When the global warming topic emerged publicly in the 1980s, I assumed that policies would begin to move in a direction to protect the public and future generations. Unfolding reality paints a different picture. Politicians pretend understanding, while ignoring discomfiting implications of the science. Is it really conceivable that the world will allow squeezing of oil from tar sands, from oil shale, from coal—and go after every last drop of oil in the ground? The popularity of the slogan “drill, baby, drill” in the last election campaign in the United States made me shudder, as it must have other scientists who recognize the threat of all-out fossil fuel exploitation. What will the world be like if we do go down this route? The science tells us exactly what we could expect to happen on Earth if we continue our business-as-usual exploitation of fossil fuels. I’ve referred to it earlier: the 'Venus Syndrome'. But how to portray the horror of that devastation in a way beyond graphs and numbers and phrases we have heard before, like “climate disaster”? Even though writing short stories in the cli-fi genre isn’t my area of expertise, I use the following cli-fi scenario as a clarion call. I must try to make clear the ultimate consequences, if we push the climate system beyond tipping points, beyond the point of no return.
''In the Year 2525'': A cli-fi short story by James Hansen
(copyright 2009) James Hansen: ''The Storms of My Grandchildren" (2009) Bloomsbury Press
“It’s not Earth! It’s not Earth!”
“What do you mean it’s not Earth?”
“The whole planet is covered by haze! It can’t be Earth. The guidance system must have gone haywire. Maybe it’s Venus, but it doesn’t look like Venus.”
“Calm down, Spud. It has to be Earth. We checked the coordinatesas we were slowing down, as we approached the solar system. Mayflower II was on track to the third planet from the Sun, just as it was programmed.”
“This can’t be the planet we have been studying for the last ten years. It’s nothing like it!”
“Focus the viewer on it and put the image on the screen so we can all see it.”
“There. It’s not the blue marble. The atmosphere is full of a yellowish dust or haze. You can just barely see through to some surface features.”
“We’re supposed to be looping in over the south pole, right? That must be Antarctica.”
“Yes, it seems to have more or less the right shape. It must be Antarctica. But I don’t see any ice. What should we do, Pa?”
“We need measurements. Use the polarizing spectrometer so we know what we’re looking at.”
Mayflower II left Claron almost 500 years ago. The spaceship had seven crew members: five humanlike creatures and two robots, or droids. Mayflower II was carrying the hope, probably the last hope, for the survival of the claronian civilization.
Claron was the only planet in its solar system with life. Life developed on Claron long before it did on Earth, and it is far more advanced, by about half a billion years. For millions of years claronians had searched the skies for other intelligent life, or any life. They had long since concluded that they must be unique, the only intelligent life within range, or at least the only life that had developed electromagnetic technology that would allow interstellar communications.
They had built extremely sensitive radio receivers, with a receiving area of thousands of square kilometers. Yet century after century they came up empty. They poured more and more resources into the search for life. They had good reason. The star that Claron circled was a fairly standard main sequence star, somewhat bigger and older than Earth’s sun. So it was burning its hydrogen faster, and its radius was expanding more and more, as the star moved closer to reaching its Red Giant phase.
Claronians knew that their years were numbered. They still had millions of years perhaps, but for a civilization half a billion years old, it seemed like they were down to their last moments. Life on Claron works pretty much the same as on Earth. Claronians and animals inhale oxygen, which is used in cellular respiration, and exhale carbon dioxide. Plants use the carbon dioxide in photosynthesis and produce oxygen as a waste product. The claronians are peaceful and cerebral creatures.
Their life span is about 150 years. So their concern was not about their individual lives but rather the fate of their civilization. Perhaps this was because they had so much time on their hands to think. Life had become easy after their technology had reached a point that their droids could do all the work—planting and harvesting the crops, construction, cleaning. For more than 100 million years the claronians had kept their climate stable by steadily increasing the shielding of their planet from the light of their slowly brightening sun.
They had long realized the need to keep both the amount of sunlight and the atmospheric composition in the proper ranges for their life processes—they could not reduce the carbon dioxide to make up for a brightening sun.
But with their space technology, shielding the sunlight was not difficult. They put reflecting pellets in orbit about their planet and added more pellets as needed to keep the amount of sunlight within the range that they were adapted to. The problem was that, as their sun expanded into the Red Giant phase, it would swallow Claron.
