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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Uninhabitable Earth,’ a grisly, sobering look at climate change

“It is worse, much worse, than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all …”

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming
David Wallace-Wells
Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
Copyright © 2019 by David Wallace-Wells

This is a remarkable book, remarkable not only in its unflinching look at the ravages of the climate crisis, but in its relentless determination to rally us to action. There is nothing sappy or rah-rah or unrealistic about David Wallace-Wells’ commitment to doing whatever is necessary to avoid extinction. Rather, he possesses and communicates a clear-eyed determination that as long as there are some of us, there are things we can/must do.

Thankfully, for me, David Wallace-Wells leaves the hard science, and where to find it, to the Notes at the end of the book. Instead, he translates, offering a look at what the data means, how we see it, feel it and, because it is so frightening, how often we try not to know it.

David Wallace-Wells. Photo: Linda Nylind/the Guardian

Admittedly, he is new to this, an unlikely herald: “I am not an environmentalist, and don’t even think of myself as a nature person. I’ve lived my whole life in cities, enjoying gadgets built by industrial supply chains I hardly think twice about. I’ve never gone camping, not willingly anyway, and while I always thought it was basically a good idea to keep streams clean and air clear, I also always accepted the proposition that there was a trade-off between economic growth and cost to natureand figured, well, in most cases I’d probably go for growth.

“I’m not about to personally slaughter a cow to eat a hamburger, but I’m also not about to go vegan. I tend to think when you’re at the top of the food chain it’s okay to flaunt it, because I don’t see anything complicated about drawing a moral boundary between us and other animals, and in fact find it offensive to women and people of color that all of a sudden there’s talk of extending human-rights-like legal protections to chimps, apes, and octopuses, just a generation or two after we finally broke the white-male monopoly on legal personhood. In these ways—many of them, at least—I am like every other American who has spent their life fatally complacent, and willfully deluded, about climate change …” (Emphasis added.)

Melting ice in the Arctic. Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins/National Geographic

He is, though, a journalist who collects stories, a collector who gradually stumbled into the midst of our multi-faceted crisis: “a group of Arctic scientists trapped when melting ice isolated their research center, on an island populated also by a group of polar bears; a Russian boy killed by anthrax released from a thawing reindeer carcass, which had been trapped in permafrost for many decades … My file of stories grew daily, but very few of the clips, even those drawn from new research published in the most pedigreed scientific journals, seemed to appear in the coverage about climate change the country watched on television and read in its newspapers … the discussion of possible effects was misleadingly narrow, limited almost invariably to the matter of sea-level rise. Just as worrisome, the coverage was sanguine, all things considered …”

Like most of us non-scientists, he didn’t quite know what to make of all these individual stories: “We felt confusion about the science and its many technical terms and hard-to-parse numbers, or at least an intuition that others would be easily confused about the science and its many technical terms and hard-to-parse numbers. We suffered from slowness apprehending the speed of change … Perhaps we felt unable to really trust scarier projections because we’d only just heard about warming, we thought, and things couldn’t possibly have gotten that much worse just since the first Inconvenient Truth; or because we liked driving our cars and eating our beef and living as we did in every other way and didn’t want to think too hard about that … or because we looked outside and things seemed still okay. Because we were bored with writing, or reading, the same story again and again … because we didn’t yet appreciate how fully it would ravage our lives, and because, selfishly, we didn’t mind destroying the planet for others living elsewhere on it or those not yet born who would inherit it from us, outraged.”

A lignite coal-fired power station in Poland. Photo: Florian Gaertner, Getty Images

But these stories have led him to “The Uninhabitable Earth.” So, let me give you just an idea of the picture he paints of the world he and we know today. “The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) offers the gold-standard assessments of the state of the planet and the likely trajectory for climate change … [which] says that if we take action on emissions soon, instituting immediately all of the commitments made in the Paris accords but nowhere yet actually implemented, we are likely to get about 3.2 degrees of warming, or about three times as much warming as the planet has seen since the beginning of industrialization—bringing the unthinkable collapse of the planet’s ice sheets not just into the realm of the real but into the present. That would eventually flood not just Miami and Dhaka but Shanghai and Hong Kong and a hundred other cities around the world. The tipping point for that collapse is said to be around two degrees; according to several recent studies, even a rapid cessation of carbon emissions could bring us that amount of warming by the end of the century.”

