We chat with David Wallace-Wells, climate columnist for New York Magazine, about the limits of individual consumption choices and the necessity of political action to combat climate change. 

Discussed this week:

  • “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming” (David Wallace-Wells, 2019)
United States


00:00:00Jenna yes sir you and I try to live good environmentally ethical lives maybe a bat yes that have a wingspan that's how small I wanted to keep it a kitten size mindful that's what matters but everyone is doing kind of lose it a little bit when I come home and see what's waiting for me I'm a stupid
00:00:34it's a little plastic bag sometimes it's free stuff with a circular Oh you mean those things that look like this but they're just stuffed full of coupons coupon to use about what's on sale at Rite Aid or Foodtown I get those two they drive me up the wall what do you do about it tell me I usually just nutted them off this time it's just directly to the right of my stupid so as I'm walking out by just kind of skip them into the trash when I feel so guilty about it it's like unnecessary guilt or didn't ask for a know my God what else can you do
00:01:17how can I help you hey there I'm calling about my weekly circular I just wanted to call and register that I didn't want it this week again that you don't want it or you didn't get it no no I would not like to I don't want to receive it okay what is the address
00:01:40you've called here before we guarding this I call every week
00:01:49Wesley yes that's me you called every week honey yes
00:01:58is this how you wake up at 5 a.m. like don't you have other that I know you have other things to do I know how busy are you have you have important things I know but this makes me so mad because it's such a breach of the deal that I've made for myself about the kind of person I want to be in the world and to me to walk up to my step and see this white plastic bag again and let me just restate sometimes three yeah it is a microaggression to me you don't like it so what happens when you call I will go ahead and report a letter manages now okay okay you know I have been asking for a manager to give me a call I never I never hear from the manager or anyting I keep getting the circular as in I mean I'm not upset at you obviously you didn't do it I'll go ahead and in the report I will mention that you would like to speak to a manager as soon as possible K well I really appreciate you helping me out no problem thanks
00:02:58you to buy
00:03:06at every week we do this has anything changed did you mean about my blood pressure or about the circulars because the circulars are still there and I'm sure my blood pressure is higher
00:03:19I had this need to do something right I feel like I want to take control somehow rather than accept my fate to get a new circulars every week of the circulars really do they make me angry devil you know it's like this is something that you can deal with us immediately in front of you and I think it's it's emblematic of a way I think that generally a lot of us are feeling when it comes to coping with any kind of environmental issue in this country like on one hand you know a devastating climate report comes out that says the temperature is going to go up in the matter what we do in the consequences will be dire and each day it feels like we're getting a new reports of some sort of devastating extreme weather conditions weather at Stroud's or tornadoes in Alabama or news of another hurricane Androgen California fires point I'm trying to make is that climate anxiety is real and we see it in front of us around us all the time no I mean I definitely feel anxious and I definitely feel
00:04:19like making the circular stop
00:04:22would make me feel a lot better before I go to the house on a Wednesday evening but nothing is changing and so I feel helpless I think another word for what you're feeling is powerless you know when it comes to thinking about what we can do to affect change around the environment it's really hard to feel like we've any power to change anything by calling the Distribution Company mean I care too much of course it's just that maybe there's a better way to show that care
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00:05:37hello David wallace-wells it's Wesley and Jenna how are you guys okay so you wrote an incredible piece in New York Magazine last year called uninhabitable Earth and you just publish a book by the same name congrats and it's really about how we deal with the devastating realities that await us as a result of climate change and I'm calling today specifically to enlist you on a very personal compared to mine too
00:06:08potentially try to change what a one mr. Wesley Morris does every week that's driving him insane what the problem is that make their way around and they look like Sunday paper but they're all in white and then we open them up there's like ten cents off of bananas this week at you know I need to know that have you seen this before I don't think so actually they actually do function is kind of like free litter like you don't want them it's your responsibility to get rid of them and West is on a personal mission to get the company that delivers them to stop doing it because he feels like this is the one thing that he can do to stop climate change make it so much that the whole answer is politics in that the way that we were late for like what we buy and how we consume we'd all be better people if we did that a little bit more responsibly but
00:07:08facts are so small and I think for a lot of people that I actually kind of distract from the real urgency of the need to take political action to vote in particular but also working on that and so I basically think that we can get around to clean up a circular as we can get around to like going vegan and stopping are flying all that stuff but by far the most important thing to do is just to get people into office were seriously and when I look around and I see people arguing about veganism people arguing about what clothes you buy plastic consumption and all that stuff it's so small that off of feels like it's just a way to distract yourself from the real problem you know making us feel active when we're actually not all that active Lord
