The American science fiction writer talks about the very real threat of a mass extinction event that should focus minds at the Glasgow climate conference
Award-winning science fiction author
Editor, The World Today, Communications and Publishing
You have been dubbed the greatest political novelist of our time by The New Yorker. Why then science fiction, how does it support your politics in ways that other genres don’t?
I identify as a science fiction writer first and foremost, and I think the genre is inherently political and an active force in the world. It is politics in art. I say that because in science fiction, you set a story in the future.
Future scenarios are always metaphors for the way things feel right now
It is the best realism for our time, because along with talking about future scenarios, those future scenarios are always metaphors for the way things feel right now.
Science fiction is a powerful poetry using symbolism and metaphor – I feel like a robot, time is speeding up. It is as obvious as can be what the metaphorical connections are here between the various tropes of science fiction and the way things feel right now. As political speculation and thick texture of possible futures we could get to, for good or bad, and then as a metaphor for the way things feel right now, it all combines to be the great art form of our time.
The title of your most recent novel, ‘The Ministry for the Future’, refers to a fictional United Nations body created out of the Paris Agreement. Why have you chosen to root the organizing principle of your novel in a technical international accord?
If civilization can’t get through the next 30 years without a mass extinction event, such an event will hammer human civilization in ways that are appalling to contemplate.
Neither the global capitalist imperative and political-economic order, nor the nation-state system as it has existed these past few centuries, is well suited to dealing with the problem at hand.
What is the closest analogue that we have? It is international treaties, and the Paris Agreement was specifically written by people aware of this problem, this discrepancy, and trying to deal with it with the tools at hand right now.
I decided to focus on that: what could be done if all the nations were to agree that the problem existed, and then try to deal with it by this awkward mechanism of international treaty organizations.
Global finance plays a key role in the novel. What can rich countries do to tackle the cost of climate action?
Here I want to refer to a paper by Delton Chen, an Australian economic thinker who suggested what I have been calling a carbon coin.
What one would do is make sure that the central banks create a currency that is as strong as the US dollar because it is backed by all the central banks together.
It would be fiat money, that people will believe in as the equal of the US dollar and the other big currencies which gets paid out for sequestering carbon. This would be at the individual town, regional, state and national levels.
It would include, and this is my own thought on this, those petro-states. Most of the fossil fuels still in the ground are ultimately owned by nation states. They have already borrowed off that income. They consider these to be national assets in their financial systems such that if those are now declared to be stranded assets, you cannot burn that carbon.
Therefore, it seems unlikely you can sell it, but you could get compensated for it. New money being created in the same way that quantitative easing created new money in 2008 and in 2020. This is now being called carbon quantitative easing.
You have created a band of eco-terrorists, who bring down airliners, take hostages and the like. Is that kind of thing ever justified, especially in the more violent forms that we see in your novel?
I think we need everybody on the planet to feel regarded and to have dignity and at that point, we are all safer
Nonviolence is a personal belief of mine, and so I don’t want my novels to be encouraging people, maybe desperate people, to be doing things that I myself wouldn’t do or countenance.
Resistance is usually approved of, and terrorism is usually disapproved of. My novel is not a good instrument to think about these things compared with something like Andreas Malm’s book How to Blow Up a Pipeline because he makes a distinction that my novel is not good at, which is the distinction between sabotage and violence against property or destruction of property as against physical attacks on people. There is a difference there.
As ordinary middle-class citizens of the developed world, his book asks, when do we need to take to the streets like Extinction Rebellion? When do we need to, as he puts it, blow up a pipeline?
I think we need to change the laws. I think we need everybody on the planet to feel regarded and to have dignity and at that point, we are all safer. Violence never accomplishes those two ends. Maybe I can leave it at that.
What research did you do for the scientific elements in the novel, and what excited you most?
The kind of geo-engineering that fascinated me for my novel is sucking water out from underneath the glaciers of Greenland and Antarctica, to slow them back down to their earlier speeds.
It is really the acceleration of their slide into the ocean where they quickly melt rather than them melting in situ. That is the problem today.
This sort of geo-engineering might be instituted in the world for relatively modest cost, because it is a known technology
What happens is that meltwater on the surface drops through cracks in the ice until it is underneath the glacier. It then floats them slightly.
They are on a waterslide instead of frozen to rock. They slide 10 times faster into the ocean, and sea levels rise quickly – and I mean over the next couple centuries, but the rise is prodigious and amazingly destructive to human civilization.
This sort of geo-engineering might be a real thing that could be instituted in the world for relatively modest cost, because it is a known technology. The oil industry could even be rehired. Instead of sucking out oil, they would be sucking out water.
If you were given a chance to speak in Glasgow, what would you tell the people gathered there?
I would be speaking to them as a science fiction writer, as well as doing what the science fiction writer does – which is to imagine that you are in the future, looking back to now.
How will they judge us? This is a historic moment that they are creating together.
They are a community of diplomats. They have responsibilities to their own nation state, but there will be other people in their governments trying their damnedest to stop them doing what they are going to commit to in Glasgow. So it will be contested back home – but they also are part of a community.
Group psychology is very powerful. If COP26 could come up with something big and impressive, bold and inspiring, that would be a good act.
I would try to imagine being in the future and looking back at that good act and seeing how transformative it could be – how it could be an important moment in world history this autumn.
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