Addressing the threat of catastrophic climate change will require “a million solutions,” says journalist David Wallace-Wells, some of them political and some technological. But even though we can’t only engineer our way out of our problems, Wallace-Wells said on the latest episode of Recode Decode that he has been puzzled by Silicon Valley’s lack of leadership.
“I see a new class of plutocrat who has more capital and more social capital than basically anybody has ever had in the history of the world,” he told Recode’s Kara Swisher. “They see themselves as world historical figures. They want to see themselves as gods. They’re chasing eternal life and whatever, like longevity, and yet ... they’re living on a world that is about to face some incredibly crippling, possibly existential threats from climate change. You’d think that the ego would drive you to want to solve the problem.”
There are a handful of exceptions. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has invested in carbon capture companies such as Carbon Engineering which, in theory, could “neutralize all of the carbon emissions produced by the entire global economy” for about $3 trillion a year. And Tesla CEO Elon Musk has forced the global automobile industry to push faster into electric vehicles than it would have otherwise and advanced the development of better solar panels and battery technology.
But Wallace-Wells, whose new book is called The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, is skeptical that Musk’s private space company SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’s rival Blue Origin will be part of the answer. Spacefaring may be a trendy idea among the tech industry’s grown-up sci-fi geeks, but it’s not a scalable solution for the Earth’s population.
“No matter how awful Earth gets, it will be easier to build [here] ... If you’re going to build a biodome on Mars that’s going to make it livable, you could do that on Earth for a much smaller cost much more easily and include many more people,” he said. “It really is a fantasy of escape rather than a humanitarian gesture towards livability.
“They think there are all these rare Earth minerals up there that they can mine and there are business opportunities there,” Wallace-Wells added. “There are business opportunities in climate change, too ... whoever was running these [carbon capture] companies, whoever owned these technologies would become, immediately, the world’s richest men.”
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with David.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, editor-at-large of Recode. You may know me as someone with a great apocalypse survival plan — which is to break into Peter Thiel’s bunker in New Zealand and steal it — but in my spare time I talk tech and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media Podcast Network.
Today in the red chair is David Wallace-Wells, the deputy editor of New York magazine. He’s also the author of a new book which is getting a lot of attention called The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. It’s all about climate change and how things could get much, much worse in the near future. It’s not the happiest read. I was reading parts of it on the plane. Not great. I didn’t want to be flying. I felt very bad about flying.
David, welcome to Recode Decode.
David Wallace-Wells: Thanks. It’s great to be here.
So we’re going to talk a lot about this book and also about how it relates to tech, because tech people really haven’t been as involved in it, but let’s first talk about your background. I love New York magazine, as most people know when I talk about it. I think it’s one of the best magazines around. I think Mother Jones, I think California Sunday ... There’s a couple that are just killing it in terms of the good writers and the good topics and stuff like that. Tell me a little bit about how you got to this topic, because you’ve written about that in New York magazine, but it’s not your subject area.
Yeah, I’m somebody who, as a journalist, I’ve been interested in the near-future. So I’ve always been looking out for news from science, news from technology, and thinking a little bit about how those things are going to change the way we live in the future. And then a couple of years ago, really in 2016, I just started seeing all of these really alarming new bits of research coming out about climate science, and I didn’t — as a kind of competitive journalist — I didn’t see those stories being told honestly in the outlets that we think of as our competitors.
What do you mean, “honestly”? Because there’s been a lot of climate change stories ... I mean, I read so many. I feel like I’m pretty up to speed on what’s been going on.
So I think actually things have changed a little bit over the last couple of years, and the portrait that the public has now I think is more accurate than was the case a couple years ago. But a couple years ago, I think there were basically three major misconceptions. The first was about the speed of change, so I was raised at least to think about climate change as something that was happening really slowly. In fact, scientists talked a lot about that being a big problem for public communication, because nobody wanted to act on it.
Like yeah, someday it’s ...
Decades from now ...
Like, we saw The Day After Tomorrow or whatever, the Jake Gyllenhaal movie, which was a very good movie, by the way.
You are not the ... You’re maybe the only person who’s said that to me.
I love that movie! Jake Gyllenhaal, he’s underrated.
Well, he’s good, yeah.
No, he’s not underrated at all.
But you know, we thought, “Oh, it was going to be happening at the very end of the century at the earliest,” and we just had therefore had so much time to invent our way out of it, grow our way out of it. In fact, half of all the emissions that we’ve put into the atmosphere in the entire history of humanity have come in the last 30 years, so we’ve brought the planet from the brink of ... from total climate stability to the brink of catastrophe in 30 years, which is the story of my lifetime. And the story of the next 30 years is going to ...
So since the ’80s.
Since the late ’80s, yeah. So that’s since Al Gore published his first book on warming. It’s since the UN established their climate change panel, which means we’ve done more damage knowingly than we ever managed in ignorance. It’s since the premier of Seinfeld, just to give it some real context. This is happening very, very quickly, and we’re now in a position where we have, depending on who you talk to, maybe 30 years to really avert the worst possibility.
The possibilities of what’s going to happen. So let’s go back to then, because in the ’80s it did start ... That was when Al Gore did his movie, which was what year?
That was 2007.
So he wrote his first book when he was first running for president, yeah.
But he started talking about it. You know, oddly enough I ... It’s strange, odd, personal story. One of my first meetings with Al Gore was over chlorofluorocarbons and the emissions into the atmosphere, and they were from refrigerators and air conditioners, I think. I don’t even remember. But I wrote a story because he was pioneering legislation around the elimination of them, because they were so harmful to the atmosphere.
And he was ... I remember listening to him and at the time, nobody ... He was sort of a Cassandra personality in the Senate at the time. And I wrote a story about it, and then also of course Angels in America, which talked about that as a metaphoric issue around the AIDs crisis. They were using the idea of the broken atmosphere, which was interesting.
