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Preparing for Life in a Warming World
Alex Steffen, 21 Dec 06
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When the weather's changing on you, you need to think ahead. Climate foresight is a critical thinking tool in the 21st Century.

That's because the world we have come to take for granted is no longer the world in which we live. Climate change is upon us, and it's unfolding fast, and the signs point towards it being worse than we expected a decade ago. The changing weather will affect us all, in ways large and small. Any plan which fails now to take into account the possible impacts of climate change fails in fact to be a worthwhile plan at all.

Economic, environmental, social systems -- all will be strained. Left unaddressed, climate change may prove to be the worst economic disaster in history, says the British Government. Climate change has already begun to wreak havoc in the natural world, and most experts expect it to become a major driver of ecological collapses while limiting our ability to respond effectively to environmental decline caused by other factors. Meanwhile, scientists have begun to refer to the people living in particularly vulnerable places as Environmental Refugees-To-Be, and some people believe we can expect to see 200 million people driven from their homes by the middle of the century. Already, insurance companies are recognizing that buying beachfront property is a bad idea.

We need to start anticipating the kinds of stress a changing climate will put on our societies, rethink our approaches and begin building much greater resilience into the systems on which we depend, from our homes to our neighborhoods to our cities and regions.

This is not to say that we should stop battling to reduce our green house emissions (eventually to the point of climate neutrality): though we are already past the point of climate change commitment (that is, no matter what we do, trouble's on its way) we can still choose whether that climate change will be massive or totally catastrophic (we can choose how bad the trouble's going to be). We have to act. Furthermore, by launching a massive campaign to do the things we know how to do here in the developed world -- from embracing clean power and energy efficiency to building better cities and regulating carbon -- we create both frameworks and models which the developing world can use to develop in a less climatologically disastrous way. Our building a "carbon-free" industrial system greatly increases the chances that China and India will adopt it.

But even while work to stave off catastrophe, we need to start building systems that can survive in a rapidly and unpredictably changing planet. That means we need to start imagining what life might be like in the future that's on its way.

Distributing foresight resources to people in places which lack them, like the Sahel, is a needed step. Art projects can help us rethink our relationship to the atmosphere. Street campaigns, like the Future Sea Level project, can help us wrap our heads around the enormity of change. But when you want to seriously engage the imagined future, science fiction is the tool of choice.

Luckily, as SEED magazine reports, a growing number of science fiction writers are joining our allies Bruce Sterling and Kim Stanley Robinson in applying their story-telling skills to a warming future:

"The genre of climate change fiction is accelerating, and I expect it will accelerate at the same rate as the scientific evidence becomes solider and solider," said Mark Tushingham, an environmental scientist who's studied climate change since the 1980s and published his first science fiction novel, Hotter Than Hell, last November.
But the biggest service these writers provide may not be sheer entertainment—or even a roundabout public service announcement. "They're trying to dramatize the human potential of what we now only see as scientific possibilities," said Gunn, "because, as humans, we don't really see how it's going to affect us unless we see it enacted in fiction and in film."

This is all to the good, but we need something more than what we have. We need some serious future-building around both what a post-hydrocarbon world would look like, and what kinds of challenges a warming world holds in store for us (and how we might respond).

Most of all, we need these new visions and stories now, because a planet in the grip of massive climate change is not an alien world or a fantastic future, it's the planet where we're all going to spend the rest of our lives.

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One of the best and most realistic visions of the future I've read is the book "Friend of the Earth" by TC Boyle. He relates a tale set a decade or so in the future, and he tells it so "matter of factly" that you can't help but believe it's an authentic future we can't escape. i highly recommend checking it out.

Posted by: ianmack on 22 Dec 06

I've mentioned this one before, but . . .

. . . Soylent Green. Yes, the shlocky 1973 movie with Charlton Heston.

Almost certainly the first film, fictional or otherwise, to mention the greenhouse effect.

There's a scene, deleted from the TV version, in which "Sol's" elderly literate friends sit around, mortified, after reading a secret research report compiled for Soylent Corporation.

As a kid, I thought the long faces and talk of getting in touch with the government had to do with the secret behind the titular crackers. No, the use of the magic ingredient is a symptom. Soylent Green is supposed to be made from krill, and according to the report the ocean ecosystem has collapsed. The longtooths were shocked because they realized that we're fucked.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 22 Dec 06



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