David Wallace-Wells. (Photo: Andrew Zuckerman / The Slowdown)
Photo: Andrew Zuckerman / The Slowdown

David Wallace-Wells’s New Climate Newsletter Is a Must-Read for Anyone Concerned With Our Future

Now on the Opinion team at the Times, Wallace-Wells brings his probing, clear-eyed perspective to our inbox, and thankfully, with tinges of optimism.
By Jack Meyer
August 1, 2022
4 minute read

The climate writer and essayist David Wallace-Wells has a knack for translating the unimaginable into the painfully real. Amidst an ongoing maelstrom to clearly and effectively communicate the dire urgency of the climate crisis, his 2017 article for New York magazine and subsequent book of the same name, The Uninhabitable Earth, played a critical role in jolting the conversation, detailing the varied plagues and, finally, apocalyptic conditions humanity faces across increasingly severe warming scenarios—some only grim potentialities, others seemingly beyond prevention. Thankfully for us, and for the planet, Wallace-Wells was recently hired by The New York Times, who added him to their Opinion section, where he has begun a weekly newsletter to reflect on the latest in our Anthropocene Age.

What makes Wells’s writing on climate so effective is his ability to cut through the layers of abstraction surrounding the big ideas without losing their sense of scale. Writing on global warming is a mess of oscillating proportions: single-digit degree shifts, tied to millions of tons of emissions, manifesting in pollution measured by parts per million. Whereas a once-standard playbook for climate journalists might illustrate this through the personal story of a family stricken by the ills of a smog-choked city or disappearing coastline, Wells keeps a tight focus on the magnitude of what’s at hand. He makes rising temperatures understood in terms of a city of 200,000 only two “wet bulb” degrees Celsius shy of the threshold for human survival. He illustrates air pollution in terms of the 24,000 additional Americans who may die from it at the expense of legislative gridlock.

In his newsletter, the subjects Wells takes up go outside the standard rotation of climate topics. For one recent edition, no doubt drawing on his extensive Covid-19 reporting for New York magazine (where he was previously the editor-at-large, and to which he contributed for 11 years), Wells discusses the connection between grossly unequal vaccine distribution and the lax attitude of wealthy countries on the imminent environmental danger they’re inflicting on much of the Global South; in another, he goes into the ways that warming temperatures and the rise of alternative fuels have factored into Russia’s geopolitical strategy. Wells brings to light the subtle ways in which the climate crisis has already become an agent in much more than rising sea levels or record-high summer temperatures.

As grim as this all may sound, and admittedly is, what Wells presents is tinged with slightly more, perhaps not optimism, but a lack of fatalism that those acquainted with his climate writing over the past decade or so may be familiar with. “It looks a lot happier to me than it looked when I wrote the book, and certainly when I wrote the article that first kicked me off into this story,” he told us on Ep. 56 of our Time Sensitive podcast. A revival of climate activism and awareness has brought world governments to acknowledge the urgency of the situation at hand, and behemoth corporations have now found it in their best financial interests to at least pay lip service to notions of sustainability—a meager but once inconceivable shift. This change in attitude mostly manifests near the end of Wells’s newsletters, where he tends to focus on the progress that has been made and the potential that still remains, offering shreds of hope within the seeming wreckage of our future.