So that’s when I first started, which was well before that in the ’80s. Some time in the ’80s. But you’re right, people didn’t really have a lot of awareness, but there was some. There was certainly some.
Yeah, and we just haven’t responded. We’ve now known about this issue really I think undeniably at the highest levels of government, at the highest levels of policymaking, for at least 30 years.
And those 30 years are record emissions years. Every year is higher than the last, globally, and so for all the faith we might have in ... well, now we really can take the problem seriously, it’s ... the recent history suggests that knowledge is not nearly enough to make people actually act on this.
If you look ... You know, the energy revolution we’ve had over the last 30 years, the price of renewables has fallen so dramatically. It’s a huge, huge success story, but the share of global energy use from renewables has not grown at all in 40 years. So in terms of the ratio of global energy use, we’re exactly where we were 40 years ago when hippies were using solar panels on their geodesic domes.
We’ve made no progress at all, and in fact since the whole pie of energy use has grown, we’re in a worse situation than we were then because we’re using more dirty energy, too.
Dirty energy, okay. Let’s break it down for ... So you got interested in this topic and have been just paying attention or just been silently worried, like most people?
Well, I wrote a big piece a couple years ago that was looking at worst-case scenarios for warming. That was in 2017, and that was because in addition to the speed mistake I think most of the storytelling was making, there was also this sort of optimistic fallacy happening, where scientists talked about this 2 degree of warming threshold as the threshold of catastrophe, and that meant that most people understood it as a kind of worst-case scenario, but in fact basically it’s a best-case scenario. And what we’re on track for is 4, 4.3 degrees warming this century.
And that whole range of outcomes between 2 and 4 degrees I felt was totally unexplored, and the range of outcomes north of 4 degrees, which is possible if unlikely, was literally untalked about. And I thought it would be, just as a kind of storytelling opportunity, an incredible story to tell. Like, well, what if it actually got as bad as it could possibly get?
Which is 4 to 5 degrees.
There are feedback loops that, if they are triggered, could conceivably bring us north of 8 degrees, but I think that was kind of vanishingly unlikely. But if we did get to 8 degrees, probably about a third of the world or more would be literally too hot to walk around without dying.
And again, that that’s conceivable this century, even if it’s vanishingly unlikely, should terrify us all. But instead, we have this kind of prophylactic reflex where we just didn’t want to look at it, and that was true of the scientists, it was true of the journalists, and I felt there was this huge, epic story to tell. I wrote that story and it had a huge response.
Well, talk about that story. I do remember that story. Talk about what you were outlining there for people.
I was walking through ... I don’t remember, actually, the exact number, but maybe six or eight particular areas where, if climate change got really bad, things could get really ugly. So in addition ... I didn’t even write about sea level rise, because I had sort of thought everybody understood that, but agriculture. So if we end up at the end of the century at the path that we’re on now, we get to 4 degrees by the end of the century, our grain yields will be half as bountiful as they are today. We’ll be trying to feed 50 percent more people. Conflict: For every half degree of warming, you get a 10 percent and 20 percent increase in conflict, which means, again, at 4 degrees of warming, we’ll have twice as much war as we have today.
Economic growth: The best economic research suggests that at the end of the century, if we don’t change course, global GDP will be 20 percent to 30 percent smaller than it would be without climate change. So 30 percent, that’s an impact twice as big as the Great Depression, and it would be permanent.
There are impacts on public health, on cognitive performance, on the development of children in utero and out of utero. Temperature increases violence, not just at the level of states but at the level of individuals. So rates of murder go up, rape goes up, domestic assault goes up. It also affects, believe it or not, incidence of mental illness. So there are higher rates of admission for schizophrenia at mental hospitals when it’s hotter out, and people in hospitals have more outbreaks when it’s hotter out. There’s some thinking it might have something to do with how the medication works at higher levels.
Look, inside the human body, we have millions if not billions of viruses and bacteria that live inside us. We don’t know how those will behave in even a slightly altered environment, but we do know that we are now living on a planet that is warmer than it’s ever been in the entire history of humanity. So we are living in a literally unprecedented climate situation, and all of these things that we sort of take for granted as permanent features of our life, of modern life, of biological life, human life, are going to be disturbed in some way going forward.
The question is, how profoundly and in what ways? Benefiting whom? And imposing suffering on whom? And my book — my article first, but then my book — was really an effort to think through those questions, not just what science says about what warming is coming and what that means, but what those warming impacts will mean for the way you and I live, relate to one another, how we organize our politics, our culture, how it affects our storytelling, our sense of history, all that stuff.
And how does it affect geographically? Talk about that. Talk about the ... because it’s ...
Yeah, I mean I think ... So climate change is totally all-encompassing. We were long told that it was an issue of sea-level rise and that meant that if you lived anywhere by the coastlines ...
So if you lived in Manhattan, oh, so sorry.
Right, but if you lived in Oklahoma, you’d be, “Oh, no big deal.” The more we learn about it, the more we learn about all of these impacts. It really is an all-encompassing threat. And that may sound like a naïve revelation. When I walk down the street on concrete, I look up at steel buildings, I feel like I’m living outside of nature, but of course we all live within nature, and when nature changes, we’re affected by it. So it’s a universal phenomenon, but it also punishes in a discriminating way. So mostly it’s the world’s poor who will suffer most. That’s not a coincidence, it’s because those parts of the world are already hotter and are closer to the brink of real tipping points.
So by 2050, if we don’t change course, many of the biggest cities in the Middle East and South Asia will be literally unlivably hot. So someplace like Calcutta, which I think has about 12 million people living in it, in the summer you won’t be able to go outside without risking heatstroke. That’s going to happen as soon as 2050. Already agricultural yields across the Middle East are suffering because of climate change, and there are a lot of people who think that the whole wave of Islamic terrorism is a product of climate change hitting those parts of the world first. By 2050, you won’t be able to go on pilgrimage to Mecca, it’ll just be too hot.
