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The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “The Uninhabitable Earth hits you like a comet, with an overflow of insanely lyrical prose about our pending Armageddon.”—Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon

It is worse, much worse, than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible—food shortages, refugee emergencies, climate wars and economic devastation.

An “epoch-defining book” (The Guardian) and “this generation’s Silent Spring” (The Washington Post), The Uninhabitable Earth is both a travelogue of the near future and a meditation on how that future will look to those living through it—the ways that warming promises to transform global politics, the meaning of technology and nature in the modern world, the sustainability of capitalism and the trajectory of human progress.

The Uninhabitable Earth is also an impassioned call to action. For just as the world was brought to the brink of catastrophe within the span of a lifetime, the responsibility to avoid it now belongs to a single generation—today’s.

Praise for The Uninhabitable Earth

“The Uninhabitable Earth is the most terrifying book I have ever read. Its subject is climate change, and its method is scientific, but its mode is Old Testament. The book is a meticulously documented, white-knuckled tour through the cascading catastrophes that will soon engulf our warming planet.”—Farhad Manjoo, The New York Times

“Riveting. . . . Some readers will find Mr. Wallace-Wells’s outline of possible futures alarmist. He is indeed alarmed. You should be, too.”—The Economist

“Potent and evocative. . . . Wallace-Wells has resolved to offer something other than the standard narrative of climate change. . . . He avoids the ‘eerily banal language of climatology’ in favor of lush, rolling prose.”—Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times

“The book has potential to be this generation’s Silent Spring.”—The Washington Post

The Uninhabitable Earth, which has become a best seller, taps into the underlying emotion of the day: fear. . . . I encourage people to read this book.”—Alan Weisman, The New York Review of Books
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When the quoted praise comes from propaganda rags like the Jew York Times (3) and WaPo (1), you know it's bullshit, and it is.
01 April 2020 (08:03) 
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					Title Page




					I. Cascades

					II. Elements of Chaos
							Heat Death




							Disasters No Longer Natural

							Freshwater Drain

							Dying Oceans

							Unbreathable Air

							Plagues of Warming

							Economic Collapse

							Climate Conflict



					III. The Climate Kaleidoscope

							Crisis Capitalism

							The Church of Technology

							Politics of Consumption

							History After Progress

							Ethics at the End of the World


					IV. The Anthropic Principle







					Title Page

					Table of Contents



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			Heat Death

			Humans, like all mammals, are heat engines; surviving means having to continually cool off, as panting dogs do. For that, the temperature needs to be low enough for the air to act as a kind of refrigerant, drawing heat off the skin so the engine can keep pumping. At seven degrees of warming, that would become impossible for portions of the planet’s equatorial band, and especially the tropics, where humidity adds to the problem. And the effect would be fast: after a few hours, a human body would be cooked to death from both inside and out.

			At eleven or twelve degrees Celsius of warming, more than half the world’s population, as distributed today, would die of direct heat. Things almost certainly won’t get that hot anytime soon, though some models of unabated emissions do bring us that far eventually, over centuries. But at just five degrees, according to some calculations, whole parts of the globe would be literally unsurvivable for humans. At six, summer labor of any kind would become impossible in the lower Mississippi Valley, and everybody in the United States east of the Rockies would suffer more from heat than anyone, anywhere, in the world today. New York City would be hotter than present-day Bahrain, one of the planet’s hottest spots, and the temperature in Bahrain “would induce hyperthermia in even sleeping humans.”

			Five or six degrees is unlikely by 2100. The IPCC furnishes us with a median prediction of over four degrees, should we continue down the current emissions path. That would deliver what today seems like unthinkable impacts—wildfires burning sixteen times as much land in the American West, hundreds of drowned cities. Cities now home to millions, across India and the Middle East, would become so hot that stepping outside in summer would be a lethal risk—in fact, they will become that way much sooner, with as little as two degrees of warming. You do not need to consider worst-case scenarios to become alarmed.

			With direct heat, the key factor is something called “wet-bulb temperature,” which also measures humidity in a combined method as home-laboratory-kit as it sounds: the temperature is registered on a thermometer wrapped in a damp sock as it’s swung around in the air. At present, most regions reach a wet-bulb maximum of 26 or 27 degrees Celsius; the true red line for habitability is 35 degrees, beyond which humans begin simply dying from the heat. That leaves a gap of 8 degrees. What is called “heat stress” comes much sooner.

			Actually, we’re there already. Since 1980, the planet has experienced a fiftyfold increase in the number of dangerous heat waves; a bigger increase is to come. The five warmest summers in Europe since 1500 have all occurred since 2002, and eventually, the IPCC warns, simply working outdoors at that time of year will be unhealthy for parts of the globe. Even if we meet the Paris goals, cities like Karachi and Kolkata will annually encounter deadly heat waves like those that crippled them in 2015, when heat killed thousands in India and Pakistan. At four degrees, the deadly European heat wave of 2003, which killed as many as 2,000 people a day, will be a normal summer. Then, it was one of the worst weather events in Continental history, killing 35,000 Europeans, including 14,000 French; perversely, the infirm fared relatively well, William Langewiesche has written, most of them watched over in the nursing homes and hospitals of those well-off countries, and it was the comparatively healthy elderly who accounted for most of the dead, many left behind by vacationing families escaping the heat, with some corpses rotting for weeks before the families returned.

			It will get worse. In that “business as usual” scenario, a research team led by Ethan Coffel calculated in 2017, the number of days warmer than what were once the warmest days of the year could grow by a factor of 100 by 2080. Possibly by a factor of 250. The metric Coffel uses is “person-days”: a unit that combines the number of people affected with the number of days. Every year, there would be between 150 and 750 million person-days with wet-bulb temperatures equivalent to today’s most severe—i.e., quite deadly—heat waves. There would be a million person-days each year with intolerable wet-bulb temperatures—combinations of heat and humidity beyond the human capacity for survival. By the end of the century, the World Bank has estimated, the coolest months in tropical South America, Africa, and the Pacific are likely to be warmer than the warmest months at the end of the twentieth century.

			We had heat waves back then, of course, deadly ones; in 1998, the Indian summer killed 2,500. More recently, temperature spikes have gotten hotter. In 2010, 55,000 died in a Russian heat wave that killed 700 people in Moscow each day. In 2016, in the midst of a heat wave that baked the Middle East for several months, temperatures in Iraq broke 100 degrees Fahrenheit in May, 110 in June, and 120 in July, with temperatures dipping below 100, most days, only at night. (A Shiite cleric in Najaf proclaimed the heat was the result of an electromagnetic attack on the country by American forces, according to The Wall Street Journal, and some state meteorologists agreed.) In 2018, the hottest temperature likely ever recorded in April was registered in southeast Pakistan. In India, a single day over 95 degrees Fahrenheit increases annual mortality rates by three-quarters of a percent; in 2016, a string of days topped 120—in May. In Saudi Arabia, where summer temperatures often approach that mark, 700,000 barrels of oil are burned each day in the summer, mostly to power the nation’s air-conditioning.

			That can help with the heat, of course, but air conditioners and fans already account for fully 10 percent of global electricity consumption. Demand is expected to triple, or perhaps quadruple, by 2050; according to one estimate, the world will be adding 700 million AC units by just 2030. Another study suggests that by 2050 there will be, around the world, more than nine billion cooling appliances of various kinds. But, the climate-controlled malls of the Arab emirates aside, it is not remotely economical, let alone “green,” to wholesale air-condition all the hottest parts of the planet, many of them also the poorest. And indeed, the crisis will be most dramatic across the Middle East and Persian Gulf, where in 2015 the heat index registered temperatures as high as 163 degrees Fahrenheit. As soon as several decades from now, the hajj will become physically impossible for many of the two million Muslims who currently make the pilgrimage each year.

			It is not just the hajj, and it is not just Mecca. In the sugarcane region of El Salvador, as much as one-fifth of the population—including over a quarter of the men—has chronic kidney disease, the presumed result of dehydration from working the fields they were able to comfortably harvest as recently as two decades ago. With dialysis, which is expensive, those with kidney failure can expect to live five years; without it, life expectancy is measured in weeks. Of course, heat stress promises to assail us in places other than our kidneys, too. As I type that sentence, in the California desert in mid-June, it is 121 degrees outside my door. It is not a record high.



				This is among the things cosmologists mean when they talk about the utter improbability of anything as advanced as human intelligence evolving anywhere in a universe as inhospitable to life as this one: every uninhabitable planet out there is a reminder of just how unique a set of circumstances is required to produce a climate equilibrium supportive of life. No intelligent life that we know of ever evolved, anywhere in the universe, outside of the narrow Goldilocks range of temperatures that enclosed all of human evolution, and that we have now left behind, probably permanently.

			How much hotter will it get? The question may sound scientific, inviting expertise, but the answer is almost entirely human—which is to say, political. The menace of climate change is a mercurial one; uncertainty makes it a shape-shifting threat. When will the planet warm by two degrees, and when by three? How much sea-level rise will be here by 2030, by 2050, by 2100, as our children are leaving the earth to their children and grandchildren? Which cities will flood, which forests will dry out, which breadbaskets will become husks? That uncertainty is among the most momentous metanarratives that climate change will bring to our culture over the next decades—an eerie lack of clarity about what the world we live in will even look like, just a decade or two down the road, when we will still be living in the same homes and paying the same mortgages, watching the same television shows and making appeals to many of the same justices of the Supreme Court. But while there are a few things science does not know about how the climate system will respond to all the carbon we’ve pumped into the air, the uncertainty of what will happen—that haunting uncertainty—emerges not from scientific ignorance but, overwhelmingly, from the open question of how we respond. That is, principally, how much more carbon we decide to emit, which is not a question for the natural sciences but the human ones. Climatologists can, today, predict with uncanny accuracy where a hurricane will hit, and at what intensity, as much as a week out from landfall; this is not just because the models are good but because all the inputs are known. When it comes to global warming, the models are just as good, but the key input is a mystery: What will we do?

