Is it too late for us? Scientists have spent decades sounding the alarm on the devastating effects of climate change. And for decades, society decided to do pretty much nothing about it. In fact, over the past 30 years, we’ve done more damage to the climate than in all of human history!
Now, there’s a real chance we may have waited too long to avoid widespread tragedy and suffering.
In his book “The Uninhabitable Earth”, David Wallace-Wells depicts a catastrophic future far worse than we ever imagined... and far sooner than we thought. It is undoubtedly a brutal truth to face, as you will hear in this episode, but if there’s any hope to avert the worst case scenarios, we have to start now.
CHRIS HAYES: One of the things that stuck out to me in the book ... one line. There's a line in the book that says, "The last time the Earth was four degrees above the band we've been in, there were palm trees in the Arctic."
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: That really hammers it home for me.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: That's a good mental shortcut for me. Four degrees means palm trees in the Arctic.
CHRIS HAYES: Hello, and welcome to “Why Is This Happening” with me, your host, Chris Hayes.
Alright. You guys know how much I like to try new stuff here on the podcast. Experiment, new guests, new topics, things we haven't done before. Today is a topic that we have done before, and it's a topic I think about a lot. I'm fairly obsessed with. I think it's the single most important issue we face, probably the most important issue in the history of civilization. It's with a book author — a book that I flew through. An incredible book, that I'll tell you a little bit about.
But I was trying to think about what's the best way to do the intro for this, because the topic itself is so intense, and the conversation you'll hear is probably one of the most... I don't know. What's the right word? Like emotionally intense, spiritually-intense conversations that we've had. It revolves around some of the most profound questions of what our purpose on this planet are, for the brief time that we get to inhabit it. Why we're here, and what we can or can't do during that time.
And so, I was trying to think about the best way to intro it, and then got an email from Brendan McDonald, who is the brilliant producer who edits our interviews. Sometimes he'll send an email after he's taken a pass from an interview and edited it down, with some notes about the intro. Saying, "Oh, you may need to set this up," or "You mentioned this, but you never say what it is. So, think about this."
So, I'm just gonna read a portion of Brendan McDonald's email about this episode that you're about to listen to with David Wallace-Wells. There's some logistical stuff, and then he says:
"Now, the trickier part — which seems both unavoidable and impossible to deal with. There is no amount of set-up, no amount of rationalization, no amount of stating the precise case of why it all needs to be heard, that makes this an easy lesson. It is arguably an act of emotional violence to put in one's brain, nonstop for an hour, in stark terms over and over, the causes of global misery, our extreme culpability in it and the absence of will to change it. It's easier to do a podcast on that reaction than a podcast with a topic that prompts such a visceral response. I'm obviously not telling you anything you don't know, since you approach the topics from these terms several times within the discussion. But it's just to say that it doesn't actually diminish the impact, as a listener, of taking this all in over the course of an hour. My feeling is, you can just play that as it plays and accept the fact that it may just be too much for some people to hang with for an hour. Or at the very least, acknowledge up front that this is a known conundrum, a kind of 'I feel your pain' prebuttal for what you're about to listen to."
So, are you ready out there in podcast land? That is Brendan McDonald, who's a really incredibly talented, brilliant, erudite, funny, witty, a great writer — as you can tell — who edits our interview. That's him, having listened to author David Wallace-Wells speak about his new book called "The Uninhabitable Earth," the topic of which is what climate change is doing to the Earth, and will do to the Earth, with some certainty, in the present and very near future. The range of what is possible is enormous, but one of the central thrusts of the book is we are under-counting just how bad it's gonna get. And how bad it's gonna get, already baked into the system, based on the carbon we've put into the air, and also how bad it can get in the worst-case scenario, which is something that we humans have control of, obviously, but may just fail the test. We may not reign in enough to avoid truly, genuinely dystopic, cataclysmic eventualities.
That is the topic of the conversation. What we are doing to the planet by putting carbon in the atmosphere. What we have been doing in the last 30 years, since we knew what we were doing. Our apparent inability to stop ourselves from doing it so far. What it will mean for us and our children in the very near future, and out into the end of the century and beyond. What it means for human life on the planet. What it means about humans and human civilization and human agency, as we look into the vast darkness that is a universe that blinks back at us, cold and unfeeling. Because there is nothing else out there that we know of like us, like what we are doing here on this planet. The one project for life that exists in the vastness of the universe that we know of, and what we are doing to that project right now, as I speak to you, as you hear the words in your ears from my voice.
That's the topic of today's conversation. I found it really bracing. I find it kind of beautiful, in a dark, cold and lonely way. But it's something. It's intense as hell, and I think it is as important a book as I've read in a long time. "The Uninhabitable Earth," by David Wallace-Wells. He is brilliant and incisive and thoughtful and sensitive about all this, and is someone that you just absolutely — being a human on this planet, in this moment, as we face this challenge together, collectively — need to listen to.
One of the things I related to in the book — and I think you talked about this a little bit in the first article you published — was your way into this issue. You weren't kind of a lifelong environmentalist. That's not what kinda gets you. Like how did you end up getting interested in this topic?
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: I mean as a journalist, I'm a lifelong New Yorker. I've lived here really forever. Always felt like nature was something that happened elsewhere and I didn't live within it and it didn't threaten me and like maybe I'd go on vacation and see it, but it was not something that governed any aspect of my life and would certainly not govern the life of my children and grandchildren.
CHRIS HAYES: It just doesn't exist in your... Like I grew up in the Bronx. I'm a lifelong New Yorker too.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah, same.
CHRIS HAYES: First of all the whole idea of like camping and hiking is sort of weird, like slightly creepy to me.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: That's changed as I've gotten older, but that was my general feeling for a while. Like what do you do there? So there's trees. That's cool.. That's not what... Is that a thing? Like I go play basketball at the court. And I always felt a kind of aesthetic alienation from the environmentalist movement -
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Totally.
CHRIS HAYES: Because it seemed to me like a lot of people who wore a lot of L.L. Bean...
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: And really loved animals.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes. Which I can ...
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: I mean I have... I never had any pets growing up so I have no love for animals either, but which makes me kind of a strange environmentalist. But I was... You know I'm a journalist who's been interested in the kind of future of science and technology for a long time and I was following academic research in a variety of areas, just sort of casually on the side. And then starting sometime in 2016 I just saw much more alarming research about climate change. I worked at New York Magazine and looking at the places that I think of as like competitors — other newspapers, other magazines, TV shows — I just didn't see those stories being told. Really my first impulse was a journalistic one, which was just this is a story. This is a huge storyline. Climate change could be much, much worse than most people understand. It's happening much faster than we think. It'll be everywhere. It's not just a matter of sea level rise, but you won't be able to escape it no matter where you live.
And what that means for how you and I relate to one another, what it means for our politics, our culture, our story telling, these are all questions that had not yet even been asked, let alone sort of thought through in any concrete way. And it just felt like such a large, large story and I felt like, you know, needed to be told, even just from a narrative imperative as much as from a scientific perspective or an advocacy perspective. Although those came later.
