It is worse, much worse, than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions: that global warming is an Arctic saga, unfolding remotely; that it is strictly a matter of sea level and coastlines, not an enveloping crisis sparing no place and leaving no life undeformed; that it is a crisis of the “natural” world, not the human one; that those two are distinct, and that we live today somehow outside or beyond or at the very least defended against nature, not inescapably within and literally overwhelmed by it; that wealth can be a shield against the ravages of warming; that the burning of fossil fuels is the price of continued economic growth; that growth, and the technology it produces, will allow us to engineer our way out of environmental disaster; that there is any analogue to the scale or scope of this threat, in the long span of human history, that might give us confidence in staring it down.
None of this is true.
David Wallace-Wells, THE UNINHABITABLE EARTH: Life After Warming (Tim Duggan Books, Feb 2019)
Thus opens this book of 228 pages of text sourced by 65 pages of notes and references. It’s remorseless, in much the same way Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth was back in 1982 about the consequences of nuclear war. Which is appropriate; the two threats are equally dire.
The first section of some 35 pages summarizes the situation. A second section lists the various ways global warming will affect the environment – the many ways beyond rising sea levels. Two final sections I’ll cover in a future post.
- Opening lines above.
- Of the five mass extinctions in history, one was due to an asteroid, the others due to climate change.
- Half of the carbon in the atmosphere is from just the last three decades –the course of a lifetime.
- Author is not an environmentalist himself, but a journalist, who’s been collecting climate change stories for several years. (Thus the 65 pages at the end.)
- There is almost no chance we will avoid this. The treaties have accomplished nothing.
- This book isn’t about the science of warming—though it’s briefly summarized, p11—but about how it affects how we live on this planet.
- Most projections go out to the year 2100, by convention, but the following century will be much worse. Huge areas of the Earth will become uninhabitable.
- Huge storms, heat waves, wildfires, floods, are already happening.
- “We have already exited the state of environmental conditions that allowed the human animal to evolve in the first place.” P18.8 [[ This is a profound observation. ]]
- International treaties have been formed, but national interests are unbuilding them. [[ e.g. recently Manchin and the coal industry, and the interest in Russia’s oil reserves that drives some countries not to be critical of its invasion of Ukraine. ]]
- Fossil capitalism has lasted, can last, only a few centuries.
- Skeptics react by denying the problem. But we are in charge. “Each of us imposes some suffering on our future selves every time we flip on a light switch, buy a plane ticket, or fail to vote.” (p30-31)
- Yet the author is optimistic: we can avoid the worst. We may yet conjure solutions. Is it moral to have children now? Don’t surrender. Do what you can. What cause is there for hope? We can stop destroying the world. Get off fossil fuels, by 2040. Correct inefficiencies and unused food and products. Eliminate the bitcoin footprint. Don’t succumb to climate nihilism.
- We can avoid annihilation. We have to move from the Western idea of conquering the earth, to that of a culture growing like mold. We already have growing political nihilism, especially theological violence in the Middle East. The window has closed on “everything we remember as history, and value as progress, and study as politics” 35.3.
Global warming has improbably compressed into two generations the entire story of human civilization. First, the project of remaking the planet so that it is undeniably ours, a project who exhaust, the poison of emissions, now casually works its way through millennia of ice so quickly you can see the melt with a naked eye, destroying the environmental conditions that have held stable and steadily governed for literally all of human history. That has been the work of a single generation. The second generation faces a very different task: the project of preserving our collective future, forestalling that devastation and engineering an alternate path. There is simply no analogy to draw on, outside of mythology and theology—and perhaps the Cold War prospect of mutually assured destruction.
Part II: Elements of Chaos
- Heat Death. Humans like all mammals are heat engines. Heat waves are increasing. At 7d warming, survival will be impossible in portions of the equatorial zone. Worst in the poorest nations. The likeliest outcome is 3d warming by 2100. (But the following century will be worse.)
- Hunger. For every degree of warming, crop yields decline 10%. New areas for growing won’t offset regions already past their peaks. Despite Malthus and Ehrlich, poverty and undernourishment have fallen substantially. But it’s about the environment’s ‘carrying capacity.’ Greenpeace suggests reducing meat and dairy consumption in half by 2050; likely impossible. There are vanguard technologies—but GMO resistance is strong.
- Drowning. We could see sea level rise by 4 to 8 feet by 2100. We’ve gotten used to the idea. Hundreds of millions will be affected, and the infrastructure of the internet. Two thirds of the world’s major cities are on coasts. Inland rivers will flood too. Long-term projections put sea-level rise at 50 meteres. Today, more than 600 million people live within 30 feet of sea level.
- Wildfire. They’ve become common, e.g. in Southern California, for decades. But they are getting worse by the year. And in Greece, Sweden, even Greenland. The season has become year-found. People die of wildfire smoke, too. Yet Brazil’s Bolsonaro lets the Amazon be developed. Even worse is China.
- Disasters No Longer Natural. Natural disasters are becoming “weather.” Outliers will become commonplace. Thunderstorms have increased. We are still building in the paths of hurricanes and tornadoes. Yet, if people leave rather than rebuild, where do they go?
- Freshwater Drain. Only 2% of Earth’s water is fresh, and only 1% of that is accessible – the rest is in glaciers. Lakes are drying up, we’re draining the aquifers. Demand for fresh water will increase, supply will shrink. Water issues have caused armed conflicts throughout history.
- Dying Oceans. Oceans are the planet’s predominant environment, covering 70% of Earth’s surface. Now, fish populations are migrating, the oceans are acidifying, the corals are bleaching. Dead zones with no oxygen are increasing. The Gulf Stream is slowing.
- Unbreathable Air. The more CO2 in the air, the less oxygen. Cognitive ability declines. Already, 10,000 people die from air pollution *every day*. Now we have microplastics, and the Great Pacific garbage patch. Making plastics produces pollutants; when they degrade, they produce methane and ethylene. And yet, aerosol pollution reflects sunlight and reduces warming; a devil’s bargain.
- Plagues of Warming. See quote page 109 below. As concerning is that existing scourges are easily spread by globalization and travel. Global warming will scramble ecosystems. Mosquitoes will travel farther. Yellow fever has reached big cities. Diseases have spread to countries that never saw them before. Example of the saiga, an antelope-like creature, where 2/3 of its global population died in a span of days, due to a single exotic bacteria.
(pause for today – will finish tomorrow or the next.)
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 prehistorical plagues emerge from the ice.
(This sources my comments a while back about how COVID could be such a disease, in principle.)