Compelling visions of our climate future

Climate change is now in our lived experience. We no longer need science to tell us that it is real and sometimes dangerous, that it is altering our lives today, and that it will continue to do so long into the future. But how should we respond?

This is not straightforward. Three years of massive extreme weather events in Australia have taught us that we’re all potentially vulnerable to the whims of a destabilised climate. The consequences of global warming touch us all, extending across and beyond communities, economies and jurisdictions. 

Last week, on top of unseasonal Queensland floods, we had a report of yet more mass coral bleaching last summer – a “cool” La Nina one – in tourist hotspots on the Great Barrier Reef, and a scientific finding that the world will probably hit the key 1.5C warming threshold within five years. 

Addressing the impact of climate change is incredibly complex, where no single community or expert group or body of knowledge has the answers. Science can frame the issues, but it can’t give us real-world answers to “human” questions around people’s behaviour and habits of mind, and threats to government, business and social order.

Over the next decade we will have to make massive changes in the way we do things. We need leaders – certainly those in government or aspiring to it – to confront this openly and honestly and to secure widespread agreement and support to do what must be done. 

This is a joint endeavor, calling for leaders who can think big and get their people to do likewise. They need stories that explore our collective future, and there is no better place for this than climate fiction (“cli-fi” to the initiated).

A couple of weeks ago, after I mentioned novelist Kim Stanley Robinson’s near-future scenario in which huge numbers of people are killed in a “wet-bulb” heatwave in India, a reader took me to task for using fiction to scare people. 

But this was no tissue of lies. Robinson based his harrowing account on current peer-reviewed research confirming that wet-bulb heat was not just possible, but had actually happened several times in recent years. It’s what futurists do: examine possible consequences arising out of what we know today to be true.

There’s nothing like a good calamity to focus the mind. Having grabbed our attention with the heatwave story that begins The Ministry for the Future, his latest novel, Robinson goes on to explore how humanity might respond.

His story takes us into the upper echelons of international politics, high finance and diplomacy as the world’s governments struggle to keep things together while wrestling with the huge task of energising economies without fossil carbon. Set mainly in the Swiss Alps, it involves complex ideas around territory, currency and political systems, woven around and through the lives of people ordinary and extraordinary.

Robinson’s book was published in 2020, not long after Australia’s Black Summer and the start of Covid, and while Donald Trump was still in the White House. Termination Shock (2021), another near-future story by another big-name US science fiction writer, Neal Stephenson, has a radically different take on the same mind-boggling problem.

The opening premise of Stephenson’s story is that carbon dioxide concentrations are already too high to prevent significant warming unless the world buys time. A filthy-rich Texan named T.R. McHooligan (“T.R.”) takes it upon himself to shoot sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to deflect enough of the sun’s heat energy to keep the planet habitable.

Stephenson did his homework, and takes account of the fact that such drastic steps will inevitably have geopolitical consequences – the “termination shock” of the title. India, where the sulphur scheme appears to have caused monsoon rains to go missing, hatches a plan to kill T.R.’s scheme in the hope that the rains will return.

A jet-setting Queen of the Netherlands and her entourage, a Commanche pig-hunter and handyman, Venetian aristocrats, drone-hunting eagles and a bewildering array of gadgetry and technology are among the motley ingredients of this ripping yarn set in Texas, coastal Netherlands including the massive Maeslant defence barrier, and the high peaks of West Papua. If this seems faintly ridiculous, think what’s happened already this century.

As a considered vision of the near future, Stephenson’s story is an ideal companion to Robinson. 

Climate change will dominate the future careers of the 189 souls we’re about to elect to national office, as well as the 38 remaining Senators not due for re-election. To prepare, they’d do well to take on these two great reads: intriguing, informative and vastly more fit for purpose than the dross in their in-trays.

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