The End of Normal: climate change is upon us

“There is nothing to learn from global warming, because we do not have the time, or the distance, to contemplate its lessons; we are after all not merely telling the story but living it.” David Wallace-Wells

[Editor’s Note: This article comprises most of an earlier article called “When the Flames Hit the Christmas Tree,” minus the introductory material about two personal experiences with house fires. This version focuses entirely on the book by David Wallace-Wells, with updated references to current environmental and political realities.]

It’s the iconic image of the decade - the inexplicable and infuriating juxtaposition of the Amazon rain forest ablaze and the U.S. President lying to skip out on the G-7 climate crisis meeting! What Donald Trump will never understand - and what you and I simply must grasp - is that climate change is a fact now, not something coming down the pike someday, perhaps. 

The response of the human race to climate change has been sluggish, marked by procrastination, finger-pointing and nay-saying. We’ve soothed ourselves with recycling programs to “save the earth” and efforts to get the plastic out of the ocean and workshops on “carbon footprint,” but we’ve not, as a whole, really looked at the “conflagration” right before our eyes. And now it is, in fact, a conflagration - the burning of the earth’s “lungs” from which comes twenty percent of our oxygen!

Earlier this year I read David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth. That is to say, I struggled through it. This is not, in my opinion, an easy book to read or a particularly pleasant one. It’s a thoughtfully organized compendium of all the studies and statistical models (duly attributed, each one) explaining global warming and its effect – now and to come – on the earth and all living things. Flung about here and there are stinging comments about liberalism and capitalism and liberal capitalism. It’s tough reading, but I think you ought to read it, because the “fire” of climate catastrophe was already ignited well before the Amazon rain forest took fire, and it simply will not be denied, no matter the official position of any government or religion or individual.

 Wallace-Wells jumps right in with his opening line: “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” That climate change will come slowly – or even that it is to come in some not-yet-arrived future – is dead wrong, he tells us. And the change that has already begun, the warming of the earth, will consistently wreak harm on every aspect of life – not just the coastlines or the polar ice cap, not just the southern hemisphere, not just the outdoors. Lives will be lost or dramatically altered beyond anything we can actually imagine. 

Furthermore, we can no longer kid ourselves that this is just a “natural cycle” that will right itself eventually. The earth might continue to exist, but it will never, ever be the earth we know now. How horribly changed it will be 50 or 100 years from now is still within our grasp, but it will never be the world as we know it today. “You might hope to simply reverse climate change; you can’t. It will outrun all of us,” Wallace-Wells writes. And that was my first devastating realization: that the fire of destruction was lit well before the avaricious denuding of the rain forest, and our grandchildren will never have the “home” in which we have lived.

However, our recent experience of more vicious hurricanes in greater number, epic rainfall, daytime temperatures actually reaching beyond 120 degrees Fahrenheit, deadly fires in California, do not suggest that climate change has arrived in its final form, ushering in the “new normal,” the author explains. “The truth is actually much scarier. That is, the end of normal; never normal again… We have not, at all, arrived at a new equilibrium. It is more like we’ve taken one step out on the plank off a pirate ship…

“There is nothing to learn from global warming, because we do not have the time, or the distance, to contemplate its lessons; we are after all not merely telling the story but living it…

“[G]lobal warming…is a function that gets worse over time as long as we continue to produce greenhouse gas… we are only just entering our brave new world, one that collapses below us as soon as we set foot on it.” To make matters worse, the author explains that “Global warming is not a perpetrator; it’s a conspiracy.” No matter the exact cause of each wildfire, for example, “each is burning faster, bigger and longer because of global warming, which gives no reprieve to fire season.” Calling climate change a war machine that might destroy us, he says, “Each day we arm it more.”

The assaults, Wallace-Wells explains, will produce “a new kind of cascading violence, waterfalls and avalanches of destruction, the planet pummeled again and again, with increasing intensity and in ways that build on each other and undermine our ability to respond… subverting the promise that the world we have engineered and built for ourselves, out of nature, will also protect us against it.” That point – the cascading violence that will undermine our ability to respond – that’s the second point of The Uninhabitable Earth that drove me to read on, suspecting I’d eventually be begging you to read the book too.

