The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, David Wallace-Wells. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019.
Summary: An exploration of our near future if projected increases in global temperatures occur and the multiple impacts of these increases.
This is a sobering book. It opens with the evidence that four of the last five episodes of planetary extinctions were related to climate warming. The premise of the title and this book is that there will be major repercussions if even the projected two degree Celsius increase in global temperatures occurs. If those temperatures increase by four or five degrees or more, the changes could be exponentially greater, affecting not merely the quality but the possibility of life for many of the planet’s inhabitants.
The first part of Wallace-Wells book discusses “elements of chaos.” There is heat, and the summer temperatures in tropical parts of the world, that will render them uninhabitable. Rates of death from heat will climb dramatically (remember the Chicago heat wave of 1995?). Rising temperatures will reduce crop yields in many food-producing parts of the world. Coastal cities throughout the world will be inundated due to sea level rise due to melting ice in Antarctica and Greenland ice sheets. Drought in many areas may lead to year round fire seasons over increasing areas, as has been the case in California and other parts of the western US. Terms like “500 hundred year” storms will become meaningless when they occur at five year intervals, and rebuilding in frequently hit areas will become increasingly costly and unlikely. Diseases once considered “tropical” will spread to more temperate regions: malaria, yellow fever, dengue will join the spread of diseases like East Nile Virus, Zika, and Lyme disease.
Economic projections suggest the possibility that each degree of global temperature rise may cut the GDP by 10 percent, or higher percentages as temperature levels continue to increase. Economic pressures and displaced populations will increase the level of conflicts, both civil wars within countries and international conflicts.
One of the sobering aspects of this book is that these changes are already upon us. Just in the last two years 50 percent of the Great Barrier Reef has died from warming ocean temperatures killing off the organism the coral depend upon for sustenance. Increasingly intense storms, greater flooding, more powerful hurricanes, year-long fire seasons are already part of life. Day time temperatures over 120 degrees Fahrenheit and night time temperatures that never drop below 100 degrees are already common place. Glaciers around the world are melting, jeopardizing water sources for many communities.
The second part of the book explores some of the non-scientific aspects of projected climate change, from economic systems no longer based on growth, a planet covered with carbon recapture facilities, what life might be like for those who survive when progress is no longer a part of life. He closes with a section on the anthropic principle and the discussion of why we haven’t found life on other planets. He speculates that this might be because the trajectory of civilizations is to burn themselves out and self-destruct as we appear to be doing.
Many will object to the speculative character of parts of this book. In part, much of the discussion is not, but is based on well-established scientific findings, and current manifestations that fulfill prior predictions. It is true that we are notoriously bad at predicting the future. What I might suggest is that while things might be better, they could also be worse, perhaps in ways yet unforeseen. Yet this isn’t a work of despair. Wallace-Wells observes that the reality that rising global temperatures have been caused by human causes (from rapidly burning carbon sequestered underground for years) to our taste for meat that multiplies methane-producing animals is good news. It means that humans can take measures to reduce and offset carbon dioxide emissions.
At the same time, the window for action is increasingly short, and in some cases, action will consist of adjusting to the “new normal” and preventing further degradation of the planet’s climate. It is striking to me that many of our younger politicians and other youth are advocating climate action. While some of us may not see the world Wallace-Wells is describing beyond the present day harbingers, our youngest generations and their children will. If Wallace-Wells is right, the opportunity to avoid being cursed as the generation that made Earth increasingly uninhabitable may rapidly be coming to an end. His book asks me, and others of my generation whether that is the legacy we want to leave our children.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this an advanced review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own