Book Review: “Uninhabitable Earth” — Incentivizing Survival
By Ed Meek
We will find out how much the future of the earth matters in the next Presidential election.
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells. Crown Point Publishing, 304 pages, $27.
Over the past few years David Wallace-Wells has been writing on climate change for New York Magazine. He sparked a brief sense of panic last year when he published the article “UN Says Climate Change is Coming: It’s Actually Worse Than That.” The premise of the piece was that a number of our perspectives on climate change are woefully inaccurate. We think climate change is ahead of us; there’s doubt whether recent extreme weather events are linked to climate change; and international reports, such the recent one from the UN Intergovernmental Panel, are somewhat alarmist. Wallace-Wells did tons of research, talked to climate scientists, and found that each of these notions is seriously flawed.
That sobering article inspired The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. In it, he presents plenty of evidence of how climate change is occurring right now; tells us that all of today’s weather is result of climate change; and examines evidence that the future may be much worse than what is being predicted by the UN. Still, he maintains that we have it in our power to control the climate and to prevent projected terrible calamities from coming to pass — if we work together. By we, he means, humanity. By work together he means change the way we produce and use energy and the way we eat and live.
I used to think that it would take a few major catastrophes, happening at the same time, to wake people up to the threat of climate change. Say for example New York City, Atlantic City, Boston, and Miami were all flooded by storms. Oh, wait…Yet, because those events occurred at different times, people don’t think of them collectively. Wallace-Wells points out that “in the late summer of 2017, three major hurricanes rose in the Atlantic at once. Hurricane Harvey hit Houston with an epic rainfall. In the same season, “45 million were flooded from their homes in South Asia.” Meanwhile wildfires raged in California. The following summer saw “record heat waves in Denver, Burlington, Ottawa, Belfast, Tbilisi and Yerevan in Southern Russia…Biblical rains flooded Japan causing 1.2 million to be evacuated from their homes.” The point is that trying to tie single events to climate change is ridiculous: the weather has already changed permanently. Slowly, the catastrophe is underway — the changes are cumulative.
One of the many disheartening aspects of climate change Wallace-Wells addresses is just how recent these changes are. Although people like to argue that the Industrial Revolution was the beginning of global warming, it is really only “since the end of World War 11” that the effects of climate change have become manifest. As recently as thirty years ago, we could have made changes that would have prevented the extreme weather we are experiencing now. We were warned by James Hanson and others — briefly, in the ’70s, there was an environmental movement. Then Reagan and the Republicans assumed power. And they were followed by neoliberal Clinton and Reagan-lite Bush 1 and 2 and Mr. “I just want to get along with everyone” Obama. So here we are.
The first half of Uninhabitable Earth looks at the effects of climate change on us and the planet. Wallace-Wells begins with how are bodies are affected. People die when it gets too hot. He looks at the production of food (climate change is already decreasing harvests). He talks about flooding, fires, storms, the ability to get fresh water, the negative effects on ocean life, stresses on the economy, and the likelihood of violent conflict as a result of climate change. One angle on the politically destabilizing immigrant problems in Europe and the United States is to view immigrants as “climate refugees.” The UN predicts there will be “200 million climate refugees by 2050.”
The second half of the book examines how we are dealing with climate change now, and how we are likely to deal with it in the future. Wallace-Wells examines the roles of capitalism, technology, and our politicians and corporations. He talks about various scenarios. One response is to move toward authoritarianism (as we and a number of other countries are currently doing). Another possibility is to profit from climate change, as Russia and the Middle East do. A third possibility is control exerted by a not-so-benevolent king of centralized government (see China). The fourth way would be the route recommended by concerned thinkers and writers such as Alexandra Ocassio-Cortez, Naomi Klein, and Chris Hedges: nations need to align in a world organization to fight climate change cooperatively.
Wallace-Wells is both hopeful and skeptical. He points out that we are at the beginning of experiencing climate change, and that it is still within our power to deal with it. At the same time, he talks about how we may well be facing what Elizabeth Kolbert calls The Sixth Extinction, in which we go the way of the dinosaurs.
Humans seem particularly ill-equipped to deal with climate change. It is a universal problem and we are hopelessly tribal. We don’t trust each other. We tend to see the future in terms of the present and climate change may cause problems (and sacrifices) we have not even considered. Our politicians and our corporations appear to obsessed with short-term gain. Our news media is great at reporting what is happening now (especially all-things-Trump), but not so effective at connecting the dots. And the news media is very reluctant to focus on stories that do not sell, either themselves or advertiser products. Ironically, some of latter (fossil fuels) are only accelerating climate change.
Republicans are quick to attack Democrats for limiting our choices and overregulation, especially when Bernie, AOC and others talk about a Green New Deal. But climate change, and its existential threat, is reality; continuing along our current path will lead to mass genocide and perhaps even to the end of the human race. Denial amounts to a death wish. Those who think they can profit from it are being short-sighted.
According to the EPA, 24% of greenhouse emissions are caused by agriculture; 14% by transportation; 25% is due to heat and electricity. Other causes are industry (21%), buildings (6%) and other energy (10%). There is a lot of room in these figures for individual involvement, particularly when it comes to diet, transportation, and energy use. Some corporations — including Exxon and BP (!) — are calling for a carbon tax. Trump of course is a denier. According to recent polls, 73% of Americans acknowledge the existence of climate change. We will find out how much the future matters in the next Presidential election. Meanwhile, we’d better get busy. Reading Uninhabitable Earth should fire you up.
Ed Meek is the author of Spy Pond and What We Love. A collection of his short stories, Luck, came out in May. WBUR’s Cognoscenti featured his poems during poetry month this year.