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No one knows how to talk about climate change right now. Not even Robinson Meyer, who writes about it professionally.
On the one hand, the natural consequences of climate change seem increasingly severe and devastating. Just in the past two years, I’ve written about how global warming will probably cause more mega-droughts in Arizona and New Mexico; how dangerously sweltering summer days are three times likelier to occur today than they were in 1900; and how even slightly warmer oceans will destroy the Great Barrier Reef.
On the other hand, a strategy for addressing climate change is coming together. The cost of solar and wind energy are plunging worldwide; carmakers are promising to take more of their fleet electric, and the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere from human activity has stabilized over the past three years. Decarbonizing will be an arduous and difficult global project—but technological development and government policy are finally bringing it into the realm of the possible.
But on the other, other hand, the Trump administration is methodically and successfully undermining the substance of American climate policy. It has spread untruths about climate science, abandoned the Paris Agreement, and stricken dozens of climate-focused EPA rules from the law books.
That’s the state of the world right now. There are three ongoing shifts and no easy way to synthesize them. The facts don’t lend themselves to an overwhelming vision. Instead, they suggest that the planet’s economic system is in the middle of a difficult and supremely important political battle with itself.
It’s into that morass that this week’s New York magazine walks. In a widely shared article, David Wallace-Wells sketches the bleakest possible scenario for global warming. He warns of a planet so awash in greenhouse gas that Brooklyn’s heat waves will rival Bahrain’s. The breadbaskets of China and the United States will enter a debilitating and everlasting drought, he says. And millions of brains will so lack oxygen that they’ll slip into a carbon-induced confusion.
It’s a scary vision—which is okay, because climate change is scary. It is also an unusually specific and severe depiction of what global warming will do to the planet. And though Wallace-Wells makes it clear that he’s not predicting the future, only trying to spin out the consequences of the best available science today, it’s fair to ask: Is it realistic? Will this heat-wracked doomsday come to pass? Many climate scientists and professional science communicators say no. Wallace-Wells’s article, they say, often flies beyond the realm of what researchers think is likely.