Below is the fourth of five excerpts from my upcoming book Our Shared Storm: A Novel of Five Climate Futures (previous ones here, here, and here). The book illustrates a set of climate scenarios——the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs)——and the culture of the global climate negotiations (aka The COP) in each. SSP3 is the breakdown scenario, in which climate action is abandoned and the world instead devolves into regional rivalry and violent conflict over fossil energy resources. With petropolitics on the rise as a response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we are well on track for this grim future. In this story, Diya is a climate scientist, documenting the planetary collapse. When a sudden superstorm and a drone attack scatters the conference, several scholars hole up in a bar to ride out the danger. There the conversation turns to the COP itself…
“So where did it all go wrong?” Saga asked the group, as the wind howled outside. “Or, to put it another way, what needed to go right?”
“Are we assuming, for the sake of argument, that climate collapse wasn’t locked in before the COP began?” Mirai said.
Saga nodded. “Yes. Maybe some of the crisis was unavoidable, but surely we can all agree there was a window where the right actions could have made some kind of difference. To borrow Noah’s phrase from earlier, what would it have looked like if we had made good choices?”
“Al Gore wins the Florida recount in 2000,” Noah said immediately. “He comes to the COP with a budget surplus and a public eager to unite after an exhausting election, and he actually pushes for more ambition, not less. He gets the US into the Kyoto Protocol. If 9/11 still happens, he uses it to snub Saudi Arabia and push a clean energy bill to get America off foreign oil. Renewables tech gets fast-tracked and spread world-wide, cowing the fossil fuel industry. Emissions start to seriously drop by the end of his first term.”
“Whew, yes, let’s get the Americocentric fantasies out of the way quickly, shall we?” Mirai said. “If only Hillary had won, we would have stayed on track. If only Biden would have got a second term, we’d have successfully course corrected. If only Yang hadn’t been assassinated. If only, if only. The United States is always just one good president away from leading the world into a shining utopia. Never mind that if Gore had wanted to push harder, he had eight years to do it with Clinton. Never mind that people thought Obama would save the planet, and then the US blew up years of work at Copenhagen.”
“She’s right,” Shi Ann agreed. “I don’t think rewriting political history however we want is that useful of a thought exercise. You might as well say, ‘what if the Soviet Union never fell, and instead Gorbachev read Murray Bookchin and led the world to harmonious ecosocialism?’”
Everyone looked at Borya to see if he’d register an opinion, but he just shrugged.
“Maybe it’s more in the spirit of Saga’s question to ask what we could have done better,” Diya said, feeling a bit sorry for Noah and wanting to redirect the discussion. “We meaning the COP, the negotiators and organizers, the researchers and activists, everyone who preceded us in this institution.”
“The parties could have allowed the IPCC to do a real study on the dangers of 1.5C warming much earlier,” Mirai said. “It seems quaint now, given what we’re locked in for, but the 1.5 report really did change the conversation for a while—–there just wasn’t enough time to act on those new targets. But if we’d had the report a decade or so earlier…”
“I don’t know. Wasn’t the shocking timeline exactly what briefly activated people?” Shi Ann said. “Anyway, the fact that there was so much resistance by some of the big countries to even talking about 1.5 seems to me to point to a deeper problem with the framework.”
“Montreal Protocol,” Borya said, rapping the table with his knuckles. “It was blueprint for completely different problem. Built-in many terrible things——demand for consensus, no enforcement mechanism.”
“I think you’re onto something,” Saga said. “Fixing the ozone layer was possibly the peak internationalist achievement, yes? A clear agreement at Montreal and a smooth transition. Maybe the framers of the UNFCCC got overconfident. I don’t blame them for wanting to build on what worked, though.”
“But everything was different about climate change!” Mirai said. “The politics were different. The economic impacts were different. The freaking chemistry was different. It was crazy to think they could just use the same process.”
Borya nodded vigorously.
“And they had a clear symbol to help people understand the stakes,” Shi Ann said. “The picture of the hole in the ozone layer. It was new and scary. Climate change was scary, but storms and droughts weren’t actually new. And our crowd kept changing the name of the problem——global warming, climate change, climate crisis, everything change, everything crisis. Nothing stuck.”
“It always comes back to communication,” Mirai nodded. “The research community thought they could just do the science, and people, governments, someone would act. Maybe they believed staying above the politics would preserve their credibility. But what they needed to do was wade in and learn how to talk to the public about what the science meant for their lives.”
“I disagree,” Diya said. The conversation was starting to swirl around the same tired tropes of ivory tower boffins trying to explain the onrushing peril to ignorant, oblivious chuds. “The decades of obsession with ‘climate communication’ was born out of a lack of analysis of actual power. Montreal worked because DuPont Chemical’s patent on Freon was about to expire. They went along with the transition——profited from it. The fossil fuel industry saw decarbonization as an existential threat and immediately started confusing the issue, politicizing the science, resisting the environmental movement on all fronts. It was a bigger sector, more powerful. Capital as a whole was deeply invested in fossil profits and reserves, and in the end sided with the industry at every turn. Not having a ‘picture of climate change’ to show the public only mattered because the technocrats weren’t willing to go against their monied masters.”
Our Shared Storm comes out April 5. If you order it from the publisher, you can get 30% off by using the coupon code STORM30. Here’s a handy button 👇
Press Clips, Reviews, Appearances, Etc.
