In just the past year, the public conversation on climate change has turned dire. Wildfires scorched parts of the American West, wiping an entire town off the map. Blazes also torched parts of Greece, which — along with many regions above the equator — was suffering through one of its hottest summers on record. In the fall, Typhoon Yutu tore through parts of the Philippines and China and leveled several western Pacific islands.
Amid all the carnage, the leading global authority on warming, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, detailed the horrors in store if average temperatures pass 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. (We’re already over 1 degree Celsius, or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, and worldwide carbon emissions hit a new high in 2018.)
Scientists are now sounding the alarm. Young activists are skipping school and taking to the streets. And in the U.S., a bold proposal to remake the American economy is sending shockwaves through climate legislation discussions that had been stalled for a decade.
Into that now-bubbling climate cauldron comes the book The Uninhabitable Earth, a distressing review of climate science designed to jolt us out of complacency. David Wallace-Wells, who characterizes himself as a concerned liberal who “wasn’t really focused on this issue until a few years ago,” channels the panic he felt at reading reams of scientific reports into a vision of a dystopian future that we’re not doing enough to avoid.
The question is whether fear is the right emotion to play on to get people to sit up, listen, and take action. According to Grist’s own Eric Holthaus, who’s been writing about climate change for more than a decade, it’s not. To him, it’s best to accept the scientific consensus and inspire our fellow humans to roll up their sleeves and ensure we do whatever it takes to decarbonize the global economy rapidly.
So Grist asked the two climate writers to discuss telling stories about the end of the world, facing their climate fears, and finding a sliver of hope in the face of studies detailing the melting of Antarctic ice. (The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Eric: You’ve written a book about a lot of things, but I think that this question of, to be afraid or not to be afraid is what most people are taking from it. So in that context, I’m wondering what’s your personal motivation? How do you keep going? Do you feel that fear constantly?
David: Even as I’m working on this material, even as I’m sitting with it, writing about it, I’m still slipping back into a status quo expectation for the world and a perspective on the future wherein which I expect it to look like the world that I live in now or the world that I grew up in.
I find myself pinching myself and reminding myself: No, no, no, the science is real. The predictions and projections are the best understanding we have for what’s going to happen. They are a better guide to the future than the world that we see outside our window and experience walking down the street.
And I do think whatever you call looking at that science and taking it seriously — whether you call it fear-mongering or alarmism or responsibility, whatever term you use — I think it’s really important for all of us to look squarely at it. Because we’re so trained by the world we live in to look away.
I can see how the first reaction to this information at a deep level would be just shock and alarm. And that’s what it seems like you have experienced personally. That’s what it seems like your book is speaking to.
I have the same basic feeling that you do about storytelling. I think that everyone’s experiences and everyone’s perspective is valuable. But also I can only write this myself. My experience has been not just dominated by alarm, but also I found myself motivated by that and mobilized by it. I still would be reluctant to call myself an advocate as opposed to a journalist.
I do think my main obligation really is to truth telling. So if there’s science that I find notable and alarming, I think I want to share that rather than considering its rhetorical messaging from an advocacy point of view. But as you know, it’s basically impossible to sit with this material and not feel …
… at least in part motivated by advocacy because the issue was so pressing, and the stakes are so high. I know that from my own experience that this kind of messaging can be awakening. And it seemed to me that there was actually very little of it being done up until a few years ago. And I felt, well, if I respond to the story this way and the story isn’t being told this way very much, maybe other people will respond to it as well.
I don’t think it’s the only way to talk about climate change. I think there are people who are going to respond to appeals to eco-socialism, and there are people who are going to respond to the most Davos-friendly techno-optimism. And there are people who are going to respond to really intimate stories about individual families and the problems they’re facing. And there are people who are going to respond to a more Gaia-like perspective on the whole situation. All those approaches are valuable. My impulse as someone who’s trying to reckon with this is just to tell a story as I see it.
In essence, you’re presenting the material in a way that is like a science writer’s version of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report. If there was someone that had good writing skills, that took all that raw information and translated it into a way that would make the biggest possible impact, that’s what you’ve done.
I think that also what I’m trying to do is move a little bit beyond the science to think about what these impacts will be on our politics and our culture and all that stuff.
