Climate Must-Read #1: The Uninhabitable Earth

David Wallace-Wells is a national fellow at the New America foundation and a columnist and deputy editor at New York Magazine. His The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming was published earlier this year. In it, Wells aggregates the latest climate science to paint an ominous portrait of the coming decades for life on earth. The book is a clarion call for climate action.

“It is worse, much worse, than you think.” If there is a single unifying thread running throughout David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, it is expressed succinctly here, in the first brief sentence of the text. Though Wells doesn’t know you or your politics or your familiarity with climate science, he is comfortable assuming that, whoever you are, you do not understand the threat that we face at this pivotal moment in history. Some people have some idea; most have none. 

If the spectrum of reaction to anthropogenic climate change runs from true belief on one side to outright denial on the other, the median view appears to tilt ever so slightly to the right. Denial comes in many forms, after all, and not all of these subscribe to the “Chinese hoax” model of analysis. In my observation, one of the most common opinions about the state of our ever-warming earth is that climate change probably is real, that human beings probably are contributing, and that this probably is a matter of concern, and yet, thankfully, it’s probably not as big a deal as some people say. The undeniable benefit of this conclusion is that, having reached it, the individual can demonstrate a certain degree of intellectual seriousness while living life exactly as before, unburdened by any implied obligation.

For being common, however, this view has very little to commend it. The inclination to walk with climate science no more than half of the way does not amount to some sort of moderate compromise. The right answer does not rest equidistant between correct and incorrect, any more than cigarette smoking can be granted to cause a little emphysema. For all of its polarity, our society continues to valorize the reasonable center and to distrust anything that smacks of extremes, even when the evidence weighs heavily on one end of the scale. Those who speak candidly about warming are easily tarred with the “alarmist” brush, while those who deny or downplay it enjoy “realist” prestige. This problem has confronted climate discourse for about five decades now, binding climate advocates in timidity and pause. Against this constraint Wells has decided to speak freely—to dispense with the usual niceties. Well, he seems to shrug, you need to know what’s coming.

What’s coming includes, in diverse places and varying degrees, heat death, hunger, drowning, wildfire, unnatural disasters, freshwater drain, dying oceans, unbreathable air, plagues, economic collapse, and conflict, among other assorted crises. (And this is just to survey the chapters in section two.) To list them in this fashion is to demonstrate the rhetorical challenge of climate advocacy; to read them carefully is to dispel it. That is, any passing summary of the complex web of coming crises is bound to activate your defense mechanisms, overtaxing your cognitive resources and prompting you to dismiss it all as so much hysteria. Aware of this, Wells reports these chapters in painstaking detail, asserting persistently that, yes, there is a social cost to a carbon lifestyle, and yes, we’re all going to pay. Thus a frame with realist muscle in the economic sphere may be applied to climate as well—we’ve been living on carbon credit for a pretty long time, and now the bill is due.

Consider forest fires, for instance. Wells writes that, in the near future, we can expect “much more fire, much more often, burning much more land.” He continues: