“The conditions of possibility have really changed. The landscape used to look tilted against decarbonization. Now it's tilted towards decarbonization.” — David Wallace Wells
“It’s worse, much worse, than you think.”
This is the opening line of The Uninhabitable Earth, the bestselling and Earth-shaking 2019 book by David Wallace Wells about the climate crisis. The first time I read The Uninhabitable Earth was a life-changing experience. However bad I thought climate change was, the book explained in unforgettable detail the potential horror we may be barreling towards.
The picture remains grim, however recently things have begun to change. In the recent piece “After Alarmism,” David Wallace Wells shares reasons for optimism: massive improvements in solar and batteries, a new paradigm for how we think about public money, and a growing belief in business and government that decarbonization will happen, increasingly for economic reasons, as came up in our recent conversation with venture capitalist Albert Wenger.
Last week I spoke with David Wallace Wells about where we are and where we’re headed. In a deep and fascinating conversation, he shared what he’s most worried about, why our wildest fears are not going to come true, and the new economics of the climate. Here is a complete transcript of our conversation.
YANCEY: There are dueling narratives right now about the climate. Greta Thunberg has been highlighting a UN report showing how woefully short we are of various climate targets. But at the same time I just read climatologist Michael Mann saying he can smell the change in the air, and you’ve written about reasons for optimism. Where are we now and what direction are we headed?
DAVID: Maybe the best way to start is to say climate change is not a matter of mood affiliation. Whether I'm feeling slightly more optimistic or slightly less pessimistic is trivial compared to the big picture trajectory, and that big picture trajectory remains bleak. We have basically foreclosed any futures that our grandparents would have recognized as comfortable and manageable. That's not to say that we can't figure out ways to manage them and even invent ways to live relatively prosperously and justly in that future, but that's how much we've squandered the time that we've had. That's really bad.
That's my baseline, but I also used to expect that we were heading towards something that would have appeared to just about anybody alive today, even those of us who are worried about climate, as a really alarming climate future. I thought the path that we were on, and would take unbelievably dramatic global action to avoid, something like 3°C or 4°C of warming, would mean twice as much war, half as much food, hundreds of millions of climate refugees, $600 trillion in global climate damages — which is twice as much wealth as there is in the world today — parts of the world hit by multiple climate-driven natural disasters at once — you can go down a list of truly catastrophic outcomes. I thought that's where we were headed.
We've done a lot over the last year or two to make sure that future is looking less and less likely and that we would have to really try hard to bring ourselves to that level of warming this century, or at least be really surprised by things in the climate system that we didn't expect to happen, like really dramatic feedback mechanisms that most scientists would tell you aren't very likely. So both things at once are true. The pictures are still really bad and yet it’s much sunnier than it seemed a year or two ago. I would say even much sunnier than I thought was possible.
Often when people ask me the kind of question that you asked me, and when people talk about climate change in general, there is this pattern and a problem that we fall into generally. We tend to think about big important questions in binary terms even when they're not binary problems. But it's not like we're heading down one path and it’s going to be fine or we're heading down another path of climate apocalypse. We're somewhere in the middle. Our best future is an ugly muddle that will be defined by climate struggle and climate suffering and our worst path is considerably worse than that.
I'm trying to figure out myself both in my thinking and my writing how to hold those two facts in my head at once. To think clearly about the future and avoid the reductive thinking that’s “we're making progress, it's looking good” or “it's all going to hell and maybe we're all gonna go extinct.” The truth is neither of those extreme scenarios are really all that relevant. We have to learn how to take a more fine-grained perspective on the narrower band of differences that we can make through action today.
YANCEY: The “good news” we're trending towards is two degrees of warming, but even at two degrees of warming you also write that as many people would die every year from climate as died of COVID last year. So that’s the “good news”?
DAVID: The novelty of threat is a big part of how we process these things. It would be scary enough to say what you said about climate and COVID. On the other hand it's also the case that nine million people are dying of air pollution every year and that's a horror, it's a moral outrage, and yet it isn't exactly the central emotional or psychological or political fact of our lives at an individual level or at a global level. It's also worth keeping in mind as depressing and distressing as it is to process these degraded futures, we continue to live in ways that are not defined by them, even if they should be. Along with everything else we also have to keep in mind as humans we have a capacity for adaptation. We have an incredible capacity of normalization. Part of why I think it's so important to keep in mind the bleakness of the path that we're on is that it can be cancelled against that impulse.
YANCEY: In the piece “After Alarmism” you write the first piece of good news is that the age of climate denialism is over. Republicans in lockstep denying climate change isn't the strategy anymore, it's more like it's too late to do anything. That’s what you see Ben Sasse or Mitt Romney say. But then you wrote “the second source of good news is the arrival on the global stage of climate self-interest. By this I don't mean the profiteering logic of BlackRock, which opportunistically announced some halfhearted climate commitments, but rather the growing consensus in almost every part of the globe and at almost every level of society and governance that the world would be made better through decarbonization... A decade ago many of the more ruthless capitalists to analyze that project deemed it too expensive to undertake. Today it suddenly appears almost too good a deal to pass up.” Can you talk about climate self-interest? Where are you seeing this? Is this something new?
DAVID: For a really long time people worrying about climate inaction would say the problem… well, there are problems at a few different levels. At the level of national decision-making, we understood the costs of decarbonizing much more clearly than we understood the benefits of decarbonizing. That meant that the argument for climate action was almost always cast in moral terms not in economic terms. There is a moral case obviously to be made for climate action — I don't want to discount that — but there are people who don't respond to that and some of them are the most vulnerable people in our societies. Especially when you had some really dramatic tabulations of what it would cost to replace the oil and gas business with renewables, it really seemed like we would be taking a huge, huge hit to do our part as a country to produce a relatively comfortable future climate for the planet.
