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The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

This book lays out the horrifying facts about climate change in a compelling and urgent way. 

In The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells takes a comprehensive stroll through the very real perils that the world is facing from climate change. He opens with a devastating picture of just how quickly we’re going to see real suffering and destruction, running through a number of scenarios of varying magnitudes. He references recent weather events that were incredibly disruptive, and goes on to explain how the scale of these pales into insignificance in comparison with what is coming. 

Then he dives more deeply into separate areas: heat death, hunger, drowning and so on. Each of these chapters again forcibly makes its point over and over as Wallace-Wells presents the unassailable research that backs all of this up.  

The prospects for a time as close as 2100 seem truly awful. If that seems distant then think about a child born today. They might comfortably expect to still be alive in 2100, aged just 81. 

The horrors compound on each other. All of the evidence is detailed in well over a hundred pages of very comprehensive notes, where arguments are often developed further. The interested reader has no end of further exploration available to them. 

The book does grapple a bit with the fact that even though we sort-of know a lot of this, political will is rarely there to do anything about it. From the Paris accord to the rapid industrialisation of countries like China or India. We live for the now and not for tomorrow.  

There’s also an interesting argument about how climate change rarely features as a “villain” in popular culture. The Day After Tomorrow aside, we prefer to see our climate villains as big business chiefs who don’t care about pollution or oil company executives. We need a person rather than a thing to blame.  

And it’s to the author’s credit that he also explores the extremists who posit that humanity is going to end in the very near future. As ever, deep within YouTube and the internet, there are those who make these claims which aren’t supported by proper science. This kind of over-claiming doesn’t help, because one of the challenges climate scientists face is getting outright dismissal of everything if anything they ever say doesn’t come true. Wallace-Wells argues that this has led to scientists painting a sometimes brighter picture than they really should. 

My only real complaints are the book are the sections that consider life elsewhere in the universe. While he rightly poo-poos thoughts that we can just build a colony on Mars or somewhere – places that have vastly more extreme weather than even the worst outcomes we might get on earth in the foreseeable future – discussions about life elsewhere aren’t really extensive enough. Paul Davies’ 2010 The Eerie Silence is probably a better bet. 

My other issue is do with mixed units of measurement. Units of temperature are usually Celsius, but because the author is American, we will sometimes jump to Fahrenheit. Similarly, measurements of height will switch between metres and feet, seemingly depending on where the science originated. The book should be consistently metric. 

But overall, this is powerful book and the urgency is real. 

Thanks to Netgalley and Penguin-UK Allen Lane for my ARC. The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future is out now.