That story is about climate change. Journalist and author Wallace-Wells intends to shock us out of climate complacency by presenting the disturbing reality of what is happening to our planet inThe Uninhabitable Earth, an expansion of the ominous article he wrote for New York Magazine in 2017 and one of the first examples of climate change journalism ever to go viral.
Wallace-Wells suggests that at 2C of warming (our absolute best-case scenario, this century) we will see the ice sheets begin to collapse, global GDP plummeting by 13%, and many of the planet’s major equatorial cities becoming deadly hot and unliveable. At 8C of warming — not a nightmarish fantasy, but the upper end of what the UN believes is possible by 2100 — two-thirds of the world’s cities would be under water. As things stand we’re set for devastating droughts, mass movement by climate refugees and, very possibly, an increase in violence and conflict catalysed by climate change.
The article’s terrifying sentiment is echoed and amplified in his new book. He writes: ‘We are now haphazardly improvising between two hellish poles, in which our best-case outcome is death and suffering at a scale of 25 holocausts, and the worst-case outcome puts us on the brink of extinction.’
With such dramatic rhetoric, The Uninhabitable Earth could stir as much controversy as that 2017 piece, which was criticised by the more cautious commentators for being too extreme, doom-mongering and frightening. But for Wallace-Wells, who cuts a calm, polite and amicable — if, understandably, rather sombre — figure, a certain level of alarmism is essential to galvanise people to action.
‘I wrote it as a storyteller,’ he explains. ‘There’s a culture of caution in the way that scientists talk about climate change. I thought if we could break that taboo a bit, and peek into the scarier half of the bell curve of possibility, there would likely be a real audience for that. I wanted to tell a new kind of climate story, to reach a new kind of climate reader, and to mobilise them in a new way that is unafraid of using fear and alarm – which I knew, personally had really motivated me.’
With the conversation around climate change becoming more alarmist in the last few years The Uninhabitable Earth may have arrived at the perfect moment. In their major recent report, for example, The IPCC – hailed as the gold standard on climate change and known for relative conservatism – urged ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,’ to avoid total catastrophe by 2030.
But what about personal action? Wallace-Wells admits he’s feeling a little bit guilty about flying these days – against his better judgement. The author, who has a child, travels by plane a few times a year and describes himself as a ‘guiltless meat eater,’ believes that personal liability for climate change is something of an illusion.
‘I think the instinct among many well-to-do liberals in the West to focus on consumption and their own choices is a bit of a red herring,’ he says. ‘The more important thing is to organise political movements around those priorities. For instance, making sure agricultural practices are transformed by public policy so they are less carbon intensive. We need to lobby politicians, we need to change how we vote. That said, I think everybody should live as they want to live, and if it makes them feel more comfortable to live honourably with regard to climate, they should do that.’
It’s hard not to query this idea; we’re raised, after all, to believe that if enough people do their small bit to help, it can change the world. ‘Even if it becomes a mass movement, unless it’s scaled and formalised into policy it just doesn’t add up to enough,’ says Wallace-Wells. ‘But it’s fascinating to watch from a sociological perspective, which is one of the things I’m trying to do in this book – how comforting it is for people, to believe that their own individual choices really matter.’
So what is going to save us? While green energy use has radically expanded across the globe, proportionally we have made little progress, due to expanding demand. For Wallace-Wells, our biggest hope lies in developing carbon capture technology, and international collaboration on an unprecedented scale. ‘I think basically the math now is that if you want to believe we can avoid true climate catastrophe, you have to believe that in some way we can take carbon out of the atmosphere,’ he says.
As Wallace-Wells outlines, climate change disproportionately devastates the developing world, and will continue to do so, with India set to be hit the hardest of any country on earth. But the West is no longer immune to the fallout – and in fact, the US is predicted to be the second-worst affected location. Last year’s California wildfire season was the deadliest and most destructive on record, burning nearly 2 million acres of land. Nevertheless, says Wallace-Wells, there could be 64 times more wildfires every year in California by the end of a century – an unfathomable number to most, like so many of the figures around climate change.
