Kim Stanley Robinson

Chapter 14: Is there a technical solution?

 

No one thinks it will ever happen to them until suddenly they are in the thick of it, thoroughly surprised to be there.

A tornado in Halifax Nova Scotia; the third and catastrophic year of drought in Ireland; major floods on the Los Angeles River: these kinds of anomalies kept happening, at a rate of more than one a day around the world. Sooner or later almost everyone got caught up in some event, or lived in the midst of some protracted anomaly, for the weather events were both acute and chronic, a matter of hours or a matter of years.

Still it was hard to imagine it would ever happen to you.

At the poles the results were particularly profound, because of major and rapid changes in the ice. For reasons poorly understood, both polar regions were warming much faster than the rest of the planet. In the north the break-up of the Arctic Ocean’s sea ice had led to the imminent extinction of many species, including the polar bear, and the stall of the Gulf Stream. In the south it had resulted in the rapid break-up of the giant ice shelves hugging the Antarctic coast, unblocking the big glaciers falling into the Ross Sea so that they became “ice rivers,” moving so rapidly down their channels that they were destabilizing the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the biggest variable in the whole picture: if this sheet came off its underwater perch on the sea floor, the world would suffer impacts greater by far than what had been witnessed already, most especially a rapid rise in sea level, up to as much as seven meters if the whole sheet came off.

Still it was hard to imagine it would ever happen to you.

There were further ramifications. The ocean bottom, where it drops from the continental shelves to the abyssal seafloor, is in many places a steep slope, and these slopes are coated by thick layers of mud that contain methane in the form of clathrates, a chemical form of freezing that cages molecules of the gas in a frozen matrix. As ocean temperatures rose, these chemical cages were being destabilized, and release of the methane could then cause underwater avalanches in which even more methane was released, rising through the water and rejoining the atmosphere, where it was a greenhouse gas much more powerful than carbon dioxide. Warmer atmosphere meant warmer ocean meant released methane meant warmer atmosphere meant—

It was a complex of cycles—geologic, oceanic, and atmospheric—all blending into each other and affecting the rest. The interactions were so complex, the feedbacks positive and negative so hard to gauge in advance, the unforeseen consequences so potentially vast, that no one could say what would happen next to the global climate. Modelling had been attempted to estimate the general rise in temperature, and actually the models had been refined to the point that there was some agreement as to the outside parameters of possible change, ranging from about a two to an eleven degree C. rise—a big range, but that’s how uncertain any estimates were at this point. And even if the estimates could have been tighter, global averages did not reveal much about local or ultimate effects, as people were now learning. There were non-linear tipping points, and now some of these were beginning to reveal themselves. The stall of the Gulf Stream was expected to chill the winter temperatures in the northern hemisphere, especially on both sides of the Atlantic; further effects were much less certain. The recent two-year failure of the monsoon was not understood, nor its violent return. China’s drought was ongoing, as was the longest-ever El Nino, called the Hypernino. Desertification in the Sahel was moving south at an ever-increasing rate, and South America was suffering the worst floods in recorded history because of the rain brought by the El Nino. It had rained in the Atacama.

Wild weather everywhere, thus the most expensive insurance year ever, for the eighth year in a row. That was just a number, an amount of money distributed out through the financial systems of the world; but it was also a measure of catastrophe, death, suffering, fear, insecurity, and sheer massive inconvenience.

The problem they faced was that everything living depended on conditions staying within certain tight climactic parameters. The atmosphere was only so thick; as Frank put it once, talking to Anna and Kenzo, when you drive by Mount Shasta on US Interstate Five, you can see the height of the liveable part of the atmosphere right there before your eyes. No permanent human settlement on Earth was higher than Shasta’s summit, at 14,200 feet, so the mountain served to show in a very visible form just how thick the breathable atmosphere was—and the mountain wasn’t very tall at all, in comparison to the immense reach of the plateau the highway ran over. It was just a snowy hill! It was sobering, Frank said; after you saw the matter that way, looking at the mountain and sensing the size of the whole planet, you were changed. Ever afterward you would be aware of an invisible ceiling low overhead containing all the breathable air under it—the atmosphere thus no more than the thinnest wisp of a skin, like cellophane wrapped to the lithosphere. An equally thin layer of water had liquefied in the low basins of this lithosphere, and that was the life zone: cellophane wrapping a planet, a mere faint exhalation, wisping off into space. Frank would shake his head, remembering that vision driving over the shoulder of Shasta. At that moment the world had said to him, I AM.

