Apr/May 2019

It Gets Worse

What’s in store as the planet heats up

Kate Aronoff

The Uninhabitable Earth:

Life After Warming

by David Wallace-Wells

Tim Duggan Books

$27.00 List Price

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AS CLIMATE CHANGE ENCROACHES, things will get worse. Much worse. And David Wallace-Wells, in The Uninhabitable Earth, spares no detail in explaining how. The horrors that ensue play out on a biblical scale, from heat death to plagues of warming to economic collapse—all covered in the longest section, “Elements of Chaos.” Al Gore has in recent years likened existing climate impacts to a “nature hike through the Book of Revelation.” Here, Wallace-Wells plays the dutiful guide.

The book offers an extended cut of Wallace-Wells’s blockbuster New York magazine essay from 2017, expanding vignettes of thawed Arctic anthrax and catastrophic crop failure into whole chapters and stitching dozens of interviews and decades of scientific research, much of it dry and cautious, into a vivid narrative of how our world might end. Wallace-Wells doesn’t beg us to have sympathy for the glaciers or even the charismatic megafauna that tend to populate other Big Climate Books, like Elizabeth Kolbert’s essential The Sixth Extinction. The Uninhabitable Earth instead translates the bleak, abstract math of climate change—parts per million and half degrees Celsius—into its tangible effects on human life, filtering phenomena like coral bleaching through the lens of what they mean for ocean ecosystems and the people who depend on them.

Click to enlarge

Zaria Forman, Charcot Fjord, Greenland, 66º21'7.21"N 36º59'.10.49"W, April 22, 2017, 2018, soft pastel on paper, 90 × 60".

While beautifully written, it never makes for easy reading. “By 2080, without dramatic reductions in emissions,” Wallace-Wells explains in one typical passage, “southern Europe will be in permanent extreme drought, much worse than the American Dust Bowl ever was. The same will be true in Iraq and Syria and much of the rest of the Middle East; some of the most densely populated parts of Australia, Africa, and South America; and the breadbasket regions of China.” A description of how the human body succumbs to extreme heat reads like lurid body horror. The macro-level details are just as sobering. Deforestation, we learn, could cripple the earth’s remaining ability to absorb planet-warming carbon dioxide, leading temperatures to sky-rocket. Rising concentrations of that compound are helping to drain plants of their nutritional content, and by 2050 some 150 million people in the developing world may be at risk of protein deficiency. Those same swelling carbon levels might decrease human cognitive capacity by more than 20 percent if left unchecked. Via a complex series of biological processes, climate-fueled ocean acidification could warm the world by an additional half degree Celsius.

Wallace-Wells stresses that these scenarios are the signs not of a new normal, but of a world in which “normal” ceases to be a useful framework for understanding an environment that is constantly changing, and almost always for the worse. “By 2040, the summer of 2018 will likely seem normal,” he writes. “But extreme weather is not a matter of ‘normal’; it is what roars back at us from the ever-worsening fringe of climate events. This is among the scariest features of rapid climate change: not that it changes the everyday experience of the world, though it does that, and dramatically; but that it makes once-unthinkable outlier events much more common, and ushers whole new categories of disaster into the realm of the possible.”

The biggest “known unknown” (a phrase Wallace-Wells cribs from Donald Rumsfeld) is how quickly humans will choose to acknowledge and address what’s coming. Whether we like it or not, the author points out, we are bound up with nature and what happens to it. The era in which a small subset of humanity has sought to dominate the earth and its resources is a blip in the history of this planet. What this means, he writes, is that global warming is “more than just one input in an equation to determine carrying capacity; it is the set of conditions under which all of our experiments to improve that capacity will be conducted.”

Wallace-Wells is careful not to slip into nihilism, which he calls “another of our delusions,” in facing the enormousness of the climate challenge. The science he takes such care to summarize supports him: There simply isn’t a point of no return beyond which action on climate stops mattering, at least not within any of our lifetimes; every additional tenth of a degree of warming will mean tens of thousands of lives lost, and likely many more. “What may sound like stoic wisdom is often an alibi for indifference,” he says of the cynics who claim that nothing we can do at this point will change the course of events.

“The fight is, definitively, not yet lost—in fact will never be lost, so long as we avoid extinction,” Wallace-Wells writes, “because however warm the planet gets, it will always be the case that the decade that follows could contain more suffering or less.” Whether or not you think we’ll successfully undershoot two degrees of warming—and there are plenty of skeptics when it comes to that benchmark—what’s abundantly clear is that any world in which we try will be far better equipped to deal with a warmer future.