And if you look at the economic data, it shows up in exactly that way, even though these countries are poorer, and so the same natural disaster impact shows up as a smaller number, say, in Bangladesh than it would in Miami Beach. But India is scheduled to receive ... I think the number is 29 percent of all economic suffering from climate change in the coming century, and the US is scheduled to have about 15 percent. But India is really the country that’s going to be hit hardest and most ...
And that is because of where it is?
It’s a combination of it’s equatorial, which means it’s already hot and it’s closer to these tipping points. It also has huge river systems, so there’ll be huge river flooding issues, and some features of their natural landscape make it slightly more vulnerable than some other equivalent places in the world. But really, all across the equatorial band of the world, things are going to get a lot harder. They’re already getting difficult in ways that you and I don’t really appreciate, living where we live.
In the Northern Hemisphere.
Places really on the equator are already really suffering, but that suffering is going to get much more dramatic. And that opens up the question of, say, 50 years from now, if India is really boiling and Bangladesh is flooded, what is the responsibility of, say, their former colonial overlord, England, which literally invented the Industrial Revolution and ran that empire on fossil fuels? Similar question for the US and Saudi Arabia. If it really is impossible to go on pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia ... they bear a huge responsibility for a lot of our issues because they produced all this oil, but they did that basically as a client state of the US and at the direction of US business interests.
And what the relationship of US wealth to Saudi suffering ... That’s a huge open question. I think we’ll sort of have to evolve a geopolitics to adjudicate in the coming decades, and that’s one of the big subjects I sort of tentatively sketch out in the book, is what this geopolitics will look like. If we invented a global order after World War II based on human rights and peace and prosperity, even if we didn’t honor those values always, those were the stated values. What will it look like in the coming decades if we have a world order that’s really oriented around climate change and carbon? Will we start to see sanctions against bad behaving countries?
Will we possibly even see military action against something like the program that the new Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro ... he’s trying to deforest the whole Amazon, which will be crippling for climate change. If that happened 20 or 30 years down the road, is it possible that a Chinese army would stop him? I think it is possible, as hard to imagine as it is right now.
Right. Well, you would have to see the connections, right?
I mean, people do see the connections but they don’t see the connection ...
Well I think that’s changing a little bit. For a long time, the fact that carbon was invisible was a real problem for climate change. So when we had pollution in the US, in the ’70s in particular, it really mobilized public opinion because you could see the air. You could feel it in your lungs, and people responded.
Carbon hasn’t had that advertising quality, but I think that the wildfires in California have been really important in that way. I think they feel really imminent and immediate to people, even living in other parts of the world. I hear ... when I talk to people in Europe, they talk about the California wildfires so vividly. And the extreme weather we’re seeing, like hurricane after hurricane through the Caribbean.
Just now, the cyclone in ... Where was it? In the Congo?
Mozambique, right, exactly. Mozambique.
No, it’s ... I mean it’s ... that we just had the first February typhoon in Pacific history. And you know, we kind of normalize some of these events. If we see them only so often, we forget that they used to happen only every decade when we’re seeing them only every three years, but the closer they get together, the harder it is to ignore that it’s a new situation.
So in the book I talked a little bit about ... You know, you hear this term on the news, “500-year storm.” That means a storm that’s supposed to hit once every 500 years. So 500 years ... 500 years ago, white people had just come to the Caribbean. They hadn’t even set foot on mainland America. We’re talking about one storm that was supposed to hit during the entire colonial period, through the American revolution, the empire of slavery, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, everything that we’ve known since World War II, our imperial moment, our post-Cold War, etc., all the way to the present day, we’re supposed to see one storm of that kind in all of that time. Hurricane Harvey was the third 500-year storm to hit Houston in three years. We are living in a totally, totally unprecedented climate situation. And the crazy thing is, it’s only going to get more unprecedented. We’re at 1.1 degrees now ...
Well, we like to use that word, “unprecedented,” all the time now. They use it a lot around Trump. Unprecedented. I’m like, “No, it’s precedented. He said it, right?” You know what I mean? It’s interesting that we ... I think humanity tends to take things in and then just like accept them. Good and bad.
Totally. I think on some level that’s the scariest ... Yeah, and for climate it’s really ... It almost feels tragic, but I do think the likeliest outcome is that we produce much, much, much more suffering, and yet normalize it at exactly the same rate that we’re creating it.
So that 50, 80 years from now, the world is really, really in pain, but the wealthy people in the ... especially in the West, in the US and the EU, are just sort of looking away from all that suffering.
Which is what they’re good at. One of the things we talked about before this started was how little tech has interest in it. It really is true. I hadn’t ... I had thought of it. They’re interested in changing food, they’re interested in automobiles, self-driving automobiles, they’re interested in AI, automation. But climate change is ... It is not something that any of them has pioneered. I’m trying to think of ...
Well, Gates has made some investments.
Gates has, yeah.
Sort of, in a philanthropic way.
But it’s more around medical. It’s not his focus. It certainly ...
He’s done kind of significant investments in carbon capture, which are machines that take carbon out of the atmosphere, and is behind the ...
And some water stuff. I think he was ... Water, I have seen him dip into every now and again. Clean water.
Yeah. Well, I think it’s basically like these are essentially ... these people have the mindset of engineers, and they are excited about problems that seem to them engineering problems, and climate change actually isn’t really an engineering problem as much as it is a political problem, and that’s an area of human life that is much more complicated for these tech billionaires to approach.
But my feeling about it is, I’m confused by this, because I see a new class of plutocrat who has more capital and more social capital than basically anybody has ever had in the history of the world. They see themselves as world historical figures. They want to see themselves as gods. They’re chasing eternal life and whatever, like longevity, and yet ... and they’re living on a world that is about to face some incredibly crippling, possibly existential threats from climate change. You’d think that the ego would drive you to want to solve the problem.