I hope that I’m not crowding out other people, but I’m adding my own voice to the chorus. I think, when I look around, it seems very much to be the case that more people are speaking out, and speaking out more aggressively and boldly. In all these interviews I’m doing, people keep asking why is there no movement on this? I say when you look at the polls, there’s actually quite a dramatic movement on it.
Did some of that movement happen even after your book deadline? Because I notice that you didn’t have any mention of the Green New Deal. or, say the Sunrise Movement.
Yeah. Certainly since I wrote it. It really feels like a few years ago, the average American liberal, at least, would have felt really, really frustrated with inaction and inertia on climate change. Of course, that is still the logical response because we haven’t, practically speaking, done much. But it still does feel like there’s so much movement afoot, and so much reason for hope.
What do you think is important about pushing some of these values more aggressively?
I’m trying to make sure that people see the implications of the facts as quickly as possible. I think that doing the data dump of how horrible the world is feels a little bit counterproductive to me without this clear sort of call to action at the end.
I also interpret the need for action as just the facts, too. The IPCC says we need to radically remake the world economy in less than 12 years, so that’s a fact. That should shape everything that we do and think about.
And that becomes a policy question, and that’s absolutely not for me to decide, clearly, as a journalist. But getting that conversation going is where we need to be, which I think has happened in the last several months at least.
I’m also trying to learn from people of color that have gone through different existential threats in the last several hundred years. I was really moved by this column from Mary Heglar, who wrote about the existential threat of climate change and how it relates to specifically living in the Jim Crow-era South. She’s a black woman that grew up in the South. She said that climate change is not something that we’re fighting because we think we can win — or even because we’re afraid of it. She said we fight it because we have to.
That to me is a perfect embodiment of this sense of courage. I feel like once you face these fears you’ve helped bring to light in the last couple years, you have to decide what to do about that. Like you said, you personally sometimes sink back into denial. I do, too. For a lot of people, they just don’t have that luxury.
There’s sort of this weird impulse to think we need to beat it. Or if we can’t beat it, fuck it. It’s a really privileged position to think that you could possibly escape this at all.
It’s not about making sure we don’t pass 2 degrees [Celsius], and if we can’t, then it’s over. No, every tiny tick upward makes a difference. The different suffering at 2.4 degrees versus 2.1 degrees, it’s sort of like the Richter scale in that way. Those numbers are misleadingly close together, but in fact, they spell really dramatically different outcomes.
It’s also just the case that the economic conventional wisdom is now that fast action would save us a ton of money, would make us a ton of money very quickly. It feels a little ugly to be leaning on that as an argument, but I also think it is the argument that is likely to persuade many of the world’s leaders that fast action is necessary. I think once that news reaches them we will start to see the kind of change among our policy leaders globally that we’ve seen at the grassroots level over the last few years. Hopefully those two things together will spell real aggressive action.
For me personally, it’s hard to imagine that we halve global emissions by 2030. I think it’s unlikely, but the faster we get started, and the more countries of the world, the more leaders of the world, the more people of the world we have fighting for that, the better off we’ll be.
From my perspective, it just has to happen. We have to cut global emissions in half by 2030. There’s just not a choice, so let’s just figure out how to make it happen. I’m not letting myself …
… off the hook.
Maybe that’s a form of denial as well. But I also know that my obligation not only to my kids, but to the science, is strong enough where that it’s just not a negotiable thing to me.
I think we’re sort of talking around this big theme, which is that each of us as individuals is motivated by a variety of different impulses on this issue. I think we are moved, both of us, by a variety of different kinds of stories. There might be one day when I am really freaking out about an ice sheet paper. There might be another day where I’m crying over the story of a flooded prison, like a colonia in South Texas, or something. There might be another day where I’m really thinking about my daughter. And there might be another day when I’m thinking about the project of human civilization and whether it will endure. At different times I’m motivated by different things; at different times you’re motivated by different things. That means there are just so many different stories to tell about this subject.
It has to come from different kinds of people living in different kinds of places with different kinds of perspectives and different storytelling tools, from wonky science writing, to memoir, to sci-fi, and poetry. It’s kind of like all hands on deck, all stories on deck.