For Wallace-Wells, it’s obvious why a younger generation — such as Swedish schoolgirl activist Greta Thunberg, who recently went on school strike following the country’s hottest summer ever — are so much more enraged and engaged about climate change. Thunberg has sparked student copycat protests across the globe, with over 12,500 young Belgians boycotting school lately.
‘The direct explanation is that they know they’re going to have to deal with this,’ he says. ‘And the people who are in charge, most of them, are not. In a twisted way, climate change is almost helping there, because the impact has become so clear. The forest fires, for example, are just so visceral, so immediate. Globally we’re seeing more and more of these impacts, in real time, and realising they could affect people we love. That’s going to change people’s priorities. It’s the job of our generation, and the generation of our children, to make sure that human life does last.’
What makes The Uninhabitable Earth unique is the way in which Wallace-Wells goes beyond the science of climate change, exploring the seismic geopolitical and ideological shifts which global warming might well shape. Thrilling, chilling and sometimes almost audacious in its approach, it paints a picture of a future where climate change will be, not just a terrifying physical reality, but the hallmark of an entire human epoch.
‘Geopolitics in an age of climate catastrophe is really different to [geopolitics] in an age of neoliberalism,’ he says. ‘I do feel that climate change, if we do not stop it quickly, could prove as total a system as modernity. We could look back on the 21st century (or the 22nd, which has been called the Century Of Hell) as The Age of Climate Change.’
For Wallace-Wells, climate change could transform everything, from the most trivial details of our daily lives to the profound ways in which we understand our human existence. ‘Climate change will be the driving force behind the politics we practice, the way we eat, what kind of jobs we think are valuable and who the villains and heroes are in our culture,’ he says. ‘But it will also put into question – what is the meaning of human existence? What are we doing? Are we a suicidal species, or are we a regenerative and resilient one?’ Climate change could shake up and shatter the fundamental, overarching thought systems which order our societies.
‘I’m a child of the 1990s, post-Cold War,’ he says. ‘I used to think the progress of history was erratic, but that it moved, in general, towards prosperity and peace and justice. Now? Well, I don’t know if history even has direction. How crazy is it that climate change could change our collective cultural perspective on the shape of history? If it comes to be the case that fossil fuel driven industry has wrecked the lives of, possibly, billions of people, how will that change the way we feel about industry? About Capitalism?’
While his book is, undeniably, heavy-hearted, for Wallace-Wells there is also something ‘exhilarating’ about the whole subject. ‘It does feel like we’re just breaking ground on the story of our lifetime, and maybe even all human life,’ he says. ‘Not to get too grand about it.’
There’s no doubt that The Uninhabitable Earth is a shattering read. So how does the author, burdened with this kind of knowledge, manage to go about his day to day life?
‘The answer is that I live like the rest of the liberal West, which is to say, in delusion and compartmentalisation,’ he states, with a half-smile. ‘But the book has actually been really helpful, in that it gave me something to do with the information. I do know that a lot of people, who’ve worked on this a lot longer than I have, really do go through dark nights of the soul pretty often.’
Nevertheless, Wallace-Wells ultimately describes himself — perhaps unexpectedly — as an optimist. He’s a true believer in the human race, and our capacity to endure. ‘There’s no other option but to keep going,’ he says. ‘No matter how bad it gets, there will always be a better outcome to fight for.’
That said, he remains terrified. ‘There’s a lot of suffering in store, some inevitable, some likely. Even in an absolute best-case scenario, we’ll be looking back on the last few decades and be horrified and ashamed of how little we did,’ he says.
‘Because if we rise by 2, or 2.5C, then the word the IPCC keeps using is “catastrophic”,’ he adds. (By 2100, according to the IPCC, we are due for around 4.3C of warming.) ‘You’re talking about the total breakdown of society, in much of the equatorial world. Even for quite a privileged person, living in Copenhagen, or wherever, the emotional experience of living in a world on fire will just be so horrible.’
While petrifying, The Uninhabitable Earth is a call to arms, not a horror story. There are things we can do, and do them we must. ‘Everybody can vote, everybody can organise,’ says Wallace-Wells, offering a glimmer of hope: ‘you needn’t feel paralysed by the news, completely horrifying as it is. You can also feel empowered.’