The Uninhabitable Earth
A beautifully written book by David Wallace-Wells on the crisis we’re facing.
David Wallace-Wells’s book The Uninhabitable Earth starts out with a repetition of facts that won’t be news to anyone paying attention, but he has a lovely way with words.
Four of the last five extinctions were from greenhouse gases, and now we’re adding carbon to the atmosphere 100 times faster than at any other time, and “guilt saturates the planet’s air as much as carbon, though we choose to believe we do not breathe it” (5). In the last 40 years, more than half the worlds’ vertebrate animals have died and the flying insect population declined by three-quarters (26). His focus is largely on humanity, but we’ll be taking most other life forms with us when we go. Our continued actions are at the level of a genocide, and the “Kyoto Protocol achieved, practically, nothing; the the twenty years since, despite all of our clime advocacy and legislation and progress on green energy, we have produced more emissions than in the twenty years before” (9). Even if we stop short of the two degree mark, we’ll still have a sea-level rise “to draw a new American coastline as far west as I-95” (13). “Our current emissions trajectory takes us over 4 degrees by 2100” (27). At 5 degrees, “Parts of the globe would be literally unsurvivable for humans”(39). And “heat death is among the cruelest punishments to a human body, just as painful and disorienting as hypothermia” (48).
Last summer 54 died in Quebec from the heat, and the rise in flooding has led the Ontario PC party to cut flood programs. That’s one way to go. Climate change has “weaponized the environment. . . . Wind disasters do not kill by wind, however brutal it gets, but by tugging trees out of earth and transforming them into clubs, making power lines into loose whips and electrified nooses” (23). He puts a bit of a positive spin on it early on:
“If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it — the threat everywhere, and overwhelming, and total. And yet now, just as the need for that kind of cooperation is paramount, indeed necessary for anything like the world we know to survive, we are only unbuilding those alliances — recoiling into nationalistic corners and retreating from collective responsibility and from each other. That collapse of trust is a cascade, too” (25).
“That we know global warming is our doing should be a comfort, not a cause for despair” (30). “If the average American were confined by the carbon footprint of her European counterpart, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by more than half. If the world’s richest 10 percent were limited to that same footprint, global emissions would fall by a third. And why shouldn’t they be?”(33). It has become commonplace among climate activists to say that we have, today, all the tools we need to avoid catastrophic climate change — even major climate change. It is also true. But political will is not some trivial ingredient, always at hand. We have the tools we need to solve global poverty, epidemic disease, and abuse of women, as well” (44).
Staying below 2 degrees probably requires not just carbon scale-back but ‘negative emissions’: technologies that suck carbon out of the air (CCS for carbon capture and storage) and new approaches to forestry and agriculture (BECCS for bioenergy with carbon capture and storage). The highly-reputable journal “Nature dismissed all scenarios built on CCS as ‘magical thinking’ . . . relying on carbon capture globally could require large-scale scrubbing plantations nearly everywhere on Earth” (45). Advances are coming, but we can’t wait for that solution. Grains, including rice, soybeans, and corn, make up almost 70% of all human calories (49). The U.N. estimates we’ll need double our crop production by 2050, and climate change will affect yields. Heat can make plants bigger, but less nutritious; already nutrients have declined by a third since 1950 (57). “Climate change promises an empire of hunger erected among the world’s poor” (58).
People who don’t live near the ocean might not worry about sea rise, but “much of the infrastructure of the internet could be drowned by sea-level rise in less than two decades” not to mention that production of cell phones takes place in the Pearl River Delta, which is likely to be flooded long before that (61). The Antarctic ice sheet melt tripled in the last decade (64). Permafrost is melting creating the “albedo effect”: white ice reflects sunlight; without it, the planet will absorb more heat (67). And if you’re nowhere near a forest, fires might not be as terrifying, but “drinking water in Colorado was damaged for years by the fallout from a single wildfire in 2002” (75). There’s a feedback loop to recognize too: “the world’s forests, which have typically been carbon sinks, would become carbon sources, unleashing all that stored gas” (76). If you live in the perfect place to avoid these problems, you can expect an influx of immigration: “recovery from storms like Katrina and Irma and Harvey, hitting more and more often, is almost impossible. The best choice is often simply to leave” (85).
Only 0.007% of the water is available for drinking (86).
