William Brangham (PBS): You have actually argued that panic can be — that panic is appropriate in response to this, and that panic can be productive. How so?
David Wallace-Wells: The U.N. says that, in order to avoid catastrophic levels of warming, we need a global mobilization at the level of World War II. We know, from history, we didn’t fight that war out of hope or optimism. It was out of fear and alarm.
Four degrees of warming, we would have, the U.N. suggests, as many as a billion climate refugees. That’s as many people as live in North and South America combined. We would have $600 trillion of climate damages. That’s double all the wealth that exists in the world today.
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“For every half a degree of warming we are expected to see between 10% and 20% increase in conflict, so if we get to where we are going, by the end of the century we could have twice as much war as we have today, and that conflict happens even at the individual level, so we’ll see rises in murder rates and rape, domestic assault. It spikes the rate at which people are admitted to mental hospitals. Absolutely every aspect of life on this Earth is scheduled to be transformed by climate changes, and that really is what my book is about, not just what the science tells is going to happen, but how the way that we will live will be changed by these forces.”
I think we had long thought that climate change was happening very slowly, that it was unfolding, at fastest, at about a decade timescale, more usually like centuries, and we didn’t have to worry about it in our own lives, maybe even our children’s lives, but it was something to worry about for our grandchildren.
More than half of all the emissions that we have put into the atmosphere in the entire history of humanity, we have done in the last 30 years. And that means that we’re doing this damage in real time and in the space of a generation. So the speed is really overwhelming.
When nuclear weapons are exploded, the high temperatures cause nitrogen in the air to react with oxygen, producing oxides of nitrogen. In explosions larger than about one megatonne, the fireball of the explosion rises the 10 or 15 kilometers necessary to deposit much of these oxides of nitrogen in the stratosphere, where the oxides of nitrogen destroy ozone. Since stratospheric ozone absorbs ultraviolet light from the sun, the net consequence of large nuclear explosions is an increase in ultraviolet light at the earth’s surface.
“the blinding of insects, birds, and beasts all over the world; the extinction of many ocean species, among them some at the base of the food chain; the temporary or permanent alteration of the climate of the globe, with the outside chance of ‘dramatic’ and ‘major’ alterations in the structure of the atmosphere; the pollution of the whole ecosphere with oxides of nitrogen; the incapacitation in ten minutes of unprotected people who go out into the sunlight; the blinding of people who go out into the sunlight; a significant decrease in photosynthesis in plants around the world; the scalding and killing of many crops; the increase in rates of cancer and mutation around the world, but especially in the targeted zones, and the attendant risk of global epidemics; the possible poisoning of all vertebrates by sharply increased levels of Vitamin D in their skin as a result of increased ultraviolet light” (p. 93).
The belief in nuclear extinction seems to have inhibited peace movement thinking about the development of long term strategies … for transforming the institutional roots of war. A less-exaggerated assessment of the effects of nuclear war does not necessarily mean less concern. Instead, hopefully, it can lead to more penetrating analyses and more successful strategies for ending the nuclear threat.