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Volts podcast: David Wallace-Wells on the ravages of air pollution
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Volts podcast: David Wallace-Wells on the ravages of air pollution
It's real bad. Arguably worse than climate change.
7

In this episode, journalist David Wallace-Wells raises the alarm about how incredibly unsafe our air is, the impact it’s having on human welfare, and why it doesn’t get as much attention as it should.

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Text transcript:

David Roberts

Back in 2020, I wrote an article about some eye-popping new research on air pollution which found that the damage it is doing to human health is roughly twice as bad as previously thought, and moreover, that the economic benefits of pollution reduction vastly outweigh the costs of transitioning to clean energy.

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It seemed to me then that the findings should have gotten more attention in the press, and I wasn't the only person who thought so. Journalist David Wallace-Wells, who made a splash a few years ago with his terrifying book on climate change, The Uninhabitable Earth, also dove in to new air pollution research and produced a magisterial overview for the London Review of Books last year. Recently he revisited the subject for his New York Times newsletter, asking why social mobilization against climate change, which promises millions of deaths in decades, is so much greater than mobilization against air pollution, which kills 10 million a year today.

It's a challenging question, and I'm not certain I have a great answer, so I wanted to talk to David about it — what the new research says about the mind-boggling scope and scale of air pollution’s damage to human welfare, how we ought to think about it relative to climate change, and what scares him most about the process of normalization that allows us to live with 10 million deaths a year.

David Wallace-Wells, welcome to Volts. Thanks so much for coming on.

David Wallace-Wells

Oh, my pleasure. It's great to talk. Really good to be here.

David Roberts

So you made a big splash, several years ago, with your article on climate change and the subsequent book, but in the last year or so, year two, you have been writing more and more about just good old-fashioned air pollution. And it seems like you're kind of getting sucked in, like it keeps pulling you in. So tell me kind of the story of how you first interacted with the story and why you keep coming back to it.

David Wallace-Wells

Well, on some level, it's the same answer I give when people ask me how I got worried about climate change, which is just to say I was seeing scientific research that was really quite alarming. And the more that I looked at it, the bigger the story seemed and the more it seemed to demand of me as someone who wrote on anything close to these issues. The slightly more personal version of it is, like, I wrote my book, I spent a lot of time talking about it, talking about climate change, and I found myself again and again in describing the scale of the impact, citing a small handful of data points or projections that I found really useful to communicate what I saw as to scary it all was.

And one of those was this data point that at two degrees of warming, we should expect 153 million additional deaths from air pollution produced from the burning of fossil fuels. And I would always caveat that and say, "no, that's not exactly climate change, but it's caused by the same things that cause climate change." And the more I said it and the more that I thought about it, I was like, "wait, hang on a second. If the most dramatic data point that I can come up with to explain how scary the world that we're going to be living in is ... is not actually about temperature rise, maybe I should spend some time thinking about what that means and how it might change my own perspective on warming and what that's likely to be like."

And so I wrote a piece. It actually was a very slow burn piece, and it was actually, even though it totally contradicts what I just said, was a story that was proposed to me by the LRB. I wrote a piece for the London Review of Books that was published last fall, but which they had actually invited me to write before the pandemic began. And over the course of those couple of years, I was just collecting more and more material. And as I sort of had done with climate, it just felt like the more I looked, the more I saw, the darker the picture got.

Now, there are some really important distinctions, and it's not an easy parallel. We could talk about some of the contrasts, but in general the sort of emotional experience of it, for me, was the same, which is just to say I had my eyes opened out of some amount of horror or fear, and the deeper that I looked into the subject, the bleaker it seemed to get.

David Roberts

Right, well, I want to talk about some of those parallels in a minute, but first let's just dwell on the research for a minute because I feel like there's sort of a popular conception of air pollution in the US, insofar as people think about it anymore. It's like the river used to burn. Then we got the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act and more or less tackled that problem and now it's just a problem for overseas. I think that's kind of the folk story of air pollution. But the recent research, it's almost qualitative difference.

I wrote about this for Vox a few years ago, just looking at this new research that's basically like, "it turns out the effects are about double what we thought they were." I'm like, "damn." It seemed like it should have been bigger news then, I kind of wrote a little table-pounding story about it. So just talk about kind of what scientists have concluded in these last few years about air pollution and its effects.

David Wallace-Wells

Well, there's sort of two stories running in parallel, or maybe parallel isn't even the right word. They're kind of running in opposite directions at once. And one is the story that you've summarized as the folk history, which is to say, "in the richer parts of the world, air pollution is getting better."

That is true. If people remember 20, 30, 50, 70 years ago, the air in the US and in Europe was a lot worse than it is now. And it is better in part because of policy, but in part because of activism, and for a variety of reasons, but it is better. And the health impacts are significantly smaller today in the US than they used to be. But at the same time, we're learning that the health impacts generally are way worse than we thought than they were. So I touched on this in the story I went for the Times recently about it, but I think this is one of the complications in processing this new data, is that we see things getting better even as the science is giving us a darker and darker picture.

What that science says is, "every time we lower the threshold that we want to consider safe for air pollution, we discover that in fact, that new level of air pollution that we thought was safe was not safe."

David Roberts

Yeah, and that's and that story is unbroken. The ratchet never goes in the other direction, as far as I can tell.

