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Or, as Wallace-Wells puts it, “We have now done more damage to the environment knowingly than we ever managed in ignorance.” I spoke with Wallace-Wells about just how dire the situation is, what it means for humans to survive in a climate that no longer resembles the one that allowed us to evolve in the first place, and if he believes we’ve already crossed a fatal ecological threshold for our species.A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows. The future looks pretty dark from where we are now.If we continue on the track we’re on now, in terms of emissions, and we just take the wildfire example, conventional wisdom says that by the end of the century we could be seeing roughly 64 times as much land burned every year as we saw in 2018, a year that felt completely unprecedented and inflicted unimaginable damage in California.
Now, there are countries in the world that are going to, at least in the short term, benefit slightly from global warming. Russia, Canada, and parts of Scandinavia are likely to see a little bit of benefit from warming, because slightly a warmer climate means greater economic productivity and higher agricultural yields.
But where we’re headed, we’re likely to even pass those optimal levels for those countries.
But again, as I said earlier, I don’t think it’s at all possible that we stay below 2 degrees without some dramatic transformation in the state of our technology with regard to negative emissions. Let’s clarify the stakes for readers here, as you do in the book.
150 million people is the equivalent of 25 Holocausts, more than twice the death toll of World War II. It’s an uncomfortable comparison for a lot of people, but it’s the reality we’re facing.
Our best-case scenario is basically one in which we lose the equivalent of 25 Holocausts — and that’s just from air pollution alone.
I often hear people say climate change is about “saving the planet,” but that seems utterly misguided to me — the planet will be fine, we will not be.And even in the short term, the balance of benefits and costs is so dramatically out of whack that the overwhelming majority of the world will be suffering hugely from the impacts of climate change. What would you say is the biggest or most consequential error in our popular discourse on climate change?The discourse is changing a bit, so it’s hard to say precisely right now.None of us, no matter where we live, will be able to escape the consequences of this.There are still people who focus on sea level rise and imagine that they’ll be fine so long as they don’t live on the coastline. No one will avoid the ravages of warming, and the reality of this will be impossible to ignore in the coming decades.I think that we’ll take enough action to avert that.But I think it’s really important to know what it would mean to land there, because that is a much more reasonable anchor for our expectations.Last year in the summer of 2018 in the Northern Hemisphere you had this unprecedented heat wave that killed people all around the world. In California, wildfires burned more than a million acres.And we’re really only just beginning to see these sorts of effects.Part of the problem when discussing climate threats is that so much of it feels abstract or distant.But as soon as you begin to quantify the damage, it’s pretty harrowing.