• Book Review: The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells (published March 2019)

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      Patrick Lavery

      Combustion Industry News Editor

In the first of IFRF’s occasional book reviews, Patrick Lavery (editor of IFRF’s Combustion Industry News) offers his thoughts on a book that seems to capture the ‘2019 zeitgeist’…

Journalist David Wallace-Wells has received much attention for his book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (also called The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future), published in March of this year.  It has been reviewed, with considerable praise, in The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Economist, Vox.com, Gizmodo, and Slate.com, amongst others.  He has been interviewed also in Rolling Stone magazine, on the Talking Politics podcast (made by academics from the University of Cambridge), the popular Joe Rogan Experience podcast, in GQ Magazine, and a range of others.  His book fits into a cultural current of heightened alarm about the present and future impacts of climate change, and a perception that action to date has not only been exceedingly inadequate but nonchalantly so.  The Green New Deal and Sunrise movements in the USA, recent school students’ strikes across Europe and other countries, and the Extinction Rebellion movement in the UK are manifestations of this.  Surprisingly, for a widely publicised and reviewed book, it has not received much scrutiny for the claims it makes – instead, reviews have tended to focus on the sense of horror that the book instils in the reader.  This may be because scrutiny takes time, but it may also be partly a reluctance to criticise a work seen as worthy, or simply because reviewers and/or their editors feel that would be missing the point of the book.  This review contains some scrutiny as well as a more general impression of the work, and is based on my listening to the audiobook version, read by the author.  (For this reason, when I quote passages of the book, I may not transcribe the punctuation exactly as it is written.)

Wallace-Wells should be congratulated for the breadth of coverage of his work.  It ranges from the physical impacts of climate change through to how it will affect the way in which we live our day-to-day lives in the future, and even goes as far as covering suggestions that climate crises on other planets may be the answer to Enrico Fermi’s paradox of why we appear to be alone in the universe.  Portions of the book are quite thought-provoking, and Wallace-Wells is good at describing the complexity of the challenge of climate change.  The Uninhabitable Earth succeeds, too, in giving a sense of how all-pervasive a problem climate change is, that it is not just about sea-level rises but also about heat stress, armed conflict, displaced peoples, species extinction, disruption to agriculture, and many other impacts.

It is, however, a difficult book to trust, one prone to sensationalism, misunderstandings, mischaracterisation and self-contradiction.  To a reader (or listener) with some level of knowledge in some of the ground the work covers, there are numerous points at which one asks oneself: “Really?”  The answer is often “not quite”.  In fact, just about every claim I took the time to investigate turned out not to be the full story.  Some of them I present below.

Wallace-Wells himself describes the title of the book as “a bit hyperbolic”.  An early passage seems to lay the foundation for that title: “…that is the course we are speeding so blithely along – to more than 4oC of warming by the year 2100.  According to some estimates, that would mean that whole regions of Africa and Australia and the United States, parts of South America north of Patagonia, and Asia south of Siberia would be rendered uninhabitable by direct heat, desertification and flooding.  Certainly it would make them inhospitable, and many more regions besides.”  The book would have more accurately been called ‘A Partly Uninhabitable Earth?’, but this would not have been as arresting.

