The 3 Big Things That People Misunderstand About Climate Change

David Wallace-Wells, author of the new book The Uninhabitable Earth, describes why climate change might alter our sense of time.

A child sleeps on a couch in a flooded street in Chongqing, China, on July 20, 2010. (Reuters)

The year is 2100. The United States has been devastated by climate change. Super-powerful hurricanes regularly ravage coastal cities. Wildfires have overrun Los Angeles several times over. And it is dangerous to go outside on some summer days—children and the elderly risk being broiled alive.

In such a world as that one, will we give up on the idea of historical progress? Should we even believe in it now? In his new book, The Uninhabitable Earth, the writer David Wallace-Wells considers how global warming will change not only the experience of human life but also our ideas and philosophies about it. It’s possible, he told me recently, that climate change will make us believe that history is “something that takes us backward rather than forward.”

“The 21st century will be dominated by climate change in the same way that … the 19th century in the West was dominated by modernity or industry,” he said. “There won’t be an area of human life that is untouched by it.”

I recently talked to Wallace-Wells about his new book, the difficulty of writing stories about climate change, and which science-fiction prophecy he believes came true. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Robinson Meyer: You had the big cover story in New York, and then you wrote a book. What did you learn writing the book that maybe wasn’t as clear when you were writing the first story?

David Wallace-Wells: I’d written a previous cover story about bee death, but I hadn’t done a ton of straight-ahead climate writing. And in a sort of perverse way, I think that was one of the qualifying things about my background for that story and this book. I was coming at it fresh. I had a different perspective than people who had devoted their lives to it—which is that I don’t actually, like, intuitively care all that much about nature per se. And so [in the story] I wasn’t writing about the plight of the animals or the tragedy of the rainforest. I was focused on people.

In that first piece, I also really focused on worst-case scenarios. I looked at scenarios north of 4 degrees [Celsius of global warming], 5 degrees, 6 degrees, even 8 degrees—and I thought it was very important to introduce those scenarios to the broader public because they were so far from what even the general, engaged, liberal understanding of climate change was.

It made me think that there were all of these other downstream effects of climate change that even academics hadn’t begun to contemplate. We have this idea over the last few centuries that history may be erratic, it may punish some people here and there, but generally over time, as time marches forward, we see progress, we see lives getting more prosperous and safer and healthier.

While I don’t think it’s safe to say that climate will completely undo that, I think it’s quite likely that it does transform that perspective in some way. It’s certainly within the realm of conceivability that damages accumulate so significantly that we totally drop that idea about history as an arrow of progress and start thinking of it as something that is much less reliable, even something that takes us backward rather than forward.

Meyer: I want to talk about that more, but first I want to follow up on this idea of the “general, engaged understanding” of climate change. I think about that a lot. What do you think the general understanding of the issue is?

Wallace-Wells: It’s actually changing quite quickly. I think that my article played a small role in that, but the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report was a way bigger deal. It really does seem to have awakened a huge amount of alarmism and panic, and it also sort of invited scientists to speak more openly about the issue. But when I first started writing, I was motivated by the divergence between what I saw coming out of academic research and how those stories were being told in most mainstream publications. And that was along three points.

The first point is about the speed of change. The emphasis was always about how slow climate change was, and how it was hard to deal with because there was no urgency to it. But the animating fact to me is that more than half of all the emissions ever produced from the burning of fossil fuels have been produced in just the last three decades. That transformed my perspective—I realized that this is something that we’re doing very much in real time.

The second thing that we sort of misunderstood was the scope of it. So much of the storytelling is focused on sea-level rise and the melting of ice in the Arctic and Antarctic. Obviously that’s a huge part of the climate story. But it also gives this false sense that it’s a problem that has local impacts—like if you stay off the shoreline, you’re likely to be safe.

The third problem was the severity. Scientists had often talked about this 2-degree [Celsius of global temperature rise] threshold as a kind of meaningful mark of climate horror, and I think that most readers understood that to mean that that was about as bad as it could get. But we can now see that 2 degrees of warming is functionally a floor for where we’ll be, and not a ceiling.

Meyer: You process a lot of scholarly or humanistic writing about climate change in your book. Whose work has stuck with you?

Wallace-Wells: The people who’ve written about the politics of climate—especially the relationship of climate and capitalism. Naomi Klein is to me sort of like the North Star. Jed Purdy’s work—he is more sort of earnestly theoretical, but he is valuable in placing the challenge of climate in the long tradition of political philosophy.

Honestly, the person whose work most flicked this light on for me was Amitav Ghosh and his book The Great Derangement, which is about narrative. I found a lot to disagree with in his interpretation, mostly because I come from kind of a literary background. I used to work at The Paris Review, and I studied all this stuff in college, and I had a slightly different idea of what the basic function of novel writing is. Therefore I had a different interpretation of why we don’t have good novels written about climate change.

Meyer: He argues that climate change is uniquely hard to write stories about, right? Where did you disagree with him?

