How do we talk about the urgency of climate change without making people tune out? And how do we tell stories that help chart the way out of this emergency? In his new book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming, David Wallace-Wells takes a blunt approach: on the Siberian tundra, reindeer carcasses that have been frozen for decades are thawing, releasing anthrax into the air we breathe; on the Arabian Peninsula, visiting Mecca will soon be physically impossible for many of the 2 million Muslims who make the pilgrimage every year, due to scorching temperatures that make the outdoors increasingly intolerable; by mid-century, around 200 million people are projected to become climate refugees—dispossessed of their home and land, forced to move into and settle in new, potentially hostile communities. This is how Wallace-Wells talks about climate change.
One of the tales absent from Wallace-Wells’s otherwise thorough book is the story of collective action. Perhaps this is because he thinks that “collective action is, dramatically, a snore.” But the last year has breathed new life into the possibility of a mobilized public in the face of climate change, making collective action difficult to ignore. Young people, if they are not breathing anthrax, are also absent from The Uninhabitable Earth. Yet young people have been driving this new wave of popular mobilization.
And herein lies the problem with how we talk about climate change: when we bring to life the darkest ecological visions—an earth made uninhabitable—we acquire the blockbuster appeal that gets heads turning. It takes less sensational work—the “snore” work of collective action, of young people asking new questions—to see the ways forward.
Wallace-Wells’s approach is to walk us through a curation of horror sketches—the consequences of inaction in a three-, five-, or eight-degree warmer world. As virtually every nation fails to meet even modest commitments to reduce carbon emissions, the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to two degrees looks like an unlikely best-case scenario. Going forward, human suffering and conflict from heat, drought, and disaster could unfold at an unprecedented scale, and we are doing little to stop it. A self-admitted climate alarmist, Wallace-Wells’s urgency resonates in the book’s opening sentence: “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” And, he goes on to note, it’s happening faster than you think.
Wallace-Wells imagines how climate change will rewrite fundamental myths about history and progress, and speculates about where humans might look for meaning in this new, warming world. In the modern West, one of the most dominant, unshakable creeds has been that history and the arrow of progress move in only one direction—forward. But climate change will not make any of the world’s “good” things more abundant, and the list of bad things to come is interminable, with global economic collapse chief among the impacts that could throw societies into misery. Each generation from here on will be worse off than the last. We will have to reinterpret the entire project of human settlement and modernity, which gave us climate change, as a misguided endeavor that will doom us to a worse future.
The Uninhabitable Earth, now a New York Times best seller, is an expansion of Wallace-Wells’s influential article of the same title, originally published in New York Magazine. The 2017 piece earned the distinction of being the most-read article in the magazine’s history. As the story went viral, climate commentators—climate scientists, social scientists, and journalists—lined up to roundly critique it.
The substance of the backlash was wide-ranging. Climate scientists claimed that some of the piece’s most alarming predictions were not backed up by good science. In a particularly harrowing passage, Wallace-Wells narrates how the carbon trapped in thawing Arctic permafrost could soon leak into the atmosphere as methane—which could exponentially, and catastrophically, increase the earth’s warming. This assertion, among others, caused some uproar among climate modelers, as it is based on peer-reviewed studies knotted with uncertainties and probabilistic predictions, which require careful translation to be legible to a general audience.1
Others argued that presenting the worst-case scenario misidentifies the gravest threat. Runaway climate change is unlikely, they claimed, and our biggest concern should be doing too little, too late. The realistic danger zone could be one in which carbon emissions are somewhat curbed and the world does not reach three degrees of warming, but elites have insulated themselves from any of the still-significant impacts, leaving the poorest to bear the brunt of them.2
Commentators argued that, since this “eco-apartheid” is a more realistic vision than Wallace-Wells’s apocalyptic predictions, this is where analytic energy and public attention should focus.
Indeed, the common sentiment among critics was that Wallace-Wells had somehow told the wrong story about climate change. By fetishizing horror and assembling obscene images of suffering and chaos, they argued, Wallace-Wells shocked readers into paralysis. Social scientists have some basis to believe this is true. The last few decades of social psychological research have produced few generalizations that hold up regarding how best to empower and motivate the public to fight climate change, but time and time again studies find that hope and optimism are crucial factors. Apocalyptic projections promote hopelessness and fear, disengaging people from the problem, these studies suggest.
Less sensational tactics—close-to-home stories of success, framing the issue in optimistic terms, and presenting possible solutions—make people more likely to support policies that tackle runaway carbon emissions. On the other hand, dire messages about the future typically lead to weaker support of climate policies. But it is undeniable that the popularity of Wallace-Wells’s book also hints at the possibility of a popular constituency for a different type of message.
