Why David Wallace-Wells is OK with being called a climate change alarmist

David Wallace-Wells's 2017 article, "The Uninhabitable Earth," outlined the horrifying consequences of climate change on our planet. Despite the article's success, Wallace-Wells says we are still not alarmed enough to fight against climate change.

'Alarmism does have a track record of mobilizing people quite dramatically,' says journalist

The New York Magazine deputy editor and columnist David Wallace-Wells says we need to focus on policy to fight climate change. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Webby Awards)

Climate change is all-encompassing and inescapable — no matter where you live or how wealthy you are, according to David Wallace-Wells.

The New York Magazine deputy editor and columnist has been called "alarmist" and a "bad news evangelist" for spreading this message, but he believes it's the only effective way to talk about climate change.

Wallace-Wells's 2017 article, "The Uninhabitable Earth," outlined the horrifying consequences of climate change if drastic action is not taken. It was the most widely read story in New York Magazine's history, and has since been expanded into a book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, which was released in April.

Wallace-Wells considers climate change to be "the biggest story of all time." 

"If we brought the planet from the stable situation to the brink of catastrophe in just 30 years, we now have about 30 years to stop some of those worst outcomes," he said. "Exactly how far along that spectrum of warming we get will be up to us and what we do."

The journalist spoke to Tapestry host Mary Hynes about why he doesn't mind being called an alarmist and why he wishes more people would embrace fear as a motivation to act.

Here is part of their conversation.

I'm interested in this word "alarmist" and what people mean by that. When your magazine piece appeared, people were using the phrase "climate disaster porn." The idea is, if the depiction is this bleak, people end up feeling a sense of doom and hopelessness. How do you counter that argument?

I think as a kind of mission statement, it's really vital that those of us whose job it is to describe the world are honest about the best understanding the experts have about it.

And I think on science, on climate in particular, there was a significant gap there. I think of that gap as having three components.

The first is about the speed of change. A lot of people were raised to believe that climate change was quite slow. But more than half of all the emissions that we've put into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels have come in the last 30 years. Now, we're at the brink of real climate catastrophe, and that is the result of what was done in just those 30 years.

And we're seeing those real-time effects now in terms of extreme weather, of unprecedented heat waves, the wildfires, the hurricanes. So one thing I really wanted to stress in my writing is that climate change is happening much faster than we thought.

Residents paddle through flooded streets in Ste.Marthe-sur-la-Lac, Que. Wallace-Wells says extreme weather events are becoming the new normal as we feel the effects of climate change. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The second was that it's everywhere. The story reveals itself as an all-encompassing story. You can't escape no matter where you live, no matter how wealthy you are. Although it will impact some people on the planet — namely those in the global south — much more intensely than those of us in the global north, it is inescapable and all-encompassing. I used to think I lived outside nature. But obviously we all live within nature, and we are vulnerable to its perturbations.

The third one was about severity. We heard a lot about this level of warming, two degrees of warming. In fact, it's a sort of a best-case scenario. We're actually on track for about 4 to 4.3 degrees warming this century. And I didn't really feel like anybody had written about what life would be like between those levels of warming at 2.5 degrees, at 3 degrees, at 3.5 degrees.

So I set out to tell all of those stories together and really stitch a much bigger story about climate change into being — that I hadn't yet seen myself as a casual reader of the news.

Is there a possibility that it's just too big for people to wrap their heads around?

I don't think the problem is the size of the story; I actually think it's about our good-news bias, which holds at the level of the individual, but also at the level of our politics and at the level of our geopolitics. Even if all the leaders of the world were in agreement that climate change was a pressing issue, every nation would still have a perverse incentive to take slower action and let the rest of the world clean up the mess.

We don't want to embark on the kind of radical rethink of our lives that this kind of action would require. We don't want to believe the future is going to be bleak. We want to think that a status quo understanding of the present is a good guide to the future. We don't want to believe that our lives will be disrupted in any meaningful way.

Alarmism does have a track record of mobilizing people quite dramatically.- David Wallace-Wells

What about the argument that fear and despair will only serve to make people shut down and tune out, just stop listening? That if the problem feels so massive and so all-encompassing, it's just over, full stop?

When I look around the world, it just looks so transparently the case to me that there are many more people who are too complacent about this issue than there are people who are even at risk of falling into fatalism and despair.

I think there is great value in alarmism and fear-mongering. If you look at how much momentum there's been over the last year, with much more alarmist rhetoric circulating about climate change in the aftermath of the UN report from last October — climate strikes in the EU, extinction rebellion in the U.K., Sunrise in the U.S. — all of these movements are unprecedented climate protest movements, and all of them are very, very explicit about the need to panic immediately.

High schools in St. John's, N.L. joined schools from over 100 countries across the world in a climate strike in March 2019. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

Alarmism does have a track record of mobilizing people quite dramatically — and for me, the best medicine for despair is progress. If we're making progress, if we're moving toward a solution, then even those of us who have stared most intently at the bleakness of scientific projections, we still take hope, because we're moving the ball.

Where are you on the idea of, 'I will recycle. I will buy locally. I'm going to use less plastic, I'm going to give up meat.'  We begin to hear now a response akin to, 'This personal activity is so inadequate at the task at hand, it is practically useless.'

I think that people who want to reduce their carbon footprint should — it's noble and it also is a good advertisement that we can behave more responsibly without having to give up everything and still live quite fulfilling lives. But when you look at the scale of the problem as a whole, it's just too big to solve in this way.

'Individual action simply can't get us to zero emissions.' 0:52

Individual action simply can't get us to zero emissions. It's just not that powerful.

And that logic holds in just about every corner of the climate zone.

People can make a difference, they can shrink their own [carbon] footprints, but ultimately, those efforts are marginal compared to what can be achieved through policy, through politics, and that for me is why we need to focus on those levers.

What do you do when you fall into despair? Or do you not fall into despair?

To me, the most effective, most powerful path out of climate despair is activism and engagement.

I think that path is available to anyone. You can vote for politicians who are going to be prioritizing this issue, you can organize, rally, protest, and engage on the issue in your daily life by talking to your friends and co-workers and family about it.

I think that to the extent that we hold our anxiety in, it can really damage us; and to the extent that we can channel it, we'll all be better off. We'll feel better, but we can also be more productive in this fight that we have to fight against climate change.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.