In New York Magazine’s July 10–23, 2017, issue cover story, deputy editor David Wallace-Wells presents a landmark bird’s-eye-view survey outlining our terrifying best understanding of where our planet is headed, absent aggressive action. The lesson is clear: The planet is simply not prepared to reckon with the scale of the climate threat, or even really to comprehend it. Though it’s relatively easy for us to imagine rising seas, we can’t bring ourselves to consider all the ways in which climate change will imperil human life globally, including the fact that the equator and tropics could become literally too hot for human activity by 2100; that we could lose as much as half our food production to feed a world with twice as many people; that we may come into contact with diseases trapped in arctic ice that haven’t circulated since before humans were around to contract them; and many more.
Based on dozens of interviews and exchanges with climatologists and researchers in related fields, and hundreds of scientific papers on the subject of climate change, Wallace-Wells says when he started working on the piece, the idea was to be faux-naïve and ask the big, simple question: Just how bad could this get? “As I started doing the research and talking to scientists, I realized I had been actually, really, deeply, truly naïve. That my understanding of what kind of climate disasters were possible was so much narrower than people really studying it believed,” Wallace-Wells says. “Like everybody else, I’d been sort of lulled into thinking that something like the median outcome was actually the worst-case scenario, and that really the most we’d have to worry about was the flooding of a few major cities.” The question of why we’re unable to really imagine the dangers we’re facing becomes more important the more it means we aren’t nearly motivated enough to find solutions. “And since we do need to find those solutions, we also probably have to get a lot better at imagining what will happen if we don’t.”