David Wallace-Wells

Totally. And it's it's very much the parallel there is there with lead, where just every few years there's a new standard. And then researchers are like, "actually, let's make it even lower." So the WHO just released last fall a new global standard, in which they said that anything higher than five micrograms per cubic meter of particulate matter is dangerous to your health. The previous level had been ten. In the US, the official standard of safety is twelve, still to this day.

David Roberts

That's battled over and battled over. What was Obama trying to make it like? What were we trying to ...?

David Wallace-Wells

I actually don't know those details. Maybe you'd know them better than I do.

David Roberts

Yeah, I want to say ten or eight.

David Wallace-Wells

I mean, it would make sense that they were just trying to pull it into line with the WHO standard, which had been ten so that probably makes sense.

David Roberts

And have failed repeatedly.

David Wallace-Wells

And I don't want to overstate what this means for people in the US who are breathing unhealthy air, which is to say, if the who standard is five and we're at, as a country, nine or whatever, or you're in a particular locality where it's seven or eleven, it's not like you're going to be dealing with the same level of health impacts as people living in Delhi, for instance, are. There's a spectrum, and the more of it there is, the worse off you are.

But one of the things that's been most interesting to me, at a sort of conceptual level in thinking about all of this, is also that while the effects on an individual life can be relatively small or even invisible, when you unroll the impact or the menace over a large population, the totals really add up. So a big study that came out of Harvard, about a year and a half ago, and the headline there was that 8.7 million people around the world died, and I think it was 2019, just due to the air pollution from the burning of fossil fuel. So 8.7 million a year, globally, just from the burning of fossil fuels. Putting aside all other causes of air pollution, they found that just within the US, the total was 350,000, a year, which is roughly as many Americans as died in the first year of COVID officially.

So we are, even here, breathing our relatively clean air and telling ourselves that things are getting better on the pollution front. Even here, 350,000 lives, or so, are being cut short every year due to these impacts.

David Roberts

There's a parallel, I think, to the climate discussion, in that you can say climate causes X deaths, but deaths never present themselves as from climate, right? What climate is doing is raising the odds of other bad things happening. And in a sense, it seems like, kind of, conceptually, air pollution is the same way. Like air pollution is not on your death certificate, right? Air pollution just raises the odds of this immense range of other bad things happening.

David Wallace-Wells

Yeah. It basically makes everything about the human body and the human brain worse. And that means that across a large population, there's a much greater mortality risk than there would have been without it. And it's important to keep that in mind. It's not like we're talking about someone dropping a bomb on a city when we say, "10 million people die a year, globally, from air pollution.' The causes are more diffuse, the impacts are more diffuse, and the way that we experience those impacts are also more diffuse in the sense that yeah, like the person, you know, who might have died, given the world as it is, but wouldn't have died in a world without air pollution, you probably attribute their death to cancer, or respiratory disease, or heart disease. But those rates are just much higher in the presence of this environmental contamination.

David Roberts

Yeah. And people think about, I think, air pollution as exacerbating, you know, like asthma and stuff like that, stuff with your lungs, maybe even cancer. But, you know, you cite research that ties air pollution to a wild array of outcomes like health, psychological, social crime, like name it. Just tell us about some of the sort of craziest things you found in those studies.

David Wallace-Wells

I'll say the crazier stuff in a minute, but I think the most important thing is just, like, it's just everything. So it makes everything worse. So that's — the things that may seem familiar, it's just important to sort of reiterate respiratory disease, pulmonary disease, cancer. Then there's all stuff about cognitive performance, and you can look at like surgeons perform worse when there's more air pollution in the air, umpires and baseball games make worse calls, when there's more air pollution in the air. Crime goes up, domestic violence goes up. And there are these pretty striking findings about mental health, and depression, suicide, self-harm.

It really goes, like, all down the list of absolutely everything that you could sort of define as a standard of human flourishing is made worse, at the population level, when there's more of this stuff floating around in the air. And the way that that rolls out, or folds out, or plays out, in a place like the US, is one kind of scale of effect. But in places where there's just a mass amount of pollution, it's really dramatic. So in the US, the estimate is that as a country, even though we're losing 350,000 people a year, on the whole, that only adds up to a loss of about 0.2 years of life expectancy, which is that like a few months on average for every person. But it doesn't change the shape of your life in a truly profound way. In Delhi, it is ten years, which means that — this is a city of 20 million people. They are, on average, losing ten years of life.

David Roberts

Yeah, that's wild. And losing, in some sense, before they're even born, like, that's some of the most kind of depressing research we cite.

David Wallace-Wells

Yeah, the research it's been, like, sort of a second active research for me has been the effect on fetal health, and maternal health, newborn health, which is growing a little bit, but it just also happens to be something I've been focusing on more lately. And I was writing this piece for the Times in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court's decisions on Dobbs in West Virginia versus EPA. And it felt like, "well, God, if only we could show there was some connection between air pollution and the well-being of newborns." So, yeah, globally, 500,000 newborns die every year in ways that are attributable to air pollution.

So in South Asia alone, there are 350,000 stillbirths and miscarriages every year attributable to air pollution. And the effects are not just whether fetus lives, or dies, or survives. The pregnancy emerges intact. It's also it affects premature birth, low birth weight, which are strongly correlated with a lot of measures of human well-being later in life. So, again, it's really, no matter where you look, no matter what standard you're trying to apply, or what question you're trying to ask about whether people are flourishing in this world, air pollution is almost certain to give a darker picture than we'd be able to give, or have, or live through without it.

