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'Uninhabitable Earth' Sounds Climate Change Alarm

March 7, 2019 1:37 p.m.

GUEST: David Wallace-Wells, author, "The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming."

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

Kaye PBS is supported by the law firm of Mintz working with startups and growing companies many legal services can help clients raise capital secure space and protect intellectual property to achieve strategic goals. Moore admits myths built on excellence driven by change the urgency of addressing human causes of climate change has long been a parent.

That's why PBS is launching our climate change desk with me in studio is roundtable host Mark Sauer to explain this new assignment. Mark welcome. It's good to be here. So what's the thinking behind our new climate change task.

Well it's simply to step up our coverage of this existential threat. We're gonna do interviews with experts and newsmakers on this issue. That's paramount to us all.

And how will the K PBS audience be getting this stepped up coverage.

Interviews will air here on mid-day edition as well as on evening edition on key PBS TV plus print versions with links on PBS dot org and a good example is your interview this week with author David Wallace Wells who says the time to panic is now. Yes he says the threat of a warming climate has reached such scale and speed that catastrophe looms for every living being on planet Earth. It's the dire SCREAMING IN ALL CAPS message in the United Nations so-called doomsday report released in October followed by the same warning from U.S. climate scientists to Congress and we're kicking things off right now with your interview from the Climate Change desk with author David Wallace Wells via Skype.

His new book The uninhabitable Earth life after warming is getting a great deal of national attention. Here's that interview.

Why isn't everyone alarmed and anxious to take drastic action right now to mitigate human caused climate change.

Well I think that we have a whole set of cognitive biases and psychological reflexes that make us not want to consider really bad news. And so when we see bad news we turn away from it. In my book I'm writing about the range of temperatures between about two degrees Celsius which I think is about our best case scenario and about 4 degrees Celsius of warming which is where we're on track for by the end of the century that range encloses some real horror some real climate horrors.

I think most people respond to that by thinking that's unthinkable we couldn't possibly have climate damages totaling twice as much as all the wealth that exists in the world today. We couldn't possibly have places in the world that are being hit by six simultaneous natural disasters at once. We can possibly have 500 million climate refugees but this is what the science is telling us. So however unthinkable these facts seem we need to think about them because they are the best guide we have to the future that lies really right ahead of us right around the corner.

You've written a book with grave scenarios about what the science shows our world will look like if we continue burning fossil fuels at current rates. Can you give us a few summary examples of Life After warming.

Well so at about two degrees of warming the a few of the biggest ice sheets in the Antarctic will begin a permanent and irreversible melt if we lose all of the ice sheets. We could be due for as much as two hundred or 260 sixty feet of sea level rise that would happen over many centuries. So we would we would have time to adapt to it but we could quickly pass thresholds that will make that kind of sea level rise inevitable and irreversible. Just a two degree is we could be dealing with it about 40 percent more war than we see today and rates of violence at the individual level would grow too.

We could be seeing public health crises malaria travels by mosquito and mosquitoes footprint is being rewritten by climate change at four degrees of warming where we're likely to be by the end of the century. We could be having agricultural yields that were half as bountiful as they are today and we'd be needing to use them to feed twice as many people. The wildfires that have so terrorized Californians.

There's some science that suggests they could by the end of the century become 64 times worse than they were last year when they burned more than a million acres. Think those estimates are probably a little high but it just gives you a sense of the scale of transformation that we're talking about. This is not something that's happening at the margins. It is all encompassing all governing. There will be no aspect of life on the planet that will be untouched by climate change because the transformations are that dramatic and we won't be able to escape them right.

I did reference the October report by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that starkly outlines the effects of one and a half degrees centigrade of warming above pre-industrial levels two degrees. We're already at one degree above in a game of a timeline of course of 12 years to start drastically reducing carbon emissions what needs to be done to keep climate impact from getting catastrophically worse than it's already doing.

The short answer is we just really need to cut back on our carbon emissions. I mean the main lever that we have over this system is how much carbon we put into the atmosphere. And I think it's important for people to keep in mind that whenever I talk about climate horrors and the picture really is horrifying. The scale of that of those damages is just a reminder of how much power we have over the climate. If we get to a place where there are sixty four times as many wildfires in California it will be because of how we act going forward not because of things that happened in the past.

