One of the recurring plots in various Star Trek series is the “we’re here to save your planet” story; the crew of one of the Enterprises (or one of the other ships) arrives at a planet that’s in crisis – the atmosphere is about to turn poison, a giant asteroid is going to hit it, it’s becoming seismically unstable and everyone’s about to buried in rubble. Naturally, Starfleet has a solution, and the crew proceeds to shoot energy beams and it or push it into a new orbit or whatever to save the day. (Generally with some other intrigue or problem thrown in the mix in order to create an hour of television.)
This isn’t going to happen for us. I mean, yes, maybe it could, maybe sometime in the next 20 years or so alien ships will appear in our skies to use their awesome technology to scrape all the excess carbon from our atmosphere and get us back on the right path, but this is not an outcome I’d bet on.
But it would be nice, because left to our own devices, we seem to be willing to sit and watch as our climate changes and makes Earth an entirely different planet than the one we evolved on, the one that’s ideal for us to survive. That’s what The Uninhabitable Earth is about. It raises lots of questions along the way, including the one in the headline.
The book is tough going; roughly the first half is a topic by topic rundown of the various ways in which climate change is likely to make life miserable and dangerous for humanity (and for a large segment of it, not feasible at all). A large portion of the planet where moving outside in daytime will be potentially lethal (check out this article about Tucson). Fires destroying millions of acres of forests, releasing the carbon stored in the trees, and covering continents in smoke. Cities running out of water (oh wait, that’s already happening). Millions upon millions of climate refugees (you think that’s happening now, but it’s tiny compared to what’s coming). And so on, and so on.
I read all that while watching Hurricane Dorian churning in the ocean near my mom’s house and by the time I got through it, I guess you could say I had a bad case of climate nihilism.
But get through that (which you need to), and then things get really interesting as the book delves into the kinds of solutions we’re thinking about, and what the politics of a climate changed Earth look like.
When it comes to authority and responsibility, scale and perspective often befuddle us – we may be unable to recognize which matryoshka doll nests inside the other, or on whose display shelf the whole thing sites. Big things make us feel small, and rather powerless, even if we are nominally “in charge.” In the modern age, at least, there is also the related tendency to view large human systems, like the internet or the industrial economy, as more unassailable, even more un-intervenable, than natural systems, like climate, that literally enclose us. This is how renovating capitalism so that it doesn’t reward fossil fuel extraction can seem unlikelier than suspending sulfur in the air to dye the sky red and cool the planet off by a degree or two. To some, even ending trillions in fossil fuel subsidies sounds harder to pull off than deploying technologies to suck carbon out of the air everywhere on Earth.
This is true, and this is insane. Carbon scrubbing and sequestration technology is a hot things now, despite not actually being a real thing in any scalable or affordable sense (it would literally take more than the economic output of the entire planet to implement it, if it works as expected). Next to that, ending fossil fuel subsidies and rebuilding out energy infrastructure is actually a manageable prospect (though not an easy one).
Discussing the impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico, Wallace-Wells writes:
In 2017, just after the storm, Solomon Hsiang and Trevor Houser calculated that, all on its own, Maria could cut Puerto Rico incomes by 21% over the next fifteen years, and that the economy of the island could take twenty-0six years to return even to the level it enjoyed just before the storm – a level, [Naomi] Klein reminds us, already strained. This did not prompt a dramatic expansion of a Marshall Plan across the Caribbean; instead, Donald Trump tossed a few rolls of paper towels to the citizens of San Juan, then left them to plead with outsiders who now controlled the public coffers for mercy, which did not come.
We think of solutions to climate change as things that must play out within the structures of market liberalism. This is backward; the climate is the system in which capitalism has operated. The system is changing, and while capitalism might provide us with a response, it’s not the only response, and it might not be the best response. It has, after all, not been the way humanity live for most of its history. We however have all been soaking it it since birth and facing a cataclysmic change to our environment, we need to be able to think beyond that.
The book is about a lot more than that, and despite the incredibly dispiriting first half, it’s actually somewhat optimistic. Definitely worth your read. This is the issue of the next 10-15 years; if we haven’t made any progress by then, the future for today’s children is going to be very bleak indeed.