The Controversy Over “The Uninhabitable Earth”

David Wallace-Well’s article on the danger of runaway climate change, (here I post the annotated edition because it fleshes out more of the scientific evidence Wells based his story on), has apparently become the most read article in New York magazine’s history. I found the piece insightful. I thought it was mainly on-track in terms of laying out what  worst-case scenarios of climate change would look like, (from what  I understand at least),  if business as usual use of fossil fuels continues over the rest of the century.

Some climatologists and science journalists have criticized the article for being incorrect on some points of climate science, but mainly because it offers up a “doomsday scenario” that they think will do more harm than good when it comes to efforts to deal with climate change.

Michael Mann, for example- a climate scientist who has done very important work and also taken on climate denial very publicly, and faced threats and attack for it, (and who I respect a lot), said of the Wells article:

“”I have to say that I am not a fan of this sort of doomist framing…. It is important to be up front about the risks of unmitigated climate change, and I frequently criticize those who understate the risks. But there is also a danger in overstating the science in a way that presents the problem as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability and hopelessness.”.

Read a fuller rebuttal by Mann here.

Mann points out scientific mistakes in the Wells piece related to the pace of methane release, what he calls a mischaracterization by Wells of a recent study updating satellite warming data sets, etc.

I’m not a climatologist. I take Mann at his word on the criticisms of the science. But to me his arguments, as well as those of others who I’ve read, are mainly not really refuting Wells scientific claims, as much as they are making a political argument that popularizing such extreme views of what could come to pass (Wells clearly says this could happen, not that it will happen), do more harm than good because they frighten people into inaction.

Other’s have commented well in mainly upholding the Wells piece and responding to these criticisms, for instance see this funny and provocative  piece on Vox by David Roberts, and this piece by Susan Mathews of Slate.

(I do also have to say as an aside,  that Wells, who interviewed dozens of climate scientists in laying the groundwork for writing his story and who’s arguments seem to flow from this science, vs. something else-also published his full interview with Mann here, which hews more closely I think,  to what Well’s is actually advancing in his article. Mann agrees in the interview, on the importance of considering nightmare scenarios that are possible, if unlikely, and what these might look like.)

I encourage everyone to read the pieces linked here, and others,  and jump into the controversy!

I can’t go into depth right now on all of this, but to comment in basic terms.  Either Wells piece is mainly representing scenarios that are possible based on the actual science of what we understand at this point, or it isn’t, first of all. And I think it is. If this is the case, a political argument that says the piece “isn’t helpful” in convincing people of the need for action on climate change is just that-a political argument. It shouldn’t be fuzzy that its criticism of the article is political mainly, and not on what is wrong with the piece scientifically.

Also, much of this political criticism comes from a certain view that itself I believe  fails to understand the political situation and depth of the problem we face in dealing fundamentally with the climate crisis.

The views behind some of these criticisms, I believe at least,  see the lack of action on climate change as largely coming from the right wing, denialists, skeptics and “authoritarian” types like Trump, combined with a lack of knowledge generally in society about science and climate change. And I believe they see much greater hope to deal with climate with the Obamas and Merkels of the world in power, as well as economic trends toward use of green energy in the world as it is, etc.

There are clearly real differences in strategy between the Obamas and Trumps, and I’m not arguing there is completely no difference between the two when it comes to combating climate change, or in terms of where things will end up for the planet. But I think the problem is not just climate denialism or Trumpism or even anti-science thinking. That is a huge problem we face, a very real threat right now that needs to be recognized and combated. In fact, Trump and Pence-the whole fascist cabal, needs to be driven out of power by us for many reasons, including because of the tremendous danger they represent to the planet’s environment.

But a deeper problem, and the basic source of  the fascist anti-science Trumpian nonsense itself, is the system of capitalism itself. Anyone who wants to argue against the fact that the leading mainstream figures over the last decades of western civilization and “democracy”, (including Al Gore and Bill Clinton),  have not brought us the climate and overall environmental crisis, has their head in the sand.

And more deeply, it’s not just a matter of what any of these leaders will personally want or not want to do, or what their “legacy” will compel their desires to do, but what the underlying dynamics of the capitalist system, driven by ruthless competition and ruled by profit-in command, will allow them to do. This is why despite Obama’s clear understanding that climate change is a great threat, he could only make goals to limit emissions in very modest amounts, and then these goals were not even met. This is also why the Paris accords don’t do nearly enough in taking the kinds of dramatic efforts needed to really save the planet. Even though it is completely monstrous that Trump pulled the U.S. out of these accords.

Again, I’m not arguing , “they’re all the same”. I am arguing, given the scope and pace of the climate crisis, (and adding to that, not just the climate crisis, but the overall environmental and biological crisis-including the advancing sixth extinction – or what a recent PNAS piece terms the “biological annihilation” taking place on earth-see next article on blog)-to base approaches on simply convincing this system and its representatives to do the right thing and save the planet, is complete folly. We actually need massive resistance by millions to force change, and in my thinking, a revolution and a new system that is not based on the competitive, expand or die drive that is inherent in capitalism.

So arguments criticizing Wells for “doomsday” thinking, I think are based on, and seriously misassess even what we are up against in truly dealing with the climate crisis, not to mention the overall environmental crisis. And beyond that, they don’t have a grasp that those in power will never, and fundamentally can never, deal with these crises from the viewpoint of the interests of all of humanity, and especially the poorest of humanity, who their whole rule rests on exploiting and oppressing.

This is the case even when there are real differences among them on how seriously to take climate change and what actions to take to combat it.

I can’t go further on this now, but those are some basic thoughts.


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