No. You know they have other plans. They have two plans. One is to get off the planet and go to Mars, which is I think Elon, Jeff Bezos; all of them are interested in getting off the planet. Not all of them, but a lot of them. A lot of the more wealthy ones. Then the second thing is to create bunkers. That’s something ...
I joked about the Peter Thiel thing, but I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with very wealthy people about their bunker plan. Except for intermittent fasting, they don’t talk about anything else. One was like, “I’ve got a motorcycle that will get me to my bunker in Big Sur, and this is ...” And I was literally like, “What?” Like, “You have an entire ...” They have entire, elaborate plans.
They always involve a motorcycle, which I’m going to be like, “I’m taking your ...”
They want to see themselves in that movie.
I joke, but I’m going to take their motorcycle. That’s really what I’m going to do.
It’s interesting to me because you hear a lot about, in the sort of inequality moment that we’re in, you hear a lot of chatter from the left that’s like, “These people are so out of touch. They don’t understand just how broken the world is,” but the fact that they all have bunkers and escape plans suggest that they may know even more keenly than activists on the left just how much discontent there is out there.
Oh, I think they’re not aware of any of the pain, and at the same time they have a bunker plan because, first of all, it’s weirdly romantic to them, the concept.
You know what I mean? They talk about it like, “This is cool, isn’t it?”
Kind of thing.
Well, the space exploration thing is even ... It just ...
That, to me, that’s the biggest one of all of them.
Yeah, and Mars, to make Mars livable ...
Speaking of hot. Speaking of hot and cold.
No matter how awful Earth gets, it will be easier to build ... If you’re going to build a biodome on Mars that’s going to make it livable, you could do that on Earth for a much smaller cost much more easily and include many more people.
To say nothing of the ocean.
Yeah. It seems like it really is a fantasy of escape rather than a humanitarian gesture towards livability. I think it probably has something to do with ... They think there are all these rare Earth minerals up there that they can mine and ...
Yes, that was another thing. Yeah.
There are like business opportunities there.
Yeah. Yeah, they want to get on a meteor.
But there are business opportunities in climate change, too.
There’s one group that wants to get on a meteor and grab cobalt or whatever the hell ...
Yeah, I think there was a lot of shit up there.
There are business opportunities in climate change, too. So I mentioned earlier that Bill Gates is invested in a series of carbon capture companies. There’s one in particular called Carbon Engineering. So this basic idea is that these are machines that will suck carbon out of the atmosphere and in some way or other store it, either in liquid form or in something like coal, actually, to bury back in the earth.
This one guy running this company that Bill Gates is backing, Carbon Engineering, has found a way to do this at a cost of $100 a ton of carbon. That means that you could totally neutralize all of the carbon emissions produced by the entire global economy. We would not have to change anything about the way we’re doing it, and we would be putting no additional carbon into the atmosphere for a total cost of about $3 trillion a year. That’s a lot of money, but there are estimates that we’re subsidizing the fossil fuel business globally $5 trillion a year.
So if we just redirected those subsidies towards those technologies, not only could we theoretically solve the problem, there are some complications, but theoretically, we could solve the problem immediately. It would also create enormous, immediate fortunes. Like whoever was running these companies, whoever owned these technologies would become, immediately, the world’s richest men. So there are incredible business opportunities there, too. Actually, much bigger than the rare Earth mining opportunities on whatever asteroid they’re aiming for.
I think it has more to do with the fact that for a long time, climate change has just been earnest, corny, kind of not something that anybody thought was sexy.
“Let’s put up some solar panels.” Now, you know, someone who does talk about this idea is Mr. Mars himself, Elon Musk. One of the interesting parts of an interview, everything with Elon Musk, he really is obsessed with the idea of the destruction of the world, and I think Mars has to do with it. He feels that Tesla is almost a religious thing to save the Earth.
He talks about it, and people don’t hear that part of it, but I definitely did, which was about the fact that with climate change, if he doesn’t make this, we’re going to keep going down this road of carbon emissions with cars. He does start to talk about it, and people move on from it, but that is a very central ...
He’s almost single-handedly made a huge difference in at least the automobile sector when it comes to climate.
Yeah. They wouldn’t have done it without him.
And SolarCity, which is often less talked about because it’s a little less present in the public imagination, is really just as important because a lot of the problem with the renewable energy, generally, is that you can’t store it as well. So battery technology is really, really important, and he’s been ...
Which is his interest. He has a big interest in it.
Yeah. No, he’s a great hero. I think he and Gates are the two people who are really on it. Sam Altman has called for some proposals at Y Combinator, but they’re kind of the weirder, like kookier, not sure we can really count on this kind of approach. But beyond that, I really ...
But that’s it. Yeah.
I really don’t see it.
And some of this stuff that Elon talks about, people do think he’s crazy. That was the one part I thought, “Oh, wow. He’s really actually ... I see the reason. He really does believe the Earth is doomed.”
Yeah. Well, another reason that everybody’s so excited to go out into outer space is because they’re scared of asteroids. They think that an asteroid could hit the planet, which ...
Oh, that’s another one.
It’s a true ...
That was a Téa Leoni movie. I see all the apocalyptic movies.
Yeah, you really have a great Netflix queue.
I see them all. The Day After Tomorrow. I see them all.
Yeah, but you know, we’ve been through five mass extinctions before the one that we’re living in now. All but one of them were caused by global warming, that was created by greenhouse gases. Only one of them was caused by an asteroid. It was the one that killed all the dinosaurs, so it’s the most dramatic, but it’s actually, in terms of numbers, it’s not the most dramatic. 250 million years ago there was a mass extinction event caused by greenhouse gases that killed as much as 97 percent of all life on Earth, 97 percent.
