This becomes more acute when the issue they’re writing about has gone political, such that most readers will enter their default mode of reaction when merely seeing the name of the issue. Among such issues: abortion, capital punishment, and climate change. Like everybody else, you probably have an opinion about each of these, and are prepared to jump into your foxhole upon seeing their names.
With climate change—the subject of today’s book under the good-writing microscope—an added challenge is that everybody is sick of hearing about it. Most new installments on the topic go nowhere because they preach to the choir or fall on deaf ears. A writer attempting to convert a person who denies the existence of climate change, or that it’s man-made, faces a tall order.
In this article, I will not discuss the debate around climate change, such as it is. Rather, I’ll look at one writer’s attempt to state the case for emergency action so compellingly that even diehard climate-change deniers may pause to consider his work. That writer is David Wallace-Wells; his book is The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming.
The book is unapologetically pro-action on climate, which some consider to be a liberal viewpoint, so if merely being in the proximity of climate action information turns you off then this will not be the article for you. However, my purpose here is not to persuade but rather to look at the fine writing used to make the case for believing in man-made climate change and accepting the need for emergency policies.
Wallace-Wells’s first challenge is getting climate-fatigued readers on both sides to accept that his is not just another installment on a seemingly endless shelf of “it’s already too late” climate books. He does so from the get go. Here’s the book’s opening:
“It is worse, much worse, than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions: that global warming is an Arctic saga, unfolding remotely; that it is strictly a matter of sea level and coastlines, not an enveloping crisis sparing no place and leaving no life undeformed; that it is a crisis of the ‘natural’ world, not the human one; that those two are distinct, and that we live today somehow outside or beyond or at the very least defended against nature, not inescapably within and literally overwhelmed by it; that wealth can be a reliable shield against the ravages of warming; that the burning of fossil fuels is the price of continued economic growth; that growth, and the technology it produces, will inevitably engineer a way out of environmental disaster; that there is any analogue to the scale or scope of this threat, in the long span of human history, that might give us confidence in staring it down.”
“None of this is true. But let’s begin with the speed of change.”
I’m a fan of hitting the ground running, and this is a fine example of it.
Wallace-Wells opens by acknowledging that he knows we already know about climate change. This reassures us that we’re not going to be bored reading another version of what we’ve already read. In that short, powerful first sentence, he not only shows respect for our awareness but promises he’s going to tell us something we don’t know. On top of that, it’s dramatic. Something I already thought was bad is actually worse? What a great hook.
Then he proceeds to state the lay person’s inadequate grasp of the issue, which has most readers nodding. At least one of his examples is probably going to apply. “Yes,” a reader might sheepishly admit, “I did think it was an Arctic saga, not so applicable to my life.” Another might think, “Actually, I had thought some kind of engineering miracle would solve this.”
The opening hook, then, is great. We’re off to the races with that seemingly small turn of phrase, “let’s begin with.” It conveys that Wallace-Wells has a lot to tell us and it starts now. After being hooked, we’re ready to settle in.
Another challenge he faces is how to avoid merely rephrasing the hell stats everybody’s seen.
Eyes cloud over at the rate of ice melt, the list of cities to disappear, the bigness of wildfires and storms, and all the rest. Any climate writer risks losing readers not to disagreement, but to catatonia and giving in to the idea that “We’re royally screwed and there’s nothing I can do, so the hell with it. Good luck, future.”
To keep us sitting up, reluctant to don our know-it-all caps and dismiss the whole thing, Wallace-Wells sprinkles jarring revelations throughout. He exhibits not only skill at turning a phrase, but at curating what hasn’t made the headline grab-bag, and what within that group might catch our concern. To wit:
“More than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades. Which means we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before.”
This makes it a right-now issue, not an ancient one or part of the distant future. The inclusion of touchstone Al Gore conveys a sense of “you know what I’m talking about” and then kicks in the irony of Al Gore’s work not only failing to make things better but having appeared at the beginning of the worst phase yet. Wallace-Wells reuses this technique later in the same paragraph:
“The majority of the burning has come since the premiere of Seinfeld. Since the end of World War II, the figure is about 85 percent.”
