“No news is good news,” the axiom has it. In the case of climate change reporting, the opposite holds. At least since the late 1980s, when the NASA scientist James Hansen testified to Congress about the looming threat of catastrophic anthropogenic warming, scary news of climate change has been systematically suppressed. The reasons for this have run the gamut from scientists’ deeply inculcated aversion to appearing emotional, to citizens’ feelings of political impotence, to the fossil fuel industry’s fears that their unimaginably lucrative business model might be even the slightest bit disturbed. From our houses to our food supply to the planes, trains, and automobiles we have long taken for granted, the world as we know it has been made possible by fossil fuels. Every single one of us, at least in the US, which is responsible for nearly a third of world-historical emissions, has a stake in not thinking too hard about the causes and trajectories of unchecked global warming.
Which explains why David Wallace-Wells’s new book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, reads at once as an innovative look at manmade climate change and also as old news. As Wallace-Wells himself states at points, not much in his book is new. Even the scariest near-term predictions and assessments, like the possibility that “should the planet warm 3.7 degrees . . . climate change damages could total $551 trillion—nearly twice as much wealth as exists in the world today,” or that, at the upper end of temperature predictions for the end of this century, “humans at the equator and in the tropics would not be able to move around without dying,” have been accessible to the general public online or in academic articles. What is new is the candor of the narrative and relative impassivity with which Wallace-Wells, a career journalist, elucidates the distressing implications of the facts that he reports.
The book is divided into four compact sections (the whole book minus extensive endnotes runs only 228 pages), each framed by a vivid metaphor or theme. The first section, “Cascades,” imagines the climate crisis as a series of dynamic and overlapping physical processes—release of CO2 and other compounds, shifts in weather, et cetera—that are then overlaid onto stories of humanity. “This is not a book about the science of warming,” Wallace-Wells clarifies early on. “It is about what warming means to the way we live on this planet.” This section serves as both a traditional journalistic introduction and an existential onslaught, which feels like one of the few honest forms of accounting of the costs, both tangible and metaphorical, of global warming.
The second section, titled “Elements of Chaos,” funnels the opening “cascade” into narrower chapters with headers like “Hunger,” “Dying Oceans,” and “Plagues of Warming.” Whereas even the willfully climate amnesiac among us will have retained news of melting icebergs and starving polar bears, Wallace-Wells makes it impossible to isolate this, the most removed of warming’s threats. Rather, like an apocalyptic lawyer, he expertly lays out the case that no single human on this earth, whatever their gender, nationality, color, class, or age, will be untouched by some physical, economic, or other systemic ramification of future warming. “If you have made it this far,” he writes toward the end of “Elements of Chaos” and a little over halfway through the book,
you are a brave reader. Any one of these twelve chapters contains, by rights, enough horror to induce a panic attack in even the most optimistic of those considering it. But you are not merely considering it; you are about to embark on living it. In many cases, in many places, we already are.
In the third section, “The Climate Kaleidoscope,” Wallace-Wells re-combines the threats he has examined to this juncture, but this time from the human point of view, which, he explains, is impossible to do head-on. “We can be mesmerized by the threat directly in front of us without ever perceiving it clearly,” he explains, describing the section’s eponymous “kaleidoscope.” Because this leg of the book is epistemological in nature, assessing the cultural implications of accelerating climate change, it is the most vulnerable to accusations of hyperbole or bias. And yet Wallace-Wells remains hard to reproach. Even in a section that parses such potentially polarizing topics as “crisis capitalism” and “ethics at the end of the world,” the approach is decidedly expository. Wallace-Wells addresses this stylistic method directly in a passage that concerns scientists, but could describe professional journalists just as well. “For decades now,” he reports,
there have been few things with a worse reputation than “alarmism” among those studying climate change. For a concerned class, this was somewhat strange; you don’t typically hear from public health experts about the need for circumspection in describing the risks of carcinogens, for instance. James Hansen, who first testified before Congress about global warming in 1988, has named the phenomenon “scientific reticence,” and in 2007 chastised his colleagues for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat really was. That tendency has metastasized over time, ironically as the news from research grew bleaker, so that for a long time each major publication would be attended by a cloud of commentary debating its precise calibration of perspective and tone—with many of those articles seen to lack an even balance between bad news and optimism, and labeled “fatalistic.” Some were derided as “climate porn.”