			The lessons there are unfortunately bleak. Three-quarters of a century since global warming was first recognized as a problem, we have made no meaningful adjustment to our production or consumption of energy to account for it and protect ourselves. For far too long, casual climate observers have watched scientists draw pathways to a stable climate and concluded that the world would adapt accordingly; instead, the world has done more or less nothing, as though those pathways would implement themselves. Market forces have delivered cheaper and more widely available green energy, but the same market forces have absorbed those innovations, which is to say profited from them, while continuing to grow emissions. Politics has produced gestures of tremendous global solidarity and cooperation, then discarded those promises immediately. It has become commonplace among climate activists to say that we have, today, all the tools we need to avoid catastrophic climate change—even major climate change. It is also true. But political will is not some trivial ingredient, always at hand. We have the tools we need to solve global poverty, epidemic disease, and abuse of women, as well.

			It was as recent as 2016 that the celebrated Paris climate accords were adopted—defining two degrees of global warming as a must-meet target and rallying all the world’s nations to meet it—and the returns are already dispiritingly grim. In 2017, carbon emissions grew by 1.4 percent, according to the International Energy Agency, after an ambiguous couple of years optimists had hoped represented a leveling-off, or peak; instead, we’re climbing again. Even before the new spike, not a single major industrial nation was on track to fulfill the commitments it made in the Paris treaty. Of course, those commitments only get us down to 3.2 degrees; to keep the planet under 2 degrees of warming, all signatory nations have to significantly better their pledges. At present, there are 195 signatories, of which only the following are considered even “in range” of their Paris targets: Morocco, Gambia, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, India, and the Philippines. This puts Donald Trump’s commitment to withdraw from the treaty in a useful perspective; in fact, his spite may ultimately prove perversely productive, since the evacuation of American leadership on climate seems to have mobilized China—giving Xi Jinping an opportunity and an enticement to adopt a much more aggressive posture toward climate. Of course those renewed Chinese commitments are, at this point, just rhetorical, too; the country already has the world’s largest footprint, and in the first three months of 2018 its emissions grew by 4 percent. China commands half of the planet’s coal-power capacity, with plants that only operate, on average, half of the time—which means their use could quickly grow. Globally, coal power has nearly doubled since 2000. According to one analysis, if the world as a whole followed the Chinese example, it would bring five degrees of warming by 2100.

			In 2018, the United Nations predicted that at the current emissions rate the world would pass 1.5 degrees by 2040, if not sooner; according to the 2017 National Climate Assessment, even if global carbon concentration was immediately stabilized, we should expect more than half a degree Celsius of additional warming to come. Which is why staying below 2 degrees probably requires not just carbon scale-back but what are called “negative emissions.” These tools come in two forms: technologies that would suck carbon out of the air (called CCS, for “carbon capture and storage”) and new approaches to forestry and agriculture that would do the same, in a slightly more old-fashioned way (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, or “BECCS”).

			According to a raft of recent papers, both are something close to fantasy, at least at present. In 2018, the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council found that existing negative-emissions technologies have “limited realistic potential” to even slow the increase in concentration of carbon in the atmosphere—let alone meaningfully reduce that concentration. In 2018, Nature dismissed all scenarios built on CCS as “magical thinking.” It is not even so pleasant to engage in that thinking. There is not much carbon in the air, all told, just 410 parts per million, but it is everywhere, and so relying on carbon capture globally could require large-scale scrubbing plantations nearly everywhere on Earth—the planet transformed into something like an air-recycling plant orbiting the sun, an industrial satellite tracing a parabola through the solar system. (This is not what Barbara Ward or Buckminster Fuller meant by “spaceship earth.”) And while advances are sure to come, bringing costs down and making more efficient machines, we can’t wait much longer for that progress; we simply don’t have the time. One estimate suggests that, to have hopes of two degrees, we need to open new full-scale carbon capture plants at the pace of one and a half per day every day for the next seventy years. In 2018, the world had eighteen of them, total.

			This is not good, but indifference is unfortunately nothing new when it comes to climate. Projecting future warming is a foolish game, given how many layers of uncertainty govern the outcome; but if a best-case scenario is now somewhere between 2 and 2.5 degrees of warming by 2100, it seems that the likeliest outcome, the fattest part of the bell curve of probability, sits at about 3 degrees, or just a bit above. Probably even that amount of warming would require significant negative-emissions use, given that our use of carbon is still growing. And there is also some risk from scientific uncertainty, the possibility that we are underestimating the effects of those feedback loops in natural systems we only poorly understand. Conceivably, if those processes are triggered, we could hit 4 degrees of warming by 2100, even with a meaningful reduction in emissions over the coming decades. But the track record since Kyoto implies that human shortsightedness makes it unproductive to offer predictions about what will happen, when it comes to emissions and warming; better to consider what could happen. The sky is literally the limit.



				Cities, where the world will overwhelmingly live in the near future, only magnify the problem of high temperature. Asphalt and concrete and everything else that makes a city dense, including human flesh, absorb ambient heat, essentially storing it for a time like a slow-release poison pill; this is especially problematic because, in a heat wave, nightly reprieves are vital, allowing bodies to recover. When those reprieves are shorter, and shallower, flesh simply continues to simmer. In fact, the concrete and asphalt of cities absorb so much heat during the day that when it is released, at night, it can raise the local temperature as much as 22 degrees Fahrenheit, turning what could be bearably hot days into deadly ones—as in the Chicago heat wave of 1995, which killed 739 people, the direct-heat effects compounded by broken public health infrastructure. That commonly cited figure only reflects immediate deaths; of the many thousands more who visited hospitals during the heat wave, almost half died within the year. Others merely suffered permanent brain damage. Scientists call this the “heat island” effect—each city its own enclosed space, and hotter the more crowded it is.

			Of course, the world is rapidly urbanizing, with the United Nations estimating that two-thirds of the global population will live in cities by 2050—2.5 billion new urbanites, by that count. For a century or more, the city has seemed like a vision of the future to much of the world, which keeps inventing new scales of metropolis: bigger than 5 million people, bigger than 10, bigger than 20. Climate change won’t likely slow that pattern by much, but it will make the great migrations it reflects more perilous, with many millions of the world’s ambitious flooding into cities whose calendars are dotted with days of deadly heat, gathering in those new megalopolises like moths to a flame.

			In theory, climate change could even reverse those migrations, perhaps more totally than crime did in many American cities in the last century, turning urban populations in certain parts of the world outward as the cities themselves become unbearable. In the heat, roads in cities will melt and train tracks will buckle—this is actually happening already, but the impacts will mushroom in the decades ahead. Currently, there are 354 major cities with average maximum summertime temperatures of 95 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. By 2050, that list could grow to 970, and the number of people living in those cities and exposed to that deadly heat could grow eightfold, to 1.6 billion. In the United States alone, 70,000 workers have been seriously injured by heat since 1992, and by 2050, 255,000 are expected to die globally from direct heat effects. Already, as many as 1 billion are at risk for heat stress worldwide, and a third of the world’s population is subject to deadly heat waves at least twenty days each year; by 2100, that third will grow to half, even if we manage to pull up short of two degrees. If we don’t, the number could climb to three-quarters.

			In the United States, heat stroke has a pathetic reputation—a plague you learn about from summer camp, like swimming cramps. But heat death is among the cruelest punishments to a human body, just as painful and disorienting as hypothermia. First comes “heat exhaustion,” mostly a mark of dehydration: profuse sweating, nausea, headache. After a certain point, though, water won’t help, your core temperature rising as your body sends blood outward to the skin, hoping desperately to cool it down. The skin often reddens; internal organs begin to fail. Eventually you could stop sweating. The brain, too, stops working properly, and sometimes, after a period of agitation and combativeness, the episode is punctuated with a lethal heart attack. “When it comes to extreme heat,” Langewiesche has written, “you can no more escape the conditions than you can shed your skin.”






			If this book is worth anything, it is worth that because of the work of the scientists who first theorized, then documented the warming of the planet, and then began examining and explicating what that warming might mean for the rest of us living on it. That line of debt runs from Eunice Foote and John Tyndall in the nineteenth century to Roger Revelle and Charles David Keeling in the twentieth and on to all of those hundreds of scientists whose labor appears in the endnotes of this book (and of course many hundreds of unmentioned others very hard at work). However much progress we manage against the assaults of climate change in the coming decades, it is thanks to them.

			I am personally indebted to those scientists, climate writers, and activists who were especially generous to me, over the last several years, with their time and insights—helping me understand their own research and pointing me to the findings of others, indulging my requests for rambling interviews or discussing the state of the planet with me in other public settings, corresponding with me over time, and, in many cases, reviewing my writing, including portions of the text of this book, before publication. They are Richard Alley, David Archer, Craig Baker-Austin, David Battisti, Peter Brannen, Wallace Smith Broecker, Marshall Burke, Ethan D. Coffel, Aiguo Dai, Peter Gleick, Jeff Goodell, Al Gore, James Hansen, Katherine Hayhoe, Geoffrey Heal, Solomon Hsiang, Matthew Huber, Nancy Knowlton, Robert Kopp, Lee Kump, Irakli Loladze, Charles Mann, Geoff Mann, Michael Mann, Kate Marvel, Bill McKibben, Michael Oppenheimer, Naomi Oreskes, Andrew Revkin, Joseph Romm, Lynn Scarlett, Steven Sherwood, Joel Wainwright, Peter D. Ward, and Elizabeth Wolkovich.

