As just one person facing the large crowd assembled to hear the keynote lecture on his New York Times-bestselling book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, journalist and climate change scientist David Wallace-Wells both exemplified and spoke to the power of simplicity in storytelling about global climate change.
He began with the humble proclamation that he “does not think of [himself] as an environmentalist” and that he has only recently been awakened to the reality of climate change after realizing that he had lived under delusions about the status of the environment.
With this realization, he expressed his belief that the most effective alarm for himself, and many other humans, is awakening to the horrors of climate change’s devastating ramifications.
In order to make these impacts feel intimate and urgent, he delivered unadorned, yet harsh, truths that dispelled the myths that have made climate change feel distant, nebulous, or unsolvable.
“This, [climate change], is not a compartmentaizable threat — it is a theater in which we conduct all of our lives,” Wallace-Wells said.
The first concept he presented in this category of environmental alarmism was the speed of change. Contrary to belief about the slower pace of climate change, he explained the frightening rapidity with which the global temperature has increased over time and continues to rise as a result of human behavior.
Alluding to the immediate obstacles that his daughter will encounter as she grows up in this environmental and geopolitical landscape and the foreseeable economic repercussions of climate change, Wallace-Wells noted that “impacts are right around the corner.”
He also supported this argument with references to the various tangible effects that have been seen from just one degree of global warming, such as the fifth 500-year rainstorm to hit the Houston area within the span of the past five years.
Expanding the scope of these current observations of disquieting environmental tragedies, Wallace-Wells also commented on the severity of the threat and projected further dilemmas arising from even slightly higher increases in the global temperature.
“No aspect of life will be untouched,” he said.
In addition to increased frequency of violent storms, other disconcerting consequences that humans will face if the planet continues to get hotter include economic devastation, mass exodus of climate refugees, exacerbation of war and declines in agricultural production.
Through this discussion of climate facts and trends, Wallace-Wells appealed to the human emotion of fear and employed these tactics to shake people out of complacent inaction and realize that climate change has horrifying reverberations that will echo across the globe.
“For the foreseeable future, the main driver of climate change is human action,” Wallace-Wells said, with the comment that “inaction is a kind of action.”
By revealing the grim outlook of the current trajectory toward elevated global temperatures appears grim, Wallace-Wells hopes to invoke a sense of the immediacy of climate change so that people can begin to discuss actionable ways in which they can respond to the current reality.
“This message about fear of these climate catastrophes being a better motivator than hope was really interesting,” said senior Julia Stevens, who also works as the waste reduction assistant for the Wake Forest Office of Sustainability. “Using fear as a tool is innovative.”
Within this journalistic narrative of the brutal truth behind climate change, he explained that humans can either continue to play the role of the passive antagonist, or challenge the pessimistic projection by transforming into active protagonists.
“We are now tasked with securing a future for ourselves and scientists say we have 30 years to write the next act,” said Wallace-Wells.
Explaining that humans have the capability to enact positive change was a flicker of hope in the midst of an otherwise disheartening discourse about the issue of climate change.
Concluding his talk, Wallace-Wells offered one final potential avenue for environmental remedy.
“More than new technology and more than new tools, what we need is new politics,” said Wallace-Wells.
Humans have the scientific knowledge and technological capabilities to combat global warming, but they need the political willpower in order to address these issues and meet the obligation of managing the burden of dealing with climate change.
He acknowledged that humans have the power to either speed up or reverse climate change, and recently, the political landscape has shown the potential for positive transformation, including the recent climate strikes led by Swedish activist Greta Thunburg and the political protests of the Extinction Rebellion in the U.K.
These are the foundations for what could be a reversal of previous negative human impact and a transition toward sustainable human action.
Focusing on these increases in environmental consciousness, Wallace-Wells explained that “what stands before us is a challenge of not only incomprehensible scale but also undeniable urgency” and that concern about climate change must be matched by mass mobilization of environmental activist.
In this vein of thought, the talk then transitioned into a collaborative conversation between Wallace-Wells and journalism professor Justin Catanoso about environmentalism and perspectives on climate change.
During this discussion, Wallace-Wells expounded upon his talk by revealing why he believes that the frightening truth of climate change is a story worth telling, because fear is an intimate human emotion that operates as a propelling force that motivates people to act in the face of the immediate and urgent issue of climate change.
Due to the shared human experience of fear and the implications that climate change holds for everyone, this is a universal call to conversation about this environmental dilemma.
Localizing the malaise about climate change, Catanoso encouraged the Wake Forest community to collectively confront the environmental problems facing us.
“Pro Humanitate should be the motto of climate action,” he said.