Later, once he has probably earned readers’ agreement that the situation is worse than we thought, and closer, he ups the odds of us recognizing ourselves in the problem’s intractability:
“…because we liked driving our cars and eating our beef and living as we did in every other way and didn’t want to think too hard about that … because climate was so global and therefore nontribal it suggested only the corniest politics, because we didn’t yet appreciate how fully it would ravage our lives, and because, selfishly, we didn’t mind destroying the planet for others living elsewhere on it or those not yet born who would inherit it from us, outraged. … Because when we were being really honest with ourselves we already thought of the world as a zero-sum resource competition and believed that whatever happened we were probably going to continue to be the victors, …”
Any book like this risks looking partisan, but Wallace-Wells makes short work of that, in several places. He focuses on facts and avoids mentioning too many hot-button names that would trigger a man-the-barricades response in some readers. For example:
“… climate denialism has captured just one political party in one country in the world—a country with only two of the world’s ten biggest oil companies. American inaction surely slowed global progress on climate in a time when the world had only one superpower. But there is simply nothing like climate denialism beyond the US border, which encloses the production of only 15 percent of the world’s emissions. To believe the fault for global warming lies exclusively with the Republican Party or its fossil fuel backers is a form of American narcissism. That narcissism, I suspect, will be broken by climate change. In the rest of the world, where action on carbon is just as slow and resistance to real policy changes just as strong, denial is simply not a problem.”
This point takes away an easy finger-pointing exercise from the natural supporters of this book. No, it says to casual protesters constantly complaining about the GOP, they are not why we’re in a world of hurt. They’re a tiny part of the problem. The bigger problem is global inertia in the wrong direction, for which we haven’t found a solution.
He does this again with another feel-good micro-action: recycling:
“… while plastics have a carbon footprint, plastic pollution is simply not a global warming problem—and yet it has slid into the center of our vision, at least briefly, the ban on plastic straws occluding, if only for a moment, the much bigger and much broader climate threat.”
What’s missing from the book is something that may not exist: a solution. I had hoped for a proposal at the end of the deeper understanding of the crisis, to read a Wallace-Wellsian presentation of the way out, filled with good writing, key points, head-nodding milestones, and so on.
Alas no. Maybe “not yet” is a better way to put it. He could always write a sequel.
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming
by David Wallace-Wells
TED Talk by David Wallace-Wells
The talk is 11 minutes, but I linked straight to the 5:52 location, from which he details proposals for solving the crisis. Unfortunately, nothing new:
- New Electric Grid
- Nuclear Power
- New Low-Emission Aircraft
- New Agricultural Techniques
While there’s nothing wrong with such a list, it’s old hat, too dreamy in assuming political opposition will disappear, and leads to a conclusion of: “Great idea. I hope somebody does that.” What’s really needed is a focus on how to move the political and societal needle. That’s the root problem.
Still, if you’d like to get to know Wallace-Wells better, this video is a good start.
Poynter’s Guidelines for Writing About Climate Change
Chief among them, in my view: “Be specific about which climate change ‘debate’ you are covering. There is no single debate; there are separate debates within science, within policy and within economics, and debates about how scientific findings should guide policy.”
Why Write? Toward a Style for Climate Change
by Maxwell Sater
An exploration of climate writing best practices.
Sater considers Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to be among the finest examples of exemplary environmental writing, with which I agree. He offers two reasons: “first, because it led to actual policy change in the US, which subsequently banned the use of DDT. And second, because it is a moving and even beautiful book. I don’t think these two things are unrelated.”
“Future climate-change writing will be especially useful insofar as, in addition to raising awareness, it rejects the temptation of the techno-fix and market solution and, instead, undertakes the work of reimagining our appallingly unjust and violent economic system. Ideologies are difficult to see because we live inside them. Climate-change writing, like a lot of writing, is valuable if and when it renders visible the violence and injustice of those ideologies and, just as importantly, imagines radical possible futures outside of them. Style and beauty may actually be necessary for such a project.”