The Uninhabitable Earth

David Wallace-Wells

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This book describes of all the issues that arise from climate change. It's a bit alarmist; but it tackles the research and lays out our problems. If you aren't convinced that we have a problem with our planet, this is a good book to start with.


[In reference to previous mass extinctions] In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs involved climate change produced by greenhouse gas.

And there is already, right now, fully a third more carbon in the atmosphere than at any point in the last 800,000 years—perhaps in as long as 15 million years. There were no humans then. The oceans were more than a hundred feet higher.

More than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades.

The majority of the [carbon] burning has come since the premiere of Seinfeld. Since the end of World War II, the figure is about 85 percent.

Beginning in 2011, about one million Syrian refugees were unleashed on Europe by a civil war inflamed by climate change and drought—and in a very real sense, much of the “populist moment” the entire West is passing through now is the result of panic produced by the shock of those migrants.

The U.N. projections are bleaker: 200 million climate refugees by 2050.

The upper end of the probability curve put forward by the U.N. to estimate the end-of-the-century, business-as-usual scenario—the worst-case outcome of a worst-case emissions path—puts us at eight degrees. At that temperature, humans at the equator and in the tropics would not be able to move around outside without dying.

But all of those paths projected from the present—to two degrees, to three, to four, five, or even eight—will be carved overwhelmingly by what we choose to do now.

3.7 degrees of warming would produce $551 trillion in damages, research suggests; total worldwide wealth is today about $280 trillion.

In the journal Nature Climate Change, a team led by Drew Shindell tried to quantify the suffering that would be avoided if warming was kept to 1.5 degrees, rather than 2 degrees—in other words, how much additional suffering would result from just that additional half-degree of warming. Their answer: 150 million more people would die from air pollution alone in a 2-degree warmer world than in a 1.5-degree warmer one.

Numbers that large can be hard to grasp, but 150 million is the equivalent of twenty-five Holocausts.

It is a very strange argument; if the planet is warming at a terrifying pace and on a horrifying scale, it should transparently concern us more, rather than less, that the warming is beyond our control, possibly even our comprehension.

Five years ago, hardly anyone outside the darkest corners of the internet had even heard of Bitcoin; today mining it consumes more electricity than is generated by all the world’s solar panels combined, which means that in just a few years we’ve assembled, out of distrust of one another and the nations behind “fiat currencies,” a program to wipe out the gains of several long, hard generations of green energy innovation.

Until now, it seems to have been easier for us to empathize with the climate plight of other species than our own, perhaps because we have such a hard time acknowledging or understanding our own responsibility and complicity in the changes now unfolding, and such an easier time evaluating the morally simpler calculus of pure victimhood.

Heat Death

At seven degrees of warming, that would become impossible for portions of the planet’s equatorial band, and especially the tropics, where humidity adds to the problem. And the effect would be fast: after a few hours, a human body would be cooked to death from both inside and out.

Five or six degrees is unlikely by 2100. The IPCC furnishes us with a median prediction of over four degrees, should we continue down the current emissions path.

In the sugarcane region of El Salvador, as much as one-fifth of the population—including over a quarter of the men—has chronic kidney disease, the presumed result of dehydration from working the fields they were able to comfortably harvest as recently as two decades ago.

Three-quarters of a century since global warming was first recognized as a problem, we have made no meaningful adjustment to our production or consumption of energy to account for it and protect ourselves. For far too long, casual climate observers have watched scientists draw pathways to a stable climate and concluded that the world would adapt accordingly; instead, the world has done more or less nothing, as though those pathways would implement themselves.

but if a best-case scenario is now somewhere between 2 and 2.5 degrees of warming by 2100, it seems that the likeliest outcome, the fattest part of the bell curve of probability, sits at about 3 degrees, or just a bit above.


Climates differ and plants vary, but the basic rule of thumb for staple cereal crops grown at optimal temperature is that for every degree of warming, yields decline by 10 percent. Some estimates run higher. Which means that if the planet is five degrees warmer at the end of the century, when projections suggest we may have as many as 50 percent more people to feed, we may also have 50 percent less grain to give them.

