For decades, the climate movement has suffered from a debilitating self-inflicted wound: the assumption that “we can’t tell the public the truth” about the urgency of the crisis, or the scale and speed of the necessary solution. Many climate scientists joined forces with professional “climate communicators” and corporate philanthropies to decree: Fear doesn’t work as a motivator! Only hope “works,” so let’s keep things positive and promote gradualist policies like carbon pricing! This counterproductive mentality is finally changing — and author David Wallace-Wells is a major part of the reason why.
In July 2017, David Wallace-Wells broke through the iron curtain of euphemism, optimism and gradualism, pulled no punches and told the truth with the publication of his article “The Uninhabitable Earth” in New York Magazine. Wallace-Wells explored some of the worst-case scenarios of climate change in detail, making the potential nightmare of civilizational collapse and total destruction of our life-support system vivid and real for readers. No false optimism, only rigorous journalistic inquiry and true horror. Its publication caused an uproar amongst “climate communicators” — “You aren’t supposed to tell the whole truth,” they exclaimed — “it turns people off!” And yet people were not turned off. “The Uninhabitable Earth” became the most-read New York Magazine article in history, and was a key inflection point for the climate movement.
In his brand new book released this week, The Uninhabitable Earth; Life After Warming, Wallace-Wells has a chance to again transform, and critically, expand this conversation.
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In his book, unlike his article, Wallace-Wells looks at the most likely outcomes. For example, Wallace-Wells describes how even the best-case scenarios for climate change will involve millions of deaths, and tens or hundreds of millions of refugees. We are looking at a “best-case outcome … death and suffering at the scale of twenty-five Holocausts.” The book is grim but gripping; an encyclopedic but also narratively compelling exploration of the many ways that climate change will displace, flood, kill, starve, dehydrate and impoverish billions, while enabling the rise of “Climate Leviathan” authoritarian governments.
The facts are sobering: Humans are now adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere 10 times faster than during the Permian mass extinction, which tripped feedback loops that “ended with all but a sliver of life on Earth dead.” More than half of all greenhouse gas emissions, ever, have happened in just one generation — the past 30 years.
His startling analysis is at its strongest when reckoning directly with the physical and moral climate crisis, which is just beginning to unfold and may last for millennia. “We are not living in a new normal,” Wallace-Wells writes, “but a world that will never be normal again.” His work paints a chillingly clear picture of the speed and scale of the crisis, and of just how bad things will get at two degrees, three degrees, four degrees or more of warming.
In chapters about the “climate kaleidoscope,” — describing the distortion lens through which climate is viewed in mainstream culture — Wallace-Wells also reveals himself as an incisive and insightful cultural critic, revealing the systems that lull us into complacency. He dissects and systematically takes down countless trends toward fatalism, technological distraction, the growing obsession with individual wellness (as a substitute to collective health) and conscious consumption with a keen eye.
However, Wallace-Wells makes an omission, perhaps because of the publication date for this new book, when he declines to discuss the recent seismic shift within the climate movement. Since the publication of his article in 2017, the climate emergency movement has emerged, revealing itself as a powerful force. This movement tells the truth about the scale of the crisis, and demands a real solution, be it a “Green New Deal” or a WWII-scale climate mobilization for a 10-year transition to zero emissions plus drawdown. This new movement is led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Justice Democrats in Congress, the Sunrise Movement, Zero Hour, Greta Thunberg and the School Strikers, and Extinction Rebellion in the streets, and The Climate Mobilization — the organization I founded and direct — developing and pioneering new campaigns and policy approaches.
Greta Thurnberg, the 15-year-old pigtailed Swedish prophet, embodies the tell-the-truth candor of this new movement. She told the richest people in the world at Davos in January 2019:
I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.
The rise of this climate emergency movement, as we call it at The Climate Mobilization, is proof of an operating framework that we have been advancing in our work since 2014: using truth-telling to spur sufficient action. When I brought up the omissions of these developments with Wallace-Wells, he acknowledged them, and said, “When you write about climate, people want you to cover everything,” which is a fair point. This just isn’t a book about the climate emergency movement. However, the omission — combined with the considerable discussion of the amoral, cultish “doomers” who find expression as online trolls — gives the book an unnecessarily gloomy outlook.
Obviously, it’s a terrifying book; the crisis is staggering in scale. It can leave people feeling helpless and overwhelmed. Which is why showing readers that there is in fact an organized effort to restore a safe climate at emergency speed would be very helpful to them; it would show them how they can turn their terror, grief and guilt into meaningful action. Let us remember: It has always been individuals fighting for a cause they viewed as more important than themselves that created every major social advancement in history.
While Wallace-Wells shares the commitment to truth of the climate emergency movement, the commitment comes from a different place. Wallace-Wells is a journalist and a scholar. He seeks and tells the truth for the truth’s sake. He knows it is a public good. But I am not sure he realizes how transformative the truth can be. Perhaps he also does not view creating transformation as his responsibility.
Wallace-Wells sometimes finds moments of strong moral clarity, such as when he points out that the amount of suffering and death we will face has yet to be determined. The horrors of climate change “are not yet scripted,” he writes. “We are staging them by inaction, and by action can stop them.”
But what action? To me, our moral obligation is fairly clear: tell the truth, advocate for a solution that could actually restore a safe climate and do everything we can to build power for that solution. This means putting mission over self and making some personal sacrifices.
Wallace-Wells isn’t convinced, and is ginger in providing support even to a political position he recognizes as correct:
Many of even those who define themselves as practical technocrats of the environmental center-left believe that what is needed to avert catastrophic climate change is a global mobilization at the scale of World War II. They are right — that is an entirely sober assessment of the size of the problem, which no more alarmist a group than the IPCC endorsed in 2018. But it is also an undertaking of ambitions so inconsistent with the present tense of politics in nearly every corner of the world, that it is hard not to worry what will happen when that mobilization does not happen — to the planet, yes, but also to the political commitments of those most engaged with the problem. Those calling for mass mobilization, starting today and no later, remember — they can be counted as environmental technocrats. To their left are those who see no solution short of political revolution.
Wallace-Wells sees all of the extremely real barriers but fails to see the electricity within the climate emergency movement. This strikes me as especially sad because, with his gifts and his clear-eyed truth-telling, Wallace-Wells has helped create this movement.
Wallace-Wells told me that he is hoping to do more work covering and promoting the movement now, post-publication. This is a terrific development, and it has been exciting to see Wallace-Wells begin to follow through on that, endorsing Extinction Rebellion and the Green New Deal. It was a missed opportunity not to cover the movement in his book, but there will be many more opportunities for him to lead. I hope very much that he takes the opportunity seriously and processes the emotional and moral implications of this intellectual juggernaut, and jumps into the fray as a climate warrior. He has taken the first step — telling the truth — with breathtaking effect.