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Climate Carbon and the Fixers

May 31, 2012

Two great links on carbon and climate change: Methane seeps in the Arctic, and Our Carbonated Future from Heteromeles.

Heteromeles outlines the big picture view of CO2 rise, according to Curt Stager’s book Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth. The projected effects include rising temperature and sea levels over the next few centuries. On top of temperature rise, the CO2 is going to acidify our oceans and kill off lots of carbonaceous phototrophs. And after we burn off all the carbon we can frack out of the ground, ruining our fresh water along the way, CO2 level will take centuries or millenia more to come back down. Once it does, we face an ice age.

What I’m wondering is, do Stager and the other modelers yet factor in CH4? Oddly enough, both the extreme oxidized carbon and the extreme reduced carbon are the major greenhouse gases. And methane (CH4) is perhaps a thousand times more potent than CO2. We used to think methane would be a sideshow, measured in parts per million. But as the Arctic melts, huge wells of long-frozen microbial methane are bubbling up. The same thing is happening beneath the oceans, although less obviously than in the Arctic tundra (which will soon be tundra no more.)

Meanwhile, according to the usually sane and mild-mannered Michael Specter at New Yorker, the Climate Fixers are at work; and could throw an abrupt spin. Suppose the Maldives decided to rocket aerosols into the stratosphere to halt warming and save their shores. Such measures are hard to reverse–and impossible to predict.

With realities like these, what’s a science fiction writer to do?

 

12 Comments
  1. Alex Tolley permalink
    June 1, 2012 11:44 am

    It is my understanding that CH4 rapidly oxidizes (within a decade) so that for methane to have a long term AGW problem, atmospheric levels would have to be continuously replenished at a high rate. AFAIK, this has been discussed by climatologists, but how it is incorporated into their models I know nothing.

    All I ask of SF writers is not to rehash 1970’s eco-collapse scenarios/dystopias. Find some new angle to approach the issue.

  2. heteromeles permalink
    June 1, 2012 1:41 pm

    Good points Alex.. While methane is a problem, my limited understanding is that it’s a short term problem, after which it turns into a long term problem: carbon dioxide.

    As for the eco-catastrophe, I happen to agree: I’m not that interested. If I had to guess, I’d say we’re heading more for Neuromancer territory, minus the implants and cyberspace. Or even something perhaps like Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and the old-fashioned Great Game.

    The reason I’m posted my scenario is because it provides a glimpse of a fairly strange world, especially a few thousand years (or even a million years) out. It looks like a world with certain forms of high tech (those that don’t require a globe-spanning production line), but with little energy, with many people on the move, coastlines that rise for at least the next century, and so on. Further out, we get a hothouse world, with gators patrolling the swamps of Greenland, especially if we blow all our fossil fuel deposits into the sky. Further out still, the carbon inevitably goes out of the air, and we get back into the Ice Age cycles that we have now, except that we won’t have any fossil fuels to deal with them.

    Aside from Jack Vance, the idea that humans will be around as humans for a long time is an unusual one in science fiction, and I think it’s one worth pursuing. Anyone who’s sick of the current state of politics can literally make it ancient history if they want, and write about how dealing with the consequences have led to a new suite of problems for people to deal with.

  3. June 1, 2012 2:06 pm

    What you’re missing about methane is the accelerated rate of release that will happen if the tundra thaws. Methane can still have 100x the effect of CO2 release, if it’s released faster than it decays.

    Long term, we’ll be cyborgs; but the question is if we’ll have enough time to get there. We forget how much energy and technology underlie the existence of our electronic extensions today.

  4. Barkeron permalink
    June 1, 2012 9:14 pm

    Given the reality of things I would find it neat if SF would tackle the situation realistically.

    http://amormundi.blogspot.de/2012/04/what-are-people-really-talking-about.html

    Instead of a Randian sooooper-genius hero pulling a silver bullet out of his posterior and unilaterally as well as effortlessly hotfixing ACC one could maybe tell a near-future story of a multinational group that evolves from an environmentally-conscious, web-based advocacy group to a worldwide movement as ever-increasing ecological destruction puts pressure on humanity. A multi-generational struggle to convince governments, industries and peoples to support reforestation efforts and adopt carbon-neutral transport, fabrication, etc. technology.

    It may not be your typical SF romp through exotic locals and hypercharged action, but hey, who said SF should be a monoculture? ;3

  5. heteromeles permalink
    June 1, 2012 9:21 pm

    Personally, I’m not interested in most electronic implants, simply because most electronics don’t last that long. Heck, they’re even talking about finding that modern pacemakers are hackable. I’d also suggest that, if we’re looking at a future where there’s less energy to go around and more people who need it, going cyborg is not cost effective for the vast majority of people.

    As for the methane, I can’t speak for Alex, but I’m quite aware of it, and as we both said, it decays pretty quickly into carbon dioxide, so methane releases are a short, sharp shock in global warming . The only thing I don’t know is how much is out there, which pool it’s in (permafrost or deep sea clathrates), and how fast it can be mobilized under which scenario. I should note that under the 1000 GT CO2 release, parts of Greenland and the East Antarctic ice sheet stay frozen. Total melt-off only occurs when much more carbon dioxide is released (and note that we’ve only released 300 GT to date, so we’re talking about a *lot* more carbon–on order 10 times more than we’ve released getting to where we are now).

  6. Barkeron permalink
    June 1, 2012 9:42 pm

    Given the reality of things I would find it neat if SF would tackle the situation realistically.

    http://amormundi.blogspot.de/2012/04/what-are-people-really-talking-about.html

    Instead of a Randian sooooper-genius hero pulling a silver bullet out of his posterior and unilaterally as well as effortlessly hotfixing ACC one could maybe tell a near-future story of a multinational group that evolves from an environmentally-conscious, web-based advocacy group to a worldwide movement as ever-increasing ecological destruction puts pressure on humanity. A multi-generational struggle to convince governments, industries and peoples to support reforestation efforts and adopt carbon-neutral transport, fabrication, etc. technology.

