The uninhabitable earth Life after warming

David Wallace-Wells

Book - 2019

"It is worse, much worse, than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible. In California, wildfires now rage year-round, destroying thousands of homes. Across the US, "500-year" storms pummel communities month after month, and floods displace tens of millions annually. This is only a preview of the changes to come. And they are coming fast. Without a revolution in how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth could become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century. In his travelogue of our near future, David Wallace-Wells brings into stark ...relief the climate troubles that await--food shortages, refugee emergencies, and other crises that will reshape the globe. But the world will be remade by warming in more profound ways as well, transforming our politics, our culture, our relationship to technology, and our sense of history. It will be all-encompassing, shaping and distorting nearly every aspect of human life as it is lived today. Like An Inconvenient Truth and Silent Spring before it, The Uninhabitable Earth is both a meditation on the devastation we have brought upon ourselves and an impassioned call to action. For just as the world was brought to the brink of catastrophe within the span of a lifetime, the responsibility to avoid it now belongs to a single generation"--

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New York : Tim Duggan Books [2019]
Main Author
David Wallace-Wells (author)
First edition
Physical Description
310 pages ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages [233]-299) and index.
  • I. Cascades
  • II. Elements of Chaos
  • Heat Death
  • Hunger
  • Drowning
  • Wildfire
  • Disasters No Longer Natural
  • Freshwater Drain
  • Dying Oceans
  • Unbreathable Air
  • Plagues of Warming
  • Economic Collapse
  • Climate Conflict
  • "Systems"
  • III. The Climate Kaleidoscope
  • Storytelling
  • Crisis Capitalism
  • The Church of Technology
  • Politics of Consumption
  • History After Progress
  • Ethics at the End of the World
  • IV. The Anthropic Principle
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes 233
  • Index
Review by Choice Review

When an author congratulates a reader for her/his getting to page 138, one can safely assume that the information in the book is terrifying. The titles of the first 11 chapters of The Uninhabitable Earth are "Heat Death," "Hunger," "Drowning," "Wildfire," "Disasters No Longer Natural," "Freshwater Drain," "Dying Oceans," "Unbreathable Air," "Plagues of Warming," and "Economic Collapse." The title of the twelfth and last chapter, "Systems," refers to global disruption including wars and forced migration--a projected one-billion climate migrants on the planet by 2050. To date the responses to global warming have been denial (both major political parties in the US are guilty of this) and simply looking away instead of acknowledging the climate debt owed by the wealthy nations of the West who created the Anthropocene in one generation. The next generation has the task of reengineering a world not based on fossil fuels. Accomplishing this will not rely on the actions of well-meaning individuals who recycle or do not use plastic straws (though these are responsible behaviors); rather, the political will for a livable planet must be created by voting for responsible leaders. The world, as one, must respond to the call for action. We have only one planet to call home. Summing Up: Essential. All readers. --Patricia A. Murphy, emerita, University of Toledo