And so when you contemplate real devastating climate change in a perverse way it reminds you of just how much power we retain over the climate. Everything about the modern world needs to be transformed to avert some of these catastrophic scenarios. You know we often think about energy. Energy is kind of the least of it. It's about 30 percent of global carbon emissions and it's actually the one that is going to be easiest to improve because green energy is now so much cheaper and much of the world will shortly be cheaper and all of the world than dirty energy.

But we have to deal with transportation and infrastructure. We have to deal with agriculture. There is no aspect of modern life down to turning on your light bulb in your apartment that doesn't have a carbon footprint. And we need to reimagine rebuild all of those systems. The U.N. says we need to have our global emissions by 2030 in order to have a decent chance of staying below two degrees of warming which they consider the threshold of catastrophe and island nations of the world described as genocide. The secretary general says in order to do that we need a world wars to scale mobilization against climate beginning this year in 2019.

I don't think that's possible given our current politics.

And so I think we're likely going to be playing catch up but I think it's really important to keep in mind that even if we don't have our two degrees maximum effort is still necessary because two point two degrees is worse than 2 2.5 is worse than to point to 2.8 is worse than 2.5 every tick upward implies and creates more suffering and we will always be in a position to avert future suffering if we reduce our carbon more quickly and in a position to create more suffering if we continue to burn and produce more carbon and put it into the atmosphere.

While Democrats are touting this new Green Deal their presidential candidates are citing climate change as a top issue speaking forcefully in the Senate about it this week. I think we're about to have a meaningful debate finally on climate change can we get baby boomers involved. Millennials highly motivated to vote because their lives depend on it.

I mean the youth of the world is leading the way on this. When you look at credit Tom Bergen our climate strike when you look at sunrise in the US the Juliana case the lawsuit that's being brought against the federal government on the climate basis. These are really miraculous and morally unimpeachable stands that these teenagers are taking and they're shaming all of us who are in a position to really do something about this because they are disempowered. We are empowered but they understand the issue and see the way forward and we collectively do not.

But I think we're beginning to see the light. I think that the polling shows in America. We have 73 percent of Americans believe that climate change is real. Seventy percent of Americans are concerned about it. Those numbers are up 15 percent just since 2015. They're up 8 percent since March. So there is real movement here. And the Green New Deal is a product of that. I think there are a lot of huge questions about exactly how that plan will be implemented. I think there are a lot of questions about whether it's feasible to hit the targets that they lay out.

Frankly I'm a little skeptical that it is the scale of ambition is so important in part because this is the first bit of climate legislation in America that really put the climate science front and center. It took the UN's recommendations and tried to find a way through politics to achieve their goals. Always before we defined the politics of the possible through our partisanship and that has really limited what we thought we could do. But if what when what is necessary is different from what is possible. I think we need to redefine what is possible rather than redefine what is necessary.

And that's really what the Green New Deal has done right now on a personal note you write in the book about your young child in the world to come is what you've learned a source of daily heartbreak How do you find optimism in such a bleak forecast.

Well it's gets back to what I was saying before which is everything about this future is within our control. I learned that lesson directly and intimately when thinking about my daughter and because it seems like she's entering into a completely fresh world and in fact she is the climate of the future will be determined by what we do going forward not what we've done in the past and everything about the possible range of outcomes is in our control. I think you have to be optimistic when you think about it in those terms even recognizing all of the obstacles to real action to understand that this is something that we control and therefore if we really understand it and really understand the scale of the threat theoretically we should be up to changing course.

We have all the tools we need all we need is the will. And I think through extreme weather in particular we're beginning to be scared enough that we will have that will we're not there yet. But I think it's soon.

All right well thank you very much I've been talking with David Walsh as well as the author of the uninhabitable Earth life after warming. Thanks very much David.

Thank you. And that was K PBS table host Mark Sauer. This is part of the new KPBS climate change desk.