David Roberts

Let's talk a little bit about kind of what to do about it, where it comes from. People think mostly about burning fossil fuels, which I think is probably the bulk of the problem. But you point out that there are other sources as well, big, large remaining sources, even if you tackle fossil fuels.

David Wallace-Wells

Yeah, well, I would say actually there has been a bit of a shift towards an understanding of the predominance of fossil fuels as the cause over the last few years. I think, you know, rewind five or ten years and people probably would have guessed that a lot of it had to do with bad indoor cooking in the developing world and agricultural burning. And those play a role too. But yeah, at least according to this Harvard study, we're talking about the large bulk of air pollution deaths being attributable to fossil fuels, and that's in particular coal plants and cars.

But the natural world produces a fair amount of particulate matter too. We have dust pollution. And so in the piece I mentioned one study, that I actually think this may be slightly pessimistic, but they said that if we entirely eliminated all anthropogenic activity, half of the world would still be breathing unsafe pollution levels.

David Roberts

No kidding. Because of dust, or fire, or what?

David Wallace-Wells

Yeah, a combination of dust and fire. And then there's just some other stuff that, like vegetation, just gives off some particular matter, which I didn't even know about before looking at this work. So there's some stuff that we can do to somewhat take control of that. Dust is a problem that can be, to some degree, controlled through agricultural practices, and ecosystem restoration, and that kind of thing. But probably we're going to be living with some amount of this gunk floating around in our air forever, and that's in certain ways dispiriting and despairing. But to bring it back to something I said a few minutes ago, it really is different if you're like, at ten micrograms per cubic meter versus 40.

David Roberts

Right.

David Wallace-Wells

And we should be able to bring a lot of those really dangerous levels of pollution down if we take control of the things that we are doing as humans. Which is to say, burning stuff. In the LRB piece, I had like a line that was, "everything we burn, we breathe.' And I think that's a pretty good rule for thinking about how to combat air pollution. Anytime you're lighting a match to something, it'd be better if we didn't do that.

David Roberts

We light fewer matches. What do you say — I remember this kind of old-school conservative thing, kind of before climate change took over everything when air pollution used to be kind of a bigger thing. I remember kind of the conservative take on it being based on this Kuznets Curve, based on this idea that "the more prosperous a society gets, the less it burns things," basically. And so the solution to this is just to make those developing nations as rich as possible, as fast as possible, rather than focusing on the air pollution itself. What do you make of that argument?

David Wallace-Wells

I think it's a relatively accurate description of the path of development that most countries in the world have taken to this point. But I find it pretty disingenuous as a guide, or rule, to the way that we should be thinking about the present tense or the future, in the sense that, especially, acknowledging how large a role fossil fuel burning is playing in these issues. If we believe, as the IEA and many other analysts tell us, that solar power is the cheapest electricity in history, and 90% of the world lives in places where renewables are cheaper than dirty energy. There is no longer this trade-off, where living greener and breathing cleaner air is going to come at the cost of economic growth.

It's now the case that all else being equal and of course, there are complications, but all else being equal, if we're drawing development trajectories for anybody anywhere in the world at the moment, we would be rapidly downgrading, downsizing, our dependence on fossil fuel in those places and rapidly embracing renewable power, which is going to produce many, many fewer of these impacts. So I think going forward, and thinking about policy, and culture, and economic activity going forward, I think that that old rule is a little bit foolish and, essentially, council's complacency, when, in fact, the landscape as we understand it should push us in the other direction, to move much more quickly to get off these sources.

David Roberts

It seems like even if you just take the same cost-benefit analysis, the same equation, and just plug the new information we have about pollution into it, just out of that, you would get counsel for much more aggressive pollution reduction, right?

David Wallace-Wells

Yeah. I mean, this is something that you've written about too when you wrote about the testimony that Drew Chandell gave, and I can't remember if it was Congress or the Senate, during the pandemic, but where he said that "the cost of the green transition in the US would be entirely paid for and then some, just through the public health benefits of the cleaner air that that transition would bring about." So we don't have to worry. You don't even have to put into the equation all the jobs we're going to get. You don't even have to put into the equation the climate benefits we're going to get. You just have to think about the cleaner air, and that immediately pays for the whole project.

David Roberts

Yes, it would pay for everything. And also, now that we know more about the damaged pollution side, it's the same story with lead, right? As you said before, ever since we stopped using it, or even before we stopped using it, we've just been learning, "oh, it's worse, and worse, and worse, and worse, and worse than we thought." And we've traced crime waves, tons and tons of stuff to lead, basically, lead in the water. It's amazing how much you can attribute to it.

And now the same thing is happening with particulates in air pollution, which means when you look back, a. that the pollution we have had in this country, decades ago, actually did more damage than we knew. And b. something like the Clean Air Act — they keep doing these cost-benefit analyses on it, and every time you get new information about pollution, the overwhelming benefit of the Clean Air Act just grows, and grows, and grows. To the point now, that it's sort of like if it were popularly appreciated, what a wildly successful piece of legislation that was, there would be so much more outrage about what the Supreme Court is doing, right? Like, in retrospect, we know it was even more successful than anyone dared hoped, even until just very recently.

David Wallace-Wells

Yeah. I want to go back to something you said just a minute ago because I think it's really, really important, which is we can talk about the public health impacts. We have talked about a lot of them. But I think it's also important to understand just how much these forces shape our social, and political, and cultural lives through their public health impacts. So when we think about lead, there's a quite plausible account that lead pollution, which was concentrated in poorer, browner, blacker communities in the US.

