The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells [Book Summary – Review]

David Wallace-Wells paints a terrible picture: the world we live in is about to undergo a profound and devastating transformation. Our environmental harm is almost irreversible. Our once-prosperous ways of life will soon come to an end and crumble due to our complacency and irresponsibility, which have finally caught up with us. 

If this seems bleak and horrific, it is. Within a single generation, the fragile climate of Earth was pushed to its breaking point, and the children have failed to atone for the misdeeds of their parents. We must now face the repercussions and take action to help this unfortunate situation get better. 

It’s not an easy book to read, but The Uninhabitable Earth lays out just what a warmer planet will mean for humanity. In the coming century, we’re in for a rough ride due to a lack of fresh water, catastrophic floods, and maybe the reemergence of long-extinct illnesses. 

You’ll learn more in these chapters. 

  • why grains are losing their nutritional value; 
  • why the internet is in danger due to climate change; and 
  • how climate cascades exacerbate every problem. 

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Chapter 1 – The objectives of the Paris climate agreement are utterly unrealistic.  

To establish a new set of objectives to combat climate change, the majority of the world’s leaders gathered in Paris in 2015. Many people assumed that humanity had turned the corner on its dark past because politicians had appeared to recognize the seriousness and urgency of our problem. The primary goal of these debates was to keep world average temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, which is commonly recognized as the point at which disaster starts to occur. 

But there’s a catch: we’re going to break over this 2-degree barrier. 

Consider the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which was published in 2018. It claims that even if nations move swiftly to combat global warming and implement all of the Paris Agreement’s recommendations, global temperatures would likely rise by 3.2 degrees before warming ceases. What’s worse is that no industrialized nation is currently even close to implementing all of the necessary policy adjustments. 

Specifically, what does the above mean? In other words, even our new best-case scenario appears to be rather grim. 

The world’s ice sheets would still melt during our lifetimes even if nations awoke tomorrow and somehow met Paris’ emissions targets. Over a hundred cities, including Miami, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, would eventually experience flooding as a result of this. The United States would see a 600% increase in the annual area burnt by wildfires, and southern Europe would experience persistent drought with 3 degrees of warming. 

Also, keep in mind that this is an optimistic viewpoint. 

By 2100, the UN projected a worst-case scenario with temperatures rising by an astounding 8 degrees. When temperatures reach this level, equatorial regions are utterly uninhabitable. Our forests would be destroyed by massive firestorms. Cities in two-thirds of the world’s countries would flood, and tropical diseases would spread in what was previously the Arctic. 

However, the fast pace of global warming is possibly the most terrifying aspect. We’re accustomed to conceptualizing Earth in geological terms as a steady, almost sluggish system that changes throughout millions of years. 

This, however, is a deadly fallacy. Since World War II, the vast majority of carbon emissions—more than half—have come from the past three decades. It is not an exaggeration to say that within a generation, the world was brought to its knees and that it is now entirely up to us to save it. 

However, to save the earth, we must comprehend its effects. Also, despite appearances, these are complicated. 

Chapter 2 – As a result of the negative effects of climate change, additional warming is sparked. 

If you’re upset after reading the last chapter, the short answer is that you should be. Even while there is still hope for humanity, some level of calamity is inevitable. Calculating how severe this level will be is challenging since climate change depends on so many various variables, such as how much more carbon we emit or what solutions we develop to mitigate this. 

We don’t fully understand or are even unaware of some of the other, more complex factors that contribute to global warming. Cascades are among these and are the most complicated. A cascade happens when a climate change effect causes the globe to warm, even more, leading to more consequences and even more warmth in a negative feedback loop. 

The melting of Arctic ice sheets is an obvious example of a cascade. Our polar ice caps reflect a significant quantity of sunlight into the universe since white is such a good reflector of light and heat. Less heat is reflected and more heat is absorbed when our ice sheets melt. This causes the ice sheets to melt more quickly and warms the planet even more. 

That’s only one component of this cascade, though. Up to 1.8 trillion tons of carbon are found in Arctic permafrost, which is frozen rock and soil. More heat will result from the release of this carbon into the atmosphere as the permafrost thaws. The worst part is that some of this could dissipate as methane. Methane is an 86-times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide when compared over 20 years in terms of warming impacts. 

Another alarming cascade is wildfires. 

