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Book Review:
Terrifying images emanate
from dire climate change predictions

The Uninhabitable Earth

David Wallace-Wells, 2019

David Wallace-Wells' book, The Uninhabitable Earth has left me pondering its content and emotional tone. As advertised, it's a scary book. The first two chapters are terrifying; and, of course, the emotional impact was amplified by the hurricane that battered the Bahamas with 185 mile per hour winds, and gusts of 220 miles per hour, for a day or longer. I gradually became less afraid in reading subsequent chapters, in part because too much bad news is desensitizing, and also because I became more skeptical regarding some of the (too exact) predictions based on models of climate change. For example, (p.125), "Already climate change has elevated Africa's risk of conflict by 10 percent; in that continent, by just 2030, projected temperatures are expected to cause 393,000 additional deaths in battle." This is more science fiction than science, the kind of stuff that gives political science a bad name. 


This is not to say that Wallace-Wells is unconvincing in his contention that humans are headed pell mell toward disaster (at best , and for a very long time) or (more likely) a future in which large parts of the planet become uninhabitable. He believes the extinction of humans is unlikely, though whomever lives on an earth warmed by 4-5 degrees Celsius might wish they were dead.  Insofar as I can judge from other books I've read recently, he's not exaggerating. His data regarding Arctic warming is less extreme than the information in The Ice at the End of the World; but his tone is more dire. The tone of the book is bracing. He returns several times to the theme that (collectively) humans alive today are as gods to future generations: each day we (collectively) are deciding the extent of catastrophe our children, grandchildren and their children will have to contend with.  He has one stark overarching message: the human future and the future of many other species is in our hands. We are collectively responsible for whatever happens to the climate in future decades, he maintains.  


The (alleged) factual information in the book, rather than the horrendous projections from climate models, had the most impact on me. I say 'alleged' because I'm not knowledgeable enough to evaluate the credibility of much of this information: 


  • The earth has experienced five mass extinctions ... each so complete a wiping of the fossil record that it functioned as an evolutionary reset ...  86 percent of all species dead, 450 million years ago; 70 million years later, 75 percent; 135 million years after that, 96 percent; 50 million years later, 80 percent; 135 million years after that, 75 percent again. ... all but the one that killed the dinosaurs involved climate change produced by greenhouse gas. The most notorious was 250 million years ago; it began when carbon dioxide warmed the planet by five degrees Celsius, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane .. and ended with all but a sliver of life dead. (pp.4-5)    

  • ... more than half of the carbon exhaled in the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels  has been emitted in just the past three decades. Which means we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries- all the millennia - that came before.  ... Global warming may seem like a morality tale playing out over several centuries ... But that is is a fable about historical villany that acquits those of us alive today - and unfairly. The majority of the burning has come since the premiere of Seinfeld. ... The story of the world's kamikaze mission is the story of a  single lifetime -- the planet brought from from seeming stability to the brink of catastrophe in the years between a baptism or bar mitzvah and a funeral. (p.4)  


  • In 2017, carbon emissions grew by 1.4% according to the International Energy Agency ... Commitments in the Paris accords only get us down to 3.2 degrees ( of warming) (by 2100).  (p.45)

  • In the first 3 months of 2018, its (China's) emissions grew by 4 percent. ... China commands half of the planet's coal power capacity.  Globally, coal power has nearly doubled since 2000. (p.46)

  • Each year, globally, between 260,00 and 600,000 people die from smoke from wildfires. (p.75)

  • In California, a single wildfire can entirely eliminate the emission gains made that year by all of the state's aggressive environmental policies. (p.76) 


At present, the trees of the Amazon take in a quarter of all the carbon absorbed by the planet's forests each year. But in 2018, Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil promising to open the rain forest to development, which is to say deforestation. How much damage can one person do to the planet? A group of Brazilian scientists has estimated that between 2021 and 2030, Bolsonaro's deforestation would release 13.12 gigatons of carbon. Last year, the U.S. emitted about 5 gigatons. ... this one policy  would have between 2 and 3 times the annual carbon impact of the entire American economy ... The world's worst emitter, by far, is China; the country was responsible for 9.1 gigatons in 2017. ... Bolsonaro's policy is the equivalent of adding, if only for a year, a whole second China to the planet's fossil fuel problem ...



... estimates for the total global fossil fuel subsidies run as high as $5 trillion. (p.170)         


At present, the world's wealthiest possess the lion's share of the guilt - the richest 10 percent ( of people) produce half of all emissions. (p.148)   


Over the last twenty five years, the cost per unit of renewable energy has fallen so far you can hardly measure the price, today, using the same scales ...  for instance since 2009, solar energy costs have fallen more than 80 percent. Over the same twenty five years, the proportion of global energy derived from renewables has not grown an inch.  Solar isn't eating away at fossil fuel use .. even slowly, it's just buttressing it. To the market, this is growth, to human civilization it is almost suicide. We are now burning 80 percent more coal than .. in the year 2000. (p.178) 


According to the IPCC, we have just twelve years to cut them ( fossil fuel emissions) in half. The longer we wait, the harder it will be. If we had started decarbonization in 2000 , we would have had to cut emissions by only about 3 percent per year to stay safely under two degrees of warming. If we start today, when global emissions are still growing, the necessary rate is 10 percent. If we delay another decade, it will require us to cut emissions by 30 percent each year. This is why the UN.Secretary General... believes we have only one year to change course and get started. (p.180)


The story that Wallace-Wells tells goes way beyond inaction of governments in the face of scientific warnings regarding approaching catastrophe.  Inaction is unconscionable, but what about "almost suicide" and "kamikaze"  mission! In my opinion, Wallace-Wells makes a stronger argument that humans are on a suicide mission than that the societies of the world and their governments will come to their senses in time to dramatically reduce carbon emissions and hold global warming to an increase of 2-3 degrees Celsius, a level of warming which portends unimaginable disaster according to Uninhabitable Earth,  but not the wholesale extinction of  living species.  China and the U.S. have essentially doubled down on fossil fuels during the past 20 years, and seem intent on extracting profit from every ounce of fossil fuels still in the ground.  This is action, not inaction, and is bigger than Trump, denial of human caused climate change or uncertainty regarding solutions.       

© Dee Wilson

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