Published in February, before the COVID-19 pandemic and national protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd grabbed the world's attention, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells provides an utterly disturbing picture of the many ways in which global warming will transform every aspect of life on the planet — changes, according to Wallace-Wells, likely to lead to untold human suffering and quite possibly the extinction of our species. As he frames what follows in the first line of the book, "it is worse, much worse, than you think."
A deputy editor at New York, Wallace-Wells first came to the attention of the public three years ago with an article in that publication about the perils of climate change. In it, he outlined some of the repercussions we are likely to face if we fail to take meaningful action to slow global warming, and his book expands on that warning. Or, as he puts it, the book is not "about the science of warming; it is about what warming means to the way we live on this planet."
The many examples he marshals in support of that statement are grim and left this reader with a sinking feeling that has been hard to shake. As Wallace-Wells writes, efforts to hold the average global temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels already seem doomed, and for every half degree of warming societies will experience a 10 percent to 20 percent increase in the likelihood of armed conflict. By 2050, the global production of fossil fuel-based plastic is expected to triple, and it is possible there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans. With a 2.5°C increase in warming, the planet may experience a global food deficit. In the American West, wildfires will consume sixteen times more acreage than they do today. With a 4°C increase, hundreds of cities will be inundated by sea-level rise, and in many others venturing out of doors will be life-threatening. An additional 200 million people will become climate refugees.
But Wallace-Wells doesn't confine himself to the familiar dangers of rising sea levels, ocean acidification, or furnace-like temperatures rendering mega-cities uninhabitable. As an environmental studies major, I have read about the likelihood of an increase in interpersonal conflict and domestic violence due to increasing temperatures, but I hadn't heard about the unpredictable ways in which gut microbiota may react to a warming planet. Wallace-Wells describes unknowns like these as "elements of chaos," and warns that no single one, but rather many in combination, are what is likely to bring about our demise.
There is little to take comfort from in the book, and that's intentional. Just four years ago, the Paris climate agreement committed the global community to keeping global temperature rise below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. (The United States pulled out of the agreement after Donald Trump's election.) Tragically, the former worst-case scenario now looks like an improbable best-case outcome, with some climate experts predicting four degrees of warming by 2100. Because such numbers are small and an abstraction for most people, we tend to seek reassurance and comfort by trivializing the difference between them. But as noted above, Wallace-Wells makes sure his readers comprehend how catastrophic the consequences of one extra degree of warming are likely to be. And when we start to contemplate the now worst-case outcome of six to eight degrees of warming, the level of uncertainty — and catastrophe — can barely be comprehended.
If there's a silver lining in the book it is that Wallace-Wells does not want to shock his readers into paralysis: "I am optimistic," he writes. "I know there are horrors to come….But those horrors are not yet scripted." In other words, the future is editable, and it's up to each of us to decide how much worse — or better — it will be. Indeed, dozens of solutions to global warming have been proposed and the technologies to implement them exist. So why hasn't the global community been able to come together and move them forward?
From normalization of the risks (think frog in a pot of water) to fear of the unknown, Wallace-Wells outlines many possible reasons as to why we have settled into uneasy complacency. And yet, he remains optimistic, writing in closing, "if there is to be any chance of preserving even the hope for that happier future…[c]all me crazy, or better yet naive, but I still think we can."
Though the sentiment is meant to leave the reader feeling she can make a difference, it doesn't do much to erase the existential dread that permeates the book. Yes, we want to be optimistic, but that dread keeps tugging at us, sapping our energy and resolve. Wallace-Wells implores us to snap out of it. As yet another record-setting wildfire season in the American West makes all too clear, we need to lean into that dread and ramp up our sense of urgency, not to mention agency, with respect to global warming. Educating ourselves about the challenge is a great way to start and sharing what we learn with others is a critical next step. Climate change is everyone's problem, in that almost everyone will be impacted. As he writes, "there is no single way to best tell the story of climate change….Any story that sticks is a good one."
Wallace-Wells has written a pretty powerful one.
Izzy Nesci, a former intern in the Insights department at Candid, is an environmental studies major at Bucknell University.