Burning Down the House

© Richard Misrach/Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
Richard Misrach: Untitled, 2007

Climate scientists’ worst-case scenarios back in 2007, the first year the Northwest Passage became navigable without an icebreaker (today, you can book a cruise through it), have all been overtaken by the unforeseen acceleration of events. No one imagined that twelve years later the United Nations would report that we have just twelve years left to avert global catastrophe, which would involve cutting fossil-fuel use nearly by half. Since 2007, the UN now says, we’ve done everything wrong. New coal plants built since the 2015 Paris climate agreement have already doubled the equivalent coal-energy output of Russia and Japan, and 260 more are underway.

Environmental writers today have a twofold problem. First, how to overcome readers’ resistance to ever-worsening truths, especially when climate-change denial has turned into a political credo and a highly profitable industry with its own television network (in this country, at least; state-controlled networks in autocracies elsewhere, such as Cuba, Singapore, Iran, or Russia, amount to the same thing). Second, in view of the breathless pace of new discoveries, publishing can barely keep up. Refined models continually revise earlier predictions of how quickly ice will melt, how fast and high CO2 levels and seas will rise, how much methane will be belched from thawing permafrost, how fiercely storms will blow and fires will burn, how long imperiled species can hang on, and how soon fresh water will run out (even as they try to forecast flooding from excessive rainfall). There’s a real chance that an environmental book will be obsolete by its publication date.

I’m not the only writer to wonder whether books are still an appropriate medium to convey the frightening speed of environmental upheaval. But the environment is infinitely intricate, and mere articles—much less daily newsfeeds or Twitter—can barely scratch the surface of environmental issues, let alone explore the extent of their consequences. Ecology, after all, is about how everything connects to everything else. Something so complex and crucial still requires books to attempt to explain it.

David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth expands on his 2017 article of the same name in New York, where he’s deputy editor. It quickly became that magazine’s most viewed article ever. Some accused Wallace-Wells of sensationalism for focusing on the most extreme possibilities of what may come if we keep spewing carbon compounds skyward (as suggested by his title and his ominous opening line, the answer “is, I promise, worse than you think”). Whatever the article’s lurid appeal, I felt at the time of its publication that its detractors were mainly evading the message by maligning the messenger.

Two years later, those critics have largely been subdued by infernos that have laid waste to huge swaths of California; successive, monstrous hurricanes—Harvey, Irma, and Maria—that devastated Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico in 2017; serial cyclone bombs…


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