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by New York Times Review

CLIMATE CHANGE is the greatest challenge humanity has collectively faced. That challenge is, to put it mildly, practical; but it also poses a problem to the imagination. Our politics, our societies, are arranged around individual and group interests. These interests have to do with class, or ethnicity, or gender, or economics - make your own list. By asserting these interests, we call out to each other so that as a collective we see and hear one another. From that beginning, we construct the three overlapping, interacting R's of recognition, representation and rights. The problem with climate change, as an existential challenge to humanity, is that the interest-based model of society and politics doesn't work. Most of the people in whose interest we are demanding action aren't here. They haven't been born yet. And because the areas first and most affected by climate change are the poorest regions of earth, we are talking about the least seen, least represented group on our planet. We have to imagine these people into being, and then grant them rights, and then take unprecedented, society-wide action on that basis. The demand climate change makes on us is to feel empathy for the unborn poor of the global south, and change our economies to act on the basis of their needs. That's something humanity has never done before. Pessimism would be an ethical catastrophe. It leads only to despair, despair to inaction, and inaction to a future world David Attenborough has described as "the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world." To avoid the most terrible possible versions of our future, we have to stay positive; it's the only moral response to this crisis. And there are grounds to do so, as David Wallace-Wells argues in his brilliant new book, "The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming" : "We have all the tools we need, today, to stop it all: a carbon tax and the political apparatus to aggressively phase out dirty energy, a new approach to agricultural practices and a shift away from beef and dairy in the global diet; and public investment in green energy and carbon capture." Global emissions could be cut by a third if the richest 10 percent of humanity cut their use of energy to the same level as affluent, comfortable Europe. One prospective technique to scrub carbon from the atmosphere would cost $3 trillion a year, a colossal amount - but significantly less than the current level of subsidies paid out globally for fossil fuel, estimated at $5 trillion. Taken all in all, solutions are "obvious" and "available." The only obstacle to implementing them is political will. This litany of ideas might make "The Uninhabitable Earth" sound upbeat. That would be misleading. At the heart of Wallace-Wells's book is a remorseless, nearunbearable account of what we are doing to our planet. Climate change is "not just the biggest threat human life on the planet has ever faced but a threat of an entirely different category and scale," he writes. Even if collective action manages to keep us to 2 degrees Celsius of warming - a target it looks like we are currently on course to miss - we would be facing a world in which "the ice sheets will begin their collapse, global G.D.P. per capita will be cut by 13 percent, 400 million more people will suffer from water scarcity, major cities in the equatorial band of the planet will become unlivable, and even in the northern latitudes heat waves will kill thousands each summer." But remember, he writes, "this is our best case scenario." Wallace-Wells takes us through a compendium of the ways in which things could get so much worse, from simple "heat death" through catastrophic storms, droughts, flooding, wildfires, pollution, plague, economic collapse and war. We will see migration on a scale the world has never experienced: United Nations and World Bank estimates of how many people will be forcibly displaced by the middle of this century range from the tens to the hundreds of millions. All of this will affect the world's poor far more than the world's rich. The innocent, who have done the least to damage the environment through the consumption of fossil fuels, will suffer more than the guilty. "The Uninhabitable Earth" gives readers' emotions a thorough workout along that pessimism-to-despair spectrum, before we are brought round to the writer's "acceptance of responsibility." I stress the emotional aspect because it is crucial: We are facing a call to action that we are, on the evidence of our behavior so far, likely to ignore, unless we directly feel its urgency. We know this, because that's what we have been doing. The science of global warming has been settled for 40 years, but we have not just continued to pollute, we have accelerated the rate at which we've been doing so. Most of the carbon humans have put into the atmosphere has been emitted in the last three decades. As Wallace-Wells tartly puts it, "We have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since A1 Gore published his first book on the climate than in all the centuries - all the millenniums - that came before." This is part of the tragedy. It's not just that we know what's happening, it's that we've known for years and done nothing. Nathaniel Rich observes in "Losing Earth: A Recent History" that "nearly every conversation we have in 2019 about climate change was being held in 1979." His gripping, depressing, revelatory book is an expanded version of a whole-issue article that appeared in The New York Times Magazine last year. It is an account of what went wrong - of how it was that a moment of growing awareness of climate change, and an apparent willingness to act on the knowledge, was allowed to dissipate into stasis and inaction. The story runs from 1979 to 1989. Rich frames his narrative through a central character, Rafe Pomerance, a Friends of the Earth lobbyist who first came across the issue of global warming in a 1979 E.P.A. report. In the '80s, Congress had several hearings into climate change, which was accepted as an urgent priority even by a figure as conservative and anti-intellectual as Dan Quayle: "The greenhouse effect is an important environmental issue. We need to get on with it." So why didn't they? Rich offers a number of reasons. Scientists struggled to put across a clear message with sufficient force, for one. Pomerance looked with envy at the clarity with which the "hole in the ozone layer" was targeted for action by concerned scientists, notwithstanding the fact that, as Rich writes, "there was no hole, and there was no layer." The climate scientists' honorable struggles with complexity, probability models and time-lags between cause and effect helped dilute the impact of their message. A1983 report by the Academy of Sciences, "Changing Climate," was interpreted as calling for "caution not panic." Roger Revelle, one of America's leading scientists and author of a 1957 paper that was one of the first to describe the greenhouse effect, said that "we're flashing a yellow light but not a red light. It's not an unmitigated disaster by any means. It's just a change." The effect of all this was that the fight against climate change lost momentum at a critical point. The greater part of responsibility for the failure, however, lies with politicians and energy companies. The big fossil fuel firms knew the realities of human-caused climate change but chose to ignore them and to lobby for the right to damage the environment; the Republican Party had factions that were in league with Big Energy, overlapping with other factions in denial about the scientific realities. The Reagan administration fought hard against environmental protections of any kind; the Bush administration made rhetorical gestures but John Sununu, George H.W. Bush's chief of staff, did not believe in anthropogenic climate change and fought the scientists hard, and ultimately successfully. The first meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1989 ended without the thing it was convened to achieve, binding targets on global emissions. With American leadership, Rich writes, "warming could have been held to less than 1.5 degrees." The United States chose to shoot down the agreement. "And with that a decade of excruciating, painful, exhilarating progress turned to air." More carbon has been emitted into the atmosphere since that 1989 conference than in the preceding history of civilization. Climate change is a tragedy, but Rich makes clear that it is also a crime - a thing that bad people knowingly made worse, for their personal gain. That, I suspect, is one of the many aspects to the climate change battle that posterity will find it hard to believe, and impossible to forgive. JOHN LANCHESTER is the author, most recently, of "The Wall."