Wallace-Wells speaks from personal experience. When the article upon which this book was based first appeared, in 2017, “Climate Twitter” exploded into a veritable storm of exactly such recriminations in real time. Years and decades of scientific and journalistic reticence had been so carefully erected and maintained only to be demolished in a few dramatic days as Wallace-Wells’s “alarmist” but manifestly professional take on global warming went viral, more read than any other article in the history of New York Magazine. Several more formal debates followed, some with scientists; others with commentators who articulated their objections in writing. Though The Uninhabitable Earth is certainly recognizable as the book one would expect to come out of the magazine article, Wallace-Wells has either incorporated or directly engaged with many of the critiques of the original piece. More clarity about what is informed speculation versus established fact; direct consideration of the part that ideological and economic systems play in the production of emissions; and a meta-analysis of the pros and cons of an alarmist communications approach—all have been at least addressed in the book-length publication.
In his academic research book, Who Speaks for the Climate?: Making Sense of Media Reporting on Climate Change, published in 2011, Maxwell T. Boycoff does the work of charting the ebbs and flows of climate change coverage in a selection of media formats in an array of countries primarily starting in the year 2000. What he finds is a mismatch between the conventions of traditional journalism, particularly daily beat reporting, and the nature of climate change itself, which is long-term, systemic, and difficult to narrate using traditional storytelling techniques. The workaround, it becomes clear from looking at his legible charts, is the fabrication of traditional news pegs. Scientific reports, gatherings of bureaucrats, and even the occasional protest become stand-ins for more traditionally newsworthy “events.” The result is a spiking of climate coverage around contrived ledes such as Conferences of the Parties (Kyoto, Copenhagen) and the introduction of abstract legislation (cap and trade). The “news” of climate change has therefore preserved the conventions and tropes of traditional journalism at the expense of the accuracy of climate change reporting itself.
What has typically been a major weakness of climate change journalism, however, Wallace-Wells here turns into a strength: interviews with scientists, IPCC reports, UN projections—Wallace-Wells throws all of these and so much more into the story, creating a dense assemblage of topical and at times even speculative information that, when taken as a whole and in book form, creates an overarching narrative that is not only vivid but that is finally truthful in its scariness. Wallace-Wells himself acknowledges the difficulty of merely telling the whole truth when it comes to climate, particularly in cloistered professional subcultures with a stake in being right. In the final section in his book, titled “The Anthropic Principle,” he leads with a description of the constitutional risk-aversion of scientists (just as applicable to journalists, I would argue) and their extreme reluctance to be wrong. “No one wants to see disaster coming,” he writes,
but those who look, do. Climate science has arrived at this terrifying conclusion not casually, and not with glee, but by systematically ruling out every alternative explanation for observed warming—even though that observed warming is more or less precisely what would be expected given only the rudimentary understanding of the greenhouse effect advanced by John Tyndall and Eunice Foote in the 1850s. . . . What we are left with is a set of predictions that can appear falsifiable. . . . But, all told, the question of how bad things will get is not actually a test of the science; it is a bet on human activity. How much will we do to stall disaster, and how quickly?
If there is one obvious bias in Wallace-Wells’s narrative, it is not his belief that global warming might cost us more in the near future than the entire GDP of the world now or that whole countries will become uninhabitable and much sooner than we think. It is rather, as the title of the final section of the book suggests, his belief in the power and dominion of humanity, at least when it comes to our technological prowess. Early on he makes it clear he does not consider himself an environmentalist, has always been open to trade-offs between economic growth and the health of some ecosystems, and believes humans hold a special place on the natural order of things. So it should not be surprising that, in surveying the evidence for and implications of global climate change, he seems most drawn to technocratic solutions, particularly carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), a nascent carbon removal technology not yet proven at scale. He seems both wary and weary of such existing social “solutions” as international diplomacy and organized activism. On the one hand, who can blame him? Years and decades of high-level diplomatic negotiations and protests like those of at the Keystone Pipeline and at Standing Rock, for all of their gravity and laudable passion, have done little to roll back the tide on our GHG emissions in any material way. On the other, most diplomacy has taken place under an aegis in which major countries, particularly the US, have been unwilling to commit to international agreements with teeth. Meanwhile, the global climate movement has for much of this time been nascent, not yet strong enough to force the issue. Though Wallace-Wells does not outright dismiss the possibility that concerted social or political approaches might yet prove effective, he does seem, whether consciously or not, to discount it.
The cliché often invoked when speaking about humanity’s psychological relationship to climate change is that of the frog in the pot of boiling water: it does not realize it’s boiling until it’s all but cooked. In the case of Wallace-Wells’s truly courageous and excellent book, however, I found myself thinking about a different sort of frog: this one from Mark Twain’s satirical (and possibly apocryphal) expression, much invoked in our current era of self-optimization, that “if it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” Wallace-Wells’s book, which has brilliantly overcome the structural biases of both journalistic and scientific communication, describes in vivid detail a gargantuan and perhaps impossible to ingest climate frog. It should be self-evident but somehow has not been that we won’t be successful in addressing the problem of anthropogenic global warming in any meaningful away until we finally put that monstrous thing in our mouths.
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