(quirky music) - I've never been an environmentalist.
I still don't really think of myself an environmentalist.
I have lived my whole life in New York City.
I walk down these concrete streets looking up at these steel buildings and felt myself always, that I was living somehow outside of nature.
As a journalist who is sort of interested in the near future, I was just seeing more and more scientific research coming out about just how scary climate change could be.
Made me realize in a really profound way that modern life is not outside of nature, it is subject to it's forces.
When I started working on the subject in late 2016, early 2017, most of the scientists I spoke to were more candid, more alarmed, in private conversations than they were in their own work.
That's for a number of reasons, but in part because there had been a kind of communications, messaging, conventional wisdom around climate that it was dangerous to scare people.
And I think the public was poorly served by that because someone like me who is engaged in the issue but not focused on it simply didn't understand the scope of what we were dealing with, and as a result was essentially complacent in his own actions and his own political life.
I really wish I had been shown the naked truth so that I could make up my own mind about what was necessary and how to respond.
- Hey guys, Joe here.
Welcome back to Hot Mess.
David Wallace Wells is a journalist who's become well-known over the past couple of years for writing about the most dangerous, alarming, and downright terrifying things that'll happen over the next century thanks to climate change.
His book "The Uninhabitable Earth" is a sober, or maybe even terrifying warning about the worst case climate change scenarios.
And it's notable, not only for how alarming a picture it paints of our possible future, but for how different it is from the way that people usually write about climate change.
Because according to "conventional wisdom," and the advice of people who've studied how to best communicate difficult ideas, fear and alarm are things that we should avoid.
But that seems to be changing.
More and more people are getting alarmed, and they're talking about it.
- The major event in this trajectory was the U.N. IPCC Report from last October.
What was being presented as a whole lot of terrifying science is actually maybe better even than we can hope for.
And yet, it came presented by the scientific community in this new kind of language.
A much more alarmist, much more grab-you-by-your-collar and-yell-at-you kind of language.
And I think the response to that has been really remarkable.
I mean, all of the new political momentum that we've seen about climate over the last nine months came in the immediate aftermath of that report.
So, Greta Thunberg starting her climate strikes, Extinction Rebellion starting in the U.K., Sunrise here in the U.S..
The fact that we now have a Democratic presidential campaign in which all of the candidates are in a kind of an arms race to produce who can do the most ambitious climate policy.
That was unthinkable a year ago, and I really think that the U.N. report had a lot to do with it, because it was for the first time scientists speaking quite candidly, not just about the science, but how scared that the science made them when they really looked at it closely.
And yet, I do think their perspective on the issue has taken on a kind of new urgency.
Primarily, I responded to the science through fear, and that made me a much more committed, much more engaged climate person than I had ever been before.
- That's what many people have found so surprising, that fear can actually make people more engaged.
We've talked about that before right here on this channel, when we sat down with Kati Morton.
- When pushed about something that's difficult, or hard, or stressful, if we come at it head on we are essentially forcing people into fight, flight, or freeze.
- Psychologists think fear is good at getting people's attention, but that it also carries risks.
They might shut down, or look away, or choose to disengage.
But maybe that's different when it comes to climate change, at least for some people?
- But that doesn't surprise me, and I don't think it should surprise anyone else because fear is an incredibly powerful motivator.
Now, I don't think that fear is the only way to tell the story of climate.
I think there are many, many ways.
In fact, I think the story is just so big, we have to understand that it's kaleidoscopic.
If the science is alarming then it's okay to alarm readers with it, to alarm people with it.
And in fact it's the only, I think, responsible way to respond to that news.
- So what proportion of people do you have to reach, do you have to get engaged with climate science and the effects of climate change before we actually do something about it that will reverse these trends?
Because that hasn't happened, at least not here in the U.S.
The U.S., for good reason, is the focus of much of this discussion about how to motivate people around climate change, because this country is, A, the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases next to China; and B, hugely polarized and divided along partisan political lines when it comes to acting on it.
