know if we would have the moral conscience to distribute those gains equally, in a way that softened the carbon transition, especially for those in the Global South most in need of it.
When you try to take stock of this whole saga, you definitely can feel quite impotent, with our scientific forecasts always getting revised in the worse direction, and with us always still producing more and more emissions. Or a climate-conscious consumer definitely could say: “I bought my electric car. I stopped flying. I gave up red meat, and all of these global trends still keep moving in the wrong direction.” Our impotence here can fuel rage, which of course you see all over the political spectrum these days. And certainly Exxon and other fossil-fuel companies bear a huge burden of moral responsibility for this crisis — especially for the ways that they have obfuscated and muddled what we know, and campaigned for slower or no climate action. I consider all of that truly unconscionable, truly immoral.
And yet, as you suggested, our rage at those companies (which I sometimes feel, too) does in certain ways just distract us from the central fact that we essentially vote to continue this regime every single day — by not voting to change it. And while Rex Tillerson might remain a much bigger climate villain than you or I ever could be: nevertheless, you and I and everyone we know does considerable damage to the planet through the ways of life we’ve chosen. That essential fact makes us uncomfortable, and so we project this rage outward.
Where might you see such rage harnessed most effectively at present?
Well that rage definitely can be productive, if we direct it towards mobilizing around policy changes that do dramatically reshape the way we live our lives: in terms of regulating how our agriculture gets produced, and how we raise our meat, how we set our fuel standards, how we might shift quite quickly from subsidizing fossil fuels to penalizing them and subsidizing their replacements, how we might invest adequate R&D into technology — for example with airplanes, which remain quite resistant to zero-carbon replacements. But I also do think we need to abandon this predominant coping mechanism of raging at those who supposedly act against us, and taking exaggerated pride in our own small actions. I see both of those as distracting us from the real job of policy and politics.
73 percent of Americans now say that they believe climate change is real. And I definitely wish that 27 percent didn’t still believe otherwise. But 26 percent of Americans believe that aliens live among us, and we don’t give that population of believers veto power over our politics. This relatively small group still has that kind of power on climate because of climate misinformation and denial and the capture of the Republican party and part of the Democratic Party by fossil-fuel interests. And yet (and while this may be the hopelessly naive liberal in me), I still believe that we can change this political dynamic by voting and by really prioritizing climate action at the polls, and by the types of political engagements that we undertake between elections. Even if you assume we have essentially no chance of preserving the climate as it exists today, I still think you need to prioritize avoiding the 4.3 degrees increase scientists predict right now if we don’t change course.
So what best examples can you provide of individuals, corporations, countries who possess extensive carbon holdings, who will have to live for a long time to come with the costs of significant carbon-infrastructure investments, now declining to extract those holdings, and perhaps even compensating for past emissions?
First, for my dispiriting answer: I actually don’t see that having happened anywhere. I see a lot of countries and communities, especially over the past couple years, making dramatic future commitments to change their fossil-fuel consumption patterns. But these pledges often get premised on predictions that the economic / emissions calculus itself will change so dramatically that going off fossil fuels will get much less costly, and somehow won’t require us to abandon all of these valuable resources. Those predictions may come true — in fact I think they will, at some point. But they haven’t yet, and no countries have made good on their pledges yet, either. And I don’t see much evidence yet of any society making significant-enough choices that lead them away from carbon-intense living.
Again on longer-term trends, your book also makes clear that climate modeling faces almost unfathomable atmospheric and biospheric and sociological and even psychological complexities as it factors in convergent, cascading dynamics (for just one concrete, policy-related example: the fact that an especially destructive California wildfire can offset an entire year of that state’s exemplary emissions reductions — and with such fires now occurring on average once a year).
Yeah, and while that whole pattern of events seems to call for a policy solution, or for policy advocacy, my own instincts make me first relate to this phenomenon as a journalist, or really just (I hope this word doesn’t sound too corny) as a storyteller. Ultimately, I see the public very much failing so far to appreciate this aspect of the story.
