The Effects of Climate Change Envisioned in Science Fiction Draw Deeply from Reality

The very near future begins with a brutal observation: “It was getting hotter and hotter.

It’s a fictional future, imagined by Hugo and Nebula award-winning author Kim Stanley Robinson, PhD. But what follows in his 2020 novel, “The Ministry of the Future,” is a heat wave so intense that tens of millions are dying and a global race begins to correct the multiple and intersecting crises of climate change.

Robinson discussed these points of overlap between fiction and reality during a Friday Grand Rounds Q&A session hosted by the University of Colorado School of Medicine’s Climate and Health Program.

As one of the most respected current science fiction writers in literature, Robinson has often tackled themes of climate change that envision near and not too distant future ramifications and ripple effects. In “The Ministry of the Future”, he presents multiple perspectives on climate crises in just 30 years – from a former diplomat racing to convince bankers of how climate change can destabilize markets and currency to engineers proposing to dye the Arctic Ocean yellow to stop absorbing sunlight and millions of people protesting in the streets around the world.

“We are in history,” Robinson said. ” That happens ; we are already in climate change. If you were to do science fiction in the near future that didn’t take climate change into account, you would miss what we are dealing with.

Write science fiction based on reality

Jay Lemery, MD, co-director of the CU Climate and Health program and professor of emergency medicine at the CU School of Medicine, moderated the Q&A discussion and noted that he and other faculty members used the first chapter of “Ministry for the Future” in the classroom. In it, Robinson vividly describes a heat wave in India so catastrophic that millions of people died, including those seeking relief in a lake where the water was boiling.

Even though the scenario is fictional, Robinson said, in a way it was easy to imagine a scenario in which power grids go out and people start dying within 24 hours, in light of the waves of real heat of the last 20 or 30 years which have led to significant losses.

“That part was easy,” he said. “Anyone can imagine it. It’s a question of whether you can get the phrases on the page that smack you in the face.

He noted that medical school professors are in a unique position to communicate about climate change because “people will express all kinds of ideological positions until they are sick and scared for their lives and then they will rush towards a science. The doctor becomes someone you will listen to, and that in our culture is very valuable.

Making the realities of climate change tangible for medical students, he said, could involve asking students to hold their breath for two minutes or giving lessons in a sauna — experiments that would illustrate the extremes of this. that human beings could live on Earth and how each would interpenetrate. nobody is with the planet.

“The biosphere is our body,” Robinson said. “You could say to (students): 50% of the DNA in your body is not human DNA – you are a swamp, you are a biome, you are a combination of creatures living together in a collaborative system of mutual aid. » ”

Finding hope in the face of despair

Lemery observed that it’s easy to feel hopeless in the face of what seem like insurmountable climatic disasters, and he wondered about the note of realistic hope that “Ministry for the Future” ends on.

“If we dodge a mass extinction event, that’s a utopian victory,” Robinson said, adding that hope is a function of existence on Earth. “Bacteria have hope, hunger is hope – ‘well, I hope I get food.’ When you are alive, you hope, you hope for the next breath, on the cellular level that we hope for.

Hope is easily crushed but it is very stubborn, he says, and persistent over the long term because it is a function of being alive.

“The notion is, you’re a brick in a wall, and it’s a big wall and you’re a small brick,” Robinson said. “But you are part of a larger project than yourself. There is mutual aid, there is solidarity. And as for those big institutions that feel like they’re putting their lives on the line and thinking only of themselves, they’re starting to think that if the Earth is destroyed, it’s bad for business. So each of us, you put your shoulders to the wheel, and you don’t have to invent the wheel, or do the wheel, but it’s a big wheel and you push and you’re part of a bigger one large group that also grows.

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