What does it feel like to live on the brink of a vast historical change? It feels like now.
Of course that sounds hyperbolic, and maybe even panicky, but I think we’re there. Not that a science fiction writer can see the future any better than anyone else; very often worse. But between the pandemic, the accelerating drumbeat of extreme weather events and the accumulations of data and analysis from the scientific community, it’s become an easy call.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I drove across the US east to west. In Wyoming, we hit a pall of wildfire smoke so thick that we couldn’t see the mountains just a few miles away on each side of the road. It went on like that for 1,000 miles.
Then we arrived in California just in time for the latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which documents in meticulous detail the true scale of the climate problem. Humanity now stands on the brink of not just change, but disaster. And because we can see it coming, just as clear as a black storm on the horizon, our attempts to dodge disaster and create a healthy relationship with our only home will bring huge changes in our habits, laws, institutions and technologies.
All this is visible to us now. Unlike the people living in the years before the first world war, we won’t be sandbagged by catastrophe. The 2020s will not be filled with surprises — except perhaps at the speed and intensity of the changes coming down. With its atmosphere of dread foreboding, our time more resembles the years preceding the second world war, when everyone lived with a sensation of helplessly sliding down a slippery slope and over a cliff.
But historical analogies will take us only so far in understanding our current situation, since we have never before been able to wreck our own means of existence. Scientists coined the name the Anthropocene to signal that this moment in history is unprecedented. There are so many of us, and our technologies are so powerful, and our social systems so heedless of consequences, that our damage to Earth’s biosphere has increased with stunning speed.
Many historians refer to the period since the second world war as the Great Acceleration, and the harmful aspects of the changes we’ve initiated have immense biological and geophysical momentum. We can’t just gather our diplomats and call it off, declare peace with the biosphere.
Although we did do that, in 2015: it’s called the Paris agreement. But that was an agreement to start a process of change, which we now have to live up to if it is to become real. We in effect agreed to decarbonise our civilisation across the board: in energy generation, transport, construction — everything. But since all these activities were run largely by the burning of fossil fuels, this change is a stupendous challenge, equivalent to the mobilisations made in the 20th century to fight world wars.
Whether we can muster that kind of intense effort now is an open question. Not everyone is yet convinced that such an effort is necessary, and there are vested interests — not just private individuals or corporations, but many of the most powerful nations on Earth — deeply committed to continuing to burn fossil fuels.
So the Paris agreement could end up as something like the League of Nations, a nice idea that failed. But if we fail this time, the consequences could be even worse than the great wars of the 20th century. Again, this feels hyperbolic, but the facts in hand support the thought, alarming as it is. We are in terrible trouble, and not everyone agrees that we are; never will everyone agree on this, even though droughts and fires, storms and floods, are coming faster than ever.
Each moment in history has its own “structure of feeling”, as the cultural theorist Raymond Williams put it, which changes as new things happen. When I write stories set in the next few decades, I try to imagine that shift in feeling, but it’s very hard to do because the present structure shapes even those kinds of speculations.
Right now things feel massively entrenched, but also fragile. We can’t go on but we can’t change. Even though we are one species on one planet, there seems no chance of general agreement or global solidarity. The best that can be hoped for is a working political majority, reconstituted daily in the attempt to do the necessary things for ourselves and the generations to come. It’s a tough challenge that will never go away. It’s easy to despair.
Still, recently some things have happened that give me cause for hope. I wrote my novel The Ministry for the Future in 2019. That time surely torqued my vision because several important developments — ones I described in my novel as happening in the 2030s — I see now are already well begun. My timeline was completely off; events have accelerated yet again.
Part of that acceleration was caused by Covid-19. It was a slap in the face, an undeniable demonstration that we live on a single planet in a single civilisation, which can be disrupted in deadly ways. And it wasn’t just people everywhere dying of the same disease, but also our reactions to that shocking reality.