To take one step back: the climate already is hotter than ever before in our species’ history. The entire history of human evolution (the development of agriculture, of civilization, of everything we take as familiar facts of our social interactions, our political systems, our cultural inheritance, our biological processes) all developed under climate conditions that no longer pertain. It’s now as if we’ve collectively landed on a different planet, and we need to figure out how many things that we’ve brought with us can survive in this new world, and how many of them will have to be remodeled or remade. Now add on top of that the fact that so far we only have reached 1.1 degrees of warming. We should expect to see at least two (probably three, and maybe four) times as much warming still this century. So our lives will get dramatically different even from where we find them right now. Everything we still take for granted actually will come up for question.
Now, I don’t think civilization will fall apart, even at four degrees. Some people coming from a more alarmist left perspective do think it will. But I think civilization, of some kind, is likely to endure. So the question becomes: what kind? What will it be like to live in that world? Personally, I think our likeliest outcome is not just that we will endure, but that we’ll adjust and often feel quite normal. One great, tragic risk is that we’ll learn to normalize significantly more suffering, so that our children and grandchildren will live in a world that today we’d describe as completely unconscionable (with hundreds of millions of climate refugees, with many millions of people dying every year from air pollution), but won’t consider this any big deal. Just that one likely outcome alone should remind us how precarious and fragile everything we take for granted as permanent remains.
And that stable or secure or permanent-seeming modern life does contain, as you say, many interlocking dynamics. So just to take one very, very basic example: this spring Mozambique got hit by its most intense storm in many decades. Then five weeks later, another storm of comparable intensity hit. Now, we know from basic intuition that countries temporarily lose a lot of resilience after just one crisis: with their resources depleted, with their infrastructure still damaged, with many people still displaced, with hospitals overrun and agricultural lands flooded. But we likewise need to grasp this cascading dynamic, with multiple climate impacts occurring all at once.
For another quick example, focusing on India’s both historic and catastrophic heat waves: you see temperature records being set all around the country right now — but at the same time you see Chennai, a city of about 10 million people, simultaneously dealing with a severe water shortage. The heat wave by itself didn’t cause but definitely did exacerbate this shortage, alongside a lot of other factors. And Chennai itself, at the same time, faced a serious tropical storm.
So where do you see the biggest need at present to recalibrate climate-change responses (in terms of green-tech innovations, government regulations, disaster planning, public rhetoric) in relation to this broader dynamic of cascading convergence?
Well so of course some countries for now can absorb individual crises. When a hurricane hits the US, we might sometimes perform better or worse, but we know how to evacuate, and we know how to rebuild. Obviously our agencies doing this work need more resources. Obviously we need to do much more preparation and adaptation work right now. Still, today, given our material wealth and our democratic strength, we can survive even a once-every-five-hundred-years storm. But even for us, when Houston suddenly starts getting hit by such a storm once a year, for three consecutive years, that really drains a city’s capacity for resilience. And more generally, when a story about a dramatic wildfire or hurricane or drought frightens us, we should also imagine dealing with a series of these seemingly discrete events.
We already see some of these extreme disasters still significantly impacting the economic well-being and future resilience of a society five or 10 years down the line. Recent hurricane devastation in Puerto Rico, for example (alongside a lot of other political problems making it harder to respond to that devastation), will probably harm its economy long enough until another hurricane of similar intensity hits the island. So by, say, 2025, Puerto Rico might find itself even less prepared to withstand such storms than in 2015. Certain societies around the world probably will keep finding it harder to prepare, and with the storms themselves getting worse and worse.
One study I keep coming back to (because it horrified me so much) claims that if we don’t soon change course, then by this century’s end certain parts of the planet will get hit by six climate-driven natural disasters all at once. So the deeper we get into warming, the more intense the suffering becomes, and the less able we become to take preventative action — as our own material resources and just pure human capital and resourcefulness get stressed and depleted. Soon rather than rebuilding certain communities’ defenses after a storm, we might just start leaving those areas behind. That explains why the UN estimates several hundred million climate refugees by the middle of this century.