That was especially problematic. People pointed to it thinking it was an especially important cause of climate delay and inaction at that point – true denial because they also saw this problem played out on the global stage where to the extent there are benefits to decarbonizing, they are distributed globally. A world of two degrees Celsius is better for everybody. It's not the case that if all California decarbonizes that California is going to get all the benefits of that. It's actually probably going to be concentrated more in places like India and Bangladesh, and California fires are probably going to continue to burn for a few decades regardless.
That meant that the logic of immediate action at the local and national level, in addition to seeming too expensive, seems pointless if the entire world wasn't moving in unison. Take China, the world's biggest emitter, responsible for 28% of all global emissions. Even if they went all the way to zero, if the whole rest of the planet kept emitting at the pace that they were emitting, warming at only three quarters of the rate it would have with China emitting, it's not going to change all that much. It's hard for me to really unpack the political science and say how significant they each were but they were certainly pointed to as explanations for why the world was moving so slowly.
Over the last year or two for a number of reasons which we can talk about, ranging from political movements to actual natural disasters opening people's eyes to generational change and a lot of other factors too, there's been a genuine tipping point on these questions. Economic analysis is now much more sophisticated on the question of the benefits of climate action and the damages that would come from unchecked climate change. The cost-benefit analysis of moving quickly is really, really clear when you're studying it in your little office at MIT or Stanford. That alone’s not enough to change the whole path of the world's economic system, but it's something. We now know, for instance, that we could pay for the entire decarbonization of the American economy simply through the public health benefits that would come from the side effect of decarbonizing through the cleaner air we would have. The air would be so much cleaner, the public health benefits would be so strong, that alone would pay for the entire project of decarbonization and we wouldn't have to worry about any of the other climate benefits. We wouldn't have to worry about the effect on droughts or wildfires or sea level rise or whatever else.
On top of that, because there's been a conceptual step change, it's now the case that every CEO in every boardroom is planning for a future predicated on at least moderately fast decarbonization. That's not to say that Larry Fink at BlackRock thinks that the world is going to decarbonize as fast as Greta Thunberg wants it to. Obviously not. They did this thing last year where they announced that they were focusing on climate but they continue to invest in oil and gas, they're just pulling back on coal, which is again a reflection of the dollars and cents because coal is still much less profitable than oil and gas. Yet the fact that there is even that level of conversation and even PR spin level where the corporate world and the dollar sphere feel obligated to be talking about climate change is a real cultural change. Those of us who are hoping for more ambitious movement, often we have a reflex to discount those changes and there's obviously reason to be skeptical and reason to hold those people to account, but it’s also very much the case that a world in which every person of social, financial, and political consequence feels obligated to be at least paying lip service to climate change is a world in which climate action is easier than one in which the majority of them don't even want to talk about it.
That's not to say that the battle is won. We need to do a lot more. But the conditions of possibility have really changed. It's one of the reasons why the future looks relatively calmer and more stable – emphasis on relatively – than I thought a year or two ago.
But to me the biggest change is the cost of renewables is so low now. The innovations that were kicked into gear in the ‘90s and early 2000s in Germany, in the late 2000s in the US, and more recently in China driving down the cost of solar power and also wind power and now battery power too, it's just crazy. Renewables’ biggest advocates a decade ago would not have told you that these price declines were possible. Basically all of these technologies have fallen at least tenfold in price over a decade and we expect that they're going to continue to fall. Which means that basically everywhere in the world renewable energy represents a more economical option if you're making an investment in our energy future.
That's not to say that everybody will make those investments. It's still the case that most of the world's largest oil and gas companies are state owned, so the political economy of decarbonization is quite complicated and entangled. But the basic playing field or landscape on which these decisions will be made used to look tilted against decarbonization and now it's tilted towards decarbonization.
As I say in the piece, the challenges are hard. We've run out of time to save the state of the planet that we knew. But we have to take the good news where we can find it and I do think strangely in COVID and the pandemic, there actually was a lot of really good news on climate. I don't think that's entirely a coincidence because especially in the US, there's a way in which the intensity of politics around an issue can stymie movement. When things are done a little more off to the side or under cover of night or somewhat secretly not just more things get done, but the public is also happier with the things that do get done. That keeps the ball rolling forward.
YANCEY: It feels like there was an assumption in the past that decarbonization would be anti-capitalist, that you'd have to rip up the whole system, and now we're finding that decarbonization and capitalism are more compatible than maybe anybody thought.
DAVID: These frames are so misleadingly binary. Yes we live in largely a market capitalist system, but also our markets are totally distorted by the political economy that governs them, such that the IMF says we're subsidizing fossil fuels $5 trillion a year. To give a sense of perspective, in theory that would be enough to pay for direct air capture machines to suck all of the carbon out of the atmosphere all around the globe. So we're giving enough money — and there are engineering complications for this but just as a shorthand to give you a sense of the scale of the subsidy — we're subsidizing the business that's destroying the future of the planet as much or more than would be required for us to continue running those companies, burning all that fuel, and sucking all the carbon out of the air to so that it didn't make any difference at all to the future of the planet. There are market complications everywhere you look. It's always been a little bit naive or simplistic to think that because the system we have today is producing this catastrophic outcome, that means we necessarily have to discard every aspect of the system and build from scratch.
On the other hand I'm sympathetic to a lot of other critiques of capitalism and interested in renovating more than just the fossil capitalist elements of it. That's been one complicating thread in the climate movement since the beginning. A lot of people who turn to environmentalism turn to it in part out of distaste for other aspects of human society. They see nature and the cause of nature as an alternate approach to life on this planet which they find more fulfilling. I think for the most part that's a good healthy impulse, but it can occasionally lead you to some anti-human places where you hear from people who want to control the population of the planet or believe it’s just to impose continued poverty on parts of the developing world as a way of stabilizing some of the planet's ecosystems. I’m a person of the left but my own politics are idiosyncratic enough and also not at core environmental enough that it seems to me we want a big tent political approach that draws on solutions from a variety of places and appeals to a variety of different constituents as a result.
