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6 March 2019

David Wallace-Wells: the writer forcing us to face the climate apocalypse

The author of the bestselling book The Uninhabitable Earth on why “we are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible”. 

By India Bourke

On the day we meet in a central London hotel, David Wallace-Wells is dressed impeccably in a black suit jacket and crisp white shirt, open at the collar. He reminds me of a young Fox Mulder, the FBI special agent from the Nineties TV series The X-Files. “It’s a bit weird being in the business of apocalypse,” the deputy editor of New York magazine says as we order tea.

In July 2017, Wallace-Wells published a cover story outlining the dystopian consequences of unrestrained climate change. “If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible,” he wrote. The article quickly went viral, becoming the most-read in the history of New York’s website. Yet scientists queried the accuracy of his claims and the value of his alarmism. Would worst-case scenarios risk paralysing the world into inaction?

In response, Wallace-Wells says his main obligation has always been to tell the truth. “I think it’s the responsibility of journalists to portray that grimness honestly,” he tells me, citing pesticides and smoking as examples where early disquiet was vindicated.

The 37-year-old’s new bestselling book, The Uninhabitable Earth, continues this task in terrifying detail. By the century’s end, if present trends continue, the Earth faces temperatures rising by 4°C above pre-industrial levels. At this point, the projected cost of climate-related damage could pass $600trn, Wallace-Wells says – more than twice the wealth in the world today.

The restriction of warming to 2°C is currently the best-case scenario humanity can hope for, he warns. But even then, according to a study in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change, an extra 150 million people (twice the death toll of the Second World War) would die from air pollution than under a temperature rise of 1.5°C.

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“We are entering into what you can call a theological era – we have brought the planet to the brink of real catastrophe within the work of a single lifetime, and we now have about the length of a single lifetime to save our future,” Wallace-Wells says of global warming’s radical new reality. “That is a human drama at a scale we’ve never seen before.”

 So what has led Wallace-Wells to catastrophise while others have urged caution? As the grandchild of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, he is no stranger to narratives of collapse, but says these experiences bore little relation to his own privileged upbringing in the New York Bronx. Nineties America felt like it could only get better, greener, kinder and richer, he explains. There was a sense that the country stood “astride the world and astride history, without anything standing in its way”.

That ideological confidence, however, was not to endure. The 11 September 2001 attacks and the 2008 financial crisis challenged complacent assumptions of inexorable progress. “When you start to question those trajectories, it makes the whole challenge of climate change seem a lot more difficult to conquer,” Wallace-Wells says.

He now hopes his book will alert others to the urgency of the challenge: “We will have to think of this century as the century of climate change, in the same way we thought of the 20th century as the century of financial capitalism.”

The past year has vindicated this judgement: in 2018, an unprecedented global heat-wave led to wildfires from LA to the Arctic Circle, while last October, a new report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned the crisis needed a political mobilisation on the scale of that required in the Second World War.

“When you think about how far [world war preparation] is from the entire landscape of political possibility that we live in now, you really understand that this is quite literally a call to arms on climate,” he says of the IPCC’s dramatic comparison.

Public awareness could be aided by the new left turn within the US Democratic Party. Wallace-Wells describes the proposal of a “Green New Deal” by the “hugely exciting” congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as “the first serious American response” to the climate threat.

Yet forces of insular nativism and protectionism could together thwart successful global action, he warns. Brexit is one symptom of this trend, and the ongoing failure to reach an agreement has undermined the UK’s perceived leadership on climate issues: “I’m sure there are people prioritising it in ways I admire, but it hasn’t filtered up to the top level of news that I see as an American.”

The writer is not sure whether, even now, his “psychological reflexes” have allowed him to comprehend the magnitude of the crisis. But he also suspects that motivations of fear and optimism work in parallel: “What happens from here is entirely up to what we do over the coming decades.” For this reason, he doesn’t view the recent birth of his daughter as a further drain on the Earth’s resources, but as a spur to demand political change.

In some respects, Wallace-Wells’s portentous warnings are nothing new. He has simply assembled what others have said before – in scientific papers, news articles and UN reports. But his eloquence and media savvy have combined to make him the compelling new face of climate apocalypse.

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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The next crash