🎧 David Wallace-Wells on Climate Change
Yascha Mounk and David Wallace-Wells discuss the worst, best, and most likely scenarios for the future of climate change.
David Wallace-Wells is one of the foremost journalists covering climate change. A writer at The New York Times and a columnist at The New York Times Magazine, Wallace-Wells is the author of the best-selling book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. His New York Magazine article of the same name was the most read in the magazine’s history.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and David Wallace-Wells discuss why the worst scenarios for the future of climate outcomes have become less likely over the course of the last years; how much damage climate change is nevertheless likely to wreak; and what political, economic, and technological solutions might help humanity deal with this urgent challenge.
The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: You have written one of the best-selling books about climate change. Why should we be really concerned about climate change, in your opinion?
David Wallace-Wells: Today, where the climate seems relatively stable—if a little disturbed around the edges—the planet is already 1.1 to 1.3 degrees Celsius warmer than the pre-industrial average. And that doesn't sound like much. But we are now warmer than we've ever been in the history of human civilization. And that means that everything that we remember, as a species, from the invention of agriculture up through the development of the modern nation-state and modern culture, all grew up under climate conditions that are no longer with us. And we are already today in a new climatic regime, which is changing what we can expect from agricultural yields from wildfire, from droughts, from storms.
We're going to get considerably warmer from here, probably. I think the best case scenario is just a hair under two degrees, although there's still a lot of political leaders around the world who think we have a chance of keeping it to 1.5. And even the difference between those two somewhat small seeming numbers, 1.5 degrees and two degrees, is really quite large when it comes to the mathematics of human suffering. So in that half degree margin, we're talking about expectations that 100 and 50 million additional people would die from the effects of air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels needed to get us to two degrees. We're talking about heat waves across South Asia and the Middle East, that would be so hot during summer that they would be regularly lethal. You certainly couldn't work outside without—depending on who you are and your biology—some risk of heatstroke and possibly heat death. Most people studying this believe we'd be talking about large climate migration, the UN says into the hundreds of millions of people. And for all of these reasons, the world that we are heading for, and will almost inevitably arrive in our lifetime, is really discombobulated and disordered from the one that you and I grew up in. And it scrambles our expectations for the future.
Now, that's not to say that humans will go extinct, or the planet is going to die, or anything that apocalyptic. But everything that we know about modern life resulted from climate conditions which we can't count on any longer. And I think we are already learning just how much of our lives, even in well developed, prosperous, “modern” parts of the world, are going to be dramatically disrupted with further warming.
Mounk: Help us distinguish between the most likely scenario on the one side, and the risk of the most catastrophic scenarios on the other side. Obviously, there's reason to worry about both. But it's important to keep them apart conceptually in our minds. And the other distinction, I think, is between the bad effects that climate change is going to have in itself, on the one hand, and whether or not these bad effects are going to make life in the future worse, all things considered, which is not necessarily the same, because if we continue to make economic progress, and so on, it may be that those terrible impacts limit progress, but don't actually make life worse on the whole.
First, what do you think is the most likely scenario at this point in terms of climate? And I know that that depends on political choices, and it's really hard to project. But if you have made your best point estimate of where we're going to be in fifty, or a hundred years, what do you think the climate and life on earth will look like?
Wallace-Wells: Well, I think the first thing to say is that all of these projections are governed by several layers of uncertainty. There is uncertainty, as you point out, about human response and human action. And there's also uncertainty about how the climate itself will respond, what sorts of feedback loops may be initiated, and exactly how quickly things like Arctic and Antarctic ice will disappear. So we're making projections in a cloud of deep uncertainty. And for the most part, I think most humans alive on the planet today use that as an excuse to not worry too much about it.
But I think the alternate approach, that we should be worrying about it more as a result, is probably more responsible, at least. But of course, as a human, I share the other impulse too. If I had to guess I would say that we're looking at a level of warming this century somewhere between two and two and a half degrees Celsius, maybe a little north of that. And that's basically because we are making remarkably fast progress driving down the price of renewable energy, which makes it now a good bargain just about everywhere in the world that's investing in its own energy future. But we're not nearly doing enough or moving fast enough to draw down our use of fossil fuels. So at the moment, we're supplementing our existing energy base with renewables rather than replacing, which is what we really need to do.
Mounk: The battle against climate change is often framed as revolving primarily around economic sacrifices. And there is a part of that which is true. But what you're talking about in terms of the falling price of renewable energies is that actually, in many places, it's just becoming economically rational to deploy technologies that are better for the planet.