For their civilization to survive, at least one breeding pair would need to escape to another habitable planet. But there was no other habitable planet in their solar system, only two Jupiterlike giant gas-ball planets. Their hope was to find another solar system with a climate more like that of Claron.
They had studied many planets around other stars. Two planets, less than a light-year away, had spectra suggesting plant life. Claronians worked for millions of years to develop their space- faring capabilities. Eventually they were able to send missions to the two green planets and also to several lifeless planets.
The first missions were carried out with droids, which could survive accelerations to hyperspeed and long journeys without life-support systems. The droids found that life on the two green planets had not advanced beyond algaelike slime, perhaps similar to life on Earth a billion years ago. Many attempts were made to transplant claronian life to both of the green planets and to the lifeless planets.
All missions failed.The closest they had come to success was establishing colonies of claronians on these planets, within space capsules on the surface. The spacecraft had carried claronian eggs and sperm, as well as seeds for plant life. And while the droids had been able to raise and educate several claronians, they could not get other species to thrive, and the colonies soon died out. They were not able to manufacture a livable environment on another planet.
Their failures were no wonder. How could they mimic a life-support system that had taken billions of years to develop on their planet? Life on Claron was as complex as on Earth, with millions of interdependent species. Then, near the end of the twentieth century, Earth time, claronian society exploded with the news that radio signals had been detected from a distant source. It was not noise. The signals must have emanated from intelligent life at a great distance.
The signals were mid-twentieth-century radio signals from Earth, located about forty light-years from Claron. Overnight, the study of Earth became the principal activity on Claron. Before long, there were more university students in Earth studies than any other subject. Claronian scientists realized, from technical and educational television programs beamed from Earth, that life there worked in basically the same way that it did on Claron.
English began to be taught as a second language on Claron, with studies beginning in middle school. Television shows broadcast from Earth became popular entertainment. Earth news was reported daily, in English, forty years after the events had occurred on Earth. In 2003, claronians were dismayed to learn of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
While the claronian public was becoming as acquainted with Earth goings-on as many earthlings had ever been, their government began devoting enormous resources to planning and developing the Mission to Planet Earth. The distance to Earth was much greater than that of their prior missions. It would be an exceedingly difficult trip, despite their advanced technologies. Forty light-years would take several centuries, even using powerful acceleration to hyperspeed, which claronians could not withstand. Though they had learned to recycle wastes during space travel, it was implausible to carry claronians on a trip of several centuries that would require multiple generations. Instead, they would use the technology developed for their failed attempts to transplant life to the green planets and the dead planets.
The spacecraft would carry droids and frozen claronian eggs and sperm. The droids would be programmed to carry out the fertilization and serve as surrogate parents to the claronian babies, as they had successfully done on prior missions. But this time, it seemed, there would be no need to transplant or create entire life systems, other species and their ecologies, and create a livable environment—which is why Earth was so attractive. Earth had an enormous number and variety of species, just like Claron—animals, fish, birds, even bees that pollinated plants, and butterflies.
But Earth’s animals looked quite different and seemed spectacular to the claronians. Finding such a planet was a dream they had had for millions of years. If only they could succeed in getting their civilization to Earth. The government presented its plan to the public. The spacecraft, dubbed Mayflower II, would carry two droids plus claronian eggs and sperm.
When they were within twenty-five years of Earth arrival, the droids would fertilize the eggs in an attempt to produce five claronians: two male-female couples and one pilot for the spacecraft. The launch and cruise would be on autopilot, but the pilot would be needed for landing on Earth. There would be a male-female pair from each of the two continents on Claron, East Claron and West Claron. The claronians would be raised and educated, in English, during the final quarter century of the flight from canned programs that would teach them about Claron and Earth.
When they arrived at Earth, the claronians would be early in their childbearing years, with the aim of saving their civilization. They knew that Earth’s sun still had about five billion years before reaching its Red Giant phase, so their civilization would be safe for a time that, even to claronians, seemed to be eternity. The spacefarers would not be able to communicate with Claron during the flight. Once they arrived they would set up a transceiver allowing them to send detectable signals—but even then the great distance meant that eighty years would be required for round-trip exchange of information. Mission preparation took several decades.