Supply chains that we rely on for life itself can be disrupted by hoarding, which is to say by loss of trust in our systems. In the US, it was toilet paper and cleaning supplies — but if it had been food, then boom: panic, breakdown, famine, the war of all against all. That’s how fragile civilisation is; that’s how much individuals are forced to trust each other to survive. A prisoner’s dilemma indeed, all of us locked together on this one planet. We either hang together or we hang separately: Franklin’s law.
Another lesson from the pandemic, one we should have known already: science is powerful. We need to learn to put it to better use than we do, but if we were to do that, lots of good things would follow. Aiming science is the work of the humanities and arts, politics and law. We have to decide as a civilisation what tasks are most important for us to take on now.
A third lesson we learnt in 2020 was the medical news that humans can’t survive prolonged exposure to extremely high combinations of heat and humidity. This realisation, which was already somewhat known but not yet recognised as an existential problem, should have silenced those sanguine commentators who were asserting that humans could simply adapt to whatever climate we happened to create. “Just adapt!”, these confident people pronounced. So what if we create a 3C or 4C rise in average global temperature? We’ll just adapt. Humans can adapt to anything!
But no. Human beings can’t live in conditions above the heat-index number called wet-bulb 35C, a measure of air temperature plus humidity. We didn’t evolve for such conditions and, when they occur, we quickly overheat and die of hyperthermia. And in July this year, wet-bulb 35s were briefly reached in Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.
As we keep burning fossil fuels, global average temperatures will continue to rise, and this deadly combination of heat and humidity will occur more often. And not just in the tropics, where more than 3bn people live; British Columbia’s high temperature record this summer overtook that of Las Vegas. So mitigating climate change by rapidly cutting greenhouse gases becomes not just a good idea but a survival necessity.
The Paris agreement can serve as our way to organise this massive effort. We need it because, although our problem is global, we live in a nation-state system in which the representatives of each nation are charged with defending that nation’s interests. In any perceived discrepancy between the interests of one’s nation and the world at large, some people will choose their nation.
This creates a lot of problems of the prisoner’s dilemma sort. When it comes to virtuous action, who goes first? The countries that act first might create future advantages for themselves, but many people are too cautious to see that, and so there are some very tough choices coming.
For example: we can burn about 900 more gigatons of carbon before we cross the 2C average global rise in temperature that will put us in truly dangerous territory. But we’ve already located thousands of gigatons of fossil fuels around the world. Most of those, which simply must be left in the ground if we want to avoid cooking the biosphere, are owned by national governments, who consider these reserves part of their national assets. They’re already collateral, and a steady source of income and, for quite a few of these nations, a big portion of their wealth.
So although almost every nation has signed the Paris agreement and agreed in theory to the principle of rapid emissions reduction, nations including Saudi Arabia, Russia, Canada, Brazil, Nigeria, Australia, Mexico, China, Venezuela, Norway and the US — not to mention several others — have made promises under the Paris agreement that will cost them many trillions of dollars in lost income.
Naturally, there will be elected officials and civil servants in these governments doing their best to burn a few last trillions’ worth of these soon-to-be-stranded assets. They will see this as their patriotic and fiduciary duty. So unless we make other arrangements, there will be a fire sale.
This means that one giant aspect of the problem we face is financial. Thinking about money, and directing money, are key to getting through this crisis century successfully. We have to figure out ways to pay ourselves to decarbonise as fast as possible, and to do all the other work needed to establish a sustainable civilisation. Keeping the petrostates from going bankrupt and doing desperate things will have to be part of that new arrangement, tricky though that will be. Discounts, amortisation, giving up on blame and righteousness, big haircuts — all these will come into play.
And don’t think that the market will do all this by itself, because it won’t. That whole notion of rule by market was a catastrophic example of monocausotaxophilia, “the love of single causes that explain everything”, Ernst Pöppel’s joke neologism for a tendency very common in all of us. This weakness in our thinking, the futile hope for a reliable algorithm, or a monarch, needs to be resisted at all times but especially when constructing a global economy.
It is not true that leaving finance to the market will arrange everything well, as the past 40 years have shown. The market systemically misprices things by way of improper discounting of the future, false externalities and many other predatory miscalculations, which have led to gross inequality and biosphere destruction. And yet right now it’s the way of the world, the law of the land. Capital invests in the highest rate of return, that’s what the market requires.
