Science fiction writers have often imagined the various ways the world could end. An oft-encountered method is the end of the world through nuclear war. In many of these scenarios the danger looms clearly, and the villains are recognizable. But what if disaster crept upon us, slowly and surely, while we lived out our lives? What if we were warned about it but because the scale of it was longer than our lives, or because it seemed impossible to believe, or because we didnâ€™t know what to do, or because it wasnâ€™t clear who to point fingers at, we continued with our lives as though nothing was going to happen?
I can imagine the last two lines of the story.
And we did nothing.
And the world ended with a whimper.
This slow and painful dying is not as dramatic as the one where the world succumbs to a nuclear holocaust, but is it less likely? Would we, the readers, end up saying: â€œthis story isnâ€™t plausible; if humanity were faced with such a threat, something would be done to avert it?â€
Perhaps not. There are many books out there, including a frighteningly large number for young readers, that are post-apocalyptic in nature. Earlier this year I had a chat with British critic Farah Mendlesohn, and she mentioned that what these books seemed to be saying was this: apocalypse (of whatever nature) is inevitable, the earth is going to be destroyed no matter what, and the best that can be done is to pick up the pieces and rebuild after Armageddon is over, assuming we survive it. Perhaps they are intended as warnings, but if we have nothing in fiction apart from doom and helplessness, they condemn us — and our young people — to despair.
So today I want to look at the possible roots of this alleged gloom and doom, and I want to do so in the light of an honest-to-goodness, real, looming disaster that is coming up ahead: global warming.
The interesting thing about the imaginary scenario I talked about in the first paragraph is that it is not imaginary. Hereâ€™s a perfectly plausible disaster creeping up us while weâ€™re going about our daily lives. And it is actually possible that we will do nothing but twiddle our thumbs until it is too late.
Recently I spoke with a colleague who is a geologist and has quite a specialized knowledge of oceanography and meteorology as well. Iâ€™d just read something disturbing online about the methane time bomb. Apparently the warming of the Arctic Ocean had not only resulted in a record melting in 2007 but also in the outgassing of methane from under the sea. Methane from rotting vegetation, in the form of clathrates, has been kept under a lid of permafrost at the bottom of the ocean, and the outgassing suggests that warming Arctic waters are melting holes the permafrost and releasing the methane. This is not unexpected but my understanding is that we didnâ€™t expect this to be happening quite so soon. Hereâ€™s a quote from the article:
Orjan Gustafsson of Stockholm University in Sweden, one of the leaders of the expedition, described the scale of the methane emissions in an email exchange sent from the Russian research ship Jacob Smirnitskyi.
“We had a hectic finishing of the sampling programme yesterday and this past night,” said Dr Gustafsson. “An extensive area of intense methane release was found. At earlier sites we had found elevated levels of dissolved methane. Yesterday, for the first time, we documented a field where the release was so intense that the methane did not have time to dissolve into the seawater but was rising as methane bubbles to the sea surface. These ‘methane chimneys’ were documented on echo sounder and with seismic [instruments].”
Here is a similar report from Spiegel International.
Why is methane outgassing bad news? One, methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It makes for a better thermal blanket, in other words.
The other is that methane is combustible. One might think that this is good news, that we could use methane as the new fossil fuel, and to some extent this might be true. However the problem is that the outgassing is uncontrolled and unpredictable, and if it gets worse it might happen on a large scale. If that is the case methane concentrations in the atmosphere could go up enough to result in giant fireballs.
According to this report in 2003, methane might have contributed to the Permian/Triassic Great Extinction 250 mllion years ago. During that time 96% of marine species and 70% of land species were wiped out.
On a very small scale methane (also known as marsh gas) bubbling up over a bog might give rise to a will oâ€™ the wisp. On a larger scale there could be local disasters such as the outgassing from Lake Nyos in Cameroon which killed 1700 people in 1986 and the eruption rippled as far away as 25 kilometers. On a global scale it might just mean apocalypse.
