Fred Pearce is a U.K.-based science correspondent, whose books include “With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change”
Here is a modest proposal: Climate scientists should shut up about global warming. The gatekeepers for what we know and think about climate change should take a vow of silence and let some other people get a word in edgeways. Because, important though the science is, we need to stop defining the great issue of the 21st century in scientific terms.
If climate change is, as this book successfully argues, a game-changer for everyone, everywhere, all the time, then let’s reflect that in the discourse. We’ve got the science. Let’s bring on the philosophers and playwrights, lawyers and priests, economists and comedians. Society’s response depends on it.
David Wallace-Wells offers a good starting point. His book, “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming,” scares us with tales from a future climate-changed world that transcend climate science. Not since Bill McKibben’s “The End of Nature” 30 years ago have we been told what climate change will mean in such vivid terms. “It is worse, much worse, than you think,” Wallace-Wells begins the book. Not least because, in those 30 years, we have doubled our cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels.
He foretells a world in which climate change is pervasive, ubiquitous and dramatic. “The path we are on as a planet should terrify anyone living on it,” he writes. Nothing will be the same. Wherever we live, we will be flooded, engulfed by fires, plagued by new diseases, choked by toxic air, deprived of water or impoverished as a climate in chaos leads to an economy in meltdown. “The assaults will not be discrete,” he warns. “They will produce a kind of cascading violence, waterfalls and avalanches of devastation . . . in ways that build on each other and undermine our ability to respond.” There will be climate wars. Nature itself will look like an enemy rather than a friend.
The naysayers of climate change would rather not hear these stories. They are very good at shutting climate into an echo chamber of spurious scientific uncertainty. What they fear is voices like Wallace-Wells’s that might strike a strong public chord. That was why, last fall, they tried to prevent the “climate kids” — American students who charge the government with violating their human right to live in a safe climate — from having their day in court. The legal tussle is still unresolved.
In the first half of his book, Wallace-Wells, an editor at New York magazine but not, he insists, an environmentalist, does a valiant job of giving a plain person’s guide to the scary scenarios and inevitable truths of climate change. Dying oceans, drying rivers, wildfires, plagues of disease, climate wars and rising tides all get their chapters. His sourcing is good, and he makes the right caveats. All science is provisional, he warns. “What actually lies ahead may prove even grimmer, though the reverse, of course, is also possible,” he writes.
The essence of the matter is plain, however. Once in the atmosphere, the carbon dioxide from our burning fossil fuels stays there, constantly turning up the planetary thermostat. Climate change does not have an on-off switch. It won’t stop at two degrees or four degrees or six degrees or indeed anywhere, until we stop those pesky emissions. The only questions are how soon and at what level.
That simple truth is alarming but also a challenge to action. “However warm the planet gets,” wallace-Wells writes, “it will always be the case that the decade that follows could contain more suffering or less,” depending on our choices.
It also changes the dynamic of optimism vs. pessimism over the future, something Wallace-Wells deals with well. In the midst of one apparently doom-laden narrative, he steps aside: “The thing is, I am optimistic,” he says. “I know there are horrors to come. . . . But those horrors are not yet scripted.” We don’t have to surrender, because there is no inevitable.
Technology is our best shot at halting the planet’s warming. The good news is that “the solutions are obvious, and available,” he writes. Post-McKibben, we have brought down the cost of wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars so that the seemingly inevitable trade-offs between low-carbon energy and economic growth are disappearing. We now appreciate that reformulating our industries based on low-carbon emissions is good for growth.
What also worries Wallace-Wells is what is going on in our heads. Why do we react to obvious and available solutions so slowly? Why do we often seem blind to the climate catastrophes happening all around us? We’ve already witnessed a huge impact from the one degree of warming we have caused so far, but we choose barely to notice. We still routinely call the sharp extremes of climate change natural disasters.
Wallace-Wells argues that climate change lay behind the civil war in Syria that sent a million refugees to Europe. The influx of desperate people, he says, excited anti-migrant passions, unleashing “much of the populist moment the entire West is passing through.” That narrative may be an arguable proposition. Probably Bashar al-Assad had a hand in there, too. But he is undoubtedly right that we constantly avoid framing geopolitical events in a way that acknowledges climatic influences.
The most interesting part of this excellent book is where Wallace-Wells moves on to wonder whether this pattern of climate denial might continue into a “hothouse Earth” of supercyclones, megafloods, droughts without end and killer heat waves. Will it morph into nihilistic acceptance and even a failure to recognize what is happening at all?
As Wallace-Wells puts it: “One way we might manage to navigate [rising temperatures] without crumbling collectively in despair is, perversely, to normalize climate suffering at the same pace we accelerate it.” After all, urban air pollution already kills millions each year. “We live with . . . those death tolls, and hardly notice them,” he observes.
He delves into why we find it hard to get our heads around something so enormous and all-embracing. The elephant in the room. Nobody’s academic discipline can encompass it. It plays havoc with the mental models we create to try and understand a complicated world. It questions our ingrained “sunny-side-up optimism” by confronting us with a future in which “the facts are hysterical.”
Climate change upends the certainties of 10,000 years of post-ice-age climate stability, an era that allowed human civilization to evolve to our current crossroads. But to move forward, to make sense of what we are learning to call the Anthropocene, requires new perceptions that probably lie far beyond the imaginings of climate modelers. “It is not a subject that can sustain only one narrative, one perspective, one metaphor, one mood,” Wallace-Wells concludes. Step aside, scientists. Please.
By David Wallace-Wells
Tim Duggan. 310 pp. $27