books climate change

Book review: The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace Wells

“If you have made it this far, you are a brave reader” writes David Wallace Wells about halfway through this weighty overview of climate change effects. It’s a fair comment. The Uninhabitable Earth is a harrowing book, but an important one.

Climate change campaigners face something of a conundrum. We want people to be inspired to act. We also need them to know what’s at risk. We don’t want people to slump into despondent inaction at the scale of the challenge, but to tell it like it is leaves us open to the accusation of being ‘scare-mongering’. It’s a no win situation, into which David Wallace-Wells has fearlessly strode with a deeply uncompromising book.

“It is worse, much worse, than you think”, he begins. And from that first sentence the book patiently outlines the full effects of climate change. A series of chapters explains the unfolding risk from heat, hunger, floods, fire and a host of other disasters. Then we consider the climate impact on the economy, how it will affect human health, or its potential as a threat multiplier in conflict.

The second half of the book then looks at how climate change will affect us culturally. What kind of stories will we tell? What will it mean for politics, or consumerism? How will we come to understand history, as climate change overturns our assumptions of progress? By the end of the book, there’s no aspect of life left untouched by the changes we are making to the atmosphere.

“Alarmism!” some of you will be thinking, but Wallace-Wells knows that and doesn’t care. He has good reasons for writing about worst case scenarios. “When we dismiss the worst-case possibilities” he writes, “it distorts our sense of likelier outcomes, which we then regard as extreme scenarios we needn’t plan so conscientiously for.” He’s entirely correct about this – almost all political discussion revolves around 2 degrees of warming and how it can be avoided. That suggests that it’s 2 degrees that we have to fear and work hard to avoid. In reality our current trajectory takes us to 4 degrees of warming, and 2 degrees is the low end of what we can expect.

Ignoring the catastrophic end of climate impacts for the sake of policital expediency is a recipe for complacency. While I try to focus on solutions myself, we shouldn’t shy away from telling the truth about how serious things are.

David Wallace-Wells is not the first person to have written a brutally honest book about climate change. (Hell and High Water comes to mind, or the Dark Mountain Project) There are several reasons why this one is worth reading. First, it may be bleak but it’s not sensationalised. The author is very clear where things are speculative, and there’s more than enough horror in observable trends. Second, Wallace-Wells is a journalist and editor, not an environmentalist. When editing his magazine, he looks for stories that aren’t being covered, and that’s exactly what this is. It goes places that the green movement doesn’t go to, and it’s not a piece of fearmongering environmentalism. It’s also exhaustively researched and if anything looks contentious, there are detailed notes at the back that put things in context.

Perhaps most importantly for any book if you’re going to actually read it, Wallace-Wells writes with real power and flair. He writes in long sentences that unfold and extend and build momentum. It’s a thunderclap of a book, and exactly what we need right now.

  • Since there’s nothing on solutions in the book, don’t make this the one book you read on climate change this year. Read it alongside Drawdown.
  • The Uninhabitable Earth is available from Hive, Amazon UK and Amazon US.

3 comments

  1. Just finished reading, or at least skimming, this book. If there is a reader out there who is curious about just how bad our situation can get with even a degree or two of warming, and who finds statistical predictions relatable (20% more of this, 40% less of that), then this book could be an eye-opening read. Otherwise, it’s just chapter after chapter of an outline for the end times, marked by famine, mass extinctions, drowned cities, waves of refugees, drought, floods, hyperthermia, etc. Anyone who has been paying attention to climate research for the past few years has already heard it, and the numbers numb the comprehension after a short while. The lack of solutions or even positive trends left me with a feeling that I should probably eat, drink and be merry as soon as possible, since there is no way out of this mess.

    1. Yes, it’s certainly bleak! It has it’s place – it’s important to calibrate our imaginations of the future by contemplating a worst case scenario, as long as we don’t let fatalism creep in and do nothing to prevent that worst case scenario. That’s why and I recommend reading this alongside a more solutions-based book such as Drawdown.

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