Scientists have tried to warn the world about of threats posed by climate change—rising sea levels, horrific weather events, widespread famine and oppressive temperatures are often mentioned. But these nightmares aren't even the worst-case scenarios should climate change continue at its current rate, reports David Wallace-Wells in his grim cover story for this week's New York magazine, dubbed "The Uninhabitable Earth." Wallace-Wells interviewed a number of scientists to see what hell awaits us should we continue to fail to address global warming, and that future is bleak indeed, complete with rampant disease, famine, war, economic collapse, and an NYC as hot as present-day Bahrain.
We spoke with Wallace-Wells to get some insight on this apparent doomsday prediction, and there's some good news: if we take action, there's a less than one percent chance this barren dystopia will come to pass. The bad news, though, is that something must still be done, plus hamburgers are killing the planet. Be sure to read Wallace-Wells' piece in full (there's a light at the end of the tunnel!) and check back on New York's website for his interviews with scientists, which he'll be publishing all week.
I guess my first question is, is there any hope?
Oh, I would say there’s quite a lot of hope. The conceit of the piece was to survey worst case scenarios in order to ultimately motivate people to action. But one of the things that I worried about as I put it together was that readers would have a fatalistic response to it and I don’t really think that that’s appropriate. At some point in the piece, I talk about almost all of the damage that we’ve done to the planet, in the sense that global warming has occurred over the course of the lifespan of the Greatest Generation. So ultimately, I think, this could be as short a story as a story of two generations. But at the very least we have another lifespan to figure it out, and to take the necessary actions to forestall at least the gruesome worst case scenarios that I sketched out in the piece.
It just so happens that people seem much less aware of those sort of tail risks than they are of the positive-end tail risks, which are namely that life will continue much like it is now. And so I thought even just as a kind of experiment in psychological anchoring, it was useful to say, here’s really the worst case outcome that you should be thinking about probably as often as you think about the best case outcome, which is the world that you walk through every day. There’s been a sort of general failure of imagination that means we’ve accepted what’s the median-likely outcome as a worst-case scenario. As a result we’ve been a bit handicapped in thinking about how much action needs to be taken.
But, you know, there’s great news from green energy, there’s great news from renewables, the cost of wind and solar power is falling, not just dramatically but much more dramatically than even the biggest boosters would have predicted five or 10 years ago. A lot of that has to do with subsidies from the Obama administration and other similar, like-minded countries around the world. But there is really good news there. And there’ve also been some limited progress on what’s called “carbon capture,” which are devices to take carbon out of the atmosphere, which will almost certainly have to be one big part of the equation. With electric cars, etc. there’s a lot of tech innovation that should give people a lot of hope.
My hope is that readers will read the piece and feel motivated to think more about the choices they make, but also to this sort of consumption choices they make. And to agitate politically for policy options that will have a positive impact, and not think of climate change as a third or fourth order political priority, but as probably the most important issue we’re facing the world today, and one that should be at the top of our minds whenever we’re thinking about public policy at all.
We have a presidential administration that’s not into the idea of climate change. This is clearly not one of their priorities. So if we’re not really able to petition the federal government to work with the rest of the world to make changes, is there hope within state governments? A number of them seem to want to adhere to the Paris Accord, etc.
Before I get to that question I would say the real driver of this, of climate change over the last decade or two—and going forward it’s going to be an even bigger part of the story—is not really within the U.S. It’s the story of the industrialized developing world, and in particular, what’s happening in China and India. The path those countries take in dealing with, in the case of India, how they bring electricity to their population, but also how they deal with a population that’s becoming wealthy enough to want cars, and what kinds of cars are legal there, and what kinds of emissions standards are put into place. Also all of these questions about agriculture and how that is managed. Most of what’s going to determine the fate of the planet is on those countries, and to a lesser extent U.S. and Germany and some of the already industrialized West. The most important thing we should really all be thinking about is rooting for China and India in particular, and this G20 group, in addition to being focused on climate change as a first-order priority.
On the U.S. side of things, I think there’s a lot we can do. There’s something people don’t talk nearly enough about, which is that the production of beef is a major contributor to our emissions. I don’t remember the numbers off the top of my head, but it’s I think at least as much as half a bigger problem than cars are. That’s because cattle emit methane, which is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon. So if we radically downsized or even cut out entirely beef from our diet, which is, I know, culturally kind of a long shot, but if we’re able to do that we’d be able to effect really significant change in terms of American emissions.
There has been, among especially the wealthy in the U.S., a declining interest in beef against other proteins, and there’s been a lot of excitement in Silicon Valley over the last couple of years about lab-grown beef, which could taste the same, and if all works out well, be priced equivalent and have none of the climate effects as real beef. That’s one thing we could do. We can buy electric cars and vote with our wallets, in that way. But what you mentioned is also really important. If California were an independent state, it would be, I don’t know the exact figures, but it would be one of the biggest economies in the world, one of the biggest countries in the world. The same is true of a number of other quite liberally-minded, progressive climate-conscious governments.
Obviously the U.S. is a federal system, which means those states can take action on their own. There’s some worry that if they do that, they’ll lose an enormous amount of business because while it’s really hard to move business from the U.S. to another country, it’s a lot easier to move some of these businesses from one state to another state. We’ll see how that all plays out, but my sense is that especially when people really start to appreciate how much cheaper green energy is becoming, that there’ll be a kind of market pressure for additional subsidies and additional support from first local and state governments, and hopefully up to the federal level.
