Sci-Fi Writers Discuss Climate Catastrophe: Robert J Sawyer, Author Of Hominids

robert-j-sawyer-author-photo-by-bernard-clark-colorThe big announcement came this weekend that over 190 nations had signed on to an agreement in Paris to move their economies in the general direction of away from fossil fuels. It’s being hailed as historic.

All nations signing on to the Paris Agreement, rich or poor, have committed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions with the overall goal being to limit global warming to well below 2° Celsius. Included in the document is even an aspirational target of 1.5°C.

Yay, team. But there’s still no popping of corks around the Dechene household. I’ve yet to get over the betrayal of the Kyoto Accord. And while world leaders were forging this climate deal, their trade ministers and business-development minions continue to toil away at a series of trade deals like the TPP and CETA that may make any international program to curb carbon emissions completely moot

As I said in the comments to another post (on a completely different topic), pessimism is my operating system. And that’s especially true where international climate change treaties are concerned. I see no reason to update to the new optimism OS. It’s barely out of beta.

For now, I’m going to wait and see what the Koch Brothers’ countermove is.

Thing is, I really, REALLY hope the world got it right this time. The alternative — runaway global warming — is just too awful to contemplate.

But contemplate we did. For the current Prairie Dog, we contacted three Canadian science fiction writers and asked them what our planet may face if these international deals continue to fail. They had a lot of very sobering things to say on the subject. So much I couldn’t fit everything into the article. So I’m posting longer versions of those interviews here.

This is the third and final interview in the series. It’s with Hugo and Nebula award winning author Robert J Sawyer who’s 23rd novel, Quantum Night, is coming out in March. It’s set largely in Saskatoon, in and around the Canadian Light Source. 


PRAIRIE DOG: What happens to the planet and our society if these climate summits keep failing and we don’t find a way to limit global warming?

ROBERT J SAWYER: My fervent hope is, just like any group of unruly teenagers who have deadlines months in advance for school assignments, they get their homework done at the last possible moment. Of course, there are those who think we’ve passed the last possible moment to contain it to under two degrees. I am hoping that finally all of the time wasting will come to an end.

So I don’t want to be painted as the guy who says, “We’re doomed and here is what it’s like.” 

That said, if we do drop the ball across the globe and we do face two degrees or more celsius of change, it’s going to be a completely different world.

In the prairie of Canada is where actually we’re going to have milder winters, we’re going to open up the Northwest Passage. Canada because of geography will become a major world power. Not necessarily a bad thing for Canada. We’re also a resource rich economy, fresh water rich economy in a world where an awful lot of places will be buried under sea water.

Not to say that it’s in any way in Canada’s interest to not vigorously participate in this. But the whole point of this issue is that it’s one that requires us not to think about what’s in it for us. That’s been the problem hitherto.

China quite rightly says, “Over the last century we weren’t the big polluter, it was the United States. But now you’re saying to us now that we’ve got ours, now that we’re able to go from the industrial revolution to the high standard of living enjoyed in the western democracies, we want to shut you down from doing the exact same thing that we gleefully did?” That’s of course the thinking we have to overcome here.

The reality is that China will suffer. China is already way too hot, in large parts of China. It’s not coincidental that say Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, is a boiling hot place and it’s associated with boiling cuisine. Seriously, it’s not a coincidence. The reason you spice food that much is because in hot climates, the meat starts to turn rapidly. Spices are not something you associate with northeern climates. They’re something you associate with hot climates for good reason. They help you choke down food that otherwise your body would not be willing to palate.

China already has huge parts, particularly in the interior. China abuts the Mongolian Gobi Desert. It has huge parts of its interior that are already marginally inhabitable. The hottest I’ve ever been in my life was when waliking along the Great Wall of China in August in Sichuan Province. And it’s only going to get worse for them.

The reality is China will be hit worse than Canada, worse than Northern Europe, worse than much of Western Europe — with the exception of low lying coastal places like Denmark, places where they have habitation below sea level. With the exception of places like Miami or Southern Manhattan which will be flooded over. China stands to suffer more not less and that’s something we have to make clear.