So I asked my geologist colleague what he thought this meant. Iâ€™ve been following the climate change situation for the past few years. Iâ€™ve taught the greenhouse effect in all my classes, dug into the research, looked at absorption spectra of the greenhouse gases. I have a non-expert scientific understanding of the basics (my area of expertise used to be a sub-area of quark physics in my research days). I told my colleague that Iâ€™d heard some years ago that we had maybe 50 years to clean up our act and thus avoid irreversible climate change. Last year I heard 25 years, and this year I heard we had ten years.
â€œHow much time do we really have to fix things?â€ I asked.
He said: â€œWeâ€™re screwed.â€
From the windows you could see a perfect autumn day, leaves starting to change color. The clamour of birds, students sunning themselves on the green lawns. Because I have a science fictional imagination, my brain fast-forwarded to a scenario not dissimilar to this one.
When I recovered (temporarily) I asked him exactly what he meant. He said that the actual changes in global climate have been found to be ahead of climate model predictions — that is, the reality is worse than what we thought it would be based on our science. And since people, at least in the U.S. are still embroiled in debating whether global warming is really happening (when they are not ignoring the issue), instead of doing anything about it, he couldn’t imagine that we would act in time to avoid the point of no return.
Later I dug up a report from the Scripps institute of Oceanography, which essentially said the same thing, about how weâ€™ve underestimated global warming. SIO is at UC San Diego and pioneered such things as the famous Keeling curve, that shows how Carbon Dioxide levels have gone up. This news item from 2007 says that the most pessimistic climate models predicted that summer sea ice in the Arctic would be gone by 2050. Current observations indicate that sea ice is melting faster than the gloomiest predictors and that it might be as early as 2030 that the summer sea ice is gone in the Arctic. No ice means more warming.
I talked to a few more scientists over the next few days. One geologist friend who is retiring told me that she is glad she is as old as she is, because she will not live to experience the worst of it. â€œBut I feel terrible for the children,â€ she told me, with anguish. â€œFor what theyâ€™ll go through.â€
I spent the next few days reading and researching a lot, not sleeping very well. Each time I looked out of the window or took my dog out, I was struck by the beauty and fragility of the world. To know what I knew and through that knowledge to be witness to the crisp fall air, the calls of the Canada geese overhead, the innocence of squirrels gathering acorns for the winter, the children on bicycles, even the grumpy postman on his rounds — it was almost unbearable.
But Iâ€™m an optimist at heart. I might have an over-active, science-fictional imagination, but my imagination works both ways, after all.Â And my training gives me ways to perform reality checks when I need to rein in that imagination. Â
So when Iâ€™d thought about it a bit, I reminded myself that scientists, bless their hearts, tend to have, generally speaking, limited sociological imaginations. When they have bad news, they tend to tell the governments and if the governments fail to act, they don’t necessarily know what to do. And while Iâ€™m a scientist too, Iâ€™m also an SF writer from India, and Iâ€™ve had some experiences that allow me to have some hope. For instance Iâ€™ve seen what â€œordinaryâ€ people can do when their leaders fail them.
The situation is dire. So much so that the IPCC (Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change), a scientific intergovernmental body set up by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)) issued an appeal as quoted here: â€œDesperate Times, Desperate Scientists.”
Quoting IPCC chair, Rajendra Pachauri.
“If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”
The article says that Pachauri â€œhas the distinction, or misfortune, of being both an engineer and an economist, two professions not known for overheated rhetoric.â€
So, according to Pachauri, we have four years.
Iâ€™ll take four years over â€œno timeâ€ or â€œweâ€™re screwed.”
But all this still sounds fantastical, as though we are caught in a poorly thought out apocalyptic SF novel. Is there evidence for Global Warming? Should we take these dire predictions seriously?
There is, unfortunately, plenty of evidence. There are also some uncertainties that I’ll mention below, but if there is even a small chance that we are headed for disaster, shouldnâ€™t we do all in our power to avert it? And it seems from the fact that global warming is proceeding faster than our science has been able to predict, that â€œsmall chanceâ€ may not be so small after all.