Wallace-Wells: Yeah. This is really one of the major shifts in the culture of climate change and climate action over the last five or ten years. The Kyoto Protocol, and Al Gore first warning us about climate change—those were undertaken at moments when we really thought that this was going to be a burdensome transition, that we would have to do it for the sake of each other and the planet and our lives in the future, but it was going to be expensive in the short and medium term. In part because renewable energy costs have fallen so dramatically, and because we're getting a clearer sense of the catastrophic health effects of burning fossil fuels, that calculus has really changed. Just about every world leader acknowledges that. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says that 90% of the world is now living in places where new renewable energy is cheaper than new fossil fuel energy. It's a very, very different policy landscape than the one that we were operating in even during the Paris Accords negotiations in 2015.
Mounk: How far does that get us? Does it actually get us so far that nations that have a lot of coal reserves or a lot of natural gas reserves are going to say, “We’re just going to keep those in the ground, because it's not actually economically sensible to use them up”? Or do you think that we will still need some economic self-sacrifice or government regulation?
Wallace-Wells: I think every country with their own resources, their own energy needs, is approaching that dilemma differently. At a macro-prescriptive level, all of the incentives line up, at least by my judgment. Renewable energy is already cheaper than dirty energy in most parts of the world. In short order, it'll be a better bet everywhere. The public health benefits of making that transition are enormous. And they will allow us to avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, if we undertake that transition very aggressively. And even if we undertake it lackadaisically, the pace of technological change will probably allow us to avoid some of those worst case scenarios.
To me, the prescription is to make this transition fast. It's certainly possible to imagine renewable prices falling so far that it simply won't make sense to continue to exploit fossil resources. We're not quite at that point. In most of the world it's now the case, as I mentioned earlier, that it may be cheaper to build new renewable capacity than to build new fossil capacity. But if you've got those pipelines and oil wells operating, you may as well keep them on running. Now, how much farther the price falls and how neatly and linearly we can predict that is a really important factor in the energy transition in the next decade or so, and I think there are good reasons to think that it will continue to fall. In fact, there's a major paper out of Oxford last fall that said that if there was no interference in the market by governments on behalf of fossil fuel entities going forward, that the falling price of renewables alone would be sufficient to bring the world underneath two degrees of warming. I'm not sure I buy that analysis entirely. But it's an illuminating conceptual shift from the place we were in the past.
Now, there are petrostates. There are countries whose resources are tied up in fossil fuels. And there are probably many more countries whose tax base is tied up in the local fossil fuel industry. These are really thorny geopolitical and national political questions. I can't say that the answer is going to be the same for everybody. But I think that we are approaching a point globally where a rational assessment of the 10 to 30 year horizon would be for almost everyone to choose to pour whatever money they're pouring into energy extraction into renewable resources of one kind or another, rather than continue to invest further in developing new fossil fuel infrastructure.
The falling price of renewables is one really important factor in making a somewhat cooler planet plausible than seems likely five or ten years ago. But we also have had a real rise in political activism around climate change, which has, along with the market forces, really changed the calculus of our political leaders, and also changed the thinking of a lot of major figures in the corporate world who are focused on a transition not just for economic reasons, but to serve the social demands of their customers. You see a lot of pledges and promises in the corporate world. And while I, personally, prefer not to have to count that as progress (it’s mostly empty rhetoric), it is a really marked difference from where we were a few years ago.
Mounk: You were talking about the most likely scenario at this point being something like two to two and a half degrees of warming by the end of the century. If in 2100, we are at 2.25 degrees of warming—to take the middle of your estimate—do we know precisely what that would mean in terms of human life and the environment?
Wallace-Wells: Many cities across South Asia and the Middle East will become so hot that the way that people are living today in those cities right now—doing a lot of outdoor labor, agricultural labor, commerce in the street, and in air-conditioned buildings—is going to become much, much harder. And that's not to say that the entire 14 million people of Kolkata are going to die on a really hot day. But it does mean that you're going to start to see really high numbers of heat-related illness and death all across the equatorial bands of the planet—much more dramatic impacts there than we've ever seen before. We're likely to see some of those impacts a little more irregularly in the northern latitudes, as we saw with the Pacific heat dome in British Columbia and Washington last summer. There's likely to be a large migration refugee story this century. As I mentioned earlier, the UN projects something like 200 million climate refugees is likely by 2050; they actually have a high-end estimate of one billion, which seems implausible to me. But nevertheless, I'll just throw it out there as a marker of what a worst case scenario could be. One billion is as many people as live in North and South America combined today.