Basically, each of these mass extinctions is like, you totally wipe the slate clean. It’s almost like an entirely new planet begins again. We may get hit by an asteroid, but it’s not happening in the next 100 years. We know that because we can ...
Well, although, if you’re Nathan Myhrvold — we had him at Code a couple years ago — talking about how wrong estimates are of that. He’s obsessed with that concept.
Yeah, everybody’s really ... I don’t know. It’s really a common nightmare, and I just think we’re literally living through a nightmare now. Why can’t we all focus on that? Why do we have to invent one or at least exaggerate the threat of one?
Because then we can make a Bruce Willis movie about it.
If you remember that one.
Yeah. Well, an interesting question is why we’ve had so little good movie-making, good storytelling about climate change, which is really, to me, the epic — even theological — story of our time. I mentioned before, we have this timeline. We brought the planet from stability to the brink of crisis in 30 years. Now we have 30 years to save it. You and I will be present, and we’ll be a part of whatever response we make ...
David, I’m hoping to be dead then, but go ahead.
Thirty years? You don’t want to live another 30 years?
It’s close. It’s close.
But, you know, that’s a drama at the scale that cultures used to treat as theology, and we instead are reluctant to even dramatize it at all.
And when we do ...
Why is that? Talk to me about that, because storytelling is ... It is, really, a tech story. I do want to talk a little bit about tech solutions and the idea of what are they. There’s this carbon one that Gates is doing. What else?
Yeah. Well, the energy generation, just the wind and solar costs are ... The progress has been incredible. The prices have fallen so much more dramatically than ...
Do you have solar in your house? I do.
For 20 years, I’ve had it.
Yeah. I was married to someone who was obsessed with solar.
Yeah, I mean, wind is huge.
And not just in the US. It’s now, in most parts of the world, cheaper than dirty energy. That’s a huge part of it, but energy is only one slice of the problem. I think it’s about 30 percent of the global problem. There’s transportation, air travel, which we were talking about before. Every round-trip ticket from New York to LA is the equivalent of eight months of driving. Every round-trip ticket from New York to London costs nine square meters of arctic ice.
Well, let’s talk about that, because it’s really ... One of the things that’s interesting, because you’re talking about the type of people, many years ago ... It’s really interesting because Google, for example, has been very interested. They were going to do this giant wind farm in Hawaii. There was all these ... A lot of the energy around all their servers. They were definitely thermal. I remember they were talking about thermal. They were always interested in alternate energy sources that were not damaging to the Earth. That is for sure, but they never did them, which was really interesting.
Well, also it’s often about sourcing your own energy.
Rather than exporting it as a ...
Of course. But I think some of the wind stuff was really interesting. They had a giant kite. I remember they had that. They had a lot of this stuff because my ex-[wife] was involved in it. I remember they talked about it almost incessantly, which was interesting. At the very same time, this group of people are accepting tons of money from Saudi Arabia, tons of money from all the oil-producing states, and I was always like, “Do you not see the disconnect?” They didn’t refuse that money. Or Russia, another oil ...
Bad actor. But not just a bad actor, but an oil-backed actor, and so ...
They’re one of the few countries in the world that’s likely to benefit from warming, so they’re sort of doubly incentivized to make it worse.
Why is that? Explain that.
Well, because the more northern you are, your crops will grow better, and there are these economic productivity statistics that ... It sounds sort of like geographic determinism, but there’s kind of an optimal temperature for economic productivity: about 13 degrees Celsius, which is the historical median of the US. The US has now warmed a little bit beyond them, so the economists say that we’re probably losing about a half percent of GDP every year because we’re too hot. But, of course, parts of the US are exactly at 13 degrees Celsius, that optimal temperature, including Silicon Valley. So that’s now at the optimal productivity temperature.
And Russia will move in that direction. So their cognitive performance will improve, and their agriculture will improve, so their economy will be doing better. But on top of that, they’re a petro state. So if they can continue to produce oil and sell it, they’ll be better off.
Right, right, exactly. But what’s interesting is about why there’s no solutions. It is really interesting. You wonder what it is. You used this one carbon one from Gates. Are there others that are massive like that?
Well, that is not massive. It’s still at a kind of laboratory scale, but it could be scaled globally.
I think basically it’s a kind of ... We need a million solutions, not one silver-bullet solution. But for instance, if we could develop zero-carbon or carbon-neutral jet fuel, that would be really important because nobody expects that we’re going to give up airplane flying. In fact, everybody expects that there’s going to be more air travel in the decades ahead.
They do these carbon, they buy up these carbon things, which drives me nuts.
Oh, the carbon offsets?
There are a lot of people who think that we can do it through natural sources, so by replanting forests and doing different agricultural practices, and it’s true that plants suck up carbon and they produce oxygen, that’s what they do, so if we had more of them, we’d be better off. But estimates for what we’d have to do to avert this catastrophic level of warming 2 degrees strictly through these natural sources, it would require a third of all the planet’s arable land to be used only for this purpose.
So I think it’s like we have to take solutions here and there and everywhere, but we’re moving so slowly that we probably won’t be able to hit any of the benchmarks that we’d want to hit to avoid some really catastrophic outcomes. That means that a lot of people are putting faith in what’s called solar geoengineering, which is putting aerosol pollution into the atmosphere.
So sunlight comes to Earth and is absorbed by Earth. If we put stuff into the atmosphere that could reflect some of that sunlight, less of it would be absorbed by the Earth, and therefore the Earth would be a little bit ...
Yeah. So it kind of masks the natural level of warming that we’d be at, and if we put enough ... It’s usually sulfur that people talk about, put enough in the atmosphere, we could, say, lower the temperature of the planet by 1 or 2 or even 3 degrees Celsius.
There are a lot of people who are worried about that, in part because we don’t really know how it will affect agriculture. We don’t know how it would affect public health. There’s already, actually, a lot of aerosol pollution from just the burning of fossil fuels. Nine million people are dying annually from that air pollution. If we don’t avoid 2 degrees of warming just from air pollution, 153 million people would die from it, which is 25 Holocausts’ worth of people.
