Ep. 49: Global Warming: How Bad Could It Be?
You’ve probably heard by now that, according to a new UN report, the world has just over a decade to get climate change under control before it’s too late. And the report says we need a profound transformation to get there.
This got us thinking about an episode we aired last year about what life on Earth could look like with the worst case scenario.
David Wallace-Wells wrote an article last summer entitled “The Uninhabitable Earth.” It was the most widely read article in the online history of New York Magazine.
As the title suggests, it’s a portrait of a worst case scenario of climate change, in which the planet gets so hot, humans can no longer live there.
The crop-producing regions of the world are dust bowls; the air becomes too hazardous to breathe; the tropics become uninhabitable; and ancient diseases are unleashed from melting tundra.
Its imagined future was so grim, it spawned response articles like “Are we as doomed as that New York Magazine Article Says?” in the Atlantic Magazine.
On this episode, we talk to Wallace-Wells, to find out -- is it really as bad as all that?
On what motivated him to write the article:
“I thought it was really important that the public understand that climate change would touch their lives no matter where they live, no matter who they were. no matter how wealthy they were. People seemed really focused on what most scientists would call a median outcome scenario, about two or two and a half degrees of warming. And I didn't think that most lay readers really understood how grim that would be. They really didn't understand things like the effect on agriculture or the effect on conflict. Anecdotally, I felt it was really easy for many of us to think of climate change as something that was happening elsewhere, to other people. And even if we understood that the flooding of Bangladesh would produce tens of millions, or maybe hundreds of millions of climate refugees, we could still compartmentalize it in our minds. That's all an advocate's answer, but also just as a journalist, I felt like we had not really reckoned with some of the more dramatic horrifying possibilities. And I thought it was important to sort of share that news from science with our readers.”
On some of the worst case scenarios he sketches out in the article:
“Some of these impacts can be really, really terrifying. So, about agriculture... some of the best [estimates] are that for every degree of warming, there is between 10 and 15 percent loss in grain yields. Grain is the main source of food for the world. Theoretically, by the year 2100, we're dealing with 50 percent more people and 50 percent less food to give them. That's really scary. The stuff that was probably most alarming to people was the effect of direct heat. There is a temperature beyond which humans just can't live. You need to give off heat in order to survive. So in certain parts of the world, for long stretches of the year it will not be possible to go outside without suffering heat stroke and, in a lot of cases, death. The stuff that was actually most interesting to me was the new research on economic effects and conflict. There is a lot of evidence that conflict is really closely correlated with heat. That is true at a city level -- crime waves are always in the summer. But it also happens at the much bigger level. The people who are doing the best work on this estimate that for every half degree of warming, you could see between 10 and 20 percent more global conflict. So if we're talking about a five degree warmer world (5 degrees Celsius) - which is where the U.N. thinks we will end up if we do absolutely nothing to stop climate emissions - that means that by the 2100, we could have twice as much war as we have today. Those are correlations we don't really understand whether there are causations or how the causal arrows move and what causes what. But it's terrifying.”
On the instant backlash the article received from some in the climate science community:
“I think that a few scientists took some issue with a couple of factual points, but we published a fully annotated version of the piece which showed basically where everything came from. That answered the questions about the particular science. But on the question of how to talk about the scary, unlikely - but possible - outcomes, I just have a different perspective than they do. I understand that activists are susceptible to losing hope. And they think, as a result, that the public needs as much hope as they need fear. I just don't think that that's true. Most Americans worry about global warming, but it's not at the top of their political priority list. I just don't think that's a portrait of a population that is at some tipping point for despair. It seems to me much more likely that those people need to be a little bit more alarmed so that they can make climate change a first order political priority.
On if he really thinks it’s bad as all that:
“I did say explicitly in the piece that I think we're not likely to get to many of these places because as we proceed along our track, we'll get more and more alarmed about climate change, and will take action that will forestall them. Humans have managed to some pretty extraordinary things. And if this is really an existential threat, then presumably we'll figure out how to deal with it in some way. I don't think that's totally deluded. But I also think that there are real shortcomings to technological optimism about this issue. There are a lot of things that are going to get a lot worse with climate, but we're not going to get to a place where we should feel uncomfortable bringing kids into the world. And in part that's because I believe in technological ingenuity, and I believe in our capacity to be woken up.”
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