Fear of a frozen planet

A Northstate novelist tackles global climate change

Photo By Larry Dalton

The seated crowd gathered for an author’s appearance at a Borders bookstore in the White Flint Mall in Kensington, Md., is small—only 20 people or so. Still, as such things go, it’s actually a decent showing for a chilly Monday evening in mid-November. And whatever they lack in numbers is more than made up for by the quiet, ardent expectancy emanating from the group as they await the appearance of award-winning, Davis-based science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson.

When Robinson arrives, he seems the perfect image of the laid-back Californian, wearing a sweater over a T-shirt, backpack in hand. But he dives right into a commanding reading from his new work, Fifty Degrees Below, the second volume of a new trilogy depicting a global-warming-induced climate catastrophe in the Washington, D.C., area—the region in which this evening’s audience lives and works. The first novel of the series, Forty Signs of Rain (published in 2004, before Katrina hit New Orleans), he reminds his listeners, ended with a devastating flood of their region.

When he finishes with his latest visions of global-warming disaster, Robinson takes questions from the audience. First up: “Is the Sci-Fi Channel proceeding with producing a film of your Red Mars novel?”

So it seems to go with much of America’s willingness to grapple with the global-warming threat to the biosphere. Not that Americans or Robinson’s audience are unaware of the concerns. But what is to be done when the Bush administration is so intransigent in its refusal to deal with the issue, that U.S. agreement to merely consider a future dialogue on the matter is hailed by other nations as a major tactical victory? At the recent Montreal climate talks, the moderate National Environmental Trust was reduced to handing out whoopee cushions with President Bush’s face emblazoned on them with the words “Emissions Accomplished.” Good for a laugh perhaps, but also a sign of futility.

Robinson’s newest work is a more ambitious cultural weapon in the global-warming wars. Most renowned for his previous Mars trilogy, envisioning “terraforming” the red planet to make it habitable for humans, Robinson imagines in Fifty Degrees Below a struggle to keep Earth habitable for humans in the face of the multiple environmental disasters emerging from climate change.

The new series depicts “abrupt climate change” occurring, with fresh waters from melted Arctic glaciers pouring into the north Atlantic, thereby stalling the Gulf Stream, which determines much of the weather conditions of northern Europe and the eastern United States. Robinson’s latest fiction inquires into whether those scientists, politicians and others most determined to combat global warming can succeed in their efforts, even as they live their ordinary lives with children, romances and careers.

The novels particularly ask whether science and scientists can be a primary agent of change in moving the nation to deal with global warming. “We can go to [Congress] and say look, the party’s over,” the story’s main character, a scientist at the National Science Foundation, tells his colleagues in Forty Signs of Rain. “We need this list of projects funded or civilization will be hammered for decades to come. Tell them they can’t give half a trillion dollars a year to the military and leave the rescue and rebuilding of the world to chance and to some kind of free-market religion. It isn’t working, and science is the only way out of the mess.”

Two days after his Borders reading, Robinson arrived at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and played his hero’s role to a conference room packed with NSF scientists. After reading a few passages from Fifty Degrees Below, Robinson launched into a serious lecture about the subject of his book and its real-world corollary and, especially, from his perspective, “the need for scientists to take a more active role in policy.” Science and capitalism are the only two big players left in our conceptual lives, he told them, and nothing yet has ever defeated capitalism. All the influence of the rising tide of religious fundamentalism is nothing but a false front for business as usual imposing its regime on science. Though scientists often roll their eyes when urged to stand up and use their power, this needs to be done because of the moment we’re in, he says, “a moment in history needing to invent a sustainable civilization against resistance, against the weight of the past and older power relations resembling feudalism.”

When he was done, the NSF scientists were curious whether Forty Signs of Rain was eerily predictive of what occurred in New Orleans. Then they wanted to know his thoughts on current plans for a Mars mission and whether he would be returning to Mars in his fiction.

The News & Review caught up with Kim Stanley Robinson in early December at one of his favorite local haunts, Bogey’s Books in Davis, to talk about the new trilogy, the science underlying the fiction, his perspectives on climate change and capitalism, and writing in the era of global warming.

CN&R: In your new novels, abrupt climate change caused by global warming occurs. Is abrupt climate change an accepted scientific concern, or is this your invention as a novelist?

Kim Stanley Robinson: This is the latest out of climatology or paleoclimatology. There’s a book called Abrupt Climate Change written by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences. So, it’s legitimate new science and kind of a paradigm shift in climatology. They used to think of climate change as something happening on geological or astronomical time scales. But they began to notice that they had all kinds of data that, in the past, the climate seemed to change much faster than that model would seem to warrant.