So we’re already inflicting huge amounts of suffering through air pollution. This would be creating more of it. And there’s the other problem, which is that if we’re just masking the amount of global warming that we would have naturally ...
Not making significant changes.
... and then what if a terrorist attacked the plant that was suspending the sulfur, or what if there was a world war that made the continuation of that project difficult? Then we’d immediately push the planet to a much higher level of warming. If it would be catastrophic for us to get to 3 degrees over the span of 50 years, it would be insanely catastrophic for us to do that over the span of five months or something, which could be what happened.
And yet, even this guy ... For instance, this guy who stands to benefit from that carbon capture technology, the guy who’s running that company that Bill Gates funded, he told me that he doesn’t want to see carbon capture put forward as a solution except in very small-scale ways for sectors that are having trouble decarbonizing. He wants to see geoengineering used because it’s much cheaper, and you could do it basically to buy yourself some time so that you could decarbonize at a much more natural pace.
Carbon capture would require global infrastructure, they say, two to three times the size of the current oil and gas industry, and geoengineering would be much, much, much simpler to manage and more economical. This is a person who literally would become a trillionaire if his company were rolled out across the world is saying, “Actually, I want this company to be used in a small-scale way, and I think this other solution would be better.”
But that means that our skies would turn red, and like I said, there are all of these unpredictable effects, which scientists are only now beginning to study and really understand. Unfortunately, we’re now in a situation where we need it. So the UN — this 2 degrees of warming is like the threshold of catastrophe, they call it. The UN has 400 scenarios in which we avoid 2 degrees of warming, 344 of them use negative emission of one kind or another, but that’s some form of sucking stuff out of the atmosphere.
They ran another series of 116; 108 of them used negative emissions. So we are really dependent on these spectacular, unheard-of and untested technologies to avoid anything but truly catastrophic levels of warming. This is something I think the average person on the street doesn’t understand.
We can’t avoid mass suffering.
We can’t suck the dirt up. We can’t clean it up.
We just can’t do it without these technologies, which nobody’s ever heard of.
We’re depending on them already for the planet being livable 50 years, 70 years from now.
I want to end talking about that, like what are the key things we have to do in the next five years, 10 years? But right now, the political will to do anything is nearly zero except for someone like Alexandria Ocasio who gets pilloried for saying we really have to slow it down rather dramatically, who gets made fun of. It’s really interesting, the reaction to what she’s saying, which I don’t think is particularly that dramatic. It’s sort of identifying a problem, but the White House saying, “It’s not warm. It’s cold.” Stuff like that. I know.
Such heroes we have in the White House.
Yeah, the Green New Deal, it is basically ... It’s not really a piece of legislation. It’s like a kind of policy.
It’s a conceptual idea.
Yeah, and it really starts by quoting, literally quoting the UN’s findings and saying, “Here’s what the UN says we need to do,” and then it sort of moves on to try to develop a politics and a policy that can meet those targets. But that’s radical in its own right, just saying, “We’re going to build the politics out of the science rather than build the politics out of what we think is feasible.” That’s a huge sea change.
I think, personally, I see a lot of hope in the politics. The Yale Climate Polling, which is the gold standard on this issue, so 73 percent of Americans believe climate change is real and happening. Now 70 percent of them are concerned about it. Those numbers are up 15 percent since 2015. They’re up 8 percent since last March. That’s rapid change by any political science measure.
Unfortunately, it’s really slow, given how little time we have to take action, the movement is just really, really fast. I just saw a poll today that said that climate change is now the No. 1 ... Tied for the No. 1 priority among Democrats who are going to be going to caucuses in Iowa. And again, this is like the Democratic Party five years ago thought cap and trade was too radical to even try, and now we’re in a situation where every single major presidential candidate has signed onto the Green New Deal, which calls for a World War II-scale mobilization, which is what the UN says is necessary globally to avert catastrophic warming, that we need to globally mobilize at the level we did during World War II against climate change right now.
In fact, the secretary general says we need to start this year, 2019. We’re very far from that, which means I don’t think we are going to avert those levels of warming, but it’s nice to see and heartening to see more and more political energy taking the threat seriously. Now, how quickly that affects the actual policymakers, how quickly that policy become law and how quickly that law creates real changes in our infrastructure and our economy, it’s an open question, and it’s, I think more importantly, a global question. So Americans often think about climate change as an American issue and the US is historically responsible for the lion’s share of global emissions ...
Well, Americans think about everything as an American issue.
Totally. But there’s a real particular narcissism here. The US is now responsible for 15 percent of all global emissions, just 15 percent.
And what are we, like one person of the population? Some number ...
Smaller than 15, but China’s responsible for 29 percent of global emissions, I think. And that’s not even counting all of the infrastructure they’re building in The Belt and Road across Asia and Africa. If concrete were a country, it would be the world’s third-biggest emitter and China’s now pouring as much concrete every three years as the US poured in the entire 20th century.
And they love the concrete, the Chinese, don’t they?
So are they aware of ... Having been in China, the pollution is just uninhabitable.
Well, it’s gotten better since ...
It has, it has.
2013 was the worst year for them.
It’s when I was there.
Actually now the pollution’s worst in India, but in China, they’ve done a lot and Xi Jinping actually, especially since Donald Trump has been elected, I think has seen an opportunity because Trump has evacuated the role of American leadership on this issue.
Evacuated? He’s crapped all over it.
And Xi is like, well, I can play global climate leader now. They’re still behaving badly in a lot of ways. They haven’t closed their coal plants. In fact, they’re kind of still opening more coal plants. But they’ve made massive investments in green and renewable energies over the last few years, done a ton to clean up their air pollution. And I think that will probably continue, and in a weird way it’s what we have to hope for because American emissions, they were up last year, but they’re on a long-term downward trend.
