05 March 2019

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

I've now heard two interviews with David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming. (Ezra Klein and Chris Hayes's Why is this Happening? podcasts). Not cheery. Terrifying. We are on the very cusp of the rest of the century, during which the Climate Catastrophe will impinge on every facet of our lives, and, if we fail to act very soon, will make life very very nasty for hundreds of millions before those who come after us will have been forced to take real action to make the Earth livable. And no one will be immune. It's become increasingly clear that we're not just talking about sea level rise. The consequences of the Climate Catastrophe will have mostly very negative effects, and they will affect every human being on Earth to some degree, and be devastating or even fatal for a huge number. And some of that effect is already unavoidable.

Here's an eye opener, which I admit I did not know. Since Al Gore wrote his first book, 30 years ago, in other words, SINCE we as a species knew what we were doing to our planet, more than half the fossil carbon ever emitted into the atmosphere has been emitted. In 1989 the climate was still stable (relatively), and a forthright and serious effort to address the problem would have been quite feasible. Now, the UN goal of keeping warming under 2° C by 2100 is all but impossible, and that means severe economic and physical disruption is unavoidable. And no one talks about going beyond 2° ... or what happens after 2100. The consequences of continuing to do nothing will be literally fatal. At 8°, all clouds will permanently disappear, which would cause an additional 8° of warming almost immediately. The Earth has not had 400 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere in millions of years... long before there were humans. The last time the Earth's average temperature was 4°C above the baseline, there were palm trees in the arctic, and even our great ape ancestors had not yet evolved.

This is an important book. Everyone should read it. Complacency is the enemy, and we can no longer afford it. It will literally kill us if we don't shake it off and get busy. To paraphrase Wallace-Wells, we didn't fight WW2 out of optimism. We mobilized and transformed our economy out of FEAR. And that kind of fear is what will cause us to mobilize against the Crisis too. But it is not just us, in America. Already (and this is completely changed since the turn of the century too), the US is producing only 15% of the fossil carbon being added each year to the atmosphere. China and India together account for over half. This is a global problem, and the solution must be global. The enemy is not other nations, it is our own folly; our own unwillingness to make the changes necessary to avoid catastrophe. Time is running out, and the longer we wait, the harder and more terrible will be the journey back.


Nature simply does not care what we believe. 


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