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← How we could change the planet's climate future

The climate crisis is too vast and complicated to solve with a silver bullet, says author David Wallace-Wells. What we need is a shift in how we live. Follow along as he lays out some of the dramatic actions we could take to build a livable, prosperous world in the age of global warming.

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Showing Revision 5 created 03/13/2020 by Oliver Friedman.

  1. I'm here to talk about climate change,
  2. but I'm not really an environmentalist.
  3. In fact, I've never really
    thought of myself as a nature person.
  4. I have never gone camping,
    never gone hiking,
  5. never even owned a pet.
  6. I've lived my whole life in cities,
  7. actually just one city.
  8. And while I like to take trips
    to visit nature,
  9. I always thought it was something
    that was happening elsewhere,
  10. far away,
  11. with all of modern life
    a fortress against its forces.
  12. In other words,
  13. like just about everybody I knew,
  14. I lived my life complacent
  15. and deluded
  16. about the threat from global warming.
  17. Which I took to be happening slowly,
  18. happening at a distance
  19. and representing only a modest threat
    to the way that I lived.
  20. In each of these ways,
  21. I was very, very wrong.
  22. Now most people, if they were telling you
    about climate change,

  23. will tell you a story about the future.
  24. If I was doing that, I would say,
  25. "According to the UN,
    if we don't change course,
  26. by the end of the century,
  27. we're likely to get about four degrees
    Celsius of warming."
  28. That would mean, some scientists believe,
  29. twice as much war,
  30. half as much food,
  31. a global GDP possibly 20 percent smaller
    than it would be without climate change.
  32. That's an impact that's deeper
    than the Great Depression,
  33. and it would be permanent.
  34. But the impacts are actually happening
    a lot faster than 2100.

  35. By just 2050, it's estimated,
  36. many of the biggest cities
    in South Asia and the Middle East
  37. will be almost literally
    unlivably hot in summer.
  38. These are cities that today are
    home to 10, 12, 15 million people.
  39. And in just three decades,
  40. you wouldn't be able
    to walk around outside in them
  41. without risking heatstroke
    or possibly death.
  42. The planet is now
    1.1 degrees Celsius warmer

  43. than it was before industrialization.
  44. That may not sound like a lot,
  45. but it actually puts us entirely
    outside the window of temperatures
  46. that enclose all of human history.
  47. That means that everything
    we have ever known as a species,
  48. the evolution of the human animal,
  49. the development of agriculture,
  50. the development
    of rudimentary civilization
  51. and modern civilization
    and industrial civilization,
  52. everything we know about ourselves
    as biological creatures,
  53. as social creatures,
    as political creatures,
  54. all of it is the result
    of climate conditions
  55. we have already left behind.
  56. It's like we've landed
    on an entirely different planet,
  57. with an entirely different climate.
  58. And we now have to figure out
  59. what of the civilization
    that we've brought with us
  60. can endure these new conditions
  61. and what can't.
  62. And things will get worse from here.
  63. Now for a very long time,

  64. we were told that climate change
    was a slow saga.
  65. It started with the industrial revolution,
  66. and it had fallen to us
  67. to clean up the mess
    left by our grandparents
  68. so our grandchildren
    wouldn't be dealing with the results.
  69. It was a story of centuries.
  70. In fact, half of all of the emissions
  71. that have ever been produced
    from the burning of fossil fuels
  72. in the entire history of humanity
  73. have been produced
    in just the last 30 years.
  74. That's since Al Gore published
    his first book on warming.
  75. It's since the UN established
    its IPCC climate change body.
  76. We've done more damage since then
  77. than in all the centuries,
    all the millennia before.
  78. Now I'm 37 years old,

  79. which means my life contains
    this entire story.
  80. When I was born,
    the planet's climate seemed stable.
  81. Today,
  82. we are on the brink of catastrophe.
  83. The climate crisis
    is not the legacy of our ancestors.
  84. It is the work of a single generation.
  85. Ours.
  86. This may all sound like bad news.

  87. Which it is, really bad news.
  88. But it also contains, I think,
  89. some good news,
    at least relatively speaking.
  90. These impacts are terrifyingly large.
  91. But they are also, I think, exhilarating.
  92. Because they are ultimately a reflection
  93. of how much power we have
    over the climate.
  94. If we get to those hellish scenarios,
  95. it will be because
    we have made them happen,
  96. because we have chosen
    to make them happen.
  97. Which means we can choose
    to make other scenarios happen, too.
  98. Now that may seem too rosy to believe

  99. and the political obstacles
    are in fact enormous.
  100. But it is a simple fact --
  101. the main driver of global warming
    is human action:
  102. How much carbon
    we put into the atmosphere.
  103. Our hands are on those levers.
  104. And we can write the story
    of the planet's climate future ourselves.
  105. Not just can -- but are.
  106. Since inaction is a kind of action,
  107. we'll be writing that story ourselves
    whether we like it or not.
  108. This is not just any story,
  109. all of us holding the future
    of the planet in our hands.
  110. It's the kind of story
    we used to recognize only in mythology
  111. and theology.
  112. A single generation
  113. that has brought the future
    of humanity into doubt
  114. now tasked with securing a new future.
  115. So what would that look like?