When I see stats that the richest 1% of the world are responsible for more emissions than the bottom half of the planet judged by wealth, that does make me think that there is probably some wisdom in what's called degrowth, that people like you and me are not just using more than our fair share, we're abusing our positions of privilege. Even when we're doing good in the world we're still actually doing badly. But an approach to global warming that requires every rich person on the planet to abandon their comforts is going to be an approach that requires a revolution to put into place. There are parts of me that are sympathetic to that but I’m also: “Do we have the time to do that? Do we have the political will? Are we sure that we could build it up from scratch?”
My own approach is to say okay, the fact that Elon Musk has produced a culture of electric cars and an expectation through his insane missionary zeal that we’ll be living in a world of electric cars a decade from now, I applaud him for that. There are things he's doing that I would not applaud him for, but I'll take that. Then when I see VW and there's another major manufacturer today, Volvo, said that they were going to go all electric by 2030. It's incredible when you think how quickly that culture of expectation has changed on a consumer level, at the boardroom level, and at the level of political economy. There are those who say in order for us to avoid catastrophic warming we can't ever sell another single additional nonelectric vehicle anywhere in the world. We're not going to do that, but two years ago if you had said the world's going to be basically off internal combustion engines by 2030 that would have felt impossible. It feels like that's where we're headed.
YANCEY: It's interesting to think about Elon as a figure who grows the tent. Even the strategy of Tesla from the beginning to start with the sports car, to make an electric car not about being green but about touching on all these other desires that we have. It seems like explicitly from the beginning it was trying to grow that tent.
DAVID: Can I say one other thing?
DAVID: I say this perhaps as someone who feels a little bit embarrassed by his own history of indifference to climate and some amount of what I recognize is hypocrisy in my own life about these issues. But I also think it's really important for us to understand that large political movements contain hypocrites and that is okay. If what you're trying to do is be a purist then you're going to end up on a commune and that commune may be really utopian and ideal, but we're not dreaming of a future in which there are a few patches of responsible living here and there on the planet. This challenge is so big that we need everyone to change. That means we need to come up with solutions that most people are at least comfortable with and maybe even excited about. Among many other things it means not calling out people who are not exactly where you are but are basically on board with large scale change, and recruiting people who you can convince that a Tesla is cool as opposed to just saying people with a Subaru Outbacks are the only people who we’re going to be selling these cars to.
YANCEY: It has to be. I’ve heard Kara Swisher say the world's first trillionaire will be someone that worked on the climate. I’ve worked with a number of young entrepreneurs, people in their 20s and younger who have startups that are climate-based, and it strikes me that some of these people have already become very wealthy through this work. There's no moral ambiguity, it's not like they're extracting user data to advertise. It's purely a missionary zeal kind of project. This is a different kind of challenge. There’s a moral clarity that feels different.
DAVID: Obviously I have less experience of engagement with the entrepreneurial side of things that you do, but I find myself routinely amazed by climate activists, teenage climate activists in particular. Greta’s been the clearest, most famous example, but this is a movement, the Climate Strike movement, that is led by teenagers all around the world. None of them with the right to vote. None of them are old enough to vote in the countries even where adults have the right to vote. Some of them are in much more authoritarian environments. Many of them are from marginalized ethnic communities. Many of them are queer. These are people who are basically the least powerful people you could possibly imagine on the planet. I think of people like you and me, not to disparage your climate engagement, but we would often look at this problem and think, “Oh, it's so big. What can we do? What can one person do? What can even one outspoken public person do? It's just such a huge challenge.” Which is true. It is and it’s intimidating to anyone who's hoping to make a difference.
But the generation of climate strikers face those challenges at an even more intimidatingly high scale. They were even more disempowered and even farther from the levers of political power than you and I are, and they were not intimidated. They had the opposite response. They thought, “I'm going to make room for myself at this table, even if there's never been room for me before and change the course of the planet as a result.” Amazingly in just a couple of years they truly have. What we were talking about the top of this conversation, that there has been large scale global political activism on climate over the last couple of years, this has been led by teenagers.
YANCEY: I was struck by a conversation you referenced talking in a recent piece talking to the author Elizabeth Kolbert. She mentioned the E.O. Wilson Half Earth concept, and she said to you “one big conservation proposal that's out there is E.O. Wilson’s Half Earth. We should put a half of the planet aside for other species, but even that, which I would certainly support, isn't really conserving the world, that's changing the world. That's not the world that we had.” What did you feel when she expressed that tension about changing the world?
DAVID: I took it to be less of a normative comment and more she's not making a judgement, she's just describing what's happening. Her new book Under a White Sky represents a right turn for her. It's not a dramatically different perspective than she's expressed in her previous writings about the environment and catastrophic destruction that we're engineering there, but it starts from the proposition that whatever your naturalist or preservationist impulses might be, we're too far gone to really dream responsibly of a return to nature. She also writes in the book quite well about the way in which even our idea of nature is a creation of its own destruction. When we lived, not to engage in more evolutionary biology, but when we were hunters and gatherers on the savannahs of Africa, we didn't think of nature as being something. It was just the world. We started to think of it when we had engineered enough new stuff on the planet that we started to see a difference. A lot of the thinking about the natural world and the writing about the natural world that in the West formed the basis of the environmental worldview, came out of Victorian England which was a time, an age, and a culture that was rapidly changing. You could see over the course of a generation the total transformation of a landscape or a city or a town. That is how we know nature: through its destruction.
