You wake up. It’s the dead of night. Before you know what’s happening or why, you’re locked in intense psychological struggle with dark, unyielding thoughts. Your anxiety might focus on money or work or anything else, but let’s say it’s aging. All you foresee in your sunset years is sickliness, enfeeblement, poverty, loneliness, boredom, isolation, and pain. You search for the bright side. There isn’t any bright side. It’s temporary insanity. It’s 3 a.m. panic.
David Wallace-Wells, writing in the current issue of New York magazine, brings the spirit of 3 a.m. panic to the coming effects of climate change. His article “The Uninhabitable Earth” endeavors to demonstrate that the world’s climate future is bad—no, worse—no, even worse than that—no, even worse than you can possibly imagine. “[N]o matter how well-informed you are [about climate change],” he writes, “you are surely not alarmed enough.”
The author’s vision of maximal climate dystopia is pretty well summed up by the subheadings that accompany the piece:
The bahraining of New York
The end of food
Praying for cornfields in the tundra
What happens when the bubonic ice melts?
A rolling death smog that suffocates millions
The violence baked into heat
Permanent economic collapse
Dismal capitalism in a half-poorer world
Climate scientists such as Penn State’s Michael Mann have already weighed in on the article—negatively. “I am not a fan,” Mann writes, “of this sort of doomist framing. It is important to be up front about the risks of unmitigated climate change, and I frequently criticize those who understate the risks. But there is also a danger in overstating the science in a way that presents the problem as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability, and hopelessness.”
Mann identifies instances in which Wallace-Wells gets the science wrong. But science isn’t all he gets wrong. He seems to believe that the methane emissions produced by cattle come only from the back end of the animal, which is very far from the truth. He defines “coral bleaching” as “coral dying,” when in fact bleaching is the death of the algae that grows in a symbiotic relationship with coral. He writes frighteningly about the bubonic plague potentially stored in soon-to-melt arctic ice, failing to acknowledge that bubonic plague is more or less endemic right now in the southwestern United States and is treatable with antibiotics. He refers to “the hole in the ozone we patched in the 1980s,” confusing the date of the Montreal Protocol’s negotiation with the protocol’s real-world effects. And he bafflingly refers to “the passing of the fear of mutually assured destruction." Is Wallace-Wells under the impression that the United States and Russia have eliminated their nuclear arsenals, or that the two countries' leaders are characterized by perfect rationality and good will?
Look, 3 a.m. panic can play a valuable role in motivating daylight action. But where climate is concerned, let’s confine it to the night.