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [August 23, 2019]
Review by Booklist Review

Wallace-Wells is not a scientist or an environmentalist; he is a journalist who, as he explains, began collecting stories of climate change, many of them terrifying, gripping, uncanny narratives. He warns: It is worse, much worse, than you think. Wallace-Wells explains why in a bracing, well-organized, fully sourced, powerfully composed survey of the planetary changes happening now at shockingly rapid rates and their dire human consequences. Wallace-Wells tracks the cascading human costs of the rising sea levels threatening coastal cities. He also describes how flooding rivers, heat, drought, and the loss of topsoil and pollinators are decimating crop yields and warming ocean temperatures are endangering marine life while the human population and its need for food continue to increase.The litany of interconnected global-warming disasters is pummeling. There's the epic damage wrought by more frequent and more ferocious storms and wildfires, and the insidious harm of air pollution, including the reduction of cognitive abilities. Wallace-Wells also casts light on the link between capitalism and environmental catastrophes, and how climate change is instigating wars and mass exoduses of refugees, crises that will grow more severe. This clarion and necessary overview takes its place on a long list of similarly eloquent cautionary treatises by Bill McKibben, Al Gore, James Hansen, Elizabeth Kolbert, Naomi Klein, and many more. Yet after decades of warnings, we have done nothing to reduce our burning of fossil fuels. Wallace-Wells makes it personal: Every year, the average American emits enough carbon to melt 10,000 tons of ice in the Antarctic ice sheets enough to add 10,000 cubic meters of water to the ocean. Every minute, each of us adds five gallons. But for all the overwhelming information so compellingly presented here, Wallace-Wells is adamant in his assertion that there are solutions and that it is not too late to implement them. A rise in climate-change consciousness is finally underway, and we must now, at long last, learn to think and act as one global community, one people, whose fate is shared by all. --Donna Seaman Copyright 2019 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Wallace-Wells, deputy editor of New York magazine, takes on global warming's probable apocalyptic consequences in this depressing but must-read account. Wallace-Wells covers well-known threats, such as that rising sea levels will drown low-lying population centers, and alarming secondary effects, including the loss of ice, which, by reducing the Earth's capacity to reflect heat back into the atmosphere, would only accelerate global warming. Wallace-Wells considers cultural disruptions as well-for example, that rising temperatures could make the hajj to Mecca physically impossible. Wallace-Wells rigorously sources his contentions in detailed endnotes, making clear his gloominess is evidence-based. He also clarifies that his enumeration of calamities may only be the tip of the iceberg, as it is "a portrait of the future only as best it can be painted in the present." The cumulative effect is oppressive, and his brief references to remaining personally optimistic-because what humanity has done to the planet it can somehow undo-comes across as wishful thinking. At one point, he commends the reader for persisting in reading, observing that each chapter thus far has contained "enough horror to induce a panic attack in even the most optimistic." This statement stands as an apt summation of this intellectually rigorous, urgent, and often overwhelming look into a dire future. (Feb.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

