Solving the climate crisis

Three novels take on a changing climate

Solving the climate crisis

The photograph was an accident. When mission planners plotted out Apollo 8's mission to the moon and back, they didn't consider that its astronauts might look over their shoulder to reflect on where they came from.

"There was no thought of taking pictures of the Earth that I can remember in our photography training," Astronaut Bill Anders recounted in Francis French and Colin Burgess's seminal history of the Apollo program, In the Shadow of the Moon: A Challenging Journey to Tranquility, 1965-1969. "The photography was so canned that they had the f-stops calculated from the lunar albedo, based on our longitude around the moon, which I could basically do with my watch. I had it worked out that for every revolution I knew what time we were, at such and such a time I'd change the f-stop without even looking. We didn't even have a light meter. Then suddenly the Earth popped up."

The rest is history: a snapshot of our home planet, vivid blue and white set against the grey of the lunar surface and the black of space. The Earthrise photograph galvanized all who saw it. Mission Commander Jim Lovell said that "We learned more about the Earth, how fragile it is. How it is cloaked in the atmosphere which protects us. That the Earth could be easily overcome if we are not careful."

Writing in The Moon: A History for the Future, Oliver Morton explained that the photograph  represented a new way for humanity to see its home. "The Earth seen from the Moon in such prefigurings was almost always a school-room globe, dominated by the outlines of familiar continents; the world as mapped by humans and known by humans. Seen in itself though, it was not a world but a planet, strange and changing, its features barely recognizable. Not a representation, but a presence."

The photograph quickly became a symbol of the modern environmental movement that had begun to gain momentum in the 1950s and 1960s, a demonstration of our fragile existence in the larger cosmos. Voyager 1's 1990 image of the Earth, the Pale Blue Dot drove that point home even more viscerally: our home planet is fragile, and if we're not careful, we'll lose it.

Image: Andrew Liptak

Science fiction has long imagined futures where a changing climate plays a big role. J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World was an early work in the mid-20th century that dealt directly with the early theories of climate change, while Ursula K. Le Guin's novella The Word for World is Forest addressed themes of ecology and biology.

Climate change and the state of the planet has increasingly become a subject of focus for authors in the last two decades, with authors such as Kim Stanley Robinson and Paolo Bacigalupi using their works to forcefully drive home the impact that a warming Earth will bring with it.

In recent months, I've read a trio of intriguing books that not only imagine what a changing climate might be, but the steps in which we might take to confront it: Veil by Eliot Peper, The 2084 Report by James Lawrence Powell, and The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, each of which come away with a central conclusion: if we want to fix what we've broken, we'll need to take dramatic efforts in order to survive.

Powell's book is probably the most depressing book in this particular pile. Told through a series of oral histories and interviews taken from around the world around 2084, he covers everything from the impact of natural phenomena like drought and fires to flooding, to sea level rise, all the way up to social aspects, like an increase in conflict, human health, and rising authoritarianism from governments around the world.

Essentially, Powell — a geologist and educator with a distinguished career — takes stock of all the things that could go wrong if we don't take action to tackle the climate crisis now, in 2021. He extrapolates decades into the future, but we can already see some elements of his dismal future today: just look at the fire seasons that California endures, or the massive storms that we've seen take place around the world in the last couple of years.

With the book, he lays out a singular point: climate change is bad for our existence on the planet, and many of the small, stop-gap solutions that we might put into place simply won't work. The solution, this book says, is that long-term thinking and global planning is necessary if we want to avoid this particular future.

Eliot Peper's Veil builds on ideas that I imagine that we'll see with greater frequency: geoengineering our way out of the crisis, that is, to work out a technological means for fixing the problem of a rising global temperature. Various research institutions and even individuals have played with it, generally injecting materials into the atmosphere or ocean to try and affect some change. And why not? Volcanos can collectively eject tens of millions of tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2) into the atmosphere, and we've seen instances where major eruptions can lead to a temporary drop in the global temperature.

