New York Magazine deputy editor David Wallace-Wells offers a profoundly pessimistic fact-based assessment of Earth’s bleak prospects in the face of almost irreversible climate change.
New York Magazine deputy editor David Wallace-Wells says flat out that global warming will make you suffer sooner – and more – than you think it will. You cannot escape. Achieving even a miserable human existence will require global cooperation and hundreds of trillions of dollars. Wallace-Wells offers one grim alternative: a toxic atmosphere polluted with aerosols to block the sun – survivable, but horrific. He urges you to force change – by voting.
A Miserable Future
The shift from a hunter-gatherer economy to an agricultural economy about 12,000 years ago was the first mistake leading to today’s climate change predicament. Agriculture brought civilization, and civilization led to industrialization. Industrialization meant each generation lived with greater comfort than the previous one enjoyed, but on borrowed time. Even a little more global warming will end all progress. Warming of 4°C or 5°C [7.2°F or 9°F] – the range scientists anticipate by 2100 – will bring environmental full-scale collapse and a reversal of human progress.
It is worse, much worse, than you think.David Wallace-Wells
Neither wealth nor technology will spare you. You will suffer whether you live on the coast, in the plains or in the mountains.
Climate change caused all but one of the five previous historical “mass extinctions.” The sixth – the one you currently live in – closely resembles the worst of the previous five, which eradicated all but 4% of Earth’s species. Almost all warming so far stems from human action since World War II. Essentially, one generation almost willfully caused this damage, and now one generation – their children or grandchildren – must fix it or perish.
No human has ever lived on a planet as hot as this one; it will get hotter.David Wallace-Wells
Life on Earth won’t be feasible by 2100. Surpassing 2°C of warming will bring massive and near constant floods, hurricanes, fires and droughts. More likely scenarios predict 4°C or higher, which will bring famine, disease and wars. Every additional degree of warming will kill hundreds of millions of people from air pollution. And the heat will continue to increase.
If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it; the threat [is] everywhere and overwhelming and total.David Wallace-Wells
Floods now occur year after year in the same places, forest fires burn huge swaths of the United States almost year-round, and heat waves kill hundreds or thousands of people even in Europe and Canada. The weather won’t stabilize again for eons, if ever. The cycles of increased CO2 emissions, higher temperatures, melting ice caps and deforestation intensify each other.
Act now. Preventing catastrophic warming depends on international coordination and cooperation on an entirely new scale.
Billionaires focus on artificial intelligence, which, they claim, will either solve society’s problems or turn humans into AI slaves. Elon Musk favors life on Mars or in spaceships, which would cost far more than living on Earth.
That the sea will become a killer is a given.David Wallace-Wells
Humans suffer from hopelessness – a fatalism about something so enormous they feel they cannot force positive change – which proves a daunting obstacle to achieving necessary change.
Suffering and Death
At 7°C higher temperatures, people in the tropics will bake to death from within. Higher CO2 levels cause plants to grow larger and faster while making them less nutritious. Since the 1950s, crops have lost one-third of their nutritional value. Increasingly acidic oceans will generate enormous dead zones.
Rising sea levels will drive millions of refugees inland through 2100. Even at 2°C warming, rivers will double or triple current flood levels. The loss of polar ice sheets – with their water, trapped CO2 and ability to reflect sunlight – plus the release of deadly methane from thawing permafrost, could accelerate destruction from immense flooding.
When millions of acres of forest burn, centuries of stored carbon enter the atmosphere. One fire can add almost half as much CO2 as total annual global emissions add to the atmosphere.
Half the world’s population lack access to safe drinking water. India suffers a water shortage today; within a decade it will have half the water its people need. Water shortages bring armed conflict. With 4°C additional warming, expect twice as many wars.
Yellow fever, malaria and Zika will march northward. Ticks carrying Lyme disease will inundate northern Europe and the northern United States.
Each degree of warming slows global economic growth by 1%. By the end of the 21st century, global productivity will decline by as much as 20%, significantly worse than the Great Depression.
Today, smog kills more than 10,000 people daily, about 15% of total deaths on Earth. Wildfires release particulates that cause respiratory infections, high blood pressure, strokes and cancer.
Technological Carbon Removal
Reducing and reaching “negative CO2 emissions” requires replacing almost all existing infrastructure and technology and building a new nuclear plant every day for the next 50 years. Nations must remove CO2 from the air and sequester it. Today’s carbon-capture technology could negate or reduce carbon in the atmosphere for $300 trillion – four times global GDP.
Certain toxic pollutants, specifically aerosols, have prevented about half a degree of warming. Aerosols reflect sunlight as they poison and kill millions of people annually, but the Earth’s situation might call for greater use of them as an atmospheric shield. This cheap, crude strategy might be humanity’s last hope.
Vote for Change
Alongside using nuclear power for decades, the world must pivot from fossil fuels toward carbon capture, carbon tax and global vegetarianism.
Climate change is called an ‘existential crisis’ – a drama we are now haphazardly improvising between two hellish poles, in which our best-case outcome is death and suffering at the scale of 25 Holocausts, and the worst-case outcome puts us on the brink of extinction.David Wallace-Wells
Vote for real change. Your vote matters much more than whether you drive a Prius or eat organic foods.
Wallace-Wells offers as blunt an assessment as possible, in direct, aware, skillful prose. He takes a deliberately uncompromising, pessimistic position – on a par with, for example, Greta Thunberg’s – and his bluntness may prove off-putting to readers with a more optimistic outlook. Those seeking realpolitik concerning climate change will find no shortage of facts with which to confront climate change deniers – who will likely regard Wallace-Wells as an alarmist.
Other works on climate change include Truth to Power by Al Gore; How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates; and Speed and Scale by John Doerr.