So, they did this Greenland ice-core experiment, coring the ice cap right in the middle of Greenland, and they got about a hundred thousand years of good data. There they saw that as the Earth was warming up from the last ice age, about 11,000 years ago, there was a drop back into ice-age conditions, and it looked from the record that it happened in three years. So, this was kind of a mind-boggler.

They decided that probably something happened to the Gulf Stream, which goes north on the surface and goes south on the bottom of the ocean, like a giant conveyor belt. It’s a big, big current. The world current, they call it. It goes all the way down to the bottom of the Atlantic and out across the Indian Ocean. The notion would be that if the water got fresh all of a sudden on the surface, it wouldn’t sink when it cooled. That would mean that there was nowhere for the water to go, and the Gulf Stream would in effect stall. …

Now, just last week in Nature, they published a paper that they’ve got a few studies of the Atlantic saying, gosh, the Gulf Stream is only 30 percent as strong as it was when we measured it in 1992. There’s a whole lot of fresh water coming off of Greenland right now because of global warming; there’s a whole lot of fresh water, because the ice on top of the Arctic Ocean is, of course, fresh. When it melts and breaks up, it moves on currents south, and then it melts, so the surface of the north Atlantic is really fresher, and the currents begin to slow down.

I was interested in global warming, and I wanted to write about it, but I didn’t have a handle on it as a novelist. If it was going to take 200 years, and temperatures were going to change five degrees, how do you tell that story? But then when I saw this phrase, ‘abrupt climate change,” in one of the scientific papers, I said, ‘Oh, what’s that?” I started to read about it, and I thought, ‘Well, three years. That’s novel time.” So, I took it from there.

I haven’t seen a lot of public discussion around “abrupt climate change.” Have I missed it, or is the discussion not happening?

There are a lot of articles out there. It’s a big thing in Britain because they’re the place that will get hammered the worst by a Gulf Stream shutdown. But it’s not the only abrupt climate change that can happen. There are other things that seem to be possible, like a permanent El Niño or permanent monsoon drought or the breaking off of the west Antarctic ice sheet, which would raise sea levels by a really significant amount. These things would all be abrupt if they were to happen. There appear to be “tipping points,” and this is the new part of the theoretical model, where there’s slow, slow, slow, slow change, and then suddenly—boom—you’re over into a different regime, and then you’ve got a major change happening quickly.

But with abrupt climate change, just as in your novel, I would assume if we’re talking about that kind of potential, the politicians, the environmental groups would be raising the level of concern and debate and call for action at a much higher level than seems to be happening.

I have a hard time gauging that because I’m paying such close attention to it. But I do think it’s not so much America as it is the Bush administration taking a very strong stance against discussing these issues. It’s really quite shocking how much they’re actually trying to oppose action against global warming rather than even being neutral about it. They’re actually trying to oppose it and disable the rest of the world’s efforts. So, it’s pretty damned ugly right now in regard to the Bush administration’s approach. I just think that any administration coming next, no matter who they are, will be better on this issue.

I also think people are getting very, very concerned. Global warming is happening a lot faster than people thought even five years ago.

The reviewer of Forty Signs of Rain in Nature suggested that the real heroes will be those who learn to adapt rather than those who try to correct or stop it in some fashion. His claim was that even if we did everything we could, it’s going to be decades before we can have any effect. Do you accept that viewpoint?

I basically reject it because it tends to lead toward a do-nothing attitude. Climate adaptation is code in a similar way to, say, sustainable development. It’s one of these codes for let’s not do anything, and let’s let capitalism go ahead in the way that capitalism already has and not constrain capitalism.

It’s ridiculous because the environment and the creatures in the environment, in the biosphere, are going to be substantially harmed by big, fast changes in climate to the point where maybe humans can adapt, having the high-technology means, but if the rest of the biosphere doesn’t adapt around us, then we are just as screwed as if we hadn’t been able to adapt in the first place.

So, mitigation is a better term. You need climate mitigation. You need to actually jump in there and say, “This is really serious. We need to act.” It has to become a kind of total social project that all of society is concerned with. So, that reviewer—it was a silly review in a lot of ways, typical of those reviews you get where someone uses the book in order to ignore it and talk about their own pet peeves. He’s concerned about lawyers, and lawyers are going to be the only winners in this. Getting reviewed for a novel in Nature was a real coup. But it was a dumb review.

A lot of the novel, as well as your talk at the National Science Foundation, was very much focused on scientists stepping forward and affecting the political process in a way that they have not previously. Have you found scientists receptive to that message?

