“It is worse, much worse, than you think,” is the first line in David Wallace-Wells’s harrowing new nonfiction book, The Uninhabitable Earth, which draws from hundreds of scientific studies to imagine the horrors that await us if we don’t take more aggressive action on climate change.
Wallace-Wells’s book is based on his 2017 article in New York magazine that was criticized by scientists and journalists for fearmongering. But today, some of those same experts appear alongside him on television to support his claims. What they once deemed over-the-top alarmism now seems like a crucial call to action.
This book arrives just four months after the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report, the gold standard in climate science research. Historically, these reports have been conservative in both tone and in their predictions for the future. But the latest one reverberates with unprecedented urgency. According to its authors, if we are to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a number just shy of the 2-degree threshold for catastrophe, then we must engage in “rapid and far-reaching” transitions across every sector, including energy, industry, and transport. And not only that, we must also eliminate carbon emissions entirely by 2050. Anything less and we’ll be living in a nightmarish world ravaged by deadly heat spikes, unspeakably high sea levels, widespread agricultural failure, and rampant disease. But that only describes our world at just 2 degrees of warming. In his book, Wallace-Wells imagines what might happen if we reach 3 degrees or more—a scenario, he says, that’s increasingly likely.
As he shows, the impacts of climate change extend beyond the irreversible damage to natural ecosystems. They will affect every aspect of human life, including our mental health. “[Between] a quarter and a half of all those exposed to extreme weather events will experience an ongoing negative shock to their mental health,” he warns, but even people who don’t live in the immediate aftermath of extreme weather will suffer from “climate trauma.” An extensive bibliography cites the reports that bear out these claims. No one, it seems, will escape the psychological damage of climate change.
As The Uninhabitable Earth unfolds, the descriptions of catastrophic destruction, psychological trauma, and economic failure add up to a hellish vision that will shake even the most impassive of readers. But the book is not without something like optimism: “The horizons are…open to us, however foreclosed and foreordained they may seem,” he reminds us.
Wallace-Wells spoke to me over the phone about that measured optimism, as well as how we might forge a path—or several paths—forward. Our conversation was wide-reaching, touching on policy as well as the current state of storytelling surrounding climate change. The transcript has been edited slightly for clarity and length.
– Amy Brady for Guernica
Guernica: Let’s begin by discussing the speed at which climate change is happening, which you say is greatly misunderstood.
David Wallace-Wells: One of the largest and most problematic misunderstandings that we have about climate change is that it’s slow, that it unfolds on a timescale of many decades, or even centuries. Even [climate scientist] James Hansen’s big book about climate change is called Storms of my Grandchildren. But the truth is that half of all emissions produced from fossil fuels have taken place in the last thirty years—an astonishingly short amount of time. I’m thirty-six years old. I remember what it was like thirty years ago. My life contains the whole trajectory of this story that took us from a relatively stable climate to where we are now, on the very brink of climate catastrophe. This has all happened since Al Gore published his first book on warming and since the United Nations established the IPCC report.
Guernica: Do you see our understanding of climate change evolving as its effects grow worse?
Wallace-Wells: There are more people now that understand that climate change is real and happening—quite a lot of people, actually, and the numbers are growing. But what’s not yet clear is what that knowledge will mean. Will we respond in responsible ways, or will we respond as irresponsibly as we have the last thirty years? The speed and scale at which climate change is happening is horrifying. It’s so scary it’s possibly even paralyzing. But there are two things that are really important to keep in mind. One is that, just because the future looks scary, this is not a reason to stop contemplating it. It’s a reason to look squarely at it. If we don’t, then we won’t do what we need to avoid some of the worst of what could possibly happen.
The second thing to remember is that the scale of the devastation that could come to pass is a mark of our power over the climate. Yes, there are all kinds of planetary feedback loops that scientists are still working to understand, and they will likely continue to warm the planet no matter what. But the primary driver of global warming is carbon emissions produced by humanity. So, when looking at all the obstacles we face when trying to tackle the issue—including politics—it’s important to remember that nothing about our path forward is inevitable so long as we have the will to make the choices we need to make.
Guernica: I appreciate your measured optimism. I suppose one way to think about the future—which will undoubtedly bring a lot of suffering no matter what actions we take today—is that while 3 degrees of warming would be really bad, 4 degrees would be much worse.
Wallace-Wells: Yes, totally. That’s something that I don’t think most people really understand. They still think of climate change as a binary proposition. But the question isn’t whether climate change is here or not, or even whether we’ve passed the threshold of catastrophe. It’s a question of how bad are we going to let it get. Even if we get to the hellish scenarios that will come when we move north of 4 degrees, we will still have the power to avert future warming. Yes, we will need to learn how to navigate a new world with new rules, new laws, and new pressure points, but the success of that navigation is up to us, and so is how quickly and aggressively we take action.
