Code Red
New Zealand Listener|March 9-15, 2019

A bestselling US reporter on climate change says the planet’s future depends on WWII-like fear and alarm.

Joanne Black
David Wallace-Wells, and perhaps only he, might have found a single glimmer of solace in Nelson’s recent fires.

To talk about climate change in terms of degrees of global warming (the Earth will be 4°C warmer by the end of the century, the United Nations says) apparently is too small a number to concern many of the public. On the other hand, talking about US$600 trillion in climate-change damage might be too large a number to be relatable.

But wildfire – its ferocity, its unpredictability and the sense of vulnerability it creates – is something that every human, and probably every animal, innately understands.

“Wildfire is not just horrible in the sense of a horror movie, but also feels immediate even if you don’t live somewhere that is vulnerable to it,” Wallace-Wells tells the Listener from his home in New York. “There is something about the way those stories unfold that makes you think your life, your community, your home could possibly be threatened. I think the intimacy and immediacy of that threat is really important to wake people up.”

Waking people up to the threat of climate change is Wallace-Wells’ cause. It never used to be. He has never considered himself an environmentalist. The 36-year-old is a journalist – deputy editor of New York magazine – and came to climate change initially by reading, then writing about the subject. The more he read, the more he understood and the more he understood, the more alarmed he became. The more alarmed he became, the more he felt that if he was tipping from journalism’s prized impartiality into advocacy, then it was justified because the stakes were so high and the threat so immense.

THE FULL HORRORS

In 2017, he wrote a long magazine piece explicitly focused on worst-case scenarios should the Earth warm by 5°C, or even up to 8°C. With no action to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, 8°C of warming is the high end of the UN’s projections by the end of this century. Also, by then, many of the world’s major cities would be underwater as a result of sea-level rise, and tropical diseases would reach as far as the Arctic. At the equator and in the tropics, even to walk outside would be to risk death, so those regions would be added to the land area of the planet that is already uninhabitable. Fires and hurricanes would, meanwhile, continue to ravage forests and coasts.

There was an enormous response to Wallace-Wells’ story. There was a sense, he says, that many scientists had been trying to protect people from the full horrors of climate change, perhaps thinking that scaring people too much simply made them fatalistic when they needed to feel hopeful to be motivated to act.

Wallace-Wells is not afraid of fear and alarm when they arise from science. His just-released book, The Uninhabitable Earth, reads like a passionate call to arms.

That military analogy would not be lost on him. The UN’s special climate report, published last October, said that to prevent catastrophic warming, a global mobilisation not seen since World War II was necessary.

“It’s worth remembering,” Wallace-Wells says, “that on the point of hope and optimism versus fear and alarm, WWII was not a war that anyone fought out of hope. It was a war we fought out of fear and panic. We were terrified, and the reason we mobilised so quickly and so totally was because we were terrified. Climate change is a threat on that scale or bigger, and it’s foolish to dismiss fear and alarm as tools in our rhetorical toolkit for waking people up and engaging them on this issue.”

That is not to say that Wallace-Wells sees climate change as merely a public-relations exercise. Far from it. It is about the future of life on Earth and how that life might look compared with the life we live now.

THE GREAT UNTRUTHS

In his book, he writes that it is tempting to look at the three “one in 500 years” hurricanes to flood Houston since 2015, the “thousand-year flood” that swept through Ellicott City, Maryland, in 2016, followed by another that was 50% larger two years later, or the regular wildfires in California, and think that this is “the new normal”.

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