The novel is set in a dystopian near-future, but in reality, some of the most shocking scenes have come true already.
What makes this so disturbing is that Ministry for the Future, by New York Times bestselling author Kim Stanley Robinson, was only written in 2020.
The opening scene is set in India where a cataclysmic heat-wave bakes the sub-continent pushing ‘wet-bulb’ temperatures above what humans can endure.
The result is 20 million deaths.
India’s current heatwave hasn’t wrought devastation on that scale, but it’s still breaking records.
In New Delhi there’s reports of temperatures hitting 43°C, with Northern provinces and areas of Pakistan touching a blistering 50°C.
It recorded its hottest March since 1901, according to the India Meteorological Department.
The death toll in India stood at 25 people at the start of May, and in Pakistan it was estimated at 65 deaths, with that number expected to rise significantly.
The months leading up to the monsoon (April, May and June) are always painfully hot, as Indians wait for the monosson rains to cool the land. But this year the heat-wave came earlier, and was more ferocious.
“If you are looking for the clearest signal of climate change in India, then heat waves are a classic example. They are unavoidable and will occur more frequently,” said Vimal Mishra, an expert at the Indian Institute of Technology’s Water and Climate Lab.
Rising temperatures have been forecast by climate scientists for decades, but heat-waves like these are showing the very real manifestation of climate change, and the challenges of adapting to it.
“There is mounting evidence that heatwaves are increasing in intensity and frequency in India and across the world due to the rise in global mean surface temperature,” Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, explained for The Independent.
“These heatwave conditions are known to kill hundreds of people in India every year and will continue to become more extreme until the world cuts its annual emissions of greenhouse gasses effectively to zero.”
Poverty and the Challenge of Adaptation
Australians know the pain of heat-wave summers, and while not all of us can afford air conditioning, most of us will have access to shelter in the most extreme heat.
For the poorest people of India’s Northwest, a mere fan is a luxury many don’t have, let alone a reliable electricity supply to run it.
Air conditioning is available only to the most wealthy, and even they’re at the whim of a power grid struggling to cope.
Estimates suggest India relies on coal for three quarters of their power supply, and despite having a domestic mining industry, they often struggle to meet demand; the large majority is mined by state-owned Coal India Ltd.
While it’s ironic to lament a lack of coal as being a challenge amid dramatic climate impacts, that are multiplied by the use of fossil fuels, these are the realities on the ground, right now.
Supply-chains are unreliable and financing can be sporadic, and the result is that power plants are often left idle due only to a lack of feed-stock.
“Indians need to look at our dependence on coal-fired electricity with an objective eye. Far from being cheap and reliable, it too often winds up being pricier than it should be and absent when we need it most. Whatever else coal might provide India, it isn’t energy security.” says Mihir Sharma, a journalist based in New Delhi explains in this article for Blomberg.
From this perspective, renewable energy is more important than ever in the sub-continent. Not only would it contribute to decarbonising the atmosphere, but it would side-step the myriad problems related to fuel supply chains, and fluctuating coal prices.
IPCC Report Falling on Deaf Ears
For Australia, the threats of climate change are dramatic, and by many reports, we’re exposed more than most countries.
And that’s all made painfully clear in the latest IPCC report. The report is the third in this round of analysis, it focusses on mitigation, and what we need to change to avert disaster.
Some key shifts include: halving emissions by 2030, something few national plans are prepared for, rapidly shift power generation to renewable, as well as decarbonising our economy, from transport to agriculture.
It’s a tall order, and while the report was dramatic in its analysis, and through in the many thousands of people that worked on it, I fear it’s falling on deaf ears.
The first of the three reports was reported widely, with broad media coverage, but as the second and third reports were released the coverage slowed to a trickle.
We need our scientists to do their work, but their forecasts of where we’re headed seem to be too easy to ignore.
So what’s the alternative approach? Could a fiction writer have the answer?
Prescience of Science-Fiction
Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the world’s most highly regarded science fiction writers, well known for his Mars trilogy about colonising the red planet.
But with Ministry for the Future he looks closer to home, exploring both the economic and the social issues around dealing with the fall-out from climate change, as well as breaking our global addiction to burning fossil fuels.
One of the story’s leading characters survives the ordeal in India, but finds himself unable to function in society when he returns to Europe.
So disturbed by the event, and by the continuing apathy of many policy-makers and corporate elites, he becomes radicalised, going in search of a new-breed of climate-change-activists, who have veered towards terrorism, bringing down private jets with drones, the result is that many are too fearful to fly.
They also take over the Davos meeting and attempt to ‘re-educate’ the elite about the realities of a carbon-constrained world.
But that’s just one pathway.
The book’s lead is Mary Murphy, an ex-diplomat from Ireland who was chosen to run a Zurich-based UN agency called the Ministry for the Future, which was created to drive implementation of the Paris Agreement on a global scale.
Her journey takes her to the Arctic where she works with scientists working on geo-engineering projects to pump melt-water from underneath glaciers back on top, in the hope it will freeze and stop the glaciers sliding into the sea.
She then takes the economic approach, appealing to global central bankers about their role in financing fossil fuel companies. At one stage she’s in Switzerland admonishing bank managers for ignoring the flow of funds through their country.
The book offers a refreshingly in-depth assessment of potential financial instruments to shift our economies away from coal and oil. It is accepted that fossil fuel companies will expect to be paid to leave hydrocarbons in the ground, and a ‘carbon-coin’ on the blockchain is one suggested model.
But it’s not all bonds and carbon taxes, some chapters drift into the metaphysical, written from the point of view of a carbon molecule traveling through space, as well as a caribou watching the destruction of its habitat.
“Well, I am a leftist, an American leftist, and I’m saying just as a practicality that overthrowing capitalism is too messy, too much blowback, and too lengthy of a process. We’ve got a nation-state system and a financial order, and we’ve got a crisis that has to be dealt with in the next 10 to 20 years. So I’m looking at the tools at hand. Tax structures, sure. And essentially, I’m talking about a stepwise reform that after enough steps have been taken, you get to something that is truly post-capitalist that might take huge elements from the standard socialist techniques.” The author, Kim Stanley Robinson, explains in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine.
“This is why I keep coming back to quantitative easing. You’re going to have to pay off the oil companies. You’re going to have to pay off the petro states. They’ll need compensation, because their fiduciary responsibilities and their national priorities for the power of their own nation states are intensely tied up with these fossil fuels. And so we’re going to have to pay to keep it in the ground. And so you can regard that as blackmail or you can regard that as just business as usual, as a stranded asset that still has a value to us by not being burned.”
“Saving the world has a financial value that needs to be paid, and so we call it quantitative easing. So I’m hoping that the ordinary mechanisms of the Democratic Party and the American government will mesh with the Paris Agreement.”
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