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The Uninhabitable Earth Summary

The Uninhabitable Earth is one of the starkest books I have read in a long time. It details how climate change could affect the world if warming is not brought under control.

It’s a sobering book that does not pull any punches in regard to what happens f we don’t take this threat seriously.

In recent years, I have become more and more interested in the climate and the damage we are doing to the environment.

Constant carbon dioxide emissions are warming the Earth to a degree that will make human habitation almost impossible in some parts of the world by 2100 if we don’t take drastic action.

What The Uninhabitable Earth does in an unnerving manner is to paint a picture of the world that we are potentially creating for ourselves.

The picture is of a world that few of us will recognise and even fewer of us will want to inhabit. Think of all the major natural disasters you’ve witnessed recently such as Hurricane Katrina, wildfires and tornadoes and you’ll get a picture of what could become normal.

I read this book and was left worried about what could happen. I was also hopeful that it might serve as a wake-up call. One that gives us the impetus to do something about the threat we face.

It’s a fascinating read and one of the best books on climate change, which will shed some light on the damage we as a species are doing to the planet.

The Uninhabitable Earth summary

Takeaway 1 – Climate change could be worse than we think

Climate change is something we’re aware of but we’re not aware of how bad it could be. Recent events such as Superstorm Sandy and the Australian wildfires give us an indication of what the future may be like.

Over 200 years of pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere have caused the Earth to warm to levels that endanger human civilisation.

10,000 scientists agree that urgent action needs to be taken or we could see 4 to 5 degrees of warming by 2100, which would be catastrophic for human civilisation.

As is made clear by the title of the book, The Uninhabitable Earth, warming at this level would render the Earth largely uninhabitable for a large majority of people. Those living on the equator will particularly suffer.

It’s hard to see this happening at the moment because we are only used to what we see. Freak events are considered, well, freakish. But they are becoming more and more commonplace.

If temperatures continue to increase and we miss the 2-degree warming target, which it seems like we will, these events will become a new kind of normal.

The damage this will wreak is incredible. However, a more disconcerting aspect is that we just don’t know how bad things might get.

As the next section shows, warming sets off several feedback loops that could wreak havoc on our planet and turn weather systems upside down.

Takeaway 2 – Feedback loops could wreak havoc

A good example of a feedback loop related to climate change that we know about is air-conditioners.

Air conditioners are used to keep us cool in warm environments. If you’ve been to a warm country you’ll know how useful they are.

There’s just one problem, they are part of a feedback loop. The warm temperatures drive the need for more air conditioners. More air conditioners mean more energy is needed to power them

And where does that energy come from? Fossil fuels are burnt to power the electricity with which they are used. 

Thus, the more air conditioners that we use, the more carbon is pumped into the atmosphere, which means warmer temperatures and more air conditioners as people struggle to handle the heat.

This is just one example of a feedback loop. Many, many more will be triggered by climate change, including many that scientists are unable to predict.

This is worrying for multiple reasons, but one particular reason is that it could infer we will reach a tipping point. Once we reach this point, all bets are off and anything could happen.

All those models could be thrown into disarray as a black swan event occurs that we didn’t foresee. This is the inherent danger of climate change. We are taking chances with forces we don’t fully understand and which are beyond our control.

Takeaway 3 – The economic damage could be huge

An often overlooked part of climate change is the damage it will do economically. We’re well aware of the damage it will do to our physical environments, but the economic damage will be just as bad.

Think back to huge natural disasters since 2000 and the bill has been staggering. Sandy caused billions of damage, while New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina was preyed upon by private companies as documented by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine

The damage was huge and those companies swept into to hoover up government contracts. Yet, even today, the damage is still visible and the effects are still felt.

One estimate of the damage that 3.7 degrees of warming by 2100 would cause is $557 trillion. Currently, the global GDP is around $280 trillion.

Simply put, if we don’t take action and allow the Earth to warm at such a rate, we don’t have the money to fix the ensuing damage.

That should worry everyone. Not only would we not be able to repair the damage but with the economy weened off fossil fuels the incessant chasing of infinite growth would almost make this feat impossible.

These figures should be food for thought. They should result in people considering the way the economy works. The brilliant Doughnut Economics, by Kate Raworth, is an example of such ‘radical’ thinking.

Pumping more and more carbon into the atmosphere is a death sentence. We are knowingly killing our future prosperity because we’d rather bury our heads in the sand than face the uncomfortable truth.

Favourite Quotes

  • “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.”
  • “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.”
  • “That soil, believe it or not, is literally disappearing – 75 billion tons of soil lost each year. In the United States, the rate of erosion is ten times as high as the natural replenishment rate; in China and India, it is thirty to forty times as fast.”
  • “The last time the Earth was four degrees warmer, as Peter Brannen has written, there was no ice at either pole and sea level was 260 feet higher. There were palm trees in the Arctic. Better not to think what that means for life at the equator.”
  • “That climate change demands expertise, and faith in it, at precisely the moment when public confidence in expertise is collapsing, is another of its historical ironies.”

The Uninhabitable Earth review

If this The Uninhabitable Earth summary hasn’t made clear the stark reality of climate change, then the book certainly will!

Climate change isn’t a hoax, it isn’t overstated, and it’s a real and existential threat to humanity. Recent events such as the Australian wildfires only highlight what is to come in the years ahead.

I was well aware of climate change and its impact before I read this book, but I was unaware of how bad it could be.

If we do not get our act together, the planet is going to be in an almighty mess, which is a shame because it’s all completely unnecessary.

If we reduce our emissions to levels that are regarded as safe, then we have little to fear. If we don’t, the end result could be worse than we can imagine.

This isn’t just a pessimistic book. There is genuine hope that we can resolve the issue. More than ever, climate change is a major issue and many more people are aware of its importance.

The impending reality of the way we live and the effect it’s having on the planet will hopefully spur us into action.

The key takeaway from The Uninhabitable Earth is that we can negate the worst effects of climate change, but only if we take action now.

Who should read The Uninhabitable Earth?

I’m of the firm belief that everyone should read The Uninhabitable Earth. From people who are seasoned climate campaigners to those who dispute the notion of manmade climate change, this book is too important not to read.

It breakdowns what could happen in a variety of scenarios, which range from two degrees warming to the worst-case scenario of five degrees warming.

Even from two degrees of warming, which doesn’t sound like much, there’s likely to be widespread devastation.

Climate change is the biggest threat humanity has ever faced. We don’t have another planet to move to, this is our home. If we don’t treat it with the love and care it deserves it could turn on us.