‘It is worse, much worse, than you think’

“It is worse, much worse than you think.”  So begins David Wallace-Wells’ THE UNINHABITABLE EARTH: Life After Warming (2019), one of the most important books I’ve read in years.  

It is not proof that global warming is taking place, and it is not a plan to mitigate or reduce global warming.  It is simply a compilation of all the ways that climate change is disrupting the world we live in, and what may happen if nothing is done.

The best-case scenario is a future like the present, only more so—more storms, more droughts, more floods, more wildfires, more tidal waves, more heat waves, but with the basic social order remaining intact.

The worst-case scenario, which can’t be ruled out, is that most or all of the earth’s surface becomes unfit for human habitation.

When I first heard about global warming, I wondered whether it was real.  I didn’t see how it was possible to measure average temperatures over the whole Earth to within a degree or so, or rise in average sea levels within inches.  Actually, I still don’t.

Still, I thought, the possibility of global warming provides one more reason for doing a lot of things that are desirable in themselves—reducing air and water pollution, switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Over the years I came to the realization that since the greenhouse effect was scientific fact, and since greenhouse gasses were being emitted into the air at an ever-increasing rate, there was bound to be a crisis sooner or later.

That crisis is now upon us.

Fourteen of the world’s 20 largest cities have experienced water shortages or drought.  Cape Town, South Africa, nearly ran out of water.  Freshwater lakes from Lake Mead to Lake Chad are drying up.  The number of major floods have quadrupled since 1980 and doubled since 2004.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is dying because of the warming ocean.  The melting of the Arctic ice cap has changed wind patterns in China in ways that caused life-threatening smog in major cities.

The summer of 2017, in the Northern Hemisphere, brought unprecedented extreme weather: three major  hurricanes arriving in quick succession in the Atlantic; the epic “500,000-year” rainfall of Hurricane Harvey, dropping on Houston a million gallons of water for every single person in the entire state of Texas; the wildfires of California, nine thousand of them burning through more than a million acres, and those in icy Greenland ten times bigger than those in 2014; the floods of South Asia, clearing 45 million from their homes.

Then the record- breaking summer of 2018 made 2017 seem positively idyllic.  It brought an unheard-of global heat wave, with temperatures killing 108 in Los Angeles, 122 in Pakistan and 124 in Algeria.  

In the world’s oceans, six hurricanes and tropical storms appeared on the radars at once, including one, Typhoon Mangkhut, that hit the Philippines and then Hong Kong, killing nearly a hundred and wreaking a billion dollars in damages, and another, Hurricane Florence, which more than doubled the average annual rainfall in North Carolina, killing more than 50 and inflicting $17 billion worth of damage.  

There were wildfires in Sweden, all the way to the Arctic Circle, and across so much of the American West that half the continent was fighting through smoke, those fires ultimately burning close to 1.5 million acres.  Parts of Yosemite National Park were closed, as were parts of Glacier National Park in Montana, where temperatures also topped 100.  In 1850, the area had 150 glaciers; today, all but 26 are melted.

The years to come will not be better.  One key fact about the greenhouse effect is that it is additive.  Nothing that is done to reduce greenhouse gasses in the future will remove the greenhouse gasses now in the atmosphere, at least not in the lifetime of any living person or their future children.

Another is that annual greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing.  Half of the emissions that occurred since the start of the industrial revolution took place in the last 30 years.

We can’t predict how successful the world’s nations will be in cutting back on fossil fuels and other sources of greenhouse gasses.  We can’t predict the exact impact of these gasses.

All we know for sure is that every addition to the world’s greenhouse gasses makes this worse.  And everything that is done to stop additional greenhouse gasses prevents things from being worse than they otherwise would be.

A Celsius degree of temperature is equivalent to 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit.   Wallace-Wells explained what increases in temperature of two, three and four degrees Celsius would mean.

David Wallace-Wells

At about two degrees Celsius of warming, just one degree north of where we are today, some of the planet’s ice sheets are expected to begin their collapse, eventually bringing, over centuries, perhaps as much as 50 feet of sea-level rise. In the meantime, major cities in the equatorial band of the planet will become unlivable.

There will be, it has been estimated, 32 times as many extreme heat waves in India, and even in the northern latitudes, heat waves will kill thousands each summer. Given only conventional methods of decarbonization (replacing dirty-energy sources like coal and oil with clean ones like wind and solar), this is probably our best-case scenario.