Before we can talk about how to change things so that climate change will ultimately reverse, we must have some idea of the science. This blog post is not the place for a tutorial on climate change, but Iâ€™ll point you to links that explore what I consider some important aspects of the subject.
- The most reader-friendly site I’ve found is at New Scientist: Climate Change: A Guide for the Perplexed, which also lists several climate change myths and debunks them
- A great site is RealClimate: Climate Science from Climate Scientists and also reports from the German Advisory council on Global Change WBGU
- It is important to be aware that there is a concerted effort to discredit and suppress scientific work showing evidence for global warming. It wasnâ€™t too long ago that the tobacco industry waged a huge public campaign to cast doubt on scientific research showing the adverse effects of smoking, which led to delays in anti-smoking regulations. According to a comprehensive report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Big Oil is doing something similar to cause confusion about global warming in the public mind. Apparently ExxonMobil spent around $16 million to fund skeptic groups.
One of the most interesting aspects of the climate change phenomenon, which is related to how we confront it, write about it, make up stories about it, is this: global climate is an example of a complex system. A complex system is one with a large number of interacting components; it exhibits non-linear behavior, is extremely sensitive to initial conditions and it is hard to predict how it evolves. Other complex systems include the human body and human social systems.
Because we canâ€™t use normal mathematical methods to study complex systems, we often have to resort to studying them via enormous computer programs. Climate scientists make computer models of the global climate system and test them by running them backward in time (so as to check if they reproduce past climate conditions). Even so, because complex systems are so sensitive to initial conditions, even slight changes in input parameters can change the result. However this does not mean that one canâ€™t predict anything from these models. When one global parameter such as temperature suffers an overall increase, this limits the number of possible outcomes to just a few. (This is illustrated beautifully by my favourite physics toy, the chaotic pendulum: observe the animation here). Thus climate models tend to all predict, roughly, that global temperatures will continue to rise at current rates of CO2 emissions, although the predictions differ on what the specific temperatures might be at a certain point in the future. So climatologists take ensembles of different climate models and base their estimates on the ensembles rather than on any one model.
So what does Rajendra Pachauri mean by saying that it will be â€œtoo lateâ€ if we donâ€™t act by 2012? Why are my scientist friends and colleagues in the field suffering from terminal depression? This is related to another feature that complex systems possess: the feedback loop.
A positive feedback loop is what we are most afraid of. So, for example, the oceans possess an ability to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide and thus control warming. But as we produce more CO2, and increase global temperature, this warms the oceans. Increased ocean temperature reduces the ability of the oceans to sequester CO2, leading to a further increase in atmospheric CO2, and thus to more warming. I imagine warming oceans releasing methane constitute another positive feedback loop, as more methane in the atmosphere causes more warming, and more outgassing. We are already seeing positive feedback loops in the global climate system, which is one reason why we might be close to a tipping point — a point of no return, where the rate of climate change suddenly accelerates. Thatâ€™s what Pachauri is talking about.
â€œToo late,â€ the point of irreversibility, could be as close as 2012.
Elsewhere on the internet, people in the SF community have been asking questions about whether SF should be more cheerful and less gloomy, and whether SF should be about reflecting reality or making change: see here also . Given the crisis that is upon us, I donâ€™t think we have the luxury of argument. Whether we are plumbers or SF writers, ballerinas or construction workers, we should be thinking and talking about climate change, not only reflecting the reality but imagining change. As SF writers we have the imaginative skills necessary to come up with various future Armageddons, but we can also harness this imagination to visualize alternate futures. Now Iâ€™m not talking about writing preachy or didactic stories — I donâ€™t think bad stories can do any good. I think we need good stories, stories that come out of new ways of thinking and imagining. But Iâ€™m not just talking about writing stories. We canâ€™t depend entirely upon them. The trouble with stories is that they take a while to permeate the public consciousness, even with the best stories in the best of times. And the one thing we donâ€™t have much of is time.