Mounk: Projection is difficult because so many different factors go into it. I've been to Kolkata. If the heat becomes more extreme at Kolkata’s current level of socioeconomic development, that would be catastrophic in the ways you outline. But one question, of course, is what will Kolkata look like in 2100? It's certainly imaginable that at the current growth trajectory of India, the country will just be vastly, vastly wealthier—including Kolkata—by 2100. Now, that doesn't trivialize having days in the year where you can barely go outside because it's so hot. It doesn't mean that that's not something to worry about. It doesn't trivialize the ways in which some people may be impacted. But it does make it really hard to think in terms of how disruptive it will be to life as it will look in Kolkata at that point, and to project how many deaths and injuries will result from something like an extreme heatwave. How do you think about that, and the most likely scenario of what the world will look like in 2100?
Wallace-Wells: In general, I do think that many of these projections, as you say, do treat human adaptation, resilience and growth as irrelevant. And that's a problem. These climate impacts are only half of the story, and how we respond, grow, and develop along the way is the other half. They intersect in very important ways when we're talking about human flourishing. I'm a little less sanguine that we can project recent economic growth, especially in a place like India, all the way forward to 2100 if we're talking about really dramatic climate impacts.
And that gets us to a really big theme here, which is that while we are talking about a universal threat—it is global, and it will affect every part of the planet—those effects are not equal. They are concentrated in the equatorial bands of the planet, which are also, unfortunately, many of the poorest parts of the world. And there's a lot of good economic work suggesting that—certainly with unmitigated warming, which will take us north of the point that we're talking about here, to 3 or 4 degrees of warming—if we follow that trajectory, we can plausibly say that by the year 2100, huge parts of the world will have lost at least half and maybe more than half of their potential for economic growth. Their agricultural productivity will have fallen dramatically. It's because of the effect of heat and temperature on human cognition and performance and many other factors, on top of which we have to think about natural disasters happening somewhat more frequently. Now, I don't want to take any single study or any single bit of research as gospel and say, “We can take that to the bank and know that if we're three degrees of warming and 2100, that means that all of Sub-Saharan Africa will have no economic growth at all.” But I just want to call into question this fundamental premise of what you're asking, which is to say that economic growth is continuing almost in parallel to these climate impacts. We know enough about the scale and scope of these impacts to know that they will be, in the very best case, complicating our trajectories of economic growth. And in some cases, in some places, probably a lot worse than that.
Mounk: There's a double bind here, right? Because I absolutely buy the way in which climate change may make it harder for these countries to develop economically. At the same time, there are also some things that we may ask them to do about climate change that make it harder for them to develop economically. And one of the major reasons that life is very hard in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa or India today is, for example, a poverty of access to electricity, and all of the conveniences and beneficial health effects that come with that.
How do you think we should organize the fight against climate change in such a way that we maximize the chances of countries in the Global South to develop economically as rapidly as they can, because that'll actually make them more resilient against the worst effects of climate change?
Wallace-Wells: Well, I think it gets back to what we were talking about at the start, in the changing economic calculus facing anyone making investments in our energy future anywhere in the world. Five or ten years ago, it was really hard to imagine how the Global South would do their part in limiting global warming. Somewhere between 800 million and a billion people lack regular access to electricity, and we can't ask them to continue to have no electricity for the next century. That's not morally acceptable. But giving or helping them attain access to electricity today looks like a very, very different bargain than it looked like five or ten years ago in the sense that it may already be the better choice, the cheaper choice and sounder investment, to be doing almost all of that through renewables and to some degree, nuclear. We'll see how that plays out. China is making a big nuclear push, which may change the landscape of nuclear power globally over the next couple of decades. We were going to be asking several billion of the world's poorest people to shoulder an economic burden in order to prevent catastrophic warming. And now we're in a situation where, globally speaking, it's really about accelerating a transition that is economically inevitable based on the forces that we understand today.
And there's a real need there for support from the Global North, from financial institutions, in terms of the initial capital needs of building wind power, building solar, etc. And we should take seriously the fact that the Global North is really failing on that front. They haven't yet even met the promises they made under the Paris Agreement. And it's now the case that leaders from the Global South are calling for seven, eight, 12 times as much as they asked for in 2015. But it would not be an ongoing burden imposed on the world's poor—in fact, the opposite, especially when you look at the health effects there. The average resident of Delhi has had their life expectancy shortened by nine years because of air pollution. All across that part of the Indo-Gangetic Plain, you're talking about an average of six or more years of life expectancy lost on average. Globally, it's estimated that we're losing about 10 million people a year, which, just in my lifetime, is 400 million lives. But it's also not the case that these effects are just lethal. They also affect all kinds of human well-being; effects on coronary disease, pulmonary disease, it has effect on cognitive performance, and there's a relationship with Alzheimer's and dementia.
