By 2080, southern Europe will be in a state of permanent drought. Ancient diseases will arise from melted glaciers, where they've been brewing for centuries. The heat index will be so severe that it induces hyperthermia in sleeping humans. Economic collapse will magnify the Great Depression fourfold.
These are just a few of the claims David Wallace-Wells makes in his climate epic, "The Uninhabitable Earth," the July cover story of New York Magazine. "It is, I promise, worse than you think," begins his account of what's in store for humanity if we don't take major action to combat climate change. Scientific projections of extreme weather, economic collapse, social conflict, and widespread disease are written one after another on a laundry list of horror.
It's a paralyzing piece, but that's not the point. Instead of freezing readers in hopelessness and despair, it's meant to scare them into action—or at least out of complacency. So far, it seems to be working. The article is already the most-read in the magazine’s history.
Not all of the response has been positive, and many have come forth doubting two things: its accuracy and overall tone. The magazine released an annotated version of the text to address the first complaint, complete with transcripts of interviews with climatologists and researchers. The second one, though, is still up for debate.
The fault of fear.
The backlash to this article raises an interesting question: How scared do people need to be about climate change? And whose responsibility is it to arouse this fear?
Even as someone who writes, reads, and talks about climate change for a living, I found Wallace-Wells' piece extremely difficult to get through. It's jarring to see worst-case scenarios presented as if they're already fact, to imagine all of our fears as if they've already been realized. What should have taken around 30 minutes to read took over an hour, thanks to the deep breaths that were needed to punctuate every paragraph or two.
Critics of the text argue that its approach is too alarmist, to which others say good, people should be alarmed. To a certain extent, I'm in the second camp. While not pleasant to endure, fear is an emotion that inspires action, probably more so than any other. By definition, it triggers our fight-or-flight response, threatening us into running away or protecting ourselves. Considering this isn't a problem we can escape with the snap of a finger or a flight to Mars, we're left with one option.
If even a portion of the 1.8 million readers of New York Magazine shares this piece with friends, both virtual and otherwise, there's a pretty overwhelming chance that at least some of them are going to feel pushed to make a change, to put up a shield and get fighting.
Unlike more subdued pieces that slip out of our memories with time, this one is impossible to forget. It's a text to be read over and over, discussed at dinner tables, and debated over coffee. It's the Inconvenient Truth of this decade—the narrative that changes the way some of us see and relate to our planet.
The 15,000-word piece has one optimistic moment, and it comes at the very end: "Nevertheless, by and large, the scientists have an enormous confidence in the ingenuity of humans… They point to the Apollo project, the hole in the ozone we patched in the 1980s, the passing of the fear of mutually assured destruction. Now we’ve found a way to engineer our own doomsday, and surely we will find a way to engineer our way out of it, one way or another. But when we do truly see the world we’ve made, they say, we will also find a way to make it livable. For them, the alternative is simply unimaginable."
In order to wiggle our way out of this bleak future, we all need to come to terms with this unimaginable alternative. Start by reading the whole article, then the annotated version, then the books that inspired it. Form your own opinion. Find what statistic in there scares you the most, makes you fear for your future and the futures of those you care about, and do your part to make sure it doesn't happen.
These resources can help you get started.