It is also what is called — so often nowadays the phrase numbs the lips — “catastrophic warming.”  A representative from the Marshall Islands spoke for many of the world’s island nations when he used another word to describe the meaning of two degrees: genocide.

You do not need to contemplate worst-case scenarios to be alarmed; this best-case scenario is alarming enough. Two degrees would be terrible, but it’s better than three, at which point Southern Europe would be in permanent drought, African droughts would last five years on average, and the areas burned annually by wildfires in the United States could quadruple, or worse, from last year’s million-plus acres.

And three degrees is much better than four, at which point six natural disasters could strike a single community simultaneously; the number of climate refugees, already in the millions, could grow tenfold, or 20-fold, or more; and, globally, damages from warming could reach $600  trillion — about double all the wealth that exists in the world today. We are on track for more warming still — just above four degrees by 2100, the U.N. estimates. 

If nothing changes, here’s what he says the world can expect—

  • The Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf region become unbearably hot.  The annual pilgrimage to Mecca, which draws 2 million annually, becomes physically impossible.
  • Crops fail in the world’s main agricultural regions.  Pioneers move to Siberia and northern Canada and try to reestablish farming there.
  • Major regions of the world from south Florida to Bangladesh are under water.
  • Disease-carrying mosquitos and ticks flourish in formerly temperate zones.  Malaria and yellow fever move north.  Other diseases, long thought conquered, emerge from thawing carcasses in the Arctic tundra.
  • The Arctic Ocean becomes an arena of international conflict.
  • Crime and suicides increase.  Wallace-Wells said a one-degree Celsius increase in an a monthly average temperature is associated with nearly a 1 percent increase in the suicide rate in the USA and a more than 2 percent increase in the suicide rate in Mexico.

Is change possible?

This is what it would take to stay under two [degrees Celsius global warming]: a comprehensively decarbonized economy, a perfectly renewable energy system, a reimagined system of agriculture, perhaps even a planet without meat-eaters. We also need overhauls of the world’s transportation systems and infrastructure.

Every year the average American emits enough carbon to melt 10,000 tons of ice in the Antarctic ice sheets — enough to add 10,000 cubic meters of water to the ocean. Every minute, we each add five gallons.

If the task of reversing all that seems incomprehensibly big, it is. The scale of the technological transformation required dwarfs every technological revolution ever engineered in human history, including electricity and telecommunications and even the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago.

By definition, it dwarfs them, because it contains all of them — every single sector needs to be rebuilt from the foundation, since every single one breathes on carbon like it’s a ventilator.

On the other hand, there are obvious things that can be done.  Somebody estimated that one-third of British emissions and one-half of U.S. emissions are due to inefficiencies in construction, and discarded and unused food, electronics and clothing.  Bitcoin reportedly uses as much electricity as is generated from all the world’s solar panels.

Merely reducing the average American’s carbon footprint to that of the average European’s would reduce U.S. emissions by 50 percent, Wallace-Wells wrote; to reduce the carbon footprint of the world’s richest 10 percent to the same level would reduce world missions by 30 percent.  That’s low-hanging fruit.

Some climate scientists have criticized Wallace-Wells for allegedly cherry-picking worst-case scenarios and failing to emphasize the uncertainty of the various predictions.  They also accused him of making the crisis seem so enormous that people will give up in despair.

I don’t know enough to judge, but I perceive that every Wallace-Wells assertion is supported by a footnote referring to a credible source.  The worst doesn’t always happen, but sometimes it does.

Suppose someone in Britain, France or Germany in 1913 wrote a book predicting a world war more bloody and destructive than any European war in centuries, followed by the rise of new ideologies called fascism and Bolshevism, followed by a great economic depression, followed by an even bloodier and more destructive world war.

Such an author would have been regarded as a lunatic.  And, indeed, none of these catastrophes was inevitable.  At each stage, there were decision points where the worst could have been avoided.  In fact, the worst was avoided.  The Axis did not win the Second World War.  There was no nuclear third world war.

The possible results of climate change are even more death, destruction and human suffering than caused by war, depression and totalitarianism in the early 20th century.  Maybe this can be avoided.  But there’s no guarantee it will be.