The same is true of the EU and the UK. But the climate future of the planet will be written by China and, to a lesser extent, India and Subsaharan Africa. And so the real problem is not the Republican Party ... No other country in the world has a party like the Republican Party. And yet no other country in the world is behaving better than the US on emissions. Which gives you a sense that there may be some red herring kind of convenient thinking among American liberals about that.
Meaning? Oh, that ...
The Republican Party, it’s like, “They’re villainous. They’ve really dragged their feet on this.” But we’re not in this situation because of the Republican Party.
No, I see what you mean. It’s the discussion about it, the way they discuss it in such a cavalier sense. That’s because they’re super old.
But you know, if ... The social democratic countries of Scandinavia, super green countries, they say that they’re much more aggressive on climate, but their emissions are not falling faster than ours. So it makes you think just how much is the rhetorical ...
Well, some of it has to do with the fact that California and other states, which were the biggest emissions, are the ones doing a lot of movement, correct? Is that ...?
Yeah. Although in California, they’ve made incredible progress on all these green energy initiatives. They’ve cut their emissions dramatically. And yet the gains they make every year are literally entirely wiped out by every year’s forest fires. Trees are like coal, they store carbon. And when they burn, they release carbon.
Anyone who lived in San Francisco understood that.
Knows that. Yeah.
It was fast. I think a lot of people in San Francisco woke up to that issue because of the way the skies looked. I know it sounds crazy, but it was uninhabitable. It felt uninhabitable. And breathing ...
Yeah. I mean, the breathing was ...
It was terrible. And when the skies were all red, it was really creepy. And I think a lot of people were emotionally affected by it in a way that was good, that it caused a certain worry about the future.
I think things are moving in that direction. I was just out in California doing wildfire reporting and I was at CAL FIRE, which is like the big organization that runs monitoring and fighting of fires out there, and just talking to a guy who was showing me dashcam footage of his drive through Paradise during the Camp Fire and the screen was entirely black. There was no light anywhere except occasionally you’d see some sirens from emergency vehicles. And I was like, “Wait, so when was this?” And he said, “Oh, this is mid morning.” And there was literally no sunlight penetrating below the smoke. It was entirely blacked out.
And these fires are ... They used to burn at 1,700 degrees. They told me now they burn at 2,100 degrees. That’s hot enough to turn the silica in the soil into glass. They used to ... Wind is the main driver of them, wind events used to last four days, now for they last 14 days. And no fire powered by Santa Ana winds has ever been stopped by firefighters. I was talking to Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, and he said, “Basically, we can’t stop these fires. We have a better chance of solving climate change than we do have of stopping these fires.”
There are 88, I think, municipalities in Los Angeles, 37 of those are, according to CAL FIRE, in severe, I don’t remember what the exact terminology is, but they’re like high-hazard, severe level of warming.
What’s interesting is because it has been raining a lot and so the drought situation is better than it was and now we’re out of drought position.
Because they say that can have negative effects too because it produces more growth which then can get dried out.
A hundred percent. It was interesting, though, and I was like, “We’re having another drought.” Good, good that this is you.
Well, the folks at CAL FIRE were saying also the kind of drought that they had from, I think it was 2012 to 2015, it will take many years of good rain to really recover from that.
Oh, 100 percent. And just the other day they just announced that they’re back to normal levels. But nonetheless, I think people in California are very aware of the problem, more than most states. It’s discussed. It’s ...
Well, I think that that’ll be the story of the next couple of decades is more people around the world becoming aware in exactly those terms because they see the impacts close by.
Or in the Midwest, these floods. They make the connections.
Totally, and you know, Tornado Alley has moved, which is the region of the country that gets hit by tornadoes, has moved 500 miles in 30 years. So it used to be all the way in Texas and Oklahoma, now it’s in the Gulf Coast, which is an entirely different environment that was not developed and was not built up in expectation of tornadoes. So, now we’re going to see much more destructive tornadoes because they’re hitting communities that were not built to protect ...
That were not expecting.
Right. Exactly. So Dave, let’s finish up talking about what has to be done in the next five years, 10 years. And it’s politically and technologically, what has to happen? If you had to pick, what are the key parts besides ... I mean, a lot of the attention got to the global accords and things like that. What, besides agreeing on things like that?
Yeah. Just to say one quick thing about the Paris Accords. No major industrial country is on track to meet the commitments that they made under the Paris Accords. And even if they did meet them, the world would still be heading for over 3 degrees of warming, which would mean the permanent loss of all ice sheets over time, that would bring hundreds of feet of sea level rise, that would mean hundreds of millions of climate refugees. It would mean terrible impacts on our aggregate ... I mean, the level that we’re going to secure if we honor the Paris Accords is way higher than you and I would conscience. And yet we’re not even honoring them. No country in the world is honoring them. So I think in a certain way, it’s a little early to tell, but we have to sort of judge that model of approaching the solution as a kind of failure.
And as to how we do it going forward, I think it’s likelier that we end up with something like a bilateral arrangement orchestrated by a different American president and Xi Jinping really taking the lead rather than trying to pass it through a body as complicated as the UN. But practically speaking, I think the immediate steps to take are ending fossil fuel subsidies. There’s no reason for us to be spending that money propping up these dirty energy sources. We could be spending it on R&D or building infrastructure that would allow us to endure ...
Is that politically possible?
I think that there’s not much sympathy globally or in the US for fossil fuel business. And in parts of the world, there are lawsuits already targeting the companies and targeting governments ...
They should, it’s a tax on all of us.
