Ian TuckerSun 25 Aug 2019 07.00 BST
The journalist and author on the climate crisis and how the US and China will be key to averting disaster
David Wallace-Wells: ‘Incremental policy isn’t going to be adequate to avoid terrible levels of warming.’
David Wallace-Wells is the deputy editor of New York magazine. In July 2017, he wrote a long-form essay about the dire prospects for human civilisation caused by the climate crisis. It became the most read article in the history of the magazine and led to a book, The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future, which is being published in paperback in September.
The first line of your book states: “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” If you were sitting down to write the book again, would you be inserting another “much” into that sentence?
I still think the public aren’t as concerned as they should be about some of the scary stuff that’s possible this century. But I do think things have changed quite a bit. And I also think the politics have changed quite a lot. When I turned in the book in September, nobody had heard of Greta Thunberg. Nobody had heard of Extinction Rebellion. In the US, very few people had heard of Sunrise. And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had not even been elected.
In the United States, you have a climate crisis denier as president, yet areas of the country are experiencing frequent flooding, more forest fires and rises in average temperature of more than 2C. How do you explain this?
Actually, it’s quite striking how many Americans do believe climate change is happening. [Democratic presidential nominee] Jay Inslee says 75% of voters want action, compared with 63% 12 months ago – that is remarkable. There was a piece earlier this month in the New York Times about how for many young Republicans, it is their top issue.
There seems to be a division in the US Democratic nomination race between candidates who advocate wholesale system change such as the Green New Deal and others who favour a more incremental progress because they claim that’s the only way to get laws passed. Which is the most effective approach?
The science demands a quite systematic response; incremental policy simply isn’t going to be adequate to avoid really terrible levels of warming. But ambitious legislation has to go through the Senate and I don’t think there’s a scenario where a Democratic president takes office in 2021 with more than 60 Democratic votes [a three-fifths majority].
On the other hand, the last few administrations have gotten quite creative in how to use what’s called “budget reconciliation”, which you can use to pass stuff through the Senate with only 51 votes [a simple majority] by defining legislation as essentially budget-based. That’s one reason why you see so many of the Democrats’ plans are essentially investment programmes.
Inslee has been more ambitious in putting forward details about how he would regulate the fossil fuel business but some of the other campaigns have basically just put forward a sort of Green New Deal or green Marshall Plan – a massive spending programme directed at green energy projects.
• David Wallace-Wells will be giving a Guardian Live talk about the climate emergency at 7pm on Wednesday 11 September at Kings Place, north London. Tickets are £20 each or £27.50 with a copy of The Uninhabitable Earth (Penguin, £9.99). A booking fee of £1.26 applies