Summary of The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells
So this article, The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, ended up in my mailbox and I was intrigued so I started reading and boy it scared the living daylight out of me.
I consider myself to be a reasonably well-informed person on the subject but what he wrote is beyond imagination. However, I do believe that everyone needs to know more about this subject since it will impact every single one of us as well the next generations to come a lot sooner than we all think and expect!
Since it is a quite extensive article, I have made a comprehensive summary for you but if you prefer to read the complete article, you can find it here. You can also listen to the original article here.
The situation is worse than we think and even can imagine. Rising sea levels is one thing but there is more, parts of the Earth will become uninhabitable and other parts extremely inhospitable before the end of this century! Yes folks, this century!
This past winter, a string of days of 60-70°F (15-20°C) warmer than normal baked the North Pole, melting the permafrost that encased Norway’s Svalbard seed vault — a global food bank nicknamed “Doomsday,” designed to ensure that our agriculture survives any catastrophe, and which appeared to have been flooded by climate change less than ten years after being built. The Doomsday Vault is fine for now, but who knows how long it will last.
The Permafrost was not a massive concern for scientists until recently, however considering the rapid rise in temperature and the fact that it contains more than twice the amount of carbon than is currently suspended in the atmosphere, you understand that it is now on everyone’s radar. When that is released, it is transformed into methane which has a warming power of 86 times over in a timespan of 20 years!!
This article is the result of dozens of interviews with climatologists and researchers in related fields and reflects hundreds of scientific papers on the subject of climate change. It will give you an idea of the best understanding of where the planet is headed if we do not take massive action. Most people talk as if Miami and Bangladesh still have a chance of surviving; most of the scientists I spoke with assume we’ll lose them within the century, even if we stop burning fossil fuel in the next decade. The magic number according to the Paris Agreement is 2°C by 2050, however, if we stay on the current course, it is more likely we will hit 4° by the beginning of the next century and the last time that happened, Peter Brannen points out in The Ends of the World, the oceans were hundreds of meters higher.
The Earth has experienced 5 mass extinctions before the one we are living through now and only 1 was not due to greenhouse gas emissions. The most notorious was 252 million years ago; it began when carbon warmed the planet by 5°C, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane in the Arctic and ended with 97% of all life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at least 10 times faster and the rate is accelerating. Many scientists and advisers to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have reached the conclusion that no plausible program of emissions reductions alone can prevent climate disaster.
II. Heat Death
In order for people to live we need warmth but we also need to be able to cool down and the air functions as a refrigerant. So, if the air around us get too hot, we cannot cool down anymore and will literally cook to death. And in some areas, it doesn’t need much, like in the tropical jungle in Costa Rica where the humidity increases to the problem.
Since 1980, the planet has experienced a 50-fold increase in the number of places experiencing dangerous or extreme heat; a bigger increase is to come. The 5 warmest summers since 1500 have occurred since 2002 and even we meet the 2°C from the Paris agreement cities like Karachi (Pakistan) and Calcutta (India) will become close to uninhabitable. At 4°C, we would have “normal” summers like the 2003 European heatwave causing 2000 deaths per day! At 6°C New York would exceed temperatures of present-day Bahrain, currently the hottest place on the planet.
The heat is already killing us today, in the sugarcane region in El Salvador, one-fifth of the population has chronic kidney disease as a result of dehydration working on the fields where up to 20 years ago they could still comfortably harvest the crops. Dialysis is expensive and not everyone can afford it, facing death within a matter of weeks.
III. The End of Food
Climates differ and plants vary, however they all have their optimal temperature and required soil qualities. The basic rule for staple cereal crops, like grains, corn and rice, is that the yield will drop anywhere between 10% and 17% per degree temperature increase which means that in the worst-case scenario with a 5°C warming, we may have to feed up to 50% more mouths with 50% less yield.
Drought might be an even bigger problem than heat, with some of the world’s most arable land turning quickly into a desert. Precipitation is notoriously hard to model, yet predictions for later this century are basically unanimous: unprecedented droughts nearly everywhere food is today produced. If nothing changes dramatically, by 2080, lots of places that today are our main food suppliers like Southern Europe, South America and Africa will be in a permanent extreme drought and will not be reliable as such to provide us with any stable level of food supply.
Remember, we do not live in a world without hunger as it is. Far from it: Most estimates put the number of undernourished at 800 million globally. In case you haven’t heard, this spring has already brought an unprecedented quadruple famine to Africa and the Middle East; the U.N. has warned that separate starvation events in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen could kill 20 million this year alone.