00:07:55the plastic thing is really interesting because you know it's business as well as like concern about plastic in the oceans which is I mean it's awful. Cynthia gray plastic in the oceans it's gross but there's something so powerful about that image is just like when you look at a photo of water with debris in that you're like that's gross we got to clean that up and climate change is so much more complicated than that like we can't see carbon it's invisible and I think that's one of the reasons that we've been so distracted from you for so long is that it's been really hard to see it it's like always sending it's been told us it's almost like an abstraction we were told it was coming just in time and it was just at their place and it like we respond so much more like yeah but the picture of plastic island in the Pacific or like a picture of a polar bear we can see it but those things are
00:08:55so I don't know if that's like March and also the problem you know. So depressing right and I think that in some ways to deal with the circulars in some ways is disconnected for me from the larger problem like the thing that your book is actually about is the thing I'm trying to live on the flake on the most microscopic level possible and you know this Distribution Company is an affront to my living in like philosophical impractical accordance with the uninhabitable Earth your book I mean I know it seems like a kind of powerful metaphor for the problem so like in the US I think we waste about a third of our food waste like 70% of our electricity like it's literally wasted on the way from wherever it's being produced to your home because our grid is in such bad shape 70% of it which means
00:09:55we like built-in your grid we could cut out like the carbon footprint of our energy production by 70% and there's so many features of modern life like that especially for people in the west like especially relatively well-off people and places like New York City even when we think we're urbanites we live in the city we don't drive much we like why or eating good local food Etc there's so many features of our life that are just full of waste and every one of those wastes does that up I mean I applaud you as though you're a better man than I am like I'm not taking that level but don't Solutions have to be for me to have to be political it's like to get that one company out-of-business it's going to make such a small difference but if for instance like there could be a law that was banning all plastic production you know there could be a lot it was like New York City shirt that has no cars in it like those Solutions gel from like a quite plausible to the kind of Impossible theme in but all the ones that are consequences are achieved through politics and we live in a gross moment we're we're told that we make are more
00:10:55the world through how we consume politically like we register our politics through our will we eat what we wear if I just think like that such a diversion from actual political action like if you really Define listen to the right music as like the most meaningful political Choice ER make a mean obviously music is political but if you're defining that is like a core of your political relationship to the world you're leaving aside so much power that you have in a country like ours to really make it sound like such a naive you know American flag waver or whatever assistance is her but like we still got to like try to make change and I feel like we give up on that too easily and I'd like to enamored with like purchase signaling
00:11:55choices you know all of that and I get it I think I'm trying to reconcile that political imperative with the very real ways that our political system feels on interested in those issues and so how do you how do you make sense of that when were living under Administration that is actively D prioritizing climate change and doing things like extracting the US in the Paris agreement or putting climate deniers in cabinet positions and even though there are exciting you know policy proposals out like the green new deal but everything we read about in here about it is that it's unlikely to pass so how do you get people to see that political change as the most important thing when all signs right now in this moment kind of plate to action on climate change there's a lot of movement so
00:12:5470% of them are concerned about it those numbers are up 15% since 2015 there up 8% since March so you know extreme weather has been like a grotesque creature the California wildfires and actually on California wildfires around the country in the world I think people have really broken up to how horrifying the future could be if we don't change course and he waves are like hurricane after Hurricane in the Caribbean flooding all around South Asia I mean I don't like in Europe there's no credit on bird and a crime of strike there's a movement in the UK. Extinction rebellion in the US we got Sunrise which is like to the green New Deal which is the other questions about it it's basically just like a shaving a principal does not really a piece of legislation you can put into action right now but it puts the science first that's like unprecedented in American political climate history it's like opens with key
00:13:54what's necessary and then tries to find a policy response that could fulfill those goals rather than defining our goals through what's politically possible and that is like sounds like we'll come to pass in something like a form that AFC in at Marquee AMC being Alexandria ocasio-cortez sick like her arrival in the house alone has made climate a much much much more Central issue for a politics and we passed everything about our culture through prisms of politics now so like you know there's a stats about how when you control for race like Democrats and Republicans were actually at the same opinions about the guilt of OJ Simpson and like that it's just Unthinkable now like now everything about the way we think about everything is passed through our partition identities and when you see those numbers
00:14:54hi in that late you're like wow that's actually credible 73% American Life Believe climate change is real 70% of them are worried about it given like how tribalize how partisan politics are in our culture is like it just seems like from any political science metric like things are moving really really fast and the problem is it says we've got twelve years to have to avoid what they call the threshold of catastrophe 2°. Unreasonable Nations will be underwater and if we hit your degrees I mean not to like walk you through the harsh oh but yeah they think that many of the biggest cities in the Middle East