Time, he tells us, is not on our side: “It is almost hard to believe just how much has happened and how quickly. In the late summer of 2017, three major hurricanes arose in the Atlantic at once, proceeding at first along the same route as though they were battalions of an army on the march. Hurricane Harvey, when it struck Houston, delivered such epic rainfall it was described in some areas as a ‘500,000-year event’—meaning that we should expect that amount of rain to hit that area once every five hundred millennia. Harvey was the third such flood to hit Houston since 2015. And the storm struck, in places, with an intensity that was supposed to be a thousand times rarer still.”

Then he pulls back from Houston to show us what most of us never noticed—extraordinary climate events happening across the globe at the same time: “That same season, an Atlantic hurricane hit Ireland, 45 million were flooded from their homes in South Asia, and unprecedented wildfires tilled much of California into ash … crises so large they would once have been inscribed in folklore for centuries today passing across our horizons ignored, overlooked, or forgotten. In 2016, a ‘thousand-year flood’ drowned small-town Ellicott City, Maryland, to take but one example almost at random; it was followed, two years later, in the same small town, by another. One week that summer of 2018, dozens of places all over the world were hit with record heat waves, from Denver to Burlington to Ottawa; from Glasgow to Shannon to Belfast; from Tbilisi, in Georgia, and Yerevan, in Armenia, to whole swaths of southern Russia. The previous month, the daytime temperature of one city in Oman reached above 121 degrees Fahrenheit, and did not drop below 108 all night, and in Quebec, Canada, fifty-four died from the heat. That same week, one hundred major wildfires burned in the American West, including one in California that grew 4,000 acres in one day, and another, in Colorado, that produced a volcano-like 300-foot eruption of flames, swallowing an entire subdivision and inventing a new term, ‘fire tsunami,’ along the way.

“On the other side of the planet, biblical rains flooded Japan, where 1.2 million were evacuated from their homes. Later that summer, Typhoon Mangkhut forced the evacuation of 2.45 million from mainland China, the same week that Hurricane Florence struck the Carolinas, turning the port city of Wilmington briefly into an island and flooding large parts of the state with hog manure and coal ash. Along the way, the winds of Florence produced dozens of tornadoes across the region. The previous month, in India, the state of Kerala was hit with its worst floods in almost a hundred years. That October, a hurricane in the Pacific wiped Hawaii’s East Island entirely off the map. And in November, which has traditionally marked the beginning of the rainy season in California, the state was hit instead with the deadliest fire in its history—the Camp Fire, which scorched several hundred square miles outside of Chico, killing dozens and leaving many more missing in a place called, proverbially, Paradise. The devastation was so complete, you could almost forget the Woolsey Fire, closer to Los Angeles, which burned at the same time and forced the sudden evacuation of 170,000.”

Golfers in North Bonneville, Wash., playing while Eagle Creek burned. Photo courtesy Reuters

What “The Uninhabitable Earth” does best is wrench us from our day-to-day perspective, our particular place in time and space, to see the biggest picture. And because David Wallace-Wells melds science with the best of prose, his reports are multi-dimensional and so very effective. When he tells the story of calamitous wildfires of the last few years, there’s far more than heat, lost homes, lost lives. There’s his added analysis: “climate change is finally striking close to home. Some quite special homes. The California fires of 2017 burned the state’s wine crop, blowtorched million-dollar vacation properties, and threatened both the Getty Museum and Rupert Murdoch’s Bel-Air estate. There may not be two better symbols of the imperiousness of American money than those two structures. Nearby, the sunshiny children’s fantasia of Disneyland was quickly canopied, as the fires began to encroach, by an eerily apocalyptic orange sky. On local golf courses, the West Coast’s wealthy still showed up for their tee times, swinging their clubs just yards from blazing fires in photographs that could not have been more perfectly staged to skewer the country’s indifferent plutocracy. The following year, Americans watched the Kardashians evacuate via Instagram stories, then read about the private firefighting forces they employed, the rest of the state reliant on conscripted convicts earning as little as a dollar a day.”

He reminds us how tricky time has become in this new world. Because, if I understand him, we are all living in some odd time-lag. All the carbon dioxide we’ve spewed, all the methane that remains to be released with the new melting, that’s climate change we’ve already banked. Exacerbating. Multiplying. Perhaps the reason things are happening so much faster than our smart climate scientists imagined. Not that we took them seriously, convinced they were exaggerating when, in fact, they were underestimating.

David Wallace-Wells writes: “It is tempting to look at these strings of disasters and think, Climate change is here. And one response to seeing things long predicted actually come to pass is to feel that we have settled into a new era, with everything transformed. In fact, that is how California governor Jerry Brown described the state of things in the midst of the state’s wildfire disaster: ‘a new normal.’

