C2GTalk: An interview with Kim Stanley Robinson, American science fiction writer. Author of The Ministry for the Future.
Why does the world now need to consider solar radiation modification?
8 January 2023
Many objections to solar radiation modification (SRM) – such as the fear it could undermine other forms of climate action – have been overtaken by events, says The Ministry of the Future author Kim Stanley Robinson in this C2GTalk. The world is in a growing crisis, and cutting and removing emissions is taking too long. It’s time to learn whether SRM can help, and how to govern it.
Kim Stanley Robinson is an American science fiction writer. He is the author of about twenty books, including the internationally bestselling Mars trilogy, and more recently Red Moon, New York 2140, and The Ministry for the Future. He was part of the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers’ Program in 1995 and 2016, and a featured speaker at COP-26 in Glasgow, as a guest of the UK government and the UN. His work has been translated into 28 languages, and won awards including the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards. In 2016 asteroid 72432 was named “Kimrobinson.”
Below are edited highlights from the full C2GTalk interview shown in the video above. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Let’s start with what you could call the “elephant in the room,” the climate crisis. In April 2022 you wrote me an email while you were in India, and I quote: “Right now I am in Dharamshala but Thursday will go to Delhi, where it is all too much like the first chapter of Ministry. Your project becomes more pressing every day.”
It looks like you experienced during your visit to India an episode of extreme weather and of extreme heat. There have been so many other episodes of extreme weather in the last few years — floods, forest fires, and heat — so how do you see the evolution of the climate crisis, especially in the last few years since you wrote The Ministry for the Future?
I have spent the last three years since the book came out traveling and doing Zoom conferences like this more or less continuously, and I can tell that people are hungry for the story that that the book tells, about us coping more or less successfully with the climate change crisis or the “polycrisis” as it is being called now because of biosphere collapse, pandemics, and other problems that all snarl into one knot.
Two things as the answer to your question: One, the pandemic was a slap in the face to everybody paying attention. It became very clear that the biosphere could kill you, and that when the biosphere became dangerous everything changed.
There is a before and after for me and maybe for everybody.
Before the pandemic climate change was always a problem for the next generation. After the pandemic it is a belief that it is we who have to deal with it now. The other thing, of course, are the extreme catastrophes, the extreme weather events in the last few years. They seem to have accelerated in their severity and their frequency. This last year, 2023, global average temperatures have shot up to a shocking degree. The scientific community is, I would say, shocked that it could happen. Already we are getting explanations, as from James Hansen and his team, that maybe clearing the air of some aerosols has allowed the Earth to heat up, which shows the cross-cutting of the various procedures that we are going to do going forward. There are going to be some things we need to do for human health that actually might heat the planet up a little bit more, which is instructive going forward as to what we may have to do.
I just got back from a trip through Europe speaking to international agencies about attitudes toward the future. That is really the only thing I have expertise in that they do not. More than ever I have the feeling that everybody wants to act but they are looking at everybody else: Who goes first, and who pays for it? That is where we are now, I think.
Who goes first and who pays for it? This is an interesting issue where in many places people are positive about action. Just here in Switzerland they recently had a vote last year where everybody was for climate change, but when it came to paying for it, no, no thanks, not that.
I wanted to come back to the point you made about the pandemic. Could you just maybe say a few more words of how you saw the pandemic having an impact on the way we look at the climate crisis and how we might actually do something about it or that it is showing us that we are not going to do what we need to do?
It is interesting to pursue that line. I will give it a try.
We had an instantaneous worldwide crisis that almost everybody believed in as something that could kill them personally, and that of course was a spur to action like nothing before.
We are very good at imagining that bad things will happen to other people but not to us. This I think is evolutionary. It is built into our brains and thinking in ways that are useful because bad things are going to happen to us, and it is useful to have a mental mechanism to imagine that it will not so that you can operate.
But in the pandemic, when it hit at first everybody was ready to be compliant with instructions from government. It was not going to be a market response. It was government that organized society. That became clear, and suddenly the whole neoliberal idea that the market can do everything better than government just collapsed like a house of cards, and that was instructive.
