A review of
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming
by David Wallace-Wells — Tim Duggan, 310 pp., $27.00
Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
by Bill McKibben — Henry Holt, 291 pp., $28.00
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.
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