AuthorTopic: Cli-Fi  (Read 632 times)


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« on: September 04, 2014, 02:04:20 AM »

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Published on Resource Crisis on August 29 & September 2, 2014


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Climate change: would Cli-Fi help?


This novel by Jim Laughter (2011) is mostly forgettable, but at least it may be a start for a new genre.

They say that Americans spend almost three hours per day watching TV, which seems to be the world record. That means that a large fraction of their time while awake is spent into a fictional universe which has little to do with reality (that includes most of what is referred to as “news”). That may be the reason why Americans are the least concerned in the world about the threat of climate change. Apparently, fiction easily trumps reality, at least as long as the hurricane doesn’t flood your house or the forest fire vaporizes it.

Apart from extreme cases, indeed, fighting fiction with reality is a hopeless task. Scientists know (or should know) this very well. For decades, they have been trying to convince the public that climate change is a serious problem and they have been doing that by writing incomprehensible papers that nobody even tries to read. No wonder that they had no success facing the fossil fuel lobby, which, instead, as been spinning one fancy tale after another; from the “hide the decline” conspiracy, to the “you forgot to take into account water vapor” accusation. Unless the public is hit hard by the consequence of climate change, they will always prefer a fancy tale to hard facts. And, even then, when reality strikes in the form of the various climate related disasters, they have other priorities rather than worrying about reducing their carbon footprint.

So, it seems that in the clash of fantasy and reality, reality usually succumbs, at least in the short run. Then, can we fight fiction with fiction? Could we transform climate change in a tale? Can we spur action on the basis of a tale? In principle, it should not be impossible: people act on the basis of their worldview and this worldview is normally largely based on narrative; just think about the current predominant vision, the one that says that liberism and the free market will solve all problems. Is it based on hard facts? Not at all, it is pure fiction.

So, a number of attempts at a new literary genre that goes under the name of “Climate Fiction”, or “cli-fi” may explore the concept that dramatizing climate change could make it understandable to normal people. Does it work? Well, so far the attempts seen in this field have been less than memorable. One example comes to mind; “the day after tomorrow” of which it was said that “This movie is to climate science as Frankenstein is to heart transplant surgery.” In terms of Cli-Fi novels, we seem to be gearing up for something interesting but, so far, the list of recent ones is very short and not especially impressive.

A cli-fi novel that I read recently is “Polar City Red“, by Jim Laughter, published in 2009 by Deadly Niche Press. As a novel, it is, ahem….  let’s say that it is not among the best novels I can think of. It starts from a reasonable – although not very original – premise; the idea that governments secretly created “polar colored cities” (of which the one of the title is the “Red” one) where a small number of people were to take refuge to escape the disaster created by global warming. But the development of the story is all based on cardboard characters and on a plot which goes nowhere and which has holes as big as a Siberian methane crater. If we really want to find something nice about this novel, let’s say that if it is to be a start of a new genre, it is not really worse than the pulp fiction of the 1930s, which gave rise to what was later called “science fiction.” After all, you have to start from somewhere!


Cli-fi: ten assorted doomsday scenarios

Image created by Robert A. Rohde / Global Warming Art.

In fiction, it is allowed to extrapolate the consequences of normal phenomena to their extreme forms and to examine events that could happen, no matter how they are perceived as unlikely. Hence, the interest in “climate fiction” (“cli-fi“) as a way to explore the possible consequences of climate change in situations much more extreme than those of the usually sanitized scenarios presented by scientists.

It seems that, so far, only a few of the many possible climate related catastrophes have been explored in detail in movies and novels. So, I have prepared here a list of ten apocalyptic scenarios, all related to climate change (of course, many more can be conceived). “Scenarios” and “fiction” are closely related concepts, except that the latter doesn’t necessarily have to take the laws of physics. In this case, none of these scenarios is physically impossible; but they are stretched a bit (a lot) for increased fictional dramatic effects.  The list may serve as a source of inspiration for those of us who are trying their hand at writing cli-fi novels. The scenarios are arranged in an approximate order of increasingly catastrophic events.