“The truth is actually much scarier. That is, the end of normal; never normal again. We have already exited the state of environmental conditions that allowed the human animal to evolve in the first place, in an unsure and unplanned bet on just what that animal can endure. The climate system that raised us, and raised everything we now know as human culture and civilization, is now, like a parent, dead.And the climate system we have been observing for the last several years, the one that has battered the planet again and again, is not our bleak future in preview. It would be more precise to say that it is a product of our recent climate past, already passing behind us into a dustbin of environmental nostalgia. There is no longer any such thing as a “natural disaster,” but not only will things get worse; technically speaking, they have already gotten worse. Even if, miraculously, humans immediately ceased emitting carbon, we’d still be due for some additional warming from just the stuff we’ve put into the air already. And of course, with global emissions still increasing, we’re very far from zeroing out on carbon, and therefore very far from stalling climate change. The devastation we are now seeing all around us is a beyond-best-case scenario for the future of warming and all the climate disasters it will bring … The last few years of climate disasters may look like about as much as the planet can take. In fact, we are only just entering our brave new world, one that collapses below us as soon as we set foot on it.” (Emphasis added.)

Here’s a chart that helps me see what we’ve been doing:

The rise of carbon dioxide. Image courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

There’s a great irony at work here. What’s happening is happening on a global level, events intertwined and interrelated, while still we think of ourselves as Americans, Russians, Chinese, men, women, white, black, brown, gay, straight, so much more conscious of our differences than our shared fragility, still unwilling to confront the truth of our dilemma—as if the burning forests, melting glaciers, raging storms give a damn about the patriotic ditties we sing to highlight our distinctions.

Telegraph Road in Houston, Tx., Aug. 27, 2017. Photo: Thomas B. Shea/AFP/Getty Images

He explains cascading change: “A warming planet leads to melting Arctic ice, which means less sunlight reflected back to the sun and more absorbed by a planet warming faster still, which means an ocean less able to absorb atmospheric carbon and so a planet warming faster still. A warming planet will also melt Arctic permafrost, which contains 1.8 trillion tons of carbon, more than twice as much as is currently suspended in the earth’s atmosphere, and some of which, when it thaws and is released, may evaporate as methane, which is thirty-four times as powerful a greenhouse-gas warming blanket as carbon dioxide when judged on the timescale of a century; when judged on the timescale of two decades, it is eighty-six times as powerful. A hotter planet is, on net, bad for plant life, which means what is called “forest dieback”—the decline and retreat of jungle basins as big as countries and woods that sprawl for so many miles they used to contain whole folklores—which means a dramatic stripping-back of the planet’s natural ability to absorb carbon and turn it into oxygen, which means still hotter temperatures, which means more dieback, and so on. Higher temperatures means more forest fires means fewer trees means less carbon absorption, means more carbon in the atmosphere, means a hotter planet still—and so on … We know what a best-case outcome for climate change looks like, however unrealistic, because it quite closely resembles the world as we live on it today. But we have not yet begun to contemplate those cascades that may bring us to the infernal range of the bell curve.”

Image courtesy New York Times

And while he looks to the world without flinching, at the firestorms, the disappearing glaciers, the death of our coral reefs, the rising seas, he’s also willing to look within: “I’ve also often been asked whether it’s moral to reproduce in this climate, whether it’s responsible to have children, whether it is fair to the planet or, perhaps more important, to the children. As it happens, in the course of writing this book, I did have a child, Rocca … I know there are climate horrors to come, some of which will inevitably be visited on my children—that is what it means for warming to be an all-encompassing, all-touching threat. But those horrors are not yet scripted. We are staging them by inaction, and by action can stop them. Climate change means some bleak prospects for the decades ahead, but I don’t believe the appropriate response to that challenge is withdrawal, is surrender. I think you have to do everything you can to make the world accommodate dignified and flourishing life, rather than giving up early, before the fight has been lost or won, and acclimating yourself to a dreary future brought into being by others less concerned about climate pain. The fight is, definitively, not yet lost—in fact will never be lost, so long as we avoid extinction, because however warm the planet gets, it will always be the case that the decade that follows could contain more suffering or less. And I have to admit, I am also excited, for everything that Rocca and her sisters and brothers will see, will witness, will do. She will hit her child-rearing years around 2050, when we could have climate refugees in the many tens of millions; she will be entering old age at the close of the century, the end-stage bookmark on all of our projections for warming. In between, she will watch the world doing battle with a genuinely existential threat, and the people of her generation making a future for themselves, and the generations they bring into being, on this planet. And she won’t just be watching it, she will be living it—quite literally the greatest story ever told. It may well bring a happy ending.” (Emphasis added)

About a third of the way through, we’re congratulated, and believe me we deserve it: “If you have made it this far, you are a brave reader. Any one of these twelve chapters contains, by rights, enough horror to induce a panic attack in even the most optimistic of those considering it. But you are not merely considering it; you are about to embark on living it. In many cases, in many places, we already are.”