But there's an optimistic part of it too, which is to say, probably globally, we are past the peak of air pollution, which means that as horrible and catastrophic as those numbers are, they are likely to be declining over the next few decades. And we may be today living with much more death and suffering from air pollution than we will ever again in our lifetimes. So there's a way in which the air pollution story is reassuring, when we think about climate change, because things are already getting better.
Mounk: Let's go for a moment to the most pessimistic side of the argument. What motivates me when I think about climate change is the most likely scenario, but to a greater extent actually the tail end—the possible but unlikely outcomes where you get into a real horror scenario. Take us through what those horror scenarios would look like and how likely you now estimate them to be.
Wallace-Wells: Well, the high-end emission scenario that's been built into the scientific literature by the UN's IPCC body is called RCP 8.5. And for a long time, this was often referred to as a “business as usual” trajectory. I think that was always a bit misleading. But it's become even more misleading in the recent past when we've had this renewable price revolution. I think it's now fair to call it a worst case scenario that would require a lot of inaction on the retirement of fossil fuels, and probably some significant additional carbon coming from feedback loops, and some higher degree of what's called “climate sensitivity”—which is to say, given a certain amount of carbon in the atmosphere, how much warming comes from it. But there has been a lot of talk about how this is now looking much less likely.
We could get to that same level of warming, if we had worse feedback loops than we expected. It’s not a discountable probability. Now, I wouldn't put it at our median 50% probability at all, but if it's something like a 10% chance, that's meaningful enough to worry about especially given how catastrophic the impacts would be. There are estimates that suggest a tripling of global warfare because of the effect of temperature on conflict. And there's studies about how that affects conflict at the individual level too, not just at the social level. We're talking about agricultural yields falling by 50% or more, again, barring adaptation and innovation on the GMO crop or agricultural strategy side. We'd be talking about places on the planet that could be hit by six climate-driven natural disasters at once: hurricanes, wildfire, drought… you go down the list. That could produce, all told, something like $600 trillion in global climate damages by the end of the century, which is considerably more wealth than exists in the world today. Now, presumably, we'd be richer then. But still, it's an unbelievably large impact. It starts to seem like those risks are real and worth worrying about, even if they're not likely.
Mounk: The picture I get from from this conversation is that there's parts of the world that are already very affluent, and there are parts that are poor, that suffer a lack of access to electricity because of poverty, and we actually have a real health crisis at the moment because of particulate pollution and so on. And then there's this danger of climate change, which in the most likely scenario is a very significant danger, less likely a catastrophic danger. What sort of policies do you think we should adopt to maximize human wellbeing over the next decades? How do we deal with this complex of different challenges we're facing in a way that is as equal as possible to all of them?
Wallace-Wells: Well, it's hard to talk in universal terms, and every country has different demands and political dynamics. But even looking at the very explicit subsidies that we are giving out today to the fossil fuel business, in much of the world—the IMF says they use a more expansive definition of subsidy, which includes also unpaid-for damages, which is probably a little misleading—but they say that we're paying something like five or $6 trillion a year in subsidies to the fossil fuel business. A more conservative estimate of direct subsidies is still in the hundreds of billions of dollars. And there's really no justification for that at all. As I see it, I think that that's quite poisonous, literally and politically. What we want to be doing is not waiting for next generation technologies, but building out as aggressively as we possibly can the tools that we have today, while putting some money into research and development so that thirty or forty years from now, as we're solving the last bits of the problem, we have new tools available. But I think we can't really wait for that development to take place. Because every year that we delay, we put more carbon into the atmosphere.
A really deeply underappreciated feature of climate change is that carbon is cumulative, it hangs in the atmosphere for centuries and possibly millennia, which means that every ounce of carbon that's ever been emitted in the history of industrialization is still up there, or an equivalent bit of carbon. If you burned a piece of coal in Manchester in the 19th century, that is still having global warming effects that are equal to a piece of coal that's being burned today in China. We don't get to draw down that carbon naturally on any timescale. It makes sense to plan for over the course of millions of years. We may be able to accelerate that with some technological tools which I'm relatively bullish on, but in general, anything that we do today is just adding to the total of warming. And so, delay is really terrible. We are currently at essentially peak emissions. We're emitting more now than we've ever emitted in all of human history. Which means that we are just making the problem worse and worse every year. We talk a lot about the next few decades in a much more optimistic way, and I think there are good reasons for that. But we haven't begun to bend the curve downward. And we don't just need to reduce our emissions, we need to get them all the way to zero to stabilize the planet's climate at any temperature level. So we have a huge task ahead of us. And every year that we delay, we are making the mountain taller, which means the descent will have to be sharper.
