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A few pages into David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, I realised with a shock that for many years I’d engaged in a soft form of climate change denial. Not the full throttle petrodollar-backed conspiracy theory-type denial but just simply not paying much attention.
I have been involved in the environmental movement for most of my adult life. But I regarded climate change as some unthinkable, apocalyptic event in the future that we would hopefully avoid, rather than a process already underway and accelerating.
Wallace-Wells calls climate change a “‘hyperobject’-a conceptual fact so large and complex that... it can never be properly comprehended.” (p.13) It is easy to ignore because the reality is almost beyond our minds to contemplate. But this short book does what I have avoided doing for the last decade or more and faces the reality of climate change squarely.
He explores how the different aspects of warming will likely play out: heat, famine, floods by rivers and sea, wildfire, extreme weather, freshwater scarcity, ocean acidification, air pollution, pandemics, economic collapse and war. The figures are chilling and made more chilling by the fact they come from the most authoritative sources.
To give one example, the UN predicts between 200 million and one billion climate refugees by 2050 (p.7). One billion people is at the extreme end of their predictions but the fact this figure features at all in a UN document shows the scale of the catastrophe confronting us in the next three decades.
Part of my recent ignorance about climate change is due to subtle way natural disasters have been normalised. A non-exhaustive list of last year's disasters include: forest fires in Tanzania, tropical storms in Thailand, cyclones in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Bhutan, the wettest 12 months in US history and a record tornado season, a heatwave in Europe with temperatures in France hitting a record 45.9 degrees Celsius, deadly floods in Iran, Uruguay, Argentina, Spain, Texas, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa, record low sea ice in the Artic, a force 5 hurricane pounding the Bahamas, wildfires in the Amazon and California, the most costly typhoon in Japanese history, Cyclone Bubul which displaced millions in India and Bangladesh. And the year ended with Australia in flames.
Total damage from climate change related disasters last year was over $200 billion with thousands killed and millions displaced. This situation is due to get exponentially worse. Yet it barely registers.
Another part of my ignorance was due to the fact that when I was first involved in environmental politics there was some hope that the most catastrophic aspects of climate change could be avoided. In the mid-noughties it was not necessary to look too closely at the grim details of a warming world. But since the 2006 Climate Camp, 440 billion tonnes of carbon have been emitted. Over a quarter of all human generated CO2 emissions ever have occurred in the last 14 years. https://ourworldindata.org/co2-emissions
Far from annual carbon emissions reducing, they have increased 25% since 2006. The effects of climate change are already with us, they are getting worse, and not only are we unprepared but emissions are still increasing. The worst case scenario is not simply civilisational collapse but extinction.
The Uninhabitable Earth begins by explaining that four of the previous five mass extinctions were due to climate change (the fifth was the famous asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs). The most devastating extinction event occurred 250 million years ago and killed 96% of plants and animals on earth: “it began when carbon dioxide warmed the planet by five degrees, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane, another greenhouse gas, and ended with all but a sliver of life left on earth. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate, by most estimates, at least ten times as fast.”
The entire period of human history, since the start of settled agriculture, has taken place in a stable climate with stable sea levels. We have now left that stable climate behind. But more, we are on a trajectory to leave behind the climate of repeated ice ages, that gave rise to and sustained our whole branch of the evolutionary tree, the great apes. According to some, there is already more carbon in the atmosphere than at any time during the last 15 million years. Some climatologists believe that it could take, not centuries or millennia, but millions of years before the climate returns to the state that has thus far sustained every previous generation of human being.
Of course, the future is unwritten. If we had started to reduce emissions in 1992 after the Rio Earth Summit or in even in 2009 after Copenhagen, then the transition could have been fairly smooth and painless. Today it would involve the biggest mobilisation of the world’s resources in human history.
According to a 2018 MIT Technology Review survey “with three decades left to go [until we should reach zero net carbon emissions], the world was on track to complete the necessary energy revolution in four hundred years.” The book contains a useful list of tasks from futurist Alex Steffen: the transition from dirty electricity to clean sources is the easiest task: “smaller than the challenge of electrifying almost everything that uses power” That task is smaller than the challenge of “reducing energy demand” which is smaller than the challenge of “inventing how goods and services are provided”.
In addition there is a need to “get zero emissions from other sources – deforestation, agriculture, livestock, landfills. And the need to protect all human systems from the coming onslaught of natural disasters and extreme weather. And to erect a system of global government, or at least international cooperation, to coordinate such a project.”
In 2018, the UN called for a World War II style mobilisation. No efforts have been made to this end. Trotskyists are rightly cautious about proclaiming the death agony of capitalism, but this appears to be a crisis that the capitalist class cannot solve.
Alongside a concise summary of the latest science, Wallace-Wells has some interesting observations and critiques of various social and political responses to climate change from wellness culture to plastic panic. He correctly identifies the main obstacle as a paralysis of political will but stops short of suggesting a political strategy. Perhaps part of the reason for this, is that the political force that might emerge to solve the climate crisis – the organised working-class – has been out of view for most of the lifetime of this middle-aged, middle-class New Yorker.
For those of us with a longer historical memory, the urgent task to orient to this new reality, to work out the likely development of the crises ahead and the opportunities for developing working-class agency and power. The one hope is that we know roughly what lies ahead and we can plan to limit the damage and avert catastrophe.
Many such plans already exist. But the world’s wealth and our time and skills as workers are not being placed at the service of such plans. Working-class organisations need to study this hyperobject, develop own plans in collaboration with the best scientific minds, and fight for the resources we need to implement these plans. For those, like me, who have quietly turned their attention from the horrors of climate change, Wallace-Wells' book is a good place to start.