			When I first wrote about climate change in 2017, I relied also on the critical research help of Julia Mead and Ted Hart. I am grateful, too, to all the responses to that story that were published elsewhere—especially those by Genevieve Guenther, Eric Holthaus, Farhad Manjoo, Susan Mathews, Jason Mark, Robinson Meyer, Chris Mooney, and David Roberts. That includes all the scientists who reviewed my work for the website Climate Feedback, working through my story line by line. In preparing this manuscript for publication, Chelsea Leu reviewed it even more closely, and incisively, and I cannot thank her enough for that.

			This book would not have come to be without the vision, guidance, wisdom, and forbearance of Tina Bennett, to whom I now owe a lifetime of thanks. And it would not have become an actual book without the acuity, brilliance, and faith of Tim Duggan, and the enormously helpful work of Molly Stern, Dyana Messina, Julia Bradshaw, William Wolfslau, Aubrey Martinson, Julie Cepler, Rachel Aldrich, Craig Adams, Phil Leung, and Andrea Lau, as well as Helen Conford at Penguin in London.

			I would not be writing this book were it not for Central Park East, and especially Pam Cushing, my second mother. I’m grateful to everyone I work with at New York magazine for all of their encouragement and support along the way. This goes especially for my bosses Jared Hohlt, Adam Moss, and Pam Wasserstein, and David Haskell, my editor and friend and co-conspirator. Other friends and co-conspirators also helped refine and reconceive what it was I was trying to do in this book, and to all of them I am so thankful, too: Isaac Chotiner, Kerry Howley, Hua Hsu, Christian Lorentzen, Noreen Malone, Chris Parris-Lamb, Willa Paskin, Max Read, and Kevin Roose. For a million unenumerable things, I’d also like to thank Jerry Saltz and Will Leitch, Lisa Miller and Vanessa Grigoriadis, Mike Marino and Andy Roth and Ryan Langer, James Darnton and Andrew Smeall and Scarlet Kim and Ann Fabian, Casey Schwartz and Marie Brenner, Nick Zimmerman and Dan Weber and Whitney Schubert and Joey Frank, Justin Pattner and Daniel Brand, Caitlin Roper, Ann Clarke and Alexis Swerdloff, Stella Bugbee, Meghan O’Rourke, Robert Asahina, Philip Gourevitch, Lorin Stein, and Michael Grunwald.

			My best reader, as always, is my brother, Ben; without his footsteps to follow, who knows where I’d be. I’ve been inspired, too, in countless ways, by Harry and Roseann, Jenn and Matt and Heather, and above all by my mother and father, only one of whom is here to read this book but to both of whom I owe it, and everything else.

			The last and biggest thanks belong to Risa, my love, and to Rocca, my other love—for the last year, the last twenty, and the fifty or more to come. Let’s hope they’re cool ones.


				[image: Book title, The Uninhabitable Earth, subtitle, Life After Warming, author, David Wallace-Wells, imprint, Tim Duggan Books]




				Title Page




			I. Cascades

			II. Elements of Chaos

			Heat Death




			Disasters No Longer Natural

			Freshwater Drain

			Dying Oceans

			Unbreathable Air

			Plagues of Warming

			Economic Collapse

			Climate Conflict


			III. The Climate Kaleidoscope


			Crisis Capitalism

			The Church of Technology

			Politics of Consumption

			History After Progress

			Ethics at the End of the World

			IV. The Anthropic Principle





			History After Progress

			That history is a story that moves in one direction is among the most unshakable creeds of the modern West—having survived, often only slightly modified, the counterarguments made over centuries by genocides and gulags, famines and epidemics and global conflagrations, producing death tolls in the tens of millions. The grip of this narrative is so tight on political imaginations that grotesque injustices and inequities, racial and otherwise, are often invoked not as reasons to doubt the arc of history but to be reminded of its shape—perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so agitated about such problems, in other words, since history is “moving in the right direction” and the forces of progress are, to indulge the mixed metaphor, “on the right side of history.” On what side is climate change?

			Its own side—its own tide. There is no good thing in the world that will be made more abundant, or spread more widely, by global warming. The list of the bad things that will proliferate is innumerable. And already, in this age of nascent ecological crisis, you can read a whole new literature of deep skepticism—proposing not only that history can move in reverse, but that the entire project of human settlement and civilization, which we know as “history” and which has given us climate change, has been, in fact, a jet stream backward. As climate horrors accumulate, this anti-progressive perspective is sure to blossom.

			Some Cassandras are already here. In Sapiens, his alien’s-eye-view account of the rise of human civilization, the historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that this rise is best understood as a succession of myths, beginning with the one that the invention of farming, in what is often called the Neolithic Revolution, amounted to progress (“We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us,” as he pithily put it). In Against the Grain, the political scientist and anthropologist of anarchy James C. Scott gives a more pointed critique of the same period: wheat cultivation, he argues, is responsible for the arrival of what we now understand as state power, and, with it, bureaucracy and oppression and inequality. These are no longer outlier accounts of what you may have learned about in middle school as the Agricultural Revolution, which you probably were taught marked the real beginning of history. Modern humans have been around for 200,000 years, but farming for only about 12,000—an innovation that ended hunting and gathering, bringing about cities and political structures, and with them what we now think of as “civilization.” But even Jared Diamond—whose Guns, Germs, and Steel gave an ecological and geographical account of the rise of the industrial West, and whose Collapse is a kind of forerunner text for this recent wave of reconsiderations—has called the Neolithic Revolution “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.”

			The argument does not even rely on anything that followed later: industrialization, fossil fuels, or the damage they now threaten to unleash on the planet and the fragile civilization briefly erected on its slippery surface. Instead, the case against civilization, this new class of skeptics says, can be made much more directly as a case against farming: the sedentary life agriculture produced eventually led to denser settlements, but populations didn’t expand for millennia afterward, the potential growth from farming offset by new levels of disease and warfare. This was not a brief, painful interlude, through which humans passed into a new time of abundance, but a story of strife that continued for a very long time, indeed to this day. We are still, now, in much of the world, shorter, sicker, and dying younger than our hunter-gatherer forebears, who were also, by the way, much better custodians of the planet on which we all live. And they watched over it for much longer—nearly all of those 200,000 years. That epic era once derided as “prehistory” accounts for about 95 percent of human history. For nearly all of that time, humans traversed the planet but left no meaningful mark. Which makes the history of mark-making—the entire history of civilization, the entire history we know as history—look less like an inevitable crescendo than like an anomaly, or blip. And makes industrialization and economic growth, the two forces that really gave the modern world the hurtling sensation of material progress, a blip inside a blip. A blip inside a blip that has brought us to the brink of a never-ending climate catastrophe.

			James Scott comes to this subject as a radical anti-statist, toward the end of a long career producing genuinely scintillating works of academic dissidence with titles like The Art of Not Being Governed, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, and Two Cheers for Anarchism. Harari’s is a stranger approach, but also more telling—a from-the-roots reconsideration of our collective faith in human progress, put forward and gobbled up in the midst of an ecological crisis of our own making. Harari has spoken movingly of the way his own coming out, as a gay man, has shaped his skepticism about human metanarratives as pervasive as heterosexuality and progress; and, though trained as a military historian, he has arrived in the spotlight of popular acclaim, praised by Bill Gates and Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg, as a sort of expositor of myth. The central exposition is this: society is and always has been bound together by collective fictions, no less now than in earlier eras, with values like progress and rationality taking the place once held by religion and superstition. Harari is a historian, but his worldview grafts the pretense of science onto the philosophical skepticism familiar from contrarians as diverse as David Hume and John Gray. You could also name the whole line of French theorists, from Lyotard to Foucault and beyond.

			“The story that has ruled our world in the past few decades is what we might call the Liberal Story,” Harari wrote in 2016, a month before the election of Donald Trump, in an essay that both basically predicted Trump’s election and outlined what it would mean to the world’s collective faith in the establishment. “It was a simple and attractive tale, but it is now collapsing, and so far no new story has emerged to fill the vacuum.”



			If you strip out the perception of progress from history, what is left?

			From here, it is hard, if not impossible, to see clearly what will emerge from the clouds of uncertainty around global warming—what forms we allow climate change to take, let alone what those forms will do to us. But it will not take a worst-case warming to deliver ravages dramatic enough to shake the casual sense that as time marches forward, life improves ineluctably. Those ravages are likely to begin arriving quickly: new coastlines retreated from drowned cities; destabilized societies disgorging millions of refugees into neighboring ones already feeling the pinch of resource depletion; the last several hundred years, which many in the West saw as a simple line of progress and growing prosperity, rendered instead as a prelude to mass climate suffering. Exactly how we regard the shape of history in a time of climate change will be shaped by how much we do to avert that change and how much we let it remodel everything about our lives. In the meantime, possibilities fan out as extravagantly as the paint chips on a color wheel.

			We still don’t know all that much about how humans before the arrival of agriculture, statehood, and “civilization” regarded the course of history—though it was a favorite pastime of early modern philosophers to imagine the inner lives of precivilized people, from “nasty, brutish, and short” to idyllic, carefree, unencumbered.

