The New York Magazine cover story “The Uninhabitable Earth” describes the planet’s future as a litany of horrors, brought on by climate change.
“It is, I promise, worse than you think,” begins David Wallace-Wells’s essay, a 7,000-word declaration of doom.
This first sentence is a microcosm of what’s fatally flawed about the story in its entirety. There’s no qualification, there’s no admission it might not be so bad.
While scientists and journalists debate whether Wallace-Wells presents the plausible worst-case climate change scenario accurately for later this century*, what I found troubling about the piece — as someone who writes about weather and climate risk every day — is its failure to acknowledge that the chance of the dire scenario described is actually quite low, even remote. Nor does it discuss the range of more likely outcomes, and explore their consequences — which are serious — even if not a catastrophe everywhere.
As a weather communicator, it would be as if, based on an outlier computer model forecast, I decided to write a scare story about a devastating category 5 hurricane hitting Miami 10 days from now. And doing so without telling my audience that weather forecasts so far out into the future aren’t particularly reliable and that other models simulated no hurricane at all. It would draw a lot of clicks, but it wouldn’t be responsible.
Chris Mooney, in his review of the story, specifically points out Wallace-Wells’s failure to offer a sense of the actual likelihood of the worst-case scenario described. “But what are the odds? That’s the crucial question,” Mooney writes, then states, “there is a good reason for hope we can avoid the very worst outcomes.”
In an interview with Mooney, Wallace-Wells confesses maybe the scenario’s likelihood should have been discussed. “You raise the question of odds, and it’s a fair critique, I think,” he said. “I could’ve included some estimates of probability and likelihood, and in some earlier drafts I did work in a few of those numbers.”
Wallace-Wells then makes the stunning admission that he himself feels a warming of 2.5 to 3 degrees Celsius is most likely by the end of the century, rather than the apocalyptic 6 to 8 degrees which served as the basis for his story.
Fully exploring and communicating plausible worst-case scenarios is, to be sure, an important part of risk communication. But by itself and without context, it is irresponsibly incomplete. Any portrayal of worst-case scenarios should also detail most likely and best-case scenarios as well, so consumers of the information have a complete understanding of the range of possibilities.
If a snowstorm is coming and the most likely amount is 5 to 10 inches, but there’s a 5 percent chance of 30 inches, I don’t write thousands of words on the consequences of 30 inches and all but ignore the infinitely more likely moderate snowstorm scenario.
As many writers who have critiqued the Wallace-Wells story have pointed out, the more moderate and more likely climate change scenarios, on their own, raise the specter of many unwelcome consequences that society will be challenged to manage.
A writer as gifted as Wallace-Wells would have done society a much better service to have focused his attention on more realistic outcomes or, at least, transparently qualified his extremely far-fetched narrative.
*14 climate scientists evaluating the scientific accuracy of the Wallace-Wells piece gave it a negative credibility score. “A majority of reviewers tagged the article as: Alarmist, Imprecise/Unclear, Misleading,” the review says.