Global warming means the planet is getting warmer, but what perhaps too few people and policymakers realize is that it may become uninhabitable. That’s the premise of the alarm-sounding essay published Sunday by New York magazine, “The Uninhabitable Earth.”
In the apocalyptic piece, David Wallace-Wells details the many possible ramifications of climate change beyond just rising sea levels if no action is taken. In many cases, though not all, what he details are worst-case scenarios. The rise in global temperatures could mean it would be possible for humans to literally cook to death in certain places, writes Wallace-Wells. Forgotten diseases long stored in Arctic ice, could reemerge, he warns. Massive disruptions to agriculture and the economy could lead to death, increased violence and unprecedented displacement. And it could all happen much sooner than many people think, according to the article. But it just one vision of the future, that some say misstates some of the science and fails to highlight what Atlantic writer Robinson Meyer described as “a strategy for addressing climate change” currently coming together.
It’s a dismal portrait but one that should be weighed against other, more nuanced calls for concern.
At least one prominent scientist responded to the piece, pushing back against its framing and criticizing exaggerations of some of the science cited in the article. “The evidence that climate change is a serious problem that we must contend with now, is overwhelming on its own,” wrote Michael Mann, a professor of meteorology at Penn State University and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that took home the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, in response to the article. “There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.”
Still, it’s not hard to imagine the impact higher temperatures could have and, in some cases, are already having on places like Houston. In Phoenix recently, the heat grounded airplanes and was responsible for some 40 flight cancellations in one day. Scientists warn that threats like Zika virus and tropical diseases will become more common further north. And in Miami, competition is heating up for properties on higher ground as homeowners contemplate the collapse of coastal real estate. Investments from cities like Houston, which is the largest municipal user of green energy, according to the Guardian, have already begun and the price tags can add up quickly.
And the economic impacts will likely not be evenly shared and hurt places like Houston. “It will impoverish many of the poorest communities in the country—arrayed across the South and Southwest, and especially along the Gulf Coast—while increasing the fortunes of cities and suburbs on both of the coasts,” wrote Meyer in the Atlantic.
Houston mayor Sylvester Turner was one of hundreds of mayors across the country that committed to the goals of the Paris climate accord, even after President Trump pulled out of the agreement. But its unclear how much cities can do on their own to meet those goals.
To understand what projected temperature increases will mean for your city, Climate Central, a non-profit news organization, partnered with the World Meteorological Organization to create this interactive map of average summer temperatures by 2100 in major cities across the globe. “Up to a dozen cities will heat up so much, their summers will have no analog currently on Earth,” according to Climate Central. In Houston, without emissions cuts, our summer temperatures could become comparable to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.