00:15:54unbearably Hot In Summer that you'd agree switch to happen as soon as 2050 the UN thinks there could be two hundred million climate refugees they think that actually could be as high as 1 billion Clyde refugees which is as many as we live in North and South America combined you're warming up the studio in here just dropped 400 bags of circular in my ears right now the question I want to ask you based on all of this stuff which by the way is perfectly explained in evocatively explained in the book like the worst case scenario but eventually you know you're climbing optimism surfaces but what happens between election Cycles I know that the building is the most important thing in that the right people run and I vote for them
00:16:46we're good we're on the path to being good but that's a lot of waiting every two years to make that change what you know there's a lot of Grassroots activism going on all around the world and I think anyone can be a part of that I think you can do you know constituency contact like she'll have to die in time to be optimistic about it they are a reflection of the power that we have over, like if we get to 4 degrees of warming by the end of the century which is what we're on track for that will be because of choices we make going forward there's a little bit of a delay in the climate system but it's not much of a delay and the Diamonds were doing now basically in real-time half of emissions that you have to be is produced and put into the atmosphere on the burning of fossil fuels have come in the last 30 years
00:17:46how much damage can talk or publish his first book of Mormon since the premiere of Seinfeld and we did in all of the centuries before and that's horrible but it also means that like we are doing this we have our hands on the levers in the most important input going forward is Human Action what we do how much carbon we met what action we take you only think about the future like we're heading on track for some really awful outcomes but the scale those Horrors is reflection of just how much power we have to control the climate there kind of deniers you would like others just natural natural you should still want the gas to stop right but I think the thing I keep coming back to in this is voting in this country is really complicated for people of color
00:18:46how do you have things like voter suppression you have things like ballot manipulation North Carolina that things even impact at a very local level not even talking at a presidential not even. Albert things that prevent regular shmegular Jose from getting into office and typically what happens is for low income people are people of color they're the ones that deal with these issues the most and they have the least political representation and tend to be the most impacted by things like climate change up as soon we'll all be as equally impacted by climate change but I don't know how to make sense of that either because of voting their best option and yet the powers-that-be keep those of us that are impacted from being even able to vote what do we do about that
00:19:31Chris heart problems kind of even harder when you look globally you know, change punishes unequally it is already exacerbating and equality but it will exacerbate it more that happens within Nations Plaza happens between nations and you know the people of the middle east and south Asia are already suffering intensely from climate change is also the question of how do we protect call nations in Bangladesh is like really in immediate Peril like over the next Generation they could have you know where half of their population lives underwater and that's not even counting like the kind of economic impacts that would come from all of the additional flooding Beyond like the DirecTV level rise and it's incredible moral burden on the world has a hole on the planet as a whole and I think we're going to see a New Politics and merge you know we had after World War II
00:20:31order come around it was like a man committed to giving rides peace and prosperity Etc. Was often an alibi for bad behavior is often involved continue depression but it was still like the world is probably still better served by A system that like held up those values of sexual than one that didn't and I think it were likely to see a similar system of marriage that really puts the issue of climate change like the very center of political discourse oh you here like MBS the kind of awful leader of Saudi Arabia saying the country's economy is to get off of oil by 2050 100% off while I think you said he wants to get close to that by 2030 and that's the me that contains wisdom about the future of the world that you won't be able to continue producing this stuff and still expect a seat at the table of me as soon as a couple of decades for now because the world is won't allow it they'll be at the very least sanctions and you know it sounds crazy to say but I think that they're cooked
00:21:31behavior on climate and you'll be having a lot of wars that were fought in the name of Human Rights question to ask general election part because I don't think there's really a great answer for it except the answers that we all try to give to that question more generally be on climate which is just we have to fight to give everyone access to the political system is best we can and whether that's through Community organizing whether it's through Federal reform and everything in between is obviously a hugely important factor for climate action as it is important factor for all of our political features because we need to have as many stakeholders invested in this project and pushing the changes that they think their communities needed you know there's a kind of meditate among people who write and talk about climate like how should we talk about it
00:22:31my feelings like any store you have is a good one any idea you have about it as a good one and impulse you have is a good one to even Leslie with your circulars I'm like yeah go for it man like I thought you would look like the most important solution to me but anyway