  116. It could mean solar arrays
    barnacling the planet,
  117. really everywhere you looked.
  118. It could mean if we developed
    better technology,
  119. we wouldn't even need
    to deploy them that broadly,
  120. because it's been estimated
    that just a sliver of the Sahara desert
  121. absorbs enough solar power
    to provide all the world's energy needs.
  122. But we'd probably need
    a new electric grid,
  123. one that doesn't lose
    two-thirds of its power to waste heat,
  124. as is today the case in the US.
  125. We could use some more
    nuclear power, perhaps,
  126. although it would have to be an entirely
    different kind of nuclear power,
  127. because today's technology
    simply isn't cost-competitive
  128. with renewable energy
    whose costs are falling so rapidly.
  129. We'd need a new kind of plane,

  130. because I don't think
    it's particularly practical
  131. to ask the entire world
    to give up on air travel,
  132. especially as so much of the global South
  133. is, for the very first time,
    able to afford it.
  134. We need planes that won't produce carbon.
  135. We need a new kind of agriculture.
  136. Because we probably can't ask people
    to entirely give up on meat and go vegan,
  137. it would mean a new way of raising beef.
  138. Or perhaps an old way,
  139. since we already know
    that traditional pasturing practices
  140. can turn cattle farms
  141. from what are called carbon sources,
    which produce CO2,
  142. into carbon sinks, which absorb them.
  143. If you prefer a techno solution,
  144. maybe we can grow
    some of that mean in the lab.
  145. Probably, we could also feed
    some real cattle seaweed,
  146. because that cuts their methane emissions
    by as much as 95 or 99 percent.
  147. Probably, we'd have to do
    all of these things,

  148. because as with every aspect
    of this puzzle,
  149. the problem is simply
    too vast and complicated
  150. to solve in any single silver-bullet way.
  151. And no matter how many
    solutions we deploy,

  152. we probably won't be able
    to decarbonize in time.
  153. That's the terrifying math that we face.
  154. We won't be able to beat climate change,
  155. only live with it and limit it.
  156. And that means we'd probably need
  157. some amount of what are called
    negative emissions,
  158. which take carbon
    out of the atmosphere as well.
  159. Billions of new trees,
    maybe trillions of new trees.
  160. And whole plantations
    of carbon-capture machines.
  161. Perhaps an industry
    twice or four times the size
  162. of today's oil and gas business
  163. to undo the damage that was done
    by those businesses in past decades.
  164. We would need a new kind
    of infrastructure,

  165. poured by a different kind of cement,
  166. because today, if cement were a country,
  167. it would be the world's
    third biggest emitter.
  168. And China is pouring as much cement
    every three years
  169. as the US poured
    in the entire 20th century.
  170. We would need to build seawalls and levees
  171. to protect those people
    living on the coast,
  172. many of whom are too poor
    to build them today,
  173. which is why it must mean an end
    to a narrowly nationalistic geopolitics
  174. that allows us to define the suffering
    of those living elsewhere in the world
  175. as insignificant,
  176. when we even acknowledge it.
  177. This better future won't be easy.

  178. But the only obstacles are human ones.
  179. That may not be much of a comfort,
  180. if you know what I know
    about human brutality and indifference,
  181. but I promise you,
    it is better than the alternative.
  182. Science isn't stopping us
    from taking action,
  183. and neither is technology.
  184. We have the tools we need today to begin.
  185. Of course, we also have the tools we need
    to end global poverty,
  186. epidemic disease
  187. and the abuse of women as well.
  188. Which is why more than new tools,
    we need a new politics,
  189. a way of overcoming
    all those human obstacles --
  190. our culture, our economics,
  191. our status quo bias,
  192. our disinterest in taking seriously
    anything that really scares us.
  193. Our shortsightedness.
  194. Our sense of self-interest.
  195. And the selfishness
    of the world's rich and powerful
  196. who have the least incentive
    to change anything.
  197. Now, they will suffer too,
  198. but not as much as those with the least,
  199. who have done the least
    to produce warming
  200. and have benefited the least
  201. from the processes that have brought us
    to this crisis point
  202. but will be burdened most
    in the decades ahead.
  203. A new politics
  204. would make the matter
    of managing that burden,
  205. where it falls and how heavily,
  206. the top priority of our time.
  207. No matter what we do,
    climate change will transform modern life.

  208. Some amount of warming
    is already baked in and is inevitable,
  209. which means probably some amount
    of additional suffering is, too.
  210. And even if we take dramatic action
  211. and avoid some of these
    truly terrifying worst-case scenarios,
  212. it would mean living
    on an entirely different planet.
  213. With a new politics, a new economics,
  214. a new relationship to technology
  215. and a new relationship to nature --
  216. a whole new world.
  217. But a relatively livable one.
  218. Relatively prosperous.
  219. And green.
  220. Why not choose that one?
  221. Thank you.

  222. (Applause)