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Talking Climate and Health: “The Uninhabitable Earth” Author David Wallace-Wells

“The more that we learn about what air pollution is doing to our children and their developmental patterns, the scarier those findings will be.”


David Wallace-Wells is deputy editor and climate columnist at New York magazine, and author of one the most talked-about books of the year, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming.

The book’s first line puts the climate crisis into incredible perspective: “It is worse, much worse, than you think.”

Those words are not too far removed from the ones that began his very widely read New York article of the same name from 2017. At the time, some critics attacked his dire warning as a touch hyperbolic, but in the months since the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report, Global Warming of 1.5ºC, it’s come to feel particularly prescient.

And yet, Wallace-Wells himself remains optimistic that while “we're very far from where we need to be,” we can definitely get there – and save hundreds of millions of lives in the process. As part of our December 2018 global broadcast event, 24 Hours of Reality: Protect Our Planet, Protect Ourselves, he spoke with Rolling Stone journalist Jamil Smith.

Interview condensed and edited for brevity.

Jamil Smith: David, let's turn the lens on us in the press for a little bit. How would you assess how the media is covering the climate crisis now versus in previous years?  What is it doing right and wrong?

David Wallace Wells: Well, I think big picture we're doing better but not well enough. I think that a generation from now, people will likely look back and wonder why climate change wasn't the biggest story on the front page of every newspaper every day and the lead item in every nightly news report.

But I think that has been changing. There has been a lot more coverage over the last few years, and I think especially since the release of the IPCC's report a few months ago, a sort of alarmist report, I think that the media has really started to pay attention much more closely. Not just in terms of the volume of coverage but the tone of coverage.

I think that it used to be that many journalists were a bit worried to talk about some of the scarier possibilities for climate change and I think that that report really marked a new era for climate journalism and you see it in the coverage. There's a lot more focus on the really scary stuff that is possible out there, and that wasn't a report that even addressed issues that would come up past two degrees of warming.

So I think there's still more to do there. I'm somebody who happens to believe that fear can be useful in motivating and mobilizing people. It used to not be a big part of how journalists wrote about climate and I think it's growing to be an important, significant part.

Another major development is, I think, the subject that we're all talking about today, which is the emphasis on public health. I do think that two [or] five years ago, most people writing about climate change didn't do much thinking, didn't do much writing, didn't do much talking about public health.

But more and more, as we see the way that it engages readers, watchers, [and] listeners and makes people who might have been kind of casual observers of climate – casually concerned about what was happening to the planet – [and] turns them into much more concerned, much more engaged activists and quasi-activists. I think people are sounding the alarm on those public health issues more and it's only likely to continue, which I think is great. It's as I said, it really seems to be effective in hooking people – and anything that works I think it's worth doing.

JS: David, I’d like to ask you about your recent story on the cognitive impacts of pollution. How significant are the developmental and cognitive effects?

DWW:  Well, they are really significant from a certain perspective, in that they're very pervasive and they show up in all of the data. This is not speculative science. The scale of the impacts are relatively small. You know, they tend to diminish test scores by maybe 10–12 percent, and you know, the upticks in ADHD, memory function, autism spectrum disorders tend to be in about that range.

Those numbers can sound small, [but] they're really quite significant when you play them out over large populations, which is what we're doing. And that's the scale that really strikes me when I look at this data. You see these increases in these disorders – brain dysfunctions, social disorders, as well as the health disorders across populations across the world.

It's especially dramatic in places like Delhi, where they have such terrible air pollution. But even in the United States, it has a major impact, and as everybody knows who's been watching the wildfire stories over the last few months, the air quality in California has gotten worse than anywhere else in the world. That's not permanent. It's not likely to have the kind of impacts in California that air pollution has in India, for instance, or had in China over the last few years. But those impacts are still really significant, and while I'm not someone who tends to put a lot of trust in test scores, if you see across a really large population a decline of say 10 percent, that's really meaningful.

And if it plays out over years and decades, it could even conceivably impact our ability to deal with the climate crisis generally because people will be, you know, we'll have a population of people whose brains are functioning less well going forward. That's a kind of dystopic outcome, but it's worth thinking about [how] these effects accumulate and many of them are lifelong.

So we really have to deal with the pollution in the air as quickly as we can, make sure that it's not affecting especially the brains of our children, and hope that we can solve that part of the crisis along with all the other parts of the crisis.

Watch the full interview:

JS: Now, let’s talk about a different kind of pollution. I'm from Cleveland, Ohio, a place that's been disproportionately affected by lead pollution, and I want to ask you what is still left to discover about the social damage caused by lead infestation and lead pollution?

DWW: Well, it's interesting you raised the lead analogy. It's something that I've been thinking about a lot. This is an area of research [that’s] a few decades old now, the effect of lead on a variety of social outcomes – IQ is the is the most direct one. It's the most well-established one. But there's, you know, a whole other set of social impacts.

The one that seems most interesting to me personally is criminality, and when I look at the data, I see quite persuasive findings showing a correlation between exposure to lead in populations and the rise in in criminal activity 15-20 years later when the children who had been exposed are coming into maturity. And it's a kind of hypothetical reduction. I shouldn’t say hypothetical –  it's a speculative finding at the moment. But many researchers believe that this single pollutant was largely responsible for the spike in crime that the US went through beginning in the mid-60s and going through the late-80s. And when you think about the political impacts that that crime wave had, it's really almost single-handedly responsible for some of the law-and-order fear-mongering policing that we've seen over the last couple of decades.

It's really striking, and I think that you can sort of imagine a future for air pollution along these same lines. The more that we learn about what air pollution is doing to our children and their developmental patterns, the scarier those findings will be.

We've talked mostly about the cognitive impacts and the behavioral impacts, but there's also a really direct health impact. I mean, there are 9 million people dying globally every year from air pollution. In the US, that's been estimated that as many as 200,000 early deaths that could be prevented if we eliminated air pollution.

These are not trivial numbers. That's an enormous number of lives, and I think that's one reason why these public health concerns have become so much more central to the way that people talk about the impacts of climate change. The numbers are so large and you can't turn away from them.

JS: One last quick question – we only have about a minute. David, what is your vision for the future? I mean, I'm paraphrasing James Baldwin, “I can't be a pessimist because I'm alive.” I hope that you are also an optimist. What can you see happening in terms of humanity confronting this crisis?

DWW: Well, I think there are a lot of reasons for hope. I mean, the all of the trends in the technology and business sectors are really striking. Everything, all the green energy is getting cheaper. We know now that rapid transition to a sustainable economy will save us trillions of lives very quickly. There's no economic trade-off anymore, and yet I'm a little concerned that that transition isn't happening nearly as quickly as we need it to.

That IPCC report that I mentioned earlier says that we need to halve our carbon emissions in 12 years. That's a really rapid transition that will require a massive mobilization of public and private resources, and while there is growing focus on this issue, it seems a little bit slow – maybe even very slow – and so to my mind, to really hold off climate catastrophe of the kind that we're really worried about will require some kind of negative emissions technologies over the next decade or two decades. Thankfully, those prices are falling too.

But again, we're very far from where we need to be. So the more political will, the more public action that can be taken the better.

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