This is a very important book, and having just finished it. I feel compelled to run to the nearest bookstore and buy copies for everyone I know. I’m not sure who will read it, as it’s pretty harrowing stuff. But as fantastical as the author’s claims about the threats facing humanity may seem, I am fully persuaded by them. Life on earth is staring down the barrel of massive climate-related disruption and suffering — this is supported by a vast body of research: and while the destruction has already affected many species on the planet, it is on the verge of engulfing our own, probably sooner than most people suspect.
The problem with most academic, scientific writing is that scientists are very cautious about over-stating their conclusions, as they should be, and tend to couch their views in degrees of certainty, clouded by the language of statistics. They also tend to over-specialize, making it hard to synthesize conclusions across a broad body of related research. Institutions such as the IPCC try to step in and play the role of collating knowledge, but these bodies tend to get bogged down with massive teams of co-authors, beset by political considerations that blunt their arguments.
This leaves a very important role for the science writer who can bring it all together and say, in direct and clear terms, what it all means, “to the best of our understanding”. Occasionally academics can do this effectively, but writers with a journalistic background who have truly done the work can be effective, and here David Wallace-Wells has done the best job of anyone I have read (eclipsing Elizabeth Kolbert) at getting to the brutal, devastating crux of the matter.
I have been listening to the audiobook over the past couple of weeks during my commute into New York City, and cannot shake the sensation, as I pass through a panorama of glass and steel buildings on my way to work, of being surrounded by ghosts–that this all may be emptied or destroyed in no more than a generation or two. This is, of course, imagery already captured effectively by Hollywood.
Is it possible that the author overstates the risks here — overly focusing on the most negative outcomes? On the whole, I find this to be a well-balanced work, and hardly the “propaganda” that some reviewers claim. However two points did occur to me that Wallace-Wells does not devote as much time to as I think he should. The first is a geographic reality: the fact that there is a lot of landmass in the upper latitudes of the northern hemisphere — Russia, Canada, Scandinavia and Greenland — that presumably will not be rendered uninhabitable by climate change and could potentially become much more habitable, with longer warm seasons and higher soil fertility. That fact does not preclude massive disruption and suffering, as relocating the mass of the world’s population is not easily done (and may not be possible at all) — but it is an element that the author should consider, and explore.
A second point is over the potential for technology to help in our dilemma. Wallace-Wells treats this “techno-saviorism” dismissively, and I think he is right to challenge the assumption that “technology will always bail us out.” Yes, this is far from certain, and indeed technology is in a sense the source of the very problem we face. But recent advances, for example, in carbon capture technology allowing carbon to be restored to solid form do provide some glimmer of a hope. Yes, it is still far from being practical, but can we really dismiss the possibility that technology can ultimately prove transformational?”
Andrew Howell is a strategist at Citi Group in New York where he heads up the Frontier Markets group. He lives in Maplewood, NJ, with his wife, Karen, a public defender in Newark, and two or our four grandchildren.