The U.N.'s newly-released climate report is sending shock waves through much of the world.
Among its findings are that even if nations immediately cut carbon dioxide emissions, global warming is likely to rise by about 1.5 degrees Celsius in the next two decades — a number long-cited as a crisis point where the planet struggles with worsening storms, water shortages, dying reefs, fish and animal die-offs, refugee crises and more.
Author David Wallace-Wells wrote an example-packed, science-filled, in-your-face book called "The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming" in 2019. When he spoke to host Robin Young about the book, he ended the conversation by saying nothing is baked in stone besides a few more tenths of a degree in temperature rise. He believes humans have the power to cut carbon and create policies to make the future liveable.
“There's no going back to the climate that we thought we'd have when we were growing up, whether we're 30 or 50 or 70 or 110,” he says. “The question is how much more dangerous from here it's going to get.”
The future of Earth’s climate will always be in the hands of humanity, he says. He predicts the planet will pass 1.5 degrees of warming a bit sooner than the U.N.’s estimate of early next decade.
The future looks “remarkably grim” from that point — but every tenth of a degree matters, he says.
“I do still think we have our hands on the steering wheel here,” he says. “It's just the road is getting pretty treacherous already.”
Most aspects of modern life depend on carbon, he says, which means everything needs to change.
The U.N. report revealed that there’s enough carbon in the atmosphere to surpass 1.5 degrees but it’s being masked by air pollution, which reflects sunlight and cools the planet. Reducing fossil fuel use and air pollution would warm the planet by half a degree, he says.
Quickly cutting out methane emissions could counteract that effect, according to the report. Methane warms the planet more intensely but doesn’t last as long as carbon, Wallace-Wells says.
However, staying below 2 degrees of warming won’t come without a price: This goal has been called a genocide by island nations and death for the continent of Africa by climate leaders, he says.
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A few years ago, Wallace-Wells knew climate change was important but thought he lived outside of the problem.
“Everything that we've ever done as a species is dependent on climate conditions we've already left behind. That's because the planet's already warmer today than it ever has been in the entire history of human civilization,” he says. “It's like we've landed on a totally new planet.”
The impacts are showing up in extreme weather such as wildfires. Last year’s wildfires in California were worse than ever before and produced more air pollution than all other human and industrial activity in the western U.S. combined, he says.
More than 10 million people die every year globally from the effects of air pollution. Scientists estimate air pollution cuts the average life expectancy by two years, he says, and nine years in some hard-hit countries like India.
Heat deaths are expected to rise in the U.S. and more dramatically in South Asia and the Middle East — where 200 or more days of lethal heat could occur per year as soon as 2050, he says. And in a few decades, the growing footprint of mosquitoes could carry tropical diseases as far north as the Arctic Circle.
“The most important thing that we can do, even as individuals, is to try to inspire some kind of policy change because the challenge that we face is far too big for anyone to solve on their own or even any mass of individuals to solve on their own,” he says. “The systems are far too large and far too entrenched for that to work. We need that large-scale transformation.”
This segment aired on August 10, 2021.