IV. Climate Plagues
Ice, just like rock, is a record of planetary history. This means that diseases that have been trapped for millions of years, could potentially be set free when the Arctic ice starts melting. Some diseases might be even unknown to mankind; therefore, our immune systems would not know how to defend itself.
Scary enough but it gets worse, scientists have already found traces of the 1918 flu, which infected about 500 million people and killed about 100 million, or 5% of the world population.
What concerns epidemiologists more than ancient diseases though are existing scourges relocated, rewired, or even re-evolved by warming. One aspect of it is geographical. Even with globalization and people travelling more than ever, our ecosystems are still quite stable however global warming will scramble them and allow diseases to trespass certain existing barriers. In the past you didn’t have worry about dengue or malaria when living in France, however as the tropics creep more north, the mosquitos will come with it.
Another concern is disease mutation. Malaria, for instance, thrives in hotter regions not just because the mosquitoes that carry it do, but because for every degree increase in temperature, the parasite reproduces 10 times faster. Which is one reason that the World Bank estimates that by 2050, 5.2 billion people will be reckoning with it.
V. Unbreathable Air
Our lungs need oxygen, but that is only a fraction of what we breathe. The fraction of carbon dioxide is growing: It just crossed 400 parts per million (ppm), and high-end estimates extrapolating from current trends suggest it will hit 1,000 ppm by 2100. At that concentration, compared to the air we breathe now, human cognitive ability declines by 21%. On top of that small increases in pollution are capable of shortening life spans by 10 years. The warmer it gets, the more ozone forms in the air and research show that unborn children expose to higher levels of ozone are more likely to have autism. Makes you think, doesn’t it.
Already, more than 10,000 people die each day from the small particles emitted from fossil-fuel burning; each year, 339,000 people die from wildfire smoke, in part because climate change has extended forest-fire season (in the U.S., it’s increased by 78 days since 1970). By 2050, according to the U.S. Forest Service, wildfires will be twice as destructive as they are today. And what is even more worrying is the fires of peatland, like in Indonesia, added to the global carbon release in 1997 by 40%, and more burning means more warning means more burning. There is also the terrifying possibility that rainforests like the Amazon, which in 2010 suffered its second “hundred-year drought” in the space of 5 years, could dry out enough to become vulnerable to these kinds of devastating or rolling forest fires — which would not only expel enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere but also shrink the size of the forest. That is especially bad because the Amazon alone provides 20% of our oxygen.
VI. Perpetual War
Researchers Marshall Burke and Solomon Hsiang have managed to quantify some of the non-obvious relationships between temperature and violence: for every 0,5°C of warming, they say, societies will see between a 10%-20% increase in the likelihood of armed conflict. Following this logic, it could result in a planet 5°C warmer would have at least half as many wars as we do today. Overall, social conflict could more than double this century.
But what accounts for the relationship between climate and conflict? Some of it comes down to agriculture and economics; a lot has to do with forced migration, already at a record high, with at least 65 million displaced people wandering the planet right now. But there is also the simple fact of individual irritability. As an example: heat increases municipal crime rates and swearing on social media.
VII. Permanent Economic Collapse
Before fossil fuels, nobody lived better than their parents or grandparents or ancestors from 500 years before, except in the immediate aftermath of a great plague like the Black Death, which allowed the lucky survivors to gobble up the resources liberated by mass graves. A growing number of historians is studying “fossil capitalism” suggesting that the entire history of swift economic growth was related to the discovery of fossil fuels and their raw powers rather than innovation, trade or global capitalism. After we’ve burned all the fossil fuels, these scholars suggest, perhaps we will return to a “steady state” global economy. Of course, that onetime injection has a devastating long-term cost: climate change.
The most exciting research on the economics of warming has also come from Hsiang and his colleagues, who offer some very bleak analysis: every degree Celsius of warming costs, on average, 1.2% of GDP (an enormous number, considering we count growth in the low single digits as “strong”). Their median projection is for a 23% loss in per capita earning globally by the end of this century (resulting from changes in agriculture, crime, storms, energy, mortality, and labour).
The scale of that economic devastation is hard to comprehend, but you can start by imagining what the world would look like today with an economy half as big, which would produce only half as much value, generating only half as much to offer the workers of the world. It also makes the idea of postponing government action on reducing emissions and relying solely on growth and technology to solve the problem an absurd business calculation.
