David Wallace-Wells’ 2017 essay in New York Magazine entitled “The Uninhabitable Earth” depicted stark future scenarios for a climate change-afflicted world. It clearly struck a chord: it was the most read article in the magazine’s history.
Now Wallace-Wells has released a book of the same title, and it has also caused a splash and achieved something unusual for a science-based take on climate change: it has become a New York Times bestseller.
The Uninhabitable Earth makes three main points. First, climate change is a bigger threat than most of us think in terms of speed, scope and scale. Second, solutions to climate change already exist. And finally, these solutions will only be implemented we embrace – rather than flee from – our collective responsibility to act.
From its first sentence – “It is worse, much worse, than you think” – the book chillingly describes the vastness of the threat we face.
Through short chapters on heat, hunger, floods, wildfires, disasters, fresh water, air quality, plagues, economic collapse and conflict, Wallace-Wells paints a frightening picture of life in 2100 based on various possible trajectories of planetary warming.
For example, at three to four degrees warming in this century, towards which we are headed barring a change in course, we will see “suffering beyond anything that has ever occurred”: equatorial regions will be unlivable; southern Europe, Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa will experience multi-year – or even permanent – drought; wildfires in the U.S. will expand ten-fold; Miami, Dhaka, Shanghai and a hundred other cities will be flooded; between 140 million and 1 billion people will be displaced from their homes; and the world’s economy will face a hit of about $600 trillion dollars (twice the world’s current wealth).
A number of climate scientists pointed out specific errors in Wallace-Wells’ original article, and some reviewers have criticized his book for focusing on worst-case scenarios for global warming and their impacts. As a result, some have argued that the book unnecessarily breeds resignation and despair.
Personally I found Wallace-Wells’ articulation of worst case scenarios to be motivating rather than paralyzing. Indeed, Wallace-Wells repeatedly emphasizes the importance of human agency. “The question of how bad things will get,” he writes, “is not actually a test of the science; it is a bet on human activity. How much will we do to stall disaster, and how quickly.”
Wallace-Wells, like many others, believes that solutions to the climate crisis already exist.
He writes: “Half of the Great Barrier Reef has already died, methane is leaking from Arctic permafrost that may never freeze again, and the high-end estimates for what warming will mean for cereal crops suggest that just four degrees warming could reduce yields by 50 percent. If this strikes you as tragic, which it should, consider that 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.”
All of this begs the question (which Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has so poignantly raised): Why, in face of a such a clear and dramatic threat, to which solutions exist, do most of us – and our governments – continue life as usual? And what does our collective failure to act tell us about how to move forward?
Wallace-Wells, like many others, recognizes the inherent human desire to turn away from a problem that feels so large, complex, all-encompassing and threatening to life as we know it.
He (rightly) points to the sordid role of fossil fuel companies in preventing action by hiding their knowledge of climate change and funding misinformation campaigns. But Wallace-Wells refuses to lay ultimate responsibility for the inaction at the feet of fossil fuel executives or the capitalist class more generally. He states: “[M]any on the Left point to the all-encompassing system, saying that industrial capitalism is to blame. It is. But saying so does not name an antagonist; it names a toxic investment vehicle with most of the world as stakeholders, many of whom have eagerly bought in. And who in fact quite enjoy their present way of life. That includes, almost certainly, you and me and everyone else buying escapism with our Netflix subscription.”
While Wallace-Wells clearly recognizes the importance of emission reduction by conspicuous emitters (if the top 10% of emitters reduced their emissions to those of the average citizen, global emissions would fall 35% within a few years), he says that we “won’t get there through dietary choices of individuals, but through policy changes.”
At a deeper level, Wallace-Wells believes that the prevailing mythology of the inevitability of human progress has most hindered our acceptance of, and active response to, the climate crisis. He writes: “The possibility that our grandchildren could be living forever among the ruins of a much wealthier and more peaceful world seems almost inconceivable from the vantage of the present day, so much do we still live within the propaganda of human progress and generational improvement.”
Wallace-Wells doesn’t prescribe a singular action plan to address climate change (he sees himself as a “storyteller” and “truthteller” rather than “advocate”). Rather, he believes that change must come from different directions: we will need those who rage against fossil capitalists, those who lament consumer excess, those who launch lawsuits, those who push for aggressive legislation, and those who block new pipelines.
The bottom line, according to Wallace-Wells, is that each of us must accept our responsibility to act: “The path we are on as a planet should terrify anyone living on it, but, thinking like one people, all the relative inputs are in our control, and there is no mysticism required to interpret or command the fate of the earth. Only an acceptance of responsibility.”
In the end, despite all its horrors, Wallace-Wells sees climate change as an “invigorating picture,” because it “calls the world as one, to action.”
May we respond to that call.
Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, David Wallace-Wells, New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019, 320
This article was edited for accuracy and clarity. An earlier version appeared to suggest there was scientific criticism of the content of the book
Michael Polanyi works as a community worker in Toronto and is involved in advocacy on various social and environmental issues.