CHRIS HAYES: What is the distance between what is being communicated... because people do... I mean there's a dearth of climate coverage when you consider it in relative size to the importance of it. But there's not a dearth in an absolute sense. Like people do write about it. There's a fair amount.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Right.
CHRIS HAYES: What is not being communicated? What's your big takeaway? I mean I've read the book, but what's the elevator-pitch version of the distance between the thing that in your head you think is gonna happen and what the actual projections look like?
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah. I basically think of it in terms of three misunderstandings. The first is the speed. Right, so we were raised to think that climate change is really slow. That it was something that was gonna hit our maybe our children, probably our grandchildren. And then we'd have decades or maybe even centuries to invent our way towards a solution to it. Actually half of all the carbon that we've put into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels has come in the last 30 years. Which is since Al Gore published his first book on warming. It's since the U.N. established the IPCC.
CHRIS HAYES: I encountered that sentence in your book and I was like god dammit. Like half of all ... So you know we figured out the engine, we start burning coal. But half of all of it's been the last 30 years since, Al Gore published his book.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah. Which means that we've done that damage — more damage than we did in all the centuries before — knowingly. We did some damage in ignorance. We started the industrial revolution, we didn't really understand what's going on.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Scientific breakthroughs happen in the mid-19th century, but they weren't widely known. But by 1990, when the U.N. is establishing the IPCC, the scientific community knew exactly what was going on — was advertising it at full volume — and we have not changed course at all. In fact we have done much more damage. Each of those years are the highest years of emissions on record. So things are happening really, really quickly. We're doing that damage in real time. And that has a lot of complicated lessons for how we go forward, how we think about responsibility. You know it's often the case that people believe climate change is a legacy of earlier bad behavior, and that's almost an excuse not to act now.
CHRIS HAYES: Like "Oh they screwed it up before me, so you know, what can I do?"
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah. But actually you and I have lived through most of the damage that has been done to the climate. And where the climate was 30 years ago was like ... It was not perfect. It was headed towards some bleak outcomes. But it was basically stable. It was basically livable. We're now at a crisis point. And that's because of what you and I have lived through. And participated in.
CHRIS HAYES: That's heavy.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah. So the speed is the first thing. The scope is the second thing. Like I mentioned before, we heard about this for years through the prism of sea level rise.
CHRIS HAYES: Polar bears and sea level rise. Yeah.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah. The melt of Arctic ice and the resulting sea level. That meant that if you lived off the coast you could think, Oh whatever. It's not gonna happen to me. It's not gonna hit me. But everything we're now learning about the impacts show us that's it's a totally all-encompassing story. So economic impacts. The researchers say that by the end of the century if we don't take action our global GDP will be at least 20 percent smaller than it would be without climate change. We could have global climate damages of $600 trillion, which is double all the wealth that exists in the world today. We'd have hundreds of millions of climate refugees. We would have twice as much war or more. And while temperature increases violence between states, it also increases violence between people. So there'd be more murder, more rape, more domestic assault. It also raises the incidents of mental illness. It changes rates of ADHD and autism. The impacts are on the development of babies even in utero so you can see; the number of days that a baby is in the womb that were over 90 degrees, you can see that on their lifetime earnings.
CHRIS HAYES: Come on?
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: It's crazy. Now a lot of this science is like, you know, some of it's gonna be shown to be extreme. It's gonna be revised. I don't mean to say that every single finding in every single paper is gonna be a perfect prophecy of what the 21st century holds, but when you see a book that's like mine, 300 pages long, on many of those pages, every sentence is a different study. You realize just the huge scale of research that's showing that we're heading towards some really, really bleak outcomes very quickly. And that even if 30 or 40 or 50 percent of the science in the book turns out to be not true — which I think that's not gonna happen, but even if it did happen — we'd still be in for some really horrible, horrible suffering. In fact I think suffering unprecedented in the entire history of humanity.
CHRIS HAYES: So speed, scope.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: So this is everywhere.
CHRIS HAYES: Right.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: It's like it affects agricultural yields. It affects public health. It affects cognitive performance. It affects economics, conflict everywhere.
CHRIS HAYES: Human interaction at the person-to-person level, the social level, at the nation-state level. Human gestation and development. The way that we make our food. The way that we provide the calories we need. The ways that we relate to each other in the places we live. In every environment.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Right. It's everywhere. It sounds so trite to say, but when I sort of realized a couple years ago like, Oh I may live in New York, I may walk down the street on concrete, look up at steel buildings, but I'm still living inside nature. And everything I do is within the theater of nature, governed by its laws. Again that sounds like a naïve revelation, but to me it was like, Whoa, holy s***. And if that climate is changing rapidly, which it is, it's changing — depending on how you count — at least 100 times faster than at any point in planetary history, that's gonna really change the conditions of life that you and I conduct in the decades ahead. That's the scope. It's everywhere.
And then the third thing is the severity. So scientists often talked about this two degrees Celsius of warming threshold as the threshold of catastrophe. And it will usher in, if we hit that, we're at about 1.1 degrees now. A lot of suffering. The island nations of the world call it "two degrees genocide." But because we talked about it as this threshold of a catastrophe it meant that there was really very little storytelling or imagination about life would be like north of two degrees. It was just understood to be something like a worst case scenario. And given where we are now, having taken basically no action on carbon for all the time that we've known about it as a problem, two degrees is basically a best case scenario, not a worst case scenario.
And where we're on track for is four degrees — actually a little north of four degrees — by the end of the century. And that range of outcomes was really just up until quite recently, not at all discussed by people who were talking about climate science in the public. For a number of reasons, some of which are noble. Some of which are understandable. Others of which I think are not. The public just was not given this information what the world would be like at three degrees, at four degrees. And it's actually a lot worse. I mean every tick upward of temperature will inflict more suffering on the world.
CHRIS HAYES: It's an obvious point, but it's an important one because I do think there's this feeling of people think of it as binary.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Totally.
CHRIS HAYES: Like we're screwed or we're not screwed. And I hear people say it. I even think it like, Well, we're screwed anyway. And one of the really important things to understand that you do in this book is like it's not binary. It can literally always get worse. There's parts of the book where you talk about what eight degrees would look like. At eight degrees, we're talking about basically, like essentially, Dante's Inferno made real. I mean like literally an uninhabitable earth or something approximating an uninhabitable earth. And you make the point that like eight degrees sounds insane, but we've blown through the last 30 years doing nothing. We clearly have it in us.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah, I mean just eight degrees ... There was a study this week that showed that if we get to about 1200 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere — We're at about 410 now. Scientists think about 350 is like a safe level, so we're about 60 above that — but if we get to 1200, which is possible, but it's in maybe the next century, that the effect on clouds would be catastrophic. So clouds would just immediately disappear. And that alone would add eight degrees of Celsius to the planet's temperature. That alone. That impact alone.
