DESPITE RAGING forest fires and images of receding glaciers, the consequences of climate change seem vague and abstract, buried under a mountain of stats and UN reports. Many know the effects will be terrible but policymakers and journalists struggle to describe how it will change our way of life—and thereby get the world to act.
David Wallace-Wells is an exception. His book, “The Uninhabitable Earth”, based on an article in New York magazine in 2017 that went viral, charts the implications and paints a vivid, terrifying picture of our planet’s future.
As part of The Economist’s Open Future initiative, we asked Mr Wallace-Wells if the political and economic systems that have contributed to global warming are capable of preventing more of it, and if not, what that might mean for our collective faith in liberal ideals. After the interview is an excerpt from the book.
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The Economist: You’ve painted a bleak picture of our future. Do you ever worry that you may have contributed to feelings of impotence?
David Wallace-Wells: I do worry about that—in fact, I fall victim to those feelings myself sometimes, too, as I imagine almost anyone working in or around this subject would. But I come to climate change primarily as a journalist, with an imperative to simply tell the truth. And I think the portrait of the world contained in my book is, in fact, a fairly straightforward depiction of what the best science tells us life would look like at 2°C, at 3°C, at 4°C [above pre-industrial levels, as opposed to the 1.5°C and 2°C targets in the Paris Agreement]. The fact that those scenarios can terrify, or overwhelm, or paralyse through fear—those, for me, are not reasons to look away from the science, but to look squarely at it, so we know just what are the scale and scope of threats we are dealing with.
Of course, it is hard to work in this area for any amount of time and not feel yourself pulled by obligations other than journalistic ones—humanitarian ones, advocacy ones. But even from those perspectives, I think there is much more rhetorical value in presenting that alarming science than there is in shying away from it.
The Economist: Are the political and economic systems that have facilitated global warming capable of fixing it?
Mr Wallace-Wells: Certainly not without some significant renovation and reformation, I think. But I’m not sure it will take a total revolution, either. I may be too much a child of the 1990s—an “End of History” kid, trained by that experience even as I no longer regard those intuitions about markets and globalisation and neoliberalism as wise. But I do see a way that something like the post-Cold War international order could, conceivably, address the issue, by placing carbon and climate change at the center of its value set, in much the same way that human rights, peace and prosperity were put there—in name at least—in the aftermath of the second world war.
I also see the early returns from the Paris accords as pretty discouraging on that point. It is, after just a few years, a real failure. No major industrial nation is on track to honour its commitments, which if honoured perfectly, would still land us north of 3°C this century. But certainly other approaches are possible, too—ranging from left-wing forms of quasi-eco-socialism to right-wing forms of authoritarian nationalism and self-interest. And many more, too.
I’m not sure just what form our answer to climate change will take, and probably it won’t be just one form. But I do know that our politics and culture will be shaped by the force of warming in very profound ways, whether or not we take aggressive action soon, so that the systems of the 21st century will almost certainly be defined by climate change, in the same way that previous systems were defined, say, by the interests of financial capitalism.
The Economist: Climate change will create massive upheavals across the world. Do you think it will change the nature of the nation-state?
Mr Wallace-Wells: I think it will change the nature of nearly everything we’ve come to regard as the permanent features and ideological infrastructure of the modern world, and that very much includes how individuals relate to all political units, including the nation-state, and how those political units relate to one another. But, again, I don’t know what form that will take. Two very obvious, contradictory paths are: towards deeper nationalistic populism of the kind we’re seeing more of all around the world since 2008—hardening borders and national identities. And towards a more humanitarian, empathic and truly “global”—not just in the sense of global markets—organisation of our societies.
There is also the possibility that climate becomes a pretext for imperial action, including military action, from countries like China or America—and while this may seem far-fetched, pulled from the pages of science fiction, I think it’s important to remember that we have now waged many wars over the principle of human rights, and climate is, I think, poised to join and possibly even supplant it as the central value of the international order going forward.
But even so, I think it’s unlikely that we see one response, one path forward for the nation state or the global order. I think we’ll see a variety of divergent responses, all around the world, some of them posed explicitly against each other as clearly as the ideologies of the Cold War were.
The Economist: Do we have to choose between economic development in the poorest parts of the world and significant action on climate change?
Mr Wallace-Wells: For a long time, we did, which posed an awful moral dilemma: do we deprive the global south of opportunities for genuine middle-classness for the sake of a stable climate, which those of us in the affluent West could continue to enjoy?
But I think the conditions here have changed considerably, and will continue to change more. Already renewable energy is cheaper in much of the world than dirty sources, and I think it will soon be cheaper nearly everywhere. This means that a responsible path of development will no longer mean forgoing development, just taking a different route out of poverty.
But energy is probably the simplest part of the equation to solve: the challenges from, say, infrastructure and transportation and agriculture and diet are probably trickier. And while lab-grown meat may allow the booming Chinese middle class, say, to adopt what looks like more of a Western diet without imposing a bigger carbon footprint, it will probably be harder to get them to give up air travel, given that we have no carbon-responsible alternative even around the corner. Though this is one reason to give thanks for how much high-speed rail there is already in that country.
The Economist: Do you think climate change is likely to make us more or less individualistic?
Mr Wallace-Wells: I hesitate to make any one-size-fits all claim, but I do think there will certainly be some of us—some individuals, some nations—that move in this direction in response to perceptions of resource scarcity and a more general perception of global zero-sum-ness. But I think we’re likely to see the opposite impulse, as well, towards forms of communitarianism and—even at the sub-political level—simple empathy. The question is: in what proportion?
