Tag Archives: David Wallace-Wells

Best books of 2019

Best Books of 2019
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
6 December 2019

“It is worse, much worse, than you think.” From its first sentence The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future (Penguin Books) by US writer David Wallace-Wells is a deeply frightening book chronicling the existential threat the climate crisis poses to humanity.

He notes all the commitments made at the 2015 Paris United Nations climate summit by the 195 signatories would still mean a deadly 3.2oC of warming by 2100. If this isn’t terrifying enough, he explains that as of 2018 “not a single major industrial nation was on track to fulfil the commitments it made in the Paris treaty”.

Answering Amitav Ghosh’s call for more fiction devoted to climate change, John Lanchester’s allegorical novel The Wall (Faber & Faber) considers how British society and politics could react to a climatic event called “the change”. Giving a nod to George Orwell’s 1984, Lanchester imagines a dystopian near future in which a colossal wall has been built along the entire coastline of the nation, manned by conscripted soldiers (“Defenders”) tasked with keeping out climate refugees (“The Others”) trying to get into the country.

Two other novels made an impression on me this year. Set in Chicago, Halle Butler’s The New Me (Orion) is a cutting, pathos-filled exploration of millennial work and social life, the bored and depressed female narrator is full of loathing for her work colleagues, so-called friends and, most of all, herself. Comic novelist Sam Lipsyte’s Hark (Simon & Schuster) also has a laser-like focus on the foibles and hypocrisies of contemporary Western culture, brilliantly skewing self-help gurus, hipsters, liberal parenting and mid-life crises – hell, pretty much everything and everyone is a target for satire. Rarely have I read an author where each sentence is so full of rich, imaginative language. And like the New Yorker’s 2010 novel The Ask it’s also hysterically funny, often in the most dark and delicious ways.

The new Glasgow Media Group (GMG) book Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief (Pluto Press) is an essential read for anyone interested in the accusations of antisemitism directed at the Labour Party. In addition to showing how the media have played a key role in massively exaggerating the scale of the problem, the authors provide some welcome advice on how Labour can communicate much more successfully to the general public on this crucial issue. Heavily influenced by the GMG tradition, Mike Berry’s The Media, the Public and the Great Financial Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan) highlights how the British print and broadcast media, including the BBC, played a key role in narrowing the national debate after the 2008 financial crisis in ways that suited elite interests.

Taken together these two books have much to teach about contemporary British politics and the hugely negative role played by the media. As US media analyst Robert McChesney succinctly put it, “So long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible.”

“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.

A rejuvenated green movement is needed now more than ever

A rejuvenated green movement is needed now more than ever
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
21 May 2018

Looking back from today, we can now see the mid to late 2000s marked a high point in activism, media interest and government action regarding climate change in the UK.

Increasingly large and prominent Climate Camps, drawing attention to climate endangering infrastructure, were organised every year between 2006 and 2010; the direct group Plane Stupid occupied runways and the roof of parliament to highlight the danger of airport expansion; and Climate Rush, inspired by the Suffragette’s campaign for the women’s vote, carried out media-friendly actions including a picnic at Heathrow departures and dumping a pile of horse manure on Jeremy Clarkson’s driveway.

With documentaries like 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth and 2009’s The Age of Stupid attracting huge audiences, David Cameron’s Tories sensed the shift in public opinion and rebranded themselves as an environmentally-friendly party. The slogan “vote blue, go green” was adopted and famously the old Etonian hugged a husky.

Ridiculous and shameless as this PR campaign was, the political arms race created by Cameron’s supposed green shift both proved the power of the green movement, and produced the political landscape it needed to win several important victories for the climate. Driven forward by a huge Friends of the Earth campaign, the 2008 Climate Change Act legally bound the UK to making 80 percent cuts in carbon emissions by 2050. The Coalition government scrapped the expansion of Heathrow after the 2010 general election, and, following actions and campaigning by a coalition of groups on coal, analysis by Imperial College London showed the dirtiest fossil fuel dropped from generating 40 percent of the UK’s electricity in 2012 to just 2 percent in the first half of 2017.

Zoom forward to today and the climate crisis that green activists devoted their lives to averting in the late noughties has only become more urgent.