1.  “The Great Coal Flame” (or “Saddam squared”). A giant coal fire which can’t be extinguished. We all know how, in 1991, the Iraqi troops retreating from Kuwait dynamited some 700 oil wells, generating giant fires. The damage generated was not terribly catastrophic and the fires could be extinguished in less than one year, choking them at the mouth of the wells. However, we can think of something more difficult to stop if we imagine that the fire could affect a large coal deposit. There already exist underground coal fires which have burned for centuries and seem to be impossible to extinguish. Let’s imagine something much bigger, maybe as the result of a tactical nuke landing by mistake (or purposefully) on a major coal mine. The result would be a giant fire covering an enormous area; it would be probably much more difficult to  extinguish than the localized oil well fires of Kuwait in 1991. Maybe this would not be a global disaster but, already now, uncontrolled coal fires account for about 3% of the world’s CO2 emissions; if a major coal mine were to catch fire, the resulting disaster could considerably accelerate the process of climate change. To say nothing of the damage generated in terms of ashes, sulfur oxides, mercury, and other poisonous chemicals.

2.“Super-Calving.” The rapid collapse into the sea of large amounts of ice. “Calving” is a well known phenomenon in which large masses of ice detach themselves from ice shelves and create icebergs. Normally, the process causes no damage to humans (except for special cases, such as for the “Titanic”). But imagine that very large chunks of ice were released at a much faster rate than the present one. The process could disrupt navigation in areas near large ice sheets, such as near Greenland and it could also generate giant waves – not tsunamis, but large enough to cause damage at considerable distances. Then, the presence of large amounts of ice floating in the ocean would have significant effects on climate and on the oceanic thermohaline circulation. The combination of these phenomena would disrupt commerce and transportation in a vital area for the world’s economy. Not really a worldwide disaster, but a big disaster anyway.

3.Hyperstorms!Giant storms wreaking disasters. An increase in the frequency and the size of hurricanes is expected to be a consequence of climate change. In some conditions, hurricanes could become truly enormous and in this case they would take the name of “hypercanes: continent-size super-storms which reach the stratosphere, with side effects such as destroying the protective oxoze layer. Because of this effect, it has been speculated that some of the past mega-extinctions were due to hypercanes. It is believed that sea surface temperatures high enough to create a hypercane can be generated only by exceptional circumstances, such as by asteroidal impacts. However, it is not impossible that a combination of factors related to global warming could generate larger and larger storms. Now, already in the present conditions, hurricanes are a major destructive force on human-built structures, imagine something much bigger and even more destructive….. The damage would be mostly local, unless we manage to unchain a true hypercane which would create worldwide havoc by destroying the world’s ozone layer.

4. “The great ring of ice disaster”. Tsunamis generated the tectonic movements caused by the melting of the Northern ice sheets. The “ring of ice” is a region which encompasses a number of geological faults in the Northern Hemisphere. This is already a volcanic active region, but the melting and the Greenland ice sheet would generate further instabilities. Greenland “floats” over the underlying semi-fluid mantle and would rise up when freed of the mass of ice that covers it (this is called “isostatic rebound“). The result would be the destabilization of the geological faults in the area: an increase in volcanism, earthquakes, large coastal landslides, and perhaps the sudden release of large amounts of methane from frozen hydrates. The most disastrous results would be Atlantic tsunamis, a phenomenon which so far has been very rare, but that would be enhanced and made more common by climate change. Tsunamis originating in Greenland could hit especially hard Scotland, Norway, and Ireland, but also the Northwestern continental European coast (Holland, in particular) disrupting or destroying an industrial and commercial hub fundamental for the whole Europe. That would surely have worldwide repercussions.

5. “The Big Freeze” (or: “the Younger Dryas reloaded”). A rapid cooling, something of the order of ?5 C (23 F) of the Northern hemisphere. The tumbling into the ocean of the Greenland ice sheet could shut down the North-Atlantic thermoaline circulation. As we have seen in the movie “The day after tomorrow,” that would generate a rapid cooling of the Northern hemisphere. It is believed that something similar has already occurred during the period called the “Younger Dryas“, around 12,000 years ago; probably  caused by the sudden release into the Atlantic of the cold water of a lake (“Lake Agassiz”) when the ice dam that kept it locked in place gave way. (yes, it is the plot of the second film of “the ice age” series, the one titled “The Meltdown”). In the case of the Younger Dryas, the freeze appears to have taken place in a few years. Imagine if something similar were to happen today: the consequences would be, well, unimaginable, even if we were to assume that they would affect only the Northern Hemisphere.