Mounk: You talked about phasing out subsidies or abolishing quickly, or immediately, subsidies for fossil fuel companies. That seems obviously right, if we want to move into these cleaner energy technologies over the next ten or fifteen years rather than the next 20 or 30. What would that look like? Are you making the argument to the CEO of Shell and to policymakers? If so, what can we do to make the transition? Or are you making that argument to individual listeners of this podcast? Should they change who is delivering electricity to them in the household? What would it mean for us collectively to make this transition in the next ten years, rather than the next 35?
Wallace-Wells: I think it's a question that will be resolved at the national political level, primarily. The fossil fuel companies, some of them are moving a little bit more quickly than others, but none of them are really moving at the speed that climate science would require them. And I think ultimately, if you fast-forward to the end game where we're at a zero carbon situation, we're not burning any fossil fuels at all. And unless those companies are going to transform entirely into clean energy companies—I don't think they will—we really have to think about basically retiring them in one way or another.
How that is achieved is a matter for different national governments to strategize around. But you know, in general, I think that they need to play a role in the infrastructural build-out that is beyond the capacity of individual companies. We're talking about a much cleaner grid, for instance, and much more renewable charging stations on highways, to make this rapid transition possible. Political economies all around the world have essentially been captured by fossil fuel businesses for a century. And in part that was productive and useful, and it made us a lot richer and a lot happier, etc. But we need to break up that marriage, and we really need to use the forces of government spending to accelerate the transition that is unfolding already, as we see, but not unfolding rapidly enough to avoid some quite scary outcomes.
And when we look at the last decade or two one of the main reasons why we have such impressive renewable prices is because of the spending that was put into the Recovery Act in the Obama administration, because of spending that was undertaken in Germany in the previous decade, and because of R&D spending has been undertaken in China over the last decade in particular. This is not a mystery. You put money into the stuff, technological progress follows, and the prices fall, which makes it a much more attractive proposition for consumers, especially, and for governments planning their futures. It's sort of all a no-brainer, if you're planning this at a whiteboard. The problem is, we don't live on a whiteboard. And even the short-term turbulence that comes with transitions can be quite politically uncomfortable, especially when governments are operating on two or four year time-horizons as they often are.
Mounk: To round off the conversation, I want to think a little bit about how to communicate this and how it often is communicated. I'm struck by the fact that you are one of the most influential voices about this. But the impression I got from talking to you is quite different from how the consensus about climate change sounds in the newspapers. I don't think there's any distance between the consensus in the scientific literature and the way you're talking about this, but there is, I think, a real disjunction between what this sounds like if you read New York Magazine or The Guardian or The New York Times, and the subtlety in this conversation. Often, the public conversation sounds like: “The world is going to end in ten or 15 years, and we're on the way towards complete doom. And we basically have to radically change everything in order to deal with climate change: we have to abolish capitalism, be much poorer, and make very significant sacrifices at the individual and collective level.” I remember a study showing a very worrying finding that by 2100, a significant percentage of the territory of New York City may come to be affected by floods, or may be underwater. But as I recall, it was about 7% of the territory of New York City. That's terrible, something to be very worried about, but by the time that this became a magazine cover, it had an image of Manhattan with the Empire State Building ten floors underwater. Now, that is just not what the study showed at all, right? If people listen to this conversation with you, they will come away with a very different impression of what's going on in the world than they would if they only knew the title of your book, which is The Uninhabitable Earth. And all of that sounds significantly different from how you've been outlining the situation for the last 15 minutes. So, what do you think about the prominence and the usefulness of this sort of catastrophist frame, and what explains its prominence in the discourse?
Wallace-Wells: Well, on any political issue, you have a wide spectrum of perspectives. And the value of an extreme perspective is not necessarily its applicability. There are a lot of different kinds of political rhetoric that are useful and powerful, and can be complimentary, even if they are somewhat divergent.