So as we move forward I think she would say it may be a hindrance to cling to ideas of a pure, protected, non-human, untouched environment to which we might hope to return to some degree. We need to think seriously about what it means to be living in this mishmash of a place. There was a finding this year that literally half of the world's mass is human made and half of it is not human made. So we're in this perfect balance point at the moment, although it's certain to move in the wrong direction from here.
Her book is about the tricky challenge of carrying forward the values of environmentalism into a world in which nature is no longer a meaningful category. But it's also the case of course that in addition to being important for us to if not abandon, then at least refine the way that we think of nature and the natural world and the natural environment, it's also important for us to remember that we still live inside nature. All of us. We are part of it.
There's in certain ways complimentary and in certain ways contradictory messages there. We need to move on from earlier, possibly naive ideas of what the natural world is and should be, and what its values are. At the same time we also need to understand that as much as we've transformed that world, we still live in it and with its consequences. If we want those consequences to be relatively less brutal we’ve got to move quick.
What I keep coming back to is the changing way we'll see these categories as it becomes clear just how transformed they are.
Recently I've been turning over in my head a lot this series of papers that have come out in the last year about the likelihood that most of the world's forests will become what are called carbon sources rather than carbon sinks in just a few decades. At the moment one of the best ways that we can take carbon out of the air is more plant life and particularly more tree life that can absorb it and store it in bark, in trees, in the soil, etc. That comports with an old fashioned idea of what nature is and the role of nature in this contest between the world humankind inherited and the world that we are making. It allows you to see things like the Amazon or the Redwood Forest as this unspoiled paradise, almost Edenic, to which we can occasionally turn and visit even if we live outside of it, even if we live in the degraded fallen world of man and industry and which shames us or should shame us into taking better care of those parts of the planet that aren't as well protected. It's a morality. It's forest as a morality tale, but it's also forest as meditative retreat and escape from the pain of human existence.
I wonder what that's going to feel like and whether those categories and those intuitions about what a forest is are going to hold if three decades from now, globally forests are actually contributing to the problem of global warming rather than eating it, and that the more trees there are on the planet, the worse off we'll be rather than the better off we'll be.
Obviously forests, there's natural beauty, there are a lot of things we like about those places that is not contained in the simple equation of are they adding more carbon or are they subtracting carbon. But if we're imagining a world that is really defined not just in a scientific way but in a cultural and political way by the struggle of climate, it's also not hard to imagine that intuition about what forest life is and stands for being if not totally reversed, then disrupted. That's just really weird to me — and I say that as someone who has lived his whole life in cities. I'm not an outdoorsman. It's not like I go on meditation retreats in the forest ever, so I have a very childhood storybook conception of what that part of the natural world stands for.
Yet I see it already as being deeply out of touch with the trajectory of the planet and suspect that a few decades from now we might collectively relate very differently to nature than we do today. That goes doubly so for coral reefs or oceans in general. The changes are just so dramatic. We now have nature tourism. We go on vacations to experience this untouched beauty. But it's becoming already a lot harder to not see the destruction of those places when we look hard enough. My mother-in-law went on a cruise to the Arctic in the spirit of see it before it's gone. I know a lot of people who've done coral reef expeditions, gone to Australia thinking I’ve got to do this with my teenager now because by the time she's got teenagers of her own it's not going to be there. The number of places that will be seen in those terms is going to grow somewhat dramatically over the next couple of decades. It'll really rewire the way that we think about nature in general, and I don't know that we're really prepared for that.
YANCEY: I hear the phrase “climate adaptation” thrown around a lot lately. It’s very benign sounding. We have some sense of what that means in terms of infrastructure, redoing the grid, that kind of stuff. But I'm curious about the cultural and social adaptations. The kinds of things you're talking about here or, if you look at the teenage activists, anything we can learn as we think about how our lives and decisions are different in a world where climate is front and center?
DAVID: The thing that comes to mind – and this may be a little strange coming from me – but I worry about coming of age. Coming of age thinking that you are in the midst of an apocalypse. It's inevitable that climate suffering will increase probably dramatically and that there will be much more pain in the world as a result of our inaction and delay than we would like, but I also think — in ways that we have a hard time imagining from the vantage of today — we will figure out some ways of living amidst that wreckage and suffering to allow ourselves the possibility of comfortable and fulfilling lives however we define them.
There is a strange feature of the activism that we've seen today — and again it's strange for me to say, maybe even offering this as a self-critique — but there is a millennial spirit to it which suggests it may be uncomfortable or strange for many of these people to be living 30 or 40 years from now seeing that things have gotten worse, wishing that we could have done more to avoid it, and yet living in ways that are more like the lives of their parents than they thought when they were teenagers. When the grip of apocalypticism gets you, it's hard to let go. I do worry about that a bit.
At the political level you mentioned the turn on the right from climate denial to climate indifference. That's really something I worry a lot about. The psychological well-being of the climate strikers, I worry less about their resilience. They have an enormous amount of intellectual and emotional integrity and I think one reason why they are millennials, millennialists, or millenarians is because they do see much more clearly the suffering of the world. I think that's a virtue rather than a failing.
On the climate right, the opposite applies: there's a real tendency to become more self-interested in a world of scarcity than you might have been in a world of plenty. One of the profound changes that climate change may bring to cultures like the US and Western Europe that have been raised over the last few decades on expectations of ever-increasing prosperity, we may return to something more like a zero-sum view of the world. Parts of the world we already are doing that or have done that. But those changes may accelerate or intensify and a lot of people in the climate movement worry about what they call “climate fascism.” which is basically using the logic of climate change to justify some form of fascism.
