BLOCL

The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future

By David Wallace-Wells

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It is worse, much worse, than you think.

I am like every other who has spent their life fatally complacent, and willfully deluded, about climate change, which is not just the biggest threat human life on the planet has ever faced but a threat of an entirely different category and scale. That is, the scale of human life itself.

This is not a book about the science of warming; it is about what warming means to the way we live on this planet.

Climate change is fast, much faster than it seems we have the capacity to recognize and acknowledge; but it is also long, almost longer than we can truly imagine.

At two degrees, the ice sheets will begin their collapse, 400 million more people will suffer from water scarcity, major cities in the equatorial band of the planet will become unlivable, and even in the northern latitudes heat waves will kill thousands each summer. There would be thirty-two times as many extreme heat waves in India, and each would last five times as long, exposing ninety-three times more people. This is our best-case scenario.

At four degrees, river flooding would grow as much as sixtyfold in the United Kingdom.

Even if we pull the planet up short of two degrees by 2100, we will be left with an atmosphere that contains 500 parts per million of carbon—perhaps more. The last time that was the case, sixteen million years ago, the planet was not two degrees warmer; it was somewhere between five and eight.

You might hope to simply reverse climate change; you can’t. It will outrun all of us.

By 2100, the United Nations says, we are due for about 4.5 degrees of warming, following the path we are on today.

The climate system that raised us, and raised everything we now know as human culture and civilization, is now, like a parent, dead.

Climate change isn’t something happening here or there but everywhere, and all at once. And unless we choose to halt it, it will never stop.

The burden of responsibility is too great to be shouldered by a few, however comforting it is to think all that is needed is for a few villains to fall.

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. Now we all share the responsibility.

Warming of 3 or 3.5 degrees would unleash suffering beyond anything that humans have ever experienced through many millennia of strain and strife and all-out war.

The project of unplugging the entire industrial world from fossil fuels is intimidating, and must be done in fairly short order—by 2040, many scientists say.

We have all already left behind the narrow window of environmental conditions that allowed the human animal to evolve in the first place.

What will it mean to live outside that window, probably quite far outside it? That reckoning is the subject of this book.

At four degrees, the deadly European heat wave of 2003, which killed as many as 2,000 people a day, will be a normal summer. Then, it was one of the worst weather events in Continental history, killing 35,000 Europeans.

No intelligent life that we know of ever evolved, anywhere in the universe, outside of the narrow Goldilocks range of temperatures that enclosed all of human evolution, and that we have now left behind, probably permanently.

Climate change appears to be not merely one challenge among many facing a planet already struggling with civil strife and war and horrifying inequality and far too many other insoluble hardships to iterate, but the all-encompassing stage on which all those challenges will be met—a whole sphere, in other words, which literally contains within it all of the world’s future problems and all of its possible solutions.

By 2080, without dramatic reductions in emissions, southern Europe will be in permanent extreme drought, much worse than the American Dust Bowl ever was.

That the sea will become a killer is a given. Barring a reduction of emissions, we could see at least four feet of sea-level rise and possibly eight by the end of the century.

Jakarta is one of the world’s fastest-growing cities, today home to ten million; thanks to flooding and literal sinking, it could be entirely underwater as soon as 2050.

Without flood adaptation measures, large swaths of northern Europe and the whole eastern half of the United States will be affected by at least ten times as many floods.

Never in the earth’s entire recorded history has there been warming at anything like this speed—by one estimate, around ten times faster than at any point in the last 66 million years.

The last time the earth was four degrees warmer there was no ice at either pole and sea level was 260 feet higher. There were palm trees in the Arctic. Better not to think what that means for life at the equator.

In fact, we do know what the endgame for oceans looks like, just not how long it will take us to get there.

Of course, the scariest variable is how quickly that flood will come.

More than 600 million people live within thirty feet of sea level today.

In a four-degree-warmer world, the earth’s ecosystem will boil with so many natural disasters that we will just start calling them “weather”:

Seventy-one percent of the planet is covered in water. Barely more than 2 percent of that water is fresh, and only 1 percent of that water, at most, is accessible.