Then also the scientific community came together. Suddenly ordinary nondisclosure agreements, suddenly the privatization of science fell apart, cooperation was international and fast, and vaccines were developed with rather amazing rapidity and also manufactured, so the manufacturing community, which is indeed composed of private companies, were quick to adapt and create these vaccines, spread them, the supply chains, the logistical efforts — we take all this for granted because the world tends to work invisibly to us, but suddenly it became visible: “Oh, my gosh, something that did not even exist two months ago is now everywhere, and you can get a vaccine.”
Then also, the nation-state system. Each nation had a different protocol, and some of those were better run than others, but nobody knew at first how best to protect people from the spread of a deadly pandemic while also making sure that daily life could continue, including people getting fed. That was the crucial thing, not just that the economy survived in some arithmetic sense or profit-motivated sense but that people kept getting fed, those supply lines. So suddenly we had “essential workers” as opposed to people who could just stay home.
All this was super-instructive, and now when we look back it was almost like an experiment. It would have been a cruel experiment if it was on purpose, but as it was it was just an accident of the nation-state system. A whole variety of methodologies to deal with the pandemic while still keeping society running were employed, and now we can look at the data and see which ones did best in terms of keeping people alive, reducing the death rate, and also perhaps keeping ordinary life going as a kind of X-Y graph.
Lessons taken from that experience are I think indirect. The climate change is different enough in multiple ways that are important, so it is not a 1:1 correlation. The lessons are indirect. Now we have indeed another crisis, but it is long-term. You can imagine that it is not going to kill you until you are right in the middle of a disaster, so it is always somewhere else. This is exactly the first step in not dealing with it is the idea that it will be someone else and it will be later on. That is I think the moment of hesitation.
But this year we have indeed the sciences telling us that temperatures have gone “off the charts,” you can say, a year unprecedented in how fast it is heating up. There is a well-known danger of us losing control of the Earth system, which is to say falling over tipping points where no matter what we do the heating will continue to increase, and at that point we truly would be in a catastrophe that we are poorly designed as a society to cope with.
I think we are at a moment of danger, but the pandemic gives us a little bit of help in imagining how to cope with it.
Coming back to being very much focused on climate, in less than a week from this recording COP 28 is going to start in Dubai. You wrote in Chapter Three of Ministry, and I quote: “The first global stock take in 2023 did not go well. Emissions were far higher than the parties to the Paris Agreement had promised each other they would be.” What are your expectations from COP 28 now, a few years after you wrote that, and from the COP process in general?
I laughed when you read that because I wrote those sentences in 2019, so I was just sticking a pin in the wall and making a statement that seemed likely to be true, and it is pretty true, because we were not doing much in 2019. In fact I feel like in 2019 we were distinctly less worried and less active than we are now, so that can be taken as a kind of positive.
I think COP 28 will be more on-point, more aware of the danger than I thought it would be when I wrote in 2019, where I did not imagine the impact of the pandemic nor of this year, 2023.
I am interested that it is going to be in the Middle East, in Dubai, therefore right at the heart of fossil fuel production. I am interested that the pope is going to be there for several days as the leader of one of the largest religions on earth, and he is very intent to make a difference there. These are two factors that make this COP different than the ones immediately previous to it.
I do not know what will happen because nobody does. It is a mistake to think that science fiction writers are any better at thinking the future than anyone else. These are absolutely ordinary skills and modes of thought that science fiction writers bring to bear. Everybody has them. Everybody uses them in their daily lives. It is only just the telling of very long stories that makes science fiction writing different.
From my own observations at COP 26 in Glasgow I would say the venue, where it happens, does not matter that much, and where the president is does not matter that much. Say the 40,000 diplomats who are going to be negotiating a new set of promises — because it is part of the Paris Agreement that every year the promises get improved over the previous year in a kind of ratcheting function. What statement will come out this year with the extra spur of the temperature rise of this year to frighten people into saying, “We have to do more and faster”?
But every nation has to agree. This consensus model is very strict. What will every nation agree to, including Russia, including Saudi Arabia, including Brazil, including Canada, and including China and the United States, of course? What will the island nations agree to?
I would expect that the statement coming out of COP 28 will be generally regarded as a disappointment because it will be rather modest compared to the need for speed and money, but it will be progress, and people will have spent two weeks thinking about nothing else. It will be top of the world news along with the active wars, so it is a ritual event that has importance for that if for nothing else.
That is an important part. If that raises more awareness, not just of individuals but of companies and civil society organizations, all the better.
