The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming
HERE is a modest proposal. Climate scientists should shut up about global warming. The gatekeepers for what we know and think about climate change should take a vow of silence and let some other people get a word in edgeways. Because, important though the science is, we need to stop defining the great issue of the 21st century in scientific terms.
If climate change is, as this book successfully argues, a game-changer for everyone, everywhere, all the time, then let’s reflect that in the discourse. We’ve got the science. Let’s bring on the philosophers and playwrights, lawyers and priests, economists and comedians. Society’s response depends on it.
David Wallace-Wells offers a good starting point. His book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, scares us with tales from a future climate-changed world that transcend climate science. Not since Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature 30 years ago have we been told what climate change will mean in such vivid terms. “It is worse, much worse, than you think,” Wallace-Wells begins the book. Not least because, in those 30 years, we have doubled our cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels.
He foretells a world in which climate change is pervasive, ubiquitous and dramatic. “The path we are on as a planet should terrify anyone living on it,” he writes. Nothing will be the same. Wherever we live, we will be flooded, engulfed by fires, plagued by new diseases, choked by toxic air, deprived of water or impoverished as a climate in chaos leads to an economy in meltdown.
“The assaults will not be discrete,” he warns. “They will produce a kind of cascading violence, waterfalls and avalanches of devastation … in ways that build on each other and undermine our ability to respond.” There will be climate wars. Nature itself will look like an enemy rather than a friend.
The naysayers of climate change would rather not hear these stories. They are very good at shutting climate into an echo chamber of spurious scientific uncertainty. What they fear is voices like Wallace-Wells’ that might strike a strong public chord. That was why, last fall, they tried to prevent the “climate kids” – American students who charge the government with violating their human right to live in a safe climate – from having their day in court. The legal tussle is still unresolved.
In the first half of his book, Wallace-Wells, an editor at New York magazine but not, he insists, an environmentalist, does a valiant job of giving a plain person’s guide to the scary scenarios and inevitable truths of climate change. Dying oceans, drying rivers, wildfires, plagues of disease, climate wars and rising tides all get their chapters. His sourcing is good, and he makes the right caveats. All science is provisional, he warns. “What actually lies ahead may prove even grimmer, though the reverse, of course, is also possible,” he writes.
The essence of the matter is plain, however. Once in the atmosphere, the carbon dioxide from our burning fossil fuels stays there, constantly turning up the planetary thermostat. Climate change does not have an on-off switch. It won’t stop at two degrees or four degrees or six degrees or indeed anywhere, until we stop those pesky emissions. The only questions are how soon and at what level.
That simple truth is alarming but also a challenge to action. “However warm the planet gets,” wallace-Wells writes, “it will always be the case that the decade that follows could contain more suffering or less,”depending on our choices. – Text & Photo by The Washington Post