Our forests are more vulnerable to fires as a result of the extreme heat we’re experiencing, with 16 of the 17 hottest years on record occurring since 2000. Additionally, these wildfires are getting worse, lasting longer, and consuming more carbon-sucking plants due to our forests’ drier conditions. 

However, the carbon emissions caused by wildfires are the most dangerous. 

Trees do not cause carbon to disappear when they consume it to produce oxygen. Rather, they keep it in their branches, trunks, and roots. When a wildfire destroys a woodland, carbon that has been stored over many centuries is released back into the sky, thereby turning our woods into carbon sources. This raises global temperatures, increasing the likelihood of future wildfires. 

Nature turning against us as a result of climate change is best illustrated by wildfires. We’ll then look at how climate change is affecting our weather similarly. 

Chapter 3 – Extreme weather is evolving into the new norm. 

Imagine monitoring the weather for the coming week when you get up tomorrow. Depending on the place you live, there may be some bright, clear days interspersed with rain. You would probably be surprised if you saw a severe weather warning. 

However, in the next years, red and amber warnings will start to flash on your screen alarmingly more frequently. After a period, you might start to consider storms and floods to be as routine as getting your hair cut every month. The reality is that this is already taking place. 

The link between storm intensity and global warming is straightforward. More moisture can be held by air as it warms. This makes storms more powerful by delivering greater rains and more severe flooding. 

Regarding hurricanes, meteorologists are aware that they are fueled by warm seas. Hurricane wind speeds rise together with the warmth of our oceans. 

Both the frequency and the severity of storms are increasing. 

The Science Advisory Council of the European Academies reports a two-fold increase in storm frequency since 1980. Sevenfold more damage has been caused by these “garden variety” hurricanes in the United States over that period, even without considering the impact lost workdays have had on economic production. Although you would believe that storm protection measures or advancements in infrastructure have made them simpler to weather, you’d be mistaken: Since 2003, storm-related power outages in the US have increased by twofold. 

Additionally, not only storms but also hurricanes are becoming more frequent. 

Hurricane Irma devastated Caribbean island communities and cost the region $64 billion in damage in September 2017. It was a Category 5 hurricane, the most powerful kind, and it was so violent that these islands might be able to withstand it once every generation. 

However, only a few days later, Hurricane Maria made landfall as a Category 5. In addition to killing almost 3,000 people, this storm cost some of the world’s poorest countries an additional $94 billion in damage. Particularly hard-hit was Puerto Rico, which suffered months-long power and water outages. There was a serious humanitarian situation. 

This double blow is regrettably no longer regarded as an exceptional circumstance. According to research, the probability of Category 4 and 5 storms rises by 25 to 30% globally with every degree of warming. Hurricanes as powerful as Hurricane Katrina from 2005 are predicted to occur twice as frequently by 2100. 

Chapter 4 – Cities and entire nations will be flooded as a result of rising sea levels. 

Since Plato’s day, humans have been enthralled with the legend of Atlantis, a legendary island in the Atlantic Ocean that was sunk by angry gods. However, shortly, we won’t need to use Atlantis as an inspiration for our movies and fiction because the twenty-first century will be filled with plenty of our own. 

This is because of the most well-known effect of climate change, which is the rise in sea levels brought on by melting polar ice caps. In the coming century, if emissions aren’t reduced, our oceans will rise by 1.2 to 2.4 meters. 

Even though these figures appear to be rather innocent at first glance, they are deadly. There will be flooding in Bangladesh, which now has 164 million residents. The White House, the Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, the White House, and all of the world’s most stunning beaches will also be submerged. 

However, this is a problem that doesn’t only exist in the next 100 years. The Indonesian metropolis of Jakarta will be completely underwater by 2050 if global warming continues at its current rate. 

Additionally, many of the computers and fiber optic connections that power the internet—the reason you are reading these chapters right now—could be drowned within the next 20 years. If precautions aren’t followed, Shenzhen, a city in China where a lot of smartphones are made, might potentially experience flooding. 

Things deteriorate further if we look out past 2100. In the following few centuries, oceans will be 6 meters higher if emissions are not reduced immediately. 

Approximately 444,000 square miles of land, including ports, power plants, naval bases, farms, and entire cities, will be submerged by the water in this scenario. Asia will be the region most badly impacted, with major cities like Shanghai, Mumbai, and Kolkata completely submerged or flooded. 