6. “The great sea onrush” The sea rise generated by the rapid melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets wipes out most of the coastal cities and infrastructures. The disappearance of the ice sheets of Greenland and of Antarctica is not so much a hypothesis as a virtual certainty, given the present trends. That would lead to a sea level rise of some 7 meters (24 feet) from Greenland alone, plus about 3 meters from West Antarctica, and further contribution from the slower melting of other ice sheets. However, it is normally believed that this event would unfold in centuries or millennia and that humans would have time to adapt (perhaps). After all, as it is often said, what is affected by the sea rise “is only real estate”. But let’s imagine that the process were much, much faster – taking place in a few decades or even less at least for one of the two most unstable ice sheets in the world: Greenland and West Antarctica. You would not see the onrush of giant waves submerging coastal cities, as in the “2012″ movie, but the sea rise would still be so fast that there would be no time to build levees or to relocate buildings and facilities inland. The result would be a frantic rush inland, while vital industrial and transportation infrastructure would have to be abandoned. A true global disaster.

7. “Tickling the tail of the dragon” (or: “Shooting yourself with the clatrhate gun”). A giant, human caused methane release and the consequent rapid rise in temperature. Let’s imagine that some well intentioned people try to solve the energy crisis by extracting methane from buried hydrates (or clathrates) at the bottom of the ocean. Now, imagine that by drilling inside these clathrate reservoirs triggers a self-reinforcing release phenomenon. Just like BP didn’t know how to stop the Macondo well leakage, the companies drilling – say – in the Arctic ocean, would discover that they don’t know how to plug the hole they have drilled and that, even if they could, more and more holes are appearing by themselves. The result is a massive release of methane in the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas much more powerful than carbon dioxide. As a consequence, the “worst case” IPCC scenarios unfold in a few years instead of a century. The results? Well, possibly all the four previous scenarios: collapse of the ice sheets, oceanic thermohaline shutdown and all the dire consequences. But also extensive climate disruption and the desertification of temperate region. You wouldn’t speak anymore of “drought in California” for the same reasons why you don’t normally speak of “drought in the Sahara desert”. California would become like the Sahara desert (and not just California). Totally global disaster.

8. Goldilock’s disasters” or “The great climate rebound”. Geoengineering can backfire. We can imagine multiple disasters arising from well intentioned but ill conceived efforts to reduce global warming. Spraying particulate in the upper atmosphere, or maybe putting giant mirrors in orbit, would cool the earth, but we don’t know how it would affect the weather patterns. For instance, it could weaken the Indian Ocean monsoon and condemn at least a billion of people to starvation. Or, one could go too far in the opposite direction and cool the planet too much, (too much of a good thing) with effects similar to those of a nuclear winter. Finally, imagine that a major economic crisis defunds the geoengineering effort. Or, imagine that a major spin campaign convinces people that it was a hoax or useless (that’s possibly the most realistic element of this scenario). Then, as the sunscreens fall, the earth returns to warming with a vengeance, as it would do after a nuclear winter and temperatures shot up so fast that, before screening can be resumed, it is too late. And that’s truly global!

9. “The world as a giant gas chamber“. What if CO2 turns out to be not so harmless as it is commonly believed? CO2 is often defined as “plant food” and it is believed that it cannot negatively affect human health until it reaches concentrations over at least 10 times the present values. However, it is also true that our species evolved in conditions of CO2 atmospheric concentrations below 300 ppm and that the present concentrations of 400 ppm have never been experienced by our ancestors. As the concentration of atmospheric CO2 keeps building up, we could reach concentrations four of five times larger than those which have been the rule for the past million years or so. CO2 is a reactive molecule which, among other things, would affect the blood pH and it has been argued that concentrations over 425 ppm would already have negative effects on human health; to say nothing of much higher values. So, if we discover that we have transformed the planet into a giant gas chamber, what would we do?

10 “Venus, the ultimate disaster.”  Temperatures could go up high enough to kill everything. The “Venus Scenario” is an extreme version of the “runaway greenhouse” effect. As temperatures go up, more and more water vapor is pumped into the atmosphere. Since water vapor is a greenhouse gas, it causes further warming of the atmosphere. At its extreme limit, the process could self-reinforce to the point that the oceans would completely evaporate. Temperatures could become so high that carbonates in the crust would be decomposed and that would create a dense atmosphere saturated with CO2. Add some sulfuric acid generated by volcanoes and you have transformed Earth into something very similar to Venus. Temperatures would reach several hundred