The Atlantic

President Trump and the Unnatural World

David Biello, author of The Unnatural World, talks about the paradox of climate change in the Trumpocene.
Source: Chinese Stringer Network / Reuters

It’s an odd time to be talking hopefully about climate change. And for good reason.

The incoming Trump administration seems bent on preventing any federal action to mitigate global warming. The president-elect has promised to take the United States out of the Paris Agreement, and he’s recruited the staff who could do it. Trump’s choice for EPA administrator—Scott Pruitt, the current attorney general of Oklahoma—has repeatedly sued that agency to block Obama-era climate and pollution protections. And a questionnaire submitted to staff at the Department of Energy (though later withdrawn) seemed to signal that the incoming administration would meddle with federal science.

Amid that cataclysm, David Biello, now the science curator at TED and previously a longtime editor at Scientific American, has published The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth's Newest Age. It’s a story about how our decisions are already altering our home planet. It’s about the world to come, the one where geo-engineering (intentional and inadvertent) has already changed the material conditions of every person, place, and living thing. In Unnatural World, Biello finds the glimpses of that world that are already surfacing—and he doesn’t find himself entirely despondent about them.

“This is either the best time to publish a book like this, because people need some hope,” Biello told me, “or it’s the absolute worst time, because there’s just no way to escape the black hole that is Trump.”

Last month, we talked about what Biello found in that unnatural world to come—and how Trump, at least in the short term, could shake things up. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

* * *

Robinson Meyer: There’s a mix of optimism and realism in the book that seems quite familiar, and familiar especially to covering climate change—an excitement about the technologies that are coming online mixed with a clear-eyedness about how things have gone so far. How are you feeling after the events of November 8, 2016? Do you tend to think that, since this is a technological problem, technological progress is the main deciding factor in solving it?

David Biello: I guess the easiest way to put it is that I’m an optimist on the technology side of things, and a bit of a pessimist on the human side of things.

The working title of this book when I started it was Human Nature, and I really think that’s where the real challenges like. This most recent election is just more proof of that. We have—as they used to say in the ’70s TV show—we have the technology, we just don’t have the will to use it. And over and over again, we seem to take two steps forward and then take a giant leap back.

I’ve been writing about climate change since the end of the 20th century. I’ve kind of seen this before. Certainly in

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