Receptive but dismayed. It’s not a happy message. The times that scientists as a group have tried to intervene in the political process have been somewhat disastrous in the past and ineffective in other cases. They’ve consistently seen that it’s very hard for them as a group to influence the political process.

But what I’m noticing is that, for example, there was a recent statement on global warming where 134 scientific organizations around the world signed on to the same statement, saying we have to pay attention to this right now. I think what they’re trying to do is become a much more heavyweight advisory body in the body politic, saying, “Listen. You’ve got to listen to this stuff. We’re not fooling around here. We’re in consensus. Just because you can find a few crackpots to hire and give a lot of money to speak against global warming …”

This goes to this weird journalistic thing about fairness, where for every point of view you’ve got to find someone to give an opposite point of view in order to be journalistically fair. But if 99 percent of the scientists are saying global warming is a serious threat to human health, and somewhere you can find someone who will say, “No it isn’t; it’s just natural causes. You haven’t proved a damn thing,” and then you give those two views equal weight as if they were a 50-50 position, then the populace is being misled. So, journalism, by its standards of fairness, is beginning to actually mislead people about the real consensus that is forming in science.

Photo By Larry Dalton

The example you use in a couple of places, interviews or talks, is the need for a Manhattan Project, an Apollo Project, that brings together the best scientists on this issue to transform our entire fossil-fuel energy base to stop global warming. Is that happening? If it’s not, have scientists been responsive to that aspect of your message?

Well, it’s a funny thing. It would actually have to be a Manhattan Project within the context of the entire Allied effort during World War II. We can’t just throw a few billion dollars at it, at some expert scientists, and say, “Design us a new technological base, and then everything’s going to be all right,” like a silver-bullet cure, and everybody can go on living the way they’re living. It’s not really going to work that way because, in truth, we already have the technological fixes. There are ways to scrub carbon dioxide and carbon out of coal before you burn the coal. There are ways to grab carbon dioxide and stick it down underneath the ground in deep oil wells. There are amazingly powerful photovoltaic [solar] cells.

So, in essence, the technological fixes are very close to already being in place. But it’s going to be super-expensive to change the energy base for the country and the transportation fleet. These are two major, major, major expenses. So, it has to be a total social cost. That’s why I say it’s not just a Manhattan Project, but also World War II itself, the Allied effort, where everybody is gathered together on the same team, saying, “We make these sacrifices. We do these different patterns of living in order to sustain our way of life over the long haul.” So, there’s a total social effort that’s involved now, not just a technological fix.

This is where part of the radicalism of your message comes through in your novels and in interviews you give and in your talk at the National Science Foundation—identifying capitalism as the problem behind the problem. That it’s not just a matter of fuel choices or technological choices, but rather those choices that have been put into place and are staying in place because of the structure of capitalism. How have scientists responded to that part of your message as to the power that needs to be confronted and addressed?

I think scientists are more open-minded than most. They know better than most that economics is not a true science, but is rather a kind of politics with numbers. There are tons of political decisions embedded in economic analyses that aren’t being identified as such. Scientists are aware of how science really works, and they know that economics is not a science.

So, if you challenge the economic system under which we live, they’re perfectly open to the idea that this is a political system, not an economic analysis. So, they’re more open to that than most people. They’re willing to admit more than most people that we live in an irrational and non-sustainable economic system that also has embedded in it a permanent massive unemployment at the bottom and also a permanent drain of the surplus value of the profits that are made up to a small group at the top. So, we’re still in a pyramid system. This is so obvious. It’s not as if I’m making any breakthrough analysis.

When I talk about this system, I am a political radical in the sense that I condemn this system as being unjust and damaging to the Earth and to people. But also, it’s a state of mind. It’s not that only 5 percent of the world are capitalists, because they’re the ones who have gathered all the capital. It’s a state of mind that we all live within, that we accept it, that we take our roles in it, that we agree that it’s a sane way to live, that we don’t vote for people who promise to change it, and that we go ahead and live a life of conspicuous consumption as Americans, where the standard middle-class Americans, though they are squeezed economically to make ends meet and not go into debt, nevertheless they’re making tons of terrible consumer choices that are part of the capitalist system, where it’s OK to buy SUVs, where it’s OK to waste money on one thing or another even though there’s a part of their mind that may be aware that this is bad for the environment or bad for their grandkids or whatever, that doesn’t overwhelm the OK-ness of it. So, I’m saying that, too, has to change.

You talk in a language most often identified with a Marxist viewpoint. Even in your novel, suddenly there will be a discussion of the labor theory of surplus value. Do you identify yourself as a Marxist? Are you suggesting that some version of socialism needs to replace this system?