			Another perspective, which offers another model of history, is the cyclical one: familiar from the harvest calendar, the Stoic Greek theory of ekpyrosis and the Chinese “dynastic cycle,” and appropriated for the modern era by thinkers as seemingly teleological as Friedrich Nietzsche, who made the cycles of time a moral parable with his “eternal recurrence”; Albert Einstein, who considered the possibility of a “cyclic” model of the universe; Arthur Schlesinger, who saw American history as alternating periods of “public purpose” and “private interest”; and Paul Michael Kennedy, in his circumspect history lesson for the end of the Cold War, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Perhaps Americans today see history as progressive only because we were raised in the time of its empire, having more or less borrowed the British perspective from the time of theirs.

			But climate change isn’t likely to deliver a neat or complete return to a cyclical view of history, at least in the premodern sense—in part because there will be nothing neat, at all, about the era ushered in by warming. The likelier outcome is a much messier perspective, with teleology demoted from its position as an organizing, unifying theory, and, in its place, contradictory narratives running uncorralled, like animals unleashed from a cage and moving in all directions at once. But if the planet reaches three or four or five degrees of warming, the world will be convulsed with human suffering at such a scale—so many million refugees, half again as many wars, droughts and famines, and economic growth made impossible on so much of the planet—that its citizens will have difficulty regarding the recent past as a course of progress or even a phase in a cycle, or in fact anything but a true and substantial reversal.

			The possibility that our grandchildren could be living forever among the ruins of a much wealthier and more peaceful world seems almost inconceivable from the vantage of the present day, so much do we still live within the propaganda of human progress and generational improvement. But of course it was a relatively common feature of human history before the advent of industrialization. It was the experience of the Egyptians after the invasion of the Sea Peoples and the Incas after Pizarro, the Mesopotamians after the Akkadian Empire, and the Chinese after the Tang Dynasty. It was—so famously that it grew into caricature, which then spawned decades of rhetorical critique—the experience of Europeans after the fall of Rome. But in this case, the dark ages would arrive within one generation of the light—close enough to touch, and share stories, and blame.



				This is what is meant when climate change is described as a revenge of time. “Man-made weather is never made in the present,” Andreas Malm writes in The Progress of This Storm, his powerful sketch of a political theory for a time of climate change. “Global warming is a result of actions in the past.”

			It’s a tidy formulation, and one that vividly illustrates both the scale and the scope of the problem, which appears as the product of several long centuries of carbon-burning that also produced most of what we think of today as the comforting features of modern life. In that way, climate change does make us all prisoners of the Industrial Revolution, and suggests a carceral model of history—progress arrested by the consequences of past behavior. But while the climate crisis was engineered in the past, it was mostly in the recent past; and the degree to which it transforms the world of our grandchildren is being decided not in nineteenth-century Manchester but today and in the decades ahead.

			Disorientingly, climate change will also send us hurtling forward into an uncharted future—so long forward, if it proceeds unchecked, and into such a distant future, that we can hardly imagine the scale. This is not the “techno-shock” first experienced by Victorians encountering an accelerating pace of progress and feeling overwhelmed by just how much was changing within a single lifetime—though we are now acquainting ourselves with that kind of change, as well. It is more like the overwhelming awe felt by those naturalists contemplating the ancient-beyond-ancient historical grandeur of the earth, and calling it deep time.

			But climate change inverts the perspective—giving us not a deep time of permanence but a deep time of cascading, disorienting change, so deep that it mocks any pretense of permanence on the planet. Pleasure districts like Miami Beach, built just decades ago, will disappear, as will many of the military installations erected around the world since World War II to defend and secure the wealth that gave rise to them. Much older cities, like Amsterdam, are also under threat from flooding, with extraordinary infrastructure needed already today to keep them above water, infrastructure unavailable to defend the temples and villages of Bangladesh. Farmlands that had produced the same strains of grain or grapes for centuries or more will adapt, if they are lucky, to entirely new crops; in Sicily, the breadbasket of the ancient world, farmers are already turning to tropical fruits. Arctic ice that formed over millions of years will be unleashed as water, literally changing the face of the planet and remodeling shipping routes responsible for the very idea of globalization. And mass migrations will sever communities numbering in the millions—even tens of millions—from their ancestral homelands, which will disappear forever.

			Just how long the ecosystems of Earth will be thrown into flux and disarray from anthropogenic climate change also depends on how much more of that change we choose to engineer—and perhaps how much we can manage to undo. But warming at the level necessary to fully melt ice sheets and glaciers and elevate sea level by several hundred feet promises to initiate rolling, radically transformative changes on a timescale measured not in decades or centuries or even millennia, but in the millions of years. Alongside that timeline, the entire lifespan of human civilization is rendered, effectively, an afterthought; and the much longer span of climate change becomes eternity.


			Politics of Consumption

			Just before dawn on April 14, 2018, a Saturday, a sixty-year-old man walked into Prospect Park in Brooklyn, gave himself a shower of gasoline, and lit himself on fire. Beside the body, near a circular patch of grass blackened by the flames, lay a note, handwritten: “I am David Buckel and I just killed myself by fire as a protest suicide,” it read. “I apologize to you for the mess.” It was a small mess; he had arranged a ring of soil to prevent the fire from spreading too far.

			In a longer letter, typed, which he had also sent to the city’s newspapers, Buckel elaborated. “Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result—my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves….Pollution ravages our planet,” he wrote. “Our present grows more desperate, our future needs more than what we’ve been doing.”



			Americans know political suicide by self-immolation from the Vietnam era, when Thích Quảng Đức, a Buddhist monk repurposing a spiritual tradition of self-purification for contemporary protest, burned himself to death in Saigon. A few years later, the thirty-one-year-old Quaker Norman Morrison was inspired to do the same, outside the Pentagon, his one-year-old daughter beside him. One week after that, twenty-two-year-old Roger Allen LaPorte, a former seminarian and Catholic Worker, lit himself aflame outside the United Nations. We don’t like to think about it, but the tradition continues. In the United States, there have been six protests by self-immolation since 2014; in China, the gesture is even more common, particularly by opponents of the country’s Tibet policy, with twelve in the last three months of 2011 and twenty in the first three months of 2012 alone. And of course the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor ignited the Arab Spring.

			Buckel was a later-life environmental activist. He’d spent most of his career as a prominent gay-rights litigator, and his notes expressed two clear convictions: that the natural world had been made sick by industrial activity, and that much more than the average passersby in Prospect Park could appreciate must be done to halt, and ideally reverse, the damage. In the days after his suicide, it was the first of these which attracted the most attention—his death treated as an alarm, or a bellwether, marking some amorphous shift, perhaps in the health of the planet but certainly in the average Brooklynite’s perception of it. The second insight is more challenging—that the climate crisis demands political commitment well beyond the easy engagement of rhetorical sympathies, comfortable partisan tribalism, and ethical consumption.

			It is a common charge against liberal environmentalists that they live hypocritically—eating meat, flying, and voting liberal without yet having purchased Teslas. But among the woke Left the inverted charge is just as often true: we navigate by a North Star of politics through our diets, our friendships, even our consumption of pop culture, but rarely make meaningful political noise about those causes that run against our own self-interest or sense of self as special—indeed enlightened. And so, in the coming years, divestment is likely to be just the first salvo in a moral arms race between universities, municipalities, and nations. Cities will compete to be the first to ban cars, to paint every single roof white, to produce all the agriculture eaten by residents in vertical farms that don’t require post-harvest transportation by automobile, railroad, or airplane. But liberal NIMBYism will still strut, too, as it did in 2018, when American voters in deep-blue Washington state rejected a carbon tax at the ballot box, and the worst French protests since the quasi-revolution of 1968 raged against a proposed gasoline tax. On perhaps no issue more than climate is that liberal posture of well-off enlightenment a defensive gesture: almost regardless of your politics or your consumption choices, the wealthier you are, the larger your carbon footprint.

			But when critics of Al Gore compare his electricity use to that of the average Ugandan, they are not ultimately highlighting conspicuous and hypocritical personal consumption, however they mean to disparage him. Instead, they are calling attention to the structure of a political and economic order that not only permits the disparity but feeds and profits from it—this is what Thomas Piketty calls the “apparatus of justification.” And it justifies quite a lot. If the world’s most conspicuous emitters, the top 10 percent, reduced their emissions to only the E.U. average, total global emissions would fall by 35 percent. We won’t get there through the dietary choices of individuals, but through policy changes. In an age of personal politics, hypocrisy can look like a cardinal sin; but it can also articulate a public aspiration. Eating organic is nice, in other words, but if your goal is to save the climate your vote is much more important. Politics is a moral multiplier. And a perception of worldly sickness uncomplemented by political commitment gives us only “wellness.”



			It can be hard to take wellness seriously as a movement, at first, which may be why it has been the subject of so much derision over the past few years—SoulCycle, Goop, Moon Juice. But however manipulated by marketing consultants, and however dubious its claims to healthfulness, wellness also gives a clear name and shape to a growing perception even, or especially, among those wealthy enough to be insulated from the early assaults of climate change: that the contemporary world is toxic, and that to endure or thrive within it requires extraordinary measures of self-regulation and self-purification.

