The popular novel, An Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace Wells started as an article in the New York Times and grew to become the bestseller that it is today. To properly understand the novel we need to start at its source, and to avoid the future that Wells lays out we must address the problem at its source.
It is, I promise, worse than you think. This is the opening line of Wells' article, and it perfectly captures the tone moving forward in this piece. Throughout this 12 page article (yes, 12 pages), Wells lays out a future where nothing was done about climate change and the effects that this has on the Earth. Wells conducted interviews with several climate scientists before writing the article, and he uses these interviews as the foundation for the predictions and scientific elements within the article.
This article is a very valuable introduction to the potential impacts of climate change, and while it is realistic, I believe that it could have an unintended impact that Wells actually discusses in the article: aversion arising from fear. As I've mentioned in previous articles, climate doomerism can be just as dangerous as denial, and Wells agrees with this concept in the article. The only issue is that this article focuses mainly on the extreme consequences that could result from our inaction on climate change. Although the consequences laid out in the article are realistic and possible, focusing on extremes usually only appeals to people on one end of the spectrum, alienating those on the other end, and scaring those in between. Wells mentions that we are surely not alarmed enough, but in an article that has the potential to be a great introduction to climate change for the general public, does the alarm go too far?
Yes, and no. This article may be heavy, and it may be intense, but it is realistic and necessary. Wells makes a point that everyone thinks of climate change happening elsewhere, not everywhere; they see the smallness of numbers like 1.5 degrees Celcius, but the largeness of the amount of carbon dioxide we've added to our atmosphere. The details about climate change can be confusing, and the perceived scale of the problem can lead to fear. Articles like this that understand the reactions of their audience and attempt to relay information to that same audience are necessary to help those in the middle of the spectrum mentioned earlier understand the gravity of climate change. The sooner the middle is engaged in this conversation, the sooner we'll be able to make progress in solving the problem.
Climate Rating: 4/5 This article is not perfect, but for 12 pages, it does a wonderful job of presenting scientifically backed information to the audience and introducing them to the issue of climate change. I think that expanding this article into a novel helped flesh out the concepts introduced here.
Justification for Doomerism?
Wells presents the article as a warning, exploring the potential outcomes of the climate crisis. Even though this could insight fear, one thing that Wells warns of in the article, is this presentation justified? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Wells wasn't wrong when he said that no matter how alarmed we are, we're surely not alarmed enough. The climate crisis is a crisis, and its impacts are already being seen today.
In addition to the warnings found in the article, Wells also provides information on what was happening at the time the article was being written and mentions that things could change quickly. For example, Wells mentions that at the time of the article being written the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is 400 parts per million. On February 4, 2022 the concentration is about 419 ppm. The other references he makes follow this similar path. Even though this article is just about 5 years old, the climate crisis has continued to progress, worsening year after year. Wow, did I just sound like the climate doomer?
Anyway, a critical factor mentioned in most climate change literature is Antarctica's ice sheets, as major changes to them could have an unbelievable effect on the global sea-level. In this article, Wells discusses the Larsen C ice shelf and the crack that was developing in it, a crack that in 2017 grew 11 miles in just 6 days. Wells states that at the time of writing the article, the iceberg was still connected to the rest of the ice mass, and he wondered what the status of the iceberg must be today. Well, Larsen C still exists, but it is no longer connected to the rest of Antarctica. The block of Larsen C that broke off is roughly 6,000 sq km, or 2200 sq miles, and it broke away in July of 2017 - days after the article was published. Not only this, but as of January 2021, the iceberg had broken up into many much smaller pieces. A reasonable question then is what kind of impact has this had on the world, and what problems could it cause in the future? Fortunately, its impacts have not been considerable, as its size is not going to lead to any considerable sea-level rise on its own. That doesn't mean there haven't been any impacts, or that there won't be moving forward. The reason that A68, the name given to the iceberg, broke into so many pieces is that it was melting. At the peak of this melting, it was releasing 1.5 billion tons of fresh water into the ocean on a daily basis . This amount of fresh water will alter currents in the area, and the materials that were once stored within the iceberg are now in the ocean, which will impact biological production in the area. Although this iceberg alone won't have a considerable impact on global sea-level, it is something that Wells discusses in the article, focusing on the impact sea-level rise will have on Bangladesh.
Wells also discusses the impact sea-level rise will have on Miami, but that's been covered enough here in the US, so I wanted to focus on the information regarding Bangladesh, and how sea-level rise could impact the lives of millions of people. Wells mentions that in his talks with climate scientists, they have come to accept that Bangladesh will be mostly underwater within the century, regardless of the changes we make. The US EPA states that if polar ice continues to melt with increasing global average temperature, there could be a .49-.79 meter sea-level rise by 2100. The lower end of that prediction would inundate almost 11% of Bangladesh and would displace 5.5 million people from the coastal regions. This does not consider Greenland's ice sheet, nor does it consider other Antarctic ice sheets that could break away and possibly melt. Given this information, I see why scientists have lost hope. Now, if you look on the upper end of this spectrum, or even go to the extreme of 1 meter, the impacts are much more severe. At even .65 meters, 40% of the productive land would be lost, impacting the food production in the country. Without food, what does it matter if the land is dry? Going to the extreme of 1 meter, Bangladesh could see up to 15% of its land underwater, displacing around 30 million people. All of this is assuming that we fall within the range of 2 to 4.5 degrees Celcius of warming. This is the path we are currently on. Many warn that we need to stay below 1.5 degrees of warming to avoid catastrophic impacts around the globe, yet many official goals state 2 degrees as the goal. A number that used to be the equivalent of finding out about a zombie apocalypse is now the target. But really, 1.5 degrees, 2 degrees, 4.5 degrees, what's the difference?