David Roberts

Always.

David Wallace-Wells

Drove the US crime wave of the 60s and 70s, or at least powered it, gave it some extra push. As a result, we can say that that crime wave was more racialized because of the racialized effects of lead. And the result of that was "white flight" out of American cities, the growth of quasi-reactionary, quote — unquote, "centrist suburban politics" in this country.

David Roberts

Right. Reaganism in the 80s. I mean, you could spin it out.

David Wallace-Wells

The whole story of America over the last 50 years, and especially, the American politics of the last decade or so. You can actually quite neatly draw that line from lead pollution, which is to say, to an environmental contaminant which we knew was bad for you a century and a half ago, and we chose not to worry too much about it because we didn't really appreciate the scale. And there were other reasons not to take action. And so we let the paint companies put lead in their paint, and we let the gasoline companies put lead in their fuel.

And that whole time we knew. And the effect wasn't just corrosive to the public health, particularly, of Black and Brown Americans, poor Black and Brown Americans in the middle of the century. But it is one of the driving forces in our entire national narrative over the last five decades. And when you think about air pollution in the same context, again, the impacts are not as dramatic in the US as they are elsewhere, but the whole picture that we have of early-stage industrial development in the late 20th, early 21st century in the Global South, so much of that is tied up in the toxicity of the pollutants that are produced there.

And if we could wind back the clock and run those development patterns differently, the whole picture of the future, as it was perceived in places like North India, would be really, really different. And our perspective on those places, looking at it from the Global North, would be really different, too. We wouldn't regard life in the slums of the Global South as nearly as dark and grim as they are, beyond which those, at least implementing what we know now about the economic benefits of clean energy, they may well be moving up the economic ladder much faster than they are today, if they hadn't gone down that path. So all of these stories from the incredibly local, individual lives lost up through the geopolitical and the sort of mythic level that we operate on often in our national politics, all of those are affected by these forces.

And that's not to say that, like, "if you walk down the street in Delhi, you're going to peel over and die", although I have walked down the street in Delhi, and it can be hard to breathe. But it's just to say, that when we put even a small-scale effect on a population of 20 million, or in the case of India as a whole, 1.4 billion people, those effects really, really add up. And we are just beginning, I think, to appreciate how much those stories of environmental contamination are shaping all of these bigger narratives that we've treated for so long as, if not quite neatly, "great men theories of history", then stories about national character or whatever.

David Roberts

Right. And you look back, and it also makes every bit of sort of corporate lobbying, like in the lead story, every bit of corporate lobbying, every backroom deal that let it go on a little bit longer. Those now, knowing what we know about the sort of first, and second, and third-order effects that spun out from that, those just look like monstrous crimes. Like, the amount of human suffering attributable to those decisions, looks enormous now, with the full scope of history, to look at it, and it sort of makes you think now, like, "here we are arguing again in our politics right now over air pollution."

Like, do we think we're going to find out in the future? Again, we should be learning prospectively now, from the past, that these are very big decisions, and the benefits of reducing them are so much larger, once you've taken the full picture than anyone imagined like it ought to be transforming politics.

David Wallace-Wells

Yeah. And it's interesting because I come at this from a pretty unusual position. I write about climate, I write about the environment, but I'm such an urban person who does not think about the rights of nature and the bounty of the planet that needs to be protected. Those are not my emotional impulses. My emotional impulses are to think about human suffering, but the more that we learn about not just air pollution, but the effects of pollution of all kinds. Yeah, I think you're exactly right. The more that we bring ourselves back into line with what was that sort of old-timey seeming environmentalist impulse, which is just to say, "we should be protecting natural world at all costs." I wouldn't quite go as far as to say at all costs, but we know so little now about what all these microplastics are going to do to us.

David Roberts

Yes, I know, but we've had enough experience to guess.

David Wallace-Wells

It's not going to be good.

David Roberts

Which direction the results are going to go, right? That's the thing. At some point it seems like you need to start learning from these things, looking forward, right? And not making the same damn mistakes over and over again.

David Wallace-Wells

Yeah. And I wonder, I mean, I don't know exactly how you'd put those odds, but it does feel like we're more in a position of making the same mistakes all over again than we are really.

David Roberts

Oh, yes, we are in an age of making mistakes all over again. I think that is our era. Well, let's get into maybe what might be kind of a slightly awkward or controversial subject, I guess, depending on how we want to put it. But I'll just put it this way. Knowing what we now know, the current global effects of air pollution are as bad as anything climate models project in terms of deaths and illnesses, even decades in the future, from climate change. Do you think that's fair?

David Wallace-Wells

Well, I would say that that's my understanding of the science. There are some climate models that are already tallying deaths in the millions, but I tend to think of them as sort of outlier assessments. Now, they may prove to be more prescient, in the same way that alarmist assessments of air pollution have proven to be prescient, too. So I think it's, at a baseline, very safe to say that there are more people dying, as we understand it today, from air pollution. In 2022, and 2023, and 2024, there are going to be more people dying from air pollution than are dying from the whole range of climate impacts.