CHRIS HAYES: So the thing about it's not binary, it could always get worse. There's a line in how the kind of way that we've talked about it has been two degrees because it's the benchmark. It's like god, we gotta avoid two degrees. That's now the best case scenario. That's what the Paris Accords are to try to keep us to two. Right? That's-
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Well although the commitments that were actually made in the Paris Accords would only get us to about 3.2 degrees.
CHRIS HAYES: Jesus.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: So it says, nit made a rhetorical commitment to two, but the pledges that the nations actually made would only get us to 3.2. And no industrial nation in the world is on track to meet those commitments. Not a single one.
CHRIS HAYES: And then, so when you think about four degrees — again part of this is hard because there's like a bunch of really big numbers and then a bunch of really small ones. So it's like when you say like, Oh, that's $600 trillion of wealth and there's like 500 million tons of ice, and then it's like one degree or two degrees. Like it's a real challenge for the human mathematical mind to make sense of those numbers. But one of the things that stuck out to me in the book — one line. There's a line in the book that says, "The last time the earth was four degrees above the band we fit in, there were palm trees in the Arctic."
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: That some... That really hammers it home for me. Like that's a good mental shortcut for me. Four degrees means palm trees in the Arctic.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Well the way that I think of it is climate change will be to the 21st century what modernity was to the 19th century. That it is will be all-encompassing and all-touching. And what it means, we'll figure it out along the way exactly how bad it will get. We'll see. But it's not something that you even need to think in mathematical terms. You just need to think this will be the central subject of political conversation. It'll be the central subject of questions about economic justice. Everything that you care about in the world will be affected by climate.
CHRIS HAYES: But wait a second.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: The problem with that is just that we think of, even though modernity is a mixed bag...
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: ... Like, you know, obviously Hiroshima, Nagasaki is modernity as is the washing machine as is liberal democracy as are the gas chambers.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Right.
CHRIS HAYES: All modernity.
DAVID WALLACE WELLS: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Like, I think we tend to think of it as generally a good thing. Like, modernity means indoor plumbing and modernity means the internet and all this stuff. So we think of it as, like, the thing about modernity is it fits with our notion of progress. The mental problem here I have and that we all have, I think, is just dealing with the idea that we are right now doing to ourselves and entering something that is not progress.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah, one of the chapters in the book is actually focused very clearly on what it will do our sense of history. So speaking autobiographically, I am a child of the 90s. I am basically like an end-of-history kid. I would've argued with you if in 1994 you had said like, Oh markets are good and America's awesome and neoliberalism is fantastic, and whatever. But I still also felt those ideas basically as my basic emotional orientation towards the world and believed that, over time, history would trace an arc of progress. And for a number of reasons I no longer feel that way.
But I think that climate change could be the most profound disturbance to those intuitions that we've seen yet. So that, if at the end of the century there are parts of the planet where economic growth of any kind is impossible because of the forces of climate, how will anyone there believe that the lives of their children will be better than their own lives were?
CHRIS HAYES: Or even what it means to be a human in the world. Or to be part of human society, where progress is the most central narrative, in many ways, for huge swaths of the world that we tell ourselves.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah. I mean even if it's not true, it's a kind of comforting parable that we all live by in some emotional way. Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: So I wanna be honest about how this makes me feel and the way that the book makes me feel. It gives me a panic attack. I don't mean that in a metaphorical sense. I mean I literally right now feel the kinda squelched, chest tight, visceral reaction I have when I occasionally will fall into contemplation of my own mortality, right. So if I am falling asleep and I'm thinking about the fact that it is just an irrefutable fact that I will die, that I'll wink out of existence, I won’t have the experiences I'm having now, I won't be able see my children. Right now it’s doing that to me. It's giving me that visceral reaction, which is just deeply unpleasant. It's my least favorite feeling in the world. I basically try to structure my life around not feeling it. So this book...
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: That's all of our problem.
CHRIS HAYES: That's all of our problem. Right? So that's the key thing. But the question is like, what do we do with that? It relates to the reception to the article that gave rise to the book. You wrote this article in New York Magazine that was a précis version of the book. And it had the same effect on me. And a lot of the climate folks were furious about it. They like came out and kicked your ass about it. And I think the reason... There was a bunch of reasons they did, partly I think some of it was disputes with the science or where in the bell curve of projections you were aiming the needle. But part of it was this broader sense that, like, you're gonna make people panic and they will shut down.
What do you say to the You're gonna make people panic and they will shut down?
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Well I, first of all, I'm someone who has been awakened to this issue by fear. I was myself complacent. And now I'm engaged. And that is a result of the fear that I feel. And I look around, I talk to people like you. I talk to colleagues, friends, family. I look out on the street. I watch TV. It just seems so obvious to me that complacency is the biggest problem when it comes to climate change. That there will be some people, some activists, some advocates who are on the verge of burnout. There will be some people who could fall into fatalism or despair. But when you look socially, collectively, it's inarguable to me that complacency is a much bigger problem.
And when you look back on the history of environmental advocacy, mobilization generally — Rachel Carson when she published "Silent Spring" was called hyperbolic and alarmist — led to the elimination of DDT, led to the creation of the EPA, campaigns against drunk driving, the campaigns against nuclear proliferation, campaign against cigarette smoking. These are not campaigns that we waged hiding the scary truth from the public.
And the U.N., the IPCC says we need to avoid what's this two degree threshold of catastrophe. We need to halve our global emissions by 2030 and that will require a global mobilization at the scale of World War II starting this year, 2019. If we have to do World War II against climate it's worth remembering we did not fight that war out of optimism or hope. We fought it out of fear and alarm.
CHRIS HAYES: That's true.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: And obviously there were reasons for hope stitched in, as there should be in this story. I don't think alarmism is the only way to talk about climate, or fear is the only way to talk about climate at all. I think basically the story is too big to tell in any one way. But I know from my own experience and from history that fear can be mobilizing and awakening. And when I look at our politics, that also seems transparently the case to me. People are motivated by fear — left and right.
CHRIS HAYES: But part of the problem here is that when you really start to sink in conceptually to what we're facing and what the details are and what this means, like the meaning of it. That's the thing that I find so profound about the book and profound about the exercise of thinking about it, because it takes you to like sort of the deepest place of meaning, right? Like who are we in the universe? Honestly. Like what are we doing here? Who are we in the universe? Do we have the ability to essentially extinguish ourselves and so that in a million years this little thing that we ran here, this little universe, this little world that we had where we like had children and joy and I had a TV show and then I had podcast — I was f****** happy about because people liked the god damn podcast — that that will all just be this like imperceptible blip in the arc of time? It winked out forever? No one will ever hear from us again? Like, that's the thing that I start to think about.
And the problem is when you start to think about that and then you reach for like analogies, like the analogies don't work. Like cigarettes don't work. Like the whole point is the scale is bigger than anything. That's the point; that's the reason it's so hard.