So we canâ€™t solely rely on the transforming power of new stories, although Iâ€™ll get back to them in a moment.
What Iâ€™m calling for is a dialogue among SF writers about climate change. Not an argument about whether it is real or not but a brainstorming session in which we sit down at our computers across the world and think of ways to avert what might already be upon us, before it is too late. But since we are dealing with a complex system, these ways canâ€™t be simplistic. They canâ€™t be technological alone. We have to draw upon our sociological imaginations as well. We have to draw upon what different cultures around the world have come up with to inspire and mobilize people. It has to be a massive, interdisciplinary effort. We have to pull in scientists and community organizers, village women and students. Perhaps we are uniquely qualified for such a discussion because many of us SF types straddle boundaries of various kinds.
And then I want us — and the plumbers and ballerinas — to act.
But to understand whatâ€™s involved, I want to ask that question again, the one I posed at the beginning of this essay: Why donâ€™t we have many books that tell stories about avoiding the apocalypse? Why do we have so many that are post-apocalyptic?
I have a hypothesis about this. Apart from the fact that it is so much easier to posit an apocalypse and start from scratch, my suspicion is that we are caught in a certain mindset, a way of thinking, a paradigm.
I think we donâ€™t know how to deal with complex systems. We want things that are simple and easily predictable. We want certainties in an uncertain world. So when we are confronted with complex problems we tend to ignore them or over-simplify them. In SF literature as much as in anything else.
My suspicion is that some of this might come from reductionism, the notion that you can understand something if you break it down into its parts and analyze each separately. This is the basis of the traditional practice of science, but it is also the way weâ€™re encouraged to think in general. Now Iâ€™m not entirely dismissing reductionism, because my training is in science and reductionism has brought us really far in understanding our world. But because reductionism tends to encourage looking at the world in fragments, perhaps it prevents us from seeing connections between things. And part of our current crisis is that we have lost the knowledge of connection — between us and so-called Nature, between each other. Between our actions and their consequences. Perhaps we have reached the end of the usefulness of the reductionist paradigm.
One idea that comes to mind, in literature, is the notion of the lone hero. This is such a common notion in Western SF and fantasy — the One True Hero fighting off the monsters to save the world. Problem and solution are clearly defined, and all depends on a single person, usually a man, who, through his prowess, will accomplish the impossible. Heâ€™s usually allowed to have friends and side-kicks, but it is obvious that the mission depends almost entirely on him.
Imagine the impossibility of such a hero solving a problem like global warming.
To solve such a problem we need the participation of millions of people around the world. We need people to inform and inspire, true, but the traditional hero wonâ€™t do. The monsters we have to fight include the face you look at every day in the mirror. How to fight such a battle? How to write about fighting such a battle?
Let me make this clear: I believe that technology is an important part of the effort to slow and ultimately reverse global warming. It would be wonderful if we could come up with something that could absorb atmospheric CO2 and methane. Clean energy technology, if implemented fast enough, will go a long way in decreasing emissions of greenhouse gases. But technology, while necessary, is not sufficient.
Given that, what kinds of thinking, paradigm shifts and viewpoints can turn things around?
I want to refer back to something Anil Menon talked about a couple of posts ago. He mentioned James Marchâ€™s notion of the technology of foolishness. This concept includes going against received wisdoms and prejudices, of calling into action creativity and play. Mohammad Yunusâ€™ micro-credit scheme, Gandhiâ€™s concept of achieving freedom by civil disobedience, are examples of these. They go against what one might consider â€œrationalâ€ ways of doing things, relying instead on the desire, the pride, the dignity and creativity of ordinary people.
This week Iâ€™ve mentioned how these so-called â€œordinaryâ€ people have taken their fate into their own hands in an attempt to positively change the world. This has included some of the worldâ€™s poorest and most disadvantaged people, many of whom are illiterate. When governments and corporations not only fail us but contribute to the problem, we need to confront them, to get appropriate legislation passed and so on. But we also need to harness the power of millions of people. How do we do that, when we have so little time?