Let’s come back to these temperatures. You referred twice already to the fact that the temperatures are going off the chart. Literally the day before this recording the United Nations Environment Programme published its latest emissions gap report, an annual report that they produce, and the numbers are worse than last year. According to this report, the world is heading to 3°C warming if trends continue, and to somewhere between 2.5°C and 2.9°C if current plans are implemented. So the world is getting hotter, and the impacts are also worse than our previous analysis indicated.
The question I have is: Has it become inevitable to ascertain that solar radiation modification can or cannot be used and to take action accordingly? Is this the time?
My answer in brief is yes, and I of course need to explain why. We are in what I would call — and I think I have heard this term elsewhere — a “carbon dioxide overshoot.” In fact, it might even have been you, Janos, who introduced this term to me. I am not sure because of the influx of information.
We usually talk about “temperature overshoot” because of excess carbon dioxide.
I want to speak specifically of carbon dioxide overshoot.
There is too much carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, we put it there, and as long as it remains we are in danger of losing control of the Earth system to runaway greenhouse heating, so we are going to have to draw down a whole lot of carbon dioxide, billions of tons, perhaps 100 billion tons, but in any case billions of tons. That will be subject to negotiation in the decades to come: How much do we pull down, because it does have an immediate impact on temperatures, and that will be a negotiated settlement once it becomes a technological possibility.
We can put it up there a lot faster than we can take it down because it is the entirety of industrial civilization burning fossil fuels that is putting it up there. Drawing it down will be nature-based solutions, it may be giant vacuum cleaners, it will be every method that we can bring to bear. It will nevertheless be a very small percentage of the burn of putting it up there in these last decades.
Some time is going to pass, decades, where we have more CO2 in the atmosphere and therefore more heat in the Earth system than is good for the biosphere and therefore for civilization. If during that time we can bounce some sunlight away with solar radiation modification — and there are other methods, as you know — it might help a lot in reducing the damage, stabilizing sea level to the extent that we can, and coping better, making sure that food supplies are not horribly damaged, for instance, which is to me the immediate danger.
So yes, the time has come to understand what solar radiation modification means and also how to govern it, which I know has been your principal focus, the governance issues, how would we decide, because the deployment itself is a technical question that is I think solvable quicker than the governance issues. Let’s put it that way.
I go back to the quote from your letter from India last year, when you said that, “Your work becomes more pressing every day.” That is our work at C2G. I think I understand better what you had to say about that. It is about understanding, and it is about the governance issues that are so difficult and so challenging.
From your perspective, Stan, how would we go about this to prepare society to better understand, because it is a controversial topic? What you said just now, some people agree, some people vehemently disagree. How does one go about this?
I think by continuously talking about it and also challenging the objections as being objections from an earlier time when we were not in a climate emergency and that even in the 1990s solar radiation modification was being discussed and always the objections are the same, and now some of them have to be challenged as invalidated by the current crisis, specifically the moral hazard argument, that if we knew we had a method of cooling down the earth we would therefore continue to burn fossil fuels heedlessly because we knew we had a “get out of jail” card, as it would be called in American games. That is called the moral hazard argument.
I think that argument is now completely irrelevant. We know we have to reduce emissions as fast as possible. That is what the COP meetings are about. We know it. Everybody knows it. We will be doing that no matter what emergency gestures we discuss.
The idea now of solar radiation modification is not any kind of an inducement to give up the effort to decarbonize fast, neither reducing emissions nor even decarbonizing the atmosphere by various natural and artificial means. That is all going to be ongoing in an emergency way. If you could have the temperatures lowered during that crisis, then more and more it begins to look like — a medical example: If you have a patient with a fever, then you do certain things to reduce the fever while you go at the source of the complaint. Solar radiation modification can be seen as putting the patient in a bath of cold water or giving them some ability to cool down while their fundamental problem is cured hopefully.
I think with the moral hazard argument off the table the other arguments — “Oh, we’re sure to mess it up, something worse is sure to happen” — this is just superstition out of the novel Frankenstein or some early fantasies. It is really almost Goethe’s Faust, the myth of, if we were to use our own inventive powers, they would be devilish and we would doom ourselves to a worse fate than even if we had tried to do something.