Still, it was hard to imagine.

 

Chapter 15: Autumn in New York

 

The most beautiful regatta in the history of the world convened that year on Midsummer Day, at the North Pole.

The sun hung at the same height in the sky all day long, blazing down on open water that appeared more black than blue. A few icebergs floated here and there, dolmens of jade or turquois standing in the obsidian sea. Among them sailed or motored some three hundred boats and ships. Sails were of every cut and color, some prisming as they bent to the shifts of a mild southern breeze. All possible rigs and hulls were there: catamarans, schooners, yawls, ketches, trimarans; also square-riggers, from caravels to clipper ships to newfangled experiments not destined to prosper; also a quintet of huge Polynesian outriggers; also every manner of motor launch, rumbling unctuously through the sailboats; even a lot of single-person craft, including kayakers, and wind-surfers in black drysuits.

The fleet jockeyed until their skippers linked up and formed a circle centered on the pole, rotating clockwise if seen from above. Everyone thus sailed west, following the two rules that birds use when flocking: change speed as little as possible, keep as far apart from everyone else as possible.

Senator Phil Chase smiled when the flocking rubric was explained to him. “That’s the Senate for you,” he said. “Maybe it’s all you need to get by in life.”

This was the fifth midsummer festival at the Pole. Every year since the Arctic Ocean had opened in summer, a larger and larger group of sea craft had sailed or motored north to party at the pole. By a happy coincidence, the North Pole itself, as determined by GPS, was marked this year by a tall aquamarine iceberg that had drifted over it. In the immediate vicinity of this newly-identified “Pole Berg” idled many of the largest ships in the fleet. As always, the gathering had a Burning Man aspect, its excess and fireworks leading many to call it Drowning Man, or Freeze Your Butt Man.

This year, however, the party had been joined by the Inuit nation Nunavut and the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change, who had declared this “The Year of Global Environmental Awareness,” and sent out hundreds of invitations, and provided many ships themselves, in the hope of gathering a floating community that would emphasize to all the world the undeniable changes already wrought by global warming. The organizers were willing to accept the risk of making the gathering look like a party, or even God forbid a celebration of global warming, in order to garner as much publicity as possible. Of course a whole new ocean to sail on was no doubt a cool thing for sailors, but all the missing Arctic ice was floating down into the North Atlantic at that very moment, changing everything. IPCC wanted people to see with their own eyes that abrupt climate change was already upon them.

                                               #

 But of course there were many people there who did not regard the polar party in its official light, just as there were many in the world who did not worry overmuch about entering the Youngest Dryas. On the sail up to the festival, some of them had encountered an oil tanker making a dry run on a Great Circle route from Japan to Norway that passed near the pole: the Northwest Passage was open for business at last. Oil could be shipped directly from the North Sea to Japan, cutting the distance by two-thirds. Even if oil was passé now, Japan and the North Sea oil countries were nevertheless awfully pleased to be able to move it over the Pole. They were not ashamed to admit that the world still needed oil, and that while it did, there would be reasons to appreciate certain manifestations of global warming. Shipyards in Glasgow, Norway, and Japan had been revitalized, and were now busy building a new class of Arctic Sea tankers to follow this prototype, boldly going where no tanker had gone before.

Here at the Pole on Midsummer Day, things looked fine. The world was beautiful, the fleet spectacular. In danger or not, human culture seemed to have risen to the occasion. Noon of summer solstice at the North Pole, a glorious armada forming a kind of sculpture garden. A new kind of harmonic convergence, Ommmmmmmm.

                                               #

On one of the bigger craft, an aluminium-hulled jet-powered catamaran out of Bar Harbor, Maine, a large group of people congregated around Senator Phil Chase. Many of them were bundled in the thick red down jackets provided to guests by the National Science Foundation’s Department of Polar Programs, because despite the black water and brilliant sun, the air temperature at the moment was 24 degrees Fahrenheit. People kept their hoods pulled forward, and their massed body warmth comforted them as they watched the group around Chase help him into a small rainbow-colored hot-air balloon, hanging over the top deck straining at its tether.

