Why climate change is an ‘all-encompassing threat’

Although a candidate just entered the 2020 presidential race with a platform centered on climate change, some experts say Americans aren’t fully aware of the scope and seriousness of global warming. Among them is David Wallace-Wells, who argues in a new book that the severity of the climate crisis has not yet been acknowledged, let alone addressed. He sits down with William Brangham to discuss.

Judy Woodruff:

Climate change continues to grow as a political issue in America.

As we reported, in the latest — the latest Democrat to announce a bid for the White House, Washington state's governor, Jay Inslee, says he will make climate change a central campaign theme.

This comes after Democrats in the House recently put forward their own aggressive plan.

But William Brangham talks with the author of an alarming new book which argues that we're barely acknowledging the severity of this crisis.

William Brangham:

It is worse, much worse, than you think. That's the first sentence of David Wallace-Wells' terrifying new book about climate change. It's called "The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming."

In it, Wallace-Wells marshals the latest scientific research, which he argues points to one unimpeachable fact: that our use of fossil fuels, which admittedly has powered so much prosperity and growth across the world, is now the single greatest threat to our survival, one that he says — quote — "has brought us to the brink of a never-ending climate catastrophe."

David Wallace-Wells is a fellow at the New America Foundation and a columnist and editor at "New York Magazine."


David Wallace-Wells:

Thank you.

William Brangham:

I have to admit, I haven't been alarmed by a book as I was by yours. And I feel like I know a lot of what you're reporting on.

I should tell — we have also posted the first chapter of your book on our Web site. I would encourage people to read it to get a sense of the argument that you're making.

But help us understand what you think people don't quite appreciate about the severity of this problem.

David Wallace-Wells:

There's sort of three big things.

The first is speed. I think we had long thought that climate change was happening very slowly, that it was unfolding, at fastest, at about a decade timescale, more usually like centuries, and we didn't have to worry about it in our own lives, maybe even our children's lives, but it was something to worry about for our grandchildren.

More than half of all the emissions that we have put into the atmosphere in the entire history of humanity, we have done in the last 30 years. And that means that we're doing this damage in real time and in the space of a generation. So the speed is really overwhelming.

And if we lived off the coasts, we often thought that it was a matter of sea level rise, and we'd be safe. We could live inland, that would be OK. In fact, it's an all-encompassing threat that's not compartmentalizable to the coast. It's much bigger than sea level rise.

It impacts the economy, which could be 30 percent lower than it would be without climate change by the end of the century, and it impacts public health, conflict. We could have twice as much war because of climate change at the end of the century. That's the second thing, the scope.

And then the severity. Most scientists talked about two degrees as the sort of threshold of catastrophe.

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