VIII. Poisoned Oceans
That the sea will become a killer is a given. Without a radical reduction of emissions, we will see at least a 1,2m of sea-level rise and possibly 3m by the end of the century. A third of the world’s major cities are on the coast, not to mention its power plants, ports, navy bases, farmlands, fisheries, river deltas and rice-paddy empires, and even those above 3m will flood much more easily, and much more regularly if the water gets that high. At least 600 million people live within 10m of sea level today.
But it gets worse, today the ocean sucks up about one-third of the world's carbon but the result is something we call “ocean acidification”, which, on its own, might add 0,5°C to warming this century. The effect of this is that it is burning through the water basins where life arose in the first place. It is also causing what is called “coral bleaching”, or simply said coral dying, which is bad news since reefs support as much as a quarter of all marine life and supply food for 500 million people. The acidification will also literally fry the fish population and who knows how it will affect us when we eat whatever comes from the ocean.
There is more: carbon absorption can initiate a feedback loop in which under-oxygenated waters breed different kinds of microbes that turn the water still more acidic and depleted of oxygen, first in deep ocean “dead zones,” then gradually up toward the surface. There, the small fish die out, unable to breathe, which means oxygen-eating bacteria thrive, and the feedback loop doubles back. This process, in which dead zones grow like cancers, choking off marine life and wiping out fisheries, is already quite advanced in parts of the Gulf of Mexico and just off Namibia, where hydrogen sulfide is bubbling out of the sea along a thousand-mile stretch of land known as the “Skeleton Coast.”
Hydrogen sulfide is so toxic that evolution has trained us to recognize the tiniest, safest traces of it. Hydrogen sulfide is also the thing that finally did us in that time 97% of all life on Earth died and it took millions of years before the oceans recovered.
IX. The Great Filter
So why can’t we see it? Why hasn’t global warming and natural disaster become major subjects of contemporary fiction? Why don’t we seem able to imagine climate catastrophe? According to the Indian Novelist Amitav Ghosh, it is because the dilemmas and dramas of climate change are simply incompatible with the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, which tend to emphasize the journey of an individual conscience rather than the poisonous fog of social fate.
Surely this blindness will not last - the world we are about to inhabit will not permit it. In a 6°C warmer world, the Earth’s ecosystem will boil with so many natural disasters that we will just start calling them “weather”: a constant swarm of out-of-control typhoons and tornadoes and floods and droughts.
Many people perceive climate change as a sort of moral and economic debt, accumulated since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and now come due after several centuries — however since it is the carbon-burning processes that began in 18th-century England that lit the fuse of everything that followed. But more than half of the carbon humanity has exhaled into the atmosphere in its entire history has been emitted in just the past 30 years; since the end of World War II, the figure is 85%. Which means that, in the length of a single generation and really only one lifetime, global warming has brought us to the brink of planetary catastrophe.
Peter Ward, a charismatic palaeontologist among those responsible for discovering that the planet’s mass extinctions were caused by greenhouse gas, calls this the “Great Filter”: “Civilizations rise, but there’s an environmental filter that causes them to die off again and disappear fairly quickly,” he told me. “If you look at planet Earth, the filtering we’ve had in the past has been in these mass extinctions.” The mass extinction we are now living through has only just begun; so much more death is coming.
And yet, improbably, Ward is an optimist. So are many of the other scientists I spoke to. We have not developed much of a religion of meaning around climate change that might comfort us, or give us purpose, in the face of possible annihilation. But climate scientists have a strange kind of faith: We will find a way to forestall radical warming, they say, because we must.
The scientists know that to even meet the Paris goals, by 2050, carbon emissions from energy and industry, which are still rising, will have to fall by 50% each decade; emissions from land use (deforestation, cow farts, etc.) will have to zero out; and we will need to have invented technologies to extract, annually, twice as much carbon from the atmosphere as the entire planet’s plants now do. Nevertheless, the scientists have an enormous confidence in the ingenuity of humans — a confidence perhaps bolstered by their appreciation for climate change, which is, after all, a human invention, too. They point to the Apollo project, the hole in the ozone we patched in the 1980s, the passing of the fear of mutually assured destruction. Now we’ve found a way to engineer our own doomsday, and surely we will find a way to engineer our way out of it, one way or another. But when we do truly see the world we’ve made, the scientists say, we will also find a way to make it liveable. For them, the alternative is simply unimaginable.