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The Uninhabitable Earth: Unflinching New Book Lays Out Dire Consequences of Climate Chaos

StoryFebruary 21, 2019
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“It is worse, much worse, than you think.” That’s the opening line of a damning new book by journalist David Wallace-Wells that offers an unflinching look at the growing climate catastrophe. “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming” sounds the alarm about the climate crisis and the need for swift and radical action to save the planet from unimaginable destruction. We speak to Wallace-Wells about the rapid heating of the planet, which he says could reach more than 4 degrees Celsius by 2100.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Earlier today, Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, addressed European Union leaders in Brussels. Greta has garnered global attention for carrying out a weekly school strike against climate change in her home country of Sweden.

GRETA THUNBERG: We need to focus every inch of our being on climate change, because if we fail to do so, then all our achievements and progress have been for nothing. And all that will remain of our political leaders’ legacy will be the greatest failure of human history. And they will be remembered as the greatest villains of all time, because they have chosen not to listen and not to act. … And if you still say that we are wasting valuable lesson time, then let me remind you that our political leaders have wasted decades through denial and inaction. And since our time is running out, we have decided to take action. We have started to clean up your mess, and we will not stop until we are done. Thank you.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, speaking in Brussels at the European Union today.

We’re joined by David Wallace-Wells, deputy editor and climate columnist for New York magazine. His new book is titled The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming.

So, David, could you respond to what Greta said? And also—I mean, obviously, she’s a Scandinavian activist, and we all know that in Scandinavia the response to climate change has been much more forceful and much earlier than in the United States. You, in your book—you, yourself, write, “I am like every other American who spent their life fatally complacent, and willfully deluded, about climate change.” So, first, your response to her? And then explain how you went from being a complacent American to writing a book called The Uninhabitable Earth.

DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Well, first, I would say I’m—yeah, I’m in awe of Greta. I think she’s done an incredible service to the planet. And I think she’s not alone. All of the children who are mobilizing on this issue, I think, have an incredible moral stature that shames us grown-ups, their parents and grandparents, for what we’ve done and are continuing to do. I think the activism that she’s inspired is thrilling, actually exhilarating. And you see it not just in Sweden, but all across Europe. I think you see it with Extinction Rebellion—it started in the U.K., and it’s now spreading in the U.S.—and all of the activism that’s pushed the Green New Deal here.

I think things are actually, on the ground, changing quite rapidly. The sort of gold standard measure of public opinion in the U.S. on climate is this Yale study that comes out every December, and the numbers there are that more than 70 percent of Americans believe global warming is real and happening now, more than 70 percent are concerned about it. Those numbers have jumped 15 percent in just a few years; they’ve jumped 8 percent since March. So, things are moving quickly. The question is whether our policy will move quickly enough to respond.

My own story is, you know, I’m not an environmentalist. I’ve been an urbanite my whole life. I’m a kind of child of “the end of history.” I was a teenager in the 1990s in America, in an affluent part of America, in New York. And I believed that while the promises of globalization and neoliberalism were imperfect, I also believed that history told a story of progress and that, over time, the world would be getting better, more prosperous, safer, cleaner, more just—again, that those stories would be erratic, but they would unfold over time.

And just over the last few years, really beginning in 2016, when I started seeing much more alarming reports about climate change than I had seen before, and also noticed that those reports were not showing up in our newspapers or television accounts of climate change, that there were some really quite bleak possibilities on the horizon, and so profound in their implications that they would really unbuild or reverse those intuitions about the future of the world that I had had as a young person growing up when I did, that the cost to our society could be so great that we really did stop thinking of the future as containing a more prosperous possibility for us, and started thinking of the past as some more perfect time.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about U.S. military and what the U.S. military understands about the threat of global warming to national security.

DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Well, it destabilizes absolutely everything about geopolitics, so states are destabilized, the rivalries between states are destabilized. It changes the calculus of where resources are that are valuable. It transforms shipping routes. It transforms the front lines of battle. So, for instance, the Arctic is melting. That means that there’s new territory to fight over. There’s already rivalry there between the U.S. and Russia. China is involved.

And the exact nature of these dynamics is shifting with the effects of change. So, Russia was a country that a few years ago we thought of as a kind of—you know, a second-rate power. But climate change actually promises to benefit them in a couple of ways, in part because they benefit from the burning of fossil fuels—they’re a petrostate—and in part because their economy is one of the few in the world that’s far enough north that it will actually benefit from some additional warming. The relationship of temperature and economic growth is complicated, but there are some countries that will benefit, and most who will suffer, as a result of warming. And Russia is poised to benefit, which means that, along with everything else we’re seeing, Russia could play a bigger, more dynamic role of rival in the future.

And the same is true of China. The way that they’re approaching the South China Sea and building new islands in that sea suggests that they are trying to establish new footholds in a theater that had been essentially dominated by the U.S. military since World War II and which their own footholds are—where their own footholds are at risk of disappearing, because many of those islands are going to be underwater by the middle of the century.

AMY GOODMAN: But I mean what the U.S. military understands. This is Trump’s problem—right?—why he’s setting up this committee, because they are a strong force for understanding, calling it the great national security threat of the 21st century.


AMY GOODMAN: And understanding the effects of, for example, climate migration, the pressures people will feel leaving their countries to go to others to save themselves. So, Trump has to discredit all of this, if he wants to succeed in denying climate change. He has to discredit his entire government.

DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah, I think—personally, I think that Trump is less of a denier than someone who sees as an opportunity in slow-walking action on climate. So, I don’t think he really cares whether climate change is real. I just think he sees an advantage in American inaction, in opening more coal plants and letting the rest of the world clean up the mess. That’s how he’s operated as a businessman. I think that’s basically how he’s operating as a president.

But what’s one of the really interesting new news from science, from economic research in particular, is that while his view had been a kind of conventional picture of whether we should act on climate or not—that is to say, 10 years ago, economists would have said that action on climate was quite costly and would involve forgoing real economic growth—all of the recent research suggests that faster action will be better for us economically. We could save $26 trillion in the global economy just by 2030, which is a very fast return, if we decarbonize quickly. I don’t think that information has yet percolated into the minds of our policymakers, especially like Donald Trump. But once that logic is clear, that faster action is better for the economy, I think that we may start to see a kind of sea change in our public policy towards climate. We’ll see.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, one of the things that’s very powerful about your book is that, you know, we’re used to thinking of climate change as a series of cataclysmic events, right?—floods, hurricanes, etc.—but you point out that climate change is also a problem of duration. In other words, it’s not only very fast, it’s also very long. And the longer it goes on, its cumulative effects result in even more catastrophic events. So, could you elaborate on that and how we should understand it? I mean, you write, in fact, “You might hope to simply reverse climate change. But you can’t. It will outrun all of us.”

DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: That’s especially true with regard to the melting of ice. So, if we pass tipping points of ice melt in the Arctic and Antarctic, those processes will take place over centuries, and maybe even millennia, but the scale of the impacts that they will bring are enormous. So, we could see at least a hundred feet of sea level rise, possibly as much as 260 feet of sea level rise, if we melt all of the ice. And that would completely transform the map of the world.

But I think it’s also important to understand that climate change is not a binary system. It’s not a question of whether it’s happened or not. It’s not a question of whether we’ve passed a threshold of catastrophe or not. Every tick upward makes the impacts worse, and every tick upward we avoid will make them better. So, at 2.5 degrees, we’ll be considerably worse off than we were at 2 degrees; at 3 degrees, worse than two-and-a-half degrees. And while the scale of some of these possible horrors is, therefore, a kind of almost paralyzing horror show, it’s also a reminder of just how much power we have, and will always have, over the climate. If we get to 4 degrees, it will be because of action we take now. And if we—but that means that we can avoid getting there if we take action quickly.

AMY GOODMAN: And the different responsibilities of people in different countries, like the United States versus in the Global South?

DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah, I mean, the U.S. has the lion’s share of historical emissions, and so there’s a strong argument that we should be a true moral leader on this issue. At the moment, China is the biggest driver of emissions and, I think, going forward, will be the main driver of the future climate of the planet, because American emissions and EU missions are falling, although not fast enough, and Chinese emissions are growing.

I think that the scarier, uglier moral calculus has to do with the impacts, which is to say that it’s the Global South that’s being hit hardest. That’s already the case, but it will certainly be the case in the decades ahead. You see, you know, projections that many of the biggest cities in India and the Middle East will be lethally hot in summer as soon as 2050, which means you really won’t be able to go outside during the summer without incurring some risk of heat stroke. Obviously, Bangladesh is at risk of flooding about half of its landmass. And it’s especially grotesque when you think that those two countries were for so long the colonies of Britain, who invented the Industrial Revolution and built an empire off of fossil fuels.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: What’s also very—I mean, you point out that it’s not just a question of consumption in the U.S., for example; it’s also the sheer waste. You write, “[T]wo-thirds of American energy is wasted. … [And] Americans waste a quarter of their food.” I mean, you would think that this is a fairly easy problem to resolve.

DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Well, I think that climate change, in a certain way, is an easy problem to resolve, if we just had policy that was focused on it and enough muscle behind it. But, yeah, absolutely, everywhere you look, there are solutions like that.

So, there’s a lot of talk now about lifestyle choices and consumption, and particularly diet, as it relates to climate change. I personally feel that basically all the talk of lifestyle choices is a distraction from policy and the things we need to do at that level. But there is research that shows that if you feed cattle seaweed, their methane emissions fall by as much as 95 or even 99 percent, which means that if we legislated that all cattle farmers fed their cattle seaweed, that we wouldn’t have to worry about the impact of eating beef. We could just eat beef guiltlessly. Or, if we invested aggressively in lab-grown beef and didn’t involve animal suffering at all, we would still be able to have the pleasure of those meals without imposing any carbon footprint on the world.

And there are really those kinds of solutions almost everywhere you look. There are some sectors that are a little harder to decarbonize—for instance, air travel, some sectors of industry. But there is exciting, interesting technological movement on those fronts, too.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds. Why you chose the title The Uninhabitable Earth?

DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: The short answer is, for hyperbole. I think that we need people to be alarmed. And while I think true uninhabitability is vanishingly unlikely, it is conceivable. And the fact that we’ve brought it into view at all is a huge indictment of everything we’ve done over the last few decades.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, David Wallace-Wells, we want to thank you for being with us, deputy editor and climate columnist for New York magazine, his new book titled The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming.

That does it for our show. We have a job opening, accepting applications for a full-time, 1-year paid news fellowship. Details at

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