Your book also confirms that the biggest variable with which climate models contend concerns predictions of human behavior. How does climate modeling incorporate, say, complex cultural vectors by which accelerating environmental destruction tends to trigger an ecological movement in a society? How might modeling predict whether such a movement will lead to substantive changes in emissions, or simply to a change in tone? Or let’s say we note that emissions have continued on an upward trend as if entirely unaffected by global treaties like Kyoto or Paris. How should we nonetheless factor into these models any number of localized conditions that might have made “failure” inevitable for now (again, for instance, with certain impoverished countries bound to prioritize first improving material prospects for their populations), but that don’t necessarily confirm we are permanently fucked as a suicidal species? Or most basically here, in what ways has your research made climate modeling seem an even more impressive intellectual enterprise than you could have imagined, and in what ways has its mission begun to feel even more impossible?
I don’t think most modeling takes a very sophisticated approach to those questions at all. There are some efforts to imagine what energy use would look like if the richest parts of the world, say, really change their consumption patterns — but not much research that I know of into just how likely those changes are, or what kinds of political mobilization could bring them about. And really that’s the whole big question governing all of this.
Yeah, and you had mentioned storytelling as potentially cheesy, but in terms of showing us this future of exhausted ecosystemic and human resilience, even while depicting more immediate scenarios, I appreciated your account of environmental degradation to Earth’s ocean providing perhaps our clearest present-day example of what globalized ecological disaster looks like: with the ocean of course our planet’s predominant environment, with only 13% of its volume not yet substantially damaged by human development, with ominous dead zones and die offs, with frightening increases not just in temperature but in acidification, with the quantitative displacement of living organisms by discarded consumer plastics, and with the ocean crucial to our own continental ecosystem’s stabilized seasonal progressions and moderate temperature ranges. And of course I’m not even yet foregrounding the rising sea levels now on pace to eclipse much of the most densely human-inhabited earth.
Right, and the public actually already responds to the terrible plight of the coral reefs. That type of story does capture significant attention and sympathy, at least among people somewhat sympathetic to the environmentalist cause — mostly on the left. And I do consider coral reefs quite important for providing food and a basic building block for many species and even for human communities. Coral certainly helps support the overall health of the oceans.
But I also think that we still hold onto a romantic, kind of naive, kind of childlike collective wonderment when it comes to the ocean. We still don’t understand it all that well. We might have more complex or conflicted relationships to aboveground ecosystems because we understand them better. But the ocean feels more like a parable. And that may also help explain why people have responded so powerfully for example to the plastic-pollution crisis. I mean, those photos shock and scare and sadden me, too, but I also know that plastics don’t have a hugely meaningful impact on our existential climate-change problem. Plastic pollution does have a significant impact on certain species, but we’re still far from a threshold past which pollution makes animal life in the oceans impossible.
So here again I personally think we should direct whatever environmental energies we have to reducing carbon emissions — that’s much more important, to me, than reducing plastic pollution, say. On the other hand, I also think that anything that helps wake people up to the collective damage we’re all doing to the planet is helpful, even if it focuses on a sort of trivial part of the problem.
How else might you here present the study of Earth’s ocean as a particularly stark site for real-time tracking of complex Anthropocenic epiphenomena?
I think very few people appreciate all the ways that the ocean factors into this broader climate-change story. Oceans, as you suggested, absorb a ton of carbon. But their capacity for that isn’t infinite, and as they become less able, our atmospheric carbon problem will get much worse. Oceans also produce oxygen, but again seem likely to lose some of these capacities due to warming.
But still my own instinct is not to focus on natural ecosystems of any kind, or the plights of particular species — which have dominated climate-change coverage for a very long time. My own instinct is to focus on human impacts. In that way, you definitely could call me a human chauvinist. I wish our planet could preserve its capability to support every ecosystem that humans inherited. But if I had to sacrifice some of these to secure a livable, just, sustainable, prosperous future for humanity, I would do that.