And that, to get to a point where climate death ever overtakes these numbers that we have today, which is to say 10 million people a year, which is 100 million in a decade. To get to that point with climate, would require, perhaps, both a real unraveling of the global climate system, that would require some of the higher-end possibilities to come true, and also probably a much more robust accounting measure beyond that which we have devised, to this point, to tabulate those impacts. Most of the sort of alarming comprehensive assessments of climate mortality suggests that, in this climate scenarios that we can sort of expect in the next 50 to 75 years, we will never reach this level of death on an annual basis from climate.

David Roberts

Right. And that's just like striking. I really want to put an exclamation point on it, like, the world is mobilizing against climate change. Obviously, not to the degree anybody wants or that is sufficient, but there's immense social upheaval, and mobilization, and political mobilization against a possible future danger that is not as deadly as ones we are living through right now, which are not causing anything like the same mobilization. How do we explain that? What story do we tell ourselves about that? And what story should climate people be telling themselves about it? Like, do you think it makes sense to, just on a utilitarian level, turn your activist attention, and your advocacy attention, away from climate to air pollution?

David Wallace-Wells

There are a lot of different questions embedded in there, and, actually, I'd be really curious to know how you think about it. I would say a few things. To begin with, I've never written two big pieces on air pollution, and I actually underwent something of a perspective shift in the interim. Which is to say, when I wrote the first piece, which was just last fall, I put forward the line that activism against air pollution might be, at the very least, useful to include in a more significant way in our climate advocacy.

These things are really correlated. If we solve one, we solve the other. And talking about air pollution really makes the cost of inaction really, really clear, in a way that talking about climate change independent of air pollution doesn't make quite so clear.

David Roberts

And much more localizable, right? Much more sort of like traceable to particular communities, right?

David Wallace-Wells

And immediate. So if you cut emissions today, the effect on global temperatures may not be so visible, but the effect on air pollution from your local coal plant will be immediately visible. It's also, like, there's a visual that's really powerful, literally like the ugly gunk in the sky and in the waters, like all that stuff. It lends itself to advocacy and has in the past pushed people, in countries like ours, to take action, in a way that climate has proven a little harder to gain that sort of traction right.

David Roberts

And is mobilizing people in China and India now, I think, in a way that maybe climate isn't.

David Wallace-Wells

Actually, it's an interesting comparison to make. The most dramatic reductions in air pollution over the last decade or two have come in China. India has taken some steps, and there is some advocacy growing, but they haven't meaningfully reduced their pollution levels. In China, they really have. They've cut their pollution by, I think, something like 40% in seven years, and it was from a very high level. I think, one estimate I cited in this piece was that 30 million Chinese people died between 2000 and 2016. 30 million people in a single country.

David Roberts

That was the coal binge, right? I mean, that coal binge had so many effects on so many things, but like among them, the mortality of the Chinese.

David Wallace-Wells

And they took large scale policies, they made large scale policy, made a large scale response and to deal with that. They move the coal plants, to begin with. They've also started moving off of coal. They keep building the plants, but they're running them at much lower levels of capacity, as I'm sure all your listeners know. But the question of what produced that, I think, is a complicated one and not — I don't personally feel like I know the answer clearly because everything we know about Chinese environmental policy comes to us through so many layers of ... I don't know exactly what to call it. It's just hard to know the real story there.

David Roberts

Right.

David Wallace-Wells

My understanding is that there has there has been some amount of grassroots activism, and people were upset about the air pollution, in the middle of the last decade. But I also think that there's a pretty strong role being played here from the top-down powers as well, who are looking at the mortality data and are just like, "well, why would we want these people to die if we can not have them die?"

David Roberts

Well, it seems like the whole point was, "we're going to use coal to grow the economy, bring a bunch of people out of poverty, and then we're going to pivot and start addressing the problems of coal," right? You hate to say that they accepted all those deaths from air pollution on purpose, but they kind of did in exchange for the extraordinary number of people brought out of poverty during that same period, right?

David Wallace-Wells

Yeah. Again, it's another thing I'm not sure that I can attribute that logic to Xi or his advisors. That is the operational revealed logic of their path. For sure.

David Roberts

Right.

David Wallace-Wells

So for all those reasons, I thought like, "yes, making a bigger deal out of pollute," and it poles way better also. Literally, every American you ask is like, "yeah, we should be taking measures to keep our air."

David Roberts

It wasn't like everybody switched to climate because climate poles so much better than air pollution.

David Wallace-Wells

Right. The opposite. And relatedly, it is much less tied up in culture war bullshit.

David Roberts

Yes.

David Wallace-Wells

Than climate is. And theoretically, if the climate movement made air pollution a much bigger deal, maybe that would change, maybe it would become polarized in the same way. But at the moment, it's in a very happy place where basically everybody's excited to sign up for most measures that promise to reduce pollution. Although there are some issues about — it's still the poorest, Brownest, and Blackest communities that are hit hardest, and it's not always the case that other people want to help them. But at the national level, people want to deal with pollution. They want their air to be cleaner.

So for all those reasons, I thought this is a strategic win. We've probably left something on the table by focusing on climate, as opposed to pollution. And we don't have to talk about the future, we can focus on the present. We can see it all very clearly. It motivates people. We have a track record of success here.

But I've started to think much more that the story of air pollution is less about, yeah, mobilization and more about normalization. We have been living with these impacts in certain parts of the world, really quite dramatic levels, for a very long time. And while there are some success stories — the US Clean Air Act, the equivalent in Europe, and now it's happened in China — it's also the case, as you point out, that there just isn't a global movement around this. And in fact, we've come to regard, I think, in places like the US and Europe at least, we've come to regard the pollution levels that people are dealing with in South Asia, and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and to some degree, East Asia, and China as just like normal. And that's the flip side of the Kuznets Curve story that you told.

