Monthly Archives: March 2019

“It is worse, much worse, than you think”: David Wallace-Wells interview

“It is worse, much worse, than you think”: David Wallace-Wells interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
5 March 2019

“It is worse, much worse, than you think.” So begins The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future, David Wallace-Wells’s brilliant new book on the existential threat of climate change which, judging by its frightening contents, should be placed next to Stephen King in the horror section of every bookshop.

“I don’t come to it with a life of attachment to environmental causes”, Wallace-Wells, 36, tells me when I ask him about his initial interest in the subject when we met in a central London hotel last month. “Five years ago I would have said climate change was an important issue and we should be addressing it but I didn’t understand it was a totalising challenge that actually governed all of the other political goals that we might have in this world.”

He says he has been “completely transformed” by his research and writing on climate, which received national and international attention with his 2017 article in New York Magazine, where he is Deputy Editor. Quoting climate scientists, the article – which has the same title as the book – looked at some of the likely effects of the worst-case scenarios in terms of global temperature rise. It became the most read article in the history of the publication. “There was a vocal minority of scientists who took issue with it”, Wallace-Wells concedes. “So I wanted to really rigorously focus the book on a smaller range possible outcomes. In the article I was talking about warming up to 5, 6 and even 8°C. In the book I mention those levels a couple of times but it’s very much focused on 2°C to 4°C, which is inarguably the boundaries of reasonable contemplation.”

For the uninitiated, these figures refer to the increase in global temperature on pre-industrial levels. The world has already experienced a 1°C increase. At the 2015 UN climate conference in Paris the 195 signatory nations pledged to keep global warming to “well below” 2°C and “endeavour to limit” them to 1.5°C. However, speaking to the Morning Star in 2016, the respected climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson explained the commitments made at the summit would likely lead to 3-4°C of global warming by 2100.

Despite the book’s narrower focus, its conclusions – based on hundreds of references to the latest scientific research – are still horrifying. “Warming of 3 or 3.5 degrees would unleash suffering beyond anything that humans have ever experienced”, Wallace-Wells writes. And just to scare you further, it’s important to understand that the larger the temperature increase, the more likely feedback mechanisms and the sheer complexity of the world’s climate system will lead to runaway climate change that humanity will be unable to control.

“At 4°C of warming we will have made inevitable the total collapse of all the ice sheets on the planet, which will mean, over time, at least 50 and probably 80 metres of sea level rise”, he tells me. “That will take centuries to unfold but it will mean millions of square miles of coastline underwater, many of the world’s biggest cities completely drowned” and “will literally redraw the map of the world and make the planet unrecognisable in many, many ways.”

Turning to the dire effects of heat, he notes “it’s possible as soon as 2050, when we will be at about 2°C of warming or a little bit warmer than that, that many of the major cities in India and the Middle East will be lethally hot in summer. You won’t be able to reliably go outside, work outside during the summer months without incurring some lethal risk.”

He believes this will contribute to an unprecedented global refugee crisis, and notes in 2017 the UN estimated climate change might create as many as a billion climate refugees by 2050 – “which is as many people as today live in North and South America combined.” He is careful to qualify this, explaining the UN’s estimate is very much at the high-end of projections: “Even if we only get to 75 million 100 million that’s a refugee crisis many times bigger than anything with ever seen before”.

The evidence points to “dramatic” economic impacts too, he argues. “The best research suggests at about 4°C of warming we will be dealing with the global economy… that was 30 per cent smaller than it would be without climate change. That is an impact twice as big as the Great Depression. And it would be permanent.”

With the effects of climate change so serious and all-encompassing, the environmental movement has long debated how best to present the facts and dangers to the general public in a way that will engender engagement and action. The consensus, in the UK at least, has been for messaging fixed around notions of hope and positive visions of the future. For example, speaking at a World Development Movement public event in 2008 Green MP Caroline Lucas argued “the rhetoric of fear and disaster and tipping points is deeply scary, and it’s deeply unhelpful.”

