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Advocating for Change: Exploring the Rhetoric of Leading Climate Activist David Wallace Wells

uninhabitable earth article
A human skull with sunglasses on is pictured, reflecting both modernity, increasing heat, and our own mortality. (Wallace-Wells, 1)

In his essay titled “The The Uninhabitable Earth”, David Wallace Wells argues that the natural phenomenon humans often call climate change is worse than anyone thinks. More than that, it will drastically change the way of life of billions by the turn of the century. He emphasizes the effects on food, temperature, and perpetual violence when paired with the apathetic culture of human mitigation. Wallace Wells crafts this argument by examining the underlying connotation of the words climate change and global warming as worlds that could only be fantasized and never truly exist. He tries to connect with the reader and show them the extent to which this is a problem and they are a stakeholder by using second person and direct addresses.

From here, he uses imagery to create a vivid image to the modern day reader of what 2100’s society will look like especially considering the increasing lack of the resources everyone needs. Furthermore, in ingenious form, Wallace Wells threads rhetorical strategies such as anaphoras and periodic sentences throughout to maintain the reader’s focus. Overall, the author clearly showcases the effects of climate change that will occur and already occurring. The complex literary elements such as the use of second person point of view, imagery, anaphoras, and periodic sentences of this piece work together to make the reader consider climate change as more than a problem that will affect people in 200 years. It effectively conveys, particularly to teenage readers, that it is going to alter the course of human existence. The world as humanity knows it has a shorter lifespan than society ever contemplated.

Wallace Wells recognizes that the main issue associated with climate change awareness and global action is the barrier of apathy surrounding many people’s perceptions of the effects. He attempts to break this perception with scattered uses of second person and other forms of informal and direct language. His charged works act like a bullet aimed directly at the wall of indifference readers had constructed between themselves and the potential effects of climate change. For instance, lines such as this, “But no matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough.”, among others make the audience question their own knowledge and realize the limitations that are associated with our current situation. The instances of direct language make the reader connect to the piece in a unique way.

The destruction of the reader’s self-constructed barrier is further disrupted by the stark and alarmed tone of Wallace Wells’ writing. Using descriptive language laced with imagery, he paints a picture of a society that is littered with food shortages, never ending bouts of violence, and regions that are simply uninhabitable for human life. For example, Wallace Wells states, “heat stress in New York City would exceed that of present-day Bahrain, one of the planet’s hottest spots, and the temperature in Bahrain “would induce hyperthermia in even sleeping humans.” Reading this passage, readers can feel the heat waves radiating from the page and imagine roasting in New York City. Wallace Wells also makes sure to mix this imagery between effective uses of logos and ethos. He writes, The droughts in the American plains and Southwest would not just be worse than in the 1930s, a 2015 NASA study predicted, but worse than any droughts in a thousand years — and that includes those that struck between 1100 and 1300, which “dried up all the rivers East of the Sierra Nevada mountains”. The citation of NASA. an effective use of ethos, paired with a factual explanation of the potential drought season, logos, works together with descriptive language to make the reader picture the potential future of the Southeast and question the lifespan of even future rivers. It forces the audience to picture the true impacts of an uninhabitable earth, an earth that until Wallace Wells outlined it seemed unimaginable.

Finally, Wallace Wells takes one last well-aimed punch at the reader/reality barrier by incorporating scattered elements of figurative language such as the simile, anaphora, and periodic sentence. These elements retain the reader’s attention in a dark and at points, seemingly never-ending essay. In the first section when describing the reasons for the non-aggressive response to climate change, Wallace Wells uses the periodic sentence to show the audience the large number of factors causing this and to maintain their attention into the middle portion of the essay. He states, “The reasons for that are many: the timid language of scientific probabilities, which the climatologist James Hansen once called “scientific reticence” in a paper chastising scientists for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat really was; the fact that the country is dominated by a group of technocrats who believe any problem can be solved and an opposing culture that doesn’t even see warming as a problem worth addressing; the way that climate denialism has made scientists even more cautious in offering speculative warnings; the simple speed of change and, also, its slowness, such that we are only seeing effects now of warming from decades past; our uncertainty about uncertainty, which the climate writer Naomi Oreskes in particular has suggested stops us from preparing as though anything worse than a median outcome were even possible; the way we assume climate change will hit hardest elsewhere, not everywhere; the smallness (two degrees) and largeness (1.8 trillion tons) and abstractness (400 parts per million) of the numbers; the discomfort of considering a problem that is very difficult, if not impossible, to solve; the altogether incomprehensible scale of that problem, which amounts to the prospect of our own annihilation; simple fear.” Upon reading this periodic sentence, a person can not help but think about these reasons and identify with Wallace Wells’ message. Moreover, he uses elements such as anaphoras to draw the focus of a reader to the specific point and urgency of his message. For instance, Wallace Wells writes, “At four degrees, the deadly European heat wave of 2003, which killed as many as 2,000 people a day, will be a normal summer. At six, according to an assessment focused only on effects within the U.S. from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, summer labor of any kind would become impossible in the lower Mississippi Valley.” The repetition of at and then the number of degrees of warming emphasizes the need for quick action.
After destroying the barrier of reader apathy using literary elements, Wallace Wells incorporates structural changes to make readers feel an expectant, anxious mood. In fact, the writing structure itself makes readers expect something else. Yet, like the future of our planet, the ending that humanity wants and desires will probably never come. One instance of this is the section numbering. The reader, throughout the essay, expects ten sections to neatly add up and align, but Wallace Wells ends at nine, purposefully not fulfilling the audience’s expectations. Furthermore, he begins each section with a sentence fragment and finishes with a statistic or piece of logos to tie the predictions of the future to the reality of now.

Yet, the mood of his essay is created by more than writing style choices. By incorporating visuals of fossilized human skulls and air conditioners, Wallace Wells depicts the bleak and inevitable destruction of the human race and re emphasizes the mortality of the human species. Even if the audience were not reading the essay, they would be moved by the intriguing visuals of seemingly modern items being antiquated and placed within a fossilized coating.

Wallace Wells’ essay is captivating, descriptive, and honestly, down right terrifying. It overcomes the barrier of reader apathy through its effective use of second person, imagery, figurative language, images, and parallel structure and unlike other instance of environmental journalism on climate change, has the potential to incite action. The audience upon reading this piece can not help but genuinely fear an earth that is uninhabitable and expect it within their lifetime. His argument is effective and direct, lacking fallacious reasoning. In fact, he leaves readers feeling that he is right; no one is worried enough.

My name is Ellie Hummel and I'm a junior at DuPont Manual High School in Louisville, Ky. I am a contributor and the outreach coordinator for The Student Scientist. I love biology research and computer programming and hope to spread these passions to others through my writing. Over the course of the past three years, I have researched spinal cord injuries and axon growth. I also work for STEMY, a local non-profit dedicated to providing STEM resources to youth and lead my school's SNHS and HOSA chapters. In my free time, I play with my dog, Harry, and coach swim lessons.

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