The World’s Senator got in the basket, gave the signal; the balloon master fired the burners, and the balloon ascended into the clear air to the sound of cheers and sirens, Phil Chase waving to the fleet below, looking somewhat like the Wizard of Oz at the moment when the wizard floats away prematurely.

But Phil was on a line, and the line held. From a hundred feet above the crowd, Phil could be seen grinning his beautiful grin. “Here we are!” he announced over the fleet’s combined radio and loudspeaker array; and of course millions more saw and heard him by satellite TV. A big buoy clanged the world to order as Phil raised a hand to still the ships’ horns and fireworks.

“Folks,” he said, “I’ve been working for the people of California for seventeen years, representing them in the United States Senate, and now I want to take what I’ve learned in those efforts, and in my travels around the world, and apply all that to serving the people of the United States, and all the world.”

“President of the world?” Roy Anastopholous said to Charlie, and began to laugh.

“Shh! Shh!” Charlie said to Roy. They were watching it on TVs in different parts of DC, but talking on their phones as they watched.

“It’s a crazy thing to want to do,” Phil was conceding. “I’m the first to admit that, because I’ve seen what the job does to people. But in for a penny in for a pound, as they say, and we’ve reached a moment where somebody who can handle it needs to use the position to effect some good.”

Roy was still giggling. “Be quiet!” Charlie said.

“—there is no alternative to global cooperation. We have to admit and celebrate our interdependence, and work in solidarity with every living thing. All God’s creatures are living on this planet in one big complex organism, and we’ve got to act like that now. That’s why I’ve chosen to announce my candidacy here at the North Pole. Everything meets up here, and everything has changed here. This beautiful ocean, free of ice for the first time in humanity’s existence, is sign of a clear and present danger. Recall what it looked like here even five years ago. You can’t help but admit that huge changes have already come.

“Now what do those changes mean? Nobody knows. Where will they lead? Nobody knows. This is what everyone has to remember; no one can tell what the future will bring. Anything can happen, anything at all. We stand at the start of a steep ski run. Black diamond for sure. I see the black diamonds twinkling everywhere down there. Down the slope of the coming decades we will ski. The moguls will be on us so fast we won’t believe it. There’ll be no time for lengthy studies that never do anything, that only hope business as usual will last for one more year, after which the profiteers will take off for their fortress mansions. That won’t work, not even for them. You can get offshore, but you can’t get off planet.”

Cheers and horns and sirens echoed over the water. Phil waited for them to quiet back down, smiling happily and waving. Then he continued:

“It’s one world now. The United States still has its historical role to fulfill, as the country of countries, the mixture and amalgam of all humanity, trying things out and seeing how they work. The United States is child of the world, you might say, and the world watches with the usual parental fascination and horror, anxiety and pride.

“So we have to grow up. If we were to turn into just another imperial bully and idiot, the story of history would be ruined, its best hope dashed. We have to give up the bad, give back the good. Franklin Roosevelt described what was needed from America very aptly, in a time just as dangerous as ours: he called for a course of ‘bold and persistent experimentation.’ That’s what I plan to do also. No more empire, no more head in the sand pretending things are okay. It’s time to join the effort to invent a global civilization that we can hand off to all the children and say, ‘This will work, keep it going, make it better.’ That’s permaculture, as some people call it, and really now we have no choice; it’s either permaculture or catastrophe. Let’s choose the good fight, and work so that our generation can hand to the next one this beautiful world.

“That’s the plan, folks. I intend to convince the Democratic Party to continue its historic work of helping to improve the lot of every man, woman, child, animal and plant on this planet. That’s the vision that has been behind all the party’s successes so far, and moving away from those core values has been part of the problem and the failure of our time. Together we’ll join humanity in making a world that is beautiful and just.”

“We’ll join humanity?” Roy said. “What is this, Democrats as aliens?” But Charlie could barely hear him over the ship horns and cheers. On the screen he could see they were beginning to reel Phil in like a big kite.

 

Extracts first published in Green Earth by Kim Stanley Robinson (London: Harper, Voyager).

 

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