			What has been called the “new New Age” arises from a similar intuition—that meditation, ayahuasca trips, crystals and Burning Man and microdosed LSD are all pathways to a world beckoning as purer, cleaner, more sustaining, and perhaps above all else, more whole. This purity arena is likely to expand, perhaps dramatically, as the climate continues to careen toward visible degradation—and consumers respond by trying to extract themselves from the sludge of the world however they can. It should not be a surprise to discover, in next year’s supermarket aisles, alongside labels for “organic” and “free range,” some food described as “carbon-free.” GMOs aren’t a sign of a sick planet but a possible partial solution to the coming crisis of agriculture; nuclear power the same for energy. But both have already become nearly as off-putting as carcinogens to the purity-minded, who are growing in number and channeling more and more ecological anxiety along the way.

			That anxiety is coherent, even rational, at a time when it has been revealed that many American brand-name foods made from oats, including Cheerios and Quaker Oats, contain the pesticide Roundup, which has been linked with cancer, and when the National Weather Service issues elaborate guidance about which commonly available face masks can, and which cannot, protect you against the wildfire smoke engulfing nearly all of North America. It is only intuitive, in other words, that impulses toward purity represent growth areas of our culture, destined to distend further inward from the cultural periphery as apocalyptic ecological anxiety grows, too.

			But conscious consumption and wellness are both cop-outs, arising from that basic promise extended by neoliberalism: that consumer choices can be a substitute for political action, advertising not just political identity but political virtue; that the mutual end-goal of market and political forces should be the effective retirement of contentious politics at the hand of market consensus, which would displace ideological dispute; and that, in the meantime, in the supermarket aisle or department store, one can do good for the world simply by buying well.



			The term “neoliberalism” has been a swear word, on the Left, only since the Great Recession. Before then it was, most of the time, mere description: of the growing power of markets, particularly financial markets, in the liberal democracies of the West over the second half of the twentieth century; and of the hardening centrist consensus within those countries committed to spreading that power, in the form of privatization, deregulation, corporate-friendly tax policy, and the promotion of free trade.

			This program was sold, for fifty years, on the promise of growth—and not just growth for some. In this way, it was a sort of total political philosophy, extending a single, simple ideological tarpaulin so far and wide that it enclosed the earth like a rubbery blanket of greenhouse gas.

			It was total in other ways as well, unable to adjust to meaningfully discriminate between experiences as divergent as post-crash England and post-Maria Puerto Rico, or to concede its own shortcomings and paradoxes and blind spots, proposing instead only more neoliberalism. This is how the forces that unleashed climate change—namely, “the unchecked wisdom of the market”—were nevertheless presented as the forces that would save the planet from its ravages. It is how “philanthrocapitalism,” which seeks profits alongside human benefits, has replaced the loss-leader model of moral philanthropy among the very rich; how the winners of our increasingly winner-take-all tournament economy use philanthropy to buttress their own status; how “effective altruism,” which measures even not-for-profit charity by metrics of return borrowed from finance, has transformed the culture of giving well beyond the billionaire class; and how the “moral economy,” a rhetorical wedge that once expressed a radical critique of capitalism, became the calling card of do-gooder capitalists like Bill Gates. It is also, on the other end of the pecking order, how struggling citizens are asked to be entrepreneurs, indeed to demonstrate their value as citizens with the hard work of entrepreneurship, in an exhausting social system defined above all else by relentless competition.

			That is the critique from the Left, at least—and it is, in its way, inarguably true. But by laundering all conflict and competition through the market, neoliberalism also proffered a new model of doing business, so to speak, on the world stage—one that didn’t emerge from, or point toward, endless nation-state rivalry.

			One should not confuse correlation with causation, especially since there was so much tumult coming out of World War II that it is hard to isolate the single cause of just about anything. But the international cooperative order that has since presided, establishing or at least emerging in parallel with relative peace and abundant prosperity, is very neatly historically coincident with the reign of globalization and the empire of financial capital we now group together as neoliberalism. And if one were inclined to confuse correlation with causation, there is a quite intuitive and plausible theory connecting them. Markets may be problematic, shall we say, but they also value security and stability and, all else being equal, reliable economic growth. In the form of that growth, neoliberalism promised a reward for cooperation, effectively transforming, at least in theory, what had once been seen as zero-sum competitions into positive-sum collaborations.

			Neoliberalism never made good on that bargain, as the financial crisis finally revealed. Which has left the rhetorical banner of an ever-expanding, ever-enriching society of affluence—and a political economy oriented toward the same goal—considerably tattered. Those continuing to hold it aloft are much wobblier at the knee than seemed credible to imagine just a decade or two ago, like athletes showing themselves suddenly far past their prime. Global warming promises another blow, possibly a lethal one. If Bangladesh floods and Russia profits, the result will not be good for the cause of neoliberalism—and arguably worse still for the cause of liberal internationalism, which has always been its aide-de-camp.

			What kinds of politics are likely to evolve after the promise of growth recedes? A whole pantheon of possibilities floats before us, including that new trade deals are built on the moral infrastructure of climate change, with commerce contingent on emissions cuts and sanctions a punishment for squirrelly carbon behavior; or that a new global legal regime emerges, supplementing or perhaps even supplanting the central principle of human rights that has presided globally, at least in theory, since the end of World War II. But neoliberalism was sold on the proposition of positive-sum cooperation of all kinds, and the term itself suggests its natural successor regime: zero-sum politics. Today, we don’t even have to gaze into the future, or trust that it will be deformed by climate change, to see what that would look like. In the form of tribalism at home and nationalism abroad and terrorism flaming out from the tinder of failed states, that future is here, at least in preview, already. Now we just wait for the storms.



				If neoliberalism is the god that failed on climate change, what juvenile gods will it spawn? This is the question taken up by Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright in Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future, in which they repurpose Thomas Hobbes to sketch out what they see as the likeliest political form to evolve from the crisis of warming and the pummeling of its impacts.

			In his Leviathan, Hobbes narrated a false history of political consent to illustrate what he saw as the fundamental bargain of state power: the people giving up their liberty for the protection offered by a king. Global warming suggests the same bargain to would-be authoritarians: in a newly dangerous world, citizens will trade liberties for security and stability and some insurance against climate deprivation, ushering into being, Mann and Wainwright say, a new form of sovereignty to do battle against the new threat from the natural world. This new sovereignty will be not national but planetary—the only power that could plausibly answer a planetary threat.

			Mann and Wainwright are leftists, and their book is in part a call-to-arms, but the planetary sovereign the world is likeliest to turn to, they say with regret, is the one that sold us climate change in the first place—that is, neoliberalism. In fact, a neoliberalism beyond neoliberalism, a true world-state concerned close-to-exclusively with the flow of capital—a preoccupation that may poorly equip it to deal with the damages and degradations of climate change, but at no real cost to its authority. This is the “Climate Leviathan” of the title, though the authors do not believe its success is inevitable. In fact, they see three variations as also possible. Altogether, the four categories make up a climate-future matrix, plotted along the axes of relative faith in capitalism (on the one hand) and degree of support for nation-state sovereignty (on the other).

			“Climate Leviathan” is the quadrant defined by a positive relationship to capitalism and a negative perspective on national sovereignty. Something like our current situation they call the “Climate Behemoth” outcome, defined by mutual support for capitalism and for the nation-state: capitalism overruns the world’s borders to address the planetary crisis while protecting its own interests.

			The next they call “Climate Mao,” a system defined by putatively benevolent but authoritarian and anti-capitalist leaders, exercising their authority within the borders of nations as they exist today.

			The last quadrant: capitalistic nations conduct haphazard climate diplomacy—an international system negatively disposed toward both capitalism and the sovereignty of nation-states. This system would define itself as a guarantor of stability and security—ensuring at least a subsistence-level distribution of resources, protecting against the ravages of extreme climate events, and policing the inevitable outbreaks of conflict over the now-more-precious commodities of food, water, land. It would also wipe out entirely the borders between nations, recognizing only its own sovereignty and power. They call this possibility “Climate X,” and express great hope for it: a global alliance operating in the name of a common humanity, rather than in the interests of capital or nations. But there is a dark version as well—it is how you might get a planetary dictator in the shape of a mafia boss, and global governance not on the do-gooder model but as a straight-up protection racket.

			In theory, at least. Already, it’s fair to say, we have at least two Climate Mao leaders out there, and both are imperfect avatars of the archetype: Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, neither of whom is anti-capitalist so much as state capitalist. They also hold very different perspectives on the climate future and how to reckon with it, which suggests another variable, beyond form of government: climate ideology. This is how Angela Merkel and Donald Trump, both operating within the “Climate Behemoth” system, can nevertheless seem so many worlds apart—though Germany’s slow walk on coal suggests there may not be full solar systems between them.

			With China and Russia, the ideological contrast is clearer. Putin, the commandant of a petro-state that also happens to be, given its geography, one of the few nations on Earth likely to benefit from continued warming, sees basically no benefit to constraining carbon emissions or greening the economy—Russia’s or the world’s. Xi, now the leader-for-life of the planet’s rising superpower, seems to feel mutual obligations to the country’s growing prosperity and to the health and security of its people—of whom, it’s worth remembering, it has so many.

			In the wake of Trump, China has become a much more emphatic—or at least louder—green energy leader. But the incentives do not necessarily suggest it will make good on that rhetoric. In 2018, an illuminating study was published comparing how much a country was likely to be burdened by the economic impacts of climate change to its responsibility for global warming, measured by carbon emissions. The fate of India showcased the moral logic of climate change at its most grotesque: expected to be, by far, the world’s most hard-hit country, shouldering nearly twice as much of the burden as the next nation, India’s share of climate burden was four times as high as its share of climate guilt. China is in the opposite situation, its share of guilt four times as high as its share of the burden. Which, unfortunately, means it may be tempted to slow-walk its green energy revolution. The United States, the study found, presented a case of eerie karmic balance: its expected climate damages matching almost precisely its share of global carbon emissions. Not to say either share is small; in fact, of all the nations in the world, the U.S. was predicted to be hit second hardest.