00:22:56if there is a company that can produce the paper for cure the plastic put the paper in the plastic give all the stacks of paper in plastic to a Distribution Company and have members of that Distribution Company for rolled plastic bags of paper on the people's property and they didn't ask for it it just seems to me like the biggest F you to all the people like me who are trying to reduce their relationship to this stuff and so consequently I feel like calling these people up and just asking them to just please leave me out of this like I'm trying to live this other life over here and you keep trying to implicate me and this other situation now I know it's a Folly David because I have to get off a plastic spoon when I get a yogurt add some Bodega like you to whack a mole you hit one gopher and up comes another one
00:23:56another word for give me just like the main issue here car back if we had a national politics and global politics there really was focused on reducing carbon and like every product was produced of any kind was held to that standard if we can organize that New Politics and that new set of regulations it is actually one thing that were worrying about so if it's held every part of our, every part of our culture II it a carbon standard and I think you know I read a little bit about going to start tingling Supermarket like alongside things that are advertised organic things that are advertisers carpentry but what we really need is to have that kind of grass roots the ugly or pretty approach met with real policy that hold these Comcast to account for for getting on my nerves
00:24:56propping up these businesses many of which are not profitable R&D and infrastructure building and you know helping those communities were going to be hit hardest but just so that they won't be here if we just turn the money from you have from that one Category 2 that second category at the very least would be enough much much better shape and that's like seems so hard to do who wants to like subsidized fossil fuel business aside from the people who run those companies I mean look at it just feels good but we thank you for trying to make us feel better about a paralyzing situation
00:25:59I'm not mad at David Lee's fighting the good fight and I'm going to do everything you said to do I'm I'm a boater I know it's important I also feel like I can't rely entirely on political structures even though this is not to debunk or refute anything like that David is talking about of course he's right but it also doesn't feel like enough for me I mean that's why I'm out there chasing down the circular guy because I want to feel like I'm doing something directly know of course of course and I think that you are literally in the streets but I also think that a lot of people take to their version of the streets which is just social media but they go on social media and they make a lot of noise online to try to effect change and frankly do you know not surprisingly have lost faith in anything that resembles a due process and West they also think
00:26:49living ear Iowa people feel as empowered and maybe even more empowered by a type of cultural voting system that we work together from bubblegum a cat hair but the really from like utilizing social currency and making noise to increase visibility and signal-boosting to get tweets and call-outs Instagram post to Warrant coverage on let's say our morning news show or become a trending topic and then maybe it hits the Times front page and then who knows if it coming to HBO documentary I mean for better for worse that is the way a lot of cultural issues get attention now so what you're talkin about basically it's not new it's not like this just the hashtag is relatively new in the way we've been thinking about direct action but I mean protests and the fruits of protest and that right activist labor that's been around ya ever of course what David is talking about from the standpoint of policy comes right out of environmental activism the reason that what we're going through now between
00:27:49these me to cancellations in the mutants of various peoples is is satisfying is because it's so direct you make the right hashtag and you get the right people to stand behind it or the cause is so undeniably cause worthy and outraged worthy that change actually does happen course and I think that one of the things about the political environment that were in is there so much waiting around to be done this kind of like basically what I asked David Wright like what do I do between voting Cycles I know you. Kelly and not to say that but calling for the muting of R Kelly is not a worthy thing to do but it's another thing that seems immediately consequential and I never feel good when I call the Distribution Company this process to me feels very circular and it doesn't go forward to me it goes it's a loop like every Wednesday for me is groundhog
00:28:49and I wake up it's Wednesday I know what's going to happen when I get home and every Wednesday I keep hoping the outcome is going to be different I tried different scenarios I hope that the person answering the phone is going to be a different person and it's not it's the same you are a Natasha Lyonne in Russian doll but let's see if we can do something different I'll try David's way
00:29:33your reach the New York City office of Senator Charles Schumer due to a high call volume we are currently unavailable to take your call we thank you for your patience and ask that you please try calling again during our normal business hours Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. thank you and have a nice day
00:29:55oh there's no I think they hung up there's no there's no option to leave a voicemail or out here trying we're going to keep trying still processing as a product of the New York Times writers are Sasha Weiss and Marissa Anderson oversight from Lisa Tobin and Samantha henig are Engineers Jake Gorski from the album and you can find all our episodes and fun things like that nytimes.com still processing podcast will be forever grateful stay cool y'all
00:30:58we were this just say to Chuck Schumer hey what do people who work at the New York Times but we're also calling his constituents for freaked out and we want you to do everything you can yes to fight climate change make this a priority and do everything you can thank you very much next was I was just going to ask

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