So yes, I agree. Like, it's true about DDT and cigarettes. But I remember a philosophy teacher saying this to me about evolution when I was focusing on philosophy science. He said this thing about evolution. He said, "The reason evolution's really hard is that it actually upends our whole notion of what a cause is." That to understand evolution, you have to actually like rearrange parts in your mind about what cause means because the time scales are so crazy. And trying to get your head around the time scales we're talking about, how long we've been locked into a band of stable carbon climate and what it means to enter out of that, it's just really hard for the brain.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah we're now living entirely outside the window of temperatures that enclose all of human history. Right so...
CHRIS HAYES: Say that again, and slowly, because that is actually what I mean by it.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah. That temperatures were relatively stable for the entire evolution and history of humanity.
CHRIS HAYES: Human history. Humans evolved. We figured out fire. We got the wheel that Donald Trump likes to talk about. We got society. We had a little priestly caste. We figured out agriculture. We started hanging out around each other. We started trading little pieces of coins. We started making hieroglyphics. We wrote books. We created empires. We created sewage. We created the industrial revolution, and we made liberal democracy. We had world wars. All of that, the whole thing, the whole frickin' has happened in a band of... that we have left?
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: 100 percent. We are outside of that range now.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: And climate deniers will often say, Oh, well the planet has been warmer than this before.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: And it's like, Yeah, the planet was warmer, but there weren't humans then. And so it's like an open question whether humans would have evolved in the first place under these climate conditions, even the ones that we're living in now.
CHRIS HAYES: Even now.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: I think it's probably we would have, but I think it's a more pressing open question whether we would have developed agriculture, which is really the basis of civilizations as we know it. Because in the parts of the Middle East where that was invented, growing crops has already become much harder. So much so that there are a lot of people who study this stuff who say that climate change is a cause of much of the civil unrest that we've seen across the Middle East over the last couple decades. Which is just astonishing to consider, and that things are going to get a lot worse.
So we're at 1.1 degrees out of this pre-industrial average, and we're almost certain to get twice as much warming, and we could get four times as much warming this century. It makes you — as you're saying — reconsider just how permanent and eternal all the things that we take for granted as permanent and eternal features of our lives.
And the real, I think, helpful analogy is: The pre-agricultural human experience in which everybody's life was basically the same as the lives of people 200,000 years before. I don't think that's where we're gonna get any time soon with climate, but I do think that our whole orientation that time marches forward and delivers — even if erratically — progress and more prosperity, and more justice, more peace.
CHRIS HAYES: That's not true for, essentially, 90 percent of human life on the planet, which essentially is stable until we get to civilization. You know, whenever that is.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: 10,000 years ago.
CHRIS HAYES: 10,000 years ago, yeah.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah. And, you know, we're already seeing the impacts of climate change undoing much of that stability in many parts of the world.I mean, I think, sitting in the U.S., we often feel like we're just learning about extreme weather over the last few years. The public opinion is actually moving really quickly on this, which is a reason for hope and optimism.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: But people in the Middle East and South Asia are suffering dramatically from these impacts. The flooding in Bangladesh is horrific, and will get worse, and...
CHRIS HAYES: We're talking thousands and thousands and thousands of people.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Killed.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: And we're expecting that, by as soon as 2050, many of the biggest cities in India and the Middle East will be unlivable in summer. It'll be so hot that you can't go outside without risking death. Certainly work outside.
CHRIS HAYES: By 2050?
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah. And that's why the U.N. thinks that by 2050 we're gonna have 200 million climate refugees at least. They think the upper range of that estimate is 1 billion climate refugees, which is as many people as live in North and South America combined. I think those numbers are actually exaggerated. I don't think they're gonna be that high. But if you keep in mind that the Syrian refugee crisis that totally destabilized European politics was 1 million refugees, it gives you a sense of just how vulnerable all of our political institutions. All of our intuitions about how the world should work, and how stable it should be, will be scrambled and deformed by these forces.
And the refugees are just one aspect. There are a million. It's almost like, Well, if we just had to deal with sea level rise, or if we just had to deal with refugees, maybe we could engineer some way out of it. But it's everywhere you look, there's a climate impact coming, and every one of them is going to undermine the way that we live now. That's not to say that I'm a declinist and alarmist, I don't think that civilization's gonna fall apart. I think civilization's resilient. I just think it'll be...
CHRIS HAYES: Don't you have the urge to just crack extremely grim jokes all the time?
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: It's just the way that I react to this kind of thing. It's just like: Just looking for the joke.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah, well, I mean, everybody has their own psychological coping mechanisms, right? So everybody... All of our reflexes are to not look at this science, and...
CHRIS HAYES: Stop making me think about the f****** science.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah. But I think it's really important that all of these scenarios that I'm talking about, I'm not writing a sci-fi novel. I'm not even introducing these ideas myself. I'm literally summarizing, sentence by sentence, scientific papers that have been published in the best journals that we have.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes. But, and here's the big sort of argument, that you will get, not just from sort of climate denialists, but along the sort of spectrum, is: There have been prominent scientists have made predictions about apocalyptic levels of doom before. They have, in some cases, garnered tremendous consensus, political mobilization. The version people always talk about, which you talk about in the book, is Paul Ehrlich, who wrote "The Population Bomb."
It was a version of an argument that Thomas Malthus first makes. I should note that Malthus' argument is essentially correct until fossil fuels are discovered. Right? Malthus' argument is, essentially, that when you have increased prosperity, then you get increased population, and the increased population essentially eats away the foundations of that prosperity, and you're locked forever in this cycle that you can't break out of.
And, essentially, Malthus is correct until we figure out fossil fuels.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah, there's a theory that everything we know of economic growth is just about the discovery of fossil fuels. That we would be basically locked into eternal subsistence existence until we discovered, Oh, there's this power that's buried in the Earth. Let's extract it and burn it.
CHRIS HAYES: Which is just millions of years of the sun's energy that's just been embedded in the ground.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: And life forms. I mean, it's actually fossils. That's why it's called fossil fuels.
CHRIS HAYES: Right. Right.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Which is incredible to think about too. And that's one of the mind-bending features of the story, also, is the way that it plays with your sense of time. So you burn a chunk of coal, you're burning millions of years of the Earth's stored energy. It's work that you're working, that took millions of years to build up.
And then the impact that we're having on the planet, we probably only have a decade or two to really avert some real catastrophic impacts, but those impacts could unfold over millennia. Which means it's both extremely fast, and unbelievably long. If the sea levels rise 260 feet, which is possible if all the ice melts, that will take thousands of years. We won't be able to reverse it. So 500 years from now, we'll have descendants who are living with an onset of seawater that was unleashed by their ancestors centuries before. They will be dealing with engineering problems that we are inventing now.