The United States, the breadbasket, the whole interior of the United States which is already hugely desert. I’m a huge fan of Ansel Adams, the great photographer of the American southwest and those landscapes are stark. Everyone has on their bucket list to go see the Grand Canyon. But nobody stays because they have a choice. But they’re going to lose that choice. The interior is going to expand and become more and more like Arizona. More and more like the desert that now occupies large parts of California. And the coastal areas will become uninhabitable because they’ll be buried under water.

New Orleans, southern Florida, places where people now make their homes in, will not be habitable.

What it’s going to mean is everything is going to change geopolitically. We always talk about changing the physical climate but the political climate will change. China will not be able to maintain its position as a world power when it has a billion people who are struggling just to survive in the heat. The United States will not be able to maintain its place as a world power when it has a quarter of a billion people out of its 350 million people starving or dying because the heartland, the breadbasket, is no longer arable. The deserts grow. It’s going to change it for everybody.

So the big countries that have dragged their feet, US and China, have the most to lose not just environmentally, they have the most to lose geopolitically over the inevitable power shifts that’ll come if global warming runs unabated. And they seem to have complete blinders on about that.

They think they can engineer their way out of these problems whenever they present themselves. We saw with Katrina how woefully unprepared the US is to deal with a single city with a climate based disaster. And when its 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. So the only way they can maintain being a world power is to totally engage with this issue.

And in fact, who’s going to benefit, like Canada which may get a more beneficent climate. Russia may get a more beneficent climate as well. They have a lot to gain. And it does not behoove the US or China to let Russia and Canada become the new superpowers.

PRAIRIE DOG: We’ve seen times in history where empires reach a point where agriculture has failed or climate has shifted. A nation of a billion people like China, will it go quietly into that good night when the country becomes difficult to live in? What political shift would this climate change inspire?

RJS: It’s very salutory to look at the world’s response to the Syrian refugees. They’re not ecological refugees but they may as well be. They’re huge numbers of people displaced and looking for new homes and what we have found immediately is that the hearts of the rest of the world are not all that open to the notion of, oh, it’s not tenable to stay where we are, welcome on in. Canada, the Trudeau government, has set a great example. Paris France has set a great example. But the United States haven’t. And there hasn’t been as much as we’d hope for from Asia. So it’s hard to imagine that kind of migration. I mean, if we’re talking even half of the Chinese population — nobody knows what the Chinese population actually is. It’s what the Chinese government allows us to accept as the figure. So it’s probably much higher. It’s probably 1.4 billion people. Suppose half of those are displaced, that’s 700 million, double the population of the United States. They can’t move by plane. There aren’t enough planes. They can’t move on boats. The only way they can move is migratory on foot. Which means they’re going to move into Eastern Eurasia and ultimately yes to Eastern Europe.

That will be unprecedented, that kind of migration.

Numerically, we’re talking about a billion Chinese. But there’s another billion in India in a country that’s going to become even more unbearably hot. So you’re talking about between those two countries, 2.5 billion people that may be looking for new places to live. Numerically, just numerically, they overwhelm just about any other place they might choose to migrate to.

PD: That’ll shift everything. Not just politics but language and culture.

RJS: Absolutely. There’s never been ecological refugees on this scale. There was the Irish potato famine. Small change compared to what we’re talking about there. We’re talking about some of the most populous parts of the planet ceasing to be habitable by any substantial numbers of people. There’ll always be people there. There are people living in the hottest desert right now. But you can’t sustain hundreds of millions of people. You can sustain dozens or thousands of people. So of course, the other sad reality is whenever you have that size of population migration  you have introduction of diseases and so forth. So you’re going to see ultimately probably huge die-offs as well of everybody. Not just the migrants. A lot of them are immune to the diseases they’ll be carrying with them to areas where there is no immunity. The Americans just this week celebrated the genocide of Christopher Columbus showing up and introducing to the natives all sorts of horrific diseases that resulted in the decimation of the indigenous population. And yeah, let’s call that Thanksgiving.

But we have this incredible ability to dismiss this when it’s happening to other people. But we will be the ones where others are coming here and bringing diseases that they are already immune to and we aren’t in huge ecologically necessitated migrations. It’s dangerous for everybody.

PD: One thing that science fiction offered us in the last century was “jet-pack optimism.” What’s going to happen to the techno-utopia we were promised?

