The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming
Copyright 2019 by David Wallace-Wells
Notes by Hank Stone 8-4-19
This book begins “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” And the rest of the first paragraph dismisses a spectrum of reasons why it couldn’t be this bad. For example, we have a fantasy that someone else will fix the problem for us, at no cost.
The problem is too big for us to grasp. Climate change is a “hyperobject,” a conceptual fact so large and complex it can never be comprehended.
There is much discussion of how bad things may be by 2100, but that is only shorthand for when the people closest to us will be alive. The atmosphere has been storing up greenhouse gases since the industrial revolution began, and warming from them will continue, even if humanity could stop burning fossil fuels immediately. The year 2100 will not begin a new “normal:” until corrected, the warming will get worse.
We’re ramping the problem up quickly. “We have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before.”
As this was unfolding, we wouldn’t, or couldn’t, or anyway didn’t look squarely in the face of the science.
In the coming decades many of the most punishing climate horrors will hit those least able to respond and recover. This is the problem of “environmental justice,” which could be called more directly the “climate caste system.”
According to a recent paper, at 1.5 degrees, the world would be $20 trillion richer than at 2 degrees: even numerically small warming is massively important.
There are 65 pages of endnotes.
The book is not fatalistic, saying there is no hope of remediation. But neither is there a rosy chapter at the end full of good news. This isn’t that book.
Below are tidbits that caught my eye from the chapters that follow:
At a wet bulb temperature of 35 degrees C or higher, human beings cannot live. These conditions will occur more and more frequently in more and more countries.
“In 2018, Nature dismissed all scenarios based on carbon capture and storage (CCS) as “magical thinking.”
“In the U.S. the rate of topsoil erosion is ten times as high as the national replenishment rate.”
“To avoid dangerous climate change, the world needs to cut its meat and dairy consumption in half by 2050.”
“The sea will become a killer.”
“If no significant action is taken to curb emissions, one estimate of global damages is as high as $100 trillion per year by 2100.”
Business as usual puts sea level rise at 4feet (or perhaps 8 feet) by 2100. That is, every coastal city will be compromised or destroyed.
But if all the polar ice melts, sea level will rise by 260 feet.
When trees die through forest loss, they release carbon they have stored, sometimes for as long as centuries.
DISASTERS ARE NO LONGER NATURAL
There will be more “extreme precipitation events,” sometimes called “rain bombs.”
We’re still building in the paths of storms.
In April 2011, 758 tornados swept the American countryside.
We settle into thinking of natural disasters as normal, but the scope of devastation and horror will not diminish.
71% of the Earth is covered in water, but only 1% is accessible fresh water.
70-80% of water is used for agriculture.
As soon as 2030, global water demand is expected to outstrip supply by 40%.
2018 report: 200,000 people die each year from lacking or contaminated water.
We’re drawing down freshwater aquifers that took millions of years to form.
“[Peter] Gleick lists nearly 500 water-related conflicts since 1900.”
By 2030, ocean warming and acidification will threaten 90% of all reefs.
The possible slowdown of the Ocean Conveyor Belt: “A total shutdown would be inconceivably catastrophic,” but “already climate change has slowed the Gulf Stream by 15%.”
“The Chinese ‘airpocalypse’ of 2013 killed 1.37 million people.
More than 10,000 people die each day, globally, from small –particulate pollution produced from burning carbon.
“We can breathe in microplastics, even when indoors…”
PLAGUES OF WARMING
Melting permafrost is reintroducing plague diseases. Scientists are concerned about smallpox and bubonic plague.
Malaria and other warm climate diseases will continue to work their way northward.
Climate change has in store not a “Great Recession” or a “Great Depression,” but an economic “Great Dying.”
Some historians and economists are studying “fossil capitalism,” suggesting the entire history of swift economic growth results simply from the discovery of the raw power of fossil fuels.
We rage against our leaders when expanding prosperity slows, but when circumstances change, politicians won’t have levers to control the economy.
We’re on a path to 4.5 degrees C by 2100. But 3.7 degrees would produce $551 trillion in damages: total worldwide wealth today is $280 trillion.
(Some good news:) “In 2018, one paper calculated the eventual cost of rapid energy transition, by 2030, to be negative $26 trillion. In other words, rebuilding the energy infrastructure of the world would make us all that much money, compared to a static system, in only a dozen years.
Globally, there are 19 ongoing armed conflicts hot enough to claim at least 1,000 lives every year.
The Marshall Islands archipelago could be rendered uninhabitable by sea-level rise as soon as midcentury.
When things go south, those who are able tend to flee, not always to places ready to welcome them.
The U.N. projects 200 million climate refugees by 2050.
Most wars throughout history have been conflicts over resources, often ignited by resource scarcity, which is what an Earth densely populated and denuded by climate change will yield.
Climate change may unleash as many as a billion migrants on the world by 2050.
Thirty two weeks after the Category 5 storm Andrew hit Florida, 70% of children in high impact areas scored in the moderate to severe range for PTSD—much more that soldiers returning from war.
Heat waves bring …mood disorders, anxiety disorders, dementia.
Estimates for the total global fossil fuel subsidies paid out each year run as high as $5 trillion (p. 170).
STORIES ABOUT THE CLIMATE
“Plastic panic” is a climate red herring. While plastics have a carbon footprint, plastic pollution is simply not a global warming problem.
Scientists have known about climate change for decades, but display “scientific reticence,” not wanting to be accused of “alarmism.” Articles even hinting at the severity of the problem set can be labeled “fatalistic” or derided as “climate porn.”
In the modern age there is a tendency to view large human systems, like the internet or industrial economy, as more unassailable, even more un-intervenable, than natural systems, like climate, that literally enclose us.
OTHER INTERESTING MESSAGES
(P.179) The cryptocurrency Bitcoin now produces as much CO2 each year as a million transatlantic flights. (This is because cryptocurrencies require massive amounts of computing.)
(P. 181) The reverie for carbon capture is a fantasy of industrial absolution—that technology could be almost dreamed into being that could purify the ecological legacy of modernity, even perhaps eliminate its footprint entirely.
(P. 187) We won’t get there through the dietary choices of individuals, but though policy changes. Politics is a moral multiplier (if everyone does something, it changes society). (P. 189) Conscious consumption and wellness are both cop-outs, arising from that basic promise extended by neoliberalism: that consumer choices can be a substitute for political action.
(P. 198) Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, has called the Agricultural Revolution “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.”
(P. 210) You don’t have to get all the way to human extinction or the collapse of civilization for true nihilism and doomsdayism to flourish (and pessimism makes problem solving harder).
(P. 214) “You can’t halfway your way to a solution to a crisis this large.”
(p. 219) All told, the question of how bad things will get is not actually a test of the science; it is a bet on human activity. How much will we do to stall disaster, and how quickly? Those are the only questions that matter.