The Uninhabitable Earth: A Short Book Review

I wonder what masochistic sorcery drives me to pick up books on topics that clearly leave me exhausted and drained. Especially books that start with these words, “It is worse. Much worse than you think.” To say that David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth is an essay – which is what it was in its original form – that explores a world worsened by climate change is an understatement. Using language that conveys earnestness, alarmism and cynicism – for this, he believes, is the only way to wake up the human race from its slumber of denial and ignorance – he paints a grim picture 80 years into the future at different stages of warming.

Imagine an interactive dashboard where you could slide a flag on a scale, starting from 2°C (the line in the ground that was drawn in 2016 at the Paris agreement), crossing thresholds such as 3.2°C (if the world were to immediately ratify the emissions targets of the Paris agreement) and 4.5°C (if we continue on our current emissions path) and on to outlier but probable scenarios of 6°C and beyond. For each threshold, imagine if you could see the devastation that occurs, not just across a map of the world at the bottom of this dashboard, but also to the city and the town where you currently reside, covering – to borrow a term – elements of chaos such as: heat, hunger, rising sea levels, wildfires, natural disasters, dying oceans, air pollution, diseases, economic collapse and war. That is this book.

The book is gut-wrenching, panic-inducing, and written in language that is rightfully hyperbolic, with a second half that moves beyond existing assessments of where we’ll land on the warming scale to debate moral, ethical, social, economic, and political implications of a changed world. I would have avoided writing this review entirely – for there is no obvious way to cover its scale and scope – had it not been for the IPCC’s sixth assessment report that was released on Monday (what a way to start the week). Here is some sample text (headlines) from the summary for policymakers document:

Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened since the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5).

Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.

Many changes in the climate system become larger in direct relation to increasing global warming. They include increases in the frequency and intensity of hot extremes, marine heatwaves, and heavy precipitation, agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions, and proportion of intense tropical cyclones, as well as reductions in Arctic sea ice, snow cover and permafrost.

Ruki and I often talk about our future together: buying a bigger car, a nice house, and maybe starting a family someday. We keep going back and forth because at some subconscious level, both of us are aware that climate change is a variable that needs to be factored into this equation. What was missing from these conversations was the coefficient that needs to be assigned to it. I’m not sure if I’m equipped enough to even assign one now. This was a difficult read and has a rating of 4.05 on goodreads.

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