We want you to read with us! Each month, Teen Vogue Book Club will select a book and review it, and at the end of the month, we’ll have a video Q&A discussion with the author.
Journalist David Wallace-Wells’s new book, The Uninhabitable Earth, starts off as a cascade of startling and deeply troubling facts. Read it and you’ll be the life of every party, as you spout a thousand fascinating tidbits about the earth’s future that’ll turn everyone’s faces white: Every passenger on a flight from New York to LA melts 30 square feet of Arctic ice. By 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
Facing the facts, though, and confronting all your friends with them, is precisely the point. There’s no hiding from the science because sooner or later, there will be no hiding from the reality on earth. The first step is admitting just how bad and all-encompassing the problem is.
If there’s one important takeaway from The Unhabitable Earth, it’s this: climate change is not an all-or-nothing game. But even more crucially, we have to recognize that each tenth or hundredth of a degree has its own consequences. Natural catastrophes will be that much worse, that many more people will die. The problem doesn’t toggle like a light switch, between either fixed or unfixable: every step toward reducing our emissions, however small, saves lives.
And for the rest, Teen Vogue talked to David himself for his thoughts: why he chose to write this ray of sunshine of a book, how individuals can have the biggest impact fighting for change, and what hope he sees for the future — more, it turns out, than you might think.
Teen Vogue: So what led you to write this book, and who did you write it for?
This is probably going to sound really narcissistic, but I sort of wrote the book for the person I was two or three years ago. I'm a liberal American, I'm relatively well off, and thought that we should be thinking about climate change. I heard a lot about sea-level rise and basically thought that if I lived off the coast, everything would be OK. But the more I realized about the economic and public health impacts, I realized that this was an all-encompassing transformation which was not going to leave any place or life on Earth untransformed.
And I was really mistaken about some really significant features of the threat. The speed of change, the scope, and the severity. Half of all the emissions we've produced in the entire history of humanity have come in the last 30 years. A fourth has come since 2007, the year the iPhone debuted.
And so I had an awakening in the research, which I wanted to impress on the reader. Climate change is not a compartmentalizable challenge. It is the theater in which all human life in the next century will be conducted. It will be the story of our time, and I wanted to invite readers to think a little bit about what that would mean for their lives, and for the lives of their children and grandchildren.
Teen Vogue: When I mentioned to people that I was reading your book, I’d get a lot of responses along the lines of like, “I’ve been meaning to read that but I’m not ready for it yet,” or, “I’m not in the mood for something so depressing right now.” Which resonates with a lot of common wisdom about how people won't respond better to positive rather than negative emotions. And yet, this is a successful book! People are obviously reading it.
I think that for a long time, we really were patronizing the public by not thinking they were capable of processing the facts in a responsible, productive way. Whatever the emotional impact of the facts, we should share them.
Now, I don't want to dismiss the experience of people who have been traumatized by it and who are in a state of despair and fatalism. That’s a real concern. But ultimately, it doesn't change the facts on the ground. And, I think the best antidote to feelings of despair is engagement and progress. We should do what we can to keep everyone part of the fight and engage them, and I do think that progress is the best way to do that.
Certain people respond to different stories and different rhetorical approaches. And in general, the story's too big to tell in any one way, so everybody shouldn't saying things exactly the same way. But when I looked back at the history of environmental activism, I saw a lot of instances where fear was quite powerful and effective. And that’s the story of my awakening. A few years ago, I would not have described myself as an environmentalist. And now I'm awakened and mobilized because of fear.
Teen Vogue: Yeah, obviously we’ve seen fear be a powerful motivator for other political movements as of late. Only in this case, the facts that should prompt our fear are true.
Fear is a quite powerful motivator. It's also corrosive and toxic and we don't want to let it get out of control, or be the only way we think about climate change. But, especially given that it is a rational response to the state of the science as we understand, I also don't think we should be scared of being scared. From a truth-telling perspective, the world is scary. We should trust the public with that information. Now, maybe the flame of fear burns bright but quickly. But I think it's great that many more people are concerned about climate change than ever have been before. I think it's already starting to show up in our politics, and will start to show up at the policy level quite soon. All of that seems to be progress.
Teen Vogue: So what should our readers do? In the book, you seem skeptical of the “woke Left” and its lifestyle decisions. You write: “we navigate by a North Star of politics through our diets, our friendships, even our consumption of pop culture, but rarely make meaningful political noise about those causes that run against our own self-interest.” Is it really so meaningless to fly less or eat less meat?
Well first off, my feeling is, let’s do everything we can all at once. Individuals can take some action which can spur collective action, which can spur global action. But beef consumption, even among wealthy Americans, is something of the order of 3 to 5 percent of their personal carbon emissions. If half of the US went vegan tomorrow, there would be a drop in our carbon emissions on the order of a couple of percentage points. We just need so much more action. And I worry that lifestyle commitments like that sort of us allow to think we don't need to engage in more dramatic, global action.
It's really important to keep in mind that the US has a moral obligation. It is responsible for the lion's share of historical emissions, and it's the second-biggest emitter in the world today. But still, it's only responsible for about 15 percent of the global total. Going forward that number is going to fall, and our future climate is going to be determined by other countries in the world. And I don't see a mass movement of veganism here, for instance, or every American abandoning air travel, really moving the needle.
Teen Vogue: I think there’s a growing consensus among that woke Left, too, that a sustainable future means austerity, means much of the world having to deal with a lower standard of living. Which I’ve always been uncomfortable with, because a lot of those sacrifices won’t come from us. It’s one thing to tell rich Americans that they can’t fly first-class anymore, it’s quite another to tell China’s rising middle class that they can’t have air conditioning, which they’ve never had before in their lives.