For instance individual action (changing light-bulbs, other energy saving measures) cannot have an appreciable effect on emissions, but such action multiplied by millions or billions of people can. In the documentary Kilowatt Ours, filmmaker Jeff Barrie goes on a tour of the U.S., looking for ways that people have turned to clean energy. He tells the story of the state of California, where people responded to a government initiative to save energy — you know, turn off light bulbs when leaving the room, adjust the thermostat a couple of degrees, that sort of thing. They saved so much energy that they did away with the need to build 10 power stations. And since coal-fired power stations are the single greatest source of anthropogenic CO2, this is an important step in a direction away from global warming.
Incidentally the movie Kilowatt Ours is worth watching. While I have issues with some aspects of it, it is a wonderfully positive, upbeat movie on a subject in which there is little enough to feel positive about. It also manages to be informative — for instance I didnâ€™t know, before I watched it, that coal mining in the Appalachians involves blowing up entire mountain-tops, forests and animals and all. This â€œmountain-top removalâ€ has caused so much environmental damage that it makes the historic Exxon-Valdez oil spill look small in comparison.
But how to we harness the power of millions of people in a short time?
We have a very powerful tool: the internet.
I want to give a small example of that.
There is an annual event called Earth Hour originated by the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) in Sydney, Australia, in which several participating cities around the world dim or turn off non-essential lighting for an hour on one day of the year. It has been praised as contributing to global warming awareness and criticized as being the worst kind of tokenism, as it makes absolutely no difference to carbon emissions around the world. However several tens of millions of people apparently participate in it, and it even inspired four young people in Mumbai to organize an apparently successful Batti Bandh (Lights Out) last December. None of these events is likely to have an impact on emissions but there is potential here for spreading awareness. Consider this thought-experiment: a campaign like this, not once a year but maybe once a week, calling for more and more people to participate every week around the world, perhaps ultimately making a difference in decreasing emissions while also recruiting the army of millions. I can see it snowballing like Gandhiâ€™s historic Salt March, becoming a tipping point of its own. Perhaps it is foolish enough an idea to work.
People around the world are getting tired of the betrayals of governments and corporations. This is not to say that governments and corporations donâ€™t have a role to play, but consider this news item: just this past September Greenpeace activists in the UK were acquitted by a jury of their peers of criminal damage to a coal-fired power plant. The six activists scaled the chimney of a coal fired power plant and painted part of the phrase â€œGordon, Bin itâ€ on it to draw attention to PM Gordon Brownâ€™s lack of support for climate change action. â€œThe jury, consisting of representatives from the British public, found their actions justified when considering the damage to property caused around the world by CO2 emissions from the plant. The defence used evidence to prove that burning coal inflicts enormous damage upon ecosystems, people and property across the planet – and that the UK government was failing to take effective action.â€
This is the first case where preventing property damage from climate change has been used as part of a ‘lawful excuse’ defence in Crown Court.
So let us imagine a future where catastrophic global warming has been averted. What would we see? Would there be farm towers in cities, a rewilding of the world? How would we change the way people live so that scarce resources like drinking water would be conserved? I donâ€™t see manicured lawns or SUVs. What do we see instead? Kim Stanley Robinson took us part of the way in one direction, with his Science in the Capital series. Another book near the top of my reading list is an anthology edited by John Joseph Adams: Seeds of Change. We need more of these imaginings.
Perhaps in giving the world our intelligent imaginings, in breaking free from tired old ways of thinking, in having the intellectual audacity to change or discard the various isms (from American capitalism to Soviet communism) that have taken the natural resources of our world for granted, and in doing these through action as well as the written word — perhaps in doing all this we can enable our species and all the other living things of the earth to have a future.
And we did something.
And we saved the world.
It wasnâ€™t just a dream after all.