Goodbye, polar bears: Why climate change is much worse than you think

Climate change: it’s tough on polar bears, but we tell ourselves we can do without them. Photograph: GR/Getty

Crying wolf is a risky strategy, even when the wolf is, quite demonstrably, at the door. People may still say you are imagining the wolf, or that it hasn’t come for them, or that it’s a friendly wolf, or that it will go away, if we just ignore it.

In calling his book on climate change The Uninhabitable Earth, and in approving a jacket blurb that opens, like the book itself, with “It is worse, much worse, than you think,” and concludes that our planet will become (no ifs, ands or buts in the sentence) “a living nightmare”, American journalist David Wallace-Wells may deter many readers.

That would be most unfortunate, because this book should not be judged by its cover materials. It is not only a very accessible and compelling read, it is a much more nuanced and a much more hopeful vision than you might expect.

On the phone, its author positively exudes dynamic, if highly qualified, optimism. He does not take the malign scenarios he has sketched so vividly for granted. But he does want us to be acutely aware that they are possible, even probable, depending on how we act now.

Every tick upward is going to make the planet worse, but every tick upward that we avoid is going to make the planet a healthier, safer place to live

“I think one of the really important things about global warming that most people, even those most engaged with it, don’t appreciate is that this is not a binary question. It’s not a matter of whether we cross the threshold of catastrophe or not.

“Every tick upward is going to make the planet worse, but every tick upward that we avoid is going to make the planet a healthier, safer place to live.

“Yes, we have done a great deal of damage to the planet, over the last 25 to 30 years especially. But to me, in a sense, that very damage is a measure of how much power we retain over the climate going forward. And I see the future as entirely open-ended.

“Yes, there is a little bit of warming already baked into the system. But in theory at least, if we made some large-scale changes immediately, we would be able to stabilise the climate at something close to what it is today.

“I don’t think that’s likely, though, because of all the political, social and cultural obstacles. But it is possible. So just how much further we get along the trajectory of hellishness will be entirely up to us.”

‘Pernicious fairy tale’

That said, he is brutally frank about just how hellish things may get, and how quickly, if we don’t make changes very soon indeed:

“The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all,” he writes at the start of the book.

‘Trajectory of hellishness’: David Wallace-Wells. Photograph: Brad Barket/Getty
‘Trajectory of hellishness’: David Wallace-Wells. Photograph: Brad Barket/Getty

At the conclusion of our interview he says he has four takeaway messages: “The speed, scope and severity of the crisis. Plus our ability to make a difference to how it develops.”

He thinks one of the key problems in communicating these issues in the affluent, industrialised world is our very human tendency to think that, if the problem is happening at all, it’s happening someplace else.

It’s about sea level rise, but that’s for Bangladesh to worry about. It’s tough on polar bears and coral reefs, but in the last analysis we can do without them. It will make food production even harder in Africa, but our shelves will still be full.

However, he believes that the plethora of extreme weather events in places such as California and Sweden are breaking down this complacency. It’s also clear that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report on the grim consequences of 1.5 degree warming, within the limits of the Paris agreement, has woken a lot of people up.

But few of us who have not dedicated real study time to climate change will be familiar with the range of impacts Wallace-Wells portrays so graphically in the book.

And even for those who have delved into these questions, there will still probably be shocks. What if, among the countless bacteria that benignly, and often beneficially, co-exist with our bodies, just one metamorphosed into a deadly illness?

Far-fetched? He cites the case of the saiga antelope in Asia, which lost almost two-thirds of its global population within days, in May 2015. The cause was a bacterium previously limited harmlessly to the animal’s nostrils; it had suddenly proliferated into its blood stream and organs, with lethal results.

Climate change: Bangladesh is particularly vulnerable. Photograph: Probal Rashid/LightRocket via Getty
Climate change: Bangladesh is particularly vulnerable. Photograph: Probal Rashid/LightRocket via Getty

The best explanation for this change in behaviour is the unprecedented levels of temperature and humidity the antelopes endured over those days, the highest ever recorded for the area.

He is clear, both in his book and in our interview, that even the best science is very imperfect at predicting a precise future, or all of the particular consequences of particular actions. In the complex interlocked worlds of climate and biology, even the most rigorously checked hypothesis may be falsified by new evidence.

So it will always be possible for sceptics to point to individual flaws in climate science. But he finds the total weight of evidence that things are rapidly getting worse incontrovertible.

“Since I started following climate stories, I can count the number of scientific papers published with encouraging news on my fingers. But the bad news papers are in their thousands. That’s a depressing ratio.”

He does not think that the unravelling of climate-friendly policies by the Trump administration is very significant in the great scheme of things.

“Most of the rest of the world accepts the evidence. And even in the US, recent polling shows a big drop in climate denial among Republicans.”

Tipping point

He points to the recent embrace of the Green New Deal by Democrats as another indication that the US is “passing a meaningful tipping point in responding to climate change. But we are passing it too slowly to avoid what used to be seen as the worst-case scenario, but now may be the best case scenario: two-degree warming.”

The big problem, he says, is that the rest of the world, having accepted the evidence, has still not been taking effective action. He argues that one of the reasons may be the way we think about nature itself.

And he thinks that climate change itself may revolutionise that way of thinking, but it will be a rude awakening.

“We think of nature as something outside ourselves, as something that doesn’t really concern us. But climate is showing us that nature is everywhere, and it’s much greater than we are, it can overwhelm us if we don’t get things right.”

We have all the tools we need, today, to stop it all: a carbon tax, a new approach to agricultural practices, and public investment in green energy and carbon capture

What is perhaps most surprising in the book is not the increasingly dystopian futures Wallace-Wells spells out for us in detail, with each degree of warming. It is that he believes that “we have all the tools we need, today, to stop it all: a carbon tax, and the political apparatus to aggressively phase out dirty energy; a new approach to agricultural practices and a shift away from beef and dairy in the global diet; and public investment in green energy and carbon capture.”

The trick will be convincing enough people in enough countries to make these radical changes. And he believes that he is justified, given the urgency of the crisis, in using what he himself terms “alarmism” to galvanise this action.

Some distinguished climate scientists, however, have criticised the rhetoric he used in his very widely read 2017 article in New York magazine, where Wallace-Wells is deputy editor, that forms the basis for the book.

“I think scientists, from their training, and in the US from their encounters with climate deniers, have learned to be too tentative in their approach to talking about climate,” he says. “And there is a view from the social sciences that optimism and hope are better motivators than fear.

“But I myself was engaged with these issues by the fear they aroused in me. Fear is also a useful tool for change. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was widely denounced as ‘alarmist’ when it came out, but it resulted in the banning of pesticides like DDT.

Climate change is an enormous story, and we need every kind of story-telling to get the message across. The important thing is to tell it right, and tell it honestly.”

The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future is published by Allen Lane