How writers should communicate climate change to a general audience is a sensitive topic for natural and social scientists, who take great care in crafting productive messages to mobilize the public but mostly fail to connect with large audiences. Meanwhile, skillful and engaging journalists at popular publications, like Wallace-Wells, command the attention of many more readers. Yet they frequently become targets of criticism, as scientists perceive that they jump into the issue much too quickly, without a depth of understanding of science communication or a sense of the political consequences of different types of messages. This type of story-policing repeated itself a year after Wallace-Wells’s article was published, when commentators laid similar charges against Nathaniel Rich’s provocative New York Times article “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change,” which has now been fleshed out into the book Losing Earth: A Recent History.
Wallace-Wells gives us the most vivid version of the worst-case scenarios, but only hints at a distant, faint, and shifting silhouette of what could get us out of the crisis.
Wallace-Wells is explicitly not concerned with climate communication and has defended his position as an alarmist. In a 2019 Rolling Stone interview, he addressed the question head-on: “I think in general too much energy has been spent within the world of climate writing and activism on the questions of ‘What is the way to tell the story? What is the way to mobilize?’ There is no one way—it is every way. This story is too big for one story, too big for one political approach. We should embrace all perspectives when dealing with this crisis.”
Yet The Uninhabitable Earth fails to treat potential solutions to the crisis with the same level of seriousness as it treats the impacts. The second half of the book, part 3, is organized under the heading “The Climate Kaleidoscope,” a term used by Wallace-Wells to gesture to this existential issue’s elusiveness, the fact that “we can be mesmerized by the threat directly in front of us without ever perceiving it clearly.” Here, Wallace-Wells assembles the ideas of leading climate social theorists and political thinkers regarding potential responses to the crisis, moving away from the hellish portraits in the first half of the book.
His scattershot approach runs through the potential tools and ideas we have available to stop or reverse climate change, devoting substantial space to geoengineering, in particular to a subset of technologies designed to extract carbon dioxide from the air at large scale. But, to Wallace-Wells, while all solutions and ideas have some merit, they inevitably fall short: geoengineering is a dream that has not been proven to function at scale; reducing personal consumption is a distraction from politics; ecosocialism is naive; governments have failed to reign in the fossil fuel industry and reduce emissions.
In this way, his treatment of uncertainty is asymmetrical. He gives us the most vivid version of the worst-case scenarios, but only hints at a distant, faint, and shifting silhouette of what could get us out of the crisis.
Back to our story of collective action: the introduction of a Green New Deal into Congress and the American public sphere, in particular, has shifted the scope of policy possibilities. By tying climate policy to a massive federal jobs program and a suite of other inequality-relieving policies, the possibility of a Green New Deal has changed the nature of the “kaleidoscope.” Climate change, previously fragmented and impossible to grasp, has now been grounded by a unifying social movement, and reoriented toward what’s closer to home.
This story, however, is still building, and young people are crafting the narrative. From the Sunrise Movement, which pushed for a Green New Deal, to the climate school strikers galvanized by Greta Thunberg, to student debt protesters all over the world, the “right to the future” promises to be a crucial organizing principle for potentially mapping the way out of the climate crisis.3 The process of unleashing the power of the public imagination, through which citizens take command of their own future and design something better, is the story that remains to be told.
Of course, Wallace-Wells could argue that the book’s aim is to give nonspecialists a sense of some of the threats that climate change holds in store, in human terms, not to imagine every possible scenario of successful social mobilization. Without first expanding people’s imaginations about climate change’s potential disastrous impacts, political mobilization is arguably unlikely to be strong enough to put pressure on governments. The book’s position in the best-seller list lends credence to the notion that the public is interested in this story.
Yet we also need to expand our imaginations about what we are working toward. How do we imagine everyday life in a world in which we have curbed emissions and kept the most vulnerable people safe? We have to be able to imagine a future every bit as good as Wallace-Wells’s vision is bad.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.
- For a survey of the backlash to the article, see Chris Mooney, “Scientists Challenge Magazine Story about ‘Uninhabitable Earth,’” Washington Post, July 12, 2017, and David Roberts, “Did That New York Magazine Climate Story Freak You Out? Good,” Vox, July 11, 2017. ↩
- See, in particular, Daniel Aldana Cohen, “New York Mag’s Climate Disaster Porn Gets It Painfully Wrong,” Jacobin, July 10, 2017, and Kate Aronoff’s tweets. ↩
- For the “right to the future,” see Caitlin Zaloom, “A Right to the Future: Student Debt and the Politics of Crisis,” Cultural Anthropology, vol. 33, no. 4 (2018), pp. 33, 558–569. ↩