The day I concluded reading The Uninhabitable Earth coincided with the news that Verkhoyansk, Russia, north of the Arctic Circle, had recorded its highest temperature ever – 38C (100.4F). Another stark sign that climate change warnings have been surpassed by climate reality.
Not only is Wallace-Wells’s book timely, it’s replete with climate science written in a friendly journalistic style, expanding upon and updating what we have all been hearing about for years now. What will make this book stand out from the rest in the popular science subgenre of environmental disaster tomes is its self-awareness. A key moment follows some 100-plus pages, describing where the earth is now and the likely catastrophes ahead, with these brilliant lines:
‘IF YOU HAVE MADE IT THIS FAR, YOU ARE A BRAVE READER. Any one of these [past] twelve chapters contains, by rights, enough horror to induce a panic attack in even the most optimistic of those considering it.’
From there on out, the book addresses why humans have done so little. Wallace-Wells is good at summing up the political explanations with the added narrative here and there, charting corporate and government collusion and how the economic arguments against green technologies are no longer debateable as the economic cost of climate change is being realised.
Another reason why we humans have done so little given the size and gravity of the climate crisis can be found in those hidden areas of infrastructure projects being untaken across the world. Wallace-Wells gives the example of the production of concrete. At first appearance it’s benign, part of the building of much needed homes or part of the urbanising and creating in areas where farming is no longer feasible. Concrete manufacturing is ‘the second most carbon-intensive industry in the world.’ This point is followed by the mind-numbing statistic that China has poured more concrete in the past year than the US used in the entire twentieth century.
The flipside of this – knowledge of the damage being done and how much worse life on earth is going to get – also freezes us into inaction. Bleak scenarios are hard to process. I have written in this blog before about solution aversion and how it has contributed to climate change denial, but Wallace-Wells goes beyond this by stepping into the psyche of the average person. Put simply, most of us don’t want to appear pessimistic. I know – I have been offended in the past by being called a pessimist, when I felt I was firmly in the realist camp. And then there are those who acknowledge climate change and relish the idea of the end of the earth is approaching fast. Luckily for us realists, Wallace-Wells battles with these ‘doomsters’, pointing to their inaccurate predictions and use of folk science. With that, Wallace-Wells does give the reader some hope for the future, but clearly if and only if we do something about it.
The psychological turn and look at human nature reminds me of Robert Frost’s famous poem, which speculated on how the earth would end – by fire or by ice. While it is easy to see the literal parallels with the climate crisis, the emotional interpretation of Frost’s poem – destruction by hate or obsession – holds here as well, and The Uninhabitable Earth is a worthy reminder.