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In Veil, Peper imagines the consequences of such an experiment. The stakes are high: in the near future, we've reached the point where we're dealing with heat waves that kill millions of people at a time, including Zia León's mother, Miranda while she's in Columbia. Zia abandons her career as a diplomat to work towards a solution to the problem, only to eventually learn that her newfound mission is something of a family vocation: her father is also working on solving the crisis, only a bit more directly.

Zia learns that her billionaire father has begun taking direct action through geoengineering, using his wealth to secretly set up a network of drones that release chemicals into the atmosphere to deflect sunlight. It seems to be working too: the global temperature rise seemed to have slowed and stabilized.

Related: Interview with Eliot Peper

In his book, Peper hammers home a couple of points: altering the global climate is a dangerous proposition, and the ease to which someone or a corporation could unilaterally take matters into their own hands (provided they have the wealth and resources) could set a dangerous precedent for future actions.

It's something that Robinson opts to focus on in his own book, The Ministry for the Future. That kicks off in a similar way as Veil: global temperatures reach a point where massive heat waves kill off millions. This happens in India, as an American man named Frank May is caught in the city of Uttar Pradesh — Robinson takes us through a terrifying day as temperatures go through the roof and bakes the entire population, leaving May the only unlikely survivor. He's left to deal with the trauma that that incident inflicted on him. The world watched in horror, and is moved to more directly set up a response in the form of a UN agency, the Ministry for the Future, which is designed to advocate for future, unborn generations, as part of the Paris Agreement.

Robinson takes readers through a whirlwind of characters, infodumps, and exposition as he advances through a couple of decades as the Ministry digs in and begins to work: he charts efforts on the parts of scientists and engineers to try and slow Antarctic glaciers by pumping out water from under them (effectively grounding them), to efforts to rehabilitate the world's ecosystem, to the perspective of a photon as it zips around the Earth. We see meeting notes, points of view from various characters, and with it all, a range of potential solutions, from black-ops attacks that threaten the public confidence in air travel (unexpected missile strikes will do that), to assassinations.

Climate change is something that's extended through much of Robinson's career as a novelist. His Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars) deals with the efforts to terraform the Red planet, while his Science in the Capital trilogy (Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting) looks at the impact of climate change on Washington DC, and his New York 2140 looks at the underlying economic causation behind a drowned New York City.

That focus on economics is what made New York 2140 stand out for me: it's Robinson's inditement of capitalism as the bedrock reason for why climate change is occurring, and why we've been unable to stop it.

In Ministry for the Future, he presents what seems like the only real, long-lasting solution to get out of this: tie the financial incentives of the planet to the health of the economy. In it, his fictional ministry devises a carbon-based cryptocurrency that provides an economic incentive for companies and carbon emitters to cut back on their carbon footprint. Those efforts become key to guiding our societal behavior away from its destructive tendencies, and towards a path where we can build a better future for ourselves.

If there's any overriding theme that connects these three books, it's something that harkens back to Morton's observation about the power of the Earthrise photograph: that for most people, it was the first time realizing that our geopolitical borders are utterly meaningless in the reality of the cosmos. We're a small speck amongst the stars, and from space, those invisible lines that demarcate our political differences are barriers.

Further reading: Does Science Fiction Have a Moral Imperative to Address Climate Change?

Peper, Powell, and Robinson each point out that climate change is likely going to be the defining challenge of the decades ahead, and that in order to survive, we'll need to undertake major efforts and sacrifices to reform our entire existence on the planet. One, two, a handful, or even a majority of countries going it alone simply won't be enough: humanity as a whole needs to take action to achieve meaningful change. We need to adopt a mindset that prizes long-term action and which takes into consideration the health of the planet.

Robinson's books are always somewhat optimistic: even while he's destroying the world, he's showing a potential future that could be a viable destination for us. Otherwise, we'll end up with the future that Powell envisions: a horrifying end that could likely see us snuff out our own existence.

I think there is some reason for hope: the US rejoined the Paris Agreement earlier this year, and President Joe Biden's Earth Day proclamation is a welcome statement of intentions. Hopefully, we'll be able to steer ourselves in the right direction.

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My back's getting better, slowly. I'll be back in your inbox tomorrow with a regular roundup newsletter, and will have a handful of things for you to read next week.