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The Uninhabitable Earth

A Story of the Future

By David Wallace-Wells
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The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells

The Uninhabitable Earth (2019) is a terrifying rundown of the horrors which await in an ever-warming world. With poetic brilliance, Wallace-Wells draws from the latest research in climate science to give us an elegant final warning. Runaway wildfires, submerged cities, polluted air and global pandemics – these and other climate-induced catastrophes not only await in the very near future but in some cases have already arrived.

Key idea 1 of 11

The Paris climate agreement’s goals are hopelessly optimistic.

In 2015, most of the world’s leaders met in Paris to agree on a new set of goals to tackle climate change. Politicians had seemingly realized the gravity and urgency of our situation; many believed humanity had turned a corner on its dirty past. From these talks came the central objective of keeping global average temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels, a figure widely regarded as the threshold at which disaster begins.

But there’s a problem: We’re going to smash right through this 2-degree ceiling.

Just take the report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released in 2018. It states that if governments take aggressive action on global warming now, and immediately enact all policy changes agreed to in Paris, we’ll probably still get a global temperature increase of 3.2 degrees before warming stops. What’s worse, currently, no industrial country is even close to enacting all the policy changes.

What does this mean more concretely? Basically, that even our new best-case scenario looks pretty bleak.

If countries woke up tomorrow and miraculously met Paris’ emissions targets, the world’s ice sheets would still collapse within our lifetime. This would eventually cause over a hundred cities to flood, including Miami, Shanghai and Hong Kong. At 3 degrees of warming, southern Europe would be in permanent drought, and the annual area of the United States scorched by wildfire would increase by 600 percent.

And remember, this is an optimistic view.

Estimating a worst-case scenario by 2100, the UN put forward the staggering figure of 8 degrees. At this temperature, equatorial regions become completely uninhabitable. Huge firestorms would devastate our forests. Two-thirds of the world’s cities would flood, and tropical disease would thrive in what we once called the Arctic.

Perhaps the scariest thing about global warming, though, is its frantic pace. In geological terms, we’re used to thinking of Earth as a gradual, almost lethargic system which takes millions of years to change.

But this is a dangerous fallacy. More than half of carbon emissions have come in the last three decades and the overwhelming majority since World War II. It’s no exaggeration to say that the planet has been brought to its knees within a single generation – and that the task of saving it rests solely on our shoulders now.

To save the planet, though, we need to understand the consequences of climate change. And these are more complex than they seem.

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