A new climate reality is taking shape as renewables become widespread
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I am Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. World leaders are now meeting in Egypt for a major conference on climate change. If you follow developments on global warming, you might be pretty pessimistic about our planet's future. You may think there's just never any good news. Well, stick with us, and you might hear something a little different.
Six years ago, my guest, David Wallace-Wells, wrote an article in New York magazine called "The Uninhabitable Earth." In it, he laid out some worst-case scenarios of what life on earth might be like if we continued the path we were on, releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. He described drought and famine, intolerable heat and collapsing economies. Some scientists took issue with his dire depictions of the future. He was called an alarmist. Some denounced his writings as climate porn.
Wallace-Wells went on to write a bestselling book called "The Uninhabitable Earth," and he continues to believe that we should be alarmed about the climate. But over the past several months, he's had dozens of conversations with climate scientists, economists, policymakers, activists, novelists and philosophers to assess where we are now. And he has some surprising, new findings in a recent article he wrote in The New York Times Magazine called "Beyond Catastrophe: A New Climate Reality Is Coming Into View." David Wallace-Wells is a staff writer for the magazine and for the Times Opinion pages.
David Wallace-Wells, welcome to FRESH AIR.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.
DAVIES: Well, you know, a few years ago, you were called a climate change alarmist. I don't know. Was that fair? How do you regard your point of view then?
WALLACE-WELLS: I mean, I would say that I'm still an alarmist. I think the changes that we're seeing in - you know, in Pakistan and South Asia this year, the Mississippi almost drying up, the Colorado River drying up, the Danube, the Yangtze, the - you know, the incredible heat waves that we've seen all across the northern Hemisphere - these are all quite scary. They represent really dramatic challenges to the way that we have lived and all the things that we've taken for granted about the stability of the planet's climate for a very long time.
So I'm scared. I'm scared even at 1.2 degrees Celsius of warming, which is about where we are now. And we know almost no matter what we do, that we're going to see significantly more warming from here. We could make it only a very little bit of warming if we move very quickly or a somewhat significant amount of warming if we move somewhat slowly. But we know that more damage and more climate disarray is going to come.
The good news is that some of the scariest scenarios that I wrote about a few years ago and that not just some scientists, but, really, the entire global body of climate scientists were focused on five years ago, seven years ago, 10 years ago, warming of about 4 or 5 degrees Celsius of warming - so three or four times what we're dealing with today - those scenarios look a lot less likely. And so we're looking at a future for ourselves that is dramatically rearranged by warming in ways I think that should alarm us, but not utterly transformed or overwhelmed by its impacts in the ways that we might have imagined in our nightmares as recently as a few years ago.
DAVIES: OK, so there's been a change in projections for the future. I'd like you to explain the yardstick that we're using to measure here. You're talking about 2 or 3 or 4 degrees Celsius. What exactly does that refer to?
WALLACE-WELLS: How much hotter the planet has gotten since the preindustrial average. So for all of human history, the climate conditions of the planet have been remarkably stable, measured in terms of carbon concentrations of the atmosphere or global average temperatures. Of course, there have been weather disruptions. There have been outlier events. But when you average that all together, we evolved as a species, and we developed civilization. And everything we take for granted about human life on this planet - agriculture, all the way up through geopolitics, all of that is the result of climate conditions that held extremely steady for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. And that range of warming that encloses all that history, we describe as about zero degrees of warming. That's what the preindustrial average was. And it was on the basis of that climate that we have come to be the species that we are today and the civilization that we are today.
Beginning a few hundred years ago in certain parts of the world, we started burning all this carbon, particularly with coal, putting it up in the atmosphere. And the result of that is that the planet is sort of encircled, like a blanket, with carbon. And while we think of carbon and carbon dioxide as being a kind of a gas that dissipates, it's actually - it's amazing how much we've actually put up there. In fact, the total is more than a trillion tons, which weighs more than absolutely everything that humans have ever built on this planet still standing on Earth today, which means we've done more to change the composition of the atmosphere and damage the climate's future up there than we've done in changing the landscape of the planet that we live on today. And the result of that is that we've gotten to this point, about 1.2 or 1.3 degrees of warming.
DAVIES: So I want to talk about why the expectation is different now, why there's been this relatively positive movement in the expectations for warming of the planet. One element you write about had to do with the forecasted use of coal. What was the expectation before these adjustments?
