Straight talk on the severity of the climate threat

Straight talk on the severity of the climate threat

Conservation Northwest / Feb 22, 2019 / Climate Change, Work Updates

A review of the book, The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells


As I reflect on 30 years of work at Conservation Northwest, I feel great pride and empowerment in the amount of success we’ve had in keeping the Northwest wild. We communicate often in that tone of pride, empowerment and continued hope. That’s deliberate. But it’s not lost on me, or on us, that our dream of a Northwest in which natural wildness and human prosperity both thrive rests on a bubble of global forces, most notably climate change. It is difficult to bring the same tone of pride, empowerment and hope to the climate outlook.

I was given the opportunity to read and review an advance copy of The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells, an editor at New York Magazine. The book is an expansion and reformulation of a groundbreaking article he published by that same title in mid-2017. The article, and book, aim to convey not the best climate scenarios, but the more likely and dire ones. Arguably the article broke ground for similarly dire straight talk in subsequent releases from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and others.

If you want comfort, don’t read this book. It’s relentless. But it’s also exceptionally well researched and written. If the news were better, there would be no need for the horror forecast in its pages. Better we should be informed while there are still prospects, diminishing though they are, for collective humanity to avert the worst outcomes. This short, concise book pulls no punches in informing with chapters on heating, hunger, drowning (sea level and flood), wildfire, drought, dying oceans, air pollution, economic collapse, refugees, war, and more. Wallace-Wells reviews policy and technological fixes, granting no quarter for false optimism. I’m reluctant to quote his popping of palliatives, as it’s depressing.

The author lays into culprits while maintaining context. “…a generation from now, oil-backed denial will likely be seen as among the most heinous conspiracies against human health and well-being as have been perpetrated in the modern world. But evilness is not the same as responsibility, and climate denialism has captured just one political party in one country in the world… To believe the fault for global warming lies exclusively with the Republican Party or its fossil fuel backers is a form of American narcissism.”

Despite incredible gains in renewable technologies, such that the cost of solar has dropped 80% in the last decade, “…the proportion of global energy use derived from renewables has not grown an inch… We are now burning 80 percent more coal than we were just in the year 2000.”

But the author is not a fatalist. In fact, while giving ample voice to those who are, he ultimately rejects their views as “a retreat from a world convulsed by spiritual pain toward small, earthly consolations… In that way, it is a performance at grand scale of the more general prophylactic reflex we share, almost all of us, toward suffering – which is to say, simply, an aversion.”

Wallace-Wells argues that the science is clear enough that the only remaining uncertainty is in human action. “Yet to the extent we live today under clouds of uncertainty about climate change, those clouds are projections not of collective ignorance about the natural world but blindness about the human one, and can be dispersed by human action.” The scale of action needed to avert disaster at a scale of civilizational collapse is vast, as he doesn’t flinch from that fact. Nor can any of us.

Reading a book like The Uninhabitable Earth is anything but inspiring. But truth is the essential first step of empowerment. Almost 80 years ago, with London under continual Blitzkrieg, Winston Churchill spoke this to Great Britain: “They know that they have behind them a people who will not flinch or weary of the struggle—hard and protracted though it will be—but that we shall rather draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival…”

Do we, all of humanity, have in us the character to respond sufficiently to keep civilization and nature as we know it alive, and sustain the opportunity for the Northwest to remain wild? There’s no other choice.

The Uninhabitable Earth is now available online. Check out additional reviews from the Associated Press and Vox.

Read more about the intersection of climate change and conservation on our webpage.