This is a short speech I gave a few nights ago.
You can listen to the recording and/or read the text below.
There’s a list of references at the end, if you’d like to know more.
I would like to dedicate this speech to the little ducklings I saw in the park on my way here.
Last year it finally dawned on me that we’d never solve climate change in time.
That the operative question was now: what would the world would be like after it?
I stopped paying passing attention to these issues and started giving it my complete attention.
And you’d think that’d harden me to the emotional impacts around this… I mean, I know I did.
But when the latest IPCC report dropped, I was gripped by despair.
What I hope to do today is persuade you – and me – that, as terrible as things are – and they’re getting worse daily – there is still hope for the world… largely by drawing on what’s known as the ‘Hothouse Earth’ paper… and why that’s the best news I’ve heard all year.
So… GOOD NEWS EVERYBODY!
The world as we knew it has been broken.
Like Humpty Dumpty, it can’t be put back together again…
…but we can fashion something new from the pieces.
Because we’re already effectively living on an Alien Earth:
- Never before have human beings breathed an atmosphere with so much CO2 in it.
- Never before have mosquito larvae carried microplastics from the oceans into the food web of land animals.
- Never before have whales died from pollutants we banned decades ago, that accumulated in the oceanic trenches at the bottom of the world.
To understand how we came to be living on the Alien Earth we need to properly imagine climate change and its impact on the planet; we need to trick ourselves into thinking beyond human timescales:
- To properly imagine climate change, think of an asteroid crashing into the Earth for a 100 years… for a thousand years! Causing mega-fires and tsunamis. Obliterating cities. ‘Cause that’s what’s coming.
- To properly imagine climate change, think of zombies; the dead rising to destroy the world… ’cause that’s basically what ‘historical carbon’ is – the cumulative effect of all that have lived before us – and us too – wrecking the planet.
- To properly imagine climate change, think of an alien invasion that lasts ten thousand years… twelve thousand years… and the plot twist is the alien invaders are us – the most successful invasive species on the planet.
We can imagine ourselves rallying together to stop an asteroid, or fighting off zombie hordes… We can imagine ourselves coming together as a planet to stop an alien invasion… but faced with the very real threat that is climate change the reaction still seems to be business-as-usual.
The ‘Hothouse Earth’ paper is exciting because it shows us that there is a fate other than planetary annihilation waiting for us, if we can just get our shit together.
It’s a call to action; a desperate cry for humanity to become ‘Planetary Stewards’, guiding the world back to health and stability.
The fate of the Alien Earth is in our hands; and it’s the simple, but stark, choice between a Hothouse Earth of runaway climate chaos and a Re-Stabilized Earth, where that’s brought under control.
As Christiana Figueres, the driving force behind the Paris Agreement, put it:
- “Do you want the Great Barrier Reef, or do you want the largest aquatic cemetery in the world?”
To which I’ll add:
- Do you want platypuses on Bourke Street*, or do you want Melbourne destroyed by tropical storms?
- Do you want Antarctic ice sheets propped up by Eiffel Tower-sized supports, or do you want 30 to 50 million Bangladeshis becoming climate refugees?
Propping up the ice sheets, or even better, building a wall to stop them melting are examples of some of the best proposals to specifically mitigate the effects of climate change.
The most agreed upon mechanism for re-stabilizing the Earth, however, is ecological restoration; or gardening the Alien Earth to meet a changing climate.
But before we can even begin to take the fate of the Alien Earth into our hands there a more than a few obstacles to overcome…
And that’s if we manage to get our shit together.
The path to a Re-Stablized Earth – an Alien Earth where all surviving life can thrive – is the most exciting adventure we could ever embark on.
You don’t have to tie your dreams of terraforming a planet to someday hitching a ride with Elon Musk to Mars.
The real challenge lies on terra firma; in the here and now.
Because the path we’re on right now? It leads directly to the nightmare future of a Hothouse Earth:
- Of complete ecological collapse and near-human extinction.
- Of bearing witness to a planetary death spiral… if we’re so lucky; or cursed.
Before we even can begin to correct this course we have to acknowledge that the end of the world has bipartisan support.
- Even if Hillary had won, hurricanes would have still threatened the coasts of Portugal and Ireland.
- Even if Bernie had won, the Arctic would still be on fire.
But of course, Trump won… and he and his allies – OH HAI BRASIL – have made clear with their words’n’deeds that the only future they can imagine is the one where they alone inhabit a Hothouse Earth.
So far there is no real party or force rising to challenge this; and that makes me one sad environmentally-aware science-fiction fan who has for decades wanted to believe that we’d somehow come to our senses in time.
- We didn’t get the ‘Green Police’ that David Brin wrote about in his book Earth. Wildlife trafficking, deforestation and other despicable acts haven’t become the targets of a super-empowered planetary police force.
- We sure as fuck didn’t get a world split into two factions competing to solve global warming that Bruce Sterling wrote about in The Caryatids. There is no coalition of ecosocialist nations in a cold war with bright green capitalism.
Nope, we got what Warren Ellis wrote about in Doom 2099 – a world being looted by plutocrats bent on bailing to Mars.
But the course to that nightmare future, the Hothouse Earth, is not locked in.
There is still time to change direction, to build these kinds of institutions, to take action; and having a vision of what lies at the end of that – a Re-Stablized Earth we can be proud of building together – helps us to find the necessary courage, the impetus to act; to choose hope instead of being paralysed by despair.
So in conclusion I ask you: which version of the Alien Earth do you want to live on?
Because its fate is in all our hands…
I hope you’ll join me in seeking to become Planetary Stewards!
Thanks for your attention…
* Correction: Elizabeth Street, not Bourke Street (see below for full info).
- Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene (The Hothouse Earth paper)
- The Hope at the Heart of the Apocalyptic Climate Change Report
- Redrawing the Map: How the World’s Climate Zones Are Shifting
- Humans didn’t exist the last time there was this much CO2 in the air
- Plastic Pollution Is Now Spreading From Ocean Food Chains Into Land Animals, Thanks to This Insect
- PCBs are still a problem for some marine life
- “i wonder if hundreds of elite scientists released a report saying that a huge rock was 95% likely to collide with earth in thirty years, killing billions, we would have simply moved on in the news cycle from it” ~ @macaulaybalkan
- “Do you want the Great Barrier Reef, or do you want the largest aquatic cemetery in the world?” ~ @CFigueres
- A plan to turn Melbourne’s Elizabeth Street into a rainforest canal
- A Radical New Scheme to Prevent Catastrophic Sea-Level Rise
- Stopping the flood: could we use targeted geoengineering to mitigate sea level rise?
- The Unfolding Tragedy of Climate Change in Bangladesh
- There is a forgotten solution to climate change that we must invest in – nature
- ‘Rewilding’ landscapes with rhinos and reindeer could prevent fires and keep Arctic cool
- Trophic rewilding as a climate change mitigation strategy?
- Trump administration sees a 7-degree rise in global temperatures by 2100
- The Trump administration knows the planet is going to boil. It doesn’t care
- Scientists are terrified that Brazil’s new president will destroy the ‘lungs of the planet’
- Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids, my pick for best book of 2009, a novel of clear-eyed hope for the future.