“Fourteen of the world’s twenty biggest cities are currently experiencing water scarcity or drought” (91). “A freshwater crisis is more alarming [than sea-rise], since we depend on it far more acutely. It is also closer at hand. But while the planet commands the necessary resources today to provide water for drinking and sanitation to all the world’s people, there is not the necessary political will — or even the inclination — to do so. . . . If climate change is a shark, the water resources are the teeth” (92–3). “Over the past fifty years, the amount of ocean water with no oxygen at hundred ‘dead zones’; oxygen-deprived zones have grown by several million square kilometers, roughly the size of all of Europe . . . since warmer waters can carry less oxygen . . . pollution . . . [and] runoff of fertilizer chemicals” (97).
“The planet’s air won’t just be warmer; it will likely also be dirtier, more oppressive, and more sickening. . . . The hotter the planet gets, the more ozone forms” (101). “A majority of fish tested in teh Great Lakes contain microplastics, as did the guts of 73 percent of fish surveyed in the northwest Atlantic” (105).
The “relationship between non-carbon pollution and the temperature of the planet is far more horrifying. This is not the problem of plastic but of ‘aerosol pollution’ — the blanket term for any particles suspended in our atmosphere . . . all of that pollution has been, perversely, reducing the amount of global warming we are currently experiencing [creating] a ‘devil’s bargain’: a choice between public-health-destroying pollution on the one hand, and, on the other, clear skies whose very clearness and healthiness will dramatically accelerate climate change” (106–7). We could use geo-technologies to “shoot pollution into the sky on purpose” but that will cause many premature deaths, and “once we began such a program, we could never stop” (108). “For every single unit of additional air pollution, the relative risk of Alzheimer’s doubled” (134).
And then there are prehistoric plagues that will emerge from the ice as it melts. Mosquito-borne illness is growing as the tropics expand: “the current rate is thirty miles per decade” (111). “Disease cases from mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas have tripled in the U.S. over just the last thirteen years” (112). The bacteria in our body “could be rewired, diminished, or entirely killed off by an additional few degrees of heat” (113).
The economy won’t matter if we don’t have a livable planet to put it on. Some think our current economic boom is a result of “fossil capitalism” — entirely due to the discovery of fossil fuels (114). As the planet warms, the GDP reduces by about 1% per degree Celsius. The Great Depression dropped global GDP by 15%, and we’re expected to see a decrease 25 times worse by 2100 (117). “What climate change has in store is not a Great Recession or a Great Depression but, in economic terms, a Great Dying” (119). And “in part because it has so much to lose, and in part because it so aggressively developed its very long coastlines, the U.S. is most vulnerable to climate impacts than any country in the world but India, and its economic illness won’t be quarantine at the board” (121). “There may not be any such relief or reprieve from climate deprivation, and though, as in any collapse, there will be those few who find ways to benefit, the experience of most may be more like that of miners buried permanently at the bottom of a shaft” (123).
When the size of the watering hole get smaller, the animals look at one another differently.
“Even an astonishing, improbable effort to limit warming to two degrees would still, by this math, result in at least 40% and perhaps as much as 80%, more war. . . . In the wealthy West, we’ve come to pretend that war is an anomalous feature of modern life. . . . But globally, there are nineteen ongoing armed conflicts hot enough to claim at least a thousand lives each year. Nine of them began more recently than 2010” (125). Most wars throughout history, it is important to remember, have been conflicts over resources, often ignited by resource scarcity, which is what an earth densely populated and denuded by climate change will yield. Those wars don’t tend to increase those resources; most of the time, they incinerate them” (129).
Heat makes us more aggressive and more willing to fight rather than ignore minor irritations. Air pollution levels can be used to accurately predict crimes (129). The countries adding the least to emissions will feel the results the most. Australia “is an early test case of how the world’s affluent societies will bend, or buckle, or rebuild under the pressure of temperature changes” (132).
And we are no doubt being affected psychologically by it all.
“When it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination. This is climate’s kaleidoscope: we can be mesmerized by the threat directly in front of us without ever perceiving it clearly . . . our culture, like our politics, specializes in assigning the blame to others — in projecting rather than accepting guilt” (143). “The dilemmas and dramas of climate change are simply incompatible with the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves . . . Who would the heroes be? And what would they be doing? . . . Already, the world’s most popular game, Fortnite, invites players into a competition for scarce resources during an extreme weather event — as though you yourself might conquer and totally resolve the issue” (147).
