CliFi is a literary genre that imagines a future world which has or has not taken action to limit global warming. Some CliFi is really bad (recall the movie The Day After Tomorrow), with little grounding in science. While books that try to portray a dismal warmer world might have been written with the best of intentions, if they exaggerate the risk, they inhibit action on climate change because doomism concludes there is nothing we can do to stop it. That is simply not true; there is much we can do, and it will get worse if we don’t act.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future is one of the better CliFi books. Robinson is an accomplished science fiction writer, with multiple awards, including the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel.
Ministry for the Future is about the global effort to bring down the emissions driving global warming and increase carbon removal until the CO2 concentration is low enough to arrest global warming and then restore our climate to that which our civilization is adapted to.
It opens with a grim, haunting scene involving a heat dome like the event experienced in the Pacific Northwest last June. Dear readers, just get through it, as the book quickly shifts to the establishment of the Ministry for the Future, a United Nations agency charged with saving the earth for future generations. No small task.
Spoiler alert: a variety of climate solutions are attempted, and all ends well because most of them work.
But how well are those solutions grounded in science? Here I’ll apply my understanding of climate science to evaluate them.
Let me start by stating that I’m impressed with Robinson’s awareness of the solutions available, and with his ability to engage and inform the reader. It’s a fascinating read.
He invokes geoengineering via putting particles into the upper atmosphere to scatter sunlight to space, and correctly characterizes the temporary relief to warming that it provides.
He proposes a global carbon coin, collected from a tax on carbon, and carbon dividends distributed to the people, particularly to those sequestering carbon. Economists generally support such policies. But he doesn’t discriminate between sequestration that is durable (storage deep underground) or not (in soils or in trees threatened by fires).
He doesn’t dwell on the challenges of producing sufficient and reliable carbon free electricity, of storing energy to use when production stalls, or of capturing CO2 from the ambient air. Those technological issues are of greater interest to engineers than to the rest of us. On transportation, he gives far more attention to wind-powered ships and floating airships than to land transportation, probably because carbon-free land transportation is already becoming available. Airships (blimps) require less energy than winged aircraft, but their large volume limits their cruising speed and hence their ability to move upwind; tacking works on water ships but not on aircraft. He doesn’t mention hydrogen as a carbon-free fuel or energy storage material.
To restore sea ice in the arctic ocean, he claims adding yellow dye to sea water will increase the fraction of sunlight reflected by the ocean from 6% to 47%. That is unrealistic, as yellow wavelengths constitute only a small fraction of the solar spectrum. Perhaps the 47% figure applies only to the yellow wavelength.
His vision of a greener Earth, with half of all land devoted to nature, with migration corridors connecting habitat, and with citizenship extended to animals, is appealing. But he overstates nature’s ability to sequester carbon, claiming that when emissions are eliminated, the atmospheric CO2 concentration declines by 1.2% per year; a more realistic estimate when emissions are completely eliminated is 0.4% per year.
One other climate solution Robinson focuses on is drilling holes to the bottom of Antarctic ice sheets and pumping out the water that is lubricating the interface between the ice sheets and the bedrock. Drying the ice bed would inhibit the flow of the ice sheets downslope and into the sea. Although it is a challenging solution, it appears to be feasible given concerted resources; the fossil fuel extraction industry has the expertise to do it.
Any entertaining story involves conflict, and Ministry for the Future is no exception. In this case, there is conflict involving the protagonist and both the fossil fuel industry and those most impacted. Sometimes it’s hard to determine who is behind the conflicts.
What is lacking in the story is resistance from many of the same people who resist proactive change today. That resistance has weakened in the last five years, as climate impacts become more evident to more people, but not enough for aggressive action on climate change. The story begins in the very near future, and assumes that everyone except fossil fuel extractors want climate solutions now. Sadly, we aren’t there yet. I hope it won’t take an event like that described in the first chapter to unify support for climate solutions.
Steve Ghan is climate scientist and leader of the Tri-Cities Chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby. Twitter: @steveghan1
The Day After Tomorrow: imdb.com/title/tt0319262
Climate solutions: drawdown.org/solutions https://en-roads.climateinteractive.org/scenario.html
Kim Stanley Robinson: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kim_Stanley_Robinson
Economists support carbon pricing: clcouncil.org/media/EconomistsStatement.pdf
Carbon sequestration: vox.com/2020/2/27/20994118/carbon-offset-climate-change-net-zero-neutral-emissions
Carbon-free energy: youtu.be/watch?v=u2haFf_FtXo
Energy storage: youtu.be/watch?v=1DFKxoD_a3k
Direct air capture of CO2: diamandis.com/blog/direct-air-capture
Sailing ships: apple.news/AyLTh34ikRl2FpXS06rze_w
Natural removal of carbon: en-roads.climateinteractive.org/scenario.html?v=21.10.0&p1=108&p196=100&p198=100&p200=100&p39=241&p47=4.8&p50=4.9&p53=97&p55=97&p57=-10&p65=99&p67=99
Glacier engineering: sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1674927820300940