But saving the biosphere is not the highest rate of return (surely clear proof of another market miscalculation) because that rescue involves replacing most of our infrastructure, while also building what will be in effect a planetary sewage system, retrieving and disposing of the waste we’ve been dumping into the atmosphere.
This is no one’s idea of a high-return investment, because no one actually wants thousands of billions of tons of dry ice. Pulling that much carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is simply a cost — the cost of survival, but not the highest rate of return. So private capital will not invest in it, and if we allow that judgment to stand, we are cooked.
But finance, too, is a technology, being civilisation’s software. It’s critically important software because it’s how we value our own work; and, being a human system, we are free to improve it by way of various alterations and improvements. And now we have to.
Happily, many people staffing the central banks of the world are feeling this need, and looking into innovations. Their involvement is critically important, because no cryptocurrency will do the job. Indeed, some of these new cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin, only exacerbate the problem. And in any case, none of them are money; they are tulips, or any other speculative bubble. Money is a medium of exchange, a storehouse of value, and — crucially — a sign of social trust. And in a nation-state system, the money we trust is money that is nationally backed. The richer the country, the more we trust its money. So fiat currency is what we’ll need to deal with the existential emergency that climate change represents.
What this suggests is that we are soon going to be testing out how many trillions of dollars our central banks can create per year without altering people’s trust in money. This will be an experiment, an improvisation. The quantitative easings of 2008-11 and 2020-21 gave strong evidence that a pretty large amount of new money can be created every year without negative results. The new wrinkle to add to that finding is the idea of spending newly created money first on decarbonisation and other biosphere-friendly activities. This is getting called carbon quantitative easing, and is something many central banks are now investigating.
The Network for Greening the Financial System, an organisation of 89 of the biggest central banks, recently released a paper outlining possible methodologies for this financial innovation. They suggested that possibly nations, companies and individuals who draw carbon from the atmosphere could be paid for it directly.
Possibly petrostates could be compensated for the fossil fuels they keep in the ground. Possibly oil companies could be paid to suck carbon from the air and then pump it back into the ground; they could also be paid to pump water from under the great glaciers of Antarctica and Greenland, which are currently sliding into the sea on newly melted subterranean water slides.
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Of course, legislatures and citizens will need to urge their central banks, and ultimately to instruct or order them, to do these things. But the good news is that with these new strategies in hand, even in our current political economy, awkwardly suited at best to the task at hand, we might be able to pay ourselves to do the necessary things, and thus dodge the coming mass-extinction event.
This is not the total solution; I don’t want to succumb to monocausotaxophilia myself. It will take far more than carbon quantitative easing to finesse the coming years. We’ll need to re-establish wild land to maintain biodiversity, as in the various “30×30” plans; we may start growing food in vats from micro-organisms, freeing up land for other purposes; we’ll have to green our cities; we have to replace much of our infrastructure; and so on. All this implies a stupendous amount of work, all of which will have to be paid for.
Carbon quantitative easing won’t be enough to do all of that but, when combined with regulation and taxation channelling private capital into useful, survival-oriented projects, we might squeak through. And, by the way, full employment is very much implied in all this; there’s that much work to be done. Can we leverage all that needed work toward climate equity between nations and to the lessening of the grotesque inequality between rich and poor? It seems like we could.
This array of new policies means returning to some kind of Keynesian balance of public and private. Good. We need that. But this big shift naturally adds to the feeling of dread in our time. What — a new political economy? Didn’t that kind of change last happen in 1980, or 1945, or in the 18th century’s great democratic revolutions? Surely it’s impossible now? Easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism?
No. The time has come to admit that we control our economy for the common good. Crucial at all times, this realisation is especially important in our current need to dodge a mass-extinction event. The invisible hand never picks up the check; therefore we must govern ourselves.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘The Ministry for the Future’ is published in paperback in October. He will be speaking at the UN’s Cop26 climate change conference in Glasgow in November
More on climate change . . .
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IPCC report reveals urgent need for countries to prepare for events already under way
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