Three science fiction authors describe a global warming future

FEATURE by Paul Dechene

By the time you read this, COP21, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, will have just wrapped up. There was a lot of “this time we’ll get it right” optimism going in, but here’s my prediction as I sit here typing at the summit’s mid-point: it will be a failure.

And I’ll be saying that even if all the politicians and activists who attended COP21 come out declaring it an unmitigated triumph. I was optimistic after the Kyoto Accord and look how that ended. Fool me once, shame on you…

Unfortunately for all of us and the polar bears too, most serious science writers argue that if we don’t soon strike an internationally coordinated plan to deal with greenhouse gas emissions, we won’t be able to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius — if that goal is even possible now.

So what happens if we keep on bickering and don’t find a solution to our fossil fuel problem?

To find some answers to that question, I contacted three Canadian hard sci-fi authors — Nina Munteanu, Julie Czerneda and Robert J Sawyer — and asked them what happens to our planet if our international efforts continue to fail. Why science fiction writers? Why not? Journalists have interviewed scientists for decades and few listened to them. Maybe we need to hear from voices who can tell a story dramatically, for a change.

Our Thirsty Future

Nina Munteanu had been pondering this question before I contacted her. She’s not only the author of sci-fi novels like the Splintered Universe trilogy, she’s also a limnologist (a scientist who studies lakes) so naturally she’s concerned about how climate change will impact water security.

Munteanu told me about a short story she’d written that will soon be coming out in an Italian anthology.

“It’s called The Way of Water and it actually takes place in a future Toronto right outside where I teach,” says Munteanu. “It’s a story of Hilda, who lost her job and she’s standing in front of a public water tap with her W-Card in her trembling hand and she’s waiting for her water quota for the day and she’s literally dying of thirst.”

Munteanu then fills me in on the research that informed her writing: about how water is already commodified and fought over; about how in Colorado it’s illegal to collect rainwater because, according to the doctrine of prior appropriation, that water is already owned by agricultural users; about how corporations like Nestle go into parts of the developing world, buy up water rights, drain aquifers, bottle the water they’ve mined and sell it back to the locals.

“We’re living science fiction right now,” says Munteanu.

And me without my ration card. Well, that’s great.

The World We Deserve

“The landscape around us will change and we will have no say in that change,” says Julie Czerneda, author of A Play Of Shadows which won the 2015 Aurora Award for best sci-fi novel in Canada.

Czerneda studied biology in Ontario and Saskatchewan and taught it at the University of Waterloo, and when I spoke to her, she focused on how a warming climate will transform the natural world.

“What we grow and what we eat will have to change,” says Czerneda. “There won’t be the vast prairie landscapes, there won’t be the fruit belts. Areas will be diminished or flooded. We’ll have to make shifts to deal with food shortages and changing diets. Our kids may not be able to afford the kinds of things we do now, [like] having lots of cattle. A good steak, that may be something we can’t afford in the future.

“It’s going to be a shift in the basic biology that’s around us. Even the animals that are around us. They’re already changing,” Czerneda says. “There’ll still be lots of life but it will just be different. And it will be taking advantage of what we’ve done to the world. And it may not be what we want. Actually, I’m sure it won’t be. We’ll get invasive species, things coming up. Malaria in Saskatchewan. All these things are going to happen with climate change.”

Sounds fun. Are we all invited, or just our kids?

The Techno-Utopia Crumbles

But surely, there’s no real need to worry because once things get really bad because of climate change, we can just do science to the problem. Right? Tech our way back to happiness?

Hugo and Nebula award-winning science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer isn’t so sure.

“[The United States] think they can engineer their way out of these problems whenever they present themselves,” says Sawyer. “We saw with Katrina how woefully unprepared the U.S. is to deal with a single city with a climate-based disaster.

“And when it’s essentially coast to coast different disasters — sea level on the coast, land being baked to un-farmable degrees in the interior — they have nothing even approaching the infrastructure to deal with the damage,” he says.

But what does that mean for the optimistic, jet-pack future last century’s pulp magazines promised us?

“I think there will be a huge technological collapse,” says Sawyer. “The least important thing is advanced technology when it’s survival time. You can’t eat Facebook. All of that stuff falls by the wayside. What becomes principally important is food production , clean water supply, living space. Everything else becomes secondary.

“In terms of this incredible standard of living, our hermetically sealed, air-conditioned, high-tech standard of living we enjoy right now? Forget it. It’s over if we allow this ecological collapse to be upon us.”


Optimism In The Midst Of Doom

Despite the nightmarish climate change scenarios they dreamed up, all three of the sci-fi authors I spoke with claimed to be optimistic about our prospects for the future.

“Personally, I have great faith in the human race and in life generally. And I think that there are a huge number of people who are compassionate individuals and believe in equality and respect for all life, and I believe that is actually growing out of all this,” says Munteanu

Czerneda sees evidence that at least Canada’s attitude toward the climate crisis is improving.

“I’m very, very hopeful with the new government because the old government gave me no hope about climate change. It was just terrifying,” she says. “The fact that [the Liberals] even changed the ministry name to include climate change is huge. I think that shows leadership from our country. We used to be leaders in this. So I am hopeful. It’s a big step but it has to be taken.”

“I am the optimist. These scenarios are so horrific and most of the world leaders are not crazy. A few are. Most are not crazy,” says Sawyer.

“My fervent hope is that this is just like any group of unruly teenagers who have deadlines months in advance for school assignments and still they don’t get their homework done until the last possible moment. I am hoping that finally, all of the time wasting will come to an end.”

As for me, I hope they’re right. But, when I try to imagine humanity’s future, I always find myself wallowing in gloomy Mad Max scenarios.

Maybe, like a good sci-fi writer, I need a little more imagination.

Nina Munteanu’s non-fiction Water Is…, a scientific and philosophical exploration of water’s many identities, will be coming out this year. In addition to Julie Czerneda’s Aurora winning A Play Of Shadow, watch for her novel The Gulf Of Time And Stars which comes out this month. Robert J Sawyer’s 23rd novel, Quantum Night, which is largely set in Saskatoon, is coming out in March 2016.

The MacGyver Gamble

Why we can’t bet the planet on geo-engineering fantasies

Many scientists fear that maybe it’s too late for us to reverse course on the carbon economy and we’re already headed for out-of-control global warming. And that has inspired some people to consider some very drastic solutions.

“There are people who really believe macro-engineering projects, such as trying to shield the amount of sunlight that actually hit the Earth, might be viable solutions,” says science fiction author Robert J Sawyer.

“The reality is we’ve never pulled one of these things off properly. That goes back to introducing rabbits to Australia or whatever it is. We have never successfully predicted the consequences of any sort of attempt to re-engineer even a limited environment. And these macro engineering solutions where we think we understand the interplay of solar energy and hydrothermal energy and ocean currents and atmospheric currents enough that, ‘Oh yes, we just do this. What could possibly go wrong?’ Well, the answer is, almost anything could go wrong. We just don’t know.

“We keep saying, ‘I keep shitting everywhere, what should I do?’ The answer should be, stop shitting everywhere, not ‘let’s put up discrete parasols or give everybody nose plugs so they don’t have to smell it anymore.’ No. The answer is to solve the problem at source. And that’s what we have to find the will to do.”

But what about all the neat stuff humanity has done?

“There’s a faction within science fiction that always says, ‘Hey, remember the Manhattan Project? Remember the moon shot? Just throw money at us and we’ll solve it.’ Ugh. Those were peanuts compared to planetary engineering,” says Sawyer. /Paul Dechene