The proper way to apply that myth is that industrial civilization itself has torched the planet by accident. You do not have to suggest there was malign intent. Burning of fossil fuels looked good until we discovered that its waste was going into the atmosphere and changing the climate. The whole myth of, “Oh, something worse is sure to happen,” also needs to be challenged. It is not true. If we lower temperatures around the earth for a couple of decades while we decarbonize, that might keep millions from dying.
It might be — and this is where experiments can come into play or modeling exercises or further discussion — that doing this in particular ways might harm the monsoon or change rainfall patterns, but the truth is that the rise in CO2 has already harmed monsoons, has already changed rain patterns, and we cannot distinguish what has happened because of the rise of CO2 that we have put there and the Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines in 1991.
What I am saying is that the monsoon, like any weather pattern, is already irregular, partly because of us and partly because weather is always irregular. There is no sure science saying that if we do some solar radiation modification these bad side effects are sure to happen. That always needs to be challenged. We simply do not know.
At C2G we have often talked about this issue of the moral hazard but at the same time also talked about what some others talk about, the moral imperative, that the situation is getting so bad that we also need to think of this as a moral imperative, and we have talked about the balance of these two, that both are there. If I understood you correctly, you seem to be saying that the climate crisis as it is showing itself is shifting this toward the moral imperative as opposed to the moral hazard to understand and learn about these new techniques.
Yes. I would say that is very true. I would also assert that the moral hazard argument has flatly gone away. It no longer obtains. It is not a valid argument anymore because everybody who is paying attention and believes that the scientific community has given us an accurate representation — and I say that is 95 percent of humanity because everybody, when they are frightened for their own life, runs to a scientist — everybody understands we have to decarbonize, so the moral hazard argument — “Oh, if we had even the idea of solar radiation modification we would stop decarbonizing” — simply is not true.
Let’s go back to your earlier books, the Mars trilogy that you wrote in the early 1990s. Some observers have said that this is the manual being used by Elon Musk to plan the colonization of Mars. I could not imagine a better example of the Anthropocene as humanity trying to make Mars livable, with the Anthropocene of course being the period in Earth’s history when humanity has started making significant and lasting impacts on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems.
But remaining on Earth and being conscious of the polycrisis that you yourself mentioned earlier covering not just climate but biodiversity loss, pandemics, food systems, socioeconomic crisis, and of course wars especially as we are seeing more recently, how do you see humanity’s role vis-à-vis nature in this Anthropocene? Do we continue to rely on scientific and technological progress to fix the challenges and become ever more powerful where not even the sky is the limit but perhaps space and eventually the galaxy, or do we humbly recognize our limits and try to live with nature within those limits? How do you think about this?
I wrote the Mars trilogy because we had just been given a stupendous amount of new information about Mars that we did not have before 1969 and 1976. Before Mariner and Viking we knew next to nothing about Mars, and afterward we knew next to everything.
It turned out that there was a lot of water on Mars, and the scientific community at that time, especially the planetologists, began to talk about terraforming: Could humanity bring to bear enough engineering power that if they had the right combination of planet, sunlight, and volatiles — the various gases like water or nitrogen — could we engineer an earthlike habitat and introduce Earth DNA, the complete array of earthly creatures, onto another planet and make it into an imitation Earth?
It is not a coincidence that the hypothetical argument about terraforming, what it might take, and the actual example of Mars came into prominence at the same time. They began to talk about terraforming at the same time they learned that they had a perfect candidate for terraforming the next planet out, so as a coincidence and a science fiction writer I found it very interesting because also you would have to imagine a new society. As a utopian science fiction writer you had both the opportunity to invent a new social order, a new political economy, and at the same time talk about our reliance on our biosphere. This was a biosphere we would be creating by engineering efforts.
All of that was hypothetical, and even when I was writing it the characters would talk about how, “Oh, my gosh we’re terraforming Earth already in order to keep it stabilized.” I had a massive sea level rise happening on Earth because of global warming, and the whole novel in short was constructed as a thought experiment to make us think about Earth. It was not a plan. It was a mirror of the earthly situation, a modeling exercise.
Since I wrote it, we have discovered by the rovers that have landed there that the surface of Mars is highly poisonous to human beings because the perchlorates that are in the soil there everywhere in a parts-per-hundred range are poisonous to humans in a parts-per-billion range and are actually used as a medicine to destroy hyperthyroid. If you have hyperthyroid disease, you can be given a medicine made of chemicals that are in the Martian soil everywhere and wreck your thyroid.