Here is an example of a “cascading effect” explained in the book:

  • Higher temperatures cause more forest fires

  • More forest fires mean fewer trees

  • With fewer trees, less carbon is absorbed

  • More carbon left in the atmosphere makes the planet hotter

  • Which means more forest fires, fewer trees, and so on

  • A warmer planet means more water vapor (a greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere

  • More greenhouse gas in the atmosphere makes the planet even hotter

  • The oceans warm, and now they absorb less heat and contain less oxygen

  • Phytoplankton, which eat carbon and produce oxygen in the oceans, die

  • And so, more carbon, less oxygen, and the planet gets even hotter

I’d never considered such cascades of destruction. Here’s another one:

  • Climate-driven water shortages cause crop failures, creating “climate refugees”

  • Such refugees emigrate to nearby regions already struggling with scarce resources

  • Rising sea levels…

    • Push saltwater onto croplands, rendering them unable to produce food

    • Flood power plants, knocking out electricity

    • Cripple chemical and nuclear plants which now breathe out toxic plumes

  • And amid all of that, climate refugees continue moving in where there is no electricity, a shortage of food, desperately limited housing…

We will experience a “climate caste system,” Wallace-Wells explains, “an unwitting environmental apartheid… countries with lower GDPs will warm the most.” The threat will be everywhere, in some fashion, he says, “overwhelming, and total.” He laments today’s rising nationalism around the world that ill prepares us to cooperate in the face of this global threat: “That collapse of trust is a cascade too.” 

In case you still view this devastation as something to come, possibly something to be averted or pushed off onto someone else’s plate, Wallace-Wells points out: “Eight-hundred million in South Asia alone, the World Bank says, would see their living conditions sharply diminished by 2050 on the current emissions track.” And where do you suppose those 800,000,000 people will go? If the planet warms by 3.7 degrees Celsius, the cost of damages would be twice the total wealth of today’s world. “Our current emissions trajectory takes us over 4 degrees by 2100.”  At that point we will completely retreat from economics and growth as “orienting beacons.”

Skeptics, like the buffoon now occupying the Oval Office, like to believe that the causes of global warming are unclear, or that the changes we see now are simply the result of a natural cycle – therefore warming is beyond our control. But Wallace-Wells shoots back: “We found a way to engineer devastation, and we can find a way to engineer our way out of it.” He is actually optimistic! If we can hold global warming to less than four degrees Celsius, he says, there is hope. Devastation and suffering will be beyond anything we can imagine, but there is still hope. We could get to “merely grim, rather than apocalyptic,” he says, if we change inaction into action.

The author gives us until 2040 (little more than twenty years!) to unplug the entire industrialized world from fossil fuels, and he says, “avenues are open.” Two-thirds of American energy is wasted, Wallace-Wells claims. Mining bitcoin, he says, “consumes more electricity than is generated by all the world’s solar panels combined… Seventy percent of the energy produced by the planet, it’s estimated, is lost as waste heat.” But, he says, individual lifestyle choices must be “scaled by politics” to make a meaningful difference. The author believes we could build a revolution in the way we generate power, electric or political. “How much hotter will it get? … the answer is almost entirely human – which is to say, political… Three-quarters of a century since global warming was first recognized as a problem, we have made no meaningful adjustment to our production or consumption of energy to account for it and protect ourselves.”

And yet this author, who clearly has studied climate change from every angle, has reason to be optimistic. That’s why I want everyone to read The Uninhabitable Earth, so we can, collectively, understand how bad it could get and, collectively, recognize what we can do to mitigate the damage and suffering for the generations of our loved ones to come.

In 1984, when my living room was on fire, I thought a spark reaching a gasoline-soaked Christmas tree would mean utter devastation. Global warming had already begun by then. It was already on the agenda at some conferences and symposia and in a few volumes on library shelves. But I couldn’t see past the flames on my own little coffee table. Now I can. Read The Uninhabitable Earth, and your eyes, too, will be open to the disaster hurtling toward us (and of our own making) and, possibly, to the solutions we might engineer, should we choose to collaborate as a human race.