But it might surprise you to learn that people's belief that climate change is happening is not that divided at all.
- 73% of Americans believing in climate change, that strikes me as an amazingly high number.
That means that some significant portion of Republicans believe in the issue.
And given how tribalized, how partisan, our politics are, to me, if you're hoping to get that number to 100%, you're focusing on the wrong problem.
The much bigger problem is that those 70, or 73% depending on how you count, don't care enough about the issue yet.
They are mindful of it, they're concerned about it, they want the government to solve the problem, but they're not orienting their entire political worldview around this challenge, and they're not demanding that their political leaders make policy that reflects that urgency.
- That's a lot of people that could potentially start paying attention, demand change.
If we could only get them to engage.
But we do have to be conscious of the risk that fear, and doom, and talking about all the bad things that climate change will bring might have an unintended side effect of just being so awful, and negative, and hard to deal with that it turns some people off, and instead of engaging them, it causes them to disengage.
On the other hand, talking about all the bad stuff might get more people who weren't paying attention to pay attention.
I asked David about how we figure out that trade-off.
- You know, there are people who may feel themselves sort of on the brink of despair and fatalism, and may take an avalanche of bad news... You know, that may push them over the edge and make them disengaged.
I think that that is true for a slice of the population.
The number of people who are not concerned enough about climate is so, so much bigger than the number of people who are at risk of being too worried about climate change.
And if it were the cost that we turn off a few of these quite committed people by overwhelming them, but the benefit is we mobilize and motivate many, many of these complacent people, that would be, on net, a win.
The best antidote for fatalism is progress.
It's not hiding from the science.
- This brings us to a paradox that we've come to many times on this show.
One person's actions don't make much of a difference when it comes to fighting climate change, but big, collective actions like the sort that we need are made up of a whole lot of individual people.
And this is a question that lots of people wrestle with, including me.
Where should we focus most of our energy?
Our individual actions, or politics and policy?
- I happen to feel that basically, only politics matters.
Politics is there to solve precisely these kinds of problems.
We don't arm ourselves to defend against foreign invasion, we pay money collectively to build an army.
We don't all educate our children in our homes, we pay money so that public school systems can do that for us.
There's no reason to think of climate in different terms.
This is what politics is for.
It can solve this problem if we empower it to.
If we're defining real engagement on this issue, you know, you can never take a trip on an airplane, you can never eat a hamburger again, but you could also never think about anything but the climate crisis.
Then you're gonna have very few soldiers in that war.
And because this is a political war that we need to fight, we need a lot of those soldiers.
So my perspective is, take all comers.
Even if someone wants to think about climate change for a half hour a week, but they wanna do it in a politically productive way, that's fantastic.
- Though we mostly talk about climate change in scientific language, and we focus on scientific evidence, and scientific modeling of its effects, climate is bigger than just science, because everything touches climate, and everything exists within climate.
When you consider we're talking about basically our whole lives, how can you not be alarmed if you're paying attention?
And how can you possibly find any hope in that?
- This is not a story that's going to resolve in a neat way, like it's all gonna be okay, or it's all gonna be disaster.
We're all gonna be muddling through a world that is completely transformed by this force.
Climate change is here.
The planet's already 1.1 degrees warmer than it was before industrialization.
It's almost certainly gonna get considerably worse, but how much worse is ultimately up to us.
The main driver of this story is how much carbon we put into the atmosphere, which means that our hands are on those levers, and the choices we make going forward are going to write the story of the next century.
- For me, as someone who, I think it's safe to say, thinks about climate change more than the average person, I've found this new focus on fear and worst case predictions, it's actually kind of motivating.
I've put a lot of energy into trying to reach people using that "old conventional wisdom," and nothing much has changed.
And to be honest, sometimes it's discouraging.
This gives me some new hope, even if it is difficult to face.
But what do you think?
We'd love to know.