I think it probably in most cases won't get that bad, although you could imagine in a few particular countries that are really suffering something quite dramatic. What's quite likely is some form of climate nationalism or intensified climate nationalism. To take one very obvious example, the nations of the West, relatively prosperous and positioned relatively well to endure the changes of climate change compared to nations of the equatorial band of climate and the global south, close their doors on migrants from the rest of the world who are being forced to flee their homelands and their ancestral homelands, to flee their whole culture, because of changes that were initiated by Western nations powered largely by the consumption patterns of Western people for half a century or more. If that happens, which I think it likely will to some degree, we will be adding to the climate burden of the global south significantly by refusing to accommodate or alleviate to the extent that we can. In the same way that today we don't support the needs of those suffering desperately around the world at anything like the scale that we should if we were being genuine honest moral actors.
As with all of the stuff we're talking about, it's not the case that it's one path or another. It's not. I don't see a utopian future in which there are total open borders and the US and the UK and the EU and maybe China pay to resettle all of Bangladesh. How many of these people are we going to let settle in our countries? How warmly will we welcome them? How comfortable will the native populations be in receiving them? All of that stuff is a matter of where you fall on the spectrum. I want to push towards more empathy and more openness, but there are forces out there who are going to be pushing in the other direction. Not just because of the logic of climate change, but in ways that the logic of climate change makes their own logic seem to them clearer.
One last thing I would say: I'm really interested in what all of this does to geopolitics. It's unfolding at a time in which there is this uncertain future. The power dynamic of the planet, whether the US really sits at the global steering wheel in an ongoing way or whether China assumes that position in the next few decades, is very much an open question. The way each of those countries relate to climate change is going to be a big part of that dynamic. But I also think we err in assuming that geopolitical patterns that have held in the past are good guides to what the future will be. For a long time I found myself thinking like a lot of people in the climate movement and climate world thought: to take action on a global scale it's going to require something like what the Paris Accord imagined: global coordinated action led by the biggest and most powerful countries in the world with everyone else following, some amount of subsidy from the rich to the poor, but to what extent who knows. But it'll have to be a utopian vision. The world coming together to deal with this global problem.
What's been remarkable about the last year of climate action is how so many countries have announced dramatically ambitious climate plans totally independent of one another — outside of the negotiating rooms of something like the Paris conference, and without even talking to one another. They see so clearly now that decarbonization is in their individual self-interest, in addition to being a certain moral good for the world as a whole.
Obviously that track of conversation will continue. It'll be a part of the dynamic of how the world governs this. We're already starting to see new forms of climate governance emerging, with countries threatening sanctions against bad-behaving other countries. The Brexit treaty involved all this climate stuff. It may be much more scattered and decentralized than anyone might have assumed three or five years ago, in part a reflection of the changes we were talking about in which the market logic of decarbonizing is so obvious that you don't need to bully or cajole nations to get there. We're going to be moving there no matter what we do.
The question is how fast and how comprehensively. Looking at the last couple of years, personally I've been shocked at how fast the movement has already been and would not be surprised to see it accelerate quite dramatically in the years ahead. Which is necessary because even at the pace of change we're seeing today, which like I said was unthinkable to me a few years ago, we're still so, so, so far short of where we want to be if we want to get a handle on things.
Just to put a data point on that, it's not a perfect survey, but the UN just put out a state of climate action report in which they found that as part of the Paris Accord, governments are supposed to submit promises to the UN. To this point all of the promises that have been submitted amount to at most a 1% reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, when the UN has also said that in order to give us a decent chance of avoiding catastrophic warming we need to cut those gases by 45% by 2030. We're at 1%. We need to get to 45%.
Now there are a lot of promises and announcements that have been made that aren't included in that calculus. China made a big net zero announcement — it's not part of that and that was really significant. But it also tells you as fast as things seem to be moving, even at the level of promises and pledges which aren't even themselves something you can take to the bank, even so we need to be doing so, so, so much more.
YANCEY: When you see one of those pledges, what do you look for to know if it's real or not?
DAVID: The best rule of thumb is how quickly the changes are coming. If a company or a country is saying we're going to be at net zero by 2050, so we'll be offsetting whatever remaining carbon emissions we have, that's a different kind of a promise than saying we're going to ban electric vehicles by 2025. If the scale of the impact of the 2050 target is much bigger, saying that we're going to take a concrete policy measure immediately and dramatically change even a relatively small aspect of our carbon footprint is more encouraging and more exciting. To the extent that some things need to be planned on longer timelines, you want those plans to be spelled out in detail rather than notionally suggested we'll get there.
Climate activists also think the framework of net zero is misleading, and we don't want to depend on negative emissions or offsets at any scale. The wealthy countries of the world and especially those like the UK and lots of Scandinavia that have already begun decarbonizing somewhat rapidly, we shouldn't tolerate net zero pledges from them, we should really be pushing them to get to true zero. That's probably valid although as with everything else, I want to celebrate progress, even if it's inadequate progress.
YANCEY: Coming off the recent Texas electricity fail, I see two clear lessons: one is that we need better, more reliable infrastructure everywhere. Two is that I as a person can't count on my infrastructure. I need to provide for myself or I need to be in a community with other people who can provide for ourselves. There's a tension of wanting a better state but also questioning what I can I really count on at this point. How do you think about self-reliance and institutional reliance?
DAVID: Ideally the self-reliant community that you would be depending on is the state. State capacity so dramatically outscales anything that small scale actors can manage, especially when it comes to things like energy efficiency and infrastructure. If you are really retreating from that level of political organization, you're really depriving yourself of a lot of the capacity for resilience that the state can offer.
But of course we don't live in an ideal world and my own impulse, my own instinct, would be to say what we want to try to do is coach our states to be more responsible and responsive. When I say “states” I mean the political apparatus under which we live, not California or Texas or whatever, although that too.
