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Kim Stanley Robinson Holds Out Hope

The science-fiction author on why climate change doesn’t have to be humanity’s final story.

There’s something about stories. We cherish them. Teach them. Pass them down to the next generation. Stories create a sacred space…By Liz Greene

There’s something about stories. We cherish them. Teach them. Pass them down to the next generation. Stories create a sacred space that humans have always respected. And science fiction takes us one step further. It gives us the space to imagine what we could be, could do, could make. And sometimes these stories give us an all too real vision of what may yet come to be in our own world. They are a warning.

In his new novel, The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson paints a picture of a global temperature that’s been allowed to keep rising unchecked, and the harsh results of humanity’s inaction. The novel “is about the next three decades,” says Robinson. The venerable author has written more than 20 books, including the bestselling Mars trilogy. He’s won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, and is known for his unflinching deep dives into science, economics, and politics—and for envisioning scientists as heroes. He strives for scientific veracity, he says, because “the drama and reality of my novels is strengthened by the more accurate I am.”

FROM CALIFORNIA, WITH LOVE: What worries Kim Stanley Robinson about climate change? “This is very personal: I’m scared it will destroy the biome of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. My biggest fear is California, my home state, which I love dearly, will be seriously hammered by climate change.”Sean Curtin

In a previous novel, New York 2140, Robinson portrayed the world’s greatest city after it’s been flooded by rising sea water, with a lighter take on how we might adapt to climate change. In the new novel, the Ministry for the Future is a United Nations agency that was formed in 2025 in response to the climate change crisis. It tries to mitigate climate change and to consider climate equity. Developing nations take the biggest hit from climate change, despite the more established nations burning far more carbon. This is, of course, an impossible task for a toothless agency, so the members have to get creative. But we’re not left without hope. When it comes to climate change and its discontents, Robinson says, “We could deal with it better or worse. And so I wanted to describe how we could deal with it better.”

We recently caught up with Robinson for a video chat from his home in Davis, California. We talked about science, stories, and his vision of a future where the two combine to give us hope.

Polls show climate change is getting more important to people. But there’s still this dissociation where climate change feels like this faraway future, someone else’s problem. Do you think fiction, particularly yours, can help make climate change more of a palpable emotional issue that people can feel in their gut today?

Yes. But I’d also make the assertion that everybody who’s paying attention is aware that climate change is happening and it’s a big problem. You would have to deliberately shelter your mind from the general onslaught of information, and some people do that, for sure. If you only watch Fox News, you might not be as concerned about climate change. But I think that everybody’s in such a bath of information from their cell phones, from talking to other people, that general awareness of climate change is all over now and people are aware it’s a problem.

What I’ve been doing in my climate fiction is try to point out the ramifications that aren’t fully taken on by the culture that are really important to think about. And that’s been a way to sort out which story I want to tell. Climate change is a global story. It will last for centuries. It will affect everyone. So which story do you tell of all those literally billions of stories for billions of people? I’ve been trying to pick the stories that aren’t yet on the radar.

It’s science vs. capitalism. Those are the big social forces fighting it out right now.

I’m sure you’ve heard from scientists who’ve read your fiction. What do they say to you about it?

I’ve heard from literally hundreds of them. They say science “is harder than you thought.” “How come you didn’t tell me there was more math in this one?” “When I was a kid, I read your book and I became a geologist and now I’m in over my head and it’s all your fault.” So it’s not altogether just happy-happy. A lot of scientists read science fiction when they’re young, that’s for sure. And then they get into real science and become disenchanted with science fiction. It was wish fulfillment. It was teenage dreaming fantasy. And they get a little critical.

I think what they like about my work is that it takes the scientific world seriously as a story space, where you can tell interesting stories without having light sabers—even if they have quibbles about the things that I left out or got wrong, which they love to point out, and sometimes helpfully so. I’ve taken scientists’ comments on my work and fixed the texts in subsequent printing. In the Mars trilogy, there are literally scores of corrections that scientists pointed out to me. And until you get to the 18th printing of Red Mars, you don’t have the final text.

What role can fiction play in the world of science?

Science is all about modeling and trying to extrapolate from current conditions into the future, so that you can then do something about it. Fiction, and especially science fiction set in the future, is easily taken in by the scientific community as a kind of a modeling exercise that is personalized, speculative, and useful for its examination of interlocking and interfering effects. It’s also useful for the personal aspects and human factors—what some people have called thick texture. Fiction has the thick texture of a speculation that in science might just be a single sentence.

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The Ministry for the Future opens with a horrible, incredibly deadly heatwave. How likely do you think it is that we’ll see this in real life soon?

I think it’s all too likely. I’m terrified that it can happen in the 2020s. This wet bulb 35 temperature—the combination of heat and humidity together that’s fatal to humans if they’re not in air conditioning—is already striking a few times a year around the world. And it’s coming faster than the scientific modeling had predicted because the world’s heating up at the worst case scenario speed.

There was a certain complacency in the social sciences or academic community, the think-tank community. People were saying the world was going to heat up, there’s nothing we could do about it, we just have to adapt, blah, blah. That was a strong line these last 10, 15 years of some good thinkers. They hadn’t considered that just another 1 degree Celsius rise in global average temperature is going to end up being fatal for humans. And we can’t adapt to fatal heatwaves. They’ll simply kill us.

