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Fighting for climate action with 'The Uninhabitable Earth' author David Wallace-Wells: podcast and transcript

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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. 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. 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. 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'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. 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 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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... 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. 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. 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 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. So this book...DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: That's all of our problem.CHRIS HAYES: That's all of our problem. 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. 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? 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. 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. 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 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. 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? 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. 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. 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 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. 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? 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. 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. 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 ... 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. That to me illustrates...CHRIS HAYES: That sounds like the setup for a late night joke.DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah. 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... 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. All sorts of nonsense.DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Carbon's good for people.CHRIS HAYES: Carbon's good for people. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

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