“It doesn’t work to try to terrify people in to action”, she continued.

Wallace-Wells, as readers of his book will attest, takes a very different position: “As I look out at the world it just strikes me that although there are some people who are at risk of being pushed into despair and fatalism, the number of people who are living complacently in the modern world about climate is just so much bigger.”

Careful not to dismiss hopefulness and optimism – “anything that sticks” is good – he points to the history of environmental activism and political mobilisation to back up his argument. The influential role Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring had in banning DDT pesticide, drunk driving and anti-smoking campaigns – all of these successes were not accomplished “by messaging optimistically and talking about hope” but were based on fear and alarm, he argues.

He also points to the historic recommendation of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year – that to stay below a 1.5°C temperature increase the world must immediately embark on a World War II-level mobilisation to shift away from fossil fuels. “There were threads of hope and optimism that was part of that [the mobilisation in World War Two] but there was also, obviously, a lot of fear and panic and alarm about what would happen if we didn’t mobilise”, he says.

While The Uninhabitable Earth is certainly alarming, Wallace-Wells himself is hopeful about the future in many ways, highlighting new activism such as Extinction Rebellion and 16-year old Swede Greta Thunberg and the global school strikes she has inspired.

He also points to significant shifts in US public opinion, with a recent Yale University/George Mason  University survey finding six in ten Americans were either “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change, with the proportion of people “alarmed” having doubled since 2013.

Turning to US politics, he is excited that the Democratic Party is “effectively and totally” signed on to the Green New Deal, the proposed economic stimulus programme that reiterates the goals of the UN to hold global warming to 1.5°C. Mirroring what happened with Heathrow expansion and UK politics in the mid-2000s, he notes the Green New Deal has become “a kind of litmus test for any Democratic candidate” for president, with climate change likely to be a first order priority alongside healthcare and education in the Democratic primaries.

”I even think that will impact the Republican Party over time”, he predicts.

Looking at the big picture, in the book Wallace-Wells maintains the climate chaos which is now upon us “has been the work of a single generation.” The generation coming of age today faces a very different and essential task, he believes: “the work of preserving our collective future, forestalling… devastation and engineering an alternate path.”

“We are living in incredibly consequential times. What we do now politically, culturally, economically will determine the – not to put it too bluntly – that habitability of the planet going forward”, he tells me. “Humans have never been in that position before, never held that kind of power in our hands before.”

The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future is published by Allen Lane, priced £20.

Book review. The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells

Book review. The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 February 2019

Clearly intended to shock, last month the Guardian published a report titled Climate Risks ‘Similar To 2008 Financial Crash’.

The problem with this formulation, to partially quote the soon to be iconic first sentence of The Uninhabitable Earth, is that “it is worse, much worse” than this.

“What climate change has in store is not… a Great Recession or a Great Depression but, in economic terms, a Great Dying”, David Wallace-Wells, Deputy Editor of New York Magazine, argues.

The 2016 United Nations Paris Agreement, which aims to limit warming to an increase of 2°C on pre-industrial levels, gave hope to many. Wallace-Wells injects a dose of frightening realism into the debate, noting all the commitments made at the summit by the 195 signatories would still mean 3.2°C of warming by 2100. And most terrifyingly of all, as of 2018 “not a single major industrial nation was on track to fulfil the commitments it made in the Paris treaty”, he explains.

What does all this mean? “Warming of 3 or 3.5°C degrees would unleash suffering beyond anything that humans have ever experienced”.

The twelve chapters which make up the core of the book flesh out this alarming reality, looking at how climate change is raising sea-levels, increasing wildfires and disease, reducing crop yields, killing the oceans and making conflicts more likely. An expansion of his 2017 magazine article that went viral, he is right when he says this section contains “enough horror to induce a panic attack in even the most optimistic”.

For example, he notes the planet has experienced a fiftyfold increase in the number of dangerous heatwaves since 1980.” Even if warming is limited to an increase of 2°C, big cities in the Global South like Karachi and Kolkata “will become close to uninhabitable”, contributing to a massive increase in refugees. A 4°C increase will mean the European heat wave of 2003, which killed 35,000 people, “will be a normal summer.”

