Planet808: Updating Best and Worst Case Climate Scenarios

Feb 7, 2020

For many people, UN reports and scientific papers do not really convey what climate change will be like. Part of the problem is that scientists are warning about effects we never imagined on the economy, migration, health, and human relations. In this edition of HPR’s Planet808, we look at one journalist's estimation of how the Earth's worst and best case scenarios have changed. 

Journalist David Wallace-Wells writes extensively on the global climate crisis. He is Deputy Editor at New York magazine and a National Fellow at the New America Foundation. His book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (2019) is a New York Times bestseller. He co-hosts the podcast 2038, which analyzes predictions for the next twenty years.
Credit David Wallace-wells

“I think that’s one of the mind-bending features of the experience we’re going to have over the next century,” says journalist David Wallace-Wells. “Things we used to consider unthinkably bad will be our best case.”

Wallace-Wells writes extensively about climate change. He is deputy editor of New York Magazine and a National Fellow at the New America Foundation. He studied the most recent UN and scientific reports to conclude that the earth is unlikely to avoid a once-worst-case scenario of 2 degrees Celcius. That’s a little over three and a half degrees Fahrenheit. Look around now, Wallace-Wells says, climate change is not just about warmer days and flooding. It is affecting jobs, health, geo-politics, our emotional lives, and more.

“To take the geopolitics, for instance,” says Wallace-Wells, “If you were to imagine a world that was defined by dramatically more warming than today, you would imagine a growing intuition of resource scarcity, a growing sense of zero sum competition for what abundance still exists on a planet that is nevertheless burning.”

As a result, Wallace-Wells sees more nations of the world embracing more narrowly nationalistic roles in the world, and retreating from international alliances, which could be seen as compromising the needs of their citizens. He anticipates the rise of more populist leaders and says, “Describing those politics, it’s fair to say we are already somewhat down that path.”

In 2017 in a New York Magazine article, Wallace-Wells described worst-case scenarios our planet is facing due to global warming. Some of his assertions were challenged at the time as sensationalistic. A book followed, the New York Times bestseller, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (2019).

“I think the public consciousness is very much moving in the right direction. The problem is, to take the UN prescription seriously would require a WWII scale mobilization globally. I think we lose sight of just what a dramatic transformation of American society that was. Whole industries were literally nationalized which is almost unthinkable today, and redirected in the space of just months. Which shows you just how total and complete a transformation of every aspect of modern life is necessary.”

Wallace-Wells has a 2 year old daughter, and he even notices climate change ramifications on our culture when reading bedtime stories.

“it’s really striking to me how many of these books take place in the natural world with animal protagonists. In the West, even as we’ve largely removed ourselves from real engagement with nature, we’re retained a sense that the natural world is a sort of parable venue that can show us how to live with one another. We still talk about animals and their interaction with one another in that way. And yet, all of these stories are drawing on environments and experiences that are disappearing from the planet rapidly. When you take seriously the staggering numbers of animal and insect decline, you know that the natural world even our grandparents grew up with is going to be very different by the time we’re grandparents ourselves, maybe gone forever. There are measure of insect declines, 60-70% globally, the World Wildlife Fund says 50% of mammal life has died since 1970. In all of those ways we’re changing the stories we tell as well.”

Wallace-Wells says currently, scientists do not expect the most dire climate scenarios that would accompany a 4 or 5 degree Celcius temperature rise. A 2 degree rise, however, is now almost unavoidable, according to Wallace-Wells, patly because of warming influences already underway. That level of warming could crash food ecosystems, create millions more climate refugees, damage from natural disasters would multiply exponentially, and more.

“The kind of future we’re heading for would be unacceptable to anyone living on the planet today.” Says Wallace-Wells. “And yet I would say, almost none of are really acting with the urgency that would be required to avoid those outcomes. I think those technologies and those choices are available to us if we take the. They just require real political commitment. That‘s why I think the most important thing for any of us to do is to try to change our public policy as quickly as we can.”