No, I don’t identify myself as a Marxist. I would say that I am an American leftist. Marxism is part of that because his analysis of history is really fundamental and used by everybody. But when Marx talked about the future, he became a science-fiction writer. So, I make a huge distinction between the way he analyzed what had happened so far, up to 1860 or 1880, and what he said was going to happen or what necessarily followed. I don’t believe in any of that historical determinism. In that way, I would break from classical Marxism. There is no determinist future. We make it day by day, in a more existential sense.

Global warming is a strange kind of issue. It’s something that affects the entire planet and everybody on it, and yet there’s a feeling of severe limitation as to what an individual can do. Any ideas what an individual can do to combat global warming?

There are some very good books about what the individual American can do. A lot of it has to do with just cutting down on the energy consumption in your house. You throw on an extra sweater, and suddenly you can turn the thermostat down. Be aware that you’re an animal on a planet, and you have coping mechanisms to keep yourself warm and don’t have to do it warming up your entire house, but can do it warming up your body.

What’s interesting to me, because I’ve been looking at this myself, is what can I do, as a suburban parent with kids that are interested in other things? But it’s limited somewhat by our infrastructure. So, even if you wanted to cut down on your ecological footprint, as they call it, you still get access to electricity 24 hours a day, and there is an ecological cost to that that you don’t get to choose. … An infrastructure like Davis allows you to be quite low-impact if you give it a try, because it’s so compact. Even if you do get into a car, you can’t drive more than a few miles and you’re at your destination. But you can also do it by bike and even a bit of it by walking. So, it’s these kinds of things.

You mention that we’re animals on a planet. The central figure in your new books spends a lot of time getting in touch with his inner primate. As a sociobiologist, he’s interested in identifying the features of his brain functioning and nervous-system functioning and body that are vestiges from his primate heritage, and by attuning himself to those activities aligned with that heritage, he feels better and more alive. Frisbee throwing is an example of one such activity in your novel. But other people say it’s our primate heritage that really underlies the problems we’ve created for ourselves, the fear, greed and anger that your Buddhist characters point to as the major problem. Are you romanticizing our inner primate heritage as an avenue for liberation?

I think I’m being fairly realistic about it. This is a thing I keep bringing up, that for about a million years, we lived the same lifestyle, yet our brains grew by a factor of three. This is interesting and almost paradoxical. We kept doing the same things over and over again, and yet these things grew the brain.

So, my thesis, and especially my character’s, is that if you would just do what Paleolithic humans did, that your whole brain would be resonating with what grew the brain in the first place. They’re relatively simple. They’re the kind of biological needs being satisfied. You have to cook food and eat it, so it’s always valuable to look at a fire. It’s good to walk. It’s good to talk. People like dancing. People like sex. People like gathering together in groups and looking at a fire, which I think is what movie theaters are all about. These things are basics, and they are also rather low-impact on the planet.

In your novel, you suggest that the consequences of global warming are so great that the military and national-security apparatus is already making contingency plans. Is that just a notion of yours, or is that an accurate account of some planning going on?

There has been planning within the Pentagon, especially DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency]. It was Andrew Marshall, who was part of the Star Wars and anti-ballistic-missile crowd, who wrote a big report for the Pentagon, saying climate change is more of a danger to the security of the United States than terrorism or anything else. This report was going to get suppressed internally. Someone released it to Fortune magazine. It was one of these weeklong news flare-ups, with “Oh my gosh, the Pentagon is declaring global climate change to be the biggest danger to the United States.” And then it went away in the way that things do; the news cycle moved on. But that stuff is still there in the record, and that is what I was referring to.

Do you more enjoy writing about the personal joys of the lives of your characters or the scientific descriptions of evidence of global warming, for example?

Well, certainly the personal stuff is more fun to write and more close to my heart. I include the stuff about the scientific material because that’s the world we live in.

If you think of the novel as trying to discuss the entirety of the relationship between the individual and society, and what life means, then you have to discuss everything. In this world, in the United States right now, 2005, science is really, really a major, major social factor ignored by many contemporary novels. So that, I mean, there aren’t that many novels talking about this stuff that I’m talking about, which to me is their problem, not mine. I feel like I’m the novelist that’s on the right track.

I’m not an avant-garde writer. I’m not an experimental novelist. I’m just doing what novelists have always done. But these days it almost requires diving into the world of science a little bit more than is typical from the English department/personal, existential, cry-type novel. I’m happy to read those, but it’s not really what I’m interested in writing right now because it doesn’t cover enough. Our individual, existential cry should be contextualized by the whole society it comes out of. If you have both in one novel, then it seems to me you should have that much bigger and better a novel.