“The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future” is the scariest book I have read in a long time.
It is much worse than you think
It is worse, much worse than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale. Climate change is fast, much faster. It is the end of normal; the beginning of never normal again. It is also irreversible, and therefore effectively permanent. You might hope to simply reverse climate change; you can’t. It will outrun all of us.
Even if, miraculously, humans immediately ceased emitting carbon, we’d still be due for some additional warming from just the stuff we’ve put into the air already. And of course, with global emissions still increasing, we’re very far from zeroing out on carbon, and therefore very far from stalling climate change.
We just need to look at history. 250 million years carbon dioxide warmed the planet by five degrees Celsius, which accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane, another greenhouse gas, and ended with all but a sliver of life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster.
Century of hell
We are speeding to more than four degrees Celsius of warming by the year 2100. According to some estimates, that would mean that whole regions in Africa and Australia and the United States, parts of South America north of Patagonia, and Asia south of Siberia would be rendered uninhabitable by direct heat, desertification, and flooding. That is why some studying global warming call the hundred years to follow the “century of hell.”
The costs in money
Every degree of warming, it’s been estimated, costs a temperate country like the United States about one percentage point of GDP, and according to one recent paper, at 1.5 degrees the world would be $20 trillion richer than at 2 degrees.
Our current emissions trajectory takes us over 4 degrees by 2100; multiply that by that 1% of GDP, and you have almost entirely wiped out the very possibility of economic growth, which has not topped 5% globally in over forty years. Four degrees of warming would produce $551 trillion in damages, research suggests; total worldwide wealth is today about $280 trillion.
100 trillion per year
If no significant action is taken to curb emissions, one estimate of global damages is as high as $100 trillion per year by 2100.
The facts are hysterical, and the dimensions of the drama that will play out between those poles incomprehensibly large, large enough to enclose not just all of present-day humanity but all of our possible futures, as well. To give you a few examples:
- The warming planet will melt Arctic permafrost, which contains 1.8 trillion tons of carbon, more than twice as much as is currently suspended in the earth’s atmosphere, and some of which, when it thaws and is released, may evaporate as methane, which is thirty-four times as powerful a greenhouse-gas warming blanket as carbon dioxide when judged on the timescale of a century; when judged on the timescale of two decades, it is eighty-six times as powerful.
- Higher temperatures mean more forest fires means fewer trees means less carbon absorption, means more carbon in the atmosphere, means a hotter planet still—and so on.
- Warmer oceans can absorb less heat, which means more stays in the air, and contain less oxygen, which is doom for phytoplankton.
- Climate-driven water shortages or crop failures push climate refugees into nearby regions already struggling with resource scarcity.
- Trees may simply turn brown, and so we will look differently at entire schools of painting, which stretched for generations, devoted to best capturing the oranges and reds we can no longer see ourselves out the windows of our cars as we drive along our highways.
- Our soil is literally disappearing, a 75 billion tons of soil lost each year
- The coffee plants of Latin America will no longer produce fruit
When not if
The big one for me is this one; tt just three degrees of warming, sea-level rise will be at least fifty meters, that is, fully one hundred times higher than Paris predicted for 2100. That is a when not an if. Only a question of time before the water will rise.
The great dying
Every chapter ticks off one of the effects of climate change. Rather than me summarising, you should read it yourself. But you get the picture. And particularly how they are all intertwined:
- Dying because of the heat waves
- Dying of hunger
- Dying of drowning
- Dying because of wildfires
- Dying because of natural disasters
- Dying because of lack of fresh water
- Oceans dying, which will cause us to die too
- Dying because of unbreathable air
- Dying because of economic and social collapse
- Dying because of climate wars
Dying because of a combination of all of the above, resulting in a complete system collapse. If we allow global warming to proceed, and to punish us with all the ferocity we have fed it, it will be because we have chosen that punishment, collectively walking down a path of suicide.
We still have a choice
Know there are climate horrors to come, some of which will inevitably be visited on our children, that is what it means for warming to be an all-encompassing, all-touching threat. However, those horrors are not yet scripted. We are staging them by inaction, and by action can stop them. Please.
If you want to read more about this topic and get a few different perspectives:
- Perspective on GDP as a measurement
- Your moral responsibility as a CEO
- Your profitability
- Why circular makes sense
Book about books
Or you can download my book about books about climate change. It is free and you can download it here.