Those marvelous horns. Look at them. What do they mean to you? In parts of Africa, India and Eastern Christianity, they are endowed with spiritual traits. In other places, they possess aphrodisiac powers.
It is a mystic aura that brings us to Kazakhstan in the hot spring of 2015. An unsuspecting herd of saiga antelopes gathered for their annual calving season, when suddenly, out of nowhere, disaster struck.
Hundreds, then thousands, ultimately more than 200,000 beautiful, innocent antelopes simply passed, staggering to the ground, never knowing why.
Turns out, an otherwise passive and innocuous bacteria in their bodies was triggered by the unusually high temperatures and humidity of the moment. And that was that. It spread into their bloodstream, and roughly 60% of the endangered subspecies is now…gone.
The story of that discovery and the saiga’s fate was told in this scientific journal piece and later here in the Cornell Chronicle by a staff writer of the university’ s College of Veterinary Medicine.
To David Wallace-Wells, the loss is but one of the tragedies in this and similar tales. The other is the fact he has had to dig through dry scientific journals to find them, instead of running across them in the media he and the bulk of the world’s population reads and watches, or in the movies and music consumed by everyone everywhere.
There is, asserts the New York Magazine writer/editor, “a narrative shortcoming in the mainstream coverage.”
Like most “middle-of-the-road environmentally minded liberals,” as he describes himself, he was generally unaware of the magnitude of the world’s climate crisis — including, for example, that a single bacteria inside our bodies can be triggered so surprisingly by a climate feedback scientists did not see coming and lead so instantly to such massive consequences.
And that is just one item within one of the many dimensions of climate change, in this case public health. Most people generally focus on floods, coastal storms, sea level rise, droughts and wildfires. And sure enough, scientific journals overflow with studies about those five.
But they also reveal dramatic stories across seven others and how they are likely to play out, inescapably and perhaps catastrophically, in the near future, much sooner, in fact, than most citizens and even resilience professionals expect.
These include extreme temperatures (heat and cold), chronic food shortages, the air we will breathe, mass migrations from the climate wars we will fight, where oceans are headed, where the economy is headed, and yes, the saiga-like epic plagues we will face.
So, one year ago next Monday, Wallace-Wells began to build a storytelling bridge. That was the day, 9 July 2017, he published this piece in New York Magazine. The shockwave felt around the world began with the story’s title, The Uninhabitable Earth, and was buttressed by its voluminous scientific references.
For him, the to-alarm-or-not-to-alarm question in climate messaging and communications has been settled. There is, he now believes, “great narrative value in raising the alarm and telling the truth.”
It may have once made sense to muddle the facts and soften story blows, lest readers and viewers became awash with cortisol and allowed their brains to put up all manner of cognitive dissonance and defense mechanisms that impede effective action. But Wallace-Wells, for one, thinks the game changed for good last year.
“Our bubble of delusion has been punctured,” he says in The Interview below, by the terrifying wave of disasters in 2017, added to all that came before.
So brutal has been the impact, so shocking and evident the speed and magnitude of climatic collapse, so glaring and hurtful the inequitable vulnerability of low-resource communities, that to talk about catastrophe is suddenly OK. Polls show greater belief. The stir is on, as is the new storyline.
“We’ve begun to become comfortable with the idea that this is something that touches all communities and weather systems everywhere in the world,” he adds.
As the fog clears and this new, increasingly obvious climate normal emerges from the obscurity of scientific probabilities and sterile partisan debates, it is settling into a consciousness of inevitability, which will make people ever more accepting. Readier to adapt. Open to change.
What today seems so improbable — mass retreat from coastal communities, welcoming countless migrants from climate-torn countries, changing our diet and lifestyles radically, supporting colossal public investments in a new breed of resilient infrastructure — will instead become…well, normal. Maybe even cool.
Resilience to the rescue
Among those already undergoing this transformation, by virtue of their work and life mission, are the professionals and executives engaged in resilience and adaptation in the world’s cities, companies and NGOs — the teams and innovators tasked with developing and executing solutions to protect us from climate’s now inescapable wrath.
In one important way, they must become like the scientists Wallace-Wells follows, who not only have “a real understanding of the ultimate outcomes for the climate,” but face the dangers they discover with poise and resolve.
Wallace-Wells suspects that’s how most people will react when they, too, learn the truth. It is the same assumption made by filmmaker Emmanuel Cappellin in the upcoming documentary Once You Know. and by Rob Hopkins’ Transition movement. Indeed, the bet to make.
As Wallace-Wells dug further into the climate-science community, he “was overwhelmed by how vivid [was] the portrait it painted of a world radically degraded by climate change.”
And yes, there is plenty of doom in those scenarios. The nature of things to come. But Wallace-Wells also sees dramatic narratives and storytelling to break any paralyzing climate funk and awaken us to positive change, grand stories told in bold new ways.
Theology, he believes, is a great, perhaps the best, metaphor. So are visions of epic threats to humanity and civilization, not unlike those depicted in novels and movies, but tied to real science, not thrown to fantasy or science fiction, and always narrated in ways that provoke effective action here and now.
Consider this one: “The pace of Arctic melt is so far beyond what even the darkest doomsayers were predicting a few years ago and really does spell a totally different scale than our resilience warriors were planning for just five years ago. The landscape of what we need to be thinking about and planning for has changed radically.”
And can a narrative get any more dramatic than this:
“We are holding the fate of humanity and the planet in our hands, and that is a story of such a grand scale that it should be irresistible to any of us who encounter it. It is intimidating, but gives so much purpose and clarity of mission.”
To Wallace-Wells, it is “incredibly exhilarating that we are living at this moment and engaged in this dramatic, necessary project to save the planet for humanity. We are being called forth to secure our future in the face of catastrophic impacts, and the only thing stopping us is ourselves.”
(A bit of translation is in order, because to Wallace-Wells, “save humanity” means slashing emissions to keep below 2ºC and avoid collapse. From a resilience perspective, it means taking adaptation steps to, literally, save humanity from climate impacts that can no longer be escaped, like those detailed in The Uninhabitable Earth. That said, we should all feel free to merge both interpretations and turn them into one mission with two fronts.)
“To the extent we all wake up to that threat,” he concludes, “it may become a really important driver of action on climate.”
In this conversation to mark the one-year anniversary of The Uninhabitable Earth, we go back to the 9 July 2017 story, particularly the seven climate changes highlighted by Wallace-Wells, and bring readers and viewers up to date on what has happened since, plus plenty of perspectives on what to expect next.
I want to say “enjoy”, but perhaps a better choice would be, simply…marvel. Wallace-Wells takes us on a 90-minute journey as he came to grips with the true meaning of extreme climate and arrived at a path forward.
So grab your favorite drink, sit back, and hit play, and may his story contribute to your own journey (and, of course, to writing a different ending than the fate of the saiga).