We target oil companies or corporate greed or denialism as the villains, but that isn’t going to help us.
“The companies’ disinformation-and-denial campaigns are probably a stronger case for villainy — a more grotesque performance of corporate evilness is hardly imaginable, and, a generation from now, oil-backed denial will likely be seen as among the most heinous conspiracies against human health and well-being as have been perpetrated in the modern world. But evilness is not the same as responsibility, and climate denialism has captured just one political party in one country in the world. . . . There is simply nothing like climate denialism beyond the U.S. border. . . . To believe the fault for global warming lies exclusively withe the Republican Party or its fossil fuel backers is a form of American narcissism. . . . Elsewhere, without denialism, action on carbon is just as slow: “inertia and the allure of near-term gains and the preferences of the world’s workers and consumers, who fall somewhere on a long spectrum of culpability stretching from knowing selfishness through true ignorance and reflexive, if naive, complacency” (149).
Stories with animals work best, and we’ve already seen the impact of the Our Planet. We are distracted by minor issues like plastic straws and bee deaths, which aren’t as bad as we’ve been led to believe. “Ninety-six percent of the world’s mammals by weight are people and livestock; just four percent are wild. We have simply crowded — or bullied, or brutalized — every other species into retreat” (154). After years of reticence, in 2018, “scientists began embracing fear . . . It is okay, finally to freak out” (157). We’ve gotten sucked into cognitive biases, like the ambiguity effect, which “suggests that most people are so uncomfortable contemplating uncertainty, they will accept lesser outcomes in a bargain to avoid dealing with it” (159).
Cognitive biases are why “renovating capitalism so that it doesn’t reward fossil fuel extraction can seem unlikelier than suspending sulfur in the air to dye the sky red and cool the planet off by a degree or two. To some, even ending trillions in fossil fuel subsidies sounds harder to pull off than deploying technologies to suck carbon out of the air everywhere on Earth” (161). “We tend to think of climate as somehow being contained within, or governed by, capitalism. In fact, it is endangered by it” (162).
It really is a problem with capitalism: “The market has justified inequality for generations by pointing to opportunity and invoking the mantra of new prosperity, which it promised would benefit all. This was probably always less credible as a true claim than it was as propaganda. . . . In 2016, the IMF published an article titled ‘Neoliberalism: Oversold?’ — the IMF. And Paul Romer, later the chief economist of the World Bank, proposed that macroeconomics, the ‘science’ of capitalism, was something like a fantasy field” (163).
Major change is coming: “an impact much more sever than the great Depression, it would be ten times as deep as the more recent Great Recession, which still so rattles us. And it would not be temporary. It is hard to imagine any system surviving that kind of decline intact” (166).
If we do manage to keep warming to two degrees, though, it will be because we changed everything: “a decarbonized economy [saving fossil fuel subsidies of $5 trillion], a perfectly renewable energy system, a reimagined system of agriculture, and perhaps even a meatless planet. In 2018, the IPCC compared the necessary transformation to the mobilization of World War II, but global”(169). A single-shot cure-all through negative emissions sounds good, but they are “almost entirely theoretical. Neither method has yet been demonstrated to actually work” (169). And carbon extraction would require 100 million devices at a total cost of 40% of global GDP to reduce the level of carbon in the atmosphere just by a few parts per million (170).
Other technologies, like AI or space travel, he calls “religious fantasies: to escape the body and transcend the world” (175). We can get to Mars now, but if we try to develop a colony there,
“the costs would be so much higher than for an equivalent artificial ecosystem on Earth, and therefore the scale so much more limited, that anyone proposing space travel as a solution to global warming must be suffering from their own climate delusion. To imagine such a colony could offer material prosperity as abundant as tech plutocrats enjoy in Atherton is to live even more deeply in the narcissism of that delusion — as though it were only as difficult to smuggle luxury to Mars as to Burning Man” (176).
As Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Solow said, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics” (177). It entertains us, but it will not save us. Using the little bits of renewable energy here and there also hasn’t had much impact, but that’s a capitalism issue,
“because the market has not responded to these development by seamlessly retiring dirty energy sources and replacing them with clean ones. It has responded by simply adding the new capacity to the same system. . . . Solar isn’t eating away at fossil fuel use, in other words, 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% more coal than we were just in the year 2000” (177–8).
