Facing the Climate Crisis: A Conversation With David Wallace-Wells

Facing the Climate Crisis: A Conversation With David Wallace-Wells

Facing the Climate Crisis: A Conversation With David Wallace-Wells

The New York magazine writer confirms our worst fears about climate change–but insists there’s still hope.


In 2017, David Wallace-Wells, a writer at New York magazine, published an article about global warming and Earth’s apocalyptic future. The article went viral, but climate scientists found it alarmist; after the devastating climate report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was released in October, though, consensus changed. Ninety-one authors and editors from 40 countries were involved in producing the report, as well as thousands of science experts and governmental reviewers, and more than 6,000 scientific studies were referenced in it. Now, scientists and experts are echoing Wallace-Wells’s concerns.

“Because some scientists were critical of [the article] the first time around, there’s just almost like a pneumatic reaction,” Wallace-Wells said during a recent phone conversation. “Because it just wasn’t the case that the article was irresponsible with facts. It really was a matter of tone and rhetoric.”

These days, he said, scientists are more willing to fan the flames of public anxiety, because immediate action is needed for any chance to reduce the tremendous implications of the climate crisis.

Wallace-Wells’s new book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, explores the way rising temperatures will change the way humans live on earth. We spoke about the political and psychological implications of the climate crisis, the political inertia that has stunted our progress, and how to deal with the hopelessness of it all.

Natasha Ishak: Do you think that people understand the gravity of climate change?

David Wallace-Wells: I think, in general, there are very few people in the world who are as concerned about this issue as they should be. I think that’s probably true of me, and I’ve spent several years now really deep in the science and working really closely on a book that is quite alarmed in its perspective. We have many psychological biases and reflexes that push us to not consider really scary outcomes and possibilities. And we’re in a situation now where looking at the science at all is quite terrifying. So most of us, most of the time, choose not to do that. And I think that’s even true with some scientists, because if you really imbibed all of the news from science about climate change, if you really took seriously all of its projections and predictions, it could be quite overwhelming.

The world that we’re likely heading into is going to contain a level of suffering that you and I should not consider conscionable. It’s morally abhorrent to be inflicting this much suffering, especially in the poorer parts of the world. I think most people in the affluent parts of the West tend to think that wealth can be a buffer against the blows of climate change. And I think the more that we learn about just how all-encompassing [climate change] is as a system, just how all-touching it is, the more we understand that no matter where you live or how much money you have, your life will be affected by it. And, certainly, the lives of your children and grandchildren will be affected by it. I don’t think there are many people who’ve really come to terms with that.

NI: In the book you argue that climate denialism is essentially a US phenomenon. Can you explain that?

DWW: There just isn’t anything like [climate] denial really anywhere else in the world. There’s a little bit of it in England, but beyond that there’s basically none of it. There’s still, in the other parts of the world, essentially the same dynamic that you see in the US, which is to say much slower action on cutting emissions than experts would want. That’s because of the power of fossil-fuel industry all around the world, but in part it’s because the rest of us don’t want to take action ourselves to cut our emissions and aren’t really all that invested in supporting political leaders who are aggressive about policy that would do that work for us. And I think a lot of that’s changing.

You’re seeing much more grassroots activism across Europe and the UK and the US: Climate Strike, Extinction Rebellion, Sunrise [Movement]. I think you’re starting to see that show up in American politics with the Green New Deal which is, for me, a great reason for optimism. But that movement is happening relatively slowly. And by that, I mean given how much action we need to take in how short a time. I think by the sort of standards of political science, it’s happening relatively quickly. Seventy-three percent of Americans now believe in global warming, 70 percent of them are concerned about it. Those numbers are up about 15 percent since 2015; they’re up about 8 percent since just March. That’s actually really exciting progress. But if we really have to globally mobilize at the level of World War II [as the IPCC report suggests] starting this year, that kind of movement isn’t sufficient, and we need more aggressive action both at the grassroots level and at the policy level.

NI: Do you think that this slow response is one of the biggest challenges that we face to tackle climate change?

DWW: Absolutely. The stalemate inertia of not just American politics, but much of our geopolitics, is a huge problem. On the politics of the Green New Deal, I’m heartened by the last year or so. The fact that every major democratic presidential aspirant has signed on to this program, even though none of the details have been worked out, even though it’s very vague in how it will achieve its goals, even though there are plenty of people in the business community and on the right who have been critical of it—I see that as amazing progress given where the Democratic Party was just a couple of years ago. And I think it’s reason for hope.

I think that a lot of the criticisms [of the Green New Deal] are sort of wrong-headed. There’s the it’s-too-expensive criticism and there’s the social-democratic-agenda criticism. In the first case, I think we know just how dramatic the impacts from climate damages will be. So the idea of this kind of investment being too expensive, I think, again, it’s just kind of wrong-headed. And on the political wisdom of joining a climate agenda to a social-democracy agenda, I think the polling is quite clear that the social-democracy parts of that are the more popular ones. I mean, they’re ones that I support myself, so I’m happy to see them both [economic and social agenda] being put forward. I think there are some ways in which one agenda may get in the way of the other and we may have to make some decisions.

NI: Are there any points that you would like to add?

DWW: If we get to the climate hellscape that science predicts is possible for us this century, it will be because of actions we take from here on out. It won’t be because of things we’ve done in the past. It won’t be because anything has been made inevitable. It will be because we failed to take action. And that can be a little scary in the sense that since politics is so inert, we can often look at it and think, oh my God, there’s no hope. But I think it should also be ultimately empowering that nothing about this is set in stone. It’s all up to us to control and determine. And while us is a kind of complicated idea in this world today, even in this country today, I also think it’s a useful perspective to have that nothing outside of human inputs is driving climate change.

I think it’s likely that we take some measures, perhaps even dramatic measures, but not measures that are sufficient to avert an enormous amount of suffering. And so, we’ll end up in a new climate situation where things are quite a bit worse than they are today, but a lot better than they could be if we hadn’t taken action. It will always be the case that in any decade, no matter how hot it gets, it will be within our control to affect the climate of the next decade. Whether it will be a little warmer and contain a little more suffering, or a little cooler and contain a little less suffering. And my hope is that we don’t forget that perspective and assume that since we’re swimming in climate misery that we just give up, because that would be the worst thing.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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