Abrupt Climate Change Fiction

Cover Fifty Degrees Below

American ecological science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson recently talked to the Guardian about his new, near-future climate change novel 50 degrees below, which presents a scenario of future climate change, its impacts and humanity’s response.

From the Guardian:

Set in an America of the almost-now, Fifty Degrees Below (and the first volume of the trilogy, Forty Signs of Rain) tells the story of the efforts of a loosely-connected group of scientists, campaigners and politicians to provoke a national response to the crisis of global warming. Unfortunately for them, as environmental aide Charlie Quibbler observes, it’s “easier to destroy the world than to change capitalism even one little bit”. It is not until the combination of two colliding storm systems and an unprecedented tidal surge causes Washington’s Potomac river to bursts its banks and overwhelm the country’s capital at the climax of book one that the world sits up and takes notice. But, by this point, the polar ice caps have already begun to melt in earnest, shutting down the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and creating environmental conditions that could usher in a new ice age. The last ice age, 11,000 years ago, took just three years to start.

Robinson is famous for the Mars trilogy of novels about terra-forming Mars.

In this book he writes about “terra-forming” Earth.

From the Guardian interview.

The concept of terraforming – transforming the landscape of a planet to acquire the characteristics of Earth – is central to Robinson’s Mars trilogy, in which the characters attempt to effect climate change on a massive scale to warm the planet to habitable levels. In his latest books, Robinson turns this concept on its head: rather than shaping an alien landscape until it resembles Earth, he explores the possibility of manipulating our own environment to redress the damage we’ve done to it. But what seemed relatively straightforward on Mars’s vast, uncomplicated canvas is infinitely trickier on a planet that already supports a complex, populous biosphere. Every proposed action (adding salt to the ocean to restart the Gulf Stream, shooting dust into the atmosphere to reflect light and heat back into space) is likely to produce not one but many reactions, most of them entirely unexpected, in what one ecologist in Fifty Degrees Below calls “the law of unintended consequences”. The challenge in this trilogy – to which Robinson gleefully rises – is to work out how to operate within the constraints of a land already lived in.

“It seems so easy on Mars, and looks so hard on earth, which is kind of ironic,” Robinson agrees. “It’s infinitely more difficult when there’s already an established ecology. There’s no room for error. And also, alas, there are some mistakes that we simply don’t have the power to correct.”

Such as?

“Reducing the acidity of the ocean. That’s a problem I’ve become more aware of since I finished book two – it will definitely feature in the third volume. Much of the carbon dioxide we’re putting into the atmosphere actually ends up in the ocean, increasing its acidity and making it harder for the little creatures to live. They represent the bottom of the food chain and we’re at the top of it. Scientists have looked at whether we could de-acidify the oceans after the fact, and the answer is flatly no …

“But there are things we can do. The kind of terraforming projects we may well have to contemplate in the future are huge, but they’re not outside civilisation’s industrial ability.”

WorldChanging notes he’s recently published a short article via Amazon -Imagining Abrupt Climate Change : Terraforming Earth. In it he writes about regime shifts.

From KSR’s note:

That a physical system as big as the Earth’s climate could change so fast was remarkable, but the evidence for it is there, and the explanations were quick to follow; the new paradigm’s conceptual field was established by the researchers in very short order. This happened because the researchers were working in a context of new developments in climatology more generally, including the newish meteor explanation for the KT boundary ending the Cretaceous, chaos theory in meteorology, supercomputers and their new speed in simulating more sophisticated modeling,and new information in the paleo-record about what had happened at the end of the last Ice Age some fifteen thousand years ago, coming from all over the Earth. Taken with older concepts, like Euler’s work on nonlinear dynamics, there was a suite of concepts and methods that gave the researchers in this new field the tools they needed to explain the data they had. Climate now was understood to be a complex interrelation of physical systems that resulted in semi-stable regimes; change in these regimes was usually slow,but sometimes small and slow changes pushed a regime over a threshold, in the same way that slow and steady pressure on a light switch eventually snaps the switch from one position to another. Thus a big slow system could still exhibit occasional rapid major changes, moving over a tipping point from one regime to another. This model was supported by the evidence that was now there at hand; and so we now have a modified model of how climate works, less than a decade old and still being worked on and argued over.

See also the US National Academy report Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises (2002).

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