WALLACE-WELLS: It was expected at the time, a decade or two ago, that China provided the sort of best model. They had had this incredible period of growth that continued - you know, still continues to this day although in slightly subdued form. And a lot of that had to do with really heavy coal use. So most energy modelers expected that the global South would industrialize through coal. That's one part of the assumption.
The other part of the assumption was that because we had so much coal on planet Earth, because it was such an abundant resource, that even the rich countries in the world who had started to move away from coal, places like the U.S. and Europe, would eventually come back to it just because it was so cheap. And so many energy modelers projected a 21st century in which energy use was just dominated by coal, in which something like five times as much coal was being burned in the year 2100, in some cases even more, than was being burned in the year 2000. And that seemed somewhat plausible given the Chinese path for a period of time. But even China's, depending on how you want to look at it, turning away from coal now. And renewables are now cheaper than coal.
DAVIES: So I think one of the experts that you spoke with said, you know, just adjusting for the expected use of coal would account for about half of the more optimistic warming scenario. There are three elements of the others. One of them is technology. What has changed in technology that has moved the needle here?
WALLACE-WELLS: Well, the big thing is a point that I mentioned when I was talking about coal, which is just that renewable power has gotten much, much cheaper and, at the same time, much more reliable. So since 2010, the cost of solar power has fallen by about 85- or 90%. So a unit of solar power now costs about a 10th of what it did in 2010. And over that same period of time, you know, fossil fuels have not fallen in price at all, which means that, you know, now many renewables are much cheaper than their dirty alternatives. In fact, according to one study, 90% of the world now lives in places where building new renewable capacity would be cheaper than building new dirty capacity. And indeed, in a lot of places, it's already cheaper to build new renewables than even to continue running old fossil fuel plants.
It's not just solar power. Wind, both offshore and onshore, has fallen by between 60- and 80%. Battery technology, which has become even more crucial in making sure that solar and wind power can be used around the clock, not just when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing - that price has fallen by about 80- or 90% as well. So we're living through an incredibly dramatic - people call it a collapse in the price of renewables, which means that solar power has now been called by the International Energy Agency, which is, generally speaking, a conservative forecaster, the cheapest electricity in history.
And the entire landscape of energy investment has really been transformed, both in the private sector and in the public sector, because nowhere in the world - anyone who's looking at these data points and making 10-year, 20-year or 30-year plans, everybody is going to think, well, we should be going all in on renewables here. We shouldn't be building new coal or new oil or new gas capacity. And as a result, that's what's happening. Last year, the IEA marked that we invested more in renewable capacity than in dirty capacity. And in fact, 90%, I think, of the new capacity that was added last year globally was renewable. So we're turning the corner here. We're not moving fast enough, but the energy mix is changing quite dramatically. And a decade or so from now, I think it's going to look very, very different than it does today.
DAVIES: So technology has driven down the price of renewable energy. That will create different market conditions. You say also that politics and policy - changes in approach to public policy are a big element of this. And I have to say, you know, living in the United States, it doesn't exactly feel like that here. You had - you know, President Trump pulled us out of the Paris climate accords. And, you know, Republicans love to mock, you know, the Green New Deal and, you know, wind turbines that go quiet when there's calm conditions. What's the reason for believing that politics and policy have changed in a way that give us more optimism?
WALLACE-WELLS: Well, I'll answer about the U.S. in a second. But I just want to first pull back and take the global picture, which is to say, you know, I finished the manuscript of my book, "The Uninhabitable Earth" in the fall of 2018, four years ago. I had never heard of Greta Thunberg. Nobody had. She had just begun striking outside of Swedish Parliament as a lonely, friendless 15-year-old with a single sign. Now she's the face of a global political movement numbering in the tens of millions. I don't want to reduce that movement to her. There are many, many other leaders all around the world. But we have seen climate marches and climate strikes among the world's youth in hundreds of countries over the last four or five years. We've seen the rise of Sunrise in the U.S., Extinction Rebellion in the U.K., an entire new generation of climate protest politics and a growing recognition - in part as a result of that protest - among the world's public that this is a really urgent, pressing problem.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with David Wallace-Wells. He's a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and for the Times Opinion pages. His new article is titled "Beyond Catastrophe: A New Climate Reality Is Coming Into View." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with David Wallace-Wells. He's a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and for the Times Opinion pages. He has written widely on climate change. His new article is "Beyond Catastrophe: A New Climate Reality Is Coming Into View."