Climate change itself is pushing our states in that direction, but there are a huge number of obstacles. In California, for instance, half of all residential development since 1990 has been in wildfire-prone zones. That's in part because nobody wants dense housing in desirable parts of the state, and so people have to build out into less desirable, more dangerous parts of the state. California fancies itself a climate-conscious place, and by most standards it is, and yet other political and social considerations get in the way of really responsible planning and policy. That's true in a place where most Californians would tell you climate is one of the values of the state. If you can count on exemplary gold standard policy there, then it does make it hard to imagine in other places, especially a place like Texas where nominally much of the state's political apparatus and political culture is opposed to the values and virtues of the climate movement. On the other hand, Texas is one of the leaders in renewable energy. They had a business opportunity and they took it. A lot of these dynamics run in countervailing ways.
It's hard to plan concretely for the future. When I look at a place like Miami Beach, FEMA or the Army Corps of Engineers did some contingency planning about where you would want to build sea walls to protect Miami. They decided to advise the city to build those barriers on the mainland because the cost of building them there would be relatively small and the upside of protecting most of that property would be high. But also to not even bother protecting the barrier island of Miami Beach and all the other barrier islands there which you would basically be forsaking and letting drown.
On some level it's a horror and a moral abomination and a political failure and makes you really distrust and doubt the leadership and support that you could get from a state like Florida facing climate impacts like these. I think they've also already basically said that they're not going to do anything to protect any of the Keys.
On the other hand I don't know that it's not wise. I saw one estimate that to totally protect all of the East Coast of the US would require spending about $1 million a person who lives there. On some level you want to think we should do that. On another level if what you do is give people some subsidy to allow them to move and build better infrastructure in places where settlements can be built more densely and better protected against climate impacts, that's probably better than just building a giant wall around the entire country, although there are going to be parts of the country that have giant walls around them too. There almost certainly will be a seawall in New York Harbor because the real estate here, unlike even Miami Beach, which is really expensive real estate, is just way too expensive.
We’re living in a really ugly world where we're having to make these calculations and tradeoffs. At least my first emotional impact is to say how horrible it is that our state is just hanging us out to dry here. But then I look at the experience of Houston over the last couple of decades. Really the whole Gulf Coast where there's been a catastrophic mismanagement of federal flood insurance. When private insurers said “we're not going to give you home insurance for these places because they're going to be flooding a lot,” the federal government expanded its program and didn't hold homeowners to any higher standard than they had been before. As a result, there was a huge amount of development in those parts of the country.
These are really complicated questions. It's not as simple as saying is the state going to be there for me or is it not. Oftentimes the state being there for you is a disincentive to real change that is necessary. That’s not to say I'm defending the Governor of Texas or whoever set up the grid. It's obviously a broken system. I also think we often fool ourselves into thinking that the solution is as simple as being on the right side of the issue. We're well past the point in climate history when things were as simple as that. Because we are already seeing dramatically more storms, dramatically more flooding, dramatically more wildfire, dramatically more droughts, more climate migration – all of these things. We're seeing enough of it that we can no longer just say being a Democrat and supporting some climate policy is sufficient, and all we would ask of our government is that they “believe the science.” We're beyond the place of science in the realm of politics. That means reckoning with real tradeoffs, each side of which have huge downsides.
The big picture question, the only hope we have of really protecting each other at a large scale is by reinvesting in state capacity. At the level of paying taxes, but also at the level of cultural perspective and trying to rebuild our faith that government can be a force for good. They will be imperfect. There will be things that private forces do better. But no rich person or corporation is going to be as rich or powerful as the US government. If we're talking about making really dramatic, large-scale investments and changes, the most powerful actor is always going to be the state. It's a tragedy in many ways, not just on climate, that culturally we've so internalized the values of the Reagan‑Thatcher revolution that we distrust the capacity of centralized governments to do good and to be efficient.
We're living with the catastrophic impacts of that cultural change all the way down the line. Not just in the US but all around the world. If we have a hope of responding to climate change and other inequities and injustices, it requires a return to faith in the state. That's going to require some leap of faith on the part of individuals, but also protracted, focused trust-building on the part of political leaders.
On that point I am encouraged in a big picture way to see how dramatically the boundaries of economic discourse have changed in particular over the last couple of years, more broadly since the Great Recession. It used to be the case that almost every powerful government in the world advised by almost every pedigreed economist in the world would prefer a market solution to almost any problem. For a number of reasons, in part because we've struggled so much to deal with many of the challenges over the last decade, that just isn't the consensus anymore. There are a number of very prominent voices who take a very different approach. I'm thinking in particular of Mariana Mazzucato and Stephanie Kelton, but there are many, many others, and it really has reshaped the way especially people on the left all over the world are thinking. Even people on the right are talking about industrial policy in a much more comfortable and agreeable way. They're talking about deficits in a much more forgiving way.
When Barack Obama signed the Stimulus Act that closed in 2009, that was $800 billion and it produced the Tea Party and this huge backlash that we're still living with. In Europe they went even deeper from immediate recession stimulus into austerity and that was catastrophic in its own way. To contrast it with the response to COVID, the total amount of money that the US has spent on COVID stimulus is now $5 trillion and it's probably going to go up from there. There's even more being spent all around the world. There’s starting to be little hints here and there of people worrying about inflation or worrying about whether we're spending too much money, but we're talking about a stimulus package that's six times the size of the biggest stimulus package in American history that was signed just a decade ago. There's much, much less drama about what it means. There's much, much more willingness among central bankers to support spending of this kind and really a re-expansion of the social welfare aspect of the state, but also just the state generally.