April 29 at Changing Hands Books in Phoenix. I’ll be reading from and discussing Our Shared Storm with my friend and colleague Ed Finn, director of ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination. If you’re in the area, please come out——and support Changing Hands by buying the book from them!
The Near Future Laboratory Podcast released a digest of a recent meeting of their General Seminar series. This seminar was on solarpunk, and I had the honor of being invited on as a guest co-host. A great conversation!
Solarpunk Magazine published an interview with me in which I discuss the COP, my book, and just what we mean when we say “solarpunk futures.” For me it was a really useful set of questions to answer, so I recommend giving it a read! Thanks to Sentiers for quoting from the interview.
Help Send Ghosts to Clarion
Two years ago, right as the world was getting newly strange and scary, I got accepted to the prestigious (and expensive) Clarion Workshop, a six-week intensive in writing speculative short fiction that has trained some of the best sci-fi/fantasy authors out there. Unfortunately, the pandemic scuttled the workshop that summer and the next. This summer we are finally going to get to go, but for many of us the pandemic years have drained savings and brought big life changes (moves, babies, loss of employment). We are are trying to raise a little money to make sure each member of the Ghost Class will get to make it to Clarion this summer. If you have the means, I'd so appreciate you helping us out. We have a bunch of great perks for those who do, including Our Shared Storm book club kits: five signed copies of my upcoming novel, plus I’ll join you for a Zoom call to discuss the book.
Works in Process
I skipped this section last newsletter because I have a bunch of projects in the air that I can’t quite talk about, and because my novel progress on The Remainder felt quite fragile at the time. Since then, on my novel at least, I’ve gotten through some tricky parts (including backtracking and rebacktracking to smooth out some pacing issues) and built up a head of steam pounding out some of the last remaining bits of the denouement. I’m very much taking the “write the easiest part left, then write the next easiest part left, etc.” strategy. I often spurn this tactic for writing in sequence, but now I’m finding it quite useful as I circle and try to trap the last un-plotted bits of the climax.
My progress this past week has also involved heavy use of a particular sort of vamping. “Vamping” is the term C and I use to describe the mostly made-up, totally in-our-heads phenomenon of one of us not being able to focus on writing while the other is in the zone. It’s a fun way to keep from feeling inadequate when C has a really productive session——she stole my energy! But one can also vamp from oneself, or one’s future self. For instance:
I (inadvertently?) used this technique TWICE this week to hammer out 1800+ word sections. The first time I ended up skipping the workout, went straight to dinner and an edible. The next day I managed to spot this same sequence of events unfolding, jotted down my plan to round out the section, and then returned to finish things off after I’d exercised and cooked. Also in the mix is an addicting video game I recently started, which conversely has given me a leash to hold around my own neck. “Yes, you are about to get on the Switch for an hour,” I tell myself, “but first you need to finish typing out this thought.” I can string myself along this way for hours, it turns out.
Maybe I wouldn’t have to jump through these psychic hoops if I just gave into all the ADHD medication ads Tiktok has been serving me. But I also think this sort of metacognition is useful. Good ideas are slippery. So are compelling sentences. If they were easy to pin down, they’d be common sense or cliche by now. And consciousness is a negotiated position. It makes sense that you have to distract some players before you can get others to do what “you” want.
There are big chunks of our psyche that are averse to novelty, that are trained to nudge us towards consistent behaviors we know make us feel good and away from unknown, untested patterns. That’s why it’s so easy to scroll a familiar feed, rewatch a favorite show, hang out with friends whose vibe we’ve come to know and appreciate. Writing anything fresh and cool requires forcing the brain to think thoughts it’s never thought before, that, if you’re lucky and you know what you’re doing, maybe no one has thought before. It’s staring into a hole and naming a little patch of abyss.
Apropos of the below. I picked up this piece by a local artist at Phx Zine Fest a few years back. It hangs on my “Southwest creature gallery wall.” Honestly one of my favorite art purchases, mostly because the bee is wearing a gas mask.
I’ve got my allergies under control, and we’ve entered the idyllic month or two where I can sit outside all day and barely notice the temperature. Which means that as I work I get to stare at the bees now furiously pollinating our flowering orange/lemon graft.
As I’ve mentioned before, we didn’t get much fruit on the tree this winter——a weird off year around here for everything except grapefruit. But now it’s blooming with a really interesting variety of little white flowers, in various stages of development. From where I perch on our patio or in the hammock, I can see and hear dozens (hundreds??) of bees swimming around it, occasionally trekking across the yard to the bigger, also blooming orange tree next door.
It’s interesting to see what bugs like which plants. The honeybees (I think) like the orange blossoms——hence orange blossom honey, I suppose. Over on the huge dill bush C has grown in our soil bags, we get little sweat bees instead. (If you you live in the valley and need some fresh dill, hmu.) The hummingbirds get in on the act. And more.
I’m weirdly proud that our yard is a bit of a haven for pollinators in an area where most people either xeriscape or keep their lawns too manicured to provide much habitat. For a while we even had a Costco-bought “bee barn” hanging from the now-gone chinaberry tree, though it didn’t seem to get much use. Just doing our part to stave off the insect apocalypse that may or may not be coming. Not that we can do it ourselves. Pockets of habitat surrounded by miles of concrete are just traps for pollinators, who get lured in by resources but then not be able to complete their full lifecycle.
Thankfully I don’t think that’s quite the case here. And, as always, I marvel at how much there is to see if you watch a relatively small but verdant spot evolve over a couple hours, a couple months, a couple years.