That’s the state of the world right now. There are three ongoing shifts and no easy way to synthesize them. The facts don’t lend themselves to an overwhelming vision. Instead, they suggest that the planet’s economic system is in the middle of a difficult and supremely important political battle with itself. As Brad Plumer, a New York Times climate reporter, tweeted last week: There are “two radically opposed visions of the future; [it’s] not yet clear which one will win out.”
It’s into that morass that this week’s New York magazine walks. In a widely shared article, David Wallace-Wells sketches the bleakest possible scenario for global warming. He warns of a planet so awash in greenhouse gas that Brooklyn’s heat waves will rival Bahrain’s. The breadbaskets of China and the United States will enter a debilitating and everlasting drought, he says. And millions of brains will so lack oxygen that they’ll slip into a carbon-induced confusion.
Unless we take aggressive action, “parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century,” he writes. “No matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough.”
It’s a scary vision—which is okay, because climate change is scary. It is also an unusually specific and severe depiction of what global warming will do to the planet. And though Wallace-Wells makes it clear that he’s not predicting the future, only trying to spin out the consequences of the best available science today, it’s fair to ask: Is it realistic? Will this heat-wracked doomsday come to pass?
Many climate scientists and professional science communicators say no. Wallace-Wells’s article, they say, often flies beyond the realm of what researchers think is likely. I have to agree with them.
At key points in his piece, Wallace-Wells posits facts that mainstream climate science cannot support. In the introduction, he suggests that the world’s permafrost will belch all of its methane into the atmosphere as it melts, accelerating the planet’s warming in the decades to come. We don’t know everything about methane yet, but the picture does not seem this bleak. Melting permafrost will emit methane, and methane is an ultra-potent greenhouse gas, but scientists do not think so much it will escape in the coming century.
“The science on this is much more nuanced and doesn’t support the notion of a game-changing, planet-melting methane bomb,” writes Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State, in a Facebook post. “It is unclear that much of this frozen methane can be readily mobilized by projected warming.”
At other points, Wallace-Wells misstates what we know about the climate change that has already happened. Satellite data does not show that the world has warmed twice as fast as scientists thought, as he says; rather, the observed warming has tracked pretty close to what the models predicted. Carbon-dioxide levels only get high enough to seriously depress brain function in indoor spaces, though he implies it will become a global problem. Most importantly, we do not know nearly as much about climate change and war as he claims—an idea that I will return to in a moment.