Transition to clean energy is just the lowest-hanging fruit, which is,
“smaller than the challenge of reducing energy demand, which is smaller than the challenge of reinventing how goods and services are provided — given that global supply chains are built with dirty infrastructure and labor markets everywhere are still powered by dirty energy. There is also the need to get to zero emissions from all other sources — deforestation, agriculture, livestock, landfills. . . . All of which is a smaller task than the monumental cultural undertaking of imagining together a thriving, dynamic, sustainable future that feels not only possible, but worth fighting for” (178).
Wallace-Wells insists we have the solutions, “We just haven’t yet discovered the political will, economic might, and cultural flexibility to install and activate them, because doing so requires something a lot bigger, and more concrete, than imagination — it means nothing short of a complete overhaul of the world’s energy systems, transportation, infrastructure and industry and agriculture” (179). This transformation dwarfs any major shift we’ve seen before (communication, transportation, electricity, sanitation…) because it contains them all: “every single one needs to be replaced at the root, since every single one breathes on carbon, like a ventilator” (180). At the rate we’re going, we can make these changes within about 400 years. Except, we only have eleven more years before the system will self-perpetuate.
But, “if the world’s most conspicuous emitters, the top 10 percent, reduced their emissions to only the E.U. average, total global emissions would fall by 35 percent. We won’t get there through the dietary choices of individuals, but through policy changes. . . . Eating organic is nice, but if your goal is to save the climate your vote is much more important” (187). He calls conscious consumption a cop-out, as if “one can do good for the world simply by buying well” (189). Neoliberalism is the big problem. “What kinds of politics are likely to evolve after the promise of growth recedes? A whole pantheon of possibilities floats before us, including that new trade deals are built on the moral infrastructure of climate change, with commerce contingent on emissions cuts and sanctions a punishment for squirrelly carbon behavior” (191). But neoliberalism could lead to “zero-sum politics” seen in “tribalism at home and nationalism abroad and terrorism flaming out from the tinder of failed states, that future is here, at least in preview, already. Now we just wait for the storms” (191). We need a new possibility: “a global alliance operating in the name of a common humanity, rather than in the interests of capital or nations. But there is a dark version as well — it is how you might get a planetary dictator in the shape of a mafia boss, and global governance not on the do-gooder model but as a straight-up protection racket” (193).
“There is no good thing in the world that will be made more abundant, or spread more widely, but global warming” (197). “If the planet reaches three or four or five degrees of warming, the world will be convulsed with human suffering at such a scale . . . that its citizens will have difficulty regarding the recent past as a course of progress or even a phase in a cycle, or in fact anything but a true and substantial reversal” (201).
He ends with a chapter on, “Ethics at the End of the World.” Should we be hedonistic or compassionate or a bit of both? Should we become sanguine about it all with the detachment shown by the Dark Mountain Project? Should we try to save a few old books as the empire falls outside? “How widespread alarm will shape our ethical impulses toward one another, and the politics that emerge from those impulses, is among the more profound questions being posed by the climate to the planet of people it envelops” (213). Or will we just slowly acclimatize to each new horror as they unfold? “One way we might manage to navigate that path without crumbling collectively in despair is, perversely, to normalize climate suffering at the same pace we accelerate it” (216).
In the end,
“If we allow global warming to proceed, and to punish us with all the ferocity we have fed it, it will be because we have chosen that punishment — collectively walking down a path of suicide. If we avert it, it will be because we have chosen to walk a different path, and endure” (220). “We have all the tools we need, today, to stop it all: a carbon tax and the political apparatus to aggressively phase out dirty energy; a new approach to agricultural practices and a shift away from beef and dairy in the global diet; and public investment in green energy and carbon capture. That the solutions are obvious, and available, does not mean the problem is anything but overwhelming” (226–7).
Me? I’m less inclined to believe voting will make a difference. We need active and sustained rebellion Greta-style. We need to take to the streets until politicians have no choice but to listen. As Monbiot wrote yesterday,
“Today, Extinction Rebellion takes to streets around the world in defence of our life support systems. Through daring, disruptive, non-violent action, it forces our environmental predicament onto the political agenda. Who are these people? Another “they”, who might rescue us from our follies? The success of this mobilisation depends on us. It will reach the critical threshold only if enough of us cast aside denial and despair, and join this exuberant, proliferating movement. The time for excuses is over. The struggle to overthrow our life-denying system has begun.”