Our Soon to be Uninhabitable Earth
This blog post is a book review of The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells which if you read only one book this year about important topics like climate change, let it be this book.
The title of the book is The Uninhabitable Earth, Life after warming” by David Wallace Wells. It was published in 2019 and judging by the comments, it created quite a furor, both pro and con. The book was preceded by a 7000 word article in New York Magazine on July 10. 2017.
The Uninhabitable Earth is divided into four sections: Cascades, a 36 page overview of global climate change science and possible scenarios. This is a cogent summary of the books contents and the author’s conclusions and is compelling. The next section is Elements of Chaos, which is a specific listing of 12 elements that Wallace –Wells felt needed separate chapter headings. It includes familiar themes of hunger, ocean rise, melting of the icecaps, weather disruptions, wildfires etc. The next major section is The Climate Kaleidoscope which is an excellent overview of cultural and intellectual dynamics underlying global climate change This includes the role of capitalism, technology and conventional Neo Liberal economic philosophy and various myths like the myth of “progress” in human history. It also describes the intellectual and emotional responses of a variety of authors and thinkers to the realities of climate change. I found this section exceedingly interesting because it dealt with people’s responses to the unfolding delamination of the industrial revolution taking place this century.
The final tiny section is called the Anthropic Principle which is an odd section that lays out the possibility that the science might be wrong or exaggerated and what do we as passengers of this Spaceship earth need to do to avert something that may or may not come to pass. It is his summary page but is by no means the end of the book. The next 66 page section is his “Notes” which might be the best section of the book because it is a scientific bibliography and his comments which I would urge the reader not to skip. In this notes section you will be introduced to poets like Robinson Jeffers and “reformed” environmentalists like Paul Kingsnorth with the Dark Mountain Project who have abandoned the environmental protest movements to save the world and who are now born again to try to live in a world in slow collapse while learning to adapt to the civilization that will emerge. Are they quitters? Naive? Or prophets? But I digress……. to the beginning.
“Cascades”, the first section starts with this hook in the first sentence: “It is worse, much worse than you think.” This chapter is the core of the book in my opinion and includes events and facts that are beyond any dispute. Example: There have been 5 mass extinctions and four of the five have come as consequences of green house gas emissions leading to global warming. Only the Cretaceous extinction was a consequence of an asteroid altering the climate. None of these mass extinctions added carbon to the atmosphere at anywhere near the rate humans have been injecting into the atmosphere since the end of WW 2. He says the majority of the carbon dioxide emissions have occurred since the debut of Seinfeld and 85 % of all human emissions have happened since I was born in 1944. David hammers this point home again and again emphasizing that it is the rapidity of these emissions additions that is the crux of the problem and the cause of all the changes being wrought to the world’s climate. He also states that the level of atmospheric Co2 in the air is higher now than it has ever been in the last “ 800,000 years and perhaps the last 20 million years.” That sentence caught me as it did many scientists who have criticized the book. Which is it? 800,000 years or 20 million? Eight hundred millennia is bad enough if true but twenty thousand millennia is way more significant.
The book is laden with a detailed litany of facts and figures and research laying out scenarios and consequences of our fossil fueled assault upon nature and the planet. The one number which has drawn the most attention has been the degree of warming by 2100. This has been estimated by the IPCC(UN International panel on Climate Change) studies most recently in 2018. This is due for an update in 2 years. These reports have been described as the gold standard. They are currently estimating a change of 3.2 deg C by 2100. Because that date is 80 years away both climate change deniers and some prominent climate scientists have questioned the number as too high. A greater number it should be noted have criticized the IPCC as too low! Because of the underlying assumptions of the models, there is no way to know the future. Before starting this post I made an extensive review of scientific comments not only of David’s book and his New York article but of the IPCC studies. I ignored criticisms emitting from most politicians and corporate fossil fuel interests as baseless in most cases due to biased blatant self interest. Most studies have said that anything higher than 2 degrees C will be catastrophic for the planet. Some of the criticisms I read were clearly splitting hairs or quibbling with numbers too abstruse for us non climate scientists. I would urge the reader to concentrate on the facts beyond dispute such as: the planet is warming, emissions are increasing, plants, animals, fish and birds are dying , wildfires are growing, pollution is worsening , people are breeding and virtually nothing is being done to reverse these processes despite meaningless international agreements such as the Kyoto accords or the Paris Agreement.
There have been pledges by some world leaders to be “carbon neutral” by specific dates such as 2050 or 2060. These leaders almost never lay out how that timeline will be reached except by stating bald nonsense that fossil energy will be replaced by “Renewable” energy, by “green” energy, by newer generation nuclear energy plants, by wind and solar, by carbon sequestration, by pie in the sky “geoengineering” projects and other carbon capturing schemes. Nowhere in this tower of babble do we hear of concrete immediate measures which could be enacted right now to curb emissions because change needs to happen RIGHT NOW. The fastest and most effective would be a carbon tax on all fossil sources. This would mean a substantial gas and diesel tax, a tax on electricity from coal and gas and measures to mandate energy reduction measures across the economy such as raising insulation in buildings, mandating strict MPG standards in vehicles etc These measures have been tried and in some cases imposed but just as often rescinded. An attempt to raise the gas tax in France resulted in riots and Green Green Washington State turned down a modest carbon tax proposal in 2018. These are among the facts elucidated in David’s book. Reading about all these good faith protests and proposals is a sorry experience of read it and weep.
David Wallace-Wells near the end of the book actually expresses optimism that measures can be taken to keep global temperature below 2 deg C by 2100 assuming that people will finally wake up to the peril of doing nothing. Doom and gloom books almost always try to end on a hopeful note but this attempt at a happy ending really falls flat after reading the book. I will let the reader draw their own conclusions.
I will now have to levy my own criticism on this book because David left out perhaps the most important fact about global warming and climate change.
I assume he must know and understand the point I am about to make and omitted it because it likely would have torpedoed the publication. Here it is and it is bleak reality. The economy IS ENERGY and Energy, that is FOSSIL ENERGY is the ECONOMY. Remove fossil energy and what do you get? You answer the question. Wind and solar “renewable” will never replace Fossil energy at our current scale despite what Gretta Thunberg and AOC say . I have covered this so called migration to renewables in previous posts and will not bother to recapitulate my reasons. Hop on the gangplank my friend and enjoy your last trip on our fine new ship with a grand name, don’t you think? HMS Titanic. I like the way it rolls on the tongue. ……..
Now for my personal conclusions and predictions with apology to Davis Wallace-Wells . Leslie Gore said it best:” It’s my party and I can cry if I want to…….cry if I want to…cry if I want to…. You would cry too if it happened to you…” This economic industrial growth party will be over when we run out of oil, gas and coal which should happen if we’re lucky before climate Armageddon. It will be only then that we can finally bury the Myth of Progress once and for all. No one in this country at least, is going to give up their F150s and their sprawling suburban paradise because of alarmist climate nonsense. The machine will just keep rolling along until the great derailment. Climate hysteria? Fake news pardner.