review of David Wallace-Wells’s book The Uninhabitable Earth

…a civilization enclosing itself in a gaseous suicide, a running car in a sealed garage.

This is a good collection of stuff to be worried about. As hinted by the title of the second part, “Elements of Chaos”, it’s not just that the planet is going to get hotter; it’s that climate change causes a whole host of problems, and it’s hard to predict both the severity of each and how they’re going to interact.

...we have unwittingly claimed ownership of a system beyond our ability to control or tame in any day-to-day way.

Despite the book’s title, the very first chapter admits: is unlikely that climate change will render the planet truly uninhabitable.

But one of Wallace-Wells’s points is that climate research has a history of underestimating the severity of the situation. It’s reckless to let ourselves be reassured too easily.

When you define anything outside a narrow band of likelihood as irresponsible to consider, or talk about, or plan for, even unspectacular new research findings can catch you flat-footed.

The book is largely pessimistic and pervaded with a sense of moral condemnation. It’s not my favorite tone, but, well…

...the finding of a 2017 Nature paper [“Reassessing emotion in climate change communication”] surveying the full breadth of the academic literature: that despite a strong consensus among climate scientists about "hope" and "fear" and what qualifies as responsible storytelling, there is no single way to best tell the story of climate change, no single rhetorical approach likely to work on a given audience, and none too dangerous to try. Any story that sticks is a good one.

Wallace-Wells is primarily concerned to convince you that “[i]t is worse, much worse, than you think.” But he does occasionally muster moments of eloquent optimism:

The next decades are not yet determined. A new timer begins with every birth, measuring how much more damage will be done to the planet and the life this child will live on it. The horizons are just as open to us, however foreclosed and foreordained they may seem. But we close them off when we say anything about the future being inevitable. What may sound like stoic wisdom is often an alibi for indifference.