			For decades, the rise of China has been an anxious prophecy invoked so regularly, and so prematurely, that Westerners, Americans especially, could be forgiven for thinking it was a case of the empire who cried wolf—an expression of Western self-doubt, more a premonition of collapse than a well-founded prediction of what new power might arise, and when. But on the matter of climate change, China does hold nearly all the cards. To the extent the world as a whole needs a stable climate to endure or thrive, its fate will be determined much more by the carbon trajectories of the developing world than by the course of the United States and Europe, where emissions have already flattened out and will likely begin their decline soon—though how dramatic a decline, and how soon, is very much up in the air. And although what’s called “carbon outsourcing” means that a large slice of China’s emissions is produced manufacturing goods to be consumed by Americans and Europeans. Whose responsibility are those gigatons of carbon? It may not much longer be merely a rhetorical question, if the Paris accords yield to a more rigorous global carbon governance structure, as they were intended to, and add, along the way, a proper enforcement mechanism, military or otherwise.

			How and how fast China manages its own transition from industrial to postindustrial economy, how and how fast it “greens” the industry that remains, how and how fast it remodels agricultural practices and diet, how and how fast it steers the consumer preferences of its booming middle and upper classes away from carbon intensity—these are not the only things that will determine the climate shape of the twenty-first century. The courses taken by India and the rest of South Asia, Nigeria and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, matter enormously. But China is, at present, the largest of those nations, and by far the wealthiest and most powerful. Through its Belt and Road Initiative, the country has already positioned itself as a major provider, in some cases the major provider, of the infrastructure of industry, energy, and transportation in much of the rest of the developing world. And it is relatively easy to imagine, at the end of a Chinese century, an intuitive global consensus solidifying—that the country with the world’s largest economy (therefore most responsible for the energy output of the planet) and the most people (therefore most responsible for the public health and well-being of humanity) should have something more than narrowly national powers over the climate policy of the rest of the “community of nations,” who would fall into line behind it.



				All of these scenarios, even the bleakest, presume some new political equilibrium. There is also, of course, the possibility of disequilibrium—or what you would normally call “disorder” and “conflict.” This is the analysis put forward by Harald Welzer, in Climate Wars, which predicts a “renaissance” of violent conflict in the decades to come. His evocative subtitle is What People Will Be Killed For in the 21st Century.

			Already, in local spheres, political collapse is a quite common outcome of climate crisis—we just call it “civil war.” And we tend to analyze it ideologically—as we did in Darfur, in Syria, in Yemen. Those kinds of collapses are likely to remain technically “local” rather than truly “global,” though in a time of climate crisis they would have an easier time metastasizing beyond old borders than they have in the recent past. In other words, a completely Mad Max world is not around the bend, since even catastrophic climate change won’t undermine all political power—in fact, it will produce some winners, relatively speaking. Some of them with quite large armies and rapidly expanding surveillance states—China now pulls criminals out of pop concerts with facial recognition software and deploys domestic-spy drones indistinguishable from birds. This is not an aspiring empire likely to tolerate no-man’s-lands within its sphere.

			Mad Max regions elsewhere are another matter. In certain ways they are already here, where “here” is parts of Somalia or Iraq or South Sudan at various points in the last decade, including points when the planet’s geopolitics seemed, at a glance from Los Angeles or London, stable. The idea of a “global order” has always been something of a fiction, or at least an aspiration, even as the joined forces of liberal internationalism, globalization, and American hegemony inched us toward it over the last century. Very probably, over the next century, climate change will reverse that course.


			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 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 allow us to engineer our 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. The earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are living through now, each so complete a wiping of the fossil record that it functioned as an evolutionary reset, the planet’s phylogenetic tree first expanding, then collapsing, at intervals, like a lung: 86 percent of all species dead, 450 million years ago; 70 million years later, 75 percent; 125 million years later, 96 percent; 50 million years later, 80 percent; 135 million years after that, 75 percent again. Unless you are a teenager, you probably read in your high school textbooks that these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs involved climate change produced by greenhouse gas. The most notorious was 250 million years ago; it began when carbon dioxide warmed the planet by five degrees Celsius, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane, another greenhouse gas, and ended with all but a sliver of life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster. The rate is one hundred times faster than at any point in human history before the beginning of industrialization. And there is already, right now, fully a third more carbon in the atmosphere than at any point in the last 800,000 years—perhaps in as long as 15 million years. There were no humans then. The oceans were more than a hundred feet higher.

			Many perceive global warming as a sort of moral and economic debt, accumulated since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and now come due after several centuries. In fact, 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. The United Nations established its climate change framework in 1992, advertising scientific consensus unmistakably to the world; this means we have now engineered as much ruin knowingly as we ever managed in ignorance. Global warming may seem like a distended morality tale playing out over several centuries and inflicting a kind of Old Testament retribution on the great-great-grandchildren of those responsible, since it was carbon burning in eighteenth-century England that lit the fuse of everything that has followed. But that is a fable about historical villainy that acquits those of us alive today—and unfairly. 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. The story of the industrial world’s kamikaze mission is the story of a single lifetime—the planet brought from seeming stability to the brink of catastrophe in the years between a baptism or bar mitzvah and a funeral.

			We all know those lifetimes. When my father was born in 1938—among his first memories the news of Pearl Harbor and the mythic air force of the industrial propaganda films that followed—the climate system appeared, to most human observers, steady. Scientists had understood the greenhouse effect, had understood the way carbon produced by burned wood and coal and oil could hothouse the planet and disequilibrate everything on it, for three-quarters of a century. But they had not yet seen the impact, not really, not yet, which made warming seem less like an observed fact than a dark prophecy, to be fulfilled only in a very distant future—perhaps never. By the time my father died, in 2016, weeks after the desperate signing of the Paris Agreement, the climate system was tipping toward devastation, passing the threshold of carbon concentration—400 parts per million in the earth’s atmosphere, in the eerily banal language of climatology—that had been, for years, the bright red line environmental scientists had drawn in the rampaging face of modern industry, saying, Do not cross. Of course, we kept going: just two years later, we hit a monthly average of 411, and guilt saturates the planet’s air as much as carbon, though we choose to believe we do not breathe it.

			The single lifetime is also the lifetime of my mother: born in 1945, to German Jews fleeing the smokestacks through which their relatives were incinerated, and now enjoying her seventy-third year in an American commodity paradise, a paradise supported by the factories of a developing world that has, in the space of a single lifetime, too, manufactured its way into the global middle class, with all the consumer enticements and fossil fuel privileges that come with that ascent: electricity, private cars, air travel, red meat. She has been smoking for fifty-eight of those years, unfiltered, ordering the cigarettes now by the carton from China.

			It is also the lifetime of many of the scientists who first raised public alarm about climate change, some of whom, incredibly, remain working—that is how rapidly we have arrived at this promontory. Roger Revelle, who first heralded the heating of the planet, died in 1991, but Wallace Smith Broecker, who helped popularize the term “global warming,” still drives to work at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory across the Hudson every day from the Upper West Side, sometimes picking up lunch at an old Jersey filling station recently outfitted as a hipster eatery; in the 1970s, he did his research with funding from Exxon, a company now the target of a raft of lawsuits that aim to adjudicate responsibility for the rolling emissions regime that today, barring a change of course on fossil fuels, threatens to make parts of the planet more or less unlivable for humans by the end of this century. That is the course we are speeding so blithely along—to more than four degrees Celsius of warming by the year 2100. According to some estimates, that would mean that whole regions of Africa and Australia and the United States, parts of South America north of Patagonia, and Asia south of Siberia would be rendered uninhabitable by direct heat, desertification, and flooding. Certainly it would make them inhospitable, and many more regions besides. This is our itinerary, our baseline. Which means that, if the planet was brought to the brink of climate catastrophe within the lifetime of a single generation, the responsibility to avoid it belongs with a single generation, too. We all also know that second lifetime. It is ours.



				I am not an environmentalist, and don’t even think of myself as a nature person. I’ve lived my whole life in cities, enjoying gadgets built by industrial supply chains I hardly think twice about. I’ve never gone camping, not willingly anyway, and while I always thought it was basically a good idea to keep streams clean and air clear, I also always accepted the proposition that there was a trade-off between economic growth and cost to nature—and figured, well, in most cases I’d probably go for growth. I’m not about to personally slaughter a cow to eat a hamburger, but I’m also not about to go vegan. I tend to think when you’re at the top of the food chain it’s okay to flaunt it, because I don’t see anything complicated about drawing a moral boundary between us and other animals, and in fact find it offensive to women and people of color that all of a sudden there’s talk of extending human-rights-like legal protections to chimps, apes, and octopuses, just a generation or two after we finally broke the white-male monopoly on legal personhood. In these ways—many of them, at least—I am like every other American who has spent their life fatally complacent, and willfully deluded, about climate change, which is not just the biggest threat human life on the planet has ever faced but a threat of an entirely different category and scale. That is, the scale of human life itself.

			A few years ago, I began collecting stories of climate change, many of them terrifying, gripping, uncanny narratives, with even the most small-scale sagas playing like fables: a group of Arctic scientists trapped when melting ice isolated their research center, on an island populated also by a group of polar bears; a Russian boy killed by anthrax released from a thawing reindeer carcass, which had been trapped in permafrost for many decades. At first, it seemed the news was inventing a new genre of allegory. But of course climate change is not an allegory.

