Putting the life back in science fiction

Paris in the Fall, mais oui
December 2, 2015, 6:53 pm
Filed under: Hot Earth Dreams, livable future, sustainability | Tags: ,

Okay, I’m a pessimist.  Is it a good thing to cheer on the Paris COP21 Climate talks, or not?

On the one hand, if they fail, I’ve got a great marketing tool for Hot Earth Dreams: it will be a more likely future.  Except that the scenario will probably fail because the Earth will get hotter faster than I predicted, so I might have to do a bit of a rewrite and get depressed that I wasn’t pessimistic enough the first time.

On the other hand, if COP21 comes up with a treaty, no one will want to read about a hot Earth, except that I’m pretty much describing what the COP21 treaty will accomplish: partial control of carbon emissions, which extends the terafart out to 100 years when it could run in as little as 20-50 years.  Guess that means I’ll try selling the book again in 10 years, when people start seeing the shortcomings of getting GHG emissions cut but not eliminated.

Still, why not be hopeful?  Maybe something will come out of this one.  My pessimism is wrong more often than not.  That’s why I’m pessimistic about it too.

If you’re interested in exploring a future that’s not depleted of fossil fuels, where we get GHG emissions truly under control, you might want to check out The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project.  It’s a think-tank, excuse me, a “global collaboration of energy research teams charting practical pathways to deeply reducing greenhouse gas emissions in their own countries.”  With decent PR, obviously, despite “decarbonization.”  From what I’ve read of their reports so far, they aren’t bad.

Their overall message so far is something that should be familiar to those who have read Hot Earth Dreams: it’s technologically feasible to get greenhouse gas emissions under control, keep economic growth going, and so forth.  The problem is one of politics and logistics, since it requires a large-scale transformation of civilization over the next few decades to pull it off.

Am I the only one who thought “oh, so it will never work”  on reading that last sentence?  Why won’t it work?  Builders are going to get rich rebuilding civilization to deal with this crisis.  Why are so many people running away from it, rather than towards it?  It’s funny that in the 21st Century, “let’s reinvent society so that everyone gets a better life” is something we’ve been taught to cringe from, when in the 20th Century, whole revolutionary movements got started that way.  How times have changed.

In any case, let’s be hopeful that something good comes out of Paris.  And if you want to write about a 21st Century with climate change, I’d suggest that the Decarbonization crew is a good place to start your worldbuilding research.

Any thoughts on it?





5 Comments so far
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I wouldn’t worry too much about COP21 coming up with a any sort of treaty that will have anything more than a delaying tactic. Politicians know that the effects will come long after they have left office, so it is safer to sound serious and go for a slightly modified business as usual. The fossil fuel industry contributions to reelection won’t hurt them either.

My guess is that we’ll start bigger geoengineering experiments within a decade, probably SO2 clouds for a cheap bandaid.

The rich world will be spending huge resources on military aid and expeditions to stave off mass migrations to the northern countries. Should keep the economy going with such Keynesian spending 😦 The cost will be far greater than just transforming our agricultural practices and energy generation which would upset the entrenched industries. All this will be made even harder to move if TPP and its related acronym treaties get passed.

Hansen has always been much bolder than most of his fellows in his forecasts, and he has been more right than wrong. My bet is that your book might even look a little rosy in hindsight.

Maybe you should think about teaming up with stock peddlers using “Based on this book, here are the stocks you need to buy now…” pitches. 🙂

Comment by Alex Tolley

Actually, if I could live with myself, I would have gone into the stock racket awhile ago.

Still, why not be hopeful? There’s always room for disappointment in a few weeks.

The other thing to consider is that sometimes public opinion changes very rapidly, and that can be problematic for both politicians and for big business. While it’s easy to predict business as usual, it’s also easy to predict that things will be very different in a few years.

Comment by Heteromeles

” it’s also easy to predict that things will be very different in a few years.”

I would really like to believe that. If that happens, I will be very happily surprised. What we need is the equivalent of Bradbury’s “The Toynbee Convector”.

Comment by Alex Tolley

Have you see this? http://www.nofamass.org/sites/default/files/2015_White_Paper_web.pdf
The claim is that soil re-carbonization will sequester enough carbon in 5 years to reduce atmospheric CO2 from 400 to 350 ppm. I’m somewhat suspicious of the calculations, but I assume you are far more knowledgeable than I on the feasibility and the numbers. Can you comment?

Comment by Alex Tolley

Well, the short answer is the a government entity called Cal-Recycle is trying it in California, so we’ll see how well this works.

There are two problems they skipped over.

One is that glomalin is produced by arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, so you need to have the glomalin producing species and strains in the soil to make the aggregates (they don’t all produce glomalin).

The other is that modern grain varieties don’t make mycorrhizal relationships. They were bred to have an optimal growth response to artificial fertilizers, and as a side effect (apparently), they lost their mycorrhizae.

The tl;dr version of this is that it would be easy if, say, four billion people died, because simple regrowth of newly vacant farmland would promote AMF-laden plants start pulling carbon out of the air for (hopefully) 40 year increments.

If we want to actually feed everyone and get the grain fields to sequester carbon as glomalin, we need to engineer grains that are simultaneously mycorrhizal, massively high yielding, and highly tolerant of heat. That’s probably a tall order, although I’m not sure where the knowledge of the genetics of mycorrhizal symbiosis stand at the moment.

We also need to convince the plants to hold onto their glomalin-producing mycorrhizae, even though they’re getting fed huge amounts of simple fertilizers, and the mycorrhizae are taking about 15% of the plant sugars produced to feed themselves.

We also need to stop putting artificial fertilizers on the field so much, and start putting a lot more urban sewage out there, which is a bit…messy, although again, not impossible (this from the notion that no-till fields fed with manure sequester carbon, which may not involve glomalin).

Keeping the carbon in the soil for more than a few years or decades is also a problem, because soil can lose carbon as quickly as it can gain it.

I guess the bottom line is that it’s not a simple solution. In Hot Earth Dreams, I basically said that sequestering carbon in the soil was about all we can do, and I agree that we should try it. Actually doing it without starving billions of people is going to take a lot of innovation, both in creating new crops and in doing the ecological research to find all the other issues that are hiding in the soil. Now all we need to do is to get the best and brightest out into the fields to actually work on this…

Comment by Heteromeles

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