Science Fiction to Change the World

Future Hope column, Sept. 21, 2008

By Ted Glick

“Damage from carbon dioxide emission costs about $35 a ton, but in your [World Bank] model no one pays it. Shell reported a profit of twenty-three billion, but if you added the damage cost it would be eight billion in the red. These companies should be bankrupt. You support the exteriorizing of costs, so your accounting is bullshit. You’re helping to bring on the biggest catastrophe in human history. If the oil companies burn the five hundred gigatons of carbon that you are describing as inevitable because of your financial shell games, then two-thirds of the species on the planet will be endangered, including humans. It’s the stupidest head-in-the-sand response possible.”
-Charlie Quibler, Sixty Days and Counting

“The military budgets of the world equal about a trillion dollars a year, half of that coming from the United States. Maybe we can’t afford to throw that work away anymore. Maybe the money could be reallocated [to clean energy technologies]. And we do need a really big manufacturing capacity here. What if the entire military-industrial complex, funded by these enormous budgets, were redirected?”
-Frank Vanderwal, in Sixty Days and Counting

I’d never heard of science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson before this summer, much less his trilogy of books on the climate crisis. But now that I’ve read them—Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting—I want to encourage as many people as possible to do the same.

Others have felt the same. Among the statements of other reviewers:

-New York Times: Robinson’s impressive body of work offers sound guidance for scientifically informed social action.
-Kirkus Reviews: Fast-paced and exciting… first-rate ecological speculation about our future, and the steps we could be taking to repair the world for future generations.
-Publishers Weekly: Provides perhaps the most realistic portrayal ever created of the environmental changes that are already occurring on our planet. It should be required reading for anyone concerned about our world’s future.
-St. Louis Post-Dispatch: These science-fiction environmental thrillers by Robinson should be required reading for government officials and voters.

Published in mid-2004, late-2005 and spring-2007, these books are full of valuable information and analysis about the scientific realities of the climate crisis and the actions which need to be taken to resolve it. This is done within the context of a thoroughly interesting and exciting story which unfolds primarily within Washington, D.C. Along the way issues of voting machine tampering and government surveillance are prominent. The story’s main hero is a scientist and outdoorsman, Frank Vanderwal, who finds love, deeper connections to nature and a purpose for living as he helps to lead the National Science Foundation, and the federal government, toward a major focus on solving this huge civilizational crisis.

In the first book the D.C. area experiences “Forty Signs of Rain,” two extraordinary, major storms converging at the same time, one from the north and one from the south, which do tremendous damage. They also motivate a federal government with a Republican President to begin to focus attention on this issue similar to what is now going on with the mortgage/credit/banking crisis.

This is followed by “Fifty Degrees Below” during the winter as a result of the disruption of the Gulf Stream because of massive ice melt on Greenland. These two catastrophic events lead to the election to the Presidency of an environmental champion, Senator Phil Chase of California, who uses his first “Sixty Days and Counting” to make the solving of the climate crisis the top issue for the United States and the world.

Could this “Sixty Days and Counting” scenario be prophetic for 2008’s election and the aftermath? That remains to be seen. The answer to that question depends in large part on what those of us in the climate movement do on a day to day basis over the next six months, between now and the election and then afterwards in the first 100 days when the new President and Congress take office in January.

Indeed, one of the serious weaknesses of Robinson’s otherwise impressive trilogy is the complete absence in any of the three books of an organized climate movement bringing political pressure on the government. Indeed, if there were no such movement, Robinson’s portrayal of catastrophic climate/weather events as THE stimulus to finally motivate serious government action would likely be not just science fiction but historical fact. Hopefully he will be proven wrong in this regard.

Robinson’s story is built upon a major climate snap, followed by two main tracks of reactive governmental/societal action. One, the most immediate, is gigantic geo-engineering projects to try to repair the damage. One such project is the mobilization of a thousand ocean tankers that bring and dump millions of tons of salt from around the world into the North Atlantic in a successful effort to re-start the stalled Gulf Stream and the thermohaline circulator of connected ocean currents. Another, as the West Antarctic ice sheet dramatically disintegrates, is the use of solar energy to pump South Atlantic ocean water up to the top of the still-stable East Antarctic ice sheet, where it then freezes and which helps to decrease sea level rise worldwide.

The other track is support for the various non-traditional energy options, both the genuinely clean, renewable ones like wind, solar, geothermal, tides and currents, and the problematic ones like nuclear power and coal using carbon capture and storage. He has President Phil Chase quoting FDR: “The solution is to be found in a program of bold and persistent experimentation.”

Significantly, and to Robinson’s credit, also interwoven throughout all three books is the necessity for cultural and lifestyle changes toward an appreciation of our connection to nature and the importance of conservation, of walking lightly upon the earth.

Despite some criticisms, I was totally taken in by these books. I have to admit that I was intrigued by Robinson’s development of the logic for and the actual implementation of the massive geo-engineering projects. I was intrigued even though many climate and environmental activists, for very good reasons, have opposed serious consideration of these kinds of ideas. They—we—have seen them as a continuation of the same kind of “we rule the world,” capitalistic technological “fixes” that have helped to get us into the mess we are in.

It may be, however, that humanity will have to consider less extreme geo-engineering alternatives as we go about the justice-based, clean energy revolution which has to be our primary course. And if we don’t get very serious very soon, Robinson’s extreme forms of geo-engineering action may be forced upon us.

We do have options. All is not lost. There is hope, but we are fighting not just the oil, coal and nuclear industries and their kept politicians but time itself. Daily, we have to keep stepping it up for today’s and future generations.

Ted Glick is the Policy Director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network/U.S. Climate Emergency Council. Past Future Hope columns and contact and other information can be found at