And I sense my own position might overlap with the median American, or the median Westerner, or maybe even the median human position. The suffering of animals interests me primarily for what it tells me about possible human suffering. For me, this book’s most nightmarish (though not necessarily representative) story focuses on the saiga antelope — this species of dwarf antelope that lived comfortably for millions of years in Siberia, and then basically got wiped out in the space of one single (especially hot and humid) summer. As temperatures changed, the behavior of bacteria that had lived happily in these antelopes’ intestines for millions of years also changed. Something about new climate conditions made these bacteria internal enemies instead of cooperative co-workers, and the entire antelope species more or less died out. Now, we know from recent human-biome research that we all house millions, perhaps billions of different bacteria and viruses inside our individual bodies. And I don’t think most of those organisms will get transformed or rewired by a change of one or two or three degrees Celsius. But the chance that a handful of these bacteria types could change their behavior certainly doesn’t seem impossible. Here also keep in mind that our gut’s biome plays a meaningful role not just in how we digest food, but in our emotional well-being, and our susceptibility to mental illness, and perhaps in autism disorders and a million other things.
We’ve only just started to understand the relationships among all of these organisms all taking part in the individual human’s complex biology. The idea that climate might impact some of those relationships really does frighten me — in part because I do focus a bit more on political, cultural, and emotional questions than most people who write about these issues, and also because we have to start reckoning with how much human functioning, in all its complexity, itself might get transformed by these broader environmental forces.
Here in terms of both passive and potentially proactive changes in our own individual lives, you seem to endorse Paul Hawken’s notion that we need to address climate change “collectively, haphazardly, in all the most quotidian ways in addition to the spectacular-seeming ones.” But you also often come across as quite skeptical of possibilities for “consumerist empowerment” to prompt substantive change. But then, again with Uninhabited Earth’s ocean storytelling in mind, I’d say that your book does persistently (and quite effectively) exert itself to illustrate the almost unfathomable consequences of climate change — often by presenting “humanizing” scale-shifts and analogies and everyday examples. So why was writing this particular book (itself, of course, a commercial product funneling profound public concerns towards individual empathically engaged consumption) a constructive way to intervene into climate-related thought and experience and feeling and decision-making?
To be honest, I didn’t think of the book primarily as a constructive project but a descriptive and reflective one, basically asking: what are we doing to the climate, on which we all depend, and what will changes to this climate mean for the way we live here in the future? But to the extent that I’d make a case for this book having a constructive purpose beyond simply telling the truth and asking those questions, it would be to motivate political change, which is really the only way (I think ) that we can address this problem at the scale it demands. Individual consumption choices are useful in certain ways — to allow people to live within their values, to signal to others that you’re really concerned about climate change, and to policymakers that you can live prosperous and fulfilling lives and still be climate-responsible. But ultimately this challenge is way too big to solve through those personal choices, since we need to entirely zero out on carbon in relatively short order, and such a project requires massive policy initiatives. I hope some people reading my book will see the urgency of that need.
Pivoting then from more literary reflections back to more concrete political outcomes, I also found fascinating one acute scenario you evoked in which a center-left mass of the electorate, let’s say in the US, continues for the next generation declaring our desperate need for a new Manhattan Project, a new Marshall Plan, and seeing these not happen. What might happen to American democracy then?
Well, I do find it dispiriting that American politics so poorly reflects the desires of the American people, with such little action on so many fronts even beyond climate, and even when 70% of the country supports action. I consider that broader condition of American politics essentially a crime. But I also do worry a lot about that more specific question you just asked, and not just in an American context. I sense that a degraded politics evolving out of accelerated climate change would (and probably will) worsen widespread resource scarcity, increase zero-sum competition both between and within nations, and intensify the self-interest animating these local and national and international conflicts — probably with some set of strongman figures arising who promise to secure some kind of relatively livable future for their peoples in a world where that happens much less.
We actually already can see most of those political developments today. When Donald Trump talks about climate change, when Jair Bolsonaro talks about climate change, when Xi Jinping talks about climate change, the language they use frightens me. It scares me to think of even more such figures emerging all across the world. And again, even political leaders much more committed (at least on a rhetorical level) to humanitarianism and universal principles and global climate action often find themselves overseeing state- or national-level policy we could call compromised at best. I mean, the day after the Alberta legislature declared a climate emergency, it approved a new pipeline. So even as climate rhetoric improves, this persistent and even escalating climate hypocrisy worries me.
