In November, if all goes well, I will participate in the most important climate talks for six years as a speaker in some related activities, as a science fiction writer. I’m probably not the only person who finds this a little weird. This is probably happening because true delegates to the high-stakes deliberations on warming temperatures will have read my novel The Ministry of the Future, which describes the high-stakes deliberations on warming temperatures.
If the biggest UN climate meetings are, as someone once described them to me, a combination of diplomacy, trade show and circus, then I will probably be part of the circus at COP26. Like one of the clowns, which seems fair. The court jester often says things people need to hear, from angles no one else would think of. Those in power are tuned in for fun and insane insight.
It’s a way of describing the role of science fiction in our culture. This is reminiscent of the ancient prophets, reputed to be unrecognized in their own country but listened to for a simple reason: they speak from the future. We are always interested in the future. It is a uniquely human trait. We can’t help but think about the future, and often we try to shape it. It is a need felt in the mental life of every person. Thus, a messenger from the future, even if it is clearly impossible, is heard. People listen and then watch what they’re doing again. They reflect, with this message from the future as part of their reconsideration.
Sometimes behavior changes occur. Not always.
I will be performing this function at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, strange as that may be. I can’t help but think it’s going to be even stranger for the delegates. These people gave their lives to this work, combining technical and human skills in a way impressive enough to make them selected as representatives of their country. And the expectations for this particular meeting are huge, following both a delay caused by Covid-19 and the shocking impacts of the pandemic itself. This gathering follows numerous climate disasters of the past two years and the latest disastrous report by UN-backed scientists.
Delegates must feel tremendous pressure to invent and agree to big and meaningful goals. At the same time, they are only national representatives assigned to the service of national interests. There will likely be other representatives in their governments who will work diligently against their efforts. The balance between national interests and the global good will have to be maintained.
It will be necessary to make the case, in Glasgow and around the world, that the nations that decarbonize the fastest will do their best in the next century, reaping profits beyond any profit to be made by joining a clearance sale. of fossil fuels. All of Earth’s carbon stores are now stranded assets, as toxic to those who sell them as they are to those who buy and burn them. If warming temperatures are to remain below 1.5 ° C, 89% of coal reserves, 58% of oil reserves and 59% of identified gas reserves must remain in the ground, according to modeling work recently published in the journal Nature. Those who go first to zero emissions will be the first to access a more sustainable economy and a place that humanity will need to inhabit in the future.
It is not just an argument to be made, it is a situation to be created. It won’t happen unless we find ways to pay for it. This is one of the reasons people responded to my novel describing a better screenplay for the next several decades. Of course, people want a story of things going well; it is a very powerful desire these days. But people also want to be able to believe it. Which means it has to be a story about how we pay ourselves to balance our one and only biosphere.
We have the technology to do it. All we need is the money. This will also be one of the crucial questions hanging over COP26. Will the rich countries responsible for most of the atmospheric carbon keep their promises to finance the clean development of the poorest countries? It is ultimately a question of political will.
To force capital to invest in vital projects, the market will have to be shaped by governments. It may sound like the war period of the 20th century, when governments took financial control of national economies to better continue the conflict. The big difference this time is also immensely reassuring: all nations are on the same side. National efforts can be coordinated through a place like COP26 into a unique international effort designed to help every country and every living person.
This is what the Paris Agreement was written for, and this is why 197 nations signed up and started working together. Now we have to get there, and funding is the key. Petro-states that depend on fossil fuel revenues will need to be compensated for not burning them. It will be hard but not impossible. The technologies and workforce of many fossil fuel industries can be redirected to all kinds of decarbonization work, sequestering carbon rather than burning it. All of this will require central banks around the world to fund various types of QE, as many of the good methods available are not cost effective. Yet they still have to be paid.
Remember the basic science fiction exercise: imagine you are in the future. You look around a changed world. Very interesting. Then you look back, like it’s history already. These people, in 2021, what were they thinking ?! How did they do what they did and why? You start to judge these people of the past, a judgment that we are always too quick to pass. Oh, they were so ignorant and stupid! Why didn’t they see the danger? Why did they not act? How could they be so stupid, so selfish—
But wait. It’s actually us! This is the great temporal reorientation of science fiction.
What happens next is the crucial turning point. You remember that you are always in the present. You can always take action. This rapid fictitious visit to the future can turn utopian. After seeing a good future, you can decide to make it happen. In this way, those who look back to 2021 will say of us: they were in crisis, but they faced it. They did the right things, and now we’re in a better world – facing new issues, of course – but it’s not as bad as it could have been.
Think about the delegates at COP46 two decades from now. Most of them are already alive, and some are even in Glasgow now. In this sense, the future is truly with us. Delegates to COP46 will address climate change. They will renegotiate a deal that all nations on Earth can agree to. Perhaps they will argue over the exact number of parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to try, having reached net zero before the scheduled date.
No matter the details, they will sometimes remember COP26, that first meeting in the midst of a pandemic, when everyone on Earth was newly aware that global disasters can wipe out civilization. They will look at Glasgow with curiosity, with wonder, perhaps with gratitude.
Robinson writes science fiction in Davis, California.
© 2021 Bloomberg LP