It separated the humid—and therefore cultivatable—natural farmland of what became the Midwest from the arid, spectacular, but less farmable land of the true West. The divide ran through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, and stretches south into Mexico and north into Manitoba, Canada, separating more densely populated communities full of large farms from sparser, open land that was never truly made valuable by agriculture. Since just 1980, that boundary has moved fully 140 miles east, almost to the 98th parallel, drying up hundreds of thousands of square miles of farmland in the process.

A state of half-ignorance and half-indifference is a much more pervasive climate sickness than true denial or true fatalism.

By 2080, without dramatic reductions in emissions, southern Europe will be in permanent extreme drought, much worse than the American Dust Bowl ever was. The same will be true in Iraq and Syria and much of the rest of the Middle East; some of the most densely populated parts of Australia, Africa, and South America; and the breadbasket regions of China.

Since 1950, much of the good stuff in the plants we grow—protein, calcium, iron, vitamin C, to name just four—has declined by as much as one-third, a landmark 2004 study showed. Everything is becoming more like junk food. Even the protein content of bee pollen has dropped by a third.


What would be submerged by these floods are not just the homes of those who flee—hundreds of millions of new climate refugees unleashed onto a world incapable, at this point, of accommodating the needs of just a few million—but communities, schools, shopping districts, farmlands, office buildings and high-rises, regional cultures so sprawling that just a few centuries ago we might have remembered them as empires unto themselves, now suddenly underwater museums showcasing the way of life in the one or two centuries when humans, rather than keeping their safe distance, rushed to build up at the coastline.

Even under an “intermediate low” sea-level-rise scenario, by 2100 high-tide flooding could hit the East Coast of the United States “every other day.”

One major concern is methane, particularly the methane that might be released by a melting Arctic, where permafrost contains up to 1.8 trillion tons of carbon, considerably more than is currently suspended in the earth’s atmosphere. When it thaws, some of it will evaporate as methane, which is, depending on how you measure, at least several dozen times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

The one that concerns them more, at present, is what is called the “albedo effect”: ice is white and so reflects sunlight back into space rather than absorbing it; the less ice, the more sunlight is absorbed as global warming; and the total disappearance of that ice, Peter Wadhams has estimated, could mean a massive warming equivalent to the entire last twenty-five years of global carbon emissions.

of the ten years with the most wildfire activity on record, nine have occurred since 2000. Globally, since just 1979, the season has grown by nearly 20 percent, and American wildfires now burn twice as much land as they did as recently as 1970.

When trees die—by natural processes, by fire, at the hands of humans—they release into the atmosphere the carbon stored within them, sometimes for as long as centuries. In this way, they are like coal. Which is why the effect of wildfires on emissions is among the most feared climate feedback loops—that the world’s forests, which have typically been carbon sinks, would become carbon sources, unleashing all that stored gas.

But in 2018, Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil promising to open the rain forest to development—which is to say, deforestation. How much damage can one person do to the planet? A group of Brazilian scientists has estimated that between 2021 and 2030, Bolsonaro’s deforestation would release the equivalent of 13.12 gigatons of carbon. Last year, the United States emitted about 5 gigatons. This means that this one policy would have between two and three times the annual carbon impact of the entire American economy,

Disasters No Longer Natural

Parts of Yosemite National Park were closed, as were parts of Glacier National Park in Montana, where temperatures also topped 100. In 1850, the area had 150 glaciers; today, all but 26 are melted.

The warmer the Arctic, the more intense the blizzards in the northern latitudes—that’s what’s given the American Northeast 2010’s “Snowpocalypse,” 2014’s “Snowmageddon,” and 2016’s “Snowzilla.”

Freshwater Drain

As soon as 2030, global water demand is expected to outstrip supply by 40 percent.