It has been predicted by numerous experts that our actions over the next ten years would be crucial in preventing these apocalyptic scenarios. Given the way we now consume, this is not comforting: The annual carbon emissions from a typical American are equivalent to melting 10,000 tons of Antarctic ice. US consumption is so high that the nation’s emissions would already be cut in half if Americans adopted the carbon footprint of their European counterparts, who live on a continent that is also not well recognized for its environmentally friendly lives. 

Chapter 5 – Mass starvation and malnourishment will result from runaway global warming 

The natural disasters that have been caused by people that we have witnessed so far affect our wellness. Now let’s examine looming climate disasters from a more individualized perspective. 

It is true to argue that grain has been the foundation of civilization. Humans have experienced a food excess ever since the Agricultural Revolution, which began approximately 12,500 years ago with the first crops like barley being cultivated. This made it possible for individuals to dedicate their lives to things other than survival, such as making pottery, working with metal, and practicing their faith. Trade boomed, cities expanded, and empires were built in this new globe. 

Even at present, 40% of our diet is still made up of grains. Two billion people eat primarily rice, which accounts for two-thirds of all food consumed by humans along with wheat and maize. 

Shortly, these necessities won’t alter, but supply and demand will. 

The globe will require twice as much food by 2050, according to the UN. Since a third of the world’s emissions are currently generated by the food industry, this presents a significant issue. However, rising demand is just the beginning; issues with the supply side are much more serious. 

Cereal crop yields fall by roughly 10% for every degree of global warming, largely because it makes the environment less favorable for these plants. Imagine a planet that has warmed by 5 degrees in the year 2050, with 50% less grain and a 2x increase in food demand. 

Where would we plant grain if yields were declining? It is already too hot in the tropics to grow it effectively, and the best places are quickly losing their effectiveness. What happens when the “North” disappears? The natural wheat belt of the earth shifts 160 miles north every ten years. 

Food crops’ nutritional content is reducing as a result of climate change, which has additional, more subtle effects. 

Irakli Loladze, a pioneering mathematician, has been observing this phenomenon for the past 15 years. He found that environments with high carbon dioxide levels increase plant growth but decrease nutritional content. One study that looked into Loladze’s claims discovered that, after 1950, agricultural plants’ nutritional contents decreased by as much as 33%. 

There were around 815 million malnourished individuals in the world in 2016. How many people will there be short if there is a population boom, a food scarcity, and a nutritional crisis? 

Chapter 6 – Disease will increase as the temperature rises. 

We seldom ever pause to consider how much medical research has impacted our lives. The average lifespan in the Roman Empire was around 25 years, and even a little infection may be fatal before the vast manufacture of antibiotics in the twentieth century. 

Climate change, however, has the power to reverse all the advancements that medical science has accomplished over several centuries. In reality, a worldwide health crisis might be just around the corner, one that could be caused by both the resurgence of old diseases and the revitalization of current ones. Dealing with dormant disorders should come first. 

Bacteria from ancient diseases, some of which have been extinct for millions of years, are now trapped in our Arctic ice sheets. Since some of them have existed there longer than Homo sapiens have, our immune systems would be entirely at a loss as to how to combat them. More well-known illnesses, such as smallpox or the bubonic plague, are also present in the ice. 

The Deadly 1918 influenza virus, which caused up to 50 million deaths, was uncovered by one research team searching in Alaskan ice. Furthermore, when a 75-year-old frozen carcass of a reindeer thawed in 2016, two dozen people became sick with anthrax, underscoring the danger that the reappearance of such diseases now imprisoned in ice poses. 

However, the second scenario—the spread of present illnesses—is what medical specialists are most concerned about. Heat and humidity are ideal conditions for disease. Bacteria flourish in warm, moist environments, from salmonella growing in leftover pork to cholera outbreaks throughout the summer in developing nations. As the world’s temperature continues to rise, this poses a major risk to public health. 

Our ecosystems are being irreparably disrupted by global warming, which is facilitating the spread of illness to previously unaffected areas. Consider malaria, which now kills one million people each year, primarily in tropical places. More nations will turn into malaria breeding grounds as global warming picks up speed and the tropical zones of the planet widen. 

The tick is another common pest that spreads disease. This little parasite, which spreads Lyme disease, has a bright future as the earth warms and its habitat expands. In 2010, there were no cases of Lyme disease in either Japan or South Korea, according to author Mary Beth Pfeiffer’s Lyme: The First Epidemic of Climate Change. Since then, the number of cases in these nations has increased significantly, involving hundreds of South Koreans annually. 

