May 24, 2019
On May 3rd, New America CA and Bloomberg Beta hosted David Wallace-Wells – Deputy Editor at New York Magazine and a 2019 New America National Fellow – to discuss his new book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. As David’s book outlines, climate change is not just about environmental catastrophe: a less stable climate is also uprooting communities, destroying tax bases, and increasing racial and class inequalities.
New America CA Director Autumn McDonald interviewed David about the steps policymakers and citizens can take to build long-term strategies for resilience. The conversation started simpler, though, with Autumn asking David, “how do you explain to a five year old -- in two minutes -- what’s at stake?” Here’s what he said:
The air is composed of a variety of different kinds of gasses. We see it as a single thing, but it’s actually quite complicated. One of those is carbon dioxide and one thing that carbon dioxide does is make Earth a little warmer. It's like a little blanket, a blanket in the atmosphere that keeps whatever heat is in the planet there rather than dissipating up into outer space. The more carbon we have in the atmosphere, the hotter the planet will get. And because of the carbon we put into the atmosphere over the last couple of hundreds of years, but especially over the last 30 years, the planet is already hotter than it has ever been in the entire history of humanity.
So that means that you and I are walking a planet that is warmer than any planet walked by any human before. That means it’s kind of an open question whether humans would have ever evolved on a planet that was always this warm, but it’s conceivable that they wouldn’t have. A much more pressing open question is whether we would have ever developed agriculture and farming, and through that civilization, under conditions like this. Because, the places where we did invent farming and civilization, The Middle East, it’s already gotten a lot harder to grow crops. So much harder that it’s not certain to me that people would have been able to do that from scratch under these conditions.
More generally, everything that we know of as human history, by which I mean not just the 10,000 years since the beginning of civilization, but the entire biological history of the species, has been conducted under a very particular set of temperature conditions. Everything we know of civilization and know of as history was conducted in this window of temperatures that we are now outside of. That means that we can’t necessarily take for granted that those features that we thought of as permanent features of human life can, or will be able to, endure and continue in the way that we assumed they would for a very long time.
Click below to watch the complete discussion.