The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming
“It is worse, much worse, than you think.” So begins The Uninhabitable Earth. This work – eloquent, brutal and unflinching – may well become the foundational text of the global climate response, as Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring once was for the environmental movement.
The Uninhabitable Earth builds on Wallace-Wells’ July 2017 article of the same name, although the article came with the tagline “Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: what climate change could wreak – sooner than you think”. Within a week of publication in New York Magazine, the article became the most widely read story in the publication’s history (until an excerpt from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury was released). It has since been republished with annotations and debate from the scientific community. Some dismissed the article as “climate porn”, while others argued about the ethics of reporting on climate scenarios based on 3°C, 4°C and even higher levels of warming. After all, how do you discuss dramatic changes to the environment and subsequent disruption to individual livelihoods and entire economies without appearing alarmist or causing panic?
However, in October 2018 – months before the full-length work was published – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the special report Global Warming of 1.5°C. It found there were only twelve years (now eleven) to avert wide-ranging and irreversible climate impacts that will create regional imbalances, constrain economic development and increase global inequality. The IPCC’s report – the world’s premier example of international peer-reviewed science – definitively states that these dangers will follow warming above 1.5°C.
Wallace-Wells’s argument – of a kind with that of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg – is that it is now rational to be alarmed. Think how we have moved our own thin red lines. In 1997, in the Kyoto Protocol, 2°C warming was considered catastrophic, but by 2016, in the Paris Agreement, 2°C warming had become an aspirational goal. Today, only Morocco and The Gambia have targets compatible with a world 1.5°C warmer. So we are on track to shoot past 2°C. This means that actively considering the impacts of warming that is higher – as Wallace-Wells does – is now required.
Wallace-Wells lays out a smorgasbord of potential climate futures that may occur in our region and to our trading partners. He outlines “elements of chaos” that will result – heat death, hunger, drowning, wildfire, human-made disaster events, freshwater drain, dying oceans, unbreathable air, economic collapse and climate-induced conflict. These chapters are difficult reading. But they explain what must be planned for.
And plan we must. Wallace-Wells asks the reader to consider what to do if Jakarta – a metropolis of ten million people – becomes uninhabitable due to sea level rise. In August 2019 this moved from hypothetical to reality, when Indonesia announced the government will move the capital from Jakarta to Borneo because Jakarta is sinking into the Java Sea. This moves the seat of power, but not the people. If Jakarta sinks, what will Indonesia ask of Australia? How will we respond? What other countries will step in, and how will their actions alter regional alliances? We also can’t consider our response only to Jakarta, as the twenty most likely cities to be affected by sea level rise are in Asia. Who will we prioritise if Shanghai and Hong Kong and Kolkata all flood?
The Uninhabitable Earth explores the scale of expected migration in our region in the coming decades. The conservative estimate of climate refugees from Bangladesh alone is 10 million. These numbers are not a fantasy. The World Bank predicts that 140 million refugees will be displaced by climate by 2050. And that is a conservative estimate.
We also need to plan for countries in our region losing land. Territory and the ability to control the land within it are at the heart of the Westphalian concept of the state. Nations – and their neighbours – will cope with loss of land in unpredictable ways. Wallace-Wells notes that one reason (others include, of course, the strategic positioning of military bases to control the South China Sea) China is building artificial islands in the South China Sea is to position itself for a land-constrained future. Antarctica presents a different challenge. We have all seen images of melting glaciers and runaway icebergs. But what will Australia’s security look like if the polar caps melt and Antarctica becomes an inhabitable land mass to our south?
Wallace-Wells notes that for every half-degree of warming, societies experience a 10 to 20 per cent increase in the likelihood of armed conflict. He uses Syria as a case study, drawing the link between water scarcity, a collapse in agriculture and a devastated economy that laid the conditions for the first “climate war”.
This is the value of The Uninhabitable Earth. It presents scenarios based on different degrees of warming and asks us to consider what these mean for our politics, our economics and our very near future.
Wallace-Wells avoids the traditional – and rather opaque – language of climate change. Instead of relying on figures that are meaningless to the non-scientist (do you know what “400 parts per million” means? Or understand the difference between hitting 2°C in 2040 or 2050?), he cuts through to the personal. The possible futures he outlines may happen before the reader has paid off their mortgage and in the lifetimes of our sitting judges. This approach to speaking about our climate challenges could help shift the way governments frame policy and talk to the public.
The danger for decision-makers is to dismiss these futures as fantasy, rather than to take them seriously and prepare. Climate change is not the domain of only one department or think tank. It is not an “environmental issue”. Its impacts are not a legacy of 200 years of industrialisation, but a result of the staggering increase in emissions this century. The science is clear: the majority of emissions have occurred “since Al Gore published his first book on climate” (in 1992). In other words, on the watch of many still in positions of power today.
What does a world 3°C warmer mean for Australia? The Uninhabitable Earth is not a policy manual, and it does not offer a “fix”. But it demonstrates the need to reshape our policy in areas such as energy, defence, agriculture, infrastructure, health and trade. Wallace-Wells singles out Australia as the “test case” for “how the world’s affluent societies will bend or break or rebuild”. Australia is, after all, the wealthiest of the countries likely to experience climate impacts first. Our successes and failures are being watched.
This work should be required reading for all Australian decision-makers. The tyranny of distance is not enough to enable this country to ignore a warmer world. Our economy and security are at risk, as is the stability of the region. In Australia we can already smell the smoke and feel the warmth, even if the blaze itself is just out of sight.