Can you outline what specifically might happen in New York City [if climate change goes unchecked]? Obviously there are the rising sea-levels, and you note that the city may eventually be as hot as Bahrain, which is quite hot.
Just to reiterate, that’s if we do absolutely nothing, and we stay on the track that we’re on now in terms of carbon emission, that’s where we’d be by the end of the century. I think that as things get worse and the effects of climate change become more visible, it’s basically impossible to imagine us not taking action. There’s hardly any real risk that we get to some of these scenarios, like that New York is as hot as Bahrain. But if we did, yeah, the city would be, not drowned, it’s not low enough that the entire city would be underwater. But it would be at risk of very regular devastating flooding from storm surges, not just storms of the scale of Hurricane Sandy, but much smaller storms would end up having equivalent storm surges because the water was higher.
Photo: Heartless Machine, courtesy NY Mag
My colleague Andrew Rice wrote a piece particularly about this subject, the rising sea levels in New York, in New York magazine maybe a year or a year and a half ago. And in terms of concrete effects, the heat and the sea level rise are really the biggest things that we would experience here. The things that are a little more diffuse are effects on the economy and other changes that could hit harder elsewhere in the world, which would impact governments elsewhere, which would produce refugees or de-stabilize governments, de-stabilize organizations like the EU or the UN, that are sort of cross-national, and would have snowball effects to the way that people live in New York.
One of the sets of research that I talk about in the piece, it’s work that’s sort of centered around this economist named Solomon Hsiang. He’s looked at the economics of climate change and the effects on conflict. Using these sort of “We’re not doing anything, we continue to emit carbon at the rate we’re doing it without inventing any new technology,” scenarios, he and his colleagues estimate that global GDP could fall as much as 50 percent by the end of the 21st Century. That’s against where it would be without climate change, it’s not where we are today, but it is a really significant handicapping of the global economy, which is obviously going to have massive effects in New York. However protected we are by our wealth, if the world economy is growing half as fast as it might otherwise be, people here will be really really pinched.
More than that, living in a world in which economic growth is slowed or stalled in a permanent way, I mean, it’s just not a world in which anyone who’s alive today has really lived. It’s the way humans lived for many millennia, but since the Industrial Revolution we’ve lived expecting economic growth, even moderate economic growth from one generation to the next. It’s possible climate could so cripple our productivity that we’d really be unable to engineer meaningful sustained growth. And that would make the world a much less hospitable place.
You’ve mentioned that you don’t want this to be a doomsday piece. I know it’s important to talk about the worst case scenario so people realize the effects of climate change aren’t just that the sea levels will rise a bit and it’ll be a little warmer. But is there some concern among scientists you spoke with that a disaster prediction will make people’s brains turn off and say, “Well, you know what, the Earth’s going to be destroyed, I’m going to live my life and not worry about it,” and that’s the end?
It’s interesting, it’s something that a handful of scientists that I talked to in researching and reporting this piece mentioned to me, the risk that alarmism would lead to fatalism. While basically everybody that I talked to was on board with the idea that the public should be more scared than they are and should know more about these fears than they do, a number of them also expressed that reservation to me. Since the piece has come out, a couple of them and a couple of scientists I didn’t speak to have said similar things on Twitter and elsewhere.
First of all, I should say, I’m going to be publishing a bunch of interviews with some of these scientists over the course of the week. They’re interesting in their own right, and they’re all fascinating, interesting people. I stand in awe of all of them. But my feeling all along, as a civilian, as an amateur observer of this issue, it didn’t seem plausible to me that there was more risk at scaring people too much than there was at not scaring them enough. I may be in a little bubble, and the people I talked to may have a very different reaction to the public at large, and it’s possible that some of these scientists are right and people will shut down. But my feeling was, and is, if there’s a one percent chance that we’ve set off a chain reaction that could end the human race, then that should be something that the public knows and thinks about.
One percent, just to be clear it’s almost certainly not even that high, but there’s certainly a 1 percent or 10 percent chance that the planet gets quite, quite broken over the course of our lifetime, with hundreds of millions of climate refugees and real problems of food scarcity. If that kind of suffering has a 10 percent likelihood, it doesn’t seem responsible to me to hide from it. My impression of the world, the uninformed, non-specialist’s view the issue, is that we have been collectively hiding from it.
As I said before, I think basically we’ve been treating the median/optimal outcome as almost a stand-in for the worst case scenario. The science is very complicated and uncertain, it’s not at all the case for sure that we have the models right, and even if we take action, that we’ll end up in a responsible place where people are secure and the planet is stable. It may be that our science will evolve in ways that make the outcomes considerably scarier. Given all that, it seemed like a much bigger concern that people weren’t worried enough, than that they would get too worried.
But we’ll see. It is the case that most of the reaction that I’ve seen so far this morning and last night has been of the kind of, “Holy shit, we’re doomed.” I think a lot of those people are kind of making jokes, and I don’t know exactly how much to trust that response as a weathervane of what they’ll do going forward, and whether they’ll be engaged in climate issues in ways politically that they haven’t been before. But personally it feels, the only responsible thing to do if you think there’s some really scary outcomes that are possible, to make those outcomes known so that people can make judgments and advocate for particular policy goals that make those outcomes less likely. That’s the ultimate goal.