Right, but when 60 percent of the energy that's produced by the electricity sector is lost as wasted heat, and Americans discard something like 60 percent of their food… You can imagine an austerity project that actually doesn't deprive people of anything if we just made these systems much more efficient and made people much more conscious of their waste. That’s one reason why the average European’s carbon footprint is much, much smaller than the average American. They just produce waste much less casually.
I think there's a way to reduce the carbon footprint of what we expect without actually asking people to expect less. Now, we may end up having to ask people to expect less, but I'm not personally ready to say that that's necessary or inevitable.
Teen Vogue: So instead, you think that the really big-picture fixes will come from not just political action, but technological innovation, as well.
Some of the problems are just too big. We can't change through individual action the way that we pour cement [if it were a country, the third-largest emitter in world], or the highway system, or what kind of light rail there is. We can't develop new airplanes that don't produce carbon, based on how we operate as consumers.
The government could also subsidize lab-grown meat and that kind of thing, so prices fall down into line with animal-produced meat. There will be, one hopes, more widespread zero-carbon transportation options, such that people don't feel the pressure to fly all the time. So I think there will be lifestyle choices involved in this transition. But if you imagine it being a successful transition, I just feel that if you're an individual, you can make a much bigger difference through organizing and pushing for policy change than through changing exactly how you consume in your private life.
Teen Vogue: About politics, then. Because I think to many people, even though they see the need for political change, their individual contribution to politics can seem tiny, or even useless. For instance, winning elections is obviously important, but does my individual vote really make more of a difference than, say, my recycling more?
Your point is totally right that those mechanisms can seem just as intimidating to overcome. On the other hand, the only way that we're going to produce anything like an adequate response is through policy. We have to try and trust politics again. It’s a tragedy that I participated in over the course of my lifetime, that we've lost so much faith in the political system.
People like us were really thought our whole lives that we made our mark on the world through what we bought. That was the main way we were political beings. By consuming ethically and responsibly. Generally speaking, contemporary Americans almost don't have a place in their brains any more for genuine collective action, or aggressive government action. These are things that we basically just discarded as possible. And that's really damaging in a number of ways on a number of levels. But climate may be the issue where it’s most scary because there is literally no way to address this threat on the scale that needs to be addressed through individual consumption.
Voting is a pretty small ask. Voting for people who really prioritize action on climate, and when they're in office, holding them to account for that. So that means putting pressure on them at their offices. Protesting, and taking public action in that way.
But the smallest ask is simply talking about the problem. The polls do show that many more people are scared about climate change than ever, but often aren’t discussing it with their loved ones. That means that we are all carrying around private anxiety, which we can translate into some kind of collective activation, which can have a real impact.
Teen Vogue: And what kinds of policies are we looking for, and at what scale?
According to the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report, we need to halve our emissions by 2030, to cover catastrophic warming. And to do that, we'll need a global, World War II-scale mobilization against climate. I mean, in that war, in America, we basically nationalized all industries. We sent every adult man into the army. We sent every adult woman into the workforce, many of whom had never been there before. We commandeered whole industries and said, you're not a car company now, now you're an airplane factory. That happened in a very short amount of time, within the space of a year or so. And in fact, after the war, that one-two punch of dramatic nationalization and mobilization followed by re-privatization produced not only the most intense economic growth the country had ever seen, but actually the most equitably distributed growth, too.
Teen Vogue: It seems like the conversation around these policies is framed in completely the wrong way: the Green New Deal is going to cost however many trillions of dollars, how will we pay for it? Whereas as you point out, doing nothing about climate is going to cost the economy so much more money: hundreds of trillions of dollars globally by the end of the century.
It's been concerning that it's been framed in the way that you're talking about, very much in terms of cost. Very few people have made an affirmative case for the benefits of action. I hope that the changes over the course of the campaign, but I think it's inarguable, based on our understanding of the science, that climate change is not nearly a big enough part of the Democratic debates.
And looking at the polling, voters want to hear about this considerably more than they are. Some polls have shown that it's the top voting issue for Democrats. I certainly think it's in the top tier of concerns. And we're certainly not seeing a process that reflects that.
Teen Vogue: I think you’re very right about that, that many Americans have such a deep cynicism about the possibility of change through politics. But do you see any signs of hope, there?
Institutions and habits are slow to change. A few years ago, the Democratic electorate would not have prioritized climate change nearly the way they are now. Many of these politicians, maybe even when they started planning presidential campaigns, were not quite as focused on the issue as they are now.
And yet, most of them have come out with remarkably ambitious climate controls. Some of them more ambitious than others, some of them better than others. But this sort of arms race dynamic is too me, incredibly encouraging. It feels so dramatically different from where we were in 2016. Technology is moving really quickly, grassroots politics is changing.
When I turned in the manuscript of my book last September, I'd never heard of Greta Thunberg. Now, she's got millions of people out in the streets every week. She got the President of the EU to commit to spending a quarter of all EU money on climate adaption and mitigation. The government of Denmark committed to reducing its emissions by 70 percent by 2030, which is unheard of. Extinction Rebellion was not around last September. They've pressured a Conservative parliament to declare a climate emergency and commit to halving their emissions by 2050 — which is not as drastic as I would like but still way more ambitious than anything they would have ever considered before.
AOC hadn't been elected in September 2018. We didn't have a Green New Deal. I had never heard of Sunrise Movement. That all of that could have happened in a year is pretty mind-blowing. The problem is, if you take seriously what the scientists, we need to be moving way, way, way faster than even this unprecedented year has moved.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue