The Extinction Rebellion and an Uninhabitable Earth

By Mark Watts, Executive Director of C40 Cities

Today and for the rest of the week normal business in London will be disrupted by Extinction Rebellion protestors trying to rouse their fellow citizens to face the climate emergency into which we have sleep-walked. Their tactics aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if shutting down a few streets is what it takes to draw attention to the fact that we are now in a battle against the clock to prevent the (still entirely avoidable) destruction of the eco-system that makes possible human life on Earth, then that seems like an entirely rational response to me.

It is certainly an aggressive campaign. But twenty years of taking a measured approach to the climate crisis hasn’t worked and, as combining “extinction” and “rebellion” in the movement’s name implies, it is hardly surprising that people who otherwise might hope to have a long and thriving life throughout the twenty-first century will feel the need to force the issue. British environmentalist, George Monbiot, summed it up well in his Guardian column yesterday:

As the environmental crisis accelerates, and as protest movements like YouthStrike4Climate and Extinction Rebellion make it harder not to see what we face, people discover more inventive means of shutting their eyes and shedding responsibility. Underlying these excuses is a deep-rooted belief that if we really are in trouble, someone somewhere will come to our rescue: “they” won’t let it happen. But there is no they, just us.. There is no benign authority preserving us from harm. No one is coming to save us. None of us can justifiably avoid the call to come together to save ourselves.”

My sense is that people are starting to take notice. The school strikes and street protests are one very welcome sign that an activist movement is growing, but the fact that David Wallace-Wells’ ‘The Uninhabitable Earth‘, has made it into the best-seller lists on both sides of the Atlantic suggests that there is also an armchair audience out there, waiting to be pointed in the right direction.

Certainly these are two sides of the same coin and have little to do with the mainstream climate change movement of the last two decades. Wallace-Wells is neither a scientist or a campaigner, but a New York journalist whose investigative journalism simply led him to realise the seriousness of global heating. His book offers very little information that is new, but by simply adding up the existing facts that were already under our nose, and by virtue of his wonderful prose, he enables the reader to conclude for themselves that the climate crisis is not a problem for another generation, but something that is already well and truly under way. Here is how Wallace-Wells puts it:

“The summer of 2017, in the Northern Hemisphere, brought unprecedented extreme weather: three major hurricanes arising in quick succession in the Atlantic; the epic “500,000-year” rainfall of Hurricane Harvey, dropping on Houston a million gallons of water for nearly every single person in the entire state of Texas; the wildfires of California, nine thousand of them burning through more than a million acres, and those in icy Greenland, ten times bigger than those in 2014; the floods of South Asia, clearing 45 million from their homes.

Then the record-breaking summer of 2018 made 2017 seem positively idyllic. It brought an unheard-of global heat wave, with temperatures hitting 108 degrees [farenheit — that’s 42 degrees celsius] in Los Angeles, 122 in Pakistan, and 124 in Algeria. In the world’s oceans, six hurricanes and tropical storms appeared on the radars at once, including one, Typhoon Mangkhut, that hit the Philippines and then Hong Kong, killing nearly a hundred and wreaking a billion dollars in damages, and another, Hurricane Florence, which more than doubled the average annual rainfall in North Carolina, killing more than fifty and inflicting $17 billion worth of damage. There were wildfires in Sweden, all the way in the Arctic Circle, and across so much of the American West that half the continent was fighting through smoke, those fires ultimately burning close to 1.5 million acres. Parts of Yosemite National Park were closed, as were parts of Glacier National Park in Montana, where temperatures also topped 100. In 1850, the area had 150 glaciers; today, all but 26 are melted. By 2040, the summer of 2018 will likely seem normal.”

In twelve tightly written chapters Wallace-Wells goes on to arm us with data on just how quickly we are destroying the eco-system which has made it possible for human civilisation to survive and thrive. And by “quickly” I mean that in just the last thirty years half of all the greenhouse gas emissions created during homo sapiens’ two-hundred thousand year existence have been pumped into Earth’s atmosphere.

My recommendation to anyone who reads this blog is to read ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ for yourself. But in case you don’t have time, here are some of the key facts, arranged under the punchy chapter headings used by Wallace-Wells:


  • Flooding has quadrupled since 1980, according to the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council, and doubled since just 2004.


  • Each year, globally, between 260,000 and 600,000 people die from smoke from wildfires


  • Already, storms have doubled since 1980, according to the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council; and it is now estimated that New York City will suffer “500-year” floods once every twenty-five years.


  • In India, already, 600 million face “high to extreme water stress,” according to a 2018 government report, and 200,000 people die each year from lacking or contaminated water. By 2030, according to the same report, India will have only half the water it needs.

Climate Conflict

  • It is estimated that there have been nearly five hundred water-related conflicts since 1900. Almost half of that entire list occurred since 2010.

Dying Oceans

  • Over the past fifty years, the amount of ocean water with no oxygen at all has quadrupled globally, giving us a total of more than four hundred “dead zones”; oxygen-deprived zones have grown by several million square kilometers, roughly the size of all of Europe; and hundreds of coastal cities now sit on fetid, under-oxygenated ocean.

Unbreathable air

  • In the developing world, 98 percent of cities are enveloped by air above the threshold of safety established by the World Health Organisation.

Plagues of Warming

  • There are now, trapped in Arctic ice, diseases that have not circulated in the air for millions of years — in some cases, since before humans were around to encounter them. Which means our immune systems would have no idea how to fight back when those prehistoric plagues emerge from the ice — if global warming continues and we allow the permafrost to melt.

There is no doubt that ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ makes for uncomfortable reading and it is intended to do so. More importantly, it is a call to arms. YouthStrike4Climate and Extinction Rebellion have already got the message. For those who are less inspired by placards and direct action, Wallace-Wells’ book might be an alternative route to climate enlightenment.

C40 is a leading global network of cities taking bold and ambitious climate action to deliver a healthy, equitable and sustainable future for all.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store