Climate Must-Read #1: The Uninhabitable Earth

Over the last five decades, the wildfire season in the western United States has already grown by two and a half months; of the ten years with the most wildfire activity on record, nine have occurred since 2000. Globally, since just 1979, the season has grown by nearly 20 percent, and American wildfires now burn twice as much land as they did as recently as 1970. By 2050, destruction from wildfires is expected to double again, and in some places within the United States the area burned could grow fivefold. For every additional degree of global warming, it could quadruple. What this means is that at three degrees of warming, our likely benchmark for the end of the century, the United States might be dealing with sixteen times as much devastation from fire as we are today, when in a single year ten million acres were burned. At four degrees of warming, the fire season would be four times worse still. The California fire captain believes the term is already outdated. “We don’t even call it fire season anymore,” he said in 2017. “Take the ‘season’ out—it’s year-round.”

Increasingly, forest fires are joining hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes, and other destructive weather events in a class that Wells terms “unnatural disasters,” their force and frequency enhanced now by an unwitting human assist. He writes:

The summer of 2017, in the Northern Hemisphere, brought unprecedented extreme weather: three major hurricanes arising in quick succession in the Atlantic; the epic “500,000-year” rainfall of Hurricane Harvey, dropping on Houston a million gallons of water for nearly every single person in the entire state of Texas; the wildfires of California, nine thousand of them burning through more than a million acres, and those in icy Greenland, ten times bigger than those in 2014; the floods of South Asia, clearing 45 million from their homes.

This was followed by “the record-breaking summer of 2018” with a new spate of spiking temperatures, Arctic fires, and clustered hurricanes. Here again interested observers could witness a one-two punch of destructive tendencies—one dry, the other wet. Even as much of the American West went up in flames, other locales were submerged in record rainfall:

Already there are 40 percent more intense rainstorms in the United States than in the middle of the last century. In the Northeast, the figure is 71 percent. The very heaviest downfalls are today three-quarters heavier than they were in 1958, and only getting more so. The island of Kauai, in Hawaii, is one of the wettest places on Earth, and has in recent decades endured both tsunamis and hurricanes; when a climate-change-driven rain event hit in April 2018, it literally broke the rain gauges, and the National Weather Service had to offer a best-guess estimate: fifty inches of water in twenty-four hours.  

This is supplemented by the dispiriting fact that, for all of the damage done above the surface, much climate destruction takes place under water, changing the composition and function of the planet’s oceans:

Since 2016, as much as half of Australia’s landmark Great Barrier Reef has been stripped by bleaching. These large-scale die-outs are called “mass bleaching events”; one unfolded, globally, from 2014 to 2017. Already, coral life has declined so much that it has created an entirely new layer in the ocean, between 30 and 150 meters below the surface, which scientists have taken to calling a “twilight zone.” According to the World Resources Institute, by 2030 ocean warming and acidification will threaten 90 percent of all reefs.

These and many other symptoms of the climate crisis are documented at length in the book, at once diagnosing the illness and calling for emergency treatment. The signs are both exceedingly clear and insistently less vital. They are the dead canaries, if you prefer, littering the floor of our shared industrial coal mine.

Wells notes, too, that climate change is no more equalitarian than the forces that produce it, harming the world’s poorest and least culpable first. In many cases, its effects will displace the residents of low-lying and equatorial nations, sending them out as climate refugees in search of livable homes. Within the next three decades, mass migration is projected to be a centerpiece of global humanitarian and political crises:

More than 140 million people in just three regions of the world will be made climate migrants by 2050, the World Bank projected in a 2018 study, assuming current warming and emissions trends: 86 million in sub-Saharan Africa, 50 million in South Asia, and 17 million in Latin America. The most commonly cited estimate from the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration suggests numbers a bit higher—200 million, total, by 2050. These figures are quite high—higher than most non-advocates credit. But according to the UNIOM, climate change may unleash as many as a billion migrants on the world by 2050. One billion—that is about as many people as live today in North and South America combined.

It is for these reasons—among many others—that Wells is so very certain that it is so much worse than you think, however bad you think it is. His book is filled with brutal examples and terrifying projections, spiced with the persistent and painful observation that all of this could be prevented, but likely won’t, given the formidable obstacles of our political moment. In some ways that is the most crushing element of the tale Wells tells. If this were a horror movie, the early 21st century would be set in the minutes just before the monster strikes, as he lurks in shadow and the music rises; those tense and awful moments when you know that escape might still be possible, if less so now, and less.

Wells’ critics within the climate community have argued that the unvarnished presentation of this ominous future may prove counterproductive—it may push readers to despondency and despair, rather than mobilizing them to concerted action. This is a fair concern about an undeniably depressing book. But Wells seems to believe that a straight shot of hard truths is the necessary corrective to the prevalent climate obliviousness, and on this I think he is right. As long as climate change remains an abstraction, it can be ignored. But when the concrete realities are shoved squarely in your face, you will need to deal with them.

In all of this, Wells enjoys the one rhetorical advantage, perhaps, of a being a self-described non-environmentalist. He doesn’t care for nature; he doesn’t go camping. He is not a “tree hugger” or a pantheist or even an advocate of “saving the planet.” Rather, Wells identifies himself as a modern man, participating in the carbon-fueled modern lifestyle, and father quite recently to a baby girl. He recognizes that climate change threatens his future, and that it imperils his daughter’s. He has documented these threats to snap America out of its stupor, to get Americans focused on what needs to be done. For his sake, and for hers, and for ours, I hope he succeeds.

This review was authored by faculty advisor Eric C. Miller. David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth is based on a 2017 New York Magazine article of the same title. It is available here.

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