Mars right now is completely unimportant to humanity. It sits there, it is interesting and beautiful, and in thousands of years it might become an engineering project. Right now it just is a red dot in the sky.
In thinking about what happened to Mars we can do some comparative planetology. Mars was once wet and warm, and then it was not. Why did that happen? When we study that we are learning more things about Earth. It was the contention of Lovelock and Margulis that Earth, being a watery planet, was a result of its living biological community creating chemical conditions that allow water not to be dispersed off into space.
So more and more we are understanding that this planet is a biological active community that can be thrown off of its balance. There have been times in Earth’s history when it was an ice ball and all the water on this planet was frozen. There were other times when there was no ice at all on the planet and all the water was liquid or gaseous. So there is variability within ordinary Earth systems, and now we have done an enormously disruptive thing by pouring CO2 into the atmosphere faster than ever has happened by natural events. We are in an experiment of our own making by accident.
When we talk about the other planets, it is not completely irrelevant because we are on a planet, so we use space science as a kind of an Earth science, and I still believe in it for that, but for everything else these dreams of escape or these dreams of colonization are at this point irrelevant to human history and probably will be for literally hundreds of years.
We have to figure this out ourselves here on Earth, but we can learn perhaps from other planets, including Mars.
Let’s look at your more recent book, The Ministry for the Future. The first question I wanted to ask is why you decided to write about the climate crisis including the potential role of solar radiation modification in that story. You could have written about nuclear war. Pandemics were not that obvious at that time, but there were many other existential crises in the world. Why did you choose that topic?
By the time I came to write The Ministry for the Future I had been writing about climate change for 20 or 25 years. It starts with my Antarctica novel, and indeed as I just explained, the Mars novels are somewhat about climate change indirectly, in a metaphorical way. But starting with Antarctica, when I went to Antarctica in 1995 the scientists down there were all telling me about climate change and what it could do to sea level.
I became interested, and I probably have written a dozen novels since then, and at least half of them have been climate fiction, particularly my Science in the Capital trilogy starting with Forty Signs of Rain. In one volume it is called Green Earth, about Washington, D.C. In a time of rapid climate change, if the Gulf Stream were to stall, then this famously would change weather patterns very quickly. I located that story in Washington, D.C., thinking: What would the federal government do? What would the National Science Foundation do faced with a crisis that might have a scientific solution? So already I had been writing about it.
Science fiction has all of the future as its subject matter, and therefore it breaks down into different kinds of stories — far-future science fiction is space opera, like Star Trek or Star Wars; the middle-distance is like my Mars trilogy: What will humanity be like 200 or 300 years from now? That to me is an extremely interesting speculative exercise because 200 years is a long time the way history is going now in terms of changes.
Near-future science fiction — I used to call it “the day after tomorrow” — is a way of looking at right now with a slight push into the future to show where trends might lead very quickly. Near-future science fiction has become climate fiction because climate change is an overriding and over-determining situation. If you are going to write about the near future now, climate change needs to be in the story or else you have not actually imagined the near future very well. You can focus on other things. You can focus on nuclear war or the danger of it or on artificial intelligence and what it might bring or wouldn’t bring, but climate change would always have to be happening in the story or else you are writing some kind of a fantasy.
Looking at this new term, “climate fiction,” a question one could ask is, to what extent do the narratives that are provided in these climate fiction stories actually help or can help the development of policy? Specifically, do you think that ideas in Ministry help policymakers and their advisors today to address the climate crisis?
These are good questions, Janos, and I have been thinking about them a lot.
Let me put it generally: Fiction is usually about individual characters. You focus in on individuals and their relationships to their family, their friends, their jobs, their immediate social surround, and also to their moment, their society or their moment in history. That is at the biggest stretch of the novel as in the classic tradition of the 19th century realist novel — Balzac, George Eliot, Conrad — the relationship of individual characters in their own individual adventures to the larger press of history.
Well, a lot of novels have given up on the larger press of history and have just gotten into the inner psychological states of individual characters, but we read novels to get inside other people’s heads and experience other people’s lives in different times and places. It is a mental adventure that is very important and can be beautiful.
Once you get to climate change and the expanse of the novel goes from the individual to their friends and family, to their society, to their moment in history, and to their planet, that is when science fiction becomes useful because science fiction is always about individuals and planets as the ultimate conditioning of our lives.
