• An alarming book provokes a vision of a world that has solved the problems of global warming and war

I pontificate about lots of things on this blog. […] But I’ve begun thinking it’s pointless, and irresponsible, to write about anything but climate change. Did passengers on the Titanic chitchat about Freud as their ship sank?

My daughter’s outlook is even grimmer than mine. She has the soul of a social-justice warrior, but she worries that climate change will destroy civilization before we can bring about meaningful social change. When I asked my students if they shared my daughter’s view, many raised their hands, all looked uneasy.

I know how they feel. Climate apocalypse is like death. The larger it looms, the less I want to think about it. I haven’t written about the topic since last December, and then only glancingly, to express despair. Recently, however, I’ve made an effort to face global warming squarely. One goad is the protests of Greta Thunberg and other young activists. Another is The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, by journalist David Wallace-Wells, the most compelling book I’ve read on our potentially hellish future. It is a true horror story that, paradoxically, left me feeling more hopeful about the future.

Wallace-Wells limns doom with literary flair. But what makes him especially persuasive is that he came to the topic of climate change late, and reluctantly. He was never particularly green. He likes meat, doesn’t like camping. He cares much more about humanity than about “nature,” whatever that is. He was once skeptical of “the Environmental left,” but after delving into climate change a few years ago he got scared. “Alarmist” is a derogatory term, but Wallace-Wells embraces it. “I am alarmed,” he says, and we should be too. “It is worse, much worse, than you think.”


Wallace-Wells demolishes these and other falsehoods with brutal facts. 250 million years ago a surge of carbon dioxide triggered the Great Permian Extinction, which “ended with all but a sliver of life on Earth dead.” We are now pumping carbon into the atmosphere ten times faster than the volcanic eruptions that precipitated that ancient cataclysm. Although the fossil fuel era began two centuries ago, more than half of our carbon emissions have occurred in the last three decades, after James Hansen and other scientists began warning of our actions’ consequences.

Our emissions are already wreaking havoc. Since 1980, annual storms have doubled, coastal floods have quadrupled, life-threatening heat waves have surged fifty-fold. The melt rate of Antarctic ice has tripled just in the last decade. As many as 2.1 billion people already lack safe drinking water, and shortages are growing more severe. Things will get worse, how much depends on us.

It would take a “spectacular coincidence of bad choices and bad luck” to make Earth truly uninhabitable any time soon, Wallace-Wells says. But “if the next thirty years of industrial activity trace the same upward arc as the last thirty years have, whole regions will become unlivable by any standard we have today as soon as the end of the century.” Even with a “radical reduction” of emissions, temperatures will probably rise two degrees Celsius and sea levels two meters by the end of the century.

Wallace-Wells packs bad news into chapters titled “Heat Death,” “Hunger,” Drowning,” ”Wildfire,” “Dying Oceans,” “Unbreathable Air,” “Economic Collapse” and “Climate Conflict.” The latter explores the likelihood that migrations and other climate consequences will trigger wars over water and other resources. I have written critically about this prophecy, which I fear might become self-fulfilling, but the analysis of Wallace-Wells strikes me as awfully credible.


Source: John Horgan, Scientific American