Chapter 7 – We are being suffocated by the declining air quality. 

You might want to pause at this point and take a deep breath. However, this might not be a smart idea depending on where you live. Global air quality is currently in a crisis, and some nations are suffering much more than others. Even those that have access to cleaner air won’t be as fortunate for long, as more people are suffocated to death by polluted air, which has become the new normal. 

Currently, there is a serious air issue. 98 percent of cities in underdeveloped nations are safe according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In 2017, simply breathing the air in New Delhi was as harmful as smoking two packs of cigarettes per day. 

Furthermore, the scope of the problem as it exists today is not even remotely represented by these data. Over 10,000 people die every day from air pollution, which currently accounts for one in six fatalities worldwide. These are avoidable. 

The fact that air pollution hurts everyone equally—children, pregnant women, and anyone else—may be its most brutal side effect. Whether it’s the smog in New Delhi or the smokestacks in China, these factors don’t give any groups of people any special consideration. 

Our thoughts are also affected, in addition to our physical well-being. A 2016 study found a strong association between pollution and a rise in childhood mental illness, and a more recent study found that it raises the risk of dementia in later life. 

There are also additional mental impacts of elevated carbon dioxide levels. 

Our brains perform less well when huge concentrations of this greenhouse gas are present, like in stuffy spaces. This explains why, after a vigorous walk, we feel awake and alert after a day of working inside. The cognitive function starts to deteriorate by 21% when carbon dioxide levels reach 930 ppm. Although it is now twice as high in our atmosphere, we may likely reach this level by the year 2100. If that occurs, a quick stroll outside will lower our brainpower by a fifth. 

This reduction in mental ability doesn’t only exist in the realm of “possibilities” and “could,” like the physical harm caused by breathing bad air, it is happening right now. 

According to a 2018 study, math and verbal test scores in China would both increase by 8% and 13% respectively if air pollution were brought down to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) minimal level for clean air. 

Thus, it is obvious that climate change affects our air. The second component of human life, water, is a concern, though. 

Chapter 8 – Freshwater is a resource that is getting harder and harder to find. 

On a blue planet, we reside. The majority of the world is covered by water, which is also essentially what makes us exist. We use it to maintain our cleanliness, stay hydrated, and cultivate our food. Since water is the primary component of most of our bodies, it is also where life first began. 

Humans depend most heavily on freshwater, by far. However, it only makes up 2% of the total freshwater supply on the planet; the remainder is salt water. Additionally, just 1% of the world’s freshwater is usable; the majority is buried beneath the earth or frozen in glaciers. 

Despite popular belief, this is not a problem. According to a study by National Geographic, only 0.007 percent of the water on Earth is required to hydrate seven billion people and cultivate crops. Between 70 and 80 percent of this is used to produce food, with only a minor portion going toward hydration. 

However, in the future decades, a key aspect of climate change will be water scarcity. 

The demand for freshwater on a global scale is predicted to outpace supply by 40% by 2030. This rising demand will primarily be met by increasing agricultural output, which could result in food shortages and further need for agriculture—yet another example of a negative feedback loop. The fact that, in the following 30 years, water demand for world food production is anticipated to rise by 50%, primarily as a result of the growing number of people, only makes the situation worse. 

Additionally, freshwater resources will be severely limited. 

Many of the major lakes in the world began to dry up in the previous century. Since the 1960s, the volume of the Aral Sea in Central Asia, formerly the fourth largest lake in the world, has decreased by 90%, while Lake Chad in Africa, which was once as huge as the Caspian Sea, has lost 95% of its volume. 

Additionally, the majority of the world gets its freshwater through spring melts of high-altitude snow. These snowfalls are extremely vulnerable to global warming, which runs the risk of turning snow-capped peaks into dusty hills. 

By 2050, the UN estimates that five billion people would have insufficient access to fresh water. Furthermore, just like with any limited resource, there will always be groups eager to engage in conflict to gain control of it. We’ll examine the connection between human conflict and climate change in the following chapter. The next few decades of warfare will undoubtedly include water-driven conflicts. 

Chapter 9 – On a hotter, more polluted planet, human conflict grows. 

Climate change can harm human behavior as if the catastrophes mentioned in the previous chapters weren’t already terrible enough. 

