The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells
Penguin Random House LLC | 2019 | 320 Pages
Climate change has become a significant rallying point for the global environmental movement. In Canada in 2018 there were 87 listed environmental groups and non-governmental organizations (among them the David Suzuki Foundation) who devoted substantial portions of their time and resources to activism and education. Amazon listed 128 titles in their 2018 catalogue which contained the words climate change. The leading British scientific journal Nature.com cited climate change in its printed and online papers 3473 times. Why, you may well enquire, do we then need one more publication on the subject?
The answer likes in two simple realities. Firstly, if we are to make any progress at all against the very real threat of global climate change, we need to get the message across to the public at large. But the huge majority of these folks do not belong to environmental or conservation groups and they certainly do not devote any reading time to Nature or to any other source of hard factual truths about climate change.
But they do read books which are sold through booksellers and/or are available in public libraries. That makes publications such as David Wallace-Wells’ new work The uninhabitable Earth: life after warming an important component in progressives’ uphill climate struggle.
Wallace-Wells is the Deputy Editor of New York magazine and has already used that publication for a 2017 essay on climate change that emphasized famines, political chaos, economic collapse, fierce resource competition, and an extremely hostile environment for the humans of the near future. He continues that theme in his book.
He uses global statistics like a cudgel. The data show that the global community has done more damage to the environment since the United Nations established a climate change framework in 1992 than was done in all the millennia that preceded it. He lists several major recent events which typify the dangerous situation we’re in – the 2018 summer unprecedented heat wave in the northern hemisphere, a crazy hurricane season, and the California wildfires which burned more than a million acres.
UN climate data suggests we’re now on track says we’re on track to get to about 4o of warming by the end of the century if we continue as we are. That would negatively impact some 150 million people. If we continue on the present track in terms of emissions then basically every area of potential climate impact — from agricultural yields, to public health issues, to economic growth, and to climate change and conflict – is going to get considerably worse (indeed catastrophically worse if we don’t change course rapidly).
One of the great lessons of climate change, says Wallace-Wells, is that so many have felt that we’ve “built our way out of nature”. Notwithstanding concerns about climate and other environmental issues, we’ve had the deep belief that we had built a fortress around ourselves that would protect us against a hostile world. With the extreme weather that we’ve seen over the last few years, we are now having to relearn that we live within Nature, and that our lives are governed by its forces. None of us, no matter who we are or where we live, will be able to escape the consequences of climate change.
The book points at three misapprehensions in popular discourse on climate change. One is about the speed of change. We have had the notion that climate change was a slow process, consequently the general public were reluctant to take aggressive action because they didn’t believe that there was any urgency behind it. The second is about scope. We have been conditioned to think that climate change is essentially just a matter of sea level rise. Most of us felt we could escape that if we were anywhere but on the coast. The third big delusion is about severity. Scientists have used 2 degrees of warming as a threshold of catastrophe, but journalists and the public took it to mean that a 2-degree level was the worst case. Wallace-Wells feels things are moving much faster than people realize, and the picture is far darker than the public understands.
Is it too late to make a meaningful difference? Wallace-Wells seems ambiguous on the issue. The world can make a difference, he feels, but it’s important not to see this as a matter of whether climate change is here or not, or whether we’ve crossed a threshold or not. Every upward tick of temperature, he points out, makes things worse. We can avoid suffering only by reducing it as much as possible.
Complacency is a significant problem. The author admits that he himself was awakened from complacency into environmental advocacy through alarm. He sees real value in fear, and that being scared about what is possible in the future can be highly motivating. He points to the movements against nuclear proliferation and drunk driving as examples where fear and alarm led to effective mobilization. He describes recent opinion surveys in the U.S. which found that 70 percent of Americans now believe global warming is real, and 61 percent are alarmed by it.
It’s also important to remember that it’s not merely American political inaction that is driving the problem anymore. That means the solution will be unfolding on a geopolitical stage, and one of the big themes of the second half of the book is how the geopolitical map will change as a result of climate change.
Much of the geopolitics of the coming century will be negotiated and navigated around the issue of carbon in ways that we can’t yet anticipate. Hopefully this will produce more meaningful global action than was generated in Paris in 2015 and 2016. In the end, says Wallace-Wells, we need new geopolitics based on carbon. Maybe climate change will be dramatic enough to get us there.
Reviewed by Stan Hirst, 2019