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Why climate change is an ‘all-encompassing threat’

Although a candidate just entered the 2020 presidential race with a platform centered on climate change, some experts say Americans aren’t fully aware of the scope and seriousness of global warming. Among them is David Wallace-Wells, who argues in a new book that the severity of the climate crisis has not yet been acknowledged, let alone addressed. He sits down with William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Climate change continues to grow as a political issue in America.

    As we reported, in the latest — the latest Democrat to announce a bid for the White House, Washington state's governor, Jay Inslee, says he will make climate change a central campaign theme.

    This comes after Democrats in the House recently put forward their own aggressive plan.

    But William Brangham talks with the author of an alarming new book which argues that we're barely acknowledging the severity of this crisis.

  • William Brangham:

    It is worse, much worse, than you think. That's the first sentence of David Wallace-Wells' terrifying new book about climate change. It's called "The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming."

    In it, Wallace-Wells marshals the latest scientific research, which he argues points to one unimpeachable fact: that our use of fossil fuels, which admittedly has powered so much prosperity and growth across the world, is now the single greatest threat to our survival, one that he says — quote — "has brought us to the brink of a never-ending climate catastrophe."

    David Wallace-Wells is a fellow at the New America Foundation and a columnist and editor at "New York Magazine."


  • David Wallace-Wells:

    Thank you.

  • William Brangham:

    I have to admit, I haven't been alarmed by a book as I was by yours. And I feel like I know a lot of what you're reporting on.

    I should tell — we have also posted the first chapter of your book on our Web site. I would encourage people to read it to get a sense of the argument that you're making.

    But help us understand what you think people don't quite appreciate about the severity of this problem.

  • David Wallace-Wells:

    There's sort of three big things.

    The first is speed. I think we had long thought that climate change was happening very slowly, that it was unfolding, at fastest, at about a decade timescale, more usually like centuries, and we didn't have to worry about it in our own lives, maybe even our children's lives, but it was something to worry about for our grandchildren.

    More than half of all the emissions that we have put into the atmosphere in the entire history of humanity, we have done in the last 30 years. And that means that we're doing this damage in real time and in the space of a generation. So the speed is really overwhelming.

    And if we lived off the coasts, we often thought that it was a matter of sea level rise, and we'd be safe. We could live inland, that would be OK. In fact, it's an all-encompassing threat that's not compartmentalizable to the coast. It's much bigger than sea level rise.

    It impacts the economy, which could be 30 percent lower than it would be without climate change by the end of the century, and it impacts public health, conflict. We could have twice as much war because of climate change at the end of the century. That's the second thing, the scope.

    And then the severity. Most scientists talked about two degrees as the sort of threshold of catastrophe.

  • William Brangham:

    Two degrees Celsius.

  • David Wallace-Wells:

    Yes. And that's about twice as much warming as we have had today. They describe that threshold as the threshold of catastrophe. We're on track to get to about 4 or 4.3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

    And that whole range is really unconscionable in terms of how much climate suffering it would impose. And we have only just begun to see peaks of it, with wildfire and extreme weather. I think, in the coming decades, we're going to see much more of it.

  • William Brangham:

    People hear two degrees, three degrees, four degrees, and those distinctions might seem trivial to people who are not immersed in this.

    Three degrees warming, four degrees of warming is potentially calamitous.

  • David Wallace-Wells:


    Four degrees of warming, we would have, the U.N. suggests, as many as a billion climate refugees. That's as many people as live in North and South America combined. We would have $600 trillion of climate damages. That's double all the wealth that exists in the world today. Again, we would have twice as much war as we see today.

    And the impacts would be everywhere, not just on — you know, not just on the sea level, not just on Arctic melt, not just on heat waves and droughts, but there would be no life on Earth that would be untouched by these forces. That's how all-encompassing the climate system is.

  • William Brangham:

    The natural inclination of a lot of people when they hear you talk like this is to say, that's just hyperbole, that's not going to be so bad, we will find some fix for it.

    I mean, it seems like you have to guard against apathy and nihilism and complacency. Your whole book seems to be arguing that none of this would be worth talking about if we didn't have some way to try to fix it.

  • David Wallace-Wells:

    Yes, that's exactly how I feel.

    And I think that, when we consider all of the climate horrors that are possible, it's important to remember that those are a mark of just how much power we retain over the climate. The average person can think of some of these really scary scenarios, a global refugee crisis, famine, drought, heat waves that kill people all around the world, and think, oh, my God, it's all over.

    But, in fact, if we get to that situation, it will be because of what we do from here on out. Nothing that happened in the past, until a few years ago, is going to affect the climate going forward. The thing that will write that story is the actions that we take moving into the future.

    And that means that the climate of the future is always within our control, as a human species. What that means for our politics and how we manage that, obviously very complicated. There are many obstacles ahead. But this is not something that is inevitable at all. In fact, nothing about it is inevitable.

    We could avert all of these disasters if we collectively to decided to take action quickly. The question is how quickly we will take action and at what scale.

  • William Brangham:

    You have actually argued that panic can be — that panic is appropriate in response to this, and that panic can be productive. How so?

  • David Wallace-Wells:

    When we think about the campaigns against cigarette smoking, against drunk driving, these were public campaigns that drew very clearly on fear, and were successful as a result.

    The U.N. says that, in order to avoid catastrophic levels of warming, we need a global mobilization at the level of World War II. We know, from history, we didn't fight that war out of hope or optimism. It was out of fear and alarm.

    Now, I don't think that fear and alarm are the only way to talk about climate. I think that there are reasons for optimism. The policy is — with the Green New Deal, a lot of exciting opportunities there. Public opinion is moving very quickly. The price of solar is falling very rapidly. There are reasons for hope.

    But in the big picture, the science itself is terrifying. Every finding that scientists come up with every day makes the world look bleaker. And if we look at those facts and become alarmed, we should allow ourselves to be alarmed and respond in kind.

  • William Brangham:

    When faced with news about how awful climate change could be, there's such a natural reaction of people to say, what can I do individually?

    You seem to argue in the book that individual actions, it's well-meaning, but it's really not enough.

  • David Wallace-Wells:

    Yes. And I worry it can be a distraction.

    I think people who are moved to live a little more responsibly when it comes to carbon, they should. If they want to eat less meat, if they want to fly less, that's wonderful. I applaud them. It's really noble.

    But the contribution that you can make as an individual, adding up all of your lifestyle choices, is completely trivial to the impact that you can have through politics, through voting. I do think so.

    The story of global climate change is so large, so all-encompassing, that really the actions of individuals can't make a dent in it. The only thing that can really change course is policy action at the national and international level.

    Thankfully, many of us have that leverage in our own hands in voting and the possibility of mobilizing and doing activism around climate, pressuring our leaders to honor their climate commitments.

    And I think that's much more important than what you buy or what you eat or what you wear, which I — again, I worry, it's a little bit of a distraction from real political action.

  • William Brangham:

    All right. The book is "The Uninhabitable Earth."

    David Wallace-Wells, thank you very much.

  • David Wallace-Wells:

    Thank you.

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