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

2.1 billion people around the world do not have access to safe drinking water, and 4.5 billion don’t have safely managed water for sanitation.

Half of the world’s population depends on seasonal melt from high-elevation snow and ice, deposits that are dramatically threatened by warming.

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

We’re already racing, as a short-term fix for the world’s drought boom, to drain underground water deposits known as aquifers, but those deposits took millions of years to accumulate and aren’t coming back anytime soon.

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. Half a billion are in places where the shortages never end.

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.

But the result of all that carbon dioxide absorption is what’s called “ocean acidification,” which is exactly what it sounds like.

According to the World Resources Institute, by 2030 ocean warming and acidification will threaten 90 percent of all reefs. Reefs support as much as a quarter of all marine life and supply food and income for half a billion people.

Over the past fifty years, the amount of ocean water with no oxygen at all has quadrupled globally, giving us a total of more than four hundred “dead zones”; oxygen-deprived zones have grown by several million square kilometers, roughly the size of all of Europe.

By the 2090s, as many as 2 billion people globally will be breathing air above the WHO “safe” level.

Already, more than 10,000 people die from air pollution daily. That is considerably more each day—each day—than the total number of people who have ever been affected by the meltdowns of nuclear reactors.

In the developing world, 98 percent of cities are enveloped by air above the threshold of safety established by the WHO.

Get out of urban areas and the problem doesn’t much improve: 95 percent of the world’s population is breathing dangerously polluted air.

Global plastic production is expected to triple by 2050, when there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

There are now, trapped in Arctic ice, diseases that have not circulated in the air for millions of years. 

Which means our immune systems would have no idea how to fight back when those prehistoric plagues emerge from the ice.

The Arctic also stores terrifying diseases from more recent times. In Alaska, researchers have discovered remnants of the 1918 flu that infected as many as 500 million, and killed as many as 50 million.

The murmuring mantra of global markets is that economic growth will save us from anything and everything.

But a number of historians and iconoclastic economists suggest that the entire history of swift economic growth is simply our discovery of fossil fuels and all their raw power—a onetime injection of that new “value”.

For better or for worse, in the countries of the wealthy West we have settled on economic growth as the single best metric, however imperfect, of the health of our societies.

The costs are astronomical already, with single hurricanes now delivering damage in the hundreds of billions of dollars. 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. We are on track for more warming still.

We now know that it will be much, much more expensive to not act on climate than to take even the most aggressive action today.

Already, with the world just one degree warmer, wildfires and heat waves and hurricanes have inundated the news. What will happen at two degrees, or three?

We tend to think of climate as somehow being contained within, or governed by, capitalism. In fact, it is endangered by it. What we conceive as the modern economy is really a system powered by fossil fuels

At present, the economic impacts of climate change are relatively light: in the United States, in 2017, the estimated cost was $306 billion. The heavier impacts await us.

The predictions of economic hardship, remember, are enormous—$551 trillion in damages at just 3.7 degrees of warming, 23 percent of potential global income lost, under business-as-usual conditions, by 2100.

We now know that it will be much, much more expensive to not act on climate than to take even the most aggressive action today.

Already, with the world just one degree warmer, wildfires and heat waves and hurricanes have inundated the news.

What will happen at two degrees, or three?

We tend to think of climate as somehow being contained within, or governed by, capitalism. In fact, it is endangered by it. What we conceive as the modern economy is really a system powered by fossil fuels.

The predictions of economic hardship, remember, are enormous—$551 trillion in damages at just 3.7 degrees of warming, 23 percent of potential global income lost, under business-as-usual conditions, by 2100.

If we allow global warming to proceed, and to punish us with all the ferocity we have fed it, it will be because we have chosen that punishment—collectively walking down a path of suicide.

The system that gave rise to the human species, and to everything we know of as civilization, is so fragile that it has been brought to the brink of total instability by just one generation of human activity.

We know enough to see, even now, that the new world we are stepping into will be so alien from our own, it might as well be another planet entirely.