Your book likewise expresses repeated skepticism about geoengineering achieving desirable-enough outcomes to offset any unwelcome consequences produced by such drastic interventions. At the same time, your book repeatedly notes that many scientists do seem to consider geoengineering initiatives our almost inevitable best means of responding to climate change. What makes you more skeptical than these scientists?
Well I do agree with those scientists at least on their sense that warming will get drastic enough that we’ll probably take some once-unthinkable actions to offset it. So the question becomes which approaches we deploy, and how quickly and dramatically. Geoengineering scares me because we just haven’t studied it enough. And here I basically mean solar geoengineering (the cheapest kind), which involves projecting sulfur or some equivalent into the atmosphere — to reflect some sunlight back into space so the Earth gets less hot. But we actually know quite little about what effects this would have. We can make some guesses based on how past volcanic eruptions have affected the Earth’s climate. We can study how aerosol pollution today already masks about a half-degree (perhaps a full degree) of potential carbon impacts. At the same time, though, these aerosols contribute to roughly nine million people a year dying from air pollution. We still need much more research done to understand all of this, and all of the other potential side-effects — and unfortunately you still can’t get much funding for that kind of research, because people don’t want to encourage that kind of contingency planning, because they consider it unconscionable not to prioritize driving down present emissions.
Where do you yourself see the best prospects for negative-emissions scenarios?
You actually have a variety of possibilities here. At a very basic level, you can plant more plants. You can manage your agriculture so that soil becomes a better carbon store. But you also can build machines that just suck carbon out of the atmosphere and produce some safe storable byproduct. We have that technology now. It works to some extent. It’s still quite expensive, and much more expensive than just reducing carbon emissions in the first place. Those costs of course will continue to fall, but we do still seem far from deploying this technology at scale. No single negative-emissions technology will provide some silver-bullet solution. My book cites one study saying we’d need to open 1.5 emissions-reductions plants per day, every day for the next 70 years, to meaningfully offset emissions and to keep us below two degrees of warming — which a global consensus of scientists considers the threshold of catastrophe. We’d have to open tens of thousands of these plants. We now have 18 in operation globally, and we’re proceeding slowly from there.
Now, for carbon-reduction approaches, we also do see some problems a little trickier to solve. Renewables have become much cheaper, but we still have the intermittency problem, and problems with our inefficient electrical grid. So we still have a long way to go there, but in general, we can imagine a world 10 years from now in which we’ve replaced many of our dirty-energy sources with clean-energy sources. We’ll also need to deploy some negative-emissions technologies to offset our infrastructure, agriculture, and transportation sectors — again with airplane emissions as one big and difficult example.
Here though I also do want to keep in mind that if we had longer timescales to work with, a lot of these technological solutions would become much more feasible. If we had 100 years to halve our emissions and 200 years to zero out, that would seem quite doable. If we even had 50 (instead of 12) years to halve our emissions, and 100 (instead of 30) years to zero them out, I think we could do that.
So the strongest argument for something like solar geoengineering probably presents this not as a permanent solution, but as the best way to buy us a few more decades of R&D, so that we can develop technologies that work at scale and at cost, and can decarbonize without completely upending the whole system of economic growth that we’ve come to depend on like addicts — without needing to go cold turkey, which I think would be nearly as catastrophic socially and politically as unabated warming.
And I do have some sympathies for those on the left who think we need to dismantle these expectations and mechanisms for economic growth, if we really want to solve our climate problem. But I remain much more in the camp of those calling on us to remodel capitalistic endeavors so that these can deliver much more just (including environmentally just) outcomes. I personally fear what it might mean for us truly to abandon growth and unplug ourselves. I’d much prefer to see some collection of policies put in place that allows us to live somewhat like how we’ve lived for the past few decades — continuing to believe that a more prosperous future will continue to reward us, rather than drastically downgrading expectations for future generations.
Of course I don’t know how plausible that is. I can think of many reasons to consider that an overly hopeful or naive perspective. It just happens to be the one that I myself bring to this story.