When you read a newspaper about say, the rate of melt at the West Antarctic Ice Sheet or something, what is your emotional response to that? I’m sure it’s different on different days.
Yeah, that’s what I was going to say, it’s different on different days.
How do you manage your own emotional responses to this material which can be so overwhelming?
Honestly, there are days, probably I would say like one day a week, where I read something like that and it’s like, “Oh, it’s not gonna happen today.” It’s like I just need to process this. And so, I’ll do email or I’ll work on a different project or something like that. It’s really hard to always be on and always be in the right mindset to write something about this sort of grand problem. And so I try to give myself space to respond how I need to respond on any given day.
How did this become the predominant occupation of your professional and emotional life?
I grew up in Kansas and so there’s not much else to do but watch the weather. So, I went to undergrad for meteorology and then was on the path to being a research PhD. I spent a year volunteering with farm workers in Oregon right after undergrad, before grad school. I thought that there had to be a way to do this work in a way that was focusing on justice aspects of weather because I saw firsthand how so much of the world is so different than my personal experience.
So, then I went to a masters program at Columbia on climate and society, which was exactly designed for me I think, because it was sort of equal parts making the world a better place and climate science. And then after working on that, I was working in East Africa for six years on a climate change adaptation project and realized that it’s not really my role to make the world a better place — like, again, with that colonialist mindset. So then I switched to journalism after that. I’m better suited to telling the stories. I felt awkward towards the end of the adaptation project, like this is not right. It just doesn’t feel right to me.
And then I had kids. It changed my urgency. That period after Hurricane Sandy and before my oldest son was born was probably one of the darkest times of my life in terms of feeling that despair of thinking about like, “We don’t have a future really. Full stop.” I think it was the process of caring for a baby that made me think there’s a lot that we can still do and that I should redouble my effort to focus on courage and hope rather than indulging that fear and dystopia that I had been for a few years.
I write a little bit in the book about this. It’s like you do feel when you have a kid a certain emotional sense that the whole story is starting over — or I have that sense anyway. And when you think globally, it’s really ultimately empowering to think that really every day we’re deciding what to do.
One of the lessons of climate change that we haven’t yet really learned is that, actually, we’re entirely driving the story. In a certain way I think that’s why extreme weather is kind of a good teacher, as grotesque as it is to say. While it inflicts so much suffering, it also shows us what we’re doing in real time. Whereas with pollution in the ’70s you could see the smog, it’s hard to see the carbon but it’s impossible to look away from those wildfires. The more people see that kind of terror, I hope that the more that they’ll be moved to action. Although, as you know better than I do, it’s not just terror that moves people, there are a lot of other motivations too.
For me, the question is, if we have 70 percent of the country that’s concerned about climate change, how do we make them concerned enough that they’d really make it their top political priority — and think about it not just in terms of their own narrow self-interest or their own national self-interest but globally? We’ll see how it all unfolds.
I always talk about importance of individual action and systemic, radical systemic change at the same time. Those two cannot be separated from each other. If you see somebody adopting a vegan diet or giving up flying or something like that, those are radical changes in your own personal life that mirror the radical change that should happen on a bigger level. That’s how social movements spread is by word of mouth or by example. So we’re seeing that.
I think you’re totally right that the power of example is strong and important for building movements. I worry a little bit, personally, that if what we ask of everyone, as proof of their commitment to the cause, is to live completely in line with their own climate goals for the planet. We may be alienating many people who would, say, support really aggressive public policy and want to see policy makers shape our choice architecture in ways that made irresponsible individual choices impossible, but who are not yet themselves ready to give up their vacations by plane and stop eating meat.
Although, like you say, it’s also valuable to show that you can live a happy, prosperous, satisfied life without some of the carbon costs that we’ve been taught to depend on. And I know you’ve done a lot of that yourself, which is truly admirable and honorable. I haven’t yet but it’s really hard not to feel extremely guilty when you get on a plane.
I think some of these things take time to sink into one’s worldview and really change the way that you think about the world. So, I’m expecting that down the line I’ll be making many of the same choices that you have. It just takes time to reorient yourself and I’m still young — as a climate activist, not as a human. I’m still learning, you know?