"The threat from climate change is more total than from the bomb. It is also more pervasive." A closely argued look at what may be a turning point in human existence.As New York magazine deputy editor Wallace-Wells observes, almost every major moment of "evolutionary reset" in Earth's history has been precipitated by climate change produced by an overproduction of greenhouse gasesand there is now more carbon in the air than at any point in the last 15 million years, leading him to open, grimly, with the warning, "It is worse, much worse, than you think." So it is, and even if the author allows that we have the tools we need to stop transformative climate change, from carbon taxes to carbon capture and a conversion to renewable energy, we lack anything like the political or economic will to alter our course. The results will be catastrophic, from untold millions of environmental refugees to summers that, even in Scandinavia, will be accompanied by killer heat waves. Wallace-Wells rightly muses over the fact that, for all our devotion to end-of-the-world scenarios in science-fiction books and films, too many of us continue to believe that the scientists warning of these dire matters are "simply crying wolf." Witness the sitting president, who considers himself too smart to believe that the climate is changing and that there's still plenty of time to do something about it. There's not, Wallace-Wells writes, leaving us with only a few alternatives, ranging from the hope that some technological miracle can be ginned up to the darker impulse to "normalize climate suffering at the same pace we accelerate itforgetting all that we had ever said about the absolute moral unacceptability of the conditions of the world we are passing through in the present tense, and blithely."If you weren't alarmed already, Wallace-Wells sounds the tocsin of toxicity. An urgent, necessary book. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Chapter 1 Cascades 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, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions: that global warming is an Arctic saga, unfolding remotely; that it is strictly a matter of sea level and coastlines, not an enveloping crisis sparing no place and leaving no life un-deformed; that it is a crisis of the "natural" world, not the human one; that those two are distinct, and that we live today somehow outside or beyond or at the very least defended against nature, not circumscribed and literally overwhelmed by it; that wealth can be a shield against the ravages of warming; that the burning of fossil fuels is the price of continued economic growth; that growth, and the technology it produces, will allow us to engineer our way out of environmental disaster; that there is any analogue to the scale or scope of this threat, in the long span of human history, that might give us confidence in staring it down.         None of this is true. But let's begin with the speed of change. The earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are living through now, each so complete a wiping of the fossil record that it functioned as an evolutionary reset, the planet's phylogenetic tree first expanding, then collapsing, at intervals, like a lung: 86 percent of all species dead, 450 million years ago; 70 million years later, another 75 percent; 100 million years later, 96 percent; 50 million years later, 80 percent; 150 million years after that, 75 percent again. Unless you are a teenager, you probably read in your high school textbooks that these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs involved climate change produced by greenhouse gas. The most notorious was 252 million years ago; it began when carbon warmed the planet by five degrees Celsius, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane, another greenhouse gas, and ended with all but a sliver of life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster. The rate is one hundred times faster than at any point in human history before the beginning of industrialization. And there is already, right now, fully a third more carbon in the atmosphere than at any point in the last 800,000 years--perhaps in as long as 15 million years. There were no humans then. The oceans were more than a hundred feet higher.         