The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

Image of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming
Release Date: 
February 18, 2019
Tim Duggan Books
Reviewed by: 

“Expect to be exhausted and unsettled after reading the first half of the book because that is the author’s goal. Wallace-Wells believes the evidence of the great harm global climate change will do is everywhere, it is irrefutable, and action must be taken now.” 

David Wallace-Wells has written his book with the purpose of triggering every possible alarm for every possible impact global climate change could have on mankind and the environment. He tells us near the end of the book that he does not mind if we consider his effort to be “climate alarmism” because he is truly alarmed. Wallace-Wells believes that “the world has, at most, about three decades to completely decarbonize before truly devastating climate horrors begin.”

He triggers all these alarms with a torrent of headlines he derives from a tall stack of government reports, technical journal articles, and books on the climate debate; he lists hundreds of sources. A sample of headlines illustrates what the reader will find in this torrent for the entire first half of the book:

He tells us at the start that “There is already, right now, fully a third more carbon in the atmosphere than at any point in the last 800,000 years.” The situation will only get worse because the world is moving on a path to “more than four degrees Celsius of warming by the year 2100.” And with that four-degree change Wallace-Wells reports that “whole regions of Africa and Australia and the United States, parts of South America north of Patagonia, and Asia south of Siberia would be rendered uninhabitable by direct heat, desertification, and flooding.”

Rachel Warren and her colleagues at the Tyndall Centre estimate that the accumulated damages (the net present value of damages) caused over time by climate change would be about $69 trillion if warming can be kept to about two degrees.

However, Wallace-Wells notes that this same study predicts damages would rise to $551 trillion—almost seven times world GDP—if warming pushes just slightly higher toward four degrees (actually 3.66 degrees.) The damages include that from heat stress, flooding, crop loss, malaria infection, coastal flooding, drought, water scarcity, dengue infection, and submerged land. 

In his section on “Heat Death,” Wallace-Wells writes that “at eleven or twelve degrees Celsius of warming, more than half the world’s population, as distributed today, would die of direct heat.” As he often does, he clarifies or equivocates a bit by adding that “things almost certainly won’t get that hot anytime soon, though some models of unabated emissions do bring us that far eventually, over centuries.” Still, even at five degrees of warming “whole parts of the globe would be literally unsurvivable for humans.”

Wallace-Wells rings the Malthusian bell by writing that for “staple cereal crops . . . for every degree of warming yields decline by 10 percent.” With five percent warming, by 2100, the world may have “50 percent more people to feed” but “fifty percent less grain to give them.” Relatedly, he asserts that “by 2080, without dramatic reductions in emissions, southern Europe will be in permanent extreme drought, much worse than the American Dust Bowl ever was.”

He also warns “that the sea will become a killer is a given.” Even if all countries abide by their commitments under the Paris Climate Accord, he expects six feet of sea level rise by 2100. To those who might be comfortable with these higher oceans, he writes that accepting this rise in the sea level would be like accepting “the inevitability of extended nuclear war—because that is the scale of devastation the rising oceans will unleash.”

With “Wildfires,” he reminds us that “five of the twenty worst fires in California history hit the state in the Fall of 2017.” And then came the Camp Fire in 2018, the “deadliest fire in California history” since 1933.

The headlines reach a crescendo when he writes “And then there are the plagues that climate change will confront us with for the very first time—a whole new universe of diseases humans have never before known to even worry about.”

Expect to be exhausted and unsettled after reading the first half of the book because that is the author’s goal. Wallace-Wells believes the evidence of the great harm global climate change will do is everywhere, it is irrefutable, and action must be taken now. 

You will be exhausted all the more if you attempt to impose a consistent, analytic structure when reading his headlines. The author jumps around a lot—sometimes even in one paragraph. His headlines vary in terms of how much mitigation or adaptation is presumed. They vary in the geographic location of the impact—the United States, Europe, Africa, the globe. And they vary by the time frame in which the events are expected to happen. But, again, disciplined detail is not the goal for the author here. Indeed, what analysts might call “jumping around” is Wallace-Wells purposefully calling on the reader to consider all the possibilities, including the worst case.

Note, too, that if you want to go behind these headlines, you are on your own to check his sources. Give Wallace-Wells full credit for citing his support for his conclusions. However, you will not find in the book much summary, analysis, explanation, or context. 

With the first half of his book Wallace-Wells takes a fair shot at setting off the alarms and getting people to care more and do more about global climate change; that includes people who have been indifferent or skeptical. In the second half of the book, to some extent, he may undermine what he accomplished in the first half of the book by taking on ideological issues. Chief among these is the attack on capitalism.

One quote conveys the flavor of this attack. He suggests that, as the impacts of climate change worsen, we will take a different view of our history and progress. He writes that we will see “the last several hundred years, which many in the West saw as a simple line of progress and growing prosperity, rendered instead as a prelude to mass climate suffering.”

At the same time, he is right to point out that we do not need ideological attacks on science either. As Wallace-Wells writes, those who unfairly attack the science on climate change are making an “incredibly high-stakes wager on the legitimacy and validity of science and the scientific method itself.”

Finally, the purpose of the book is to provoke action, but Wallace-Wells fails to provide any detailed statement of the actions that should be taken, or the policies that should be put in place to prompt those actions. At best, he provides only short bursts of broad policy proposals. One such burst lists a carbon tax, a phasing out of dirty energy, new agricultural practices, a shift from meat and dairy in our diet, and investment in green energy and carbon capture.

Wallace-Wells concludes by writing that, if we do not address climate change, we are “collectively walking down a path of suicide.” What we need is an alternative path built on political and policy compromise that allows us all to walk together toward effective limitations on, mitigation for, and adaptation to climate change.