“The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming,” by David Wallace-Wells, Tim Duggan Books, Penguin Random House, 310 pages, $27.
“The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming” is a compendium of the climate catastrophes that are overtaking the more or less complacent human race.
The book is divided into four parts: Cascades, Elements of Chaos, The Climate Kaleidoscope and The Anthropic Principle. It also comes with an index, acknowledgments and more than 60 pages of notes. The chapters are relatively short, and the delivery is in no-nonsense fashion.
For example, at the beginning of the notes section Wallace-Wells writes: “ … both the fact of global warming (about 1.1 degrees Celsius since humans first began burning fossil fuels) and its mechanism (the greenhouse gases produced by that burning trap heat radiating upward into the planet’s atmosphere) are, at this point, established beyond any shadow of a doubt.”
He is talking about facts. The breathable atmosphere is barely five miles deep. Any farther up than say the top of Mt. Everest at 29,029 feet, and there never was enough oxygen to sustain life.
For purposes of scale, that is about the distance from downtown Walla Walla to College Place and less than the distance to the foothills of the Blue Mountains. We are bottom dwellers in a shallow sea of air.
The book is a judicious mix of historical fact with bad to worst-case scenarios. One million Syrian refugees was sufficient to destabilize Europe. Within 30 years there will be between 150 million and a billion additional refugees.
If nothing is done about the extreme levels of carbon being dumped into our sea of air, there will no longer be any ice to speak of. The ocean will be 270 feet above what we used to think of as sea level. It will become so hot within a thousand miles either side of the equator that human life will be impossible there.
Very little of this was necessary. Dr. James Hansen of NASA delivered his denunciation to Congress in 1988. The major oil companies knew that all this carbon was portending a disaster since the 1970s.
They chose to lie about it rather than do something about it. Half of all the carbon currently in the air has been put there in the last 30 years. Another 30 years of doing little or nothing will move the future from merely grim to apocalyptic. It won’t be necessary to take the author’s or the reviewer’s word for it.
There is plenty of evidence available in Wallace-Wells’ notes and elsewhere.
Newspapers are filled with the almost daily disasters. Hurricanes that nearly obliterate Puerto Rico, New Orleans and the Bahamas; the fire that destroyed Paradise, Calif.
Wherever you are on the climate catastrophe scale, from convinced citizen that the scientists are telling the truth to those who think it is a Chinese hoax, the book will have something new and disturbing to reveal.
Wallace-Wells is optimistic and realistic. “All the relevant inputs are within our control, and there is no mysticism required to interpret or command the fate of the earth. Only an acceptance of responsibility.” He is meeting his responsibility. How do we intend to meet our responsibility?