David Roberts

Yeah, that's what I was going to say. That kind of falls out of that, right? If you believe that story, then you look at that pollution and say, "well, ah, that's the phase they're in."

David Wallace-Wells

"And it'll solve itself."

David Roberts

"And what are you going to do?"

David Wallace-Wells

Totally. That's really what worries me about climate these days, too. You know, I used to think that if people saw the story clearly, they would take action. And even at the time, I sort of knew that that was, to some degree, naive.

David Roberts

We were such a sweet summer children back then, a few years ago.

David Wallace-Wells

And now I think, "oh, most of the stuff that people like you and I have been warning about for a while is probably going to come true." There is going to be a lot more suffering and a lot more disruption. It may not be quite as bad as maybe me in particular has warned, but it'll still be like quite large-scale negative impact on all forms of global flourishing, to have climate change of two and a half degrees, maybe even three degrees of warming. But the response there, I come to think, more and more, is going to be dominated not by, you know, mitigation, to be sure, not by, you know, adaptation and resilience, but just by normalization. We're just going to find ways to treat.

David Roberts

Not by a global uprising of spontaneous grassroots energy.

David Wallace-Wells

Yeah. Or even technocratic like, "oh, we're going to build a sea wall here, and we're going to regrow the mangroves here, and we're going to ... " Even that kind of thing is, I think, a smaller form, is a smaller part of our sort of adaptation toolkit than normalization whereby we were —— like people living in California. They talk about the fires, they talk about the smoke, but here we are. I don't know exactly. Depending on how you want to count, like, we've quintupled the amount of acreage that is routinely burned in California from wildfire, and everybody's just like, "yeah, it's a little worse."

And that coping mechanism, I think, is really quite deep and is the way that we adjust.

David Roberts

If we had been talking about this five years ago, it'd be one thing, but now we've seen this illustrated in so many forms now. Basically, people's ability to take what once would have seemed crazy, or out of bounds, or too far, or too bad on board, as long as it's incremental. And it turns out we can normalize things really quickly. Like, we got used to, I mean, COVID is still going on, right? Hundreds of thousands of people are still dying, but we got used to that so fast. As I look back now, the climate idea that climate campaigners had, especially in like the early 2000s or whatever, like, "once it gets really bad, people will mobilize," just seems so wildly naive now. It takes so much to get people to mobilize. And anything that's incremental, even something as fast as, like, democracy falling apart around us, look at what we've taken on board as normal in the last five years, in terms of democracy and the rule of law.

David Wallace-Wells

And that's in the domestic context, which is also something that would have surprised me. It's one thing to say Americans don't care about dictators in the developing world, it's another thing to come to terms with what we've seen here. I totally agree. I think the pandemic, we could have a whole second conversation about the lessons of the pandemic on these questions. I think that normalization has been a huge and underappreciated part of the story.

I'm working on a piece now about the sort of the "endgame" that we have apparently, according to the people who really know this stuff, somewhat settled into here, which is to say 100,000 to 250,000 deaths annually from this disease. And I'm now working at the New York Times. When we hit 100,000 deaths in the US from COVID, they put a huge banner headline on the front page, which used the phrase "an incalculable loss". Well, how do you calculate ten times that loss, or having that loss every year, forever after, going forward?

David Roberts

It so quickly becomes abstract.

David Wallace-Wells

But there's another lesson on the climate, and I have a dog in this fight, just to, like, declare it up front that I think is really interesting from the pandemic, which is to say — the moment of most intense interest and greatest capacity for large scale behavioral and political change, in response to this threat, was at the very beginning, when people were most scared. Now, saying it that way suggests a slightly neater case study version of what we've gone through than I really want to suggest. But it is, I think, important to keep in mind that, actually, the capacity for change was quite dramatic at the beginning of the pandemic.

David Roberts

Yes. And the corollary of what you're saying, which is that it's going to get more and more difficult to address as it gets worse and worse, right? Not easier to address, not the spontaneous global mobilization. It's going to be harder and harder. I mean, this is what we know about chaos, and just general disorder, like, it does not make people more far-seeing, and more concerned about the next generation, and more open to cooperation with other people, right. All the things you need in place for a global solution to this, get more difficult the more climate does that threat multiplication thing it does.

David Wallace-Wells

Well, I think there are those who might say, "it's a little more complicated than that." I mean, Rebecca Solnit has written a lot about the way in which disorder and disarray can call forward are better impulses. I think the truth is that we can't count on any single narrative pattern emerging and holding in any one direction, through the series of climate disruptions that we're likely to see over the next few decades. And I do think that there is probably some amount of response that will be called forth, more dramatic response. I mean, we've seen it already. The world is moving faster than it was five years ago, even though climate impacts are getting worse.

But I also don't think that we can just say that, "well, that's going to take care of things." There are a lot of ugly impulses out there. We need to do what we can to make sure that the responses are targeted and guided towards prosocial, productive goals, rather than zero-sum, competitive scrambling over what we perceive to be limited resources. I think it's just a big mess. That's not to say that no progress is possible in that mess, but the landscape itself is a mess.