One of the things you note in this article is that people have tended to think of the move from fossil fuels to renewable energy as really expensive. You know, it's, we're all going to all pay a lot for this. You say that there's some thinking that it may be a net financial benefit. Explore this for us.
WALLACE-WELLS: I would put that even more strongly. I think that the conventional wisdom is now that it will pay off quite handsomely and quite quickly. And there have been a lot of reports over the last few years showing that the world would be richer if the transition away from fossil fuels was made more quickly. One big recent report suggested that the global benefit could be on the order of $12 trillion. And this is, you know, just considering the economic benefits. So we're not even factoring in the climate benefits. And then maybe even more significantly, we're not factoring in the public health benefits. And this is something I've written about in other pieces, and just to pause briefly to emphasize it - right now, it's estimated that 10 million people are dying every year from the air pollution produced primarily from the burning of fossil fuels - about 8.7 million from the burning of fossil fuels. Some estimates are a little lower, but they all run into the millions. We're talking about millions of premature deaths every year from the burning of fossil fuels. And we can eliminate those deaths if we get off fossil fuels and power our economies through renewable energy.
Now, the new calculus that says we'll be more prosperous on the other side of a transition doesn't depend on those lives saved. It doesn't depend on the many more people who won't be suffering from respiratory ailments or won't be suffering from cognitive diminishment, higher rates of Alzheimer's and ADHD and a million other ailments that come with air pollution. We're not even factoring in those considerations, and we're not even factoring in the considerations from climate impacts themselves, where if we get off fossil fuels quickly and reduce the number of heat waves and the number of droughts and the number of extreme weather events, flooding events that we're seeing, we'll be better off too. We're not even counting that either. We're just saying, just from the trajectories of economic growth coming from a faster transition, the world will be $12 trillion richer than if we moved a little bit more slowly. Now, when you factor in those other things, the climate benefits and then maybe even especially the public health benefits, it's such an obvious enticement and an opportunity that I don't think anybody looking seriously at the numbers would take any path but through renewable energy.
DAVIES: Right. But the massive buildout will also cost money and that won't drive rates up or car prices up, etc.?
WALLACE-WELLS: The investments are significant in the short term. But even on the sort of five-, 10-year time scale, the returns will be much more significant and sort of outweigh them. So the language of costs and benefits here has been sort of hijacked by climate skeptics who emphasize only the upfront cost. But, you know, one kind of comparative equivalent is we're talking about EVs or installing solar panels on your roof. There are some amount of upfront costs that must be paid. But, you know, you break even pretty quickly, and then you're essentially running on free energy going forward. That's the basic model of the economy as a whole. If we make those investments fast and significantly, we'll all be on the other side of that initial cost burden even faster.
DAVIES: So are we going to see carmakers just deciding, hey, it makes more sense? It's just going to be cheaper to build and run electric cars, and municipal utilities saying, gosh, we're going to - let's invest in wind and solar.
WALLACE-WELLS: I think we're already seeing that. I mean, most of the world's carmakers now have retirement dates for their internal combustion engine fleets, some of them as early as 2030, some of them a little later. California, I believe, has a statewide ban on new internal combustion engine sales in 2030. I think it's possible that the culture shifts even faster than some of those deadlines suggest. There are slightly longer timelines for other kinds of transportation. You know, heavy vehicles and especially, you know, airplanes are not going to be decarbonized anytime soon. But I think the logic of the transition is really clear and universal, which means that almost every decision-maker in every position of power, both in the private and the public sector, you know, they see which way the wind is blowing.
DAVIES: So David Wallace-Wells, we've been talking about how there's some reasons for some optimism here, you know? Decline in the cost of renewables and more of a commitment to climate change has meant that the projections of warming have lowered. But we've still got big problems, right? I mean, even if we get to a more modest rise in the Earth temperature, what are we in for?
WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah. I mean, the story of the last five years has a lot of reason for optimism. We're revising the sort of worst-case scenarios out of existence. But there's also some reason for pessimism, which is to say that the hopeful best-case outcomes we might have been dreaming of are no longer possible. And that means that we are heading for a world well past climate normal and deep, you know, sort of knee-deep, if not neck-deep, into climate disruption and disarray. We're talking about 150 million additional people dying from the effects of air pollution, from the burning of fossil fuels - 150 million. We're talking about flooding events that used to hit once a century hitting many parts of the world every single year. We're talking about heat waves tripling, you know, in parts of South Asia and the Middle East, places becoming so hot during summer that, you know, routinely, people wouldn't be able to walk around outside or certainly wouldn't be able to work outside without risking heatstroke and, possibly, death. It's a dramatically different world.
Now, I don't think it's a world of, you know, civilizational collapse or human extinction. But it is, really, a redrawn map, which we have no analogue for in our entire history. And as a result, I think it asks some important questions not just about how are we going to limit warming to that level, but what are we going to do to engineer life on the other side that allows us to flourish in the ways that we might hope? And that is less of a scientific question than a political question. And I think we're beginning to see the climate discourse turning a little bit in that direction.
DAVIES: Right. You talk about adapting to this new world even if, you know, it's not as apocalyptic as one that might have been predicted. You say we might see something like a global construction project. What will we build?
WALLACE-WELLS: Well, there are many different kinds of projects. I mean, in New York, where I live, they're contemplating a system of sea gates to enclose New York Harbor and protect from sea level rise and flooding. That's going to cost tens of billions of dollars.
DAVIES: Gates out in the middle of the - what? - I guess the Verrazzano Narrows or out - and stopping ocean water from rising?
WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah. Exactly. And where I'm speaking to you from today, Houston, they are undertaking a similar project to protect coastal Houston and Galveston called the Ike Dike. That's also going to be a project of tens of billions of dollars. You can do a lot of this flooding protection in more natural, less engineered ways through restored wetlands and, you know, cultivated mangrove forests. But that takes considerable planning as well.
We're also thinking we will need to rebuild much of our infrastructure both because, you know, many - much of our present infrastructure is carbon-intensive - if cement were a country, it would be the world's third biggest emitter - but also because all of it was built for climate conditions that no longer prevail, which means that it's much more vulnerable to things like heat than - the future that we'll be living in will have. We also need to be thinking about new kinds of crops and ways of growing crops that can be - that can thrive in conditions of drought and heat and many, many other sorts of reengineering projects besides.
And I haven't even mentioned what's probably the biggest project, which is actually rebuilding the global energy system in a way that will not produce any carbon and allow us to limit temperature rise to two degrees. And the scale of that project is a bit up in the air. We don't know the exact mix of wind and solar and other - you know, other energy sources, nuclear, hydropower, geothermal, maybe some futuristic stuff like tidal power. But, you know, those who are studying the material closest say, even in an optimistic scenario, we're probably talking about 1% of the land mass of the U.S. being turned over to wind and solar. That's an area bigger than the size of Maine.
And each of those projects will, of course, engineer - you know, produce quite a bit of local opposition, which, you know, ultimately will have to be overcome. Now, again, we don't really know how this is all going to play out. But we know that the oil and gas business has been the basic infrastructure of the modern world now for a very long time. And we need to replace all of it. The IPCC, the U.N. climate change body, also says, in addition to that transformation, we need to build a new infrastructure to allow us to capture carbon out of the atmosphere and restore it to the earth to reduce carbon concentrations. And that - we'll need to build that infrastructure at such a scale that it will itself be something like twice as big as today's oil and gas business. So we're talking about a massive, massive project. Some people call it a new industrial revolution. You know, truthfully, you could describe it in even grander terms than that, I think.
DAVIES: We need to take another break, David. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with David Wallace-Wells. He's a staff writer for the New York Times magazine and for the Times Opinion pages. He's the author of the book "The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming." His new article, which has some interesting, new material on climate change projections, is titled "Beyond Catastrophe: A New Climate Reality Is Coming Into View." He'll be back to talk more after a short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALBERTO IGLESIAS' "VALSETTO")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with New York Times science writer David Wallace-Wells, who's written extensively about climate change. In a new article for The New York Times Magazine, Wallace-Wells writes that due to dramatic declines in the price of renewable energy and concerted efforts made to fight global warming, estimates of the expected rise in the Earth's temperature are now a little more than half what they were just a few years ago. But he says we're still in for far-reaching and painful effects from climate change. His new article is titled "Beyond Catastrophe: A New Climate Reality Is Coming Into View."