CHRIS HAYES: But the other argument, the other side of that argument, just to finish the sort of contention, is, you know, Malthus, and then there's Ehrlich, and throughout history there have been prophets of doom who basically say that we have an unsustainable path, and that right around the corner is grave disaster and destruction. And Ehrlich's "Population Bomb" was about overpopulation, and that was an idea with tremendous traction. He was on "The Tonight Show." People started all sorts of organizations. People started forced sterilization, did some extremely gnarly s*** in pursuit of this, right? He was wrong, and so what I want you to respond to is people being like: You're doing it again. You have taken all the science that says the worst-case stuff, you've sort of aggregated together, and you're sort of giving us a modern "Population Bomb."
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Well, I don't think that any of the things that I write about in the book are inevitable at all. I think, actually, when I talk about a lot of these climate horrors, it's really important to keep in mind that they actually reflect how much power we have over the climate. If we get to four degrees, it won't be because of what our grandparents did, it will be because of what you and I and our children do. And we can choose to do things differently, and not get there, which makes it a sort of affirmative choice to get all the way to three or four degrees. Everything about the climate system... Well, I shouldn't say everything. There are things that are outside of our control. But the most important input at this stage is how much carbon we put into the atmosphere. And that is a choice that we're collectively making. We're making it haphazardly, with institutions that aren't focused enough on the important questions, but it's a human choice. It's not beyond our control, and we can avert it.
I think we will make some of those choices so that we will avert the worst-case scenarios, and I think that we will continue to live even in many ways that people consider as prosperous and happy in the generations ahead. One of the things I'm trying to do in my book is to square these two facts. So if we live in a world that's three degrees warmer, and that means 50 times as much flooding in India and Bangladesh, 50 times as much flooding in the U.K. It means a major impact on our economic growth. It means significantly more warfare. All these things. If those things come to pass. And yet people still find themselves living relatively satisfied and fulfilling lives.
How does that happen? How is it the case that we can continue going forward with this much suffering, and I think this tragic answer is well, we live with a lot of suffering now. You know, one of the facts in the book that grabs people most vividly is: So a study by this guy named Drew Shindell about the effects of air pollution, just between the threshold at 1.5 degrees Celsius and two degrees Celsius of warming. And he found, just in that half-degree of difference, just through the impact of air pollution, 150 million more people would die.
Now that's 25 Holocausts. And since I don't think we're gonna get south of two degrees, that's basically our best case scenario, is 25 Holocausts worth of dying from air pollution. People are horrified by that, and they should be. But nine million people are dying annually already from air pollution. So that's only take 16 more years. And we're not animated about that. We're turning a blind eye to that. And I don't mean to sound too holier-than-thou. I do that too.
CHRIS HAYES: No, but...
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: We all live through compartmentalization and denial, but my hope is to show: if we get to three degrees, we'll be looking at the world of 2.8 degrees, and saying, Ah, this isn't much worse. But it's important where we are now to look forward and say, We really, really don't wanna get to three degrees. We really, really don't wanna get to four degrees.
And we need to look at what that would mean to motivate us now, because if we wait until we're at 2.6 or 2.8 degrees, we're not gonna be as motivated, because we'll be re-normalized to those circumstances.
I'm not one of those people who thinks that global warming's gonna bring about the total collapse of civilization. I think that we will endure. But I think there will be an enormous amount of suffering that we will dealing with in some ways, trying to process through resettlement and that kind of thing. But we will also just ignore it. And that is the outcome I wanna avoid, if we can.
CHRIS HAYES: Do you think it'll be the case? I think sometimes when I read — I read a lot of American history, and it's really interesting when you go back and you read stuff, you know, 1815, 20, 30, 40. There's this sort of sense in which you're like, They talk about slavery all the time, but any time they're not talking about slavery, you're kinda like: Guys.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Let's get back on the subject.
CHRIS HAYES: How is everyone just going along? This is obviously... How? How? You know, well, we gotta do this about the... Is that your conception of how history will understand this moment in 100 years?
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Absolutely. I don't think there's really any arguing with that. You know, we forged a global international order after World War II that was built on principles of human rights, and peace and prosperity. I think the 21st Century global political order will be built around carbon and climate change.
When you see MBS saying that he doesn't think that, he doesn't think that the Saudi economy could be oil-dependent by 2050, he has to get it off oil by then. I mean, he's a grotesque figure, but that's wisdom. He understands that, at that point, it won't be possible to be continuing to produce and burn oil in the way that Saudi Arabia does, and still expect a seat at the Table of Nations. That'll be out of the question.
And I think, similarly, our national politics will be transformed. The way that we buy food and eat. You know, I mention in the book, I think it won't be at all surprising if in the supermarket you start to see, Oh, this food is carbon-free, in the same way that you're now seeing it as organic. And people will orient their lifestyle choices along those axes. I also have a bit of a rant that lifestyle choices are a distraction from politics, which is the real solution, but there's no aspect of life going forward that will be unaffected by this.
And, to me, more important than the alarming science that I present in the book is the humanistic inquiry, which is: What will this do to how we organize our lives and our societies? And what will it mean to be living under the shadow of climate change, and seeing the world degrade? What will it mean for our sense of our place in nature and in history, our obligation to one another? If we're living in England, relatively well-off, what do we do owe the people in India and Bangladesh, who are suffering so much? Former colonies of an empire that was built on fossil fuel. What is the relationship of an American to the Saudis, who can't go to Mecca because it's too hot, when we made that country extract that oil as a kind of client state of ours and, as a result, completely destroyed its environment.
Those changes are coming for us too. I don't think that we'll be able to escape them in the U.S. and the U.K. For instance, but the question of climate reparations, I think, will be a major subject in the coming century. Who's gonna build the sea walls? And where do we decide where the sea walls will be built, and where they won't be built?
I was talking to a really prominent climate scientist a few months ago, who was one of the lead authors of the IPCC last report, and has been doing a lot of consulting work in New York City where he lives. So I said, "Are we gonna build a sea wall in New York?" And he said, "Oh, of course we'll build a sea wall. Manhattan real estate's way too expensive to lose." But those kinds of projects ... You look at the subway, it takes 30 years.
If we started now, he said, we couldn't build it fast enough to save parts of Howard Beach, South Brooklyn, Queens. He said, "The city knows this, and you're gonna start seeing them stopping infrastructure repair, not doing work on the subway lines and even telling those residents explicitly, 'You might be able to live here for another 20 years, but you're not gonna be able to leave this house for your kids.'" This is in New York City. And this is a conversation that the climate...
CHRIS HAYES: Really?
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Parts of New York City that the city sort of already knows, in its long-term planning, are going to have to be essentially abandoned back to the sea?
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah. He said... You know, if you look at the map of Long Island, the cemeteries that are in Brooklyn and Queens, they basically trace a particular geological line all the way out to the middle of the forks at the end of Long Island. That's the highest point on the island. And he was like, "Basically everything south of there, it's gonna be gone."
And maybe that'll take centuries, maybe it'll take decades. But the ice melt is inevitable, at that scale. And that means that Long Island will be a shell of its former self. And this is not a freaky guy. This is not a guy on the fringe. He was one of the lead authors of the last IPCC assessment. And when you talk to climate scientists privately, these are the terms that they talk in. That it will completely reshape the map of the world, by which I mean the literal physical map, but also the psychological map, how we organize our politics, all that stuff.