Guernica: The fact that we haven’t taken greater action astounds me given some of the statistics in your book, and I don’t just mean the most terrifying statistics—I mean the exciting ones. For example, you write that by 2030 the cost of shifting completely away from fossil fuels to green energy would be negative $26 trillion. In other words, we would make money—a lot of money—on the transition. Why isn’t that bigger news? Why hasn’t the energy sector capitalized on this?
Wallace-Wells: In this case, it’s because the research is so new. Most of the studies that resulted in those findings have come out only in the last few years. There used to be this conventional economic wisdom that action on climate is costly—not just in the sense of requiring investment up front, but in the sense of having to forgo economic growth going forward. And most policy makers, however concerned they were with the humanitarian costs of climate, were also concerned with economic growth. That’s the political universe that we live in, not just in the US, but throughout what we think of as the West. So policymakers have been reluctant to take action as a result. That’s one of the main reasons why we’ve had so little action on this front. What’s important to realize is that in the last couple of years we’ve also discovered just how dramatic the impacts will be economically if we don’t change course. The best researchers living today have found that we’ll have a global GDP that’s at least 20 percent, and possibly 30 percent—smaller than it would be otherwise. And in some parts of the world, the impacts would be much, much worse: there would be no economic growth at all.
Guernica: What has changed in the last couple of years in terms of research on climate change? Why are these facts available to us now?
Wallace-Wells: In part, researchers have developed a more sophisticated methodology. And people with more diverse interests in climate science have developed a more extensive set of inquiries. It’s also because we have a broader understanding of what the impacts are. Today, scientists are creating economic models that look, for instance, at the impact of heat on worker productivity and on their cognitive performance. These are things that we’re really just beginning to learn about now.
Guernica: The effects of global warming on worker productivity was one of the most interesting revelations in your book. Can you discuss that further?
Wallace-Wells: It’s still early research, so a lot of it is speculative. But what studies are showing is that there is an optimal temperature level for economic productivity, and it’s exactly 13 degrees Celsius. We’ve seen that throughout history. Many of the world’s most productive economies over time have an average temperature of 13 degrees Celsius, including the United States and Germany. As the world warms, places that are north of that ideal temperature will lose some productivity. You can actually see this panning out here in the States. We are currently losing some slice of GDP every year because our annual median temperature is now at something like 13.4 degrees instead of 13. What’s really remarkable is that, right now, the San Francisco Bay area is exactly at 13 degrees Celsius, and that’s where we think of the American economy as being most productive.
Guernica: Help me to understand how heat can have such a profound effect.
Wallace-Wells: The science is complicated. It has to do, in part, with how temperatures affect agricultural yields. But also think about how you and I might feel lazy on a hot day. Studies show that people do worse on tests when it’s hotter out or when the air they’re breathing is polluted. Those conditions also lead to more domestic assault and more crime in general. And yes, it’s a little weird to think in these terms, because doing so suggests we lack individual free will, or that everything is rooted in some kind of geographic determinism. But the social science bears it out. The temperature can have a meaningful impact on economic productivity as well as mental health.
Of course, to measure any of these problems in dollars and cents is misleading, because when we use those measurements, flooded property in, say, Bangladesh—and the effects of that on the people who live there—suddenly counts less than flooded property in [rich, Western places like] Miami Beach.
Guernica: Are we going to see this information transform the thinking of our policymakers?
Wallace-Wells: Well, we have a lot of biases to overcome, and one of them is that the suffering of the global poor counts for much less than the suffering of the global rich. But this new research is being talked about more and more. It was a meaningful part of the UN’s report from last October. So it’s just a matter of time before it starts to affect the thinking of policymakers. I think that a new conventional wisdom that we can actually create wealth by acting more quickly on climate will eventually lead to a sea change in how, globally, policymakers approach the issue of climate change. But that’s not to say this information will solve all our problems. Even if everyone in the world was mobilized and motivated to take aggressive action for economic reasons, there would still be this problem where every nation is incentivized to slow down and let the rest of the world clean up the mess.
Guernica: What do you mean by that?
Wallace-Wells: Look at the experience the United States is having under Donald Trump, who I actually don’t think is a climate denier; I think he just sees national advantage in not taking action. He thinks we can get a little money from burning coal now, and whatever happens in the future as a result of that is not his problem. And then there’s [Canadian Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau, who does a lot of grandstanding about the importance of taking action, but he’s also approving new pipelines. And Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, has made huge investments in green energy, which has completely transformed that sector throughout the entire European continent. But at the same time, she’s retired nuclear power so aggressively that the new green energy can’t pick up the slack. So Germany’s emissions along with everybody else’s in the world are actually growing. There needs to be some way of making sure that that this kind of thinking doesn’t happen, so that each nation isn’t incentivized in a perverse way to do less than their counterparts.
