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.
David Wallace-Wells, interviewed in The 3 Big Things That People Misunderstand About Climate Change by Robinson Meyer.
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.
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.
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.