And then you meet some people who are even crazier than that, who say, Well, we'll be extinct in 10 years. But this is not that. You know, I'm certainly not one of those people, and this guys is not one of those people.
CHRIS HAYES: I was thinking about this in the context of World War II, and the fact that the U.S. was paralyzed, in the run-up to the war, over action or inaction. There were factions in the country that were pulling for both. People were mad at Roosevelt for essentially pulling the U.S. into war and lend-lease, and even if things were mobilizing in the direction of U.S. involvement in World War II; the argument gets settled by Pearl Harbor. And I kinda wonder if there's an analogy there, to climate level.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Well..
CHRIS HAYES: Is there something so big, so shocking, so cataclysmic, so seismic, that it takes what is the current kind of ... You know, again, debate's moving in the right direction, but too slowly, and it's still kind of ossified. Is that ultimately what does it?
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: I think it'll be an accretion of events, rather than a single event. But I think that the phenomenon that's been most powerful is the wildfires. There's been a huge movement against plastic pollution, which is, I also think, basically a distraction from the climate issue, which is much more important. But it's so vivid when you see pictures of the ocean filled with plastic. You're like, Holy s***, holy f***. This is, like, just the aesthetics of this is so gross. We need to do something. And I say that...
CHRIS HAYES: That's unsightly!
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah, totally.
CHRIS HAYES: Can we clean that up?
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: But carbon is invisible.
CHRIS HAYES: That's the problem, man.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: But wildfires are not invisible, and people feel the threat of them really intimately. Something about fire is even more immediate than, say, hurricanes. I don't live in California, but I feel the terror of those fires. And it's estimated that for every degree of warming, fires in the western U.S. could quadruple in size, which means that — theoretically — we could get fires that are 64 times worse at the end of this century than they were last year. Sixty-four times worse.
I think the imagery of that is really powerful, and I think that extreme weather has moved public opinion. You know, the sort of gold standard polling on this is the Yale Climate Communications Survey. They have us at, I think, 73 percent of Americans think global warming is real, and is happening now. Seventy percent are concerned about it.
Those are actually big numbers considering how much we process everything we know about the world as Americans through partisan prisms. So if we get 70 percent of Americans who are concerned about it, that's really significant. Those numbers are up 15 percent since 2015, and the numbers, it's an apples-to-oranges polling comparison, but it's up eight percent since March. That's really significant movement. When you look abroad: The climate strikes in Europe, Extinction Rebellion in the U.K., Sunrise here and the Green New Deal, there is rapid political movement on this question, which is really encouraging.
The problem is, if we really only have 12 years to halve emissions to avert the worst-case scenarios, we need to get started right now. And we can't wait for those numbers to even creep up any further.
There's also the question of just how committed the people who say they're concerned are to the issue of climate change. The flip side of that 70 percent number is that most Americans say they wouldn't pay $10 a month to address climate change. So they're concerned, but they're not concerned.
CHRIS HAYES: Really?
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah. The average American says they'd be willing to pay one; the median contribution is $1 a month. But there's actually good news on that. It used to be the case that the economic conventional wisdom was that action on climate was really expensive, and not just in the sense of investment up front, but in the sense of foregoing economic growth. 'Cause you'd have to be choosing not to burn coal, for instance. And I think one of the main reasons we've seen so little climate action globally, is because that wisdom has held.
CHRIS HAYES: And, in fact, it's a big part of the argument. I mean, you see people in domestic U.S. politics make it all the time, which is, Well, why should we bow out of growth that China and India are just gonna scoop up, and...
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Right, I think that actually is how Trump thinks about it. I don't think he's a real denier. I think he just thinks there's a kind of advantage for him in slow walking action on climate. But all of the new economic research suggests that that logic is totally backward. That it's sort of ugly in the sense that it's mostly a reflection of the fact that we now are estimating the costs of climate change much, much higher than we used to.
But relatively speaking, we would be saving a ton of money, in fact, adding a lot of wealth to the economy very shortly if we took action. So, a big study in 2018 said that we could add $26 trillion to the global economy by 2030 through rapid decarbonization.
CHRIS HAYES: And that's because the cost of what you're describing, which you laid out in the book when you talk about everything from the habitability of Asian cities in the summer, to parts of the outer boroughs being under water, to fires 64 times as bad as they are now. All of that is economic costs. All of it, all of it, all of it. You add it up together, enormous economic costs, enormous economic drag, and as we put more carbon into the atmosphere and the warming gets worse and what we've already stuffed into the system coming for us gets worse, the costs of all of that gets up higher so that the cost of preventing it looks better as an investment.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Well, there are also genuine business opportunities. You can build your solar empire now in a way that you wouldn't have 20 years ago. But I often talk about the economic costs because I think it is — if you have to have a single metric — it's sort of the best summation. But it's also deeply misleading in the sense that real estate in Bangladesh is not valued in the same way as real estate in Miami Beach is. And so there are...
CHRIS HAYES: Vastly undercounts of human cost.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Totally. Especially the cost of the Global South, which just makes it all the more remarkable that like India is scheduled to have more than a quarter of all climate impacts in the 21st century, that's gonna hit India. So, India is gonna be really, really devastated.
CHRIS HAYES: Jesus Christ.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: And since they're poor, you can imagine, it's really a much, much bigger impact truly than that.
CHRIS HAYES: So there's kind of technical question and political question. Let's start with the technical question. David Wallace-Wells is made unilateral dictator of the Earth with an entirely enthusiastic coordinated group of planetary administrators. Can you, using the technology we have, get us on track with IPCC? Can we cut emissions by 45 percent in 12 years?
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: I would say 12 years is a little optimistic but it's not hugely optimistic.
CHRIS HAYES: Given 2019 existing technology?
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah. This is a little bit of a misleading anecdote but I think it's helpful to illustrate it. There is now technology to take carbon out of the atmosphere called carbon capture. Hasn't been deployed at scale but it has been tested in laboratories and we can take carbon out of the atmosphere at a cost of about $100 a ton.
CHRIS HAYES: Where do we put it? Where does it go? The ground?
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: That's the problem. I'll get to that in a second.
CHRIS HAYES: Okay.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: So $100 a ton. That means we could completely neutralize the entire carbon footprint of the global economy for the cost of about $3 trillion a year. $3 trillion is a lot of money, but we're subsidizing the fossil fuel business by some estimates as much as $5 trillion a year. So, if we just redirected those subsidies to those solutions, we could in some theoretical way have solved the problem already without even disturbing our economy at all.
Now, the question you raised is a really important one. In order to store this carbon, it would require, they say, an infrastructure two to three times the size of the existing oil and gas industry, and then we would have to build it. And where it would be stored and by whom and next to whose houses? And there'd NIMBYism and all that. Complicated problems.