RJS: I think there will be a huge technological collapse. 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.

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. 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 — that is, an environment of a county or a province or a state. 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. There are way too many variables for even our most advanced super-computers to accurately simulate what the outcome will be.

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

There’s always 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.

PD: You mentioned earlier that because Canada could benefit from climate change it could become a world power. What kind of superpower would Canada be?

RJS: Canada only exists as a sovereign nation at the pleasure of the United States. Were it to decide that it was in the United States’ interests to annex Canada, they could do it in a day. The U.Ss still has an enormous nuclear stockpile. It took two nukes to get the insane emperor who thought he was a god, Hirohito, to step down and surrender. It’s not going to take two nukes to get our Governor General, who is ultimately the commander-in-chief of our armed forces to stand down Canadian forces. If the United States drops a nuclear weapon on Toronto and said, “The rest of you go in turn. You can either stay alive and let us have the resources or you can die and we’ll just walk past you as we go north to get the resources. Take your pick. Decide today.” Which one are we going to decide? We’re going to stand down. There’s no way we can mount a counter attack.

We will never be a superpower so long as the United States is viable as a nationstate. If the collapse comes quickly enough and the U.S. falls apart, then Canada may continue on as a sovereign nation. But more likely, the exigencies of dealing with climate disaster will mean that such niceties as national borders, both to the north and to the south — Donald Trump will very much regret building that wall across the southern border when it becomes time to move American troops down to Mexico City and completely secure the Gulf of Mexico.

PD: When these things happen, Canada becomes very much like North America when Columbus showed up or when Africa was being exploited. We will have all those indignities that were visited upon the First Nations visited upon us when it’s time for the U.S. to take our water and oil.

RJS: That’s right. Absolutely. If push comes to shove, we have very little power. The only power we have is moral suasion in a world that is relatively stable. As soon as it becomes an unstable world through climate collapse, we have no bargaining power to bring to the table.

Keystone Pipeline, when they want it, the army corp of engineers, to hell with TransCanada, to hell with the private sector, if it needs to be done, boom, it’ll be done and the land will be expropriated. End of discussion.

Edmonton wants to object? Goodbye, Edmonton. There’ll be a new set of Northern Lights glowing.

PD: Where do you personally stand on all this? You said earlier you were an optimist.

RJS: 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. And currently the United States does not have a crazy leader. We have another good year and a bit before they will have conceivably a nutcase in the White House. But we’re hoping a moderate will come to the White House.

We actually have a moderate on St Peters Throne. We have  a pope who’s speaking up on climate change which is a sea-change for the Catholic Church saying we have to be proactive about this. We tend to think, “Ah, interesting character and good for the souvenir industry when he visits Canada.” But he holds enormous moral sway in South America and large parts of Europe still. In Africa. The Pope is an extraordinarily powerful figure.

And I think the most significant thing that Barak Obama did in Paris this week is say, “We fully own our responsibility for getting us into this mess.”

Politics is all about these stupid games of pride. China needs to hear that it’s not their fault that the world is in this mess. 

You and I are both Canadians, we’ve heard this a million times, when people say, “Well, Ottawa wants to do this,” and there’s always some idiot in the circle who says, “Even if Ottawa does 10 times that, it’s nothing compared to what China is doing, so why even bother?”

And the demonization of China in this, when all they’re trying to do is raise the standard of living of their population the same way that our grandfathers did for us, has reached this point where it’s absolutely crucial that Obama say, “Yes, it’s our fault.” And Trudeau should say the same thing and Angela Merkel and just say, “Yes, the West screwed up. The Industrial Revolution, we handled it badly and please join with us in trying to clean up the mess we are largely responsible for.”

That’s the tack to take because then the leaders of China and India and the leaders of the emerging countries can say, “Okay. You’re not demonizing us, and here, give us the foreign aid we need, the concessions we need, so that we can improve our standard of living without having to do it through a carbon economy.”

Author: Paul Dechene

Paul Dechene is 5'10'' tall and he was born in a place. He's not there now. He's sitting in front of his computer writing his bio for this blog. He has a song stuck in his head. It's "Girl From Ipanema", thanks for asking. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @pauldechene and get live updates during city council meetings and other city events at @PDcityhall.