With the burning of fossil fuels being the chief cause of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, the practice receives a fair amount of attention across the book.  However, it is presented in a kind of amorphous, Manichean way – ‘fossil capitalism’ is the chief evil of the world, and there is never any suggestion that the world could carry on using fossil fuels in a low- or zero-carbon way.  Carbon capture and ‘negative emissions’ receive mention, but there is little distinction between carbon capture as applied to point source industrial facilities, negative emissions technologies (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage), and direct air capture, and no mention at all of carbon utilisation.  He writes “Both [CCS and BECCS] are something close to fantasy, at least at the present,” and refers to a 2018 assessment by the European Academy of Science Advisory Council which “found that existing negative emissions technologies have limited potential to even slow the increase in concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, let alone meaningfully reduce that concentration.”  Reference is also made to a Nature magazine editorial describing CCS and BECCS as “magical thinking” in their current state.  This is an example of the mischaracterisations, or more generously the misunderstandings, that riddle the book.  The Nature editorial is focused on enhanced weathering as a means of carbon capture and storage in agriculture – where materials like basalt are ground up and spread over pastures, helping carbon to be absorbed from the air – rather than industrial CCS.  The EASAC report of February 2018 stated that negative emissions technologies “may have a useful role to play but, on the basis of current information, not at the levels required to compensate for inadequate mitigation measures.”  For CCS at industrial facilities, it found that “efforts should continue to develop CCS into a relevant and relatively inexpensive mitigation technology”, and that “maximising mitigation with such measures will reduce the future need to remove CO2 from the atmosphere”.  This is a far cry from Wallace-Wells’ implication that CCS is currently “magical thinking”, which is further underscored by the fact that there are some industrial facilities already equipped with CCS.  Moreover, it is an important mischaracterisation at a time when increased policy support for industrial CCS is necessary to step up action against climate change.

Wallace-Wells makes other important mischaracterisations, too.  He writes that “just two years [after the Paris Agreement], with no single industrial nation on track to meet its Paris commitments, two degrees looks more like a best-case outcome.”  While it is true that limiting the global average temperature rise to 2°C would generally be considered an achievement (where in the 1990s it was considered a poor outcome), the claim that no single industrial nation is on track to meet its commitments is at best a half-truth.  The respected Carbon Action Tracker website shows, for instance, that the entire EU is on track to meet its 2030 Paris Agreement pledge based on current policy projections, as is Japan.  What I suppose Wallace-Wells must mean is that no current policy projection of any industrialised country sits in the Carbon Action Tracker’s category of being compatible with the world meeting the 2°C target of the Paris Agreement.  This leads him to be dismissive of international treaties: we’ve had a series of high-profile conferences, treaties and accords, but they increasingly look like so many acts of climate kabuki. Emissions are still growing, unabated.”  Yet this, too, is part mischaracterisation and part misunderstanding – the Paris Agreement assumed that emissions would continue to rise for some years, and had built into it an acknowledgement that countries would improve their targets and policies over time.  To judge targets and progress after only a few years isn’t a fair judgement on the agreement and gives the false impression that nothing is being done at an international level.

And this leads to a more general point about the book.  Much of the discussion of what we can expect from the future is premised on two assumptions – one, that emissions will not be reined in significantly (or at all), and two, that human activity will not adapt to changing conditions.  These assumptions combine to give an overly bleak picture of the future.  To be fair, Wallace-Wells does have some very justifiable grounds for the first assumption.  Current emissions levels are the highest on record, and are increasing, with emissions in developing countries – some which have much more development ahead – increasing most quickly.  It’s entirely reasonable to doubt emissions reductions until they happen, yet the book never mentions that all serious expectations are that global emissions will continue to increase before beginning to decrease.  Targets are beginning to be made by some countries – the UK, for instance – that are consistent with the world constraining the global average surface temperature rise to 1.5°C by reaching net-zero emissions around 2050 and then sucking carbon from the atmosphere until the end of the century.  It seems likely that other countries, though perhaps not all, will follow suit eventually, though timing is vital.  (In Australia, for instance, it has been reported that investors are already assuming a target of net-zero carbon by 2050.)  Wallace-Wells’ assessment is that there “is almost no chance” of the world limiting the global average temperature rise to 2°C – he expects something more around 3°C (roughly equivalent to emissions peaking around 2040-50, and still being around 1990 levels by 2100), although the book explores impacts up to 6°C at least, consistent with a peak of emissions around 2100 that is twice current levels.