Wallace-Wells is wary of fixating on either technology or personal consumption (“a very contemporary form of virtue signaling”) as saviors, but he also shies away from us/them narratives that might stir up populist anger against the biggest polluters. The author has no kind words for the fossil-fuel industry, but he argues that “the burden of responsibility is too great to be shouldered by a few, however comforting it is to think all that is needed is for a few villains to fall.” We all share some fault, and have some agency. (Though Wallace-Wells is careful to mention just how unequal the distribution of climate impacts will be, who precisely “we” is goes mostly uninterrogated in his book’s longue durée.)

The Uninhabitable Earth makes one of its few missteps when it uses an oddball crew of doomists to frame a discussion about ethics at the end of the world, excerpting “a whole harvest of writers and thinkers who seem, in their anticipation of coming disasters, almost to be cheering for the forces of apocalypse.” The group skews white and male: in other words, the people perhaps least likely to experience the early effects of the crisis firsthand. For every fringe loner or academic blogging about the dire existential threat of climate change, there are hundreds of people living through it and fighting for a path to survival. Wallace-Wells isn’t overly generous to the doomists—it’s a relatively short section, and he skewers them plenty in other parts of the book. Still, making them some of the only fleshed-out characters feels like a lost opportunity, particularly given that the masses on global warming’s losing end are painted in such broad, impersonal strokes.

In the end, no collection of characters could do full justice to the range of human experience that rising temperatures will destabilize. Wallace-Wells rightly posits climate change as the basis for an entirely new political economy, “transforming not just our relationship to nature but to politics and to history, and proving a knowledge system as total as ‘modernity.’” The fact that our world is warming so violently, in other words, calls everything else about it into question. And like so many of the researchers he references, Wallace-Wells can’t help but take aim at capitalism, a key driver of the climate crisis that lacks the right set of tools to mitigate it. Unlike the planet, though, capitalism has long been seen as too big to fail; that it will create technologies to provide an escape from a parched, six-degrees-warmer hellscape seems easier to imagine than confronting the power of coal, oil, and natural-gas companies. “To some, even ending trillions in fossil fuel subsidies sounds harder to pull off than deploying technologies to suck carbon out of the air everywhere on earth,” Wallace-Wells writes.

The blind reliance on tech solutions has also clouded the way people from across the political spectrum think about how to curb emissions, and limited our hopes for what’s possible. On the right and left alike, Wallace-Wells notes, many “tend to think of climate as somehow being contained within, or governed by, capitalism. In fact, it is endangered by it.” That’s a jab at the neoliberals who think unfettered markets can “solve the problem of global warming as naturally, as surely as they had solved the problems of pollution, inequality, justice, and conflict,” as Wallace-Wells deadpans. But it’s also a swipe at the idea, common among leftists, that dismantling capitalism is a silver bullet; as Naomi Klein has written, the problem is simply too big for either story to be true.

We are fortunate that a new generation of climate advocates are staking out a different path. Wallace-Wells steers mostly clear of specific policy prescriptions, or even calls to action, but he maintains that a number of very big changes need to happen very fast to keep the earth habitable in the long run. Just before his book’s publication, he wrote that calls for a Green New Deal—that is, for an economy-wide mobilization to zero out greenhouse gas emissions by 2030—constituted the first “serious American response to the existential threat of climate change.”

At any other political moment, The Uninhabitable Earth might have been just another Cassandra-style fable, crafted though it was with the care of a seasoned magazine writer. Climate hawks, after all, have long labored under the assumption that providing enough people with enough information will shock them into curbing emissions somehow—mostly to little effect. It’s no secret that the Right, too, traffics in fear. Yet their warnings about the end of the world—most all of them, unlike the climate crisis, contrived—tend to come with to-do lists. Are taxes too high? Cut entitlement spending. Are there too many migrants at the southern border? Build a wall. Are your politicians not conservative enough? Vote them out. An emphasis on the horrors of climate change, like those Wallace-Wells lays out, has rarely come paired with a response that felt up to the task, as supposedly sensible policy makers have defaulted to a market tweak here or a tax subsidy there. In the Green New Deal, we might finally, thankfully, have one.

Kate Aronoff is a fellow at Type Media Center.