How empty and worthless is the power of kings

At first glance, it is hardly surprising that oil companies and the like fund efforts to debunk the science on climate change.   It’s in their interests to do so, right?  Just as it was in the interests of tobacco companies to try to debunk the evidence of links between smoking and cancer.

But then you think, hang on, don’t oil executives have children and grandchildren, the same as the rest of us?

This is something more complex than cynical self-interest.  It’s a deep category error.   Climate change is being seen as an essentially political threat, a thing to be outmanoeuvred, fobbed off, discredited, or managed through spin and symbolic placation.   There’s a failure to understand that this isn’t about interest groups, it isn’t about the politics of left versus right.  It’s about air, and water, and ice.

“Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings,” Canute is supposed to have said, when the tide refused to obey his command to stop, and began to wash around his feet.

It’s not nature that’s fragile, it’s us

I think we’ve got it all wrong about  our relationship with nature.   For years we’ve been presented with the idea of nature as something precious and fragile and vulnerable, which is threatened by us crass and oafish humans.  This invites a hard-nosed, macho, ‘realist’ response: ‘Tough!’, ‘Too bad!’, ‘Nature’s going to have to look after itself.’

But nature isn’t fragile.  (What hubris!)  Nature is exploding supernovae.  It’s the eruption of Krakatoa.  It’s Hurricane Katrina.  It’s the tsunami that devastated Japan.  It’s the force that created the dinosaurs, and the asteroid that destroyed them.  It’s the electric storms that can been seen from space flashing continuously across the surface of this violent violent planet.

The question isn’t how to protect nature.  Nature doesn’t give a damn what we do.  The question is whether we want to go on being part of nature, or whether we’re just going to chuck in the towel and let it sweep us away.

(Thoughts prompted by this rather hard-hitting post about impending climate catastrophe.)

(NASA photo of Hurricane Katrina).

The heat

“The 4°C scenarios are devastating: the inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter; unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased frequency of high-intensity tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.

“And most importantly, a 4°C world is so different from the current one that it comes with high uncertainty and new risks that threaten our ability to anticipate and plan for future adaptation needs.”

The above comes from that well-known bunch of hippies, the World Bank, who add that “4 degrees Celsius… is what scientists are nearly unanimously predicting by the end of the century, without serious policy changes.”

“Turn Down the Heat: why a warmer world must be avoided” from The World Bank.


I found this clip interesting.  It’s about a woman who’s seen the film ‘Chasing Ice’ and been convinced that global warming is real, having apparently previously been such a ferocious climate change denier that when people talked about it she ordered them out of her home.

Two things struck me in particular.

First of all the bit where she feels the need to say ‘I’m proud to be an American but…’  You wonder what on Earth patriotism has to do with it, and then you realise that no one’s belief system really works as a set of separate propositions.  She’d subscribed to a cluster of values, climate change denial came as part of the package along with patriotism, and now she was experiencing some dissonance.

The second thing that struck me, and I found it touching, is that she spoke of ‘undoing the harm’ that she’d done.  I’m not sure everyone really gets the fact that, if you deny something that’s a real threat, or make fun of it, then you’re actually doing harm, because we are actually in the world, and what we say spreads out like ripples in a pond.

God knows how much harm a figure like Jeremy Clarkson has done, for instance, with his jokes that imply that this sort of thing isn’t really for red-blooded males to concern themselves with.

I saw him chairing Have I Got News For You, the other night, and the not-very-macho Will Gomperts was on the panel, having to deal with Clarkson’s challenges to his manhood.  Sure enough when wind power came up as a subject, Gomperts saw his chance and promptly rubbished wind turbines, saying they were absolutely hideous things and he much prefered (big macho) powerstations.  He got a raised eyebrow of mildly surprised approval from Clarkson and looked very pleased with himself.

After all what’s more important than your manhood?

A deadly mismatch

There’s a kind of mismatch – it could prove deadly – between the way we are and the way we need to be at this moment in history.

In our daily lives, we are less and less closely involved with the material universe, as newer and more flexible matrices unfold around us in which to live and work and play.

And yet more than ever before, the material world around us is shaped by our own choices.

It’s as if, at the precise moment of moving from the back of the car to the driver’s seat, we grew bored of looking at the road.

(This post refers to the story ‘Rat Island’, included in the Peacock Cloak collection.  It was first published in Interzone.)

A watery city

Port Meadow Sunset
Port Meadow sunset, taken by OxOx from Oxford, UK*

(This post is about the story ‘Greenland’, in the Peacock Cloak collection.  It was first published in Interzone.)

Walton St is in North Oxford where I grew up.  To the west of it is the Oxford Canal, and a little way beyond that is the great expanse of Port Meadow (above), into which the river Thames overspills every winter.  I used to play there as a child, and swim in the river with my friends and sisters.

Oxford is a watery city, and North Oxford’s odd elongated shape, in particular, is determined by the Thames and its flood plain on one side, and on the other side, the river Cherwell, where people go punting and canoeing.

*  *  *

Both this story and ‘Day 29’ are partly thought experiments about the boundaries of our moral universe.  Who do we feel obliged to care about?   What is it that allows us not to care?

These are fairly salient questions when it comes to climate change, since collectively we seem to be having difficulty caring very much at all about our own descendants.

*Details here.

About climate (and a free story)

An article here bemoans the fact that writers of fiction are not writing about climate change.  The point is well made.  Fiction can’t change the world, but it is a part of culture, and culture, in a way, is a set of priorities, a set of pointers as to what is worth paying attention to.