We'll see how long that lasts. I don't think it's a permanent new normal, but I also don't know that it's going to expire as soon as we’ve got 60% of the population vaccinated. We have moved into a conceptually different space in which we may debate the size of spending packages and that sort of thing, but we won't be tyrannized by fear of inflation and the bond market in a way that we were for a generation or two, almost with those fears policed by the ideology of the Reagan-Thatcher revolution making sure we didn't get too far outside of our own impulses towards austerity even in times of scarcity. That all means that there is an open future that may allow for a much more robust response to all of these challenges. But, as I say, it's not a binary thing. It's not like we're going to leave behind austerity and embrace the new profligacy and that's it, we're off to the races. There are going to be fights ever on. Ultimately that's one of the most important lessons of all of this, like with COVID: it’s not a simple matter of deposing the leader who didn't believe in science and replacing him with a leader who does believe in science. There are much, much more complicated, thorny challenges embedded in any crisis as big and deep as this one. We're going to need more than just the willingness to vote for the better of the two guys to get a handle on it.
YANCEY: You wrote in The Uninhabitable Earth, “if you had to invent a threat grand enough and global enough to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it... and yet we are only unbuilding these alliances, recoiling into nationalistic corners, and retreating from collective responsibility and each other.” You wrote this in 2018, so this is the Trump era especially. In that context COVID feels like a gift. It's a clearer threat than climate change. It really does feel like an amazing opportunity for us to press pause and learn how to collaborate in a different kind of way. How do you think about that passage after COVID?
DAVID: It’s such a complicated story. I'm actually working on a piece right now about taking big picture stock of the pandemic, and the big theme, the headline of the story, will be “How the West Lost COVID.” As Americans we have overestimated not just the influence of President Trump, who was a catastrophic leader in a time of crisis, but also the efficacy and importance of public policy in general. California basically has the same death rate as Florida and Gavin Newsom’s plan hasn't been perfect, but Florida’s approach has been to basically run in the direction of the disease. The nation's highest death rate is in New Jersey and not in Texas and we didn't try to do mass testing. We didn't try to do contact tracing, and not only that, we didn't really try to do any of that anywhere in Europe or South America either. When you look at the global outcomes per capita death rates, by far the best predictor of how you're going to do as a country is where you are on the globe. Europe, North America and South America are in one bundle where everybody's done really badly. The US is not exceptional in that bundle at all. Then there's East Asia and Oceania who did much, much better. And then there's the Global South, which is a slightly complicated story because of the age structure of their population. They could tolerate much more infection without dying very much.
But pulling back, we told ourselves in places like the US and the UK and Germany that we were beyond the reach of something like a pandemic. Then we were taught in fact not only were we as vulnerable as everyone else, we were much more vulnerable because we were unable to do the things that were done in South Korea or Japan or Australia or New Zealand that allowed them to preemptively move and move aggressively enough to essentially eliminate the disease. We never were able to do that. We only moved when the disease forced us to move.
I've watched again and again the speech that Mike Ryan, who’s one of the leading guys at the WHO and has done a ton of stuff with Ebola, gave in the middle of March when someone asked him what lessons he took from his experiences with Ebola. He said: be fast, have no regrets. The virus will always get you if you take too long to move. He said the problem with many of our societies at the moment is that we're too afraid of failing. We can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We have to move quickly no matter what. That's a paraphrase, not a quote, but that's his basic spirit. That has been the story of the pandemic across the West. We moved too slowly. We tried to be too perfect. We were unhappy with tests that were only 95% accurate instead of 99.9% accurate. We were unwilling to tell people that masks reduced your risk. Our attitude was: it’s not a perfect protection, we have to tell them they're pointless. We didn't stand up any of these medical health infrastructure systems to help secure and stop the disease. All these things that we could have done we didn't do. To the extent that we took action, we took it only when there was a catastrophic outbreak already locally.
Part of it is a European Orientalism in which we looked to China and said, “There's an outbreak there, but we're not going to get sick because they eat dirty animals, and we don't have to do a lockdown like Wuhan because they're crazy authoritarians. It's nothing to them. It's not a sign of desperation.” In Asia they all saw what happened in Wuhan and they went, “Oh no, this is really serious. We’ve got to figure it out.”
Then when the disease came to Italy, it wasn't like the other countries of Europe went okay, now it's here, now we’ve really got to freak out. They went, ok, it's in Italy, let's see what happens. When it came to New York it was the same. There were precautions taken, there were measures taken around the country, but we were unable to build out any of the pre-emptive capacity that was necessary until the disease had already gotten to that local place, at which point much of that work was unnecessary or pointless.
Yet thinking globally, the response to this disease has been completely unprecedented in all of human history. Never before have societies taken preventative measures at anything approaching the scale or for anything approaching the duration that we've taken during this pandemic. That's true across these three categories. It's true not just in East Asia and Oceania, not just in the Global South, but in the Global North, in the West too. There was a period of time where 5 billion people on the planet were effectively quarantining at home. There were more than a billion school kids out of school. Economies were totally shut down, personal lives were totally suspended, romantic lives were suspended out of concern for ourselves and one another, and government stepped in to really pick up the slack. The average person out of work in America during the pandemic made more money from unemployment insurance than they made before the pandemic. Some programs were even more generous across Europe. We did it poorly because we hit it so slowly, but the scale of the response nevertheless is enormous and on some level inspiring.
Now it produced backlash and there was resistance, but we also found ourselves overstating some of that in order to prosecute culture war arguments and to make ourselves feel better for taking the measures that we did take. Mask wearing compliance in the US is over 90%. Yes, there are pockets and places where people are resistant, but the reason that those videos go viral is because they're relatively rare. Governors have taken counterproductive policies, and yet even in the places where policy has been very proactive, it's still been the case that the population has tended to make those changes first. They stopped going out to restaurants first, stopped going out to movies first. It's not that our behavior followed public policy, it’s that public policy followed behavior in almost every case.