I imagine David Wallace-Wells understands exactly what he’s putting us through. It must have been many times harder to keep researching, to continue to look for and find ever more evidence of the climate crisis, to write on. There were several times I wanted to abandon “The Uninhabitable Earth,” figuratively and literally.

Because, as he reminds us: “In fact, what is perhaps most remarkable about all of the research summarized to this point—concerning not only refugees, health, and mental health, but also conflict and food supply and sea level and all of the other elements of climate disarray—is that it is research emerging from the world we know today. That is, a world just one degree warmer; a world not yet deformed and defaced beyond recognition; a world bound largely by conventions devised in an age of climate stability, now barreling headlong into an age of something more like climate chaos, a world we are only beginning to perceive.”

David Wallace-Wells has pried open our eyes, forced us to see the living nightmare ahead, in his words The mass extinction we are now living through has only just begun; so much more dying is coming.”

This is more about the problem, less about the solution, mostly because if there is a simple scientific, technological solution, no one has found it yet. But the one thing David Wallace-Wells is sure of is that now he wants/needs us awake, fully conscious and willing to work as hard as possible to survive, to fight: “If humans are responsible for the problem, they must be capable of undoing it. We have an idiomatic name for those who hold the fate of the world in their hands, as we do: gods. But for the moment, at least, most of us seem more inclined to run from that responsibility than embrace it—or even admit we see it, though it sits in front of us as plainly as a steering wheel.

“Instead, we assign the task to future generations, to dreams of magical technologies, to remote politicians doing a kind of battle with profiteering delay. This is why this book is also studded so oppressively with ‘we,’ however imperious it may seem. The fact that climate change is all-enveloping means it targets all of us, and that we must all share in the responsibility so we do not all share in the suffering—at least not all share in so suffocatingly much of it.

Flooding earlier this year in Hamburg, Iowa. Photo: Tim Gruber, New York Times

“We do not know the precise shape such suffering would take, cannot predict with certainty exactly how many acres of forest will burn each year of the next century, releasing into the air centuries of stored carbon; or how many hurricanes will flatten each Caribbean island; or where megadroughts are likely to produce mass famines first; or which will be the first great pandemic to be produced by global warming. But we know enough to see, even now, that the new world we are stepping into will be so alien from our own, it might as well be another planet entirely … 

“There is one civilization we know of, and it is still around, and kicking—for now, at least. Why should we be suspicious of our exceptionality, or choose to understand it only by assuming an imminent demise? Why not choose to feel empowered by it? … ‘Thinking like a planet’ is so alien to the perspectives of modern life—so far from thinking like a neoliberal subject in a ruthless competitive system—that the phrase sounds at first lifted from kindergarten. But reasoning from first principles is reasonable when it comes to climate; in fact, it is necessary, as we only have a first shot to engineer a solution. This goes beyond thinking like a planet, because the planet will survive, however terribly we poison it; it is thinking like a people, one people, whose fate is shared by all …

“There will be those, as there are now, who rage against fossil capitalists and their political enablers; and others, as there are now, who lament human shortsightedness and decry the consumer excesses of contemporary life. There will be those, as there are now, who fight as unrelenting activists, with approaches as diverse as federal lawsuits and aggressive legislation and small-scale protests of new pipelines; nonviolent resistance; and civil-rights crusades. And there will be those, as there are now, who see the cascading suffering and fall back into an inconsolable despair. There will be those, as there are now, who insist that there is only one way to respond to the unfolding ecological catastrophe—one productive way, one responsible way …

“The Voyager 1 space probe gave us the “Pale Blue Dot”—the inescapable smallness, and fragility, of the entire experiment we’re engaged in, together, whether we like it or not. Personally, I think that climate change itself offers the most invigorating picture, in that even its cruelty flatters our sense of power, and in so doing calls the world, as one, to action. At least I hope it does. But that is another meaning of the climate kaleidoscope. You can choose your metaphor. You can’t choose the planet, which is the only one any of us will ever call home.”

If you have children, hope to have children, if you know children, and care about the world they’ll inhabit, you need to read “The Uninhabitable Earth.”

I’m going to end where David Wallace-Wells begins: “It is worse, much worse, than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all …”

You’ve been warned.


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