There is no need for a water crisis, in other words, but we have one anyway, and aren’t doing much to address it. Some cities lose more water to leaks than they deliver to homes: even in the United States, leaks and theft account for an estimated loss of 16 percent of freshwater; in Brazil, the estimate is 40 percent.

Overall, according to the United Nations, five billion people could have poor access to freshwater by 2050.

And while agriculture is often hit the hardest by shortages, water issues are not exclusively rural. Fourteen of the world’s twenty biggest cities are currently experiencing water scarcity or drought. Four billion people, it is estimated, already live in regions facing water shortages at least one month each year—that’s about two-thirds of the planet’s population.

Dying Oceans

Along with everything else it does, oceans feed us: globally, seafood accounts for nearly a fifth of all animal protein in the human diet, and in coastal areas it can provide much more.

At present, more than a fourth of the carbon emitted by humans is sucked up by the oceans, which also, in the past fifty years, have absorbed 90 percent of global warming’s excess heat. Half of that heat has been absorbed since 1997, and today’s seas carry at least 15 percent more heat energy than they did in the year 2000—

Unbreathable Air

Our lungs need oxygen, but it is only a fraction of what we breathe, and the fraction tends to decline the more carbon is in the atmosphere. That doesn’t mean we are at risk of suffocation—oxygen is far too abundant for that—but we will nevertheless suffer. With CO2 at 930 parts per million (more than double where we are today), cognitive ability declines by 21 percent.

Since 2013, China has undertaken an unprecedented cleanup of its air, but as of 2015 pollution was still killing more than a million Chinese each year. Globally, one out of six deaths is caused by air pollution.

Microplastics have been found in beer, honey, and sixteen of seventeen tested brands of commercial sea salt, across eight different countries. The more we test, the more we find; and while nobody yet knows the health impact on humans, in the oceans a plastic microbead is said to be one million times more toxic than the water around it. Chances are, if we started slicing open human cadavers to look for microplastics—as we are beginning to do with tau proteins, the supposed markers of CTE and Alzheimer’s—we’d be finding plastic in our own flesh, too.

Rather than sucking carbon out of the atmosphere, we could shoot pollution into the sky on purpose; perhaps the most plausible version involves sulfur dioxide. That would turn our sunsets very red, would bleach the sky, would make more acid rain.

Once we began such a program, we could never stop. Even a brief interruption, a temporary dispersal of our red sulfur umbrella, could send the planet plunging several degrees of warming forward into a climate abyss. Which would make whatever installations were sustaining that umbrella quite vulnerable to political gamesmanship and terrorism, as its advocates themselves would acknowledge. And yet many scientists still describe geoengineering as an inevitability—it’s just so cheap, they say. Even an environmentalist billionaire, going rogue, could make it happen on their own.

Plagues of Warming

There are now, trapped in Arctic ice, diseases that have not circulated in the air for millions of years—in some cases, since before humans were around to encounter them. Which means our immune systems would have no idea how to fight back when those prehistoric plagues emerge from the ice.

As it happens, Zika may also be a good model of a second worrying effect—disease mutation. One reason you hadn’t heard about Zika until recently is that it had been trapped in Uganda and Southeast Asia; another is that it did not, until recently, appear to cause birth defects.

In New England, dead moose calves have been found suckling as many as 90,000 engorged ticks, often killing the calves not through Lyme disease but simple anemia, the effect of that number of bugs each drawing a few milliliters of blood from the moose.

More than 99 percent of even those bacteria inside human bodies are presently unknown to science, which means we are operating in near-total ignorance about the effects climate change might have on the bugs in, for instance, our guts—about how many of the bacteria modern humans have come to rely on, like unseen factory workers, for everything from digesting our food to modulating our anxiety, could be rewired, diminished, or entirely killed off by an additional few degrees of heat.

Economic Collapse

In 1968, the labor historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote, “Whoever says Industrial Revolution, says cotton.” Today, he would probably substitute “fossil fuel.” The timeline of growth is just about perfectly consistent with the burning of those fuels, though doctrinaire economists would argue there is much more to the equation of growth.