On the day of the launch, in the 2030s Earth time, they were receiving Earth newsfrom the 1990s. They learned that earthlings were beginning to change their planet’s atmosphere and realized that could spell trouble for life on the planet. But it seemed that earthlings understood what was happening, so surely they would take the steps needed to stabilize their climate. The Mayflower II launch went off without a hitch, as did the first few centuries of its journey.
As planned, the two droids, named Ma and Pa and programmed with claronian parental qualities, became surrogate parents, raising the claronians to young adulthood. Claronians had individual temperaments—and lots of time for interaction during their twenty-five-year upbringings together. The pilot, an offspring of top claronian navigators, was high-strung and individualistic.
He was physically strong and had been given a specialized technical education. They called him Spud, because of his preference for a potato-like vegetable. The other four claronians had nicknames too, but their official identities were Female-East, Male-East, Female-West, and Male-West.
As Mayflower II approached Earth, the claronians were confounded by what they saw. They turned to their surrogate parents for advice.
“Pa, we are in the last programmed maneuver. We are going into orbit about Earth, but it doesn’t look like what we expected. Mayflower II is off autopilot, it’s now in Spud’s hands. What should we do?”
“What do the measurements show?”
“The temperature seems to be one hundred degrees Celsius!”
“Where are you looking?”
“That should be the Pacific Ocean, near the equator. But I can’t see the surface. It is all cloudy and steamy.”
“One hundred degrees—that’s the boiling point of water on Earth’s surface.”
“It can’t be cloudy everywhere.”
Indeed, they found areas where they could see to the ground, mostly in middle latitudes, including North America, Europe, and Asia. All of these areas were dry deserts with blowing sand. The yellow haze above the clouds, all around the planet, they soon learned, was composed of desert dust. They had enough fuel to maneuver in the solar system, but there was no possibility of returning to Claron. Nor any reason to try.
“Ma, what should we do?”
“We must go to Mars. Venus is even hotter than Earth.”
“But Mars is a dead planet. Like the other dead planets. Claronians cannot survive on lifeless planets.”
“Perhaps Mars is different now. Our last information, when we left Claron, is a few centuries old. Maybe things have changed. Maybe humans moved all of their life-forms to Mars.”
“How could they do that? Humans are primitive. We see how they work. The irrationality in their politics, the dividing lines they draw on maps, the fighting, the starving people, the abuse of animals—they are still barbaric heathens!”
“It is our only chance.”
After further discussion, they decided that Ma was right. Spud put Mayflower II on course to Mars. They went into orbit about Mars and circled many times, making measurements. Mars still seemed to have all the properties that it did before their spacecraft left Claron. Mars remained cold and lifeless.
But they observed five constructions that must have been human-made. Flags identified the constructions as Chinese, American, European, Japanese, and Indian. The Chinese camp was the largest. The droids were programmed to communicate in Chinese. But the claronians spoke only English, because that was the language they were taught and used on Mayflower II. So they decided to land at the American base.
The American installation was a good choice. It was uninhabited, like the others, but, very considerately, the Americans had left detailed documentation of the twenty-first century. The documentation provided a full history, the complete story of how everything had gone so wrong on the perfect planet, the planet of ten million species.
It was to be the only “entertainment” for the claronians for as long as they would live. They knew there was no point in trying to squeeze atmospheric gases out of the stones, to try to create an environment for life. It was hopeless.
Life is too complex. They had brought with them eggs of some of their favorite animals, and fish, and birds, and even butterflies—but there would be no point in unfreezing them.
“Pa, Ma, what will you do? You do not need an atmosphere to breathe. You can go on when we are dead.”
“We will do what we are programmed to do. We will shut down. Then, in the future, if another claronian expedition arrives, they can turn us on.”
“Why would another expedition come to this godforsaken dead planet? It’s no better than any other dead planet. There is no life here. They can find a dead planet closer to home. We will send a message as soon as Spud has finished setting up the transceiver. They will get the message in forty years. They will know what a dead planet this is, what a dead solar system it is.”
Just then they heard a tremendous rumbling—the Mayflower II was taking off. Spud had gone back to the spaceship alone.
“Spud, what the hell are you doing? Where are you going?”
“I finished my job—the transceiver is working—you can send whatever message you like. What’s left for me to do—twiddle my thumbs for a hundred years? I’m going to give those bastards a smack!” he cried over the telecom. “There’s plenty of fuel to get to Earth and make a real big pop.”
