“Uninhabitable Earth” spurs us to action by showing the alternative

The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells, provides a sobering look at the impacts of climate change, both in the near and distant future. Beginning with consideration of the large-scale impacts of warming, he then addresses each major aspect of climate change in turn, from rising sea levels to extreme heat and wildfires. Finally, Wallace-Wells considers the impacts of politics, economics, and technology on climate change, and vice versa. Through the use of statistics and details, Wallace-Wells compellingly argues that climate change is a much more important problem than most consider it to be, but humanity still has a chance if we take immediate, large-scale action.

Wallace-Wells’ focus on feedback loops is particularly fascinating. In the first section, “Cascades,” he articulates well the additive effects of each element of climate change: for example, melting ice caps cause sea level rise, but they also release methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than CO2, increase the earth’s albedo (causing the planet to absorb more heat), and may even unfreeze long-dormant viruses, potentially compounding other issues with a global-warming-induced epidemic. Wallace-Wells’ skilful description of the feedback loops at play makes his urgency all that more compelling. Drawing upon climate models from two degrees of warming all the way up to eight degrees, Wallace-Wells uses the effects of these loops to paint a brief picture of the world at each outcome. With only two degrees, “the ice sheets will begin their collapse, 400 million more people will suffer from water scarcity, major cities in the equatorial band of the planet will become unlivable, and even in the northern latitudes, heat waves will kill thousands each summer.” The world of eight degrees is far scarier: heat alone would make about a third of the planet uninhabitable. The world today has already seen an increase of about one degree, and we already suffer its consequences, though these consequences play out differently across the globe.

Wallace-Wells also takes an in-depth look at each major factor contributing to climate change. Each chapter tackles one aspect, from more commonly understood issues like sea level rise to rarely-considered problems like a surge in global conflict. For each problem, Wallace-Wells provides statistics from the past, present, and future, detailing the catastrophic collapse that could occur if climate change were allowed to run unchecked. In each chapter, Wallace-Wells constantly references the cost, both in dollars and human lives, of each issue alone. California readers may find the chapter on wildfires particularly interesting—California’s wildfires occupy a special focus in this chapter. 

As he poses these terrifying statistics and dark visions for the future, the author considers the balance between education and climate alarmism. Wallace-Wells argues that the fear of climate alarmism has prevented scientists from clearly communicating the immediacy of the situation, leading to large-scale, dangerous complacency. He understands, however, that an overwhelming sense of the immensity of the issue could breed “climate fatalism,” a hopelessness about the possibility of preventing climate change that lends itself to apathy. Alongside his rather alarming statistics, Wallace-Wells focuses on the importance of human action. Scientists can create climate models for different scenarios of warming, but humanity as a whole has the power to change the outcome. From technological innovation to political policies, humanity still has the opportunity to act to ensure ourselves a future.

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