Then, too, the official predictions fail to allow for wild cards.  Suppose, for example, there is a war between India and Pakistan, two nuclear powers, over water rights, which easily could happen.  Things would get bad very quickly, and not just on the Indian subcontinent.

If you read just one book about climate change this year, I urge you to read this one.  If you don’t have time to read a whole book, I urge you to read some of the articles by Wallace-Wells linked below.


The Cautious Case for Climate Optimism by David Wallace-Wells for New York magazine,

The Uninhabitable Earth, Annotated Edition by David Wallace-Wells for New York magazine (2017).  This is the magazine article that became the basis for the book.  The annotations are Wallace-Wells’ justifications for his statements in the face of criticism.

The Power and Peril of “Climate Disaster Porn” by Emily Atkin for The New Republic (2017)

The Uninhabitable Earth: An Interview With Author David Wallace-Wells for Rolling Stone magazine.

The Green New Deal Isn’t Enough, But Democrats Should Embrace It Anyway by David Wallace-Wells for New York magazine.

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3 Responses to “‘It is worse, much worse, than you think’”

  1. 61chrissterry Says:

    Reblogged this on 61chrissterry and commented:
    Yes, ‘‘It is worse, much worse, than you think’’, however, if acts are not taken immediately then the worse than you think will be even worse.

    All areas of the World need to be taking drastic action now, this also means the US. Trump needs to be brought on board, for if he is not then he wil be a catalyst in making it even more worse.

    Every country in the World needs to act as one to demand that Trump and his administration act Now.


  2. Vincent Says:

    In this context I respect James Lovelock and his book The Vanishing Face of Gaia published in 2010. He concludes that we’d best be prepared for the inevitable catastrophes, whatever they turn out to be. See this transcribed radio interview


    I have no idea to what extent drastic action taken now can avoid dire outcome, but strongly suspect that those who say it is not too late, or can be significantly mitigated by draconian action now, are motivated by political and economic considerations, which are probably the cause of the problems in the first place. It’s like setting a thief to catch a thief.

    Countries have never yet collaborated to act as one, even if they have signed up to do so for virtue’s appearance. Nor have countries ever been united within their borders.

    If Lovelock’s concept is correct, Nature is self-correcting but impartial.Whatever’s upsetting the benign balance will be destroyed for the good of the whole. This means, according to the interview, that seven out of eight humans will die through starvation, disease and war. Out of the ruins of which, human life will go on.

    Similar catastrophes have happened since the big bang, since species originated. No point blaming ourselves, we are fashioned by evolution like all the rest. To think we have godlike powers to sort things out, that we are sinners who can freely repent and change our ways, is part of our religious nature—which has also evolved. Some of can, some of us can’t.

    What are we—Phil, James Lovelock, Vincent, each at the latter end of our lives—to do about these portentous matters?

    Humphrys: As you say “hope for the best”, there’s a big smile on your face. You’re pretty cheery throughout this interview. Every time I’ve interviewed you, you’ve been pretty cheery.

    Lovelock: Well that’s because I believe in “enjoy it while you can”! And I’ve got less time to enjoy it than most.


    • philebersole Says:

      David Wallace-Wells pointed out that the fossil record shows five mass extinctions, in which the vast majority of species of living things were wiped out.

      One of them was the asteroid strike that killed the dinosaurs. The other four were due to rising temperatures caused by greenhouse gasses.

      If I were a better person than I am, I would devote the rest of my life to alerting the world to the peril and the necessity for action, like Bertrand Russell in his 90s warning of the danger of nuclear war.

      Or I would do as a number of my friends do—arrange my life so as to minimize my carbon footprint, such as by giving up my automobile or refraining from eating meat. That would only be an individual gesture, with small individual impact, but gestures are important.

      I do think my carbon footprint is less than that of the average American, but that is saying very little, and in any case is not a result of conscious effort to avoid contributing to climate change.

      As it is, my only activity is commentary through this blog and through book reviews I send to an e-mail list, plus an occasional presentation at my church. I’m doing one this coming Sunday.

      This is not based on altruism. It is based on my creative need to write and my ego need to have someone read what I write.

      Somebody said that most people lack the courage to believe what they know.

      I know the facts about climate change, but I don’t have a deep emotional belief that would cause me to change my life based on what I know.

      Liked by 1 person

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