Frustratingly, when the mainstream media reports on climate change it invariably uses 2100 as the end point for projections. In contrast, Wallace-Wells inconveniently highlights that the death and destruction will not end there. Infact, some observers call the 100 years after 2100 “the century of hell.”

A necessary and urgent wake-up call, The Inhabitable Earth is the most important book about climate change since Naomi Klein’s 2014 This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. But while Klein focused on the ideology of economic growth as the central driver of climate change, the topic is largely – and strangely – absent from Wallace-Wells’ work. And though he emphasises how climate change is “the biggest threat human life on the planet has ever faced”, highlighting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s push for an immediate global mobilisation on the scale of World War Two, exactly how people should organise to stop climate change is also not something he dwells on.

“I think there just has to be an energetic mass popular movement”, was US academic Noam Chomsky’s recent take on the necessity of large-scale activism on climate change. Likewise, Klein recently tweeted three central questions for assessing the candidates in the upcoming 2020 US Presidential election: “1. Who best understands that anything short of transformative action on climate is tantamount to genocide? 2. Who, if elected, will be most porous to social movements/ least likely to seal themselves off with elite consultants? 3. Who has a solid chance of beating Trump if we all work like hell?”

Similar questions need to be asked at the next UK general election and across the globe if humanity is to stand any chance of arresting the ongoing and escalating existential threat of climate chaos.

The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future is published by Allen Lane, priced £20.

Book review. Propaganda Blitz: How the Corporate Media Distort Reality by David Edwards and David Cromwell

Book review. Propaganda Blitz: How the Corporate Media Distort Reality by David Edwards and David Cromwell
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
11 February 2019

Named Collins Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2017, “Fake News”, along with Russian interference in Western political systems, has become an obsession for the UK and US media and political classes.

David Edwards and David Cromwell – co-editors of media analysis website Media Lens – don’t buy into this convenient, self-serving framing. “That fake news is a systematic feature of BBC coverage, and the rest of Western mainstream media, is virtually an unthinkable thought for corporate journalists”, they noted recently.

The corporate media “fundamentally distort every significant issue they touch”, they argue in their brilliant new book. “Exposing the fraudulence of the ‘free press’ is therefore highly efficient for positive change.”

Based on their Media Alerts – timely critiques of news reporting they have been publishing regularly since starting Media Lens in 2001 – they look at how the media provides state and corporate-friendly coverage of Western foreign policy, climate change, NHS privatisation and the Scottish independence referendum. Compared to their previous books there are fewer illuminating exchanges with journalists – the truthtellers in the newsrooms seem less willing to engage with the authors than they used to. However, their correspondence with Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson and ITV News’s Bill Neely regarding the definition of terrorism are both surreal and revealing. As ex-Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald tweeted: “I’ve never encountered any group more driven by group think and rank-closing than British journalism.”

The Guardian plays a key role in this corporate news ecosystem, sharply defining and defending the bounds of acceptable debate. From Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the Labour leadership to Julian Assange seeking asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy and Russell Brand’s political awakening, Edwards and Cromwell highlight how the UK’s supposedly most left-wing mainstream newspaper sides with the status quo and assails those trying to create significant progressive change.

Best of all is their Anatomy of a Propaganda Blitz, a six-step model for how the media attack and discredit enemies, preparing the way for (Western) intervention. The 2002-3 media-assisted propaganda onslaught in advance of the invasion of Iraq is a good example of this kind of campaign, as is the 2018 antisemitism controversy and the current Venezuelan crisis. Like Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model and Stanley Cohen’s theory of Moral Panics, this should be required reading on every university journalism and media studies course.

Essentially a £14.99 course in intellectual self-defence against thought control in a democratic society, Propaganda Blitz is an indispensable read for anyone who consumes the news.

Propaganda Blitz is published by Pluto Press, priced £14.99.