For example, whilst senior climate scientists have repeatedly explained carbon admissions need to fall immediately and rapidly to avert climate catastrophe, the International Energy Agency reported that carbon emissions hit a record high last year, increasing by 1.4 percent. The New Yorker’s David Wallace-Wells provides some much need reality to the 2015 United Nations Paris climate agreement, which committed the 195 signatories to keeping the global temperature increase to below two degrees, and ideally under 1.5 degrees.  “Not a single major industrial nation was on track to fulfil the commitments it made in the Paris treaty”, Wallace-Wells notes, citing a November 2017 New York Times report based on data from Climate Action Tracker. “To keep the planet under two degrees of warming – a level that was, not all that long ago, defined as the threshold of climate catastrophe – all signatory nations have to match or better those commitments.”

Speaking to the Morning Star after the Paris Agreement, Professor Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, said it was “reasonable to say 3-4oC is where we are heading, and probably the upper end of that” – by 2100, if not before. The corporate world has already come to terms with this likely future, with an internal Shell planning document predicting a 4oC increase in the short term. Similarly in 2012 PricewaterhouseCoopers told businesses and governments that they “need to plan for a warming world – not just 2C, but 4C or even 6C.”

“What we are talking about here is an existential threat to our civilisation in the longer term”, Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, recently noted in an Environmental Justice Foundation report. “In the short term, it carries all sorts of risks as well and it requires a human response on a scale that has never been achieved before.” Speaking in 2011 about the risks climate change poses to Australia, Professor John Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, was even more direct: “the difference between two and four degrees is human civilization.”

As these warnings highlight, the importance of the looming climate chaos is hard to overestimate. “Every single day, climate change is the most important thing happening on the planet—there’s nothing even remotely close”, argues US climate activist Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, writing in the New Yorker magazine.

In contrast to this urgency, with a few important exceptions (e.g. the nationwide anti-fracking movement) the green movement in the UK seems to have been in a serious rut since 2009/10. The failure of the 2009 Copenhagen United Nations climate summit was a massive blow to the green movement’s morale, while the Coalition Government’s austerity programme led many activists to move from climate-specific work to campaigns such as UK Uncut and housing battles. In addition, since 2015 it is clear many activists on the Left who are concerned about climate change have put their time and energy into supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, many joining Momentum.

Indeed, Corbyn’s environmental policies have broadly been positive. Friends of the Earth graded Labour’s 2017 election manifesto 34 points out of 48, behind the Green Party on 46 but above the Liberal Democrats (32) and Conservatives (11). That Morning Star columnist Alan Simpson is advising Corbyn on environmental issues is welcome, as is Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s recent announcement that Clive Lewis MP had joined his team to “drive the climate change issue into the heart of Treasury policy making, and therefore into the centre of government policy making”. However, there are still huge problems within the Labour Party when it comes to creating and pursuing effective policies on climate change. Many Labour MPs are still wedded to the ideal of a corporate-dominated neoliberal economy. The GMB union supports fracking. And, most importantly, Labour under Corbyn is still a pro-economic growth party – the word “growth” is mentioned 15 times in the election manifesto – despite this economic dogma being exactly the thing that is driving the planet over the climate cliff.

Rather than this old, 20th century thinking we desperately need new, radical ideas and action. We need, as Sir David King notes above, a wholesale transformation of our economies, which will only be possible with a profound shift in our politics and societal values. “Has an economic shift of this kind ever happened before in history?”, worries Canadian writer Naomi Klein in her essential book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. She cites the historical examples of the Civil Rights Movement, the campaign against Apartheid, the abolition of slavery and the New Deal to give an idea of the scale and influence of the mass movement that is now needed to defend the climate. Others have suggested the societal mobilisation that occurred during World War Two is closer to the level of change that we need to aim for.

This, then, is why a reinvigorated green movement is needed now more than ever – to pressure the current Tory government and Corbyn’s Labour Party to take proactive and effective steps to deal directly with the threat of climate change.

And we need to act now. As McKibben notes in his New Yorker article: though “it feels as if we have time to deal with global warming… In fact, climate change is the one problem that the planet has ever faced that comes with an absolute time limit; past a certain point, it won’t be a problem anymore, because it won’t have a solution.”

Follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter @IanJSinclair.