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Uninhabitable Earth?

David Wallace-Wells’ article “The Uninhabitable Earth,” New York Magazine, July 9, 2017 has created a furor of criticism, people bouncing off walls from coast to coast. Consider – the title of the article says it all!

The critics, including prominent climate scientists, claim Wallace-Wells’ conclusions are dangerously exaggerated, but are they really? Additional criticism is leveled by some of the first-rate news sources on climate change, like Grist: “Stop scaring people about climate change. It doesn’t work.”

For sure, Wallace-Welles’ opening in his New York Mag article describes Armageddon. In one paragraph, the reader finds “terrors” beyond anything ever imagined, “even within the lifetime of a teenager today.” Drowning cities may be expected, but according to Wallace-Welles, “fleeing the coastline will not be enough.” But to where?

That’s just for openers, moreover: “No matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough.” Wallace-Welles hits hard, never taking his foot off the accelerator. Full speed ahead, we are doomed, and it happens soon “within the lifetime of a teenager today.”

After years of studying peer-review climate research and writing over 200 articles, it’s easy to agree with David Wallace-Welles’ statement: “What follows is not a series of predictions of what will happen — that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action. It is unlikely that all of these warming scenarios will be fully realized, largely because the devastation along the way will shake our complacency. But those scenarios, and not the present climate, are the baseline. In fact, they are our schedule.”

That schedule includes frightening highlights, to wit: According to most of the scientists he spoke with, Miami and Bangladesh are toast this century, even if fossil fuel burning comes to a sudden halt within 10 years. Dismally, the paleoclimate evidence shows the ocean, when the planet was “even four degrees warmer,” well above the Florida landmass – gulp. Regrettably, “The most recent U.N. Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change report projects us to hit four degrees warming by the beginning of the next century.” By the way, that’s probably conservative. That’s how the IPCC works.

Fascinatingly, he delves into the secretive opinions of leading scientists, which is refreshing, as well as deeply disturbing, but seldom, if ever, brought out in public: “But the many sober-minded scientists I interviewed over the past several months — the most credentialed and tenured in the field, few of them inclined to alarmism and many advisers to the IPCC who nevertheless criticize its conservatism — have quietly reached an apocalyptic conclusion, too: No plausible program of emissions reductions alone can prevent climate disaster.”
The operative statement therein: “Scientists… have quietly reached an apocalyptic conclusion, too.” It’s one of the world’s best-kept secrets that scientists either low-ball their research or risk job/grant loss! That lamentable fact has been publicly admitted by some of the world’s top climate scientists (mentioned in previous articles as well as captured on tape). It is a scandalous disservice to the public, to life, to the ecosystem.
Another major criticism of the article is that gloom and doom turns people off and turns people away, which may or may not be true. However, polls show it does turn people off. Still, without alarms, fires burn to the ground. In the case of global warming it is so big it requires big clanging alarms.
The danger of downplaying risks is aptly described by Wallace-Welles when he compares today’s climate to the most notorious extinction event of 252 million years ago: “It began when carbon warmed the planet by five degrees, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane in the Arctic, and ended with 97 percent of all life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster. The rate is accelerating. This is what Stephen Hawking had in mind when he said, this spring, that the species needs to colonize other planets in the next century to survive.”

“We are adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate, by most estimates, at least ten times faster.” Frankly, nothing more needs to be said about the credibility of his underlying thesis if that fact alone is true. Ten times faster today than what caused an extinction event of 97% of life is enough to wake up in the middle of the night screaming!

If 10 times faster is not bad enough, consider this statement in the article: “Since 1980, the planet has experienced a 50-fold increase in the number of places experiencing dangerous or extreme heat; a bigger increase is to come.” That’s 50xs.

We’ve already experienced a sampling of deadly global warming gone amuck, which provides some insight to Wallace-Welles’ projected four degree increase in temps, assuming no aggression action is taken to stem the tide: “At four degrees, the deadly European heat wave of 2003, which killed as many as 2,000 people a day, will be a normal summer.”

If Wallace-Welles’ initial chapter is not chilling enough, headlines of subsequent chapters spell certain doom: (II) Heat Death (III) The End of Food (IV) Climate Plagues (V) Unbreathable Air (VI) Perpetual War (VII) Permanent Economic Collapse (VIII) Poisoned Oceans (IX) The Great Filter. That’s unrelenting doom and gloom of an ecosystem gone astray or, in the final analysis, ecosystem destruction. If a movie theatre previewed a documentary entitled Ecosystem Destruction, nobody’s around to see it.

Wallace-Welles provides insight to the deadly force of The Great Acceleration, without identifying it as such, which under human influence turbo-charges the ecosystem. Already, the Amazon rain forests, a significant source of oxygen for the planet, suffered its 2nd 100-year-drought in the space of only 5 years in 2010. That’s acceleration! Whatever happened to once-in-100-year droughts?

Arctic meltdown/methane hydrates/runaway global warming, Greenland meltdown/23’ water frozen in ice, splintering Antarctica/200’ water frozen in ice, glacial water towers disintegrating, ocean acidification, coral reef bleaching, accelerating desertification, permafrost methane eruption, 100-year droughts every 5 years, rainforest destruction/oxygen deprivation, and the sudden emergence of eco-migrants for the first time is but a partial list of what’s going wrong from continent to continent and throughout the ocean system, the whole enchilada under severe stress.

Clandestinely hidden in the outskirts, climate change is most pronounced and deadly on the fringes of the ecosystem where the least number of people live. Who notices, other than scientists?

Wallace-Welles mentions Wally Broecker (84) who works at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory as one of the scientists who first identified the changing climate. He is of the opinion, at this late stage, “no amount of emissions reduction alone can meaningfully help avoid disaster.” He believes the only possible solution may be geoengineering but yet untested and highly controversial; it may cause as many problems as it fixes. Nobody knows for sure. Although, where’s the groundswell to actually do something?

On an upbeat note, according to Wallace-Welles’ final statements: “Nevertheless, by and large, the scientists have an enormous confidence in the ingenuity of humans — a confidence perhaps bolstered by their appreciation for climate change, which is, after all, a human invention, too. They point to the Apollo project, the hole in the ozone we patched in the 1980s, the passing of the fear of mutually assured destruction. Now we’ve found a way to engineer our own doomsday, and surely we will find a way to engineer our way out of it, one way or another.”

That’s not nearly as doom and gloom as the critics claim. He ends on an upbeat note. But it’s more likely him throwing a bone to his readership.

David Wallace-Welles’ article is well written, and it serves a good purpose. It brings to surface uproar. How else expose a problem as large as the planet itself? Beyond the doom and gloom, it may be fixable, hopefully. But realistically, it does not look very promising, especially with America so far off course, goosing The Great Acceleration like never before!

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Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at rlhunziker@gmail.com.

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