The Economist: You’ve explored the idea that prior to our reliance on fossil fuels, standards of living were stable from one generation to the next. Since then we’ve come to expect a better material life than that of our parents. Do we need to readjust our expectations—and if so, are we capable of that?
Mr Wallace-Wells: I think it’s possible that we can sustain that expectation, particularly in the wealthy West, and simultaneously address climate change. But I don’t think it’s likely that we stop short of truly catastrophic warming. In that case, I expect the main emotional response of those of us raised on those expectations will be to look away from all the suffering unleashed by climate change, as we look away from all the suffering in the world today, and find new ways to define our own lives as fulfilling, prosperous, and hopeful.
It is almost impossible to imagine how that might be, if we get to, say, 3°C of warming, and especially 4°C. But civilisation is adaptable and resilient and some forms of self-interested human optimism do seem hard to crack. What I try to do in my book is explore just how that second fact could coexist with the first—what conditions are likely to endure in our politics and culture and psychology and even mythology that allow us to continue living in much the same way that we do now in a world utterly transformed, and in almost all cases deformed, by the force of warming.
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History after progress
Excerpted from “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells (Tim Duggan Books, 2019)
That history is a story that moves in one direction is among the most unshakable creeds of the modern West— having survived, often only slightly modified, the counterarguments made over centuries by genocides and gulags, famines and epidemics and global conflagrations, producing death tolls in the tens of millions. The grip of this narrative is so tight on political imaginations that grotesque injustices and inequities, racial and otherwise, are often invoked not as reasons to doubt the arc of history but to be reminded of its shape—perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so agitated about such problems, in other words, since history is “moving in the right direction” and the forces of progress are, to indulge the mixed metaphor, “on the right side of history.” On what side is climate change?
Its own side—its own tide. There is no good thing in the world that will be made more abundant, or spread more widely, by global warming. The list of the bad things that will proliferate is innumerable. And already, in this age of nascent ecological crisis, you can read a whole new literature of deep skepticism—proposing not only that history can move in reverse, but that the entire project of human settlement and civilization, which we know as “history” and which has given us climate change, has been, in fact, a jet stream backward. As climate horrors accumulate, this anti-progressive perspective is sure to blossom.
If you strip out the perception of progress from history, what is left?
From here, it is hard, if not impossible, to see clearly what will emerge from the clouds of uncertainty around global warming—what forms we allow climate change to take, let alone what those forms will do to us. But it will not take a worst-case warming to deliver ravages dramatic enough to shake the casual sense that as time marches forward, life improves ineluctably. Those ravages are likely to begin arriving quickly: new coastlines retreated from drowned cities; destabilized societies disgorging millions of refugees into neighbouring ones already feeling the pinch of resource depletion; the last several hundred years, which many in the West saw as a simple line of progress and growing prosperity, rendered instead as a prelude to mass climate suffering. Exactly how we regard the shape of history in a time of climate change will be shaped by how much we do to avert that change and how much we let it remodel everything about our lives. In the meantime, possibilities fan out as extravagantly as the paint chips on a color wheel.
We still don’t know all that much about how humans before the arrival of agriculture, statehood, and “civilization” regarded the course of history—though it was a favourite pastime of early modern philosophers to imagine the inner lives of precivilized people, from “nasty, brutish, and short” to idyllic, carefree, unencumbered.
Another perspective, which offers another model of history, is the cyclical one: familiar from the harvest calendar, the Stoic Greek theory of ekpyrosis and the Chinese “dynastic cycle”, and appropriated for the modern era by thinkers as seemingly teleological as Friedrich Nietzsche, who made the cycles of time a moral parable with his “eternal recurrence”; Albert Einstein, who considered the possibility of a “cyclic” model of the universe; Arthur Schlesinger, who saw American history as alternating periods of “public purpose” and “private interest”; and Paul Michael Kennedy, in his circumspect history lesson for the end of the Cold War, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Perhaps Americans today see history as progressive only because we were raised in the time of its empire, having more or less borrowed the British perspective from the time of theirs.
But climate change isn’t likely to deliver a neat or complete return to a cyclical view of history, at least in the premodern sense—in part because there will be nothing neat, at all, about the era ushered in by warming. The likelier outcome is a much messier perspective, with teleology demoted from its position as an organizing, unifying theory, and, in its place, contradictory narratives running uncorralled, like animals unleashed from a cage and moving in all directions at once. But if the planet reaches three or four or five degrees of warming, the world will be convulsed with human suffering at such a scale—so many million refugees, half again as many wars, droughts and famines, and economic growth made impossible on so much of the planet—that its citizens will have difficulty regarding the recent past as a course of progress or even a phase in a cycle, or in fact anything but a true and substantial reversal.
At about four degrees of warming, whole swaths of the world could have the possibility of economic growth wiped out by climate change. The possibility that our grandchildren could be living forever among the ruins of a more optimistic and safer world seems almost inconceivable from the vantage of the present day, so much do we still live within the propaganda of human progress and generational improvement. But of course it was a relatively common feature of human history before the advent of industrialization. It was the experience of the Egyptians after the invasion of the Sea Peoples and the Incas after Pizarro, the Mesopotamians after the Akkadian Empire, and the Chinese after the Tang Dynasty. It was—so famously that it grew into caricature, which then spawned decades of rhetorical critique—the experience of Europeans after the fall of Rome. But in this case, the dark ages would arrive within one generation of the light—close enough to touch, and share stories, and blame.
This is what is meant when climate change is described as a revenge of time.
Excerpted from “The Uninhabitable Earth”. Copyright © 2019 by David Wallace-Wells. Used with permission of Tim Duggan Books. All rights reserved.
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