Plotting the course of climate change

Forty Signs of Rain

HarperCollins: 2004. 360 pp. £17.99 To be published in the US by Bantam Books in June. 0553803115, 0007148860 | ISBN: 0-553-80311-5

Given that the most sophisticated works of fiction I get to read these days are stories about Thomas the Tank Engine, I was somewhat nervous when Nature invited me to review a novel. The commissioning editor reassured me that she expected me to comment in a purely technical capacity, and when I found that one of the central characters is a disorganized chap who tries to advise people about climate change over a mobile phone while chasing small children around the park, I understood why. On such technical issues, I find it hard to believe that a working mother whose “only religion is the double-blind study” would still be expressing breast milk for an 18-month-old toddler. But this is nitpicking: I came out in a cold sweat when I read the bit where the toddler does a runner and... well, I won't spoil the story for you.

Toddlers aside, Forty Signs of Rain is about two things: high-stakes gambling on uncertain science in biotechnology start-up companies, and even-higher-stakes gambling on rather less uncertain science in US climate-change politics. In the middle of all this is a hypothetical National Science Foundation (NSF) of the future, where programme directors wade through proposals, manipulate committees and juggle conflicts of interest much as I can imagine them doing today. I found the depiction of life both at the NSF and in a struggling biotech start-up absorbing and convincing; the material on climate change seems less realistic.

The book's author, Kim Stanley Robinson, is (I am sure deliberately) vague on when the action is taking place. An affable Republican with some much less affable advisers is still in charge at the White House, and is still prepared to call for only modest reductions in the carbon intensity of US business. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change continues to grind out its reports. Life in Washington is still fuelled by stress, sex and Starbucks. Socially and politically, the setting could be next year. Yet we are told that global temperatures have already risen by some 3.5 °C and carbon dioxide levels have exceeded 600 parts per million (p.p.m.) and are predicted to hit 1,000 p.p.m. within a decade. Someone has been burning a lot of fossil fuel.

This is a work of science fiction, not a textbook, so the author is entitled to take liberties. These become dangerous, however, when they pander to misconceptions that are sufficiently widely held to be mistaken for facts. In particular, I have trouble with the suggestion that the NSF, by lobbying Congress to pass an omnibus Climate Bill, could somehow save the day. This book is aimed at the airport bookstall, and I imagine that many bookstall browsers would share the twin misconceptions that sudden and dramatic climate change is just around the corner, and that US government and Big Business could avert it if only they felt like doing so.

In reality, in the case of the ozone hole, Earth was in clear and present danger; scientists identified the problem; the Montreal protocol was signed; CFC levels are already falling; the ozone layer should recover before we all die of skin cancer; and Mario Molina, F. Sherwood Rowland and Paul Crutzen have shared a well-deserved Nobel Prize. It's a great story, and Robinson (in common with much of the media) would clearly like to fit climate change into the same kind of plot. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. This is not to say that climate change does not present serious potential dangers — just that once they become imminent, we are certainly not going to avoid them simply by switching to cleaner energy.

The heroes of the book are a group of saintly representatives of Khembalung, a hypothetical island in the Bay of Bengal that is being swamped by rising sea levels. My question is, once the situation gets this dire, will even the most saintly victims of climate change be content to lobby the US government to do something about it for the sake of our common future? Get real. They'll hire heavyweight lawyers and scream for compensation.

No one likes to talk about compensation for the effects of climate change. Environmentalists hate the idea that it might become ethically acceptable to emit greenhouse gases provided that you pay for the consequences, and industry naturally recoils from the prospect of an uncertain but potentially enormous bill. But given that even the most aggressive mitigation efforts are not going to make any difference for decades, almost all the potential victims of climate change who are alive today will benefit far more from help with adaptation and securing compensation than from any change in US energy policy. It is telling that the book is at its best when the protagonists have to abandon mitigation politics and think (fast) about adaptation.

Civil defence volunteers, hardworking scientists and flood victims in the developing world will always be natural heroes. The missing figure in Robinson's book would be much less sympathetic: a well-heeled class-action lawyer representing Florida's coastal real-estate owners. For outside the world of science fiction, it's the lawyers that will sort it out in the end.

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Allen, M. Plotting the course of climate change. Nature 428, 894 (2004).

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