Thursday, September 07, 2006

Forty Signs of Rain

by Kim Stanley Robinson

One of the easiest ways to irritate me is to start an argument about global warming. The issue is one of the most obnoxious and aggravating examples of the general public's scientific illiteracy, and it's incredibly frustrating to watch dishonest politicians and big business take advantage of this to further their own agenda. The nadir (or at least what I hope will be the nadir) of their efforts was the release a few years back of Michael Crichton's State of Fear, a science fiction novel (easy on the science) which suggested that global warming was thought up by a bunch of scaremongering environmentalists (not 'conservationists' of course!) who needed a new boogyman in order to keep the millions of dollars of income they were receiving in the lucrative business of being hippie activists.

Fortunately as an antidote to such drivel Kim Stanley Robinson has written Forty Signs of Rain. Unlike the other novels of his that I've read it's very low key and character focused. It seems he is deliberately trying to avoid the image of the hysterical, zealous environmentalist by calmly and rationally stating the facts. The book is set at some point 'in the not too distant future' (OK he's a little fuzzy on some of the facts) and the effects of climate change have become noticeable, but there are no giant icestorms, tsunamis or plagues of locusts. The changes are enough to impact peoples lives, but not so much to wreck civilisation. I have a vague recollection that this is the first book in a series, so maybe we'll have a few more dramatic scenes of national monuments being destroyed, just like in that stupid movie, but for now he keeps his doomsday predictions rather conservative.

As much as I approved of the message, the book itself was a bit of a drag, as he keeps things perhaps a bit too low key. The principle characters are a group of scientists doing work loosely related to climate change, and as much of the narrative is spent on describing their family lives (or lack thereof) as on the science or the gradually encroaching catastrophe. A part of me hopes that this is to make it all the more heartbreaking when the protagonists' annoying kids buy it under a rogue iceberg in future books, but I'll probably be disappointed. Nevertheless I do appreciate his effort to keep a human focus in a story that is primarily about political issues, I just think it wasn't executed as well as it could have been.

The biggest problem for me with the book is Robinson's pollyanna solution to the lack of attention given to climate change by the worlds governments, a mix of Buddhist philosophy and an exhortation for all the scientists in the world to join hands and WISH REALLY HARD!!!!! that they can suddenly stop being politically impotent. It's a nice sentiment but my view is that if you want to win this fight you have to realise that it's all about money. If I were a climate scientist what I would do is put an emphasis on the cost of catastrophic climate change in actual dollars. Any and all of us, whether individuals, corporations or states, have a lot to lose, not just personally but financially if these predictions come to pass. Nobody is going to be making much money when the Sydney CBD is underwater, so it makes financial sense for any business which genuinely has a long term view of its interests to co-operate with plans to avoid this scenario.

Of course, that's more than a little pollyanna-ish too. It doesn't do much good for a small business to spend their entire profits to convert to clean energy when the USA, China and India sit under three huge columns of CO2 flying up into the air, but I believe that an emphasis on the financial cost of climate change in the future, as compared to the cost of making moves to avoid it now, would be a good way to get the attention of the greedy and short sighted in businesses and governments around the world and present the issue to them in terms that they cannot ignore.


Anonymous said...

Wasn't the point that the scientists are currently avoiding being involved in the solution? And a solution is the NSF (which has a reasonable amount of money and is directly funded by a government that has a lot of money), instead of funding proposals should basically create contracts for specific scientific solutions to global warming?

Hah, your review has nothing on mine.

lucy said...

yay jon youre turning into mum :P

Jon said...

Bob: The NSF may or may not be avoiding a solution, I wouldn't know, but my impression is that climate scientists in general are very concerned with finding a solution (see

Lucy: If it was Mum her solution would be for everyone to hold hands and sing kumbaya while waiting for the universe to sort everything out for us.

Bob said...

My comment relates to the plot of the book - in the story some character(s) suggest the NSF should be more proactive. I don't know if this matches reality but having read Mr Robinson it's probably quite close.

I think the authors point was to solve the problem the you could:
a) Put out research contracts on specific pieces of evidence required to confirm warming. i.e. fund core samples at various locations.
b) Have an environmental style DARPA. i.e. fund blue-skies research on developing solutions to combat/avoid warming. Things like zero-emission technology, carbon scrubbers etc.

Jon said...

Robinson's suggestions are sensible, but seem more along the lines of a good idea that might help a bit rather than the a revolutionary change that will turn the tide of the battle. If he does write sequels then it might work as the germ event that snowballs into real change, but mixed with all the hippy bullshit it seemed like he made a big deal over something that doesn't seem like it'll make a hell of a lot of difference.