"It's worse, much worse, than you think."
That's the first sentence of David Wallace-Wells' The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, and it's all downhill from there. Wallace-Wells sets out to knock down an entire mythology about climate change that has helped make people feel safe insulated from it. It's not happening slowly, there's nowhere to hide from it, there's no part of how we live our lives as humans that will be left untouched, and it's not even something that's barreling down on us—it's already here.
The Uninhabitable Earth is a catalog of speculation, but all of it grounded in science. Yes, sea levels will rise and coastal cities will flood, and yes, temperatures around the globe will both rise and fluctuate more wildly than at any other time in human history. But if you're only considering those details, you're missing the bigger picture. A hotter world means a world with less food, and what food remains will be less nutrient-dense per calorie. The number of refugees globally—already driven in large part by resource scarcity and civil strife in response to that scarcity—will spiral even more out of control. Farmable land south of Siberia and north of Patagonia will all but disappear. And how we respond to those changes will only make the crisis worse.
What makes the book so difficult to read is not just the eye-popping stats, like the fact that we could potentially avoid 150 million excess premature deaths by the end of century from air pollution (the equivalent of 25 Holocausts or twice the number of deaths from World War II) if we could limit average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius or hold warming at 2 degrees without relying on negative emissions.
Wallace-Wells starts his analysis with a bleak conclusion: We've been behind where we need to be for decades now, and the fact that we'll be living in a hotter, less hospitable world is an inevitability. The only uncertainty left is how quickly we respond and how much damage we're going to be able to prevent. Despite all that, he's cautiously optimistic that, as a species, we're up to the challenge.
GQ: I really enjoyed your very depressing book.
David Wallace-Wells: Thanks, try writing it.
Temperatures are expected to increase more than 2.5°C on average by 2070 in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste and Vanuatu.
What made you want to write it?
The really short answer was just as a journalist who’s interested in the near future and tries to follow news about that as much as I can, I started seeing a lot of really alarming papers in 2016, the severity of which weren't being reflected in conventional writing and storytelling about climate. It felt, to me, like it was missing in a few fundamental ways, the first of which was climate change is happening much faster than we had been told. This was arriving basically in real time. It's sort of impossible to believe, but half of all of the emissions in the atmosphere [came from] burning fossil fuels in the last 30 years.
The conventional wisdom around climate change is that the way we fight it is by making an individual choices, like flying and driving less. But there are obviously huge obstacles to that, since not every city has reliable public transportation. And buses and subways still put out a ton of emissions. How can we deal with this really basic first step?
There are quite a lot of things that the average person, even the average engaged person, doesn't quite understand about this issue. One of the really big ones is that in order to stabilize the climate—at some temperature level that we would find tolerable globally—will require much more than just reducing our emissions. It will require us to zero out on our emissions.
The golden Toad is the first species to go extinct due to climate change.
Any additional emissions that we put into the atmosphere will continue to heat the planet, and so even if we cut our global emissions by 80 percent, we're still going to be making the planet hotter. The example that you cite is a really good illustration of that. We don't just need transportation systems that are less carbon intensive than the ones that we have now, we need—in relatively short order—to have transportation systems that have no carbon footprint at all. And to me, that says something about exactly what kind of infrastructure and R&D we need to invest in, and what kind of choices we need to make as as societies, and as a planetary society.
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