David Roberts

Once you abandon the idea that accumulated, empirical information is going to spark social change, then you're sort of at sea, right? What will? What does? The one thing your air pollution story illustrates really well, which is something that's been demonstrated to us over, and over, and over again these past few years — which is that humans are terrible at assessing risk. We don't treat all deaths the same. We don't treat all risks the same. Our individual and collective response to risk is not totally disconnected from the scale of the risk, but, you know, 90% disconnected from the true nature and scale of the risk.

So it seems like we need something like a study of what does break through? What does cause social mobilization? What does make a threat, in addition to the empirical information that demonstrates it's a threat? What makes it socially sticky and catchy? Do we know anything about that?

David Wallace-Wells

Well, you might know better than I do, but when I look at the last few years and think about this question on a few different fronts, not just climate, the thing that strikes me is not the question, "does anything work?" It's, "is there anything that can work in an ongoing way, sufficient to really disrupt the established structures of power and authority?"

So when I think about climate, I think, "oh wait, we did have an incredible global mobilization around climate change." We had millions of people all around the world marching in the street, mostly young people. We had more aggressive climate activism in the form of, to some degree, Sunrise, certainly XR.

And the sum total of those movements, I do believe, really did change the discourse around climate change among the world's most powerful people, both in the private and public sectors. And so you see a lot of this lip service now being paid by presidents and prime ministers, but also by CEOs, and our sainted billionaire class. Nobody is a climate denier anymore. And they all say, they even say when you're to get to net zero by 2050, basically, if you ask them, and many of them make a big deal out of that. But we actually haven't gotten on that track at all.

So we've just sort of to the extent that we've forced anything, we've forced a rhetorical shift in people who are interested in making progress, but not interested in making progress quickly enough. And I think that maybe it's the pandemic, maybe it's other political forces, but I look at the climate movement as somewhat exhausted now compared to where it was a few years ago.

David Roberts

Yes.

David Wallace-Wells

And then I think about, okay, so thinking about in the domestic context, the response to Dobbs and the reversal of Roe, and I feel this and I see it among many, you know, like-minded liberal Americans, there's just this sort of exhausted, almost acquiescence. When you compare the response to that decision to the Women's March, which came out of the election of Donald Trump, you can argue about what impact the Women's March had and whether it was sustainable, etc. But you saw over the course of whatever the ... that is like six weeks, between eight weeks, between maybe it's ten weeks, but between the election and the Women's March, the building of a "from scratch" protest infrastructure, which at the very least signal to other Americans, we as a mass are outraged.

David Roberts

Yeah, it just didn't seem like there was the institutional, you know like somebody needs to pick up that ball and run with it on the right. If there's a spark of social uprising, like there's billionaires ready to heap money on it, and bus them around, and put them on TV all day, every day. But it just didn't seem like there's any infrastructure to pick that energy up and carry with it. So it just seemed like it kind of dispersed.

David Wallace-Wells

Yeah, I think that that's definitely part of it and that we would be better off with some more effective, large-scale organizing infrastructure on the Left. I also, although, I've read some things recently about the way in which the Bloomberg gun philanthropy has sort of like hoovered up what was, essentially, grassroots movement into a corporate environment, in ways that may not be all that helpful. But I also just think about, I sort of go back to what we were talking about a few minutes ago about the response to the pandemic and the way in which an initial burst of outrage and commitment can just dissipate on its own. And I worry that we sort of mobilized on the Center-Left and Left against Trump because we understood that to be such a profound threat to a lot of things that we assumed or wanted to assume about the nature of the American Democratic experiment and the public at large — I just worry we sort of spent that energy for a generation, and that we may now be depleted.

David Roberts

Well, it's kind of the nature ... I mean, I returned again and again. This is a little bit of a cliche, but I return again and again to sort of psychology of abusive relationships, and that's part of how they work, is you can only deal with so many crises at once. The financialization of the economy is a crisis. Like inequality is a crisis. Climate is a crisis. Now, here you are telling me air pollution is also a crisis. Like democracy falling apart. It's a crisis. Any of those I could justify spending my entire energy and passion towards.

David Wallace-Wells

But are you familiar with the term "polycrisis" or "permacrisis"?

David Roberts

Yes. And people just can't process it or focus at a certain point. Your phrase is exactly right. Exhausted acquiescence. It just, that seems to be sort of the energy these days, which is disastrous. But I don't know what to what to do about it.

David Wallace-Wells

Well, on the Dobbs and Roe point, I mean, I do really believe that there is some real failing here on the part of Democratic leadership.

David Roberts

Yes, better leadership would help.

David Wallace-Wells

It just seems, like, I don't know, it's a tough hand to play, but people are really furious. They're really outraged, and playing the long game just isn't the right message to give them.

David Roberts

Right. And it's not even clear they're doing that. It's not clear that if they had a long-term plan, that'd be one thing. They just don't seem to have a plan at all other than sort of this instinctive move to the center attempt, the sort of twitch at this point that establishment Dems have. It's like the only reaction they have left.

David Wallace-Wells

I don't remember who in the White House said it, but just a couple of the last couple of days, somebody said basically like, "we're not here to appease the activist wing of the Democratic party."

David Roberts

The activist, which is like 80 %, 90% of the freaking party.

David Wallace-Wells

Absolutely. Like, it's the whole party. Like, what are you talking about?

David Roberts

It's nuts.