			Beginning in 2011, about one million Syrian refugees were unleashed on Europe by a civil war inflamed by climate change and drought—and in a very real sense, much of the “populist moment” the entire West is passing through now is the result of panic produced by the shock of those migrants. The likely flooding of Bangladesh threatens to create ten times as many, or more, received by a world that will be even further destabilized by climate chaos—and, one suspects, less receptive the browner those in need. And then there will be the refugees from sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and the rest of South Asia—140 million by 2050, the World Bank estimates, meaning more than a hundred times Europe’s Syrian “crisis.”

			The U.N. projections are bleaker: 200 million climate refugees by 2050. Two hundred million was the entire world population at the peak of the Roman Empire, if you can imagine every single person alive and living anywhere on the planet at that time dispossessed of their home and turned outward to wander through hostile territories in search of a new one. The high end of what’s possible in the next thirty years, the United Nations says, is considerably worse: “a billion or more vulnerable poor people with little choice but to fight or flee.” A billion or more. That was the entire global population as recently as 1820, with the Industrial Revolution well under way. Which suggests that we might better conceive of history not as a deliberate procession of years marching forward on a timeline but as an expanding balloon of population growth, humanity dilating across the planet almost to the point of full eclipse. One reason carbon emissions have accelerated so much in the last generation is also an explanation for why history seems to be proceeding so much faster, with so much more happening, everywhere, each year, even every day: this is what results when there are simply that many more humans around. Fifteen percent of all human experience throughout history, it’s been estimated, belongs to people alive right now, each walking the earth with carbon footprints.

			Those refugee figures are high-end estimates, produced years ago by research groups designed to call attention to a particular cause or crusade; the true numbers will almost surely fall short of them, and scientists tend to trust projections in the tens of millions rather than the hundreds of millions. But that those bigger numbers are only the far upper reaches of what is possible should not lull us into complacency; when we dismiss the worst-case possibilities, it distorts our sense of likelier outcomes, which we then regard as extreme scenarios we needn’t plan so conscientiously for. High-end estimates establish the boundaries of what’s possible, between which we can better conceive of what is likely. And perhaps they will prove better guides even than that, considering the optimists have never, in the half century of climate anxiety we’ve already endured, been right.

			My file of stories grew daily, but very few of the clips, even those drawn from new research published in the most pedigreed scientific journals, seemed to appear in the coverage about climate change the country watched on television and read in its newspapers. In those places, climate change was reported, of course, and even with some tinge of alarm. But the discussion of possible effects was misleadingly narrow, limited almost invariably to the matter of sea-level rise. Just as worrisome, the coverage was sanguine, all things considered. As recently as the 1997 signing of the landmark Kyoto Protocol, two degrees Celsius of global warming was considered the threshold of catastrophe: flooded cities, crippling droughts and heat waves, a planet battered daily by hurricanes and monsoons we used to call “natural disasters” but will soon normalize as simply “bad weather.” More recently, the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands offered another name for that level of warming: “genocide.”

			There is almost no chance we will avoid that scenario. The Kyoto Protocol achieved, practically, nothing; in the twenty years since, despite all of our climate advocacy and legislation and progress on green energy, we have produced more emissions than in the twenty years before. In 2016, the Paris accords established two degrees as a global goal, and, to read our newspapers, that level of warming remains something like the scariest scenario it is responsible to consider; just a few years later, with no single industrial nation on track to meet its Paris commitments, two degrees looks more like a best-case outcome, at present hard to credit, with an entire bell curve of more horrific possibilities extending beyond it and yet shrouded, delicately, from public view.

			For those telling stories about climate, such horrific possibilities—and the fact that we had squandered our chance of landing anywhere on the better half of that curve—had become somehow unseemly to consider. The reasons are almost too many to count, and so half-formed they might better be called impulses. We chose not to discuss a world warmed beyond two degrees out of decency, perhaps; or simple fear; or fear of fearmongering; or technocratic faith, which is really market faith; or deference to partisan debates or even partisan priorities; or skepticism about the environmental Left of the kind I’d always had; or disinterest in the fates of distant ecosystems like I’d also always had. We felt confusion about the science and its many technical terms and hard-to-parse numbers, or at least an intuition that others would be easily confused about the science and its many technical terms and hard-to-parse numbers. We suffered from slowness apprehending the speed of change, or semi-conspiratorial confidence in the responsibility of global elites and their institutions, or obeisance toward those elites and their institutions, whatever we thought of them. Perhaps we felt unable to really trust scarier projections because we’d only just heard about warming, we thought, and things couldn’t possibly have gotten that much worse just since the first Inconvenient Truth; or 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; or because we felt so “postindustrial” we couldn’t believe we were still drawing material breaths from fossil fuel furnaces. Perhaps it was because we were so sociopathically good at collating bad news into a sickening evolving sense of what constituted “normal,” or because we looked outside and things seemed still okay. Because we were bored with writing, or reading, the same story again and again, 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 we had too much faith in the teleological shape of history and the arrow of human progress to countenance the idea that the arc of history would bend toward anything but environmental justice, too. 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, relatively speaking anyway, advantages of class being what they are and our own luck in the natalist lottery being what it was. Perhaps we were too panicked about our own jobs and industries to fret about the future of jobs and industry; or perhaps we were also really afraid of robots or were too busy looking at our new phones; or perhaps, however easy we found the apocalypse reflex in our culture and the path of panic in our politics, we truly had a good-news bias when it came to the big picture; or, really, who knows why—there are so many aspects to the climate kaleidoscope that transforms our intuitions about environmental devastation into an uncanny complacency that it can be hard to pull the whole picture of climate distortion into focus. But we simply wouldn’t, or couldn’t, or anyway didn’t look squarely in the face of the science.



				This is not a book about the science of warming; it is about what warming means to the way we live on this planet. But what does that science say? It is complicated research, because it is built on two layers of uncertainty: what humans will do, mostly in terms of emitting greenhouse gases, and how the climate will respond, both through straightforward heating and a variety of more complicated, and sometimes contradictory, feedback loops. But even shaded by those uncertainty bars it is also very clear research, in fact terrifyingly clear. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) offers the gold-standard assessments of the state of the planet and the likely trajectory for climate change—gold-standard, in part, because it is conservative, integrating only new research that passes the threshold of inarguability. A new report is expected in 2022, but the most recent one says that if we take action on emissions soon, instituting immediately all of the commitments made in the Paris accords but nowhere yet actually implemented, we are likely to get about 3.2 degrees of warming, or about three times as much warming as the planet has seen since the beginning of industrialization—bringing the unthinkable collapse of the planet’s ice sheets not just into the realm of the real but into the present. That would eventually flood not just Miami and Dhaka but Shanghai and Hong Kong and a hundred other cities around the world. The tipping point for that collapse is said to be around two degrees; according to several recent studies, even a rapid cessation of carbon emissions could bring us that amount of warming by the end of the century.

			The assaults of climate change do not end at 2100 just because most modeling, by convention, sunsets at that point. This is why some studying global warming call the hundred years to follow the “century of hell.” Climate change is fast, much faster than it seems we have the capacity to recognize and acknowledge; but it is also long, almost longer than we can truly imagine.

			In reading about warming, you will often come across analogies from the planetary record: the last time the planet was this much warmer, the logic runs, sea levels were here. These conditions are not coincidences. The sea level was there largely because the planet was that much warmer, and the geologic record is the best model we have for understanding the very complicated climate system and gauging just how much damage will come from turning up the temperature by two or four or six degrees. Which is why it is especially concerning that recent research into the deep history of the planet suggests that our current climate models may be underestimating the amount of warming we are due for in 2100 by as much as half. In other words, temperatures could rise, ultimately, by as much as double what the IPCC predicts. Hit our Paris emissions targets and we may still get four degrees of warming, meaning a green Sahara and the planet’s tropical forests transformed into fire-dominated savanna. The authors of one recent paper suggested the warming could be more dramatic still—slashing our emissions could still bring us to four or five degrees Celsius, a scenario they said would pose severe risks to the habitability of the entire planet. “Hothouse Earth,” they called it.

			Because these numbers are so small, we tend to trivialize the differences between them—one, two, four, five. Human experience and memory offer no good analogy for how we should think of those thresholds, but, as with world wars or recurrences of cancer, you don’t want to see even one. At two degrees, the ice sheets will begin their collapse, 400 million more people will suffer from water scarcity, major cities in the equatorial band of the planet will become unlivable, and even in the northern latitudes heat waves will kill thousands each summer. There would be thirty-two times as many extreme heat waves in India, and each would last five times as long, exposing ninety-three times more people. This is our best-case scenario. At three degrees, southern Europe would be in permanent drought, and the average drought in Central America would last nineteen months longer and in the Caribbean twenty-one months longer. In northern Africa, the figure is sixty months longer—five years. The areas burned each year by wildfires would double in the Mediterranean and sextuple, or more, in the United States. At four degrees, there would be eight million more cases of dengue fever each year in Latin America alone and close to annual global food crises. There could be 9 percent more heat-related deaths. Damages from river flooding would grow thirtyfold in Bangladesh, twentyfold in India, and as much as sixtyfold in the United Kingdom. In certain places, six climate-driven natural disasters could strike simultaneously, and, globally, damages could pass $600 trillion—more than twice the wealth as exists in the world today. Conflict and warfare could double.