For a quick answer, let me present this difference: at 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, the Arctic ocean would have one ice-free summer every 100 years, and at 2 degrees, the same area would have an ice-free summer every 10 years. The extra .5 degrees above pre-industrial levels is significant. To provide context, the IPCC explains that the years 1850-1900 are used as the basis for comparisons with current temperatures since that is considered the "pre-industrial level". To give an idea of where we are currently, the IPCC estimates that human-induced warming has reached approximately 1C above pre-industrial levels in 2017 and that we are currently warming at a rate of about 0.2C per decade. To get an idea of the difference between the increase in global average temperature, take a look at this chart from the Australian Climate Council . The difference between 1.5C and 2C is significant. And Wells hits the nail right on the head when he airs his confusion regarding 2C and its evolution from apocalypse to expectation. 2C should not be the goal, and even though 1.5C still isn't great, it is achievable and far less destructive than 2C.
Whenever action on climate change is brought up, the topic that always follows it is the economic impact of this action. In Wells's article, he dives into the economic impact of inaction, which does not receive the coverage that it deserves. Continuing the thread of how severe 2C of warming would be, Wells mentions that there would be an 11% loss of Global GDP if we were to hit that warming threshold, and that is spot on. Even if we were able to stay well below the 2C threshold, it is still likely that we would see a 4.2% loss in GDP due to warming. Other studies found that on the upper end, there could be an 18% loss of Global GDP by 2050 if global temperature rises by 3.2C. This is an extreme situation, but it is based on our current trajectory, with Paris Agreement targets not being met. As many scientists have said in the past, inaction is more expensive than action, even if fossil fuel giants don't want us to believe that. To avoid the worst-case scenario and its 18% loss in GDP, it is clear that emissions reduction will be necessary, but Wells claims that this alone will not be enough.
In support of the point Wells made in this article, George Monboit wrote "We now know that it’s not enough to leave fossil fuels in the ground and decarbonise our economies. We’ve left it too late. To prevent no more than 1.5C of heating, we also need to draw down some of the carbon already in the atmosphere" in a recent piece he wrote for the Guardian. There is some validity to this point, however, I think that it actually works against the point it is trying to make. It is clear that action is necessary, but telling people essentially that decarbonizing our world isn't going to be enough doesn't exactly make people want to act, especially when that action is going to be difficult. Reducing emissions needs to be the primary focus moving forward, not hoping that carbon sequestration technology is able to work at scale before it's too late. Continuing on this path will only make the problem worse, while proactivity will help reduce future impacts and put less pressure on future technologies. In addition to this, people die daily due to the impacts of fossil fuel emissions, and the more we are able to reduce these emissions, the more deaths we will prevent in the future.
Wells claims that a staggering 10,000 people die every day due to the burning of fossil fuels. This is finally a point where I was able to find that Wells was incorrect. Research from Harvard University, in collaboration with the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester, and University College London found that more than 8 million people died in 2018 from fossil fuel pollution, which works out to be almost 22,000 per day. This means that fossil fuel pollution is responsible for 1 in 5 deaths worldwide, 20% of deaths. So yes, Wells was incorrect, but he was incorrect because the data he used undershot the amount of fossil fuel deaths. It undershot the deaths by more than half. As we continue to increase our fossil fuel usage, this number will only go up. This is direct deaths as well, this doesn't count associated deaths, and it surely doesn't count deaths like the one of a boy in Russia who was exposed to anthrax from the body of a reindeer that had been frozen for years. As we move forward, how many more people will die each year because of fossil fuels? How many diseases will be released from their prisons of ice? How much longer will we value inaction over human lives? It has already been too long, will we ever draw a line?
So, was Wells's doomerism warranted? Yes. He is correct about everything he references. The path forward is terrifying, the situation we've created for ourselves is not a good one, and the action needed is drastic. Now, I'm not saying that this should be the first article that people read about climate change, I actually think that would be a terrible idea. I think that the doomerism goes too far regardless of the severity of the situation we are in. Threatening people and leading through fear is never going to lead to long-term action, and it will never lead to sustainable solutions. We need solutions that are here for the long-term, not quick fixes that we can scare people into agreeing to. I think that this article is extremely valuable in the library of climate change literature, but condensing this much information into 12 pages is going to be alarming.
I think that most people would benefit from reading this article, as long as they are already open to learning about the climate crisis. Wells frames the information quite aggressively, and although he is right I do think that this approach could push many people away. I'm excited to cover the full novel, An Uninhabitable Earth, next week. The novel, also written by Wells, follows a similar path to the original article while also making personal connections to the climate crisis. Giving this information room to breathe allows the blow to be cushioned, and lets the severity of the situation become a lot more relatable than it is in the article. I don't want to get ahead of myself too much, so check back in next week for more thoughts!