The End of the Story

The Uninhabitable Earth paints a picture of the world after climate change—and suggests the limits of the way we think about the human narrative.

A barren desert landscape.
Nicolas Jehly on Unsplash

It was very surprising when, in July 2017, David Wallace-Wells’ New York magazine cover story “The Uninhabitable Earth” went viral immediately upon publication. It then went on to become the most widely read story in New York’s 50-plus-year history, a distinction it held until an excerpt from Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury surpassed it last year.* As the editor of the science section of a magazine, I can tell you that normally stories about climate change are a tricky sell; it’s a sprawling, slow-moving topic that has traditionally felt less urgent than basically all other news, and it also has the side benefit of making everyone depressed. Readers are generally not here for it, and the ones who are tend to be a self-selected group. Wallace-Wells inverted this problem by writing a piece that felt both urgent and terrifying. His premise was to ask, simply and effectively: What if climate change is actually going to be just a little bit worse than we think? The resulting disaster movie was horrifying enough to make everyone pay attention.

It was also not without controversy. Many scientists immediately took issue with the exact aspect of Wallace-Wells’ story that made it so readable and compelling, spurring an enormously self-defeating conversation in which many argued that it was somehow irresponsible to describe a potential, if slightly less likely, outcome of the most destructive threat facing humanity today. In the year and a half since, Wallace-Wells has stood his ground, defending his piece as the exact point of what journalism is supposed to do: tell people true things about the world they (might) inhabit, even if they are frightening. In a debate with one of his chief critics, Michael Mann, at New York University last year, Wallace-Wells placated Mann and others by reassuring them that they share the same goal: to steer humanity toward a course of climate change that is less catastrophic than the picture he has constructed in his written work. Meanwhile, though, he has also turned his piece into a book with essentially the same title, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, which begins with nearly the same line as the piece—“It is worse, much worse, than you think”—and then, if anything, digs deeper into the original premise. The bulk of the book is an expanded, horrifying assessment of what we might expect as a result of climate change if we don’t change course. The result is a frightening, compelling text that re-raises the question: In the face of existential threat, what role can storytelling hope to play?

Wallace-Wells is an extremely adept storyteller, simultaneously urgent and humane despite the technical difficulty of his subject. That adeptness is tested by the same problem confronted by anyone who wishes to explain climate change’s impact: how to describe its scale in space and in time. Space is the easier of the two, which is not to say that it’s easy; one of the most impressive elements of the book is the way it manages, in its first section (called “Elements of Chaos,” and it delivers), to be truly global in its scope. As Wallace-Wells rattles through the crises we face, in chapters bearing titles like “Heat Death,” “Drowning,” and “Unbreathable Air,” he takes pains to explain where in the world things will be the worst (usually poorer places closer to the equator). But the problem of scope goes well beyond moving outside of our reflexive prioritization of our own homes; it also requires us to internalize a planetary system that is at once so large as to be incomprehensible, and yet so intimately connected that a shift in one place—perhaps a temperature increase in the ocean—will affect weather (and survival) in another by, say, increasing hurricane strength in the mid-Atlantic. Wallace-Wells describes these interconnected elements through the idea of “cascades,” an “if this, then that” approach to a world in chaos:

As with all else in climate, the melting of the planet’s ice will not occur in a vacuum, and scientists do not yet fully understand exactly what cascading effects such collapses will trigger: One major concern is methane, particularly the methane that might be released by a melting Artic, where permafrost contains up to 1.8 trillion tons of carbon, considerably more than is currently suspended in the earth’s atmosphere. When it thaws, some of it will evaporate as methane, which is, depending on how you measure, at least several dozen times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Writing about the future requires speculation, which is made even more speculative by the largest unknown: how much warming we will see at all. This reality forces Wallace-Wells to constantly shift between possibilities—warming of 1.5 degrees, 2 degrees, 5 degrees, etc. The ultimate effect of all of this is to feel as if Wallace-Wells is scanning through the entire world with a sort of overactive bionic eye, zooming in on different problems, calculating the risk, and then zooming back out and over to something else.

David Wallace-Wells headshot.
David Wallace-Wells. Beowulf Sheehan

If that sounds overwhelming, well, it is. And yet it’s the other problematic element, time, that worries me much more. Climate change is going to change everything, but the problem has always been that it is happening cataclysmically fast on a geological scale and far too slowly on a human perception scale. The book crystallizes this too-fast-and-yet-too-slow discrepancy as climate change’s most frustrating element, particularly in how the temporal disconnect separates action from consequence and trips up blame. The pace of “Elements of Chaos” takes its cue from the feeling of being roiled by natural disaster, but that’s only how it will feel if you’re everywhere at once, and no one will be. In his attempt to explain how climate change will kill, Wallace-Wells does a terrifyingly good job of moving between the specific and the abstract, describing the fates of two couples in California forced to take refuge in their swimming pools during wildfires (one couple survived, the other did not) and then calculating just how many people could be at elevated risk from each threat. The death toll from flooding, for example, will be 50 percent higher at 2 degrees warming than it is today; climate change’s collective harm to the world’s ability to grow rice could “imperil the health” of 600 million.