Many leaders in parts of the world that are not as wealthy - what people call the global South - have said, look, we didn't do this. You wealthy countries did this, and you owe us reparations or assistance for us to adapt to this new world. What do those movements look like? What do those - where is that playing out?
WALLACE-WELLS: Well, just to set the stage a little bit, you know, those are not specious claims. Pakistan, which, this year, suffered unbelievably bad monsoon flooding, pushing tens of millions out of their homes, destroying a year's worth of crops - this is a country that has produced in its entire industrial history only as much carbon emissions as the U.S. produces every single year. And because carbon hangs in the air for centuries, if not millennia, anything that U.S. - the U.S. did 50 years ago or a hundred years ago is still heating the planet just as efficiently as a piece of coal burned in China today. It's - there's a sort of a mind-bending time feature about that since carbon lasts so long.
The U.S., as a country, is responsible for about one-fifth of all of the climate damage historically done through carbon emissions. All of sub-Saharan Africa - 800 million people - are responsible for about 1%. And many of these impacts are going to be visited upon the global South, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, much more intensely than they would be in the northern latitudes because many of those places are much closer to thresholds of real climate difficulty, 'cause they're much hotter already, and also because they have many fewer resources to respond and adapt. So climate scientists have recognized this dynamic from the beginning. Climate political leaders have recognized it for decades.
And starting as early as the 1990s, many of those leaders of climate-vulnerable countries began calling for a recognition of this problem and a sense of responsibility from the global North to help those countries whose futures they've damaged get over the hump and continue to thrive. That has been a sort of marginal call in climate politics for a long time. It was somewhat enshrined in the Paris Agreement under the 1.5-degree goal, the more ambitious 1.5-degree goal that was put into that agreement because it was produced by vulnerable countries saying 2 degrees isn't safe for us, whatever you say.
But in general, the global North has not been nearly as attentive to these needs as the leaders of those climate-vulnerable countries would like. And perhaps the most clearest embodiment of that is that those countries, the rich countries in the world, promised in 2009 and then reaffirmed that promise in 2015 to send a hundred billion dollars every year to the global South to help them adapt.
We have still not met that target. Even the most generous assessment of our giving, which includes all of this interest-bearing loans - so it's not exactly like climate philanthropy - doesn't get us up to a hundred billion dollars. Over the same period of time, those climate-vulnerable nations have realized just how much more money they actually need than just a hundred billion dollars billion a year. And in fact, a new U.N. report just suggested that the total cost would be in the trillions annually by 2030. So we're very, very far off from those commitments.
But the discourse is moving in that direction. We are talking about climate change in these terms - in terms of reparations, in terms of what's called loss and damage - for the first time sort of on the main stage. Things are moving in the right direction even though, you know, nobody in the global North is sort of willing to pony up the money that those in the global South say they need. So it's a little hard to assess exactly where we are except to say that for the first time, this is the center of the climate conversation. We just don't know exactly where it will lead.
DAVIES: Well, you know, this is a point to bring up a fundamental difficulty in addressing this issue, which undermines optimism, at least for me and for a lot of people. And that is that, you know, this is a global threat, and we are a world of nation states, who are led by people who are focused on maintaining their power through winning elections or maintaining popularity. And so they're going to tend to focus - their highest priority will be domestic politics. And that's often not associated with spending tax dollars on people across oceans, who - however much they may deserve it. This is a huge question, but how do we get past it?
WALLACE-WELLS: Well, I think there are sort of two different aspects to that. You know, it used to be the case that the dilemma that you posed was the one faced by climate leaders, political leaders at the national level trying to decarbonize. They thought that undergoing that process, undergoing that transition would be burdensomely expensive, and they were reluctant to do it as a result. Now, because of the new economics of renewable power that we've talked about, almost all of those leaders see the benefits in moving more quickly to decarbonize.
And that's really good for a number of reasons. But among them is that it sort of liberates us from this prisoner's-dilemma approach to decarbonization that we thought we were in a decade ago. And it means that we don't have to ask the poor countries of the world to develop more slowly in order to protect the planet's climate. We can, in fact, tell them - and they see themselves - that decarbonizing means that they will be growing more prosperous more quickly. So we've sort of, like, eliminated the collective-action problem that we thought was dominating climate change for a very long time and replaced it with a kind of a self-interest model, which, whatever you think about it, I think, is going to produce somewhat faster movement than we've seen over the last few decades.