The second assumption, that human activity will not adapt and innovate in response to changing conditions, is a strange one when one reflects for a moment on humans as a species.  Sections in The Uninhabitable Earth entitled ‘hunger’, ‘drowning’, ‘wildfire’, ‘disasters no longer natural’, ‘freshwater drain’, ‘dying oceans’, ‘unbreathable air’, ‘plagues of warming’, ‘economic collapse’, ‘climate conflict’, and ‘systems’ are indeed harrowing, and contain fascinating details, for example the increased rates of kidney failure in farmers in El Salvador due to dehydration.  Impacts will unquestionably be profound and wide-ranging, yet there is already evidence that adaptation is occurring.  This is not to say that impacts will become negligible, and with recent record June temperatures in Europe resulting in several deaths it feels churlish to discuss adaptation, but at least some impacts will be dampened.  A discussion of adaptation would have made the book more complete.

It may also have made the book more believable.  Listening to the descriptions of the various impacts, one is often left doubting, which is clearly not Wallace-Wells’ intention when the first line announces that “it is worse, much worse than you think”.  The section on hunger opens “Climates differ, and plants vary, but the basic rule of thumb for staple cereal crops grown at optimal temperature is that for every degree of warming, yields decline by 10%.  Some estimates run higher, which means if the planet is five degrees warmer at the end of the century, when projections suggest we may have as many as 50% more people to feed, we may also have 50% less grain to give them.”  Climate impacts are already occurring, as Wallace-Wells reiterates throughout the book, but agricultural output has been rising, most recently evidenced by the finding that China and India have increased their food production by over 35% since the year 2000 (while China, at least, also increased its green leafed area – both from forests and croplands).  A more likely scenario than that proffered in the book is that yield increases through innovation and the spread of existing technology will be concurrent with decreases brought about by climate impacts, creating a mixed picture.

While The Uninhabitable Earth struggles to present balance, there is inconsistency, too, throughout.  Early on, for example, it argues that the story of emissions to date should not be “a fable about historical villainy”, but later asks the reader to “consider that the British Empire was conjured out of the smoke of fossil fuels, and that today, thanks to that smoke, the marshland of Bangladesh is poised to drown, and the cities of India to cook.”  Later still, Wallace-Wells reverses this again, writing “but while the climate crisis was engineered in the past, it was mostly in the recent past.”

One of the worst sections of the book is ‘economic collapse’, which demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the subject matter as well as a willingness to dismiss mainstream expert views as “doctrinaire”.  (That The Economist review did not raise an objection to this makes me wonder how closely the reviewer read the work.)  Wallace-Wells cites “the most exciting research” by economists Solomon Hsiang, Marshall Burke, and Edward Miguel (who are associated with highly respected institutions) that each additional degree of global average temperature rise will result in 1% lower global economic growth compared to the scenario of no warming.  He relays that, according to their research, there is a 51% chance that by the end of the century, global gross domestic production will be 23% less than it would have been without warming, and a 12% (1 in 8) chance that it will be 50% less than it would have been.  While this research itself seems reasonable (though one would expect economic impacts to worsen more greatly with each degree of temperature change), Wallace-Wells goes on to compare it to the Great Recession following the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-8, in which the global economy contracted by 2%, concluding that there is a 1 in 8 chance that climate change will produce an effect 25 times worse than the Great Recession.  This is highly confused.  Global economic output fell in absolute terms during the Great Recession, while a smaller growth rate with global warming is highly likely to still mean a growth in the economy in absolute terms.  An economic mega-depression involving a 50% reduction in absolute economic output over a period of several years is in no way a rational comparison to a steady period of lower-than-could-have-been growth.

Further material supports the idea that Wallace-Wells’ interpretation of economic research is lacking.  An April 2018 paper which received comments (before publication) from Burke, Hsiang and Miguel found “the [economic] impact of 1.5°C is close to indistinguishable from current conditions”, but went on to give median estimates that by 2100, a 1.5°C rise would result in GDP per capita 8% lower than without warming, and 13% lower at a 2.0°C rise.  (The paper also stressed the uncertainty of such modelling.)  Again, these suggest lower economic growth than what could have been, but the reference case against which they are compared, the ‘Shared Socioeconomic Pathway 2’ used by the IPCC, a middle of the road projection of growth, still estimates dramatic growth in the global economy, as does every Shared Socioeconomic Pathway.  To Wallace-Wells, however, the “scale of that economic devastation is hard to comprehend”.