But, as Wallace-Wells points out, 800 million people are already food insecure, and thousands of people drown in floods (and die of asthma, and heat stroke, and forest fires). For me, this frequent reminder of the current baseline was one of the scariest parts of the book. Time’s slippery slowness prevents us from ever fully internalizing how much has already been made worse by climate change, causing us to discount an awfully large amount of harm and destruction as just a normal, unfortunate part of life. Eventually, climate change will just be the deadly water we all swim in, perhaps without even really noticing how much the temperature has changed.

This fear is not allayed by the other substantive section of the book, the far more interesting “Climate Kaleidoscope.” Here, Wallace-Wells moves from explaining the range of possibilities for the destruction of our physical world to analyzing and considering how these changes will affect us as human beings—as people who tell stories and build societies and try, however imperfectly, to fix problems. Each chapter is complete enough to work as a standalone essay, and yet together they serve as … well, if I had to sum it up, a critique of our perception that the human story is one of progress. Through the Wallace-Wells climate change–focused lens, industrialized society is a tragedy in which we thought we had built something enduring while really, we had just exploited fossil fuels into a temporary mirage of an empire that would end up drowning the rest of the world. The harshest criticism of the book is directed, somewhat surprisingly but certainly satisfyingly, at tech giants and America’s current accommodation of the moral corruption that powers Silicon Valley. “That technology might liberate us, collectively, from the strain of labor and material privation is a dream at least as old as John Maynard Keynes,” he writes, and yet it is “never ultimately fulfilled.” Instead, we watch “rapid technological change transforming nearly every aspect of everyday life, and yet yielding little or no tangible improvement in any conventional measures of economic well-being.” This chapter (called “The Church of Technology”) is largely a rebuke of the idea that “technology will save us,” a refrain often grasped as a means of allowing us to carry on with our destructive habits without feeling too bad.

One frustrating part of the book, though, is the way it simultaneously backs up its central thesis—it is worse than you think—while consistently reassuring us that there is still time to do something about it. What should we do? It’s never fully described but is largely understood to be: organize collectively to insist that our governing bodies coordinate an immediate and dramatic reduction in emissions. The Uninhabitable Earth isn’t a guide to how to actually do this, though it does suggest that the barriers to action aren’t as high as we think. Wallace-Wells dispenses with the specter of denialism as the problem (“To believe the fault for global warming lies exclusively with the Republican Party or its fossil fuel backers is a form of American narcissism”). He inverts a somewhat classic debate on liberal hypocrisy so delicately I gasped:

It is a common charge against liberal environmentalists that they live hypocritically—eating meat, flying, and voting liberal without yet having purchased Teslas. But among the woke Left the inverted charge is just as often true: we navigate by a North Star of politics through our diets, our friendships, even our consumption of pop culture, but rarely make meaningful political noise about those causes that run against our own self-interest or sense of self as special—indeed enlightened.

And yet he never goes into explicit detail about how we could make meaningful political noise. His intent is clearly diagnostic. It is, poignantly so. In his concluding chapter, Wallace-Wells asks, “Will we stop? ‘Thinking like a planet’ is so alien to the perspectives of modern life—so far from thinking like a neoliberal subject in a ruthless competitive system—that the phrase sounds at first lifted from kindergarten.” It’s a testament to the book’s wrenching exploration of just how much we have to lose (and again, critically, just how much those who already have the least will lose) that the idea doesn’t sound so silly at all.

Still, his optimism feels hard to square with the preceding 200 pages of detailed disaster. Ultimately, what I’m left wondering is: Who is this book for, exactly? Wallace-Wells’ response to the critics who argued that he was unproductively scaring people was to correctly point out that there are way more people not alarmed enough about climate change than there are people who are too alarmed. The book, then, is for them. It will undeniably alarm them. What I can’t help but wish is that it also offered them a plan, in part because Wallace-Wells has proven himself to be such a skilled argument-maker and remarkable storyteller on the hardest subject of our time.

In the end, though, I think it’s unfair to ask that he apply his narrative imagination not just to the worst-case scenario but to the solution; after all, the solution is both mind-numbingly obvious and impossible to imagine. In that way, one of the last lessons of The Uninhabitable Earth might be to show us the limits of storytelling. In the end, all David Wallace-Wells can really do is dare us to prove him wrong.

*Correction, Feb. 16, 2019: This piece originally misstated that “The Uninhabitable Earth” was still the most read story in New York Magazine’s history. It was surpassed by an excerpt of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury in 2018.