Book Review Number 40

The Uninhabitable Earth:  Life After Warming – David Wallace-Wells

Wallace-Wells is an American journalist who is a contributing writer and deputy editor for New York Magazine. He also writes for the Guardian. In recent years he has focused his research and writing primarily on the science and the societal impact of climate change. He calls himself an optimist, but this book paints a very dark portrait of climate change and its impact on human civilization.

In the first section of the book the author sets the stage for a reality check. He lays out in general terms what global warming and associated climate change will mean to the world’s population. He discusses the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment of the state of the planet and the likely trajectory of climate change. He reviews the goal of the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Accords of limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees celsius and makes the point that we have made no progress in achieving that goal.

In the second section of the book the author dedicates 12 chapters to analysis of specific climate impacts of global warming by 2 or more degrees celsius. In that section he dedicates his discussion to the scientifically based predictions of death and displacement of people that will result from climate change. He commits one chapter each to describing the chaos, death and disruption of humanity:  from extreme heat;  hunger; drowning; wildfires; severe weather phenomenon (hurricanes, tornados, typhoons); loss of fresh water; dying and rising oceans; unbreathable air; plagues; economic collapse; climate conflict; and finally what he calls “systems” (mass migrations by perhaps as many as a billion people and the likely associated general breakdown of society).

In the third section of the book the author discusses how we tend to kid ourselves about the crisis we are facing. He says we have been telling ourselves stories about imminent apocalypse for centuries; we are now conditioned to feel like it is just crying wolf. Also we tend to believe that our capitalist and technologist society can ward off any catastrophe once it is fully identified. The other issue is that we are a consumption society and hate to be inconvenienced by adjusting our behavior to address an issue as nebulous as climate change.

The author is careful to explain that the best climate scientists simply don’t know how global warming will play out. The feedback loops from warming are so complex that it is impossible to predict specifically what, where, and when catastrophe will strike. Also it is not at all clear what humans may do to mitigate climate change. There are only two thing they seem to all agree on:  1) it is now virtually impossible to limit global warming to 2 degrees celsius, which is and has been for the last 25 years the point at which scientists say global warming will become a climate catastrophe; and 2) life on the earth because of climate change will become much more challenging, dangerous, and chaotic than it is now regardless of what we do; it will only be less bad if we do something than if we do nothing.

This book is well researched and the sources are carefully documented, but it is not one for the faint of heart. If you are a climate change or science denier this book is not for you; likewise if you are a white evangelical who subscribes to the likes of televangelist and Trump adviser Robert Jeffress (he claims that it is absurd to think that God would allow human beings to impact earth’s climate) you won’t believe it. On the other hand if you want to lean what human life is likely to be in another 50 years as a result of global warming I encourage you to explore what this author and his sources have to say. One down side of this book is the authors writing style. He uses very long and complex sentence structures which make it hard and tiring to read. Regardless, it is worth sticking with it to the end.

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