In 2018, the World Bank estimated that the current path of carbon emissions would sharply diminish the living conditions of 800 million living throughout South Asia. One hundred million, they say, will be dragged into extreme poverty by climate change just over the next decade.

It may sound like geographic determinism, but Hsiang, Burke, and Miguel have identified an optimal annual average temperature for economic productivity: 13 degrees Celsius, which just so happens to be the historical median for the United States and several other of the world’s biggest economies. Today, the U.S. climate hovers around 13.4 degrees,

Should the planet warm 3.7 degrees, one assessment suggests, climate change damages could total $551 trillion—nearly twice as much wealth as exists in the world today.

Climate Conflict

As is the case with nearly every aspect of climate chaos, meeting the Paris goals will not save us from this bloodshed, in fact far from it; even an astonishing, improbable effort to limit warming to two degrees would still, by this math, result in at least 40 percent, and perhaps as much as 80 percent, more war.

According to one assessment, thirty-two countries—from Haiti to the Philippines and India to Cambodia, each heavily dependent on farming and agriculture—face “extreme risk” of conflict and civil unrest from climate disruptions over the next thirty years.

What accounts for the relationship between climate and conflict? Some of it comes down to agriculture and economics:

A lot has to do with the forced migration that can result from those shocks, and with the political and social instability that migration often produces;

What I call cascades, climate scientists call “systems crises.” These crises are what the American military means when it names climate change a “threat multiplier.”

But according to the U.N. IOM, climate change may unleash as many as a billion migrants on the world by 2050. One billion—that is about as many people as live today in North and South America combined.

An enormous study in Taiwan found that, for every single unit of additional air pollution, the relative risk of Alzheimer’s doubled. Similar patterns have been observed from Ontario to Mexico City.

Six months after the storm, four out of every five teenage survivors from Posoltega suffered from depression; more than half, the study found, compulsively nursed what the authors called, a bit euphemistically, “vengeful thoughts.”

One startling paper by Tamma Carleton has suggested that global warming is already responsible for 59,000 suicides, many of them farmers, in India

You wouldn’t have to do much in rewrites to Independence Day to reboot it as cli-fi. But, in the place of aliens, who would its heroes be fighting against? Ourselves?

When it comes to climate parables, we tend to like best the ones starring animals, who are mute when we do not project our voices onto them, and who are dying, at our own hands—half of them extinct, E. O. Wilson estimates, by 2100.

The scroll of cognitive biases identified by behavioral psychologists and fellow travelers over the last half century is, like a social media feed, apparently infinite, and every single one distorts and distends our perception of a changing climate

Among the most destructive effects that appear later in the behavioral economics library are these: the bystander effect, or our tendency to wait for others to act rather than acting ourselves; confirmation bias, by which we seek evidence for what we already understand to be true, such as the promise that human life will endure, rather than endure the cognitive pain of reconceptualizing our world; the default effect, or tendency to choose the present option over alternatives, which is related to the status quo bias, or preference for things as they are, however bad that is, and to the endowment effect, or instinct to demand more to give up something we have than we actually value it (or had paid to acquire or establish it). We have an illusion of control, the behavioral economists tell us, and also suffer from overconfidence and an optimism bias. We also have a pessimism bias, not that it compensates—instead it pushes us to see challenges as predetermined defeats and to hear alarm, perhaps especially on climate, as cries of fatalism.

This was probably always less credible as a truth claim than it was as propaganda, and, as the Great Recession and the deeply unequal recovery that followed showed unmistakably, income gains in the world’s advanced capitalistic countries have gone, for several decades now, almost entirely to the very wealthiest.

The carbon capture path, which would blanket the planet in anti-industrial plants out of a cyberpunk dream, seems, by contrast, more inviting. To begin with, we already have the technology, though it is expensive. The devices, Wallace Smith Broecker is fond of saying, have about the same mechanical complexity as a car, and cost about as much—roughly $30,000 each.