    • June 2, 2012 11:07 am

      The problem with geoengineering is that you only get to try it once. And there’s no “control.”
      But the problem with *not* doing geoengineering is that we’re doing it anyway. Already more than half the nitrogen in our ecosystem gets cycled through human N2 fixation, by the Haber-Bosch process.

      It’s important to look at what “really” works, and what doesn’t. No technology is inherently good or evil. Solar is a good example–great on a personal scale, but questionable when scaling up. Any large-scale energy generator based on Earth needs to be considered guilty until proven innocent.

      A “microbial” approach may be more hopeful; more to come.

      • Barkeron permalink
        June 4, 2012 10:58 am

        “The problem with geoengineering is that you only get to try it once.”

        That’s the reason why most pie in the sky plans are doomed to stay at paper level. Neither mainstream politics nor public would approve or even fund a Megabucks money sink that could easily fail or at worst wreck havoc on a global scale.

        Earth’s ecosphere is possibly the most complex system known to humankind, grand-scale intrusive procedures are always potentially suicidal, no matter whether they’re more or less side-effects like industrial CO2 emission or deliberate mitigation efforts like, say, iron fertilization. We need a deeper understanding of how it all works to avert mitigation efforts backfiring on us (or to make sure they work in the first place).

        I’ve seen some far-out proposals about genetically modified algae with augmented carbon capture and sequestration abilities to be cultivated on offshore farms. Who says they don’t introduce too much carbon to ocean ecosystems, mess up sedimentation, cause a migration of indigenous species to other habitats till we have a “neozoon deluge” that doesn’t leave robust Ragamuffin rather than scorched ecosystems behind…

        Of course, with public research funding being a trickle throughout the developed world and market fundamentalists insisting on further privatization deeper insight is hard to come by these days. As if Big Business is interested in basic research.

  7. heteromeles permalink
    June 2, 2012 2:32 pm

    One thing I do think is fascinating is how the future timeline is getting shorter in American SFF. Barkeron’s post is just one example. Back in the 60s or 70s, people thought nothing of setting a story centuries or millennia from now. To some extent, writers still do write futuristic fiction, but mostly the future is set on another planet. With everything from steampunk to zombie apocalypses to Charlie Stross’ near future police procedurals, the future on Earth is only a few decades from now. If Earth’s future is more distant, as often as not, it’s on something that’s obviously an alternate world.

    I think part of this is the grip of Singularity thinking, the idea that progress will soon go vertical and we can’t know what happens afterwards–great way to inhibit creativity, that. Oddly, singulitarianism seems to be passe, but it still seems to paralyze so many imaginations. Or is it simply that we’ve so thoroughly incorporated the idea of planned obsolescence that we can’t bear the thought of a future when we’re not obsolete?

    Part of this is certainly about fear of the future,. Why we should fear the future now (as opposed to, say, during the height of the Cold War) is something that puzzles me more the more I look at it. Certainly, we’ve got a lot of terrible problems, but we’ve always had terrible problems, and now we’re scared of looking past them.

    I find it striking that someone like me can say, “hey people, humans will have hundreds of future centuries to live through on this planet, what a playground for SFF,” and so many science fiction afficionados cringe away from the idea. Or (as with Alex) they beg us not to write another 70s style eco-catastrophe. Or (like Joan, above) they say that, in the long run, we won’t be human. We’ll be part machine, or transhuman, or anyway something that we can’t write about because there’s point of sympathy between us and them.

    It’s fascinating that, at this moment, the basic idea that ordinary, recognizable humans will be around to see another Ice Age is something that SF sees as an unpleasant failure, not a future worth exploring. Wow. And this is seen as more horrifying than the idea penning people for centuries in a generation ship to send them on a one-way trip to another star.

    • June 2, 2012 5:55 pm

      I don’t think the future cyborgs can’t be understood; in fact, just the opposite, they’ll be human plus. And I do write about them, as in Brain Plague, and (spoiler) coming up in Frontera. As someone who completed a four-book cycle of future history, I’m writing about “near future” because for the first time it actually seems interesting enough to write about.

      I do think the “classic” SF has peaked and gone retrospective. I wonder if the most talented futurists are too busy piloting drones and founding tech companies to write stuff in print. In my case, the space-age microbiology text I wrote for ten years was more interesting than any SF I could have written.

      • heteromeles permalink
        June 4, 2012 2:05 pm

        My take is that many futurists are on the street in the Occupy movement, but that’s more about dealing with the political aspects of the future.

        That’s another important note, actually: the technological challenges tend to be what interest SF afficionados the most, but right now, it seems like the political problems are our biggest challenges. Since we’ve had a century of new technology and old politics, I personally hope that we see a century of new politics as well, as people figure out work-arounds for the gridlocks we’re dealing with today. I don’t think these work-arounds will be perfect, of course, but it’s worth listening to what’s on the street, and looking at which of these wild ideas might scale up well.

  8. SFreader permalink
    June 3, 2012 2:40 pm

    I think that current SF appears to be near-future because no one knows/can keep track of our current inventory of technologies and ideas; plus, new-product/idea adoption is also getting faster. This is the equivalent of the ’15 minutes (now 15 seconds) of fame’ scenario.

    Also, the West – where most (English-speaking) SF writers live – is no longer the center of technological development. Current English SF authors will increasingly need to look elsewhere – other countries/cultures – for their new SF story ideas. That’s where the interesting SF conflicts are likeliest to emerge/be probable.

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