Photograph by Mason Trinca / The Washington Post / Getty
As uncertainty and denial about climate change have diminished, they have been replaced by similarly paralyzing feelings of panic, anxiety, and resignation.
“The Uninhabitable Earth,” David Wallace-Wells’s new book about how climate change will affect human life, begins, “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” In superhot cities, roads will melt and train tracks will buckle. At five degrees of warming, much of the planet would be in constant drought. With just six metres of sea-level rise—an optimistic projection—land where three hundred and seventy-five million people currently live will be underwater. Some of the apocalyptic stories aren’t from the future but our recent past: in the Paradise Camp Fire of late 2018, people fleeing the flames “found themselves sprinting past exploding cars, their sneakers melting to the asphalt as they ran.”
To anyone who has been paying attention, the broad strokes of “The Uninhabitable Earth” come as no surprise. We are racing toward—in fact have already entered—an era of water shortage, wildfire, sea-level rise, and extreme weather. To read the book is to ask hard questions about one’s own future. When will the city where I live be flooded? Where should I live when it does? Where will my future children live? Should I have children at all?
Yet Wallace-Wells has also stressed that there is no place for fatalism. In an interview with NPR, he said that “every inch of warming makes a difference”—we cannot stop the process of warming altogether, but we can control whether climate change yields a future that is apocalyptic or instead “merely grim.” Several years ago, I asked the climate activist and writer Bill McKibben how he was able to keep from falling into depression, given how much time he devotes to thinking about climate change. He answered that fighting is the key—it’s only despairing if you think that you can’t take on the problem. “It’s the greatest fight in human history, one whose outcome will reverberate for geologic time, and it has to happen right now,” he said.
In 2008 and 2009, the American Psychological Association put together a task force to examine the relationship between psychology and climate change. It found that, although people said that climate change was important, they did not “feel a sense of urgency.” The task force identified several mental barriers that contributed to this blasé stance. People were uncertain about climate change, mistrustful of the science, or denied that it was related to human activity. They tended to minimize the risks and believe that there was plenty of time to make changes before the real impacts were felt. Just ten years later, these attitudes about climate feel like ancient relics. But two key factors, which the task force identified as keeping people from taking action, have stood the test of time: one was habit, and the other was lack of control. “Ingrained behaviors are extremely resistant to permanent change,” the group stated. “People believe their actions would be too small to make a difference and choose to do nothing.”