This would merely buy us some time—at a cost of $30 trillion, or about 40 percent of global GDP.

To reduce the level of carbon by 20 parts per million per year, he calculates, would require 1 billion of them. This would immediately pull us back from the threshold, even buy us some more time of carbon growth—which is an argument you hear against it from some corners of the environmental Left. But it would cost, you may already have calculated, $300 trillion—or nearly four times total global GDP.

The Church of Technology

Another way of looking at it is that the world’s futurists have come to regard technology as a superstructure within which all other problems, and their solutions, are contained. From that perspective, the only threat to technology must come from technology, which is perhaps why so many in Silicon Valley seem less concerned with runaway climate change than they are with runaway artificial intelligence: the only fearsome power they are likely to take seriously is the one they themselves have unleashed.

Climate change does threaten the very basis of life on this planet, but a dramatically degraded environment here will still be much, much closer to livability than anything we might be able to hack out of the dry red soil of Mars. Even in summer, at the equator of that planet, nighttime temperatures are a hundred degrees Fahrenheit below zero; there is no water on its surface, and no plant life.

The same can be said, believe it or not, for the much-heralded green energy “revolution,” which has yielded productivity gains in energy and cost reductions far beyond the predictions of even the most doe-eyed optimists, and yet has not even bent the curve of carbon emissions downward.

Over the last twenty-five years, the cost per unit of renewable energy has fallen so far that you can hardly measure the price, today, using the same scales (since just 2009, for instance, solar energy costs have fallen more than 80 percent). Over the same twenty-five years, the proportion of global energy use derived from renewables has not grown an inch. Solar isn’t eating away at fossil fuel use, in other words, even slowly; it’s just buttressing it. To the market, this is growth; to human civilization, it is almost suicide. We are now burning 80 percent more coal than we were just in the year 2000.

Not to mention, say, our diets or our taste for Bitcoin. The cryptocurrency now produces as much CO2 each year as a million transatlantic flights.

If we had started global decarbonization in 2000, when Al Gore narrowly lost election to the American presidency, we would have had to cut emissions by only about 3 percent per year to stay safely under two degrees of warming. If we start today, when global emissions are still growing, the necessary rate is 10 percent. If we delay another decade, it will require us to cut emissions by 30 percent each year.

If the world’s most conspicuous emitters, the top 10 percent, reduced their emissions to only the E.U. average, total global emissions would fall by 35 percent. We won’t get there through the dietary choices of individuals, but through policy changes. In an age of personal politics, hypocrisy can look like a cardinal sin; but it can also articulate a public aspiration. Eating organic is nice, in other words, but if your goal is to save the climate your vote is much more important. Politics is a moral multiplier.

But on the matter of climate change, China does hold nearly all the cards. To the extent the world as a whole needs a stable climate to endure or thrive, its fate will be determined much more by the carbon trajectories of the developing world than by the course of the United States and Europe, where emissions have already flattened out and will likely begin their decline soon—though how dramatic a decline, and how soon, is very much up in the air.

The central exposition is this: society is and always has been bound together by collective fictions, no less now than in earlier eras, with values like progress and rationality taking the place once held by religion and superstition.

No human has ever lived on a planet as hot as this one; it will get hotter. In talking about that near future, several climate scientists I spoke with proposed global warming as a Fermi solution. The natural lifespan of a civilization may only be several thousand years long, and the lifespan of an industrial civilization conceivably only several hundred. In a universe that is many billions of years old, with star systems separated as much by time as by space, civilizations might emerge and develop and then burn themselves up simply too fast to ever find one another.

If this strikes you as tragic, which it should, consider that we have all the tools we need, today, to stop it all: a carbon tax and the political apparatus to aggressively phase out dirty energy; a new approach to agricultural practices and a shift away from beef and dairy in the global diet; and public investment in green energy and carbon capture.

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