Climate change is hard to turn into novels, and science fiction, by putting the story in the future and having things happen to your characters that are representative of what will happen to everybody, is where it gets interesting. Many a climate fiction novel will show the individuals thrown out of their ordinary middle-class or bourgeois lives. Characters will not be the poorest people, who are already in crisis, and the novel is not good at them. The novel is classically about middle class people thrown out of their lives and who become desperate because of climate change, and then they are on the run like in a chase movie, and they manage to make some accommodation that is limited, that is improvised, and becomes an adventure.
In some cases it is felt as a sort of liberation because your ordinary middle-class life was so boring, so suburban, so predictable, so stuck in offices, and so much without meaning, and then suddenly you are on the run coping with a new group of people to try to survive and do a Robinson Crusoe, a wreckage of civilization followed by, can you improvise your way to a life where you stay alive? This is what climate fiction is most of the time.
I will quickly come to the end of this. The Ministry for the Future is not like that. It is a novel in which the ordinary workings of society as we have built it, including the nation-state system, global capitalism, and the international agencies that have been invented since World War II, all together try to improvise a solution where you do not have a breakdown of society, not a complete one, and at the end of the story we have managed to scrape through. Thirty or forty years later on the same characters are living their lives, and their lives’ work in some aggregate sense has succeeded because we did not have a breakdown of the biosphere, we did not have a mass extinction event, and we did not have social breakdown. That story is unusual enough that the book has gotten the attention that it has because people want that story.
It is interesting what you say. In a recent interview with the Financial Times you said something I found quite interesting, and I quote: “Now I am meeting policymakers and powerful people who are terrified and want to act. That is new in my experience.”
My specific question here is: To what extent are these decision makers that you are meeting, these policymakers, these powerful people, getting useful ideas from the way you just described it of avoiding the worst and muddling through, and is that helpful to come up with policies that will get us in that direction?
Mostly no but maybe a little yes. What I mean by that is, almost all of the people I meet with who have expertise in the areas that The Ministry for the Future writes about want to tell me more. They suggest to me that what I wrote was a simplified symbol for what they do, which in reality is vastly more complicated. That is okay. That is what fiction is about. It is a sort of simplification. You speak of the individual when you meet an entire class of people, et cetera.
I think what they are getting out of the book is the suggestion that their work, although inadequate in itself, is just one part of a much larger effort that they see could succeed by the story that the novel tells, so they have more detail about their area of expertise. Say the novel is Carbon Coin. They know that this is a name for a whole class of financial instruments that they know more about and about which much more has happened since I wrote the book in terms of financing green work, but the story in the novel suggests that the work they are doing is crucial work and that it could succeed.
This might be a political fantasy.
Thirty or fifty years from now, if somebody were to come across a thrown-apart copy of The Ministry for the Future, they would say, “Oh, that was a fantasy of somebody who was too scared to face up to the fact that we were doomed even then because we are doomed now.” That could happen because any novel set in the future is a guess or an act of speculation. Something different is going to happen.
Already that has been proven true by the pandemic appearing, and every step along the way is going to be different than Ministry, but I will say this: It is going to happen faster than I portrayed in Ministry, it is happening at an accelerated speed, and it is happening with articulations across the board such that policymakers — I am talking about diplomats, technocrats, scientists, business leaders who are actually deciding where investments and work should go, and also elected politicians, but it is that technocratic class of people whose jobs it is to work on these things, they are all energized and it has become the principal problem of our time, so their work has intense existential meaning.
Like you yourself coming out of the United Nations, someone else said to me, “The nation-states are like professional golfers, and the United Nations is like the people who drive the golf carts from one tee to the next.” They are thinking their work is important, and then they are realizing that they are just driving around these big players from the nation-states, who are doing the real work of negotiation.
Now when I speak to people in international agencies — and I am talking about the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the EU bureaucracy in Brussels, and UN people themselves — they are all wondering if their work is becoming crucial because the nation-states cannot get it done and need to coordinate and have created the international agencies to get certain things done, and now we need them done more than ever. Indeed the COP process is an example of that happening.
One of the challenges of course here is that the representatives of those organizations may think that way, but the nation-states keep them from doing that, not giving them enough power, not giving them enough mandates, and we see it all over the place.
