It was a telling moment: David Wallace-Wells, author of the new book The Uninhabitable Earth, was making an appearance on MSNBC’s talk show Morning Joe. He took viewers through scientific projections for drowned cities, death by heat stroke and a massive, endless refugee crisis — due to climate change. As the interview closed, one of the show’s hosts, Willie Geist, looked to Wallace-Wells and said, “Let’s end on some hope.”
The disconnect speaks volumes about where we are now relative to climate change. With his new book, which has quickly become a bestseller, Wallace-Wells wants to be the firefighter telling you your house is going up in flames right now. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming’s perspective can be neatly summed up through its opening line: “It’s worse, much worse, than you think.” Geist, standing in for all of us, seems stunned by the scale and urgency of the problem and wants to hear something that will make him feel better.
Feeling better is definitely not what’s going happen if you read The Uninhabitable Earth or a second new book on climate change, Losing Earth: A Recent History by Nathaniel Rich. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read both of them. We humans, and our project of civilization, are entering new territory with the climate change we’ve driven — and both books offer valuable perspectives if we’re committed to being adult enough to face the future.
When climate scientists use their models to project forward, they see a spread of possible changes in the average temperature of the planet. Over the next century or so, the predicted temperature increase ranges from about two degrees to an upper limit of about eight degrees. Which path Earth takes depends on its innate sensitivity to the carbon dioxide we’re dumping into the atmosphere combined with — and most important — our own decisions about how much more carbon dioxide to add.
In Losing Earth, Rich wants us to understand how policymakers learned of, and then ignored, the grave risks these paths represent for our future. In The Uninhabitable Earth, Wallace-Wells wants us to understand just how bad that future may get.
The point for humanity is that with every degree of warming, we get further from the kind of world we grew up in. For Wallace-Wells this is not just a matter of where you can go skiing in 2040. The Uninhabitable Earth focuses on the potent cascades that flow through the entirety of the complex human-environmental interaction we call “civilization.” So, when Wallace-Wells talks of economic impacts, he cites a study linking 3.7 degrees of warming to over $550 trillion of climate-related damage. Since $550 trillion is twice today’s global wealth, the conclusion is that eventually rebuilding from the “n-th” superstorm will stop. We’ll just abandon our cities or live within the ruin. The Uninhabitable Earth also gives us similar visions of rising hunger and conflict. If today’s refugee problems are straining political systems (the Syrian crisis created 1 million homeless people), Wallace-Wells asks us to imagine a global politics when more than 200 million climate refugees are on the move (a U.N. projection for 2050).
The picture The Uninhabitable Earth paints is unsparingly bleak. But is it correct?
Prediction is difficult, as Yogi Berra noted, especially about the future. One criticism of the book is that it favors worst-case scenarios. Indeed, when it comes to extrapolating the human impacts of climate change, researchers must rely on separate models of the planet, its ecosystems and, say, human economic behavior. Each has its uncertainties and each yields not one river-like line for the future but, instead, a spreading delta of possibilities. When the models are combined, the uncertainties compound, making risk-assessment a difficult task. For a scientist like myself, that means we have more possible futures than the one described in The Uninhabitable Earth.
But if you take comfort from that statement, you are missing the point. There is a broader point in The Uninhabitable Earth that Wallace-Wells makes eloquently — one that must become part of how we think about climate change. As he writes:
“Perhaps because of the exhausting false debate about whether climate change is ‘real,’ too many of us have developed a misleading impression that its effects are binary. But global warming is not ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ nor is it ‘today’s weather forever’ or “doomsday tomorrow.”
To me, this is one of the great strengths of The Uninhabitable Earth. It’s the recognition that we are already quite far down the road toward a different kind of Earth. Most importantly, keeping civilization up and running on this new version of the planet will depend on our collective actions right now. Wallace-Wells’ instinct for telling this story is, more than anything, what makes the book worthwhile.
It is noteworthy that at some point The Uninhabitable Earth asks about what might be called climate retribution. If things get bad enough, will the names of those responsible eventually be held in infamy? Understanding the who of how humanity got so far down the climate change road is the focus of Losing Earth, which is a gripping piece of history whose essence, like The Uninhabitable Earth, is embodied in its first line: “Nearly everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979.”
By 1979, the scientific community already knew deep trouble awaited us if we didn’t limit carbon dioxide emissions. Taking that year as its launch point, author Nathaniel Rich follows the decade-long work of policymakers and scientists who tried mightily to steer us clear of climate change. Rich’s writing is compelling and clear, even as he lays out details of 1980s international environmental policy. Reading like a Greek tragedy, Losing Earth shows how close we came to making the right choices — if it weren’t for our darker angels. It’s a story of “heroes, villains and victims,” and when it comes to the villains, Rich, like Wallace-Wells, does not pull punches. After surveying how different nations responded to the political challenges of climate change, Rich finally reaches our own:
“When it comes to the United States, which has not deigned to make any binding commitments whatsoever, the dominant narrative for the last quarter century has concerned the unrestrained efforts of the fossil fuel industry to suppress scientific fact, confuse the public and bribe politicians.”
No matter how you respond to the stories of climate past and climate future that these books tell, their very appearance may portent the beginning of a cultural transition. As the wild fires and flooding of the last few years demonstrate, climate change isn’t just an idea anymore. Now it’s something we all see playing out on the news every day. We are, indeed, in uncharted territory — and we’ve just started down this road. Given that certainty, whatever hope we can find for the future will be the hope we create.
Adam Frank is an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester and author of Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth. You can find more from Adam here: @adamfrank4.