Give Me a Crash Course In . . .
A climate-change warning
So there’s been yet another warning about climate change. Nothing new, surely?
Yes and no. The article published earlier this month in New York magazine, “The Uninhabitable Earth”, by David Wallace-Wells, runs to a hefty 7,000 words and has caused a publishing sensation. With a million pageviews it’s the most-read article online that the magazine has ever published, and it has triggered a firestorm of reaction, both from the media and from scientists.
Why? Isn’t everybody bored by scary, finger-wagging climate articles?
You might have thought so, but apparently not. Wallace-Wells doesn’t hector, but the article is certainly scary. “No matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough,” is how he frames it. His article assumes that humanity will continue on its current high-emissions pathway. With Trump in the White House and countries such as Ireland doing almost nothing to cut emissions, it’s a reasonable bet. And that path leads to climate hell.
Haven’t climate scientists rubbished this article?
Not exactly. There have been some quibbles, mostly about timescales, and a couple of factual errors have been updated, but the nub of Wallace-Wells’s argument remains intact. In a nutshell, while our goose may not yet be cooked, it’s already wrapped in tinfoil and we’re sliding it farther into the oven each year.
Isn’t it a bad idea to be so negative?
That’s exactly what has upset most of Wallace-Wells’s critics. The argument runs something like this: the experts know the situation is dire, but if the public gets wind of just how bad things really are, they will become depressed and apathetic, then switch off and tune out. Which guarantees the very worst outcome.
So articles like this are really unhelpful, then?
That’s one view. Another is that when things are really, really bad, that’s the time for honesty, not false optimism. Let’s say you’ve just been diagnosed with a tumour: opting for herbal remedies and homeopathy instead of the grim chemotherapy recommended by your doctors might make you feel good for a while, but it’ll probably cost your life. Being brutally honest about climate change today may help us face the truly tough decisions that could one day save our children’s lives.
Surely you exaggerate. What’s the worst that could happen?
If you really want to know, humans stand a reasonably good chance of going extinct in the relatively near future. Yes, all of us. An increase of 2 degrees in average global surface temperature is widely seen as the tipping point towards an apocalyptic future on Earth, yet we’re already more than halfway there. The ultraconservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects 4 degrees this century, on our current pathway. This is a Mad
Max vision of a collapsed global economy and shattered environment, with billions of people scrambling just to survive.
Mow you’re freaking me out. What if it’s really not that bad?
There is a possibility that Earth’s climate turns out to be a lot less sensitive to carbon dioxide than feared, so the effects of climate change may be less severe. But this is unlikely. It’s is equally unlikely that so-called positive feedbacks – hidden tipping points in a complex climate system – could kick in and actually make things far worse than the IPCC’s modelling suggests. There’s a lot of uncertainty, but uncertainty is not our friend.
How come this article hasn’t been covered more by Irish media?
Maybe it’s because we live on a small, damp island that many people in the media manage to kid themselves that it’s not really our problem. Mistake.
Wildfire: flames approach houses in California. PHOTOGRAPH: DAVID MCNEW/GETTY