But on the adaptation and resilience side, which is to say, how do people protect themselves from climate damages, who pays for those projects, who pays for that, you know, increased resilience, it's a much trickier question. And exactly as you say, the geopolitics are hard to sort out in a way that sort of lines up with any objective accounting of the moral responsibility here, which is to say the rich countries of the world really did cause this problem.
They really did benefit from carbon emissions, which have poisoned the future of the global South. We are rich, in part, because of fossil fuel-powered economic activity over the last couple of centuries. And, you know, as a result, we should take seriously the debts that we've effectively imposed on the world's poor and their future and try to do something at least to alleviate those burdens.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with David Wallace-Wells. He's a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and for the Times Opinion pages. His new article is titled "Beyond Catastrophe: A New Climate Reality Is Coming Into View." We'll talk more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE GROUP'S "IOWA TAKEN")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with David Wallace-Wells. He's a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and for the Times Opinion pages, and author of the book "The Uninhabitable Earth." His new article is titled "Beyond Catastrophe: A New Climate Reality Is Coming Into View."
You know, as we're meeting, there's this big climate conference going in Egypt. It's called COP27, which, if I have this right, is the abbreviation for the 27th session of the conference of the parties to the U.N. Climate Convention, meaning that these parties have met 26 times before. I think there's sort of a view of climate conferences that they are cases where people make speeches and promises and then nothing happens. Is that too cynical?
WALLACE-WELLS: I think, essentially, the Paris accords started a new chapter in this story in, you know, organizing the world's countries in an unprecedented way to combat the challenge of climate change. And it's been aided in that because of some of the transformations we've been talking about in the price of renewables and the global political awakening. As a result, you're starting to see much more aggressive climate policy just about everywhere in the world, some of it more binding than other - than in other places, some countries making more significant investments than others.
But in general, you know, we now have something like 90% of the world's GDP and 90% of the world's emissions committed to zeroing out carbon sometime in the middle of the century. And that was just a totally unthinkable proposition as recently as five or 10 years ago. Many of those things, you know, we're not doing what we need to make those real and make those come true. But at least at the rhetorical level, the world's leadership is saying the right thing. You can judge them for their shortfalls. I think we should. But I think we also have to note that the rhetorical commitment amounts to some kind of progress. Although, we also probably have to judge it as a failure that if they're organized around the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, we're still well, well off that mark. And both things are true at once.
And that's basically the big story on climate more generally. You know, there is good news on the worst-case scenario end. There's bad news on the best-case scenario end. We're looking at a future that is post-normal and sub-apocalyptic and trying to figure out how to navigate that world, among other ways, geopolitically. How are we going to organize a global political response to a transformed world? That's what's among the things that's being sorted out at conferences like COP27. And I think we - you know, we have a lot more work to do there. But I'm glad to see matters like adaptation and loss and damage, which are, you know, designed to limit the vulnerability of the poor countries in the world, sort of taking center stage at these conferences, where they used to be talked about only on the fringiest margins.
DAVIES: You know, this conference is happening as the war in Ukraine continues. How is that affecting global energy management? Is it affecting the way we should think about efforts to combat global warming?
WALLACE-WELLS: Well, it's had a complicating, multifaceted effect. You know, the sort of first order impact was to drive prices of particularly gas, but also oil, very high. That's why the U.S. had such high gas prices this year. It's why Europe is facing an incredible energy crisis this winter. I'm not - you know, it seems likely they're going to avoid the worst-case scenarios and avoid, you know, people freezing in their homes. But the price of that energy is incredibly high. But the lesson of that, I think, for most people observing the story from any kind of broad view perspective is that we don't want to be in hock to autocrats and petrostate dictators. We don't want our cost of living to be affected by the geopolitical whims of a sort of warmongering dictator like Vladimir Putin. And we want to build a kind of energy security, energy resiliency that allows us to live totally independently of those forces.
And in fact, that's actually what we're seeing in Europe. There's been a lot of worry over the last year that the European continent was turning towards coal in response to the gas crunch. And they have to some degree. They've started up some coal plants that they had retired. And they're burning more coal. And that's bad in the short term. But even on the five-year or the 10-year horizon, the International Energy Agency just recently estimated the continent is actually going to be further along the energy transition than they would have been without the invasion because it's prompted more investment in a renewable transition, which will insulate them from these kinds of forces and this kind of blackmail in the future. But there's also a whole other story unfolding, which is the effect of all this on the global South. And I think this is a bit darker as a story.