But, the first thing I would do as global dictator would just be to end fossil fuel subsidies. There's no reason why we should be propping up these businesses. There are massive investments to be made in green energy with the same money. And in fact in many parts of the world, green energy is already cheaper than dirty energy. It's just that those companies are more powerful than-
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. They have incumbency advantages.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Right, totally. The energy problem is actually the simplest one to solve because green energy is doing so well, and that is in part because of the investments that the Obama Administration made during the stimulus package that was really consequential, so that the gains we made in green energy are much faster than even its advocates would have predicted 25 years ago. But the bad news on that is that we have not changed the proportion of clean energy to dirty energy over the last 40 years, so we've made this unbelievable progress where green energy is way cheaper than it ever thought was possible, and yet we've just responded to that news by growing our capacity with it rather than retiring the dirty energy sources. I think there needs to be a much stronger national or international push to aggressively retire dirty energy, not just subsidize and invest in green energy, and I think probably that will mean things in relatively short order like banning new internal combustion engines. I think we need to...
CHRIS HAYES: Banning new internal combustion engines.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Well, there are already cities in Europe that are car free. I think this is just like one step down that path and I think that we will see in this way the kind of liberal...
CHRIS HAYES: God dammit. All the more ... Wow.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: The real problem...
CHRIS HAYES: I should say that part of the subtext is that we're sitting here in these microphones at theWITHpod studios, which are luxurious beyond your possible imagining. It happens to be the day that Michael Cohen is testifying before the House Government Oversight Committee, so fresh in my mind is the performance of various members of that committee. I'm running all this through the Mark Meadows test, Mark Meadows being a North Carolina Republican congressman who was particularly outspoken today in his defense of the president, just like "Mark Meadows on banning the internal combustion engine." Which sort of brings us to... I'm getting ahead of ourselves by just keep... There's the technical question and then I think like, Mark Meadows? What's Mark Meadows gonna do with banning the internal combustion engine, not to mention Donald Trump and James Inhofe.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: It's bleak. But there are also reasons for despair on the technical side of things, so...
CHRIS HAYES: Oh, great. Good. Okay. I'm glad we got that right.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Infrastructure. If cement were a country it would be the world's third biggest emitter, and China is now pouring more cement every three years than the US poured in the entire 20th century. They're building all the new infrastructure of Asia and Africa with that cement. That's not even counted in their carbon footprint, so China's carbon footprint is actually significantly larger.
CHRIS HAYES: So large with all the stuff they're doing.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Delta Road.
CHRIS HAYES: Delta Road, which is the huge sort of trans-Asiatic infrastructure development they're doing, and then all the development they're doing particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, which is enormous and mind boggling.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: They're really making a play in the same way that the U.S. did with say the Suez Canal to be the new world's empire for the next century, and I think it's a sort of...
CHRIS HAYES: My money's on them.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: It's weird. I felt growing up I was like, Oh, okay. China, maybe they'll surpass the U.S. but it would mean becoming more like the U.S., and now we're seeing a China that is not that way at all.
CHRIS HAYES: Not that way at all. No.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Infrastructure is really problematic. Agriculture is really problematic. On the other hand there are also some technical solutions there, so we hear a lot about beef-eating and how bad that is for the planet, but there are small studies that show that if you feed cattle seaweed their methane emissions could fall by 95 or 99 percent. If we fed all of our beef seaweed, conceivably we could completely eliminate the carbon problem of eating beef. That to me illustrates...
CHRIS HAYES: That sounds like the setup for a late night joke.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah. Well, that's I think the world that we're entering into. The contours of our existence will be so transformed by this that any time we contemplate it seems eerie and funny and strange, but that's the world that we're entering into.
CHRIS HAYES: Totally. Believe me, I'm very pro-feeding seaweed to cows so that they fart less, obviously.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Burp less. Burp is actually more important.
CHRIS HAYES: Burp less.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: But to me that illustrates the thing about personal responsibility versus policy because I could eat fewer hamburgers, but the impact is trivial.
CHRIS HAYES: Right, and you can't stop China from pouring concrete throughout the entire Asian continent.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: No, and in a really profound way... I think it's unfortunate, but in a really profound way, the future climate of the planet will be determined by China. Slightly lesser extent by India and sub-Saharan Africa, but China is really the main driver here. The U.S. is the biggest historical emitter, but at the moment we're only responsible for about 15 percent of emissions, and while we were up last year we're on a downward trend. I think that trend will continue. Not fast enough, but I think it will continue regardless of policy. But China is on a very different trajectory and to the extent that we're considering warming of three or four degrees this century it will be the result of Chinese action.
CHRIS HAYES: What's your response to people that make the argument, because it's amazing to watch the ways in which the arguments against climate action have just hopped all over the place. For a very, very long time it was like, No, the science is wrong. No. We're actually in an Ice Age. No. The scientists in the UK at East Anglia were faking their research. No. The hockey stick doesn't exist. No. We’re not actually warming. No. Carbon isn't a real substance. I don't know. All sorts of nonsense.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Carbon's good for people.
CHRIS HAYES: Carbon's good for people. That basically has essentially all gone by the wayside. There's still some of it but in sort of mainstream political — particularly conservative Republican — circles. It is now the sort of fatalism about the fact that we're only 15 percent of emissions. China's gonna do what China's gonna do, so why should we take... What is your argument, given the fact that it is true that China sort of does control the fate and destiny of the world in terms of two and a half degrees, three degrees, four degrees? What's the argument against people saying You guys are just sort of futzin' around when you talk about the U.S.?
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Well, I think that there's a sort of moral obligation because of the historical debt that we have imposed on the rest of the world, and I do think we remain maybe the world's most powerful country, maybe the world's second most powerful country, but we're still a major leader there, and to the extent that we are trying to organize a solution to a collective action problem, which is that every nation in the world, not just the U.S., it actually includes China, has an incentive to slow walk action on climate and let the rest of the world take more aggressive action, that every surrender, every withdrawal from participation is a moral failure.
CHRIS HAYES: And a practical failure. My point about this is that U.S. action is necessary but not sufficient. It's very hard to imagine the world in which China is very aggressive and does what it needs to do to keep us at say three degrees or two and a half, in which the U.S. is just like, Aha! We don't believe in any of this stuff. That's impossible to conceive of.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Right. Well, I would say if you look at the last couple of years, Xi Jinping has actually been much more aggressive rhetorically on climate since Trump came onto the scene, because he saw the evacuation of American moral leadership on this issue and he thought, Oh, here's an opportunity for Chinese imperial strength, and they're still behaving badly in lots of ways, but they're also investing much more aggressively in green energy and renewables than they were a few years ago. They're not opening coal plants like they were just two or three years ago. That's great. I think it's a little bit weird to put faith an authoritarian who has thrown a couple of million Muslims in jail and is surveilling every citizen, etc, but if we're gonna have an authoritarian dictator I'd rather he be woke on climate than not woke on climate.
CHRIS HAYES: Well, you just brought me up to what I think is in some ways the thing I think about the most, which is I can already see global conservatism going directly from denial to authoritarian solutions. I can already see it's gonna be like one second it's like There is no climate change, and then it's gonna be like, Oh yeah. There's climate change and we...