Yeah. In the Netherlands, the people of the Netherlands took the government to court because they were failing to honor the Paris accords and won. So now the Dutch government is going to be obligated to honor those accords. In the US, there’s this incredible lawsuit being brought by these teenagers that uses this novel interpretation of the equal protection clause. They say, basically, our parents’ generation was spared climate impacts that we’re going to endure. Therefore you are not protecting us equally. And that’s at the district court level in Oregon, I think it’s likely to win because it’s Oregon. It’s a liberal court, which means it will be at the Supreme Court. I think it’s unlikely to win at the Supreme Court. But if it did, it would actually immediately require the US to take a much, much more aggressive position.
And on that question, what it would mean to really make a maximalist push on climate? I don’t think there’s any one silver bullet or one approach. I do think that ending fossil fuel subsidies is the easiest thing. But everything you do in the modern world has a carbon footprint. From what you eat to what city you live in, how you drive, flying, all this stuff. And each of them has a thousand different things you can do to cut carbon. So I think what we need to do is evolve a perspective on everything that we do that is oriented around carbon and its impact so that we see that impact falling when we take changes. In the sense that when you walk down the supermarket aisle, in addition to seeing things advertised as organic, you’ll see things advertised as carbon-free. I think that will happen quite soon.
I think there should be a lot more pressure on carmakers to go all electric. I think it’s possible in the relatively short order, we’ll see a ban on new internal combustion engines. There are already cities in Europe that don’t have any cars. I think we’ll see more of that.
That to me ... Remember, I talked about running for mayor, I would declare San Francisco car-free. Just to start the discussion. Just to piss everybody off, so that that’s the discussion.
Or just think about how much better the air would be.
Well, just to talk about it. Why not think about it that way? So one of the things I do like about the stuff that Ocasio did or say, Elizabeth Warren, whatever, on tech is that that’s where you start the discussion. You’re not sitting on your back feet. You’re the one being the aggressive agenda setter, which I think is the fact of the matter is, whether people go against it. That’s what you’re talking about rather than not talking about it. Which I think is an interesting ... It’s really interesting to see how that’s evolved.
But food is a huge part of it, too. Especially in the developing world, there’s going to be much more appetite for beef and dairy than there is now, and those have huge carbon impacts. Now there’s some thought that maybe China could adopt some policies that will encourage its citizens to not develop an appetite for beef. I think that’s sort of unlikely, but there are these small-scale studies that show that if you feed cows seaweed, their methane emissions go down by as much as 95 or 99 percent.
We’ve a lot of seaweed.
I was just ... There’s that story. There was just this a story about seaweed all over Mexico.
Yeah. No, I mean the oceans are being transformed by this, too. It’s really everywhere you look.
It’s too much seaweed. There’s too much seaweed, which is really interesting. So we take the seaweed and we bring it to the cows.
Yeah. Feed it to cows, and then their entire carbon footprint is basically eliminated. And there are solutions, there are kind of technocratic solutions like that everywhere in the puzzle. But there’s so many different puzzle pieces that it’s hard to say it’s any one thing. It really has to be a comprehensive, kitchen-sink, all-hands-on-deck approach.
And when you think about it, given how the Silicon Valley approach — I’m sorry to bring it back to that — is cars, that’s where it centers on. Is the idea of eliminating cars or eliminating fossil-fueled cars. How important is that to getting ... It’s an .... As they fly around in their private planes, but that’s another question.
Yeah, as I said, any round-trip flight in the US is the equivalent of eight months of driving. So if you’re really flying a lot, no matter what car you’re driving, you’re fucking the environment. But cars are a huge problem. And meaningfully what? It’s like, I think globally, something like 25 percent of the carbon problem is from cars, and we’re going to see as China gets richer, as India gets richer, as Subsaharan Africa gets richer, a much bigger demand for cars than we have today. So yeah, I think we need to figure out ways to eliminate that carbon footprint.
And I think that Tesla has been hugely important and influential in making that happen. I think the existing car companies, left to their own devices, would have been dragging their feet for more decades. Maybe by 2080, we’d have an electric car, but they’re now, because of Tesla, they are like all pressured to do it in the next decade or so. And that’s great. But it’s so much bigger than that. It’s every time you flick on the light, you’re imposing a carbon footprint.
All right. I’m going to turn off the light right now.
But just one last fact: The average American emits enough carbon every year to melt 10,000 tons of Arctic ice. Each one of us, every year. And there’s a lot of ice up there, down there, there’s a lot of ice left over. But that just shows you how much, even if you’re living in a responsible way, you are still doing incredible damage.
And that’s because our policy has not yet evolved to provide us a choice architecture in which we can make a variety of decisions, all of which are responsible. We’re now living in a world where most of the choices we make about what we eat and how we travel, etc., most of the choices we can make are irresponsible. We need to live in a world that is ...
Because there aren’t alternates.
We need policy to like ...
Let me ask, what is the alternative to flying? There isn’t.
Well, a lot of flying could be done through high-speed rail. That’s one local solution. Looking into the future, I think we need to develop either electric planes or carbon-neutral jet fuel. And that’s one of the ways that this carbon capture technology is actually being used, is to produce fuel that could conceivably power something like a plane without producing any carbon footprint. So that’s possible.
I say in the book, if we save ourselves, it will be technology that saves us, but we can’t just assume that by going forward, however we do our innovation, that inevitably some technology will evolve that will solve the problem for us. We need to actually focus on it and prioritize that goal. Otherwise we’ll end up just ...
Putting a dome over it. That’s what they want to do. Or move to New Zealand. Although that’s not the best place to move, right?
You know that the original Biodome was briefly run by Steve Bannon? He inherited it. It’s a weird episode in his life where he was the executive in charge of the Biodome.
He knows. He knows. What evil he perpetrates and just does it anyway. That’s fascinating. What happened to his Biodome?
Oh, wait. It fell apart.
Did it get moldy?
Yeah, that’s what I thought. Anyway, David, thank you so much. This has been a really fascinating thing and it’s critically important as we move forward to think about these things, especially people in Silicon Valley who ... Stop making your dating apps, for fucks sake, and move on to something more important.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.