Your House Is On Fire

“It is worse, much worse, than you think."So begins David Wallace-Wells' book, The Uninhabitable Earth.

Last month atmospheric CO2 levels hit 415 ppm. Never before in our history, going back millions of years before humans were humans, have levels been so high.

"I don't want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act… I want you to act as if the house was on fire – because it is." This from today's wisest voice, not a world leader or scientist but a 16-year old Nobel Peace Prize nominee named Greta Thunberg. Her new book is not out yet, so here are a few others you need to know about.

My first year in Kansas was a scorcher, the hottest year on the books up to that point. (It is now the 27th hottest, which should tell you something.) It was also the year a staff writer at the New Yorker named Bill McKibben was writing The End of Nature, which introduced climate change, then more comfortably known as the greenhouse effect, to the masses. That was 1988, and atmospheric CO2 was 350 ppm -- the level that scientists like James Hansen say we must get back to, the level that McKibben's climate group is named for.

In the intervening decades I've heard McKibben speak and have read many of his books and articles, plus lots more on the climate crisis. Indeed, I've reviewed many, so I debated whether I should continue the tragic trend. After reading his new book, Falter and especially Wallace-Wells' Uninhabitable Earth, and skipping through William Vollmann's No Immediate Danger, and reading how we are driving a million species to extinction, and how the last twelve months were the wettest in the U.S. since record keeping began 124 years ago, and how the Mississippi River has been above flood stage for the longest continuous stretch since 1927, and the massive cyclones in India and Bangladesh and Mozambique, and the Arctic hitting 84 degrees in May, and... it became quite clear that though the word may be out, we aren't acting like it.

Nathaniel Rich, author of Losing Earth, reviewing Vollmann’s tome, points out that it's in "the second wave of climate literature, books written not to diagnose or solve the problem, but to grapple with its moral consequences." Bill McKibben's Falter falls into that camp -- it's about being human, he says, and is structured around "the human game." Game or not, if one thing unites these titles, it's the seriousness that comes from the fact that we have changed Earth’s climate. Most authors insist, then, that we can also find the solutions. "We can destroy, or we can decide not to destroy," says McKibben. Wallace-Wells agrees, admitting that complacency is his greatest fear.

The first third or so of Falter brings the reader up to date on the state of our destroying. In sum, it's bad, it's happening too fast, effects that nobody expected are being seen, and it won't go away (ever, for all practical purposes).

How did this come to be? Turns out it's not just Exxon, but Ayn Rand and the Koch Brothers, plus the heedless geniuses of Silicon Valley and CRISPR. While interesting, this central section of Falter didn't do much for me. I also have some qualms about the us-vs.-them approach. Rather than point fingers, like Greta I'd rather we act. Here's the real challenge: panic, remain hopeful, act. McKibben gets to that, discussing the rapid gains of the fossil fuel divestment movement and the tremendous growth of solar and wind power.

Then, just when you've got the hope juices flowing, you see more headlines -- "Climate change could pose ‘existential threat’ to humanity by 2050," “Temperatures reach 122° in India” -- and you remember David Wallace-Wells.

If, between sweeping the water out of your basement and cleaning up the tornado damage, you have time for just one of the latest climate books, I'd say pick The Uninhabitable Earth. Then you can go hear Bill McKibben himself, right here in Kansas, at the Land Institute’s Prairie Festival in Salina, Sept. 27-29.

Thirty years on, we no longer call it the greenhouse effect. So, asks Greta, "Can we all now please stop saying “climate change” and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency?" 

-Jake Vail is an Info Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.