Wallace-Wells: Ghosh’s basic argument is that the novel is a form about the inner life of an individual. And the problem of climate change is a very different category of problem for him. You can place the stories of individuals within it, but you end up with something like The Day After Tomorrow, where it’s like, Oh, here’s a person who’s dealing with a struggle, but the story is also about climate change. And the disconnect feels almost corny and staged.

I tended to think about it more in terms of responsibility and villainy. I think that we have a very hard time processing our own complicity as Westerners reading novels and wondering about climate change. We really prefer to see ourselves as truly innocent, and therefore want our climate storytelling to reassure us about our own culpability, and tell us in fact that it’s someone else’s problem in our culture, outside of narrative.

I think this often takes the form of vilifying oil companies. I don’t want to come off as someone who thinks oil companies are forces for good. But I also realized that when I buy a flight to take a vacation, I’m not doing that as a tool of the oil companies. When I eat a hamburger, I’m not doing that as a tool of the oil companies. Everything about the way that we all live in the modern world [has] a carbon footprint, and therefore we all share in responsibility for this damage.

I hope that that sort of revelation will inspire people to some kind of collective action. Lifestyle choices are ultimately so small that anything other than political action and organizing seems to me effectively a diversion. But I also am not approaching the subject really as an advocate, but as a truth teller and storyteller.

Meyer: Do you think there’s a way to write that kind of narrative that doesn’t wind up feeling like The Jungle? Which ends with a giant Socialist rally, and the narrator being absorbed into the fervor of the crowd. Or, I really enjoyed [the 2018 film] Sorry to Bother You, but it has a very similar kind of arc in which the politics save the main character.

Wallace-Wells: I guess it depends on whether what you’re looking for in a narrative is polemic or humanity. I actually think that one of the features of my writing on this subject is that it—I hope this doesn’t sound too grand to say—but it demonstrates that if you handle them right, the simple accumulation of facts can take on an enormous narrative force. And I don’t really think that that’s something that many other writers about climate have done before.

We are still in the infant stage of figuring out how to tell stories about this issue. Going forward, I suspect that the more interesting narrative forms are likely to background climate change and make it appear like the theater in which human dramas are unfolding. Think about, for instance, a climate refugee camp, where the story is effectively some rivalry between two quasi-criminal-like figures in the camp. Or a honeymoon where people are going snorkeling through Miami Beach.

There are whole imaginative theaters for storytelling about climate that we haven’t yet begun to explore. But if all that is considered “responsible” is optimistic hopeful storytelling about how we can solve the problem, then that’s just—from a narrative perspective, it’s kind of corny. The best climate storytelling is likely to be written by people like J. G. Ballard, or William Gibson, or Margaret Atwood, who are really thinking about all the weird ways that these forces could transform our lives.

Meyer: Gibson’s really recent novel, The Peripheral, seems like one of the better presentations of how you’re talking about history now—about how day-to-day, lived existence would feel like in a world where progress has gone wrong, where there are cataclysms in the past from which people really haven’t recovered.

Wallace-Wells: I know [Gibson] a little bit because I did the Paris Review interview with him. We were emailing a few weeks ago and I was like, Oh, I’m just adding a couple sentences to the book, last minute, about how science-fiction writers are likely to be understood even more as prophets because of climate change, and he wrote back and he was like, You know what, every time people say that to me, I always say “We haven’t successfully predicted anything! We got all of our predictions wrong. The only thing we’ve gotten right is the mood.” And I wrote back and I was like, No, the mood is a prediction! It’s a really important prediction, and actually you guys got it extremely right.

Meyer: What’s the meaning of climate change to you? What’s its larger import? Is it the stuff about history or is it something else?

Wallace-Wells: My short-form answer is that I think that the 21st century will be dominated by climate change in the same way that, say, the end of the 20th century was dominated by financial capitalism, or the 19th century in the West was dominated by modernity or industry—that this will be the meta-narrative of the coming decades, and there won’t be an area of human life that is untouched by it. Often people talk about climate change as a global problem, which it obviously is, but I don’t think we’ve really started to think about what that means all the way down to the level of individual life.

My basic perspective is that everything about human life on this planet will be transformed by this force. Even if we end up at a kind of best-case outcome, I think the world will be dominated by these forces in the coming decades in ways that it’s hard to imagine and we really haven’t started to think hard enough about.

I am a child of the 1990s. I’m American. I grew up in New York. And in that way I am, you know, the product of the end of history. I felt that there were all these forces unfolding in the world around me—and that while I had my skepticism about them, while I had my critiques about them, I did believe that they were carrying us forward into a better, more prosperous, more just world. I knew that that would not be an easy path, and I knew that we’d have to fight to make sure that, for instance, market forces and globalization benefited more people rather than fewer. I knew that there were political fights to be had there. But in general I just intuited in a deep emotional way—that I might not have even been willing to admit publicly, because I would have found it embarrassing—that history did move forward and therefore my life was going to be an experience of witnessing progress. I feel very profoundly not that way anymore.