For five years, we've had Greta and Extinction Rebellion and Sunrise and the climate strikers. And the global rhetoric around climate change has really changed as a result. It's why every CEO of every Fortune 500 company is talking about climate responsibility, even if they're not yet moving quickly enough on it. So I think it's played a very important and useful role and has literally changed the likely future of the planet as a result, because many more people are taking this much more seriously than they were five or six years ago. That's a separate question from what kind of rhetoric we need now. Given the changing landscape and the changing dynamic, and personally, as someone who has been a valid alarmist in the past, I think that we are in a somewhat different place with different rhetorical needs now than we were, say, five or six years ago, in part because at least at the rhetorical level, there has been this great awakening. And even though many leaders of all sectors are falling short of what the science says is necessary to avoid what we've long understood as really dramatic warming, possibly catastrophic warming, it is still the case that there are almost no climate change deniers—Jair Bolsonaro aside—in any position of power anywhere in the world. That is a really major shift. Countries are making their energy plans on decadal timescales now. They are focused on getting to zero. I think that's one of the reasons why you've seen some of these extremist groups and figures lose some of their prominence over the last year or two. Greta is still a major figure, the climate strikers are still doing their thing. But Extinction Rebellion is a shell of its former self, Sunrise in the US as much less influential than it was in 2018 and 2019. And I think that reflects a kind of collective strategic wisdom, which is, the chief job now is less about making people understand that the world is changing in dramatic ways which will threaten their livelihoods and the livelihood of their children if we don't take action, and more about making sure that the transition that is underway moves faster and with as little disruption as we possibly can. And as a result, I think we're in a sort of different rhetorical place than we were a few years ago.
But I would challenge some of the premise of your question, which is, maybe the difference between us and our rhetorical or intellectual position on this set of issues. But when I read The New York Times, I don't see alarmism. I don't think that journalism is misleading or irresponsible in the same way that I might describe some statements by XR as misleading or irresponsible. Scientists have said pretty unequivocally that we've already lost the opportunity to avoid serious and significant damages from climate change. We are in a place now where we're strategizing about how to minimize those losses and impacts rather than avoid them. Doing so will require a much faster transition than most of our polities and much of our politics has ever really tolerated in the past.
On the particular question of the title of my book, I think of it as being in the tradition of Silent Spring and The End of Nature, neither of which were meant to be taken literally. I think titles are often hyperbolic and smart readers understand that. But it is the case that given unmitigated warming, we're talking about large parts of the world that will look a lot more like the Sahel than they will look like, say, Austria. That is a really meaningful change, which I think we should all be worried about. All of us live our lives anchored in the present day, and our expectations for the future are built from those impressions, which means that it is easy to look past some warnings of change, and treat them as considerably more marginal than they really are because we are so used to the life that we live in the world that we live in. And it may be the case that at two or two and a half degrees, even with all of the impacts that we know will happen coming to pass, there will still be people in parts of the world who look around and ask, “What were the scientists warning about? Everything's fine.” But that will be because we have normalized a tripling of California wildfires, or some dramatic rise in the level of days with lethal heat across India, or—pick your climate impact. And our ability to normalize that suffering, I think, is not really an argument against taking seriously the threat of it evolving. And I think here, you mentioned briefly earlier the pandemic. And I think that that's illustrative in the sense that—speaking of journalistic choices—The New York Times published a huge banner headline across its front page when 100,000 Americans had died of COVID. It listed the names of the dead, it was a major journalistic choice that they got behind. We're now at basically ten times that level, and we have begun to, in much of the country, treat that as more like background noise.
Now, I don't want to say that the first choice was purely moral and virtuous and correct, and the set of choices that we're making now is totally immoral. But it shows you just how differently we relate to different sorts of threats and how much we can choose to emphasize or deemphasize things that we know will cause human suffering. It's a large planet, and there are a lot of people on it. A century from now that will still be the case. But that doesn't mean that the suffering of the people who will be impacted is irrelevant. And I think we should try to be as focused on what we can do to alleviate that suffering as we possibly can. And I think for a long time, that meant really trying to raise alarm about climate change and global warming. I still think the world is not alarmed enough. There's a sort of famous quip about climate science, that the two unlikeliest outcomes are “The world's going to end” or “It'll all be fine.” We are in the middle, in the muck, in the shit of it. And if what it takes is being really focused on future suffering to turn the dial a little bit down from two and a half degrees to 2.2 degrees, I certainly think the science justifies it. But I also think it's rhetorically useful to shake us out of our intuitive complacency and make us understand how much of what we have taken for granted in the recent past is at least uncertain, and may be worse going forward.
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