In his interviews, I find Wallace-Wells to be quite a bit more reasonable, and more optimistic, than in his book.  In interview with Joe Rogan, he states he thinks “we’ll see much more aggressive action in the decade ahead than we’ve had in the decades in the past”.  In the Talking Politics podcast, I could only agree when he said he felt there was “no time for a revolution” to change politics in some way so as to construct a system that allows more aggressive action on climate change.

At times, Wallace-Wells does seek to temper his tendency to sensationalism in his writing.  This may be a result of the response from the scientific community to the 2017 article in New York magazine also entitled The Uninhabitable Earth which led the author to writing the book.  Seventeen scientists reviewed the article and “estimated its overall scientific credibility to be ‘low’” on the climatefeedback.org website.  These included Professor Michael Mann, who wrote that the article “paints an overly bleak picture by overstating some of the science” and researcher Alexis Berg, whose opinion was that it “feels misleading, or at least confusing for the general public.”

In the book, Wallace-Wells makes what might be a response to that criticism.  He writes that “in 2018, scientists began embracing fear, when the IPCC released a dramatic, alarmist report illustrating just how much worse climate change would be at 2 degrees of warming compared with 1.5….the report offered a new form of permission, of sanction, to the world’s scientists…that it is ok, finally, to freak out.  It is almost difficult to imagine in its aftermath anything but a new torrent of panic issuing forth from scientists finally emboldened to scream as they wish to.”  He goes on to postulate that “worrying so much about erring on the side of excessive alarm has meant that [scientists] have erred so routinely it began a kind of professional principle on the side of excessive caution, which is effectively the side of complacency.”  In the light of the stretches and misrepresentations Wallace-Wells makes, I feel this is an unwarranted criticism.

Simplistic characterisations like this seem likely to me to lead the reader into a skewed picture of reality.  Fossil capitalism is the villain of the work, and while there certainly have been some nefarious acts on the part of the fossil fuel industry, the general reader may be surprised to learn that fossil fuel companies, utilities, heavy industries and research organisations are populated by engineers and scientists who understand the need to make power generation and industry cleaner, and have been working for more than half a century on doing so.  Huge reductions have been made in SOx and NOx emissions, for instance, and attention is now firmly on CO2.  The task of combating climate change will require these efforts to intensify.

A more accurate picture of how we have arrived in the current climate predicament makes a less Hollywood story, for it lacks a clear antagonist.  There is no cabal that directs the course of history.  It has been simple misfortune, more than anything else, that a by-product of the industrialisation that has brought higher standards of living across the world has been the problem of climate change.  The world began to comprehend this by-product only after the industrial way of life had been established in developed countries.  Since the widespread scientific acceptance of global warming in the 1970s and 80s, the countries that have industrialised have done so understandably seeking to bring higher living standards to their peoples.  Part of the nature of the misfortune, the part that Wallace-Wells does communicate, is that there is a huge inertia to the built environment of the modern world.  Wholescale changes cannot be made overnight – it is the work of several decades, if not more.

Understanding this and acknowledging that industry is and will be part of the solution, I feel, would lead to more united and concerted action on climate change, which is what Wallace-Wells wants.  I suspect that he believes that The Uninhabitable Earth’s overstated nature and misrepresentations are justified by the attention they bring to the urgent issue of climate change – as he puts it at one point, “any story that sticks is a good one”.  I am not so sure.  I fear that it will lead to further political polarisation (something Wallace-Wells himself decries), less agreement on action, and a growth in conspiracy thinking against a “fossil capitalism” cabal.  For those that take every word in the book to be fair, it will also produce a lack of comprehension of events as they unfold in the coming years, and this might have unhappy political consequences.  A more balanced writing of The Uninhabitable Earth could have avoided these dangers while still being evocative, driving home the message that a rapid transformation in the economy needs to take place, spurred on by political pressure and accompanied by modifications to our cultures and societies.

Thanks for this excellent, thorough and thought-provoking review, Patrick