Skip to main content

Wallace-Wells convincingly makes the case that we aren’t going to do what’s necessary to curb climate change, and that we are headed for at least 2 degrees of warming.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Here’s the question I’ve been thinking about for the past few weeks: How do you make sense of the end of the world? That is what David Wallace-Wells tries to do in The Uninhabitable Earth (Tim Duggan Books, 320 pages), his recent book, which is profound, beautiful and terrible. “It is worse, much worse, then you think,” he writes in the opening sentence.

It, of course, is climate change. And to be more exact about the state of the problem, the planet will survive; it is people that could disappear. This is Wallace-Wells’s conclusion after a few years reading the research and talking with climate scientists. In the best case, Earth is facing scenarios that we can only frame as unpredictable but catastrophic. “We are entering a new realm,” he writes, “unbounded by the analogy of any human experience.”

But never mind the long term. What is likely to happen in the next two generations is scary enough. It’s not just sea-level rise – although Singapore could well be underwater by the time my great-grandchildren are born. It is death by wildfires in California and British Columbia. It is healthy older people dropping dead of heat stroke in their European apartments. It is children felled by asthma attacks aggravated by smog. It is death by flooding for hundreds of thousands, as Bangladesh returns to the sea. It is more “Snowmageddons” to bury us in temperate climes. And it is more death and suffering at human hands, as we murder and assault and battle each other more often on the hot days that are, now, more intense and more common.

Some of this is already here, in Canada, and it is accelerating. The rest of it, and more, is coming.

We aren’t already talking enough about this, because it is almost impossible to talk about. As Wallace-Wells suggests, the nature of the story defies human imagination and defies our most common narrative tropes. If you wrote a movie about this, “Whom would the heroes battle against? Themselves?”

Then how, as a thinking human being, do you respond to this dilemma? Some privileged folks have decided to only drive electric vehicles, or gone so far as to not have children – a choice that Wallace-Wells dismisses, I think unkindly, as pointless asceticism.

But it’s too late for me: My two sons are already here. And maybe for that reason, my insistent response in reading The Uninhabitable Earth was to ask: How do we fix it? What is the solution? There are, in fact, things we can do. Reducing the impact of climate change, what specialists call “mitigation,” means “nothing short of a complete overhaul of the world’s energy systems,” right now. And eating less beef. And more. We have, as a United Nations report recently reminded us, 12 years to rebuild the world, if we want to keep climate change to an average of 1.5 degrees.

In Cambridge, a library of old stone, new glass and few books

Review: Author Greg Bellerby makes the ‘masterwork’ case for an overlooked Arthur Erickson house in West Vancouver

That co-housing retirement life: How smart design gives this seniors’ community a life-changing twist

We aren’t already talking enough about climate change, because it is almost impossible to talk about, says Wallace-Wells.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

This isn’t likely to happen. Wallace-Wells convincingly makes the case that we aren’t going to do what’s necessary, and that we are headed for at least 2 degrees of warming. In fact, those of us alive right now have made the situation steadily worse: Most of humanity’s carbon emissions have occurred in just the past generation. “The majority of the burning has come since the premiere of Seinfeld,” he writes. “We have engineered as much ruin knowingly as we ever managed in ignorance."

It’s hard not to be angry. It’s hard not to be alarmed. The responsibility for all this is borne by all of us. By Albertans who profit from the tar sands, and by Ontarians who drive their F-150 pickups from their energy-inefficient houses to their air-conditioned offices. On this subject, Canadian politics provides infuriating spectacle: Jason Kenney cruising in his two-ton Dodge Ram, complaining about the cost of the federal carbon tax. Ontario Conservative politicians frowning at gas pumps, multimillionaires concerned about the extra few bucks that “folks” might have to pay – even as local transit fares rise. How do you make sense of this: setting the world on fire?

Wallace-Wells suggests another route for us all, emotionally and politically: He settles on hope. We created this problem, as a species, and we can address it. I’m not sure that I can comfortably join him in this sentiment. But maybe you can: Maybe once you’ve seen the smoke and become alarmed enough about what’s burning, we will in fact find a way to come together and to avoid the very worst.

Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.