New York’s David Wallace-Wells has a formidable cover story in the magazine this week, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” that dryly details just how bad things could get due to climate change. The answer? Very, very bad. The timeline? Sooner than you think. The instantly viral piece might be the Silent Spring of our time, except it doesn’t uncover shocking new information—it just collects all the terrifying things that were already sitting out there into one extremely terrifying list.
“No matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough,” Wallace-Wells writes, before running through the known science and stats that explain why rising seas, the focus of most of our climate panic, are just the tip of the iceberg—disease, famine, economic panic, and civil unrest are coming, too. An argument for freaking out, his piece has been decried for being too alarmist. Actually, it is not alarmist enough. As I read it in bed at midnight Sunday night, for the first time I started to realize just exactly why climate change might be a reason not to have children—because if those children have children, this could be their world. That’s how close to the edge we are.
There’s a contingent of people—good people, people with noble goals—who are responding to this piece in horror. Not horror at the future, though that would be understandable. Instead, they are horrified by the rhetorical strategy of using alarmism to make a point about climate change. Horror at the fact that it could make readers like me pause over the idea of bringing children into the world.
Michael Mann, a renowned scientist who does hard work speaking up about climate change, had the same reaction, writing on his feelings about the piece, which he was interviewed for but not quoted in, on Facebook. In the widely shared post he writes:
There is also a danger in overstating the science in a way that presents the problem as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability and hopelessness. The article argues that climate change will render the Earth uninhabitable by the end of this century. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The article fails to produce it.
I do not doubt that Mann’s disagreements with how Wallace-Wells represents the science are valid, but in comparison with the scope of the piece, they seem like small gripes about representation rather than convincing arguments warranting factual corrections (he disputes the exact amount of methane that might be released by climate change and Wallace-Wells’ characterization of one study assessing how quickly warming might happen). But I find his criticism hard to stomach, because I don’t think that Wallace-Wells’ piece is an explanation of what will happen. It’s an explanation of what could happen. He says as much:
What follows is not a series of predictions of what will happen—that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action. It is unlikely that all of these warming scenarios will be fully realized, largely because the devastation along the way will shake our complacency. But those scenarios, and not the present climate, are the baseline.
Mann still takes issue with the piece, writing, “There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.”
I understand the desire to steer away from hopelessness, doom, and despair, which Mann posits to be antithetical to rational and bold action. Climate change is a uniquely difficult problem specifically because addressing it requires humans to be selflessly interested in the long term, which is neither natural nor easy. But, contrary to the belief perpetuated by a lot of the criticism of this piece, addressing climate change does not rely on people being psychologically self-possessed enough to freely give up meat and airplane rides for the greater good. There is no amount of individual good intention that can solve this massive, structural problem in enough time to have an impact. What we need is leaders who will take this problem seriously. We need it yesterday. And the right way to get there is to tell people the truth about the future and implore them to vote for and insist on a better one.
It’s hard to imagine what might alarm our current leaders into action. Wallace-Wells concludes with the argument that we will wake up to this encroaching disaster because it will be too costly not to—in terms of human life, in terms of economic progress, in terms of international relations. The argument is simple, and borrows somewhat heavily from the simplest analogy out there when it comes to climate change—that of a frog in a slowly boiling pot of water. Humans are the frog, the pot is the planet, and the burner is climate change. A frog might contently sit in the water while it boils without realizing it, but humans are not frogs. At some point, the heat will turn up so high that we will realize that we have to turn it down. Yes, it may come too late, and there may be some irreversible damage, but still, we’ll realize it at some point.
The problem with this assurance is that it takes as a given that to the powerful and privileged— the ones who currently have a say about what we do about climate change—all lives matter equally. That the annihilation of a certain number of people will force these people to change their minds, to take pity and to take action. But this is not the world we live in. It’s not the number of deaths that matters. It’s the type of people who die.
As the piece makes clear, climate change is already killing people, displacing people, making people sick. This is already happening. But it is not propelling us to action. Why not? Well, in America, because almost nothing would compel us to adequate action.
We used to attribute denialism to a lack of understanding of facts. If you could just make Donald Trump sit down and read about the science on climate change—perhaps in a direct and obvious piece like this one—you might get somewhere.
But one clarifying thing about Trump’s presidency is the view it has given us of why powerful people deny climate change. These days, you rarely see leaders argue that it isn’t happening at all—that’s become too gauche to defend. Even Trump, via surrogates, admits to “believing” in climate change. Instead, just as straight racism has become impolite but arguments that suggest alternatives to racism are too costly abound, climate change denialists now make arguments about degrees of certainty, about the improbability of staving it off, about the costs of attempting to do so. The new denialists don’t deny climate change—they just refute the fact that it matters enough to require action.
This approach is evident in one of the only times Trump has publicly talked about climate change since being elected president, in a November interview with members of the New York Times. Editorial page editor James Bennet asked the president-elect to clarify his thoughts on how much human activity is responsible for climate change. Trump replied:
I think right now … well, I think there is some connectivity. There is some, something. It depends on how much. It also depends on how much it’s going to cost our companies.
It also depends on how much it’s going to cost our companies.
The boiling frog isn’t such a perfect analogy for climate change after all. It assumes that we humans are all part of one frog body. We are not. We live in a world where some of us are going to burn alive when we walk outside. And some of us will never have to step outdoors, so we can worry about how much curbing carbon emissions will impact GDP and decide against it.
We don’t need to guard against alarmism, against depression, against anger, against despair when it comes to climate change. Sure, the hopelessness that accompanies pondering our fate might depress people out of recycling their water bottles or switching their light bulbs. That doesn’t matter. If it also scares people into actually taking this issue seriously at the ballot box, the trade-off will be well worth it. Because the ballot box is where it matters. If we force the issue—if we elect people who care about the survival of all humans rather than just a few—then we might have a shot of preventing the hellscape Wallace-Wells has outlined.
If you don’t want that outcome, we need to start by being more alarmed.