Saturday, September 7, 2019

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

I've had this book by David Wallace-Wells sitting around for quite some time and read it in spurts. It is well-researched and packed with well-documented facts, but I found that in places there was too much information in relation to what I thought was a slightly disjointed central narrative, and I mostly speed-read it. There are four main sections, and I ended up deciding that only the second section, "Elements of Chaos," was worth reading. That includes twelve chapters covering different aspects of climate change: "Heat Death," "Hunger," "Drowning," "Wildfire," "Disasters No Longer Natural," "Freshwater Drain," "Dying Oceans," "Unbreathable Air," "Plagues of Warming," "Economic Collapse," "Climate Conflict" and "Systems." Consensus is that science can only very roughly predict how much the planet will warm by 2100, and beyond that would be speculative. The U.N. estimates that there will be a warming of 4.5 degrees by 2100 if nothing is done, and the worst-case scenario is 8 degrees. Human intervention may reduce the warming to less than 4.5 degrees. Where I think Wallace-Wells does an excellent job is in conveying the complexity of global warming, which makes it almost incomprehensible to us and perhaps explains why the public has been so slow to catch on. Any of the various elements of global warming could have multiplier effects, making the planet less habitable when combined with other elements. For example, the thawing of permafrost not only releases methane, one of the strongest greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere, but may also release ancient bacteria for which we have no immunity. Such bacteria might be distributed globally at an accelerated rate due to the increase in storm activity. Similarly, stressed populations attempting to escape from drought-stricken regions, wars and storm-destroyed habitats, in addition to PTSD, may be handicapped by high temperatures and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, both of which reduce human cognitive function.

The main point of the book is that extremely dire outcomes for mankind are quite possible in the next eighty years, especially if the problem isn't addressed now. That isn't a very long time at all: my grandson will probably still be alive. I think that Wallace-Wells is somewhat more effective than others at making this point in the way that he piles up fact after fact and creates a sense of immediate danger. Other environmental writers often have circumscribed narratives and limit themselves to, say, a few species extinctions, which in themselves are matters of some concern but have far less impact on the reader. It is more important for readers to know that, within a few decades, anywhere from a few million to a few billion people may die due to climate change, and the complete collapse of civilization is certainly a possibility.

My main complaint about the book is that Wallace-Wells seems to come from a more literary than scientific background, and he doesn't seem comfortable limiting himself to merely describing the most probable outcomes with each incremental degree of increase in global temperature. Although he doesn't follow the familiar formalities of journalism by plodding along with the scientists as they conduct their research, he throws in dozens of peripheral references to popular nonfiction from the last twenty-or-so years and drags in literary quotations that do not, in my opinion, add anything to the text. These references are not explored in enough detail to be of much value and end up seeming like name-dropping. From my point of view, he is a young and talented writer who goes overboard on occasion in attempting to persuade the reader that he is a man of letters who knows all about, not only Enrico Fermi and James Hansen, but also Robinson Jeffers and Lord Byron. I found this sort of thing a little grating, because it didn't really add anything to my understanding and seemed more like a misguided effort by a neophyte to impress – someone other than me.

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