Cli-Fi: some recent global warming related science fiction
Bob Runs the Numbers, Episode 10
Science Fiction Goes Through Phases
It seems like in the 1990s, science fiction’s best novels were all cybery. Neal Stephenson’s ’90s work (Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon) was pure cyber-related; Vernor Vinge’s ’90s work (the “Zones of Thought” novels like A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness In the Sky) was set in space but steeped in information technology.
Then in the two thousand teens, several of my favorite authors synchronized on a bunch more spacey SF. In 2015/2016 three consecutive novels I read were Stephenson’s Seveneves, Andy Weir’s The Martian, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora ... and they were three of the most innovative and engrossing space-based SF novels I’d read in a long time. It felt like a renaissance of glorious hard space opera.
Half a decade later, in 2020/2021 there’s another synchronization. Some terrific novels are exploring the near-future of an Earth wrestling with climate change. Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future and Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock are new favorites of mine. (And, yes, KSR had his climate trilogy in the mid-aughts, but 2020’s The Ministry for the Future tackled climate change with more of a focus on solutions.)
The possibility of addressing climate change by deliberately altering Earth’s ecosystems to counteract CO2-based warming is not one that has much popular visibility. Aside from a chapter in Superfreakonomics, most of the conversation around mitigating climate change is about how to stop making the problem worse. (Which definitely deserves to be in the popular discourse! And should probably be where we put most of our effort! But more active mitigation deserves some attention too, in my opinion.)
This problem of omitting options in our conversations is a problem that I explore more deeply when discussing the “tragic gap” in a Bob Runs the Numbers appendix:
There I suggest that geoengineering approaches like sulfur dioxide atmospheric injection aren’t in liberals’ wheelhouse because liberals would prefer other mitigations over “deliberately polluting” … and conservatives don’t want to discuss geoengineering because they don’t acknowledge that there’s a problem.
Riffing on Termination Shock
Neal Stephenson’s novel digs much deeper into sulfur dioxide atmospheric injection as a global warming mitigation technique.
Stephenson’s got an analogy for sulfuric dioxide atmospheric injection: it’s like a tourniquet on a wounded arm. A tourniquet might be necessary, but after you apply a tourniquet you don’t dust off your hands and proclaim “problem solved”! The tourniquet keeps the patient alive until a better solution can be implemented.
There’s a wrinkle to Stephenson’s narrative — one that I’m not sure I agree with, but … maybe? In Termination Shock the right wing (of the Netherlands) does a flip-flop on whether they “believe” in climate change and start supporting geoengineering … with the subtext (and text) of the progressive politicians being oh so against geoengineering.
Is that true? Is Stephenson correct? How much of the left really is anti-geoengineering? I wonder. I think the left would support geoengineering technologies like carbon sequestration. And I think the left and the right could find a lot of common ground in other geoengineering approaches, including “tourniquet” solutions like sulfur dioxide injection.
If the American right wing suddenly started endorsing geoengineering to mitigate the effects of climate change, would the American left wing oppose it? I just don’t see it.
I mean, I’m a pretty liberal guy and in our secret lib meetings I haven’t heard that we’re supposed to be all against geoengineering. But maybe I missed a memo and liberals really are against it.
Still. Whether the left is supposed to be against it or not, let’s put it on the table!