Many perceive global warming as a sort of moral and economic debt, accumulated since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and now come due after several centuries. In fact, more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades. Which means we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries--all the millennia--that came before. The United Nations established its climate change framework in 1992, building a political consensus out of a scientific consensus and advertising it unmistakably to the world; which means we have now done as much damage to the environment knowingly than we ever managed in ignorance. Global warming may seem like a distended morality tale playing out over several centuries and inflicting a kind of Old Testament retribution on the great-great-grandchildren of those responsible, since it was carbon burning in eighteenth-century England that lit the fuse of everything that has followed. But that is a fable about historical villainy that acquits those of us alive today--and unfairly. The majority of the burning has come since the premiere of Seinfeld. Since the end of World War II, the figure is about 85 percent. The story of the industrial world's kamikaze mission is the story of a single lifetime--the planet brought from apparent stability to the brink of catastrophe in the years between a baptism or bar mitzvah and a funeral.         We all know those lifetimes. When my father was born in 1938--among his first memories the news of Pearl Harbor and the mythic air force of the industrial propaganda films that followed-- the climate system appeared, to most human observers, steady. Scientists had understood the greenhouse effect, had understood the way carbon produced by burned wood and coal and oil could hothouse the planet and disequilibrize everything on it, for three-quarters of a century. But they had not yet seen the effect, not really, not yet, which made it seem less like an observed fact than a dark prophecy, to be fulfilled only in a very distant future--perhaps never. By the time my father died, in 2016, weeks after the desperate signing of the Paris Agreement, the climate system was tipping toward devastation, passing the threshold of carbon concentration--400 parts per million in the earth's atmosphere, in the eerily banal language of climatology--that had been, for years, the bright red line environmental scientists had drawn in the rampaging face of modern industry, saying, Do not cross . Of course, we kept going: just two years later, we hit a monthly average of 411, and guilt saturates the planet's air as much as carbon, though we choose to believe we do not breathe it.         The single lifetime is also the lifetime of my mother: born in 1945, to German Jews fleeing the smokestacks through which their relatives were incinerated, and now enjoying her seventy-third year in an American commodity paradise, a paradise supported by the factories of a developing world that has, in the space of a single lifetime, too, manufactured its way into the global middle class, with all the consumer enticements and fossil fuel privileges that come with that ascent: electricity, private cars, air travel, red meat. She has been smoking for fifty-eight of those years, always unfiltered, ordering the cigarettes now by the carton from China.         It is also the lifetime of many of the scientists who first raised public alarm about climate change, some of whom, incredibly, remain working today--that is how rapidly we have arrived at this promontory. Roger Revelle, who first heralded the heating of the planet, died in 1991, but Wallace Smith Broecker, who helped popularize the term "global warming," still drives to work at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory across the Hudson every day from the Upper West Side, sometimes picking up lunch at an old Jersey filling station recently outfitted as a hipster eatery; in the 1970s, he did his research with funding from Exxon, a company now the target of a raft of lawsuits that aim to adjudicate responsibility for the rolling emissions regime that today, barring a change of course on fossil fuels, threatens to make parts of the planet more or less unlivable for humans by the end of this century. That is the course we are speeding so blithely along--to more than four degrees Celsius of warming by the year 2100. According to some estimates, that would mean that whole regions of Africa and Australia and the United States, parts of South America north of Patagonia, and Asia south of Siberia would be rendered uninhabitable by direct heat, desertification, and flooding. Certainly it would make them inhospitable, and many more regions besides. This is our itinerary, our baseline. Which means that, if the planet was brought to the brink of climate catastrophe within the lifetime of a single generation, the responsibility to avoid it belongs with a single generation, too. We all also know that second lifetime. It is ours. Excerpted from The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming by David Wallace-Wells All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.