So we took some quite dramatic, even extreme measures, measures that might have been unthinkable a year or so ago out of concern for one another, and we need to keep that up. What I worry about is that we are just exhausted. I mean that literally, I mean that emotionally, I mean that politically. I also mean that financially, economically, to the point that we've literally emptied out our treasuries, our central banks, to support ourselves through this time. I don't know how long that can go on. We probably do need spending of real capital and political capital at this scale if we want to give ourselves a meaningful chance of averting catastrophic climate outcomes. I don't honestly know how much of that is possible. But the COVID crisis shows us that it's happened once.
YANCEY: It wouldn't be unprecedented.
DAVID: It’s no longer unprecedented, and that's really encouraging on some level. It’s not determinative but it means that you can say, for instance, if we spent just 10% of the money that we spent on COVID stimulus each of the next four years, totaling 40% of the money that the world has spent on COVID stimulus, we could decarbonize the entire planet in the next fifteen years and bring ourselves well within the realm of…well, maybe not fifteen years, but decarbonize the planet fast enough to allow us to meet the goals of the Paris Accords. If you had said two years ago you're going to have to spend that many trillions of dollars to do it, a lot of people's eyes would have gone wide and thought that's never going to happen. But less than half of what we spent on COVID and we can secure the planet's climate ever after, and alleviate the psychological suffering that we're all going through now and the real suffering that we will be living through if we don't do anything. It starts to seem like a manageable price to pay.
YANCEY: The first line of Uninhabitable Earth is, “It is worse, much worse than you think.” What would you say today?
DAVID: The book grew out of an article I wrote and the first line of the article I always liked better. It was only very slightly different, but it was: “It is, I promise, worse than you think.” I thought, I can't have the same exact line for the book and I needed it for the rhythm, so I added “much worse.”
Honestly I would still say almost everyone on the planet is in denial about how bad climate change is likely to be. Something like a two degree world is basically our best-case outcome. Scientists would tell you that means 150 million people dying of air pollution. It means floods that we used to see once a century we will see every single year. It will mean such intense heat, especially across South Asia and the Middle East, that during summer, cities that are today home to 10 to 15 million people will be so hot you can’t walk outside on certain days without risking heatstroke or death. I saw one calculation recently that in Calcutta at just two degrees, which we’ll likely reach by 2040 or 2050, there will be 200 days of lethal heat every single year. We're talking about a world where there's some real grim, gruesome climate features to that world and that's our best-case scenario.
Very few people see clearly how much suffering there would be in that world. But I also think that best case but still terrible world is really possible and I might even bet on it given where we're going. To the extent that your nightmares are dominated by civilizational collapse or human extinction, those fears I think are not rational, and maybe even amount to a retreat from the demands of engagement and action, to just be giving up on the problem. We are almost certainly going to be landing in a future in which it is still up to us and we are still empowered as a species, divided as we are by politics and everything else. It is still in our power to shape and secure the planet's climate future. The bleaker outcomes in which things get out of our control are almost certainly not going to come to pass.
That means that probably we're going to be in alternating spasms, surprised and inert, to new levels of climate suffering. But also that we will always retain responsibility to do more, to help more people, to alleviate more suffering. So the question of how much worse than what you think it's going to get is: it's always uncomfortable to talk in climate in terms of “we” and “us” because it is such a fractious world, but it is ultimately up to us and that means a moral burden on each of us as individuals too.
YANCEY: Thank you David. I really appreciate it, and I also appreciate how clearly you're saying it’s not enough to believe in science, to vote, to have the right bumper stickers – that kind of thing. This is a real challenge where there's real work to be done. I appreciate you calling that out and all your work.
DAVID: Thanks so much for having me. On your last point I would just love to add, not to be too long winded about all of this, it's also worth keeping in mind that the political status quo is considerably more progressive on these issues than it was just a few years ago. While it's still insufficient — voting for Joe Biden as opposed to Donald Trump is insufficient — it's also the case that Joe Biden's climate plans and presumably his climate policy will be miles more ambitious than anything that was achieved under Barack Obama. That pattern is even more true almost everywhere else in the world. That is the result of a lot of these changes that we're talking about. It’s a result of natural disasters opening all of our eyes to the threat of climate change. It's a result of the new economics of climate. It's also a result of the changing price dynamics of renewable energy and our greater understanding of especially the public health costs of dirty energy, all of those things. In the particular case of Joe Biden who is no climate champion’s favorite candidate, I think it's largely to the credit of activists here in the US who really, really pushed him to move dramatically left over the course of the campaign. You have to credit both of them. You have to credit him for moving and you have to credit them for pushing him.
I often think about what has been achieved by the Sunrise Movement, and especially by Varshini Prakash, their leader who I know a little bit but not super well. This is a group that graded Joe Biden with an F during the primary, and yet made themselves so central to the climate conversation on the American left that Biden, being a conciliatory broad tent kind of politician, invited her along with AOC and a few other people who are less to the left of them to write his climate plan. The climate plan that emerged calls for $2.5 trillion in spending, which is just beyond anything that any politician, even a green politician in the US, might have dreamed of as recently as a year or two ago. It's not quite all the way to what I or Varshini or AOC might want, but it’s so far past where we have been before that even if it's compromised down, which it inevitably will be, the ultimate impact is going to be progress. We always have to keep in mind just moving in the right direction is not good enough because there's so little time and there's so much to do, but we also need to keep in mind that progress is still good and celebrate it when we see it. Even when we see it in hopelessly establishmentarian politicians like Joe Biden. It’s amazing that climate is now so central to the political energy of the global left and the American left that even someone like Joe Biden has become, and can plausibly claim to be, a climate champion.
YANCEY: Worth calling out with AOC and Sunrise that they’re from different generations with different norms and the expectations and energy are clear that there be no more compromise. Shit’s gotta start rolling.
DAVID: And it is rolling. The question is how fast.