“Spud, they are all dead. There can’t be anybody left alive on a planet with boiling oceans and scorched deserts.”
“It doesn’t matter. What else am I going to do? The damned fools. They had the perfect planet, and they blew it.”
Ma didn’t understand what was happening.
“Why is Spud going to Earth? We learned that it is uninhabitable.”
“Ma, Spud has lost it.”
“It’s an American expression. Something snapped. He is not rational. It must be a regressive trait of claronians from millions of years ago.”
“Give me the coordinates of where the biggest big-shot coal CEO lived. The one who kept talking about ‘clean coal’ while bribing judges and Congress and pouring out pollution.”
“Why blame that CEO?” Male-West said. “The government in Washington was responsible. They were the ones who were elected to look out for the public interest. They accepted the coal money. Then they retired from Congress and accepted even more coal money. When Congress passed a climate bill, they slipped in rules to keep the coal fires burning. It doesn’t matter, though; all the top coal mining officials were located in Washington, close to the government.”
“Wait a minute, Spud,” said Female-East. “The way I heard it, tar sands became even worse than coal. And by the time they started mining tar sands, everybody knew about global warming. If they had not used tar sands, maybe methane hydrates would not have kicked in bigtime. Maybe you should aim for Canada.”
“I’m not so sure about that. This is Female-West. It was the United States that egged the Canadians to do it. The pipeline project to bring tar sands oil to the United States was approved by the U.S. government, signed in Washington.”
“You know, I think you may be looking at this superficially. This is Male-East. Why were they burning dirty coal? Everybody knows it’s bad stuff. But they needed energy. I would lay the fault more with the antinukes movement. Nuclear power was the one available alternative to coal. Yes, it made sense to put a hold on nuclear power after the accident in Pennsylvania, even though the antinukes protesters greatly exaggerated the effect of that accident. But after things had been checked out, and after it was realized that a hundred thousand people a year were dying from coal, and that coal was putting all the species on the planet in danger, it was time for reassessment. In fact, most of the public favored the safer next-generation nuclear power, but the antinukes people thought they knew better. Their lives were devoted to stopping it—nothing would change their opinion.”
“I don’t think you can blame the antinukes movement. They were arguing for what they thought was best. Even if they were in the minority, they can argue for their opinion.”
“She’s right, I think. It’s not so simple. It’s hard to point at any one villain. Anyone can express their opinion. But people were elected and sent to Washington to do what’s best for everyone, after hearing the opinions. They totally screwed it up, though. The democratic system didn’t work. Why?”
“Money, that’s why. The power companies wanted business as usual, and they paid for it. Even the nonprofit organizations needed money. They all became part of business as usual, so they didn’t want to say what was really needed. The only real priority in Washington was keeping the status quo.”
They knew where Spud was headed. Female-East and Female-West went to the station’s observatory and trained the American telescope on the yellowed, dusty planet, setting the coordinates for Washington. They heard Spud’s last words. “You fools. You had to take us with you too. Two civilizations.”
His eyes narrowed and his muscles tightened as he prepared for impact.
“Oh!” cried Female-East. “There was a puff of yellow dust. He must have made a big crater. Do you want to look?”
“No. Let’s go down and tell Ma and Pa. They should send a message to Claron. The news on Claron, 40 years from now, will not be pleasant.”
POST-SCRIPT by James Hansen
THE ABOVE ''Cli-Fi SCENARIO'' — with a devastated, sweltering Earth purged of life—may read like farfetched climate fiction, aka cli-fi. Yet its central hypothesis is a tragic certainty—continued unfettered burning of all fossil fuels will cause the climate system to pass tipping points, such that we hand our children and grandchildren a dynamic situation that is out of their control. Spud’s frustration and anger are understandable—he was handed a hopeless situation, so all that he could make was a big bang. We, in contrast, still have the opportunity to preserve the remarkable life of our planet, if we begin to act now. We must rally, especially young people, to put pressure on our governments. The most essential actions are, first, a significant and continually rising price on carbon emissions, as the underpinning for a transformation to eventual carbon-free global energy systems, with collected revenues returned to the public so they have the resources to change their lifestyles accordingly. This is the most important requirement for moving the world to the clean energy future beyond fossil fuels, but a carbon price alone is inadequate. Second, the public must demand a strategic approach that leaves most fossil carbon in the ground.