You do not need to consider worst-case scenarios to become alarmed.
In normal times, the apocalypse bored me. Any discussion of catastrophic events put me in a mood of defensive skepticism. This was true whether I was considering an asteroid, a supervolcano, or rampant artificial intelligence—events that are so far out of my control that I would immediately dismiss them from my mind. However, the current coronavirus situation prompted me to read a book by epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, which includes a detailed prediction of what the next pandemic could look like. The experience of reading a scientist predicting, with considerable accuracy, what I was living through was profoundly eerie. And as a result, I was prepared to take a book about how climate change will play out a little more seriously
The picture is not rosy. Much like a pandemic, climate change it not localized, but strikes everywhere at once. If a bad hurricane hits one city, we can rush resources to the area. But if we are battered by massive hurricanes, destructive floods, severe droughts, raging wildfires, and deadly heatwaves, in many different parts of a country, over and over again, then we cannot effectively respond. To put it mildly, dealing with ever-escalating natural disasters will take an increasingly severe economic toll—measuring in the hundreds of trillions, by Wallace-Wells’s calculation—and will also put huge pressure on political systems, thus further reducing our ability to respond.
Wallace-Wells paints this coming future in such vividly chilling detail that even the most stoic reader will have an elevated pulse. Indeed, in this future world, the term “natural disaster” will start to lose its meaning, since disasters will be so common as to become simply become “weather,” and they will be, in part, caused by human activity. Millions may be displaced because of rising sea levels, at a time when we face food and freshwater shortages from drought and desertification. This is not a world that any of us would freely choose.
The tone lightens somewhat—from pitch-black to ashen gray—in the third section, where Wallace-Wells shifts from painting the looming threat to making some predictions about how our culture might respond. His conclusion, in a nutshell, is that the scope of the threat is so all-encompassing that we cannot psychologically come to terms with it. For example, many Americans are tempted to blame climate change on Republicans; but this obscures the fact that the Republican party is the only major climate-change denying party in the world, and the United States does not produce the majority of the world’s carbon emissions—not by a long shot.
Other common reactions to the crisis come in for criticism as well. One is to focus on individual behavior, trying to reduce consumption and to purchase the most eco-friendly items possible. But individual choices do not, Wallace-Wells thinks, have the potential to make more than the tiniest difference. For example, though there is much scolding of people, say, watering their lawns during a drought, personal water consumption is only a small fraction of the society’s total. Only large-scale changes in infrastructure can make the difference, and that must come from political pressure.
In both of these above cases, the common thread is the inability of our normal moral circuitry to deal with the problem. We want to tell a story with heroes and villains who are directly responsible through their personal choices for the crisis we are facing. But the reality, as Wallace-Wells says, is that culpability is widely-dispersed and our responsibility is collective, not individual. This goes sharply against the grain of our psychology, which I think partly accounts for our inaction.
One more common reaction is to think that technology will save us. There is, of course, very little evidence for this, and what it amounts to is using a blind faith in timely innovation to justify inaction. At the moment, carbon-capture technology is so inefficient that we would need hundreds of acres of such plants to make a difference. One other option is to start pumping ammonia into the air, in order to make the atmosphere more reflective of sunlight. But of course this would have quite awful effects on the environment and human health. And as Wallace-Wells points out, we have reached quite an odd stage in history when these ideas strike people as more practicable than reducing consumption of fossil fuels—as if the market were a more unbending force than the climate itself.
Advocates have a variety of emotions to choose from if they wish to motivate people—hope, outrage, and fear being the most common. Wallace-Wells leans heavily on fear, which arguably puts this book in the same tradition as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. But is fear the right choice? Certainly Carson was effective; and since Uninhabitable Earth was a #1 best-seller, it seems that Wallace-Wells achieved his goal. However, the challenge of getting rid of pesticides pales to nothingness in comparison with the challenge of reconfiguring our economies, infrastructures, and ways of life. Can fear propel us through this great transition? Personally, I found the tone of the book so bleak that I was exhausted even before reaching the end. But I suppose everyone will react their own way.
Will the COVID-19 pandemic make us more inclined to trust the warnings of scientists? I hope so, though perhaps that is asking too much. And as we collectively recover from the economic downturn, will we use the opportunity to pass something like the Green New Deal? I hope so, too, though I very much doubt it. Indeed, for me, one of the biggest lessons of this pandemic has been that we need not resort to selfish evil as an explanation for climate inaction. Virtually nobody had anything to gain from the pandemic, and it came anyway, catching every Western nation with its proverbial pants down—despite repeated warnings from epidemiologists. Human stupidity, then, is a sufficient explanation for our climate inaction. And, unfortunately, that will be around until the earth truly is uninhabitable.
[I did not scrupulously check for errors, but I still caught two. Well-Wallace says that “1 in 6” people die from air pollution, but the true figure is about 6-7%—still a lot, but much less than 1 in 6. Later on, Wallace-Wells says: “H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, which depicted a distant future in which most humans were enslaved troglodytes, laboring underground for the benefit of a pampered and very small aboveground elite…” But of course this is an incorrect description of the book: most humans are not enslaved, but prey; and they live above ground, while the predators live below. It seems odd to me that he would reference a book that he clearly did not read. I am sure there are more errors lurking about.]
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