Guernica: What would such an incentive look like? A carbon tax?
Wallace-Wells: I don’t totally know. One of the things I write about in the book is that we’re likely to see an entirely new geopolitics emerge over the next couple of decades that’s centered around the issue of carbon and climate change, sort of in the way that the post–World War II era was shaped by concerns about human rights and peace and prosperity. I think it’s quite likely that carbon joins that list of concerns, or even supplants them as the prime concern. We could see nations sanction one another based on their bad performance on carbon in the same way that they sanction them now for their bad performance on human rights.
Guernica: Wasn’t the Paris Accord an attempt at this?
Wallace-Wells: It’s still early, but I have to say that my view of the Paris Accord was that it failed. And that its failure is in part a failure of the old model of the old liberal, globally cooperative post–World War II order. I mean, look, a part of me is still a child of the 90s and believes in many of those values and wants to see that order restored and strengthen so that it can tackle this problem, which is enormous. But the analytical side of me isn’t sure that’s likely to happen.
Guernica: What could happen?
Wallace-Wells: Well, even MBS [Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia] has said that he understands that his country’s economy needs to be off oil by 2050. That gives you a little sense of how even a figure like him is thinking about his country’s long-term place in the world. He understands that the geopolitics of 2050 won’t accommodate a petrol state as irresponsible as Saudi Arabia. In a few decades, I don’t think it’ll be possible for a nation like Saudi Arabia to be benefiting from the continued burning of fossil fuels and still expect a place at the table talking to nations like the US or members of the EU. It’s also possible that there might be some kind of military enforcement mechanism for carbon budgets. We could even see China’s imperial vision realized over the course of the rest of the century, as they build ambitious infrastructure through Africa and Asia, and come to preside over many of those countries as some kind of imperial force in much the way that the US once presided over much of Europe. You could imagine China just deciding that all of those countries need to shape up in terms of carbon. I can also imagine a real global network like the UN doing that. But all that’s a ways off, and I’m not sure how we’ll see it happen.
Guernica: I feel like in the meantime a lot of really smart and otherwise hopeful people are feeling helpless. It’s hard to imagine a new world order when here in the United States we’re mired in the partisan muck of our own national politics. Meanwhile, other parts of the world seem to be suffering from their own kind of climate inertia.
Wallace-Wells: Yeah. But you know, I think that extreme weather is waking people up. I think the Green New Deal is an incredible step forward. It’s something that was basically unimaginable just a few years ago in American politics. And I think we’re likely to see similar changes all around the developed world over the next few years.
Guernica: What do you hope to achieve with the storytelling in your book?
Wallace-Wells: I think that one of the big functions of my book is to serve as an occasion to really take stock in our predicament and to think beyond questions of degree targets. I hope to spark conversations about how life will be shaped and transformed by the forces of climate change in the near future. The conversations are starting, but we’ll see.
Guernica: Let’s talk about the storytelling surrounding climate change. You write in your book that fictional representations in novels and movies don’t do a great job of describing the issue accurately. In a way I can see what you mean. Climate change isn’t a traditional villain, so it’s hard to represent. And of course the science isn’t always accurate in these stories. But I wonder: Even if a fictional narrative fails on these fronts—and to be clear I don’t think that all fictional narratives about climate change fail; I think some are quite good—can’t even the failures at least generate more awareness around the issue?
Wallace-Wells: I think that some forms of storytelling can focus people’s attention and animate their imaginations in ways that will be helpful to the cause. I say that as someone who is also interested in narrative, as a journalist who’s trying to do storytelling. But I also think that we’ve left a lot of storytelling tools on the table—particularly with our nonfiction, but also with our fiction. We have a real opportunity here to invent new kinds of stories. Think about what Black Mirror has done for the paranoid imagination of a techno future, for example. Black Mirror didn’t invent the subject matter, but it has fashioned a whole new vocabulary for how we think about the challenges that technology poses to us. And I think something similar is certainly possible with climate change. It’s funny, I said to [science-fiction author] William Gibson a few weeks ago that science fiction writers are going to be seen as even more prescient in the age of climate change. And he was like, I hate when people call us prescient, because we’ve never predicted anything correctly! We’ve always gotten everything wrong except the mood. And I was like, No, no, no, the mood is a prediction, and you’ve gotten the mood exactly right.