David Wallace-Wells’s apocalyptic depiction of a world made uninhabitable by climate chaos caused an outcry when it was published in New York magazine in 2017. Based on the worst-case scenarios foreseen by science, his article portrayed a world of drought, plague and famine, in which acidified oceans drown coastal homelands, dormant diseases are released from ancient ice, conflicts surge, economies collapse, human cognitive abilities decline and heat stress becomes more intolerable in New York City than in present-day Bahrain. Critics called this irresponsibly alarmist. Supporters said it was a long-overdue antidote to climate complacency. Whatever your view, it was among the best-read climate articles in US history. Now he is back with a book-length follow-up.
Jonathan Watts: You have written a hell of a book. Your now-famous opening lines – “It’s worse, much worse, than you think” – are like a voice from a nightmare. Are you deliberately upsetting people about the climate?
David Wallace-Wells: That is one of the intentions. My hope is first of all to tell the story as I see it. That has a couple of components. One is to show the crisis is happening much faster and is more all-encompassing than people think. And then also to think how those dramatic changes are going to cascade through the lives we live, the way we relate to one another, our politics, our culture, our psychology, all that stuff. I would like people to be scared of what is possible because I’m scared. And because I am motivated by fear, I also hope they will be motivated.
The sense of speed comes across very strongly. It is as if people have got used to seeing the climate crisis as an old horror film with slow-lurching zombies but, in your version, the zombies are the much faster, scarier ones you see in modern horror films. You address the risks of heat death, hunger, drowning, wildfire, dying oceans, economic collapse and conflict, and suggest the climate problem driving them has super-accelerated beyond what many people think.
That is the thing that first opened my eyes to the change. When I learned the astonishing fact that more than half of the carbon we have emitted into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels was emitted in the past 25 years, that really shocked me. This means we have burned more fossil fuels since the UN established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) than in all of the centuries before – so we have done more damage knowingly than we ever managed in ignorance. That is a horrifying fact. It also means we are engineering our own devastation practically in real time. How much will depend on how we act, how we behave, how we respond. [Continue reading…]