It’s a bit irritating, though, that Daniel Kramb (the author of this article) didn’t even mention science fiction.  Surely this is the obvious fictional mode for writing about future threats to humanity?  And science fiction writers do regularly write, one way or the other, about climate change.  (See, for example, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-Up Girl.).

I should write more about it myself – I have an idea for a novel on the back burner – but so far my rather modest contribution has been the short stories ‘Greenland’, and ‘Rat Island’.  Prompted by this article, I’ll make ‘Rat Island’ available here.

How to write about climate change in a useful way is another question.  Appallingly bleak scenarios probably just encourage fatalism, while heartwarming stories of people in the future rebuilding civilisation from scratch after a catastrophe can seem positively appealing (Aldiss spoke of ‘cosy apocalypses’: books like Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids).

One thing writers could do would be to think about the words we use.  ‘Global warming’ is misleading, because an average global increase in temperature will result in colder weather in some places, including perhaps the UK.  ‘Climate change’ is a bit bland, and invites the thought that the climate has changed many times in the past, from ice ages to warm wet periods when there were no polar ice caps at all, so what’s the big deal?   What’s different here is the speed of change, too fast for ecosystems to adapt.

‘Climate collapse’, perhaps, or ‘climate breakdown’?

Six Degrees by Mark Lynas

I might as well admit it, I’ve been massively in denial about climate change.   I have worried about it in the past (I even wrote a couple of stories about the threat: ‘Greenland’ and ‘Rat Island’).  But latterly, I’ve been minimising the problem to myself, even persuading myself that there might be upsides as well as downsides. ( After all, I’ve foolishly been telling myself, there have been times in the past when the Earth was so warm that there was no polar ice at all.)

This book has certainly opened my eyes.   To deal with the ‘upsides as well as downsides’ point first: yes, there have been times in the past that were much warmer than now, but they came about as a result of gradual temperature changes over millions of years.  What we are facing now is a change so sudden that life will not have time to adapt.   It is comparable to the great extinction events we find in the geological record, which nearly ended  life on the planet.   And indeed this really could end up that way.   Lynas takes us through six scenarios, from one to six degrees (based on the average increase in the global temperature), and the six degree option is pretty grim reading.

Even the one degree option isn’t exactly pretty.

Of course, as Lynas repeatedly cautions, the science is inexact.  The global weather is an incredibly complex system in which countless different factors interact.  We know that meteorologists can’t precisely predict the weather day by day, and clearly they can’t hope to get it exactly right when looking decades into the future.  But there is no dispute that increases in greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane will increase the global temperature, and there is no doubt that human activity has increased the presence of these gases.   The details may not all be right, but the overall story is indisputable.  And (really!) unless we do something about it, it will have a lot more implications than just things getting a bit hotter.

Nor will it just mean events like the loss of the beautiful coral reefs: sad but with little direct impact on our lives. It will mean the inundation of coastal cities, and of huge swathes of land, such as Bangladesh and the coast of China, where hundreds of millions live.  It will mean the desertification of much of southern Africa and southern Europe.  It will mean more and bigger hurricanes, wreaking destruction over a much wider part of the globe.  It will mean positive feedback loops kicking in – the release of methane from newly thawed permafrost, for instance, or the burning of the entire Amazon forest – that will accelerate these kinds of events until they are running away so fast that nothing can stop them.  And of course these things will have huge geopolitical consequences: mass migration, wars over land and water, countries defending themselves like fortresses against the desperate beating on their gates.

It struck me, reading this, and confronting my own denial (which is like the denial of alcoholics, the denial of rapists, the denial of child abusers, who simply cannot bear to face the harm they do), that if we don’t try and do something about this, it pretty much invalidates any other claim we might wish to make to be doing our bit to make the world a better place.  What is the point of working for human rights, if we let the world degenerate into the kind of dog-eat-dog place where human rights are as worthless as paper walls in a hurricane?   What is the point of thinking about the needs of developing countries, if we stand by while they become deserts or seas?

In fact, never mind these grand public issues, how can we even claim to really care about our own children and grandchildren, if we don’t do anything to stop their world being ruined?

The crazy part is that this is all the result of an almighty bonfire we’ve been having, burning up, in a matter of decades, fossil fuels that took millions of years of solar energy to form.   And, since the fuel isn’t infinite, it will run out anyway, and the bonfire will end whether we want it to or not.  So it’s not even a choice as to whether to stop or not stop the burning.  It’s a choice between stopping now, before it is too late, or in a few decades, when it will be.  We are gambling the future of our species for the sake of a decade or two of business as usual.

I’m going to write more about this.  I think there’s a task for science fiction here, a responsibility even.  Let’s get back to exploring worlds that could really happen, and move away from writing about starships and galactic empires that we know quite well will never ever come about.

Six Degrees on Amazon UK.

Six Degrees on Amazon US.


Easter Island

I was interested by a recent debate on Radio 4 between Friends of the Earth’s Tony Juniper, and the former Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson.   They were talking about shale gas, and Lawson’s position was simple: this stuff is cheaper than renewable energy, and therefore that’s what we should go for.   Tough, hardnosed, realistic.  Like the guy on Easter Island, who argued that wood was cheaper than other fuels, so it was just silly not to chop down the last tree.

‘But how are we going to make boats?’ someone wondered, as they were all toasting themselves round the fire.