Book of the week
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming
(Tim Duggan, $27)
Journalist David Wallace-Wells clearly is an alarmist about climate change; “you should be, too,” said The Economist. The first line of his new book—“It is worse, much worse, than you think”—is not empty rhetoric. Wallace-Wells has marshaled predictions from scientists around the world to create a “riveting” portrait of the devastation likely to unfold in coming decades even if the international community succeeds in meeting its current goals for slowing the rise of the planet’s temperature. Wallace-Wells made the same case in a 2017 story that went viral when it was published by New York magazine, where he is deputy editor. He was criticized then for making isolated mistakes with the science, and he will be again. Still, “he gets the big things right.” Climate change is here. It’s already wreaking havoc. And failure to do anything serious about it will cost hundreds of millions of lives by 2100.
“Among Wallace-Wells’ most bracing revelations is how recent the bulk of the destruction has been,” said Mark O’Connell in TheGuardian.com. Just since 1992, we’ve emitted more carbon pollution from fossil fuels than we did in all of previous human history, and the effects are with us today. Already, air pollution alone is causing an estimated 7 million deaths a year—more than the Holocaust. If, by 2100, the planet has warmed by a mere half-degree more than the 1.5 degrees Celsius aimed for in the Paris climate accord, an additional 150 million people will have died from pollutants. Wallace-Wells also helps us visualize the wildfires, plagues, flooded cities, and dying oceans the future promises, said Fred Pearce in The Washington Post. “Not since Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature 30 years ago have we been told what climate change will mean in such vivid terms.”
Wallace-Wells should have said more about potential solutions, said Kevin Begos in the Associated Press. “Generals motivate troops by searching for ways to win, not by telling everyone they are doomed to die”—and Wallace-Wells is himself optimistic that world leaders can soon be awakened to the need to slash emissions and invest wholeheartedly in alternative energy sources. But what can he really do? said Susan Matthews in Slate.com. At this point, the solution is “both mind-numbingly obvious and impossible to imagine”: Citizens who recognize the dangers of climate change need to organize to demand action. He doesn’t push us because he has no faith that we’re ready to mobilize. “In the end, all he can really do is dare us to prove him wrong.”