			Even if we pull the planet up short of two degrees by 2100, we will be left with an atmosphere that contains 500 parts per million of carbon—perhaps more. The last time that was the case, sixteen million years ago, the planet was not two degrees warmer; it was somewhere between five and eight, giving the planet about 130 feet of sea-level rise, enough to draw a new American coastline as far west as I-95. Some of these processes take thousands of years to unfold, but they are also irreversible, and therefore effectively permanent. You might hope to simply reverse climate change; you can’t. It will outrun all of us.

			This is part of what makes climate change what the theorist Timothy Morton calls a “hyperobject”—a conceptual fact so large and complex that, like the internet, it can never be properly comprehended. There are many features of climate change—its size, its scope, its brutality—that, alone, satisfy this definition; together they might elevate it into a higher and more incomprehensible conceptual category yet. But time is perhaps the most mind-bending feature, the worst outcomes arriving so long from now that we reflexively discount their reality.

			Yet those outcomes promise to mock us and our own sense of the real in return. The ecological dramas we have unleashed through our land use and by burning fossil fuels—slowly for about a century and very rapidly for only a few decades—will play out over many millennia, in fact over a longer span of time than humans have even been around, performed in part by creatures and in environments we do not yet even know, ushered onto the world stage by the force of warming. And so, in a convenient cognitive bargain, we have chosen to consider climate change only as it will present itself this century. By 2100, the United Nations says, we are due for about 4.5 degrees of warming, following the path we are on today. That is, farther from the Paris track than the Paris track is from the two-degree threshold of catastrophe, which it more than doubles.

			As Naomi Oreskes has noted, there are far too many uncertainties in our models to take their predictions as gospel. Just running those models many times, as Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman do in their book Climate Shock, yields an 11 percent chance we overshoot six degrees. Recent work by the Nobel laureate William Nordhaus suggests that better-than-anticipated economic growth means better than one-in-three odds that our emissions will exceed the U.N.’s worst-case “business as usual” scenario. In other words, a temperature rise of five degrees or possibly more.

			The upper end of the probability curve put forward by the U.N. to estimate the end-of-the-century, business-as-usual scenario—the worst-case outcome of a worst-case emissions path—puts us at eight degrees. At that temperature, humans at the equator and in the tropics would not be able to move around outside without dying.

			In that world, eight degrees warmer, direct heat effects would be the least of it: the oceans would eventually swell two hundred feet higher, flooding what are now two-thirds of the world’s major cities; hardly any land on the planet would be capable of efficiently producing any of the food we now eat; forests would be roiled by rolling storms of fire, and coasts would be punished by more and more intense hurricanes; the suffocating hood of tropical disease would reach northward to enclose parts of what we now call the Arctic; probably about a third of the planet would be made unlivable by direct heat; and what are today literally unprecedented and intolerable droughts and heat waves would be the quotidian condition of whatever human life was able to endure.

			We will, almost certainly, avoid eight degrees of warming; in fact, several recent papers have suggested the climate is actually less sensitive to emissions than we’d thought, and that even the upper bound of a business-as-usual path would bring us to about five degrees, with a likely destination around four. But five degrees is nearly as unthinkable as eight, and four degrees not much better: the world in a permanent food deficit, the Alps as arid as the Atlas Mountains.

			Between that scenario and the world we live in now lies only the open question of human response. Some amount of further warming is already baked in, thanks to the protracted processes by which the planet adapts to greenhouse gas. But all of those paths projected from the present—to two degrees, to three, to four, five, or even eight—will be carved overwhelmingly by what we choose to do now. There is nothing stopping us from four degrees other than our own will to change course, which we have yet to display. Because the planet is as big as it is, and as ecologically diverse; because humans have proven themselves an adaptable species, and will likely continue to adapt to outmaneuver a lethal threat; and because the devastating effects of warming will soon become too extreme to ignore, or deny, if they haven’t already; because of all that, it is unlikely that climate change will render the planet truly uninhabitable. But if we do nothing about carbon emissions, if the next thirty years of industrial activity trace the same arc upward as the last thirty years have, whole regions will become unlivable by any standard we have today as soon as the end of this century.

			A few years ago, E. O. Wilson proposed a term, “Half-Earth,” to help us think through how we might adapt to the pressures of a changing climate, letting nature run its rehabilitative course on half the planet and sequestering humanity in the remaining, habitable half of the world. The fraction may be smaller than that, possibly considerably, and not by choice; the subtitle of his book was Our Planet’s Fight for Life. On longer timescales, the even-bleaker outcome is possible, too—the livable planet darkening as it approaches a human dusk.

			It would take a spectacular coincidence of bad choices and bad luck to make that kind of zero earth possible within our lifetime. But the fact that we have brought that nightmare eventuality into play at all is perhaps the overwhelming cultural and historical fact of the modern era—what historians of the future will likely study about us, and what we’d have hoped the generations before ours would have had the foresight to focus on, too. Whatever we do to stop warming, and however aggressively we act to protect ourselves from its ravages, we will have pulled the devastation of human life on Earth into view—close enough that we can see clearly what it would look like and know, with some degree of precision, how it will punish our children and grandchildren. Close enough, in fact, that we are already beginning to feel its effects ourselves, when we do not turn away.



				It is almost hard to believe just how much has happened and how quickly. In the late summer of 2017, three major hurricanes arose in the Atlantic at once, proceeding at first along the same route as though they were battalions of an army on the march. Hurricane Harvey, when it struck Houston, delivered such epic rainfall it was described in some areas as a “500,000-year event”—meaning that we should expect that amount of rain to hit that area once every five hundred millennia.

			Sophisticated consumers of environmental news have already learned how meaningless climate change has rendered such terms, which were meant to describe storms that had a 1-in-500,000 chance of striking in any given year. But the figures do help in this way: to remind us just how far global warming has already taken us from any natural-disaster benchmark our grandparents would have recognized. To dwell on the more common 500-year figure just for a moment, it would mean a storm that struck once during the entire history of the Roman Empire. Five hundred years ago, there were no English settlements across the Atlantic, so we are talking about a storm that should hit just once as Europeans arrived and established colonies, as colonists fought a revolution and Americans a civil war and two world wars, as their descendants established an empire of cotton on the backs of slaves, freed them, and then brutalized their descendants, industrialized and postindustrialized, triumphed in the Cold War, ushered in the “end of history,” and witnessed, just a decade later, its dramatic return. One storm in all that time, is what the meteorological record has taught us to expect. Just one. Harvey was the third such flood to hit Houston since 2015. And the storm struck, in places, with an intensity that was supposed to be a thousand times rarer still.

			That same season, an Atlantic hurricane hit Ireland, 45 million were flooded from their homes in South Asia, and unprecedented wildfires tilled much of California into ash. And then there was the new category of quotidian nightmare, climate change inventing the once-unimaginable category of obscure natural disasters—crises so large they would once have been inscribed in folklore for centuries today passing across our horizons ignored, overlooked, or forgotten. In 2016, a “thousand-year flood” drowned small-town Ellicott City, Maryland, to take but one example almost at random; it was followed, two years later, in the same small town, by another. One week that summer of 2018, dozens of places all over the world were hit with record heat waves, from Denver to Burlington to Ottawa; from Glasgow to Shannon to Belfast; from Tbilisi, in Georgia, and Yerevan, in Armenia, to whole swaths of southern Russia. The previous month, the daytime temperature of one city in Oman reached above 121 degrees Fahrenheit, and did not drop below 108 all night, and in Quebec, Canada, fifty-four died from the heat. That same week, one hundred major wildfires burned in the American West, including one in California that grew 4,000 acres in one day, and another, in Colorado, that produced a volcano-like 300-foot eruption of flames, swallowing an entire subdivision and inventing a new term, “fire tsunami,” along the way. On the other side of the planet, biblical rains flooded Japan, where 1.2 million were evacuated from their homes. Later that summer, Typhoon Mangkhut forced the evacuation of 2.45 million from mainland China, the same week that Hurricane Florence struck the Carolinas, turning the port city of Wilmington briefly into an island and flooding large parts of the state with hog manure and coal ash. Along the way, the winds of Florence produced dozens of tornadoes across the region. The previous month, in India, the state of Kerala was hit with its worst floods in almost a hundred years. That October, a hurricane in the Pacific wiped Hawaii’s East Island entirely off the map. And in November, which has traditionally marked the beginning of the rainy season in California, the state was hit instead with the deadliest fire in its history—the Camp Fire, which scorched several hundred square miles outside of Chico, killing dozens and leaving many more missing in a place called, proverbially, Paradise. The devastation was so complete, you could almost forget the Woolsey Fire, closer to Los Angeles, which burned at the same time and forced the sudden evacuation of 170,000.

			It is tempting to look at these strings of disasters and think, Climate change is here. And one response to seeing things long predicted actually come to pass is to feel that we have settled into a new era, with everything transformed. In fact, that is how California governor Jerry Brown described the state of things in the midst of the state’s wildfire disaster: “a new normal.”

			The truth is actually much scarier. That is, the end of normal; never normal again. We have already exited the state of environmental conditions that allowed the human animal to evolve in the first place, in an unsure and unplanned bet on just what that animal can endure. The climate system that raised us, and raised everything we now know as human culture and civilization, is now, like a parent, dead. And the climate system we have been observing for the last several years, the one that has battered the planet again and again, is not our bleak future in preview. It would be more precise to say that it is a product of our recent climate past, already passing behind us into a dustbin of environmental nostalgia. There