You know, the reason that gas prices are so high - natural gas prices are so high in Europe is because there are more people now bidding for that gas than there is gas. And when that happens, it's the rich who win out. So Europe has gotten, actually, basically, all the gas that it wanted. It stored enough gas this winter. It stored more than the gas it was hoping to store this winter already. But the result is that there's much less of it going to poorer parts of the world. And we're seeing in places like Bangladesh and Pakistan already rolling blackouts as a result of the energy crisis in Europe, as a result of the invasion of Ukraine.
And this question of distribution, who's living in a manageable way given disruptions from the energy crisis and who is suffering more is - you know, effectively, it's a moral question, which our markets are unable to properly deal with. You know, and I think it's a major hole in the geopolitical structure governing the energy transition generally. I think, in the long view, we can say many of the poorer countries of the world will benefit considerably from a green transition because they are much more rich in renewable resources than they are in dirty energy resources. They won't have to import that stuff from other countries. They won't have to be paying, you know, countries like Saudi Arabia or Russia for the right to power their homes. They can actually be - you know, be renewable energy powers themselves. But the transition itself is going to be tricky for them. And the experience of the last year, you know, tells one kind of disheartening story about the way in which the global north can protect itself while leaving the global south vulnerable to the spillover effects of the crisis that we're facing.
DAVIES: You know, I'm wondering, as you talk to, you know, this wide collection of experts for this story - and some of them, you know, philosophers and novelists, as well as economists and scientists - did anybody see exciting potential in the threat that this problem has generated, that, you know, you mentioned a guy named Tim Sahav (ph), and he thought, well, maybe we're going to see some really interesting things develop as people try and adapt to this new world.
WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah. You know, I think in general, in the really big picture, there's a lot of room for optimism. And I think as, you know, sort of incumbent powers as rich people in a world of wealth inequality, it's, you know, it's sort of a natural reaction to worry about large-scale changes and worry about what that will mean for us. But a reordering of global priorities, global energy systems and global politics can be beneficial, too. So you've seen recently some early indications of there being a formation of kind of a lithium OPEC, countries that are producing this essential mineral for - lithium is necessary for EVs and also other parts of the green energy transition, sort of thinking about how to model their own relationship to international supply chains on the empowering model embraced by the Gulf states.
Now, OPEC has a bad name in the U.S. for many reasons. And it may be that this approach works out poorly, too. But there's something, on some level, encouraging about seeing poor countries endowed with great natural resources that are necessary for the energy transition taking seriously the new power that they have in this global economy. We're seeing another similar, like, OPEC-style approach to deforestation and the protection of rainforests maybe led by Lula, the new president of Brazil. And so, you know, beyond which there's the possibility that places, say, in sub-Saharan Africa could become really massive providers of green energy to the rest of the world because they are much more abundantly resourced in something like solar power than countries of Europe, which, you know, much darker skies and much cooler days.
These climate impacts, they seem overwhelming, they seem dramatic, and they are. They are real challenges to the way that humans live. But they are only half the story. They are only the landscape on which we're going to build that future. What kind of future is built is not just a matter of what the United States decides. It's also a matter of what the developing world decides, how they decide to build their own energy systems, how they decide to build new geopolitical alliances that will empower them in this transition and after. And we don't yet know the answer to that story, but we do know that the changes will be significant and will help define the 21st century as a climate century, not just in terms of climate impacts, but also in terms of the changes to our society and the politics prompted by climate change, which may well bring us a more prosperous and just equitable future, even in spite of the dramatic climate impacts that we now know are inevitable.
DAVIES: David Wallace-Wells, thank you so much for speaking with us.
WALLACE-WELLS: My pleasure. Good to talk to you.
DAVIES: David Wallace-Wells is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and for the Times Opinion pages, and author of the book "The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming." His new article is titled "Beyond Catastrophe: A New Climate Reality Is Coming Into View." Coming up, David Bianculli reviews the new Paramount+ TV series "Tulsa King," starring Sylvester Stallone, and the new season of "Yellowstone," starring Kevin Costner. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.