Human conflict is significantly influenced by climate change. Depending on the scope, it may be localized, interpersonal, or global. 

On a human level, a wide range of different situations have been connected to greater temperatures. Heat encourages car drivers to honk their horns longer and enhances the likelihood that a baseball pitcher will hit an opposing hitter with their toss. More seriously, hot weather increases the likelihood that police may open fire on criminals during training exercises. 

Violence is also significantly influenced by pollution. In a study of 9,000 US communities, researchers discovered a link between increased auto theft, assault, rape, and murder and excessive air pollution. According to a different study, the US will experience an increase of 22,000 homicides and 3.5 million assaults as a result of climate change. 

It is very difficult to estimate how global warming will affect larger-scale human conflicts. It would be dishonest and misleading to claim that a particular war is the direct result of heat or pollution because all hostilities are complicated, with a variety of various causes and objectives. But one thing is certain: The likelihood of war rises as the temperature rises. 

There are several reasons why this occurs. For instance, drought brought on by climate change reduces agricultural yields, putting pressure on food supplies and escalating competition for them. Additionally, when there are more natural disasters, there will be more refugees and forced migrants, which will cause social and political tensions. 

The likelihood of an armed conflict breaking out anywhere in the world rises by 10 to 20 percent for every half degree of temperature warming. Competition for limited freshwater resources may be the primary cause, or it may be indirect because of growing tensions.  

And this catastrophe is currently occurring, just like many of the ones we’ve already discussed. One study performed by Stanford academic Marshall B. Burke said that by 2030, projected temperatures on the continent would result in an additional 393,000 deaths in combat. Climate change has already raised the likelihood of violence in African countries by over 10%. 

Chapter 10 – Although new technologies offer us means of reducing the severity of these catastrophes, they are now unrealistic. 

You’ve probably guessed by now that nothing looks good. Unfortunately, increased suffering is unavoidable, and we frequently feel helpless in the face of it. However, we are still the creators of this terrible story, and we have the power to alter how cruelly it concludes. It’s only reasonable to wonder, “What can be done to solve it,” when we are gazing at such a grim future. 

Both good and terrible news is contained in the response to this question. We already have the technologies to improve our climate, which is good news. The bad news is that they are currently unfeasible. 

It is not enough to reduce our emissions if we want to go beyond our current best-case scenario of 3 degrees. Instead, we require something more forceful—something that lowers the air’s amount of carbon. This strategy has two variations and is known as negative emissions. 

First, there is what is known as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). To generate bioenergy, this method burns biomass, or plant waste like wheat stalks or maize cobs. 

Producing bioenergy alone would still release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since biomass takes up carbon dioxide during its existence. For this reason, it is integrated with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. These entail gathering the carbon released when burning biomass and moving it to storage locations, typically underground. 

We can therefore actively lower the amount of carbon in the air by cultivating and burning biomass while also capturing and storing the carbon emitted. 

In the second negative emissions strategy, machines would be used to remove carbon from the atmosphere rather than CCS technology, which is still used. Fortunately, these tools already exist. They cost around $30,000 and have a similar level of complexity as a current automobile. 

One research team said that BECCS couldn’t function because it would require a third of the world’s agricultural land, which is untenable given the demand for food worldwide. According to a different study, BECCS may potentially result in the atmospheric addition of carbon if improperly applied. 

Building sizable facilities with carbon-sucking machinery are the second option, but it is extremely expensive. A hundred million machines would be required if we wanted to generate a minor carbon deficit by consuming more than we produce annually. The price tag for this would be $30 trillion, or 40% of global GDP. 

These two solutions will probably get more affordable and efficient over time, but we’re running out of time. How much time do we have left? We are promised that our pain would only become worse as the days pass. 

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells Book Review 

We underestimate how bad the situation is. A variety of climate-related catastrophes, some of which work as self-reinforcing cascades, aggravating global warming and human suffering, pose a threat to humanity’s well-being. Even methods that reduce emissions are currently only a pipe dream in terms of preventing catastrophe. Even while time is running out, we still have a say in how severe the effects of climate change will be. 

Put political leaders under pressure to act. 

Although altering your spending patterns is a noble objective, putting pressure on the political establishment may be more crucial. You must take action right away to force change at the top if you want to stop climate change. To ensure that your opinions are heard, get in touch with your political officials, participate in protests, or join pressure groups actively. 

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