The Uninhabited Mind of David Wallace-Wells
By E. Calvin Beisner
David Wallace-Wells shook up a lot of people with a “horrifying 2017 essay in New York magazine about climate change. It was an attempt to paint a very real picture of our not-too-distant future, a future filled with famines, political chaos, economic collapse, fierce resource competition, and a sun that ‘cooks us.’”
Now he’s got a book out that builds on that article, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming, which Vox describes as “a brutal read,” “more terrifying” than the “terrifying essay.”
What makes it terrifying is that Wallace-Wells insists that the most likely scenario is that human-driven global warming will raise global average temperature by about 4.3C by the end of the century, and all his predictions about knock-on effects assume that.
But 4.3C is toward the upper end of the range the United Nations Intergovernmental on Panel Change (IPCC) offers based on its computer models: 1.5–4.5C. Furthermore, this is predicted to happen not by the end of this century but after all climate feedbacks have responded to a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentration from pre-industrial times, i.e., rising from 280 to 560 parts per million. That process, termed “equilibrium climate sensitivity” (ECS), is expected to take about 200 years, not just to the end of this century.
More important yet, the IPCC’s computer models consistently predict 2 to 3 times the warming actually observed over the relevant period, and since the global temperature has risen and fallen cyclically throughout geologic history, there’s no way to know how much of that to blame on anthropogenic CO2 versus how much to blame on natural causes.
That’s why empirical studies — as opposed to modeling studies, which are just hypotheses that must be tested against observations — point toward ECS of around 1.7C, which is near the bottom end of the IPCC’s 1.5–4.5C range. Cornwall Alliance Senior Fellow Dr. Roy W. Spencer discussed the paper behind that figure in a blog post last year.
Wallace-Wells’s article and book are filled with claims drawn from the upper extremes even of the scenarios of the IPCC, let alone the estimates of more empirically driven studies. It’s also filled with factual claims that just don’t stand up to the data. Take this paragraph quoting him in Vox’s article:
Last year in the summer of 2018 in the Northern Hemisphere you had this unprecedented heat wave that killed people all around the world. You had the crazy hurricane season. In California, wildfires burned more than a million acres. And we’re really only just beginning to see these sorts of effects. We’ll take those claims one at a time.
First, a heat wave is weather, not climate, and the 2018 heat wave didn’t even match the 2003 heat wave that killed 35,000 people in Europe alone. But it’s also significant that, on average, cold snaps kill 10 times as many people per day as heat waves. So if global warming does raise the frequency and intensity of heat waves, since it will also reduce the frequency and intensity of cold snaps, we should see a net reduction in temperature-related deaths.
Second, the “crazy hurricane season” was actually pretty normal by historical standards.
Let me start with some hard numbers for the Atlantic basin, the most familiar to Americans. In 2018, there were 15 tropical storms and 7 hurricanes — 2 of them Category 3 or above — resulting in 144 deaths. In 2005, there were 28 tropical storms (almost twice as many) and 15 hurricanes (more than twice as many) — 7 of them Category 3 or above (more than 3 times as many) — resulting in 2,280 or more deaths (almost 16 times as many). So 2018 doesn’t even beat 2005, and there have been lots of other years worse than 2018 as well. One doesn’t have to be a hurricane expert to get this information — Wikipedia has the numbers.
As Cornwall Alliance Senior Fellow and University of Alabama climate scientist Roy W. Spencer, whose Ph.D. focused on hurricanes, explains in his recent books Global Warming Skepticism for Busy People and An Inconvenient Deception: How Al Gore Distorts Climate Science and Energy Policy, both available from our online store, there has been no significant upward trend, when accounting for the magnitude of annual variation, in the frequency or intensity of tropical cyclones in any part of the world through the modern warm period. Spencer says,
In the U.S., there is evidence from Gulf of Mexico coastal lake bottom sediments of super-hurricane storm surges 1,000 to 3,800 years ago that have not been rivaled in the modern historical record. The strongest hurricane to strike New England occurred on August 25, 1635, only fifteen years after the Mayflower arrived and the Massachusetts Bay Colony was established, with 14 to 22 feet of storm surge.
Paul Homewood summarizes the data in a paper released by the Global Warming Policy Foundation. Raw data without much discussion are at hurricane specialist Ryan N. Maue’s “Global Tropical Cyclone Activity” page.
As for wildfires, the annual number of wildfires in the U.S. fell drastically in the early 1980s in response to widespread campaigns against carelessness with campfires, cigarettes, etc. It hasn’t changed much since then. Total area burned by wildfires fall drastically from the 1920s through the 1980s and began rising in the late 1990s, not because of warmer or drier weather but because of changed forest management of two kinds. First, by diminishing the number of fires, we allowed forests and their underbrush to grow more dense. Second, we stopped a lot of the logging that previously thinned forests and removed underbrush. Both of these meant leaving lots more fuel to burn. The result are fires that are hotter and grow faster than before. The increased average size of fires doesn’t correlate positively with global average temperature.
If you’re looking for standard sci-fi thriller like those in the 1950s that conjured giant tarantulas as a result of radioactive fallout from nuclear testing, The Uninhabitable Earth might be just the ticket. If you’re looking for credible science — well, go elsewhere, say, to climatologist Dr. Tim Ball's Human Caused Global Warming: The Biggest Deception in History — The Why, What, Where, When, and How It Was Achieved.
Dr. Beisner is founder and national spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance; former associate professor of Historical Theology & Social Ethics at Knox Theological Seminary and of Interdisciplinary Studies at Covenant College; and author of Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate and Prospects for Growth: A Biblical View of Population, Resources, and the Future.
Originally published at Cornwall Alliance.