The extreme weather of the last year has been so terrifying, and so very extreme, that it is tempting to look at the string of disasters around the world and think: Climate change is here. Certainly that’s what Jerry Brown meant when he described the wildfires ravaging California in the fall as “the new abnormal.”
It will only get more so. We have already exited the environmental conditions that allowed the human animal to evolve in the first place, in an unplanned bet on just what we can endure. By the end of the century, if warming continues unabated, wildfires could burn 64 times as much land in California as they did last year, which was more than a million acres.
But climate change isn’t binary, and this is one of the five major misapprehensions even engaged liberals have about warming. It’s not a question of whether it will happen or not, or whether it will be like the 2018 wildfire season or 64 times worse. Climate change is a function that will get worse over time as long as we continue to emit greenhouse gas.
No matter how bad it gets, it will always be the case that the following decade could bring more suffering — or less. And believe it or not, the amount will always be up to us. Climate change may seem intimidatingly large, but the responsibility is entirely ours.
If warming continues unabated, by the end of even this century, no life will remain untouched.
We don’t see it clearly because our judgment is clouded by other misconceptions. The second has to do with speed. Climate change is not happening slowly, as we were once told, but terrifyingly fast.
We tend to think of global warming as a legacy of the Industrial Revolution. In fact, according to my research, more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has come in the last 30 years. That is, since Al Gore published his first book on climate, and since the premiere of “Seinfeld.”
The United Nations established its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988, signaling to all the world a scientific consensus about the problem. Since then, we have done more damage, knowingly, than we did over preceding centuries, in ignorance.
The third misunderstanding is about scope. So much of what we know to fear about global warming concerns sea level rise; if we don’t live right on the coast, we tend to think, we should be OK. In fact, if warming continues unabated, by the end of even this century, no life will remain untouched.
Agricultural yields could fall by half. Warfare could double, since every half-degree of warming is likely to bring 10% to 20% more armed conflict. Global GDP could fall by as much as a third; the impact would be twice as deep as the Great Depression, and permanent. Overall, according to my calculations, the damage could reach $600 trillion, or more wealth than exists in the world today.
The fourth delusion is about severity. For decades, scientists have defined two degrees as the threshold of climate catastrophe, and many of us have treated that level of warming as a worst-case scenario. In fact, it is a best-case scenario that, at this point, will be almost impossible to achieve.
With an increase of two degrees, many cities in India and the Middle East would become literally unlivable because of heat, and several ice sheets would begin an irreversible collapse. If we lost all Arctic and Antarctic ice, sea levels could, over centuries, rise by 200 feet. Or more.
But these are just the direct repercussions, and the fifth major misapprehension is that science is even capable of containing and describing the sum total of the assaults. In fact, the indirect effects may be even more profound: on our psychology, our culture, our sense of place in nature and history, our relationship to technology and to capitalism. Not to mention our geopolitics.
The arrival of roughly 2 million Syrians in Europe unleashed a global wave of populism; some experts believe warming will produce a hundred times as many refugees. What will a migration crisis of that scale do to global affairs?
Meanwhile, what will it mean for the way we eat to see “carbon-free” food advertised in the supermarket, or the way we travel and do business to see carbon budgets made central to any new trade deal? As real life becomes more and more apocalyptic, what will become of science fiction?
Just as the end of the last century was dominated by globalization, and the century before it by modernity, this century will be dominated by warming. We need a new humanities of climate change to guide us through the dilemmas and paradoxes that it will bring.
We have reshaped the world’s climate. The question is: How will climate change reshape us?
David Wallace-Wells is the deputy editor of New York Magazine and the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth.”