The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells is a real bummer. The book begins, “It is worse, much worse than you think,” and everything that follows serves to prove his point that the time to avoid the calamities of climate change has already passed. The chapter titles give a sense of the book’s content and tone: “Heat Death,” “Hunger,” “Drowning,” “Dying Oceans,” “Unbreathable Air,” and “Economic Collapse.” It’s not that Wallace-Wells thinks we should give up. In fact, he argues that we must do everything we can to combat global warming. However, he is insistent that “the world has, at most, about three decades to completely decarbonize before truly devastating climate horrors begin.” In short, the best we can strive for at this point is a really bad outcome rather than complete annihilation.
Climate science doubters will, of course, say that Wallace-Wells is just an alarmist, but they may have trouble explaining away the 65 pages of notes at the end of his book, many of them citations from prestigious scientific journals. The Uninhabitable Earth offers one body blow after another, and even readers who find the book’s argument convincing may feel overwhelmed by the avalanche of bad news, especially in the first two parts. The author clearly isn’t in the business of offering solace.
People in general, and Americans in particular, are averse to truth-telling about climate change, so rather than a clarion call to action, The Uninhabitable Earth will more likely become just another footnote that future generations can refer to when they want yet more evidence of how little we seemed to care about their fate. Indeed, Wallace-Wells sees our emerging tendency to “normalize climate change” as typical of the human inclination to come to terms “with what is just ahead of us, decrying what lies beyond that, and forgetting all that we had ever said about the absolute moral unacceptability of the conditions of the world we are passing through in the present tense, blithely.”