“The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells is the most terrifying book I have ever read. Its subject is climate change, and its method is scientific, but its mode is Old Testament. The book is a meticulously documented, white-knuckled tour through the cascading catastrophes that will soon engulf our warming planet: death by water, death by heat, death by hunger, death by thirst, death by disease, death by asphyxiation, death by political and civilizational collapse.
And should they escape death, your children and grandchildren might subsist instead through proto-apocalyptic ruin. There is a strong chance that warming will reduce global economic output by more than 20 percent and a chance that output could fall by half — a toll you might better describe as at least one, and possibly two or three, Great Depressions. War will not merely break out; a continuing, all-out resource war might be the steady-state of the next chapter of human civilization.
In 2017, when Mr. Wallace-Wells, a writer at New York Magazine, published similarly dire projections in a blockbuster article, he was criticized even by some climate scientists for reveling in the bleakest case. But his piece was one of the first articles I’d read that honestly drew out the most horrific possibilities of climate change, and in the two years since — years of hurricane and monsoon, fire and flood, mud slides, heat waves, the polar vortex — Mr. Wallace-Wells’s imagine-the-worst approach has become prescient.
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The Earth keeps surpassing all superlatives, right before our eyes. “The weather is cooperating,” Mr. Wallace-Wells told me recently.
We should expect it to continue cooperating. I read this book with an unfolding mix of horror and hopelessness, the way you might learn of a terminal diagnosis that affects yourself and your family and everyone else you might ever hope to know. My Google searches over the past few weeks include queries like “global warming best cities” and “prepping 101.”
What so riled me up was not just the projected devastation but also the obvious incapacity of our political system to even begin to comprehend the suffering to come, let alone mitigate it. It struck me that what we need to fight climate change is not just some new political plan but a whole new politics — the sort of thorough reimagining of stakes that humanity has only previously achieved during times of total war.
But climate change is not war. There is no enemy, other than ourselves. And we are very bad, as individuals or collectively, at fighting ourselves over anything.
This thought chilled me.
Then, one late night after taking a dose of a kind of sleep medicine that is now widely available in California, I had an epiphany:
Pretend it’s aliens.
“Pretend” is a strong word, but we live in an age of delusion. People who think vaccines are accursed; NBA players who believe the planet is shaped more like a Frisbee than a basketball; full-grown adults who maintain, against all evidence, that immigration poses an existential threat to the United States — every day, we encounter rivers of rank ridiculousness. And for the most part we have come to grudgingly accept this ubiquity as the price of living in a digital wonderland.
Yet if delusion can elevate the trivial to the top of cable news, why couldn’t it perform the same sleight of hand for the actually important?
Last year, Avi Loeb, a renowned astrophysicist at Harvard, co-authored a paper speculating that a recently discovered interstellar object named Oumuamua “may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth’s vicinity by an alien civilization.” Mr. Loeb’s suggestion has been pooh-poohed by his academic colleagues. But experts, schmexperts, right?
Allow yourself to imagine that Oumuamua isn’t just space rock. What if the thing was indeed captained by little green people, gangly and ferocious? And what if their leader let us know her plans for us — perhaps via tweet?
I’m joking, sure; and I’ll admit I had a lot of fun playing out the scenes here. I’m picturing Logan Paul, elevated from YouTube star into commander of the U.S. Space Force, briefing President Trump on a plan to turn coal-power plants into peace museums as a way to fight the aliens. The president is on board, but he has one question: “Can we save America without saving the earth?”
But I am not spinning out this yarn merely as a dumb joke about a blinkered president. Even for people who do believe in global warming, pretending that aliens are attacking the earth accomplishes a neat mental trick. It helps to frame the scope of the threat — civilizational, planet-encompassing — while also suggesting how we might respond: immediately, collectively and for as long as it takes.
Before I understood the horrors that await us, I had thought of climate change as one of a grab-bag of important issues on the lefty to-do list: Give people health care, help them pay for college, fix the climate.
The scale of potential devastation renders such visions laughable. Mitigating climate change and attending to its fallout isn’t going to be a policy plan passed by the next progressive administration. Instead, like the internet and nuclear weapons, the climate is going to be a permanent new feature of our politics. This will be a long-term existential battle that will require remaking every part of society, that might consume other worthy parts of a progressive agenda, that may involve costly and politically unpopular changes to our way of life for years to come, and will necessarily make some people worse off than if we did nothing. But that will be justified, because we understand the stakes: we are fighting murderous aliens.
And all the while, the problem keeps getting worse. Not long ago, a planet that warms by 2 degrees Celsius over the course of the coming century was considered an unimaginable catastrophe to be avoided at any cost. Today, 2 degrees — a level of warming that might induce death from air pollution on the order of “25 Holocausts,” Mr. Wallace-Wells notes — is looking like our best hope. On our current track, we’re shooting for at least 3 degrees of warming, according to the United Nations; according to the Trump administration, we’re headed for at least 4 degrees.
Four degrees of warming will wreak devastation unparalleled in human history. Hundreds of millions will die prematurely, large sections of the planet will be rendered uninhabitable, great herds of humanity will be on the run, and in the most prosperous remaining places, economic growth of any kind might be the exception rather than the norm.
That’s the current path. Yet just about nobody in any position of power talks about global warming with anything reflecting the required level of honesty and alarm. The Green New Deal, the high-level strategy document put out last week by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and her allies, lacks any specificity for how we might accomplish its goals. Not even democratic socialists will frankly describe the costs of averting a warming planet.
And the swiftness with which critics pounced on the Green New Deal suggests that even as the climate gets undeniably less hospitable, we’ll still fall into the same old political trap in which climate remains a small, partisan issue rather than the all-consuming emergency it ought to be.
The whole thing is tragic and lazy, when what we need is heroism and bravery.
If the aliens attacked, we’d do better. I’m sure of it.
We would understand the stakes in the battle ahead. We would apprehend the necessity of sacrifice and perseverance. We would be able to perceive what is happening to our planet and our species as what it plainly is: a war for survival.
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