The Uninhabitable Earth

In a post about the fires in Australia last week I mentioned David Wallace-Wells’ book, The Uninhabitable Earth and I wanted to go into a bit more depth on the book as I think it is a must for anyone who is concerned about where we might be headed as a result of climate change.

In the first place, Wallace-Wells is not a scientist. He is a a deputy editor of  New York Magazine in which he published an article with the same title back in July, 2017. What impresses me about the book is the writing which is wonderful. He takes a terribly complex and scary topic and breaks it down in fluid, almost lyrical prose which I strongly recommend. You can see the original article here.

The core of the book is to imagine the world we are heading to and to underline that in some ways we are already there. For Wallace-Wells there are 12 manifestations of the systemic changes that will take place if the world does not act to reduce atmospheric carbon. He refers to these effects as cascades as they are all interrelated.  They are:

  1. Heat Death: Very high temperatures will make parts of the planet unfit for people to live or require enormous energy to essential cool all indoor spaces. The energy needed, of course, adds to the problem.
  2. Hunger: While some research has pointed out that higher levels of carbon make plants grow, the book points to other studies which will decrease grain production  in North America and other critical agricultural producing regions.
  3. Drowning: Sea levels will eventually rise as well as storm surge and flooding as torrential rains become the new normal.
  4. Wildfire: Based on the trend line, the situation in Australia will also become common around the world.
  5. Not so natural disasters: Extreme weather events are already increasing and the central point is that these disasters are not really natural anymore. What used to be the worst storms in 50 or even 500 years are not happening with frequency due to increased energy in the global climate.
  6. Shortages of fresh water: There is already a water crisis in many places around the world and this has to do with the politics and economics of water management as well as geography. Desalination offers a path to a solution but again requires energy which can make the overall situation worse.
  7. Dying oceans: The oceans are absorbing much of the excess heat we are producing and that is changing their salinity and ability to carry life.
  8. Unbreathable air: Air pollution is already a problem in many parts of the world and particularly in the mega cities of Asia such as Beijing and New Delhi.
  9. Disease: It seems that as the planet warms up, tropical diseases such as cholera will migrate North.
  10. Economic collapse: Wallace-Wells cites research which shows how warmer temperatures will reduce productivity and cause other economic problems.
  11. War: The link between ecological stress and civil war in places such as Yemen and Syria is well established and will certainly get worse as the crisis worsens.
  12. Other systemic issues: There are a number of other feedback loops and impacts including psychological issues that will play out if and when these effects start to play out.
Bjorn Lomborg

What Wallace-Wells does not do is put a clear time line to his list of doom and destruction and while he does cite relevant research, much of it can be questioned or discussed. Bjorn Lomborg, for example, the author of the Skeptical Environmentalist,  had a twitter exchange with him suggesting that his economic projects are off by an order of magnitude.

The last part of The Uninhabitable Earth discusses what the author calls the Climate Kaleidoscope or the impact that climate change is and will have on storytelling, politics and our relationship with technology, consumption and ethics. Again Wallace-Wells is a writer, not a scientist and his reflections on these topics are interesting mainly for the bibliography he is acquainted with and the perspectives he draws on.

For me the value of the book is not in the facts and the footnotes but in the power of the overall narrative. Give or take fifty or a hundred years, David Wallace-Wells has described the world’s future if we do not embrace the challenge and pursue the transition to a low carbon economy.

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