And that, I think, changes the game. It increases the intensity of the need to decarbonize. Say we have to decarbonize fast and everybody admits it, but because of a heatwave like the one I describe, how do you do it? What would happen then? That’s what the novel explores.

Climate change is a global story. It will last for centuries. It will affect everyone.

Were you inspired to create the novel’s ministry by the potential we have now?

Yeah, that’s right. The Paris Agreement is extremely important, a major event in world history. And a lot of my hopes, and I think many others, are hung on the existence of the Paris Agreement and the idea that if we were to use that as a way for nations to cooperate on this issue, we might get a better job done.

So then I’ve got to ask, how do you feel about Trump withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement?

It’s yet another indication of how crazy and how violently destructive he is. I call this Götterdämmerung capitalism. When the gods are going down at the end of Wagner’s opera, Götterdämmerung, they take the world down with them, like Hitler in his bunker. Trump is a narcissist and a fool. And so if he has to choose between admitting he’s been wrong on climate and destroying the world, he’ll choose to destroy the world. That’s the narcissist’s choice. That’s the Götterdämmerung.

You suggest a lot of ideas to mitigate global warming—adding dust to the atmosphere, slowing the glaciers’ flow, and “carbon coins,” which reward carbon sequestration, and would be traded on currency markets. Are those potential solutions supported by science today? 

Mostly yes. Certainly geo-engineering is a controversial field, and solar radiation management, casting dust, or particulates, into the atmosphere, are heavily discussed. The slowing down of the glaciers is a private plan by a glaciologist of my acquaintance who doesn’t want to get into the geo-engineering wars. I vetted the idea with a couple other glaciologists. I know more of them than most people because of my trips to Antarctica and my time out in the field. The glaciology community is small and tight, so I was able to call around and ask some friends, and they said, “Hey, it might work. Write it up.” I think they regard a novel like mine as being a way to float the idea.

The carbon coin comes from plans already written about. I talked one over with Delton Chen, who wrote a very plausible, convincing paper. I believe this carbon coin idea has got legs and is the obvious thing to do. We need to make up new money that is dedicated to decarbonization. This might be the most important part of my book in terms of practical plans, more important than the glaciers, more important than even the solar radiation management. In terms of geo-engineering, we’ve got to pay for doing the necessary work. And so that’s the technology that really matters, the financial technology. So I’m hopeful that the book will cause discussion of this somewhat new topic.

My work takes the scientific world seriously. You can tell interesting stories without having light sabers.

In your novel, you talk about the climate war for the Earth. Who’s fighting whom?

These are people who’ve looked at everything in their lives, and everything they’ve read and learned, and are determined to fight for the long-term health of the biosphere. The war—which is a discursive battle right now, it’s a war of ideas mostly—is waged by people who feel that what’s good for the land is what’s good for people. And they are having to fight against fossil fuel industries, extractive industries, everybody who believes that you take without giving back.

It’s also a fight against capitalism for a green vision of sustainability. Science is on the side of long-term thinking and a sustainable civilization. Capitalism is on the side of short-term extraction and get what you can before it falls apart. It’s the basic rules of capitalism as is now practiced. So maybe you could say in a rough kind of mythological way, like the Hindu gods, it’s science vs. capitalism. Those are the big social forces fighting it out right now.

Do you think the people who are in charge of finance—you call them the “ruling class” in the book—will realistically ever make decisions that are going to value the climate over profit? 

The banking community won’t do anything proactively. They are not in the business of saving the world. They’re not about justice, they’re not about sustainability. They’re about stability of money. That’s their one goal. And so I thought it was kind of funny in a sick sort of way that they will only act when to stabilize money, they have to save the world.

Real scientists continue to do important work on climate change. Who will enact it?

This is where it gets really tricky. You can have good ideas but if they don’t get enacted, then they are just ideas. They’re like science-fiction stories that don’t come true, like a carbon tax, like a league of nations, the idea of a world government—these are science-fiction stories that failed to get traction in the real world. So this is where it gets tricky because more is required, even of scientists themselves, to make their community more powerful in the world. That’s a political question and a political problem. The rest of us have to wield politics to support what we’re learning from the scientific community.

At what point do you think we won’t be able to save Earth from ourselves? Is it already too late?

It’s never too late, it’s only better or worse. We can’t dodge climate change, we’re already in it. But we could cope with it well if it becomes civilization’s main project. If instead of profit, we focused on sustainability, which has to do with justice, full employment, and the carbon coin paying people to do the right things rather than the wrong things. This has to do with agriculture, with ranching, with the entirety of the way we run civilization. If we were organized around decarbonizing and getting into a good relationship with our biosphere, we could, by the end of this century, have a quite prosperous and successful long-term civilization, a carbon-negative civilization. So not only is it not too late, it’s never too late. What we do in the next decade or two will make a huge difference.

Liz Greene is the managing editor of Nautilus.

Read an excerpt from The Ministry for the Future here.

Lead image: Rattanasak Khuentana / Shutterstock

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