David Wallace-Wells: ‘It is worse, much worse, than you think’


TAGS: Interview, Environment, Coronavirus, Books

US journalist David Wallace-Wells, whose work has appeared in New York magazine and the Guardian, is best known for his work on climate change, and his first book, New York Times bestseller “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming,” which is inspired by a 2017 article in New York magazine and was published last year, is a loud wake-up call.

In the book, published in Greek by Metaichmio, and which is also available in other languages, the writer shows us what the near future will look like as a result of global warming and climate change if something doesn’t change fast.

On the subject of the coronavirus, Wallace-Wells describes it as a “complicated challenge without such obvious solutions.”

The first line of your book “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming” is “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” What about this global health crisis?

In part because of the severity of the disease and the lockdowns it produced, I do think the experience has been eye-opening. In ways that climate change hasn’t really managed, Covid-19 has taught us all that we live within nature, no matter how superior we may feel to it or protected against its forces. It has also taught us, as climate change should, that faster action is better when addressing a new challenge – and that delays can be exponentially costly. And it has provided a kind of dry run, or dress rehearsal, for a sort of rapid, global response to an existential threat – uncoordinated and in ways chaotic and yet, overall, producing public health policy that has, to trust the recent research, prevented millions of deaths and tens of millions of cases. But I worry that we are also beginning to see a dry run or dress rehearsal for climate change in that we are now beginning to normalize a terrible amount of dying and suffering – within our own countries, where in the US and the UK especially once-intolerable numbers of deaths are now no big deal, but also as we look out from the relatively wealthy West to the developing world, where the disease is now spreading quite rapidly.

Powers like the USA that would usually be at the forefront of a global response against a global crisis like a pandemic have not been responding in the expected way. Do you think that leadership and ideologies are being tested? And in what way?

I don’t think anyone on the planet could look at the American response to the pandemic and feel that the United States was a trustworthy global leader of any kind. With the possible exception of Brazil, the US – the world’s richest and most powerful country – has led literally the worst response to Covid-19. Ultimately I don’t believe this is primarily a reflection of ideology, except inasmuch as competence and concern for the public good can be considered an ideology. But in terms of national and regional reputations, it will be hard for the world as a whole to forget the disastrous response of the US and its total disinterest not just in addressing the disease within its borders but helping those do so elsewhere, as the country has done in the past. It will be hard not to note the considerable struggles of all Western nations in responding, and similarly hard not to note the much more competent responses across Asia. Whether the US in particular or the West more generally can rebound from that blow is not yet clear. But here in the US I do think the problem is considerably bigger than Donald Trump, as horrible as he has been, considering our national disease and science agencies the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and FDA [Food and Drug Administration] have embarrassed themselves as well, endangering many millions of additional Americans as a result, and considering that very few of our governors or mayors have responded appropriately either. It’s been a failure through and through, and I think anyone in the world with their eyes open can see that.

They say that pandemics are like rivers in world history: They have shaped countries and nations. What do you think our world will be like after this pandemic?

Rarely do these kinds of transformations unfold neatly – that’s one of the meta-narratives of my book, I hope that while we often conceptualize history as a series of binary forks in the road, in truth history is forking always in many different directions at once. But I do suspect that, across the West, the ideology of neoliberalism, already weakened by the Great Recession and its fallout, will be weakened further, especially in places like the US, where market power was so little balanced with social welfare and general public solidarity. And I do think that China will emerge empowered. What this means for climate, I’m not sure, but it would be hard to do worse than we have in recent decades, when increasing knowledge of the problem has been accompanied only by increasing emissions, such that more than half of all the CO2 produced from the burning of fossil fuel in the entire history of humanity has come in the last 30 years.

Seventy percent of the world’s infectious diseases have come from the natural environment, with many from animal-to-human contact. So it’s very clear that the damage that we’re doing to the natural world makes it more likely that these diseases will continue to emerge. What could be done?

There is a simple version of the answer and a complicated one. The simple version is: Do less to disrupt natural environments and scramble ecosystems, both through development and through global warming. But of course this is easier said than done, because an enormous amount of wealth and comfort for the world is created through that development, and it will be very hard (perhaps even impossible) to halt global warming at less than 2C. That level doesn’t sound like much, but it is about twice as much warming as we’ve seen to date, and already, today, climate change has meant that we are already living outside the climate conditions that contain all of human history. It’s as though we’ve landed on a new planet, with an entirely different climate, and need to determine what aspects of the civilization we’ve brought with us can survive these new conditions, and which can’t. That’s at 1.1C, where we are now. At 2C, 153 million additional people are expected to die of air pollution, land that is today home to 1.5 billion people would become literally uninhabitable, there could be hundreds of millions of climate refugees, or more, and we’d be locking into inevitability the permanent loss of all the planet’s ice sheets. Which is all to say: There will be a lot more perturbation of the natural environment to come, almost inevitably, and probably, as a result, many more diseases like this one. 

What’s the first thing you’ll do when the pandemic is over?

I’m not sure how long it will take before I’m comfortable doing all the sorts of things I used to do so casually – interacting indoors with groups of strangers, say. So frankly I don’t know. I don’t think any of us really know what the shape of the world will be when that happens, or when it will. Probably we will slide slowly out of vigilance rather than stepping confidently from one day of quarantine into another of total freedom. 

Have you ever visited Greece?

Yes, a few times, though only briefly and on vacation. But Athens is one of my favorite cities of the world and I find myself reminiscing quite often about Cephalonia, which my wife and I visited maybe 10 years ago now and which was really my first experience of the Mediterranean – a very special place, and one unfortunately threatened, as the whole region is, by desertification.