David Wallace-Wells

But I also think that you know ... I also think that there's a failure on the part of the public here, which is to say the protests have been pretty small and uninspiring, and every woman I know, and a lot of men, are really, really upset about it, but it's not actually translating into the same level of public, you know — we're not projecting that outrage, in a visible way, that makes the decision seem untenable. We're just sort of crying privately, and that's ... it's just not ... I mean, you know, we're coming off a pandemic. We've been, as you say, there's one crisis after another.

On a personal level, I understand someone being like, "I'm not about to organize a march on this myself to some degree," but when you add up that exhaustion, you're just like, "well, then who's leading the way?"

David Roberts

Yes. My dark story is the exhausted acquiescence after the theft of the 2000 presidential election, basically, was the starting gun, for a century thus far, of exhausted acquiescence to incremental ratcheting up of these authoritarian impulses and the reactionary backlash, just that was where to draw the line, right? And ever since then, it's just been retreat, pulling the lines back, back, and like, look where we are now. There was a freaking coup, and we can barely act collectively like it was a bad thing, much less hold people accountable, or whatever.

David Wallace-Wells

Yeah. I mean, the perspective on the Left, on the hearings is almost like, this is good TV.

David Roberts

Oh, God.

David Wallace-Wells

Which I don't mean to, it is good TV. They've been much better at it than previous people doing previous versions of the same thing.

David Roberts

Well, I feel like we should have learned by now that nobody involved cares about being outed, or shamed, or scolded, or exposed. Like, none of that matters. Consequences matter, and that's it. And there just haven't been any.

David Wallace-Wells

Yeah. I would say I think that the hearings have damaged Trump's chances of the nomination.

David Roberts

Yes, they have helped DeSantis quite a bit, I think.

David Wallace-Wells

But they haven't hurt Trumpism.

David Roberts

Okay. We've wandered so far afield, David, I'm going to bring it back. I'm going to bring it back for the final question then, which is related to this, which is, do you think that ... this air pollution story that you're telling, that you're sort of over there pounding on your table, telling which trying to break through, is very striking, and I think new to people.

And so I wonder, and as you say, addressing it and addressing climate change are basically the same damn thing. You're trying to stop burning fossil fuels, right. So do you think that the sort of global climate community, a. ought to or b. can use this new air pollution story as an accelerant in the effort on climate? Or do you think that normalization is such that it's just like the shock pads on the dead body, you just can't get any more juice out of anything? Do you think it's going to help or work?

David Wallace-Wells

I think it's already helping. I think that global political leaders have a growing understanding that burning fossil fuels has really terrible health effects that are concentrated in their own countries, which is to say, that they can control those effects in the way that they can't control the global climate change dynamics. I think that the climate movement could bring out this imperative a little more clearly, and I think to some more effect. But I also wonder, really, how much more the curve can be bent. The way I see the changing climate dynamics is that we may be moving relatively, already relatively close to a kind of best-case decarbonization pathway.

And that's not to say that I think disastrous climate change will be averted. It's just to say that when we start imagining even faster paths of decarbonization that have already been promised, I start to worry and wonder whether those are even technologically feasible. Like, getting the whole world to net zero at 2050, or 2060, is a really gargantuan task. I think it's beyond our capacity. And so one version of the question is like, "if we're already committed to those incredibly fast pathways, what difference does it make to be yelling about air pollution a bit more?" Another version of the answer, though, is to say, "well, the problem is not the commitments we've made, it's how fast we're moving to fulfill them."

And I do think that on that point, in some of the ways that we've been talking about, the localness of the effect, localness of the control, and the sort of immediacy that most people feel about like choking on bad air as opposed to breathing clean air. I do think that there there can be some difference made there. I do think that especially people lobbying to close down local coal plants, for instance, can make a difference through appeals from air pollution.

David Roberts

Any context in which cost-benefit analysis is involved, this swamps it, right? Like, once you bring this new air pollution data in, you're like, you win all those arguments, right? It's ridiculous.

David Wallace-Wells

Yeah, I mean, you know, the US government officially sets the value of human life at something like $7 million, which means that, like, if we have 350,000 lives lost every year, that's a lot of money.

David Roberts

I can't do that math on the flight deck. I was going to see if you could do it.

David Wallace-Wells

It's a couple of trillion dollars a year that should be, in theory, should be spent to clean this up.

But I would say in the big picture, it's also, just one little last point on that decarbonization stuff, is like there's a huge difference that's going to be made through EV adoption and electric bikes in other parts of the world too. And we're going to pick up a lot of those gains that way, which is a story that's unfolding. It could be accelerated by policy. But it also seems to be, to me at least, to be unfolding, almost independent of policy pressure, at least in the US right now. And I think that's also useful to keep in mind, that whether or not the climate movement can weaponize air pollution to accelerate the green transition, whether or not they can do that, the air will be cleaner 30, 50 years from now than it is now.

David Roberts

The benefits will happen.

David Wallace-Wells

Some benefits, like we can get there faster, we can get farther along. But to the extent that it can feel oppressive to contemplate the climate future and think that all we're doing is choosing between degrees of disaster, the air pollution story tells us slightly different and more optimistic story, which is to say, it is probably now worse than it will ever be in the future. And in that sense, not to sound too much of a cliche, but there's something we can look forward to there.

David Roberts

Well, that's a delightfully optimistic place to wrap it up. Thanks for coming on, and thanks for your work bringing attention to this. I feel like it should be talked about a lot more than it is.

David Wallace-Wells

Thanks for having me to talk about it's. Great to schmooze.

David Roberts

Alright. See you, David.

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Volts

Volts

Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)