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: And that's why we need to invade Saudi Arabia.
CHRIS HAYES: That's why we need to invade Saudi Arabia. We need to bomb China and India, we need to build sea walls and physical walls to keep the climate refugees out, and I have now declared myself president with emergency powers so that I can keep people where they need to be and not move internally around the United States from the areas that we have to abandon to the areas that are temperate enough to inhabit, and you can just see all the ways in which the pull towards authoritarianism in the environment that you describe is gonna be powerful.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Absolutely, and the American Department of Defense has been one of the most aggressive planners for the climate future in the government actually, I think more forward thinking than the EPA, which is remarkable. They've done a ton of strategizing, game planning and, when you look at the map from a military perspective, that makes sense.
The Arctic is gonna open up. Who's gonna control those shipping routes? The islands of the Pacific on which we've built our entire Pacific military empire will be underwater, including by the way all of the fallout from the nuclear tests that we did in the '50s and '60s. That's gonna be underwater and distributed throughout the Pacific because those islands are gonna sink. What does that mean for the map of the future world? Who knows exactly?
But China's playing the same game. They're building artificial islands in the South China Sea to make up for the loss of real islands. And I think about this mostly in terms of refugees, and we're seeing already the turn towards nativism and xenophobia, and that's terrible and dispiriting, especially because if you had to imagine a threat that was big enough and all-encompassing enough to call into being real cooperative global government, climate change would be it, and yet we're responding to the crisis in the opposite way by retreating from all those institutions. That's terrible.
But there is also this social science that says that the immediate negative response to newcomers in a community is strongest when the numbers are small, and that when those numbers get bigger the community is more welcoming. I think there's a reason to think that it's possible we would get there globally. We'll be more welcoming towards climate refugees 20 years from now than we are now because we're more comfortable with accepting refugees generally. Exactly where we end up on the spectrum of political disaster to political utopianism I don't know, but I do know that the politics of the next century are going to be forged by the force of climate change in some way, and I don't think we've really thought about that. I don't think there have been many political scientists who've written about that. A couple who I mentioned in the book have, but it's not a major area of inquiry.
You could say the same for all of these other areas of human life. The way that we think about childbearing will be dramatically different if we live in a world where we see the future as more degraded than the past. We've been raised to think that our children will be better off than our parents were, and when that reverses, how do we think of family structure? How do we think of historical memory?
You and I both grew up in the Cold War era. We had nightmares... I'm speaking for you, but I had nightmares of mutually-assured destruction. Our children are going to grow up with nightmares of climate change. They already are. What will that do to our psychology? What will that do to our movies? We know what "Dr. Strangelove" is. What's gonna be the first great movie of climate change? We don't know.
This is gonna affect absolutely everything from the trivial to the profound, from the interpersonal to the global. It is a system, like I said before, as all-encompassing and total as modernity, and it's as though we've landed on a new planet with new laws, new rules, and we're just gonna have to figure out how to move forward together.
I think we're not in a place that gives us much confidence right now, but as you say, when you look at the long sweep of human history, it's also hard to bet against us. Honestly. That we've figured our way out of foxholes before, and there was some global cooling that happened at some point early on. I don't remember the exact details, but there was a major volcanic eruption that lowered global temperatures by like two degrees Celsius or something, and the human population slipped to 7,000 globally. That's less people than live on Nantucket. And we're here now.
.So when you take a real big picture perspective...
CHRIS HAYES: You see, I'm like, I hope me and my kids and my family are in that 7,000. Just me and my wife and my kids.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Well, it's interesting how we've been prepared for that thinking by our science fiction and cinematic storytelling, much of which isn't really about climate change, but which is close enough that it feels like an emotional guide to it. I was just emailing with William Gibson, a sci-fi novelist, and I was thinking Oh, I'm just editing at the last minute this little bit in the book about how climate change is gonna make science fiction writers seem even more prophetic going forward. He was like, I hate when people call us prophets. We got everything wrong. We got absolutely everything wrong. Everything but the mood, and I was like, No no no. The mood is important and really when you look at the science, like "Blade Runner," it's raining in Los Angeles. That's not really gonna happen. Yet it's still a very powerful portrait of what life in an environmentally degraded universe would be like. Or "Mad Max" is a movie that people talk about a lot. "Mad Max" is about an oil shortage. It's the opposite. But it's still pretty close, and many of these stories seem to have hit the right emotional notes even if they got the setup totally wrong. Which is interesting.
CHRIS HAYES: Don't bet against us is an appropriately hedged but clear-eyed and optimistic way to think about it I think. Humans can do amazing things. We've done amazing things before. The moment calls for something surpassing all the amazing things we've done in history, which is building planetary collective solidarity in action — in a political, social, and technical sense — across all realms of human interaction and cooperation. But the human ability to cooperate is truly our most powerful resource. It's what got us here, so "don't count us out" I think is a good way to think about it.
CHRIS HAYES: David Wallace-Wells is a columnist and deputy editor at New York Magazine. He's the author of this fantastic new book which I really can't speak highly enough about. I read it very fast. It's like someone punching your brain, but in a weirdly satisfying way. I'm not quite sure how to describe it. You know what it is? It's like a rough massage for your brain. There's sort of like a massage that hurts but you want them to keep going. It's like that for your brain. It's really, really good. It's called "The Uninhabitable Earth." You should go check it out. David, thanks a lot.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Thank you.
CHRIS HAYES: So once again, my great thanks to David Wallace-Wells, for that incredibly intense and bracing conversation. The book is called "The Uninhabitable Earth." He is a deputy editor and climate columnist for New York magazine. And the book: You know, I have to say I read that book very quickly, and I have now talked to a number of people who have read the book, where you might think that the book would be a slog, given how intense the realities it's presenting are. But it isn't, at all. In fact, there's something weirdly kind of addictive and compulsively readable about the way that he walks through everything. So, I really recommend it.
I've gotten lots of great feedback from you on our Stacey Abrams podcast, which posted last week. It's great to see how enthusiastic people were about it. Stacey Abrams is a big hit among the Withpod listeners. Very, very rave reviews for her, as she contemplates her political future. As always, you can tweet at us using the hashtag withpod, W-I-T-H-P-O-D. You can email us, email@example.com.
I know that climate is something that folks have emailed a lot about, and want us to cover and continue to cover. We're gonna definitely continue to do that. If you like this conversation, there's another conversation we had about climate called "The Wicked Problem of Climate Change with Andrew Revkin," which we released back in August, Aug. 14. So, go look that up. We will link to it at the website underneath the transcript for this.
“Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and MSNBC news, produced by the "All In" team, and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.
"The Uninhabitable Earth" by David Wallace-Wells,Yale Climate Communications SurveyIPCC ReportExcerpt of "The Uninhabitable Earth" in New York MagazineThe Wicked Problem of Climate Change with Andrew Revkin (Aug 14)