Yes. That is true. In fact, that was the main impression I got from my most recent trip to Europe, where I spoke sequentially to the WTO, OECD, and the EU, and afterward with some people with the State Department in the United States, part of a nation-state but only one part, the sense that the member states of these organizations are dragging them backward by way of their own parochial concerns. By the zero-sum game, “If those other nations win, then we have lost.” This is why I said at the beginning that everybody is waiting for someone else to make the move, at which point everybody is ready to act, but who goes first and who pays for it?
This recent meeting between China and the United States in San Francisco and putting climate change near the top of where they need to cooperate no matter their competition, was an incredibly positive sign going into COP 28. The pope coming to COP 28 to try to add moral urgency to everybody’s work there and to inspire the nation-states to be a little less stingy, conservative, and small-minded. The nation-state diplomats come to the COP meetings with instructions from home: “Stay safe, stay small, don’t offer any money.” Then they start talking to each other: “Well, this is what we really need. Let’s go back and see what we can get approval for back home.”
I would agree with you. The nation-states are right now the drag on action.
Stan, we talked a lot about the short-term future and the longer-term future. As we wrap up, how do you see the future in the next ten years to half a century, during the time of our children and grandchildren and their lifetimes? What would be your key message to the young of today based on that vision of the next few decades?
I am like everybody else. I do not know what is going to happen. One plays a speculation game. It is not prediction or prophecy. It is just a scenario or a modeling exercise.
Based on where we are right now and where things seem to be going, I think the 2020s will be increasingly stressed, like the graph of the temperatures from last summer. The differential between what we know we have to do and what we are actually doing in the world will increase. The inadequacy of our responses will remain true for a while, but there is also growing momentum to green work in the central banks, in private capital, in government circles, and even in nation-states with national defenses, the militaries of the world, realizing that if they are really intent to defend their country climate change mitigation is part of it.
I wonder if the 2020s will feel increasingly stressed as we realize we are not acting fast enough and if there might not then be a kind of tide shift of enough effort to try to bring the two back together between what we need to do and what we are actually doing might develop an enormous energy in this next decade, and beyond that, we might end up in a world where we feel like: Oh, my gosh. Humanity isn’t so stupid after all. We actually coped with an existential crisis. That too would be energizing.
To young people I would say: “You are never going to be out of this. Your whole life you are going to be living in a climate change scenario of one sort or another, either better or worse, and the worse could be so bad that you need to devote your whole life to trying to make it better.” This is basically what I am saying to young people. No matter what kind of work they go into it will end up having a climate change aspect to it — the humanities, the arts, engineering of course, diplomacy of course, all the sciences. The whole broad band of human activities is going to have to be part of the climate change struggle to get into balance with this biosphere.
Since you cannot escape it you have to accept it as kind of a task, like in these silly fantasy novels out of the Middle Ages, Lord of the Rings or the like: You are given a task that you cannot say no to. It is your generation’s responsibility, and it is maybe better than meaninglessness, but in any case you cannot escape it. We are stuck in it.
I hope I am reading you correctly, but I do sense a certain optimism from what you say in spite of some of the huge challenges that we are facing. If I read you correctly, then my last question would be, what gives you this ability to still be optimistic?
I hang on to it by my fingernails. We are in a very dangerous situation. There is no doubt about it. Extraordinary things may have to happen. One way or another, it is going to be extremely strange.
I hold onto hope as a political position, as a kind of moral obligation. You talked about the moral imperative as opposed to the moral hazard. The imperative is that we continue to work as if it could succeed. Whether it succeeds or not, certainly people our age will not know the outcome, but you have to proceed on the basis that if we all do our parts correctly we could succeed still.
Also, success is a case of better or worse. It is a case of fewer extinctions rather than more extinctions and a case of less human suffering rather than more human suffering. It is not an easy black/white, either/or, success or failure; it is more better or worse, and you have to keep on struggling toward the better no matter the obvious dangers.
At this point pessimism is a kind of cowardice. You need optimism as a way to beat your opponents in the political battle and to try to convince people it is worthwhile doing the better things because it is important to try to get to a better result.
With that, Kim Stanley Robinson, thank you very much for your books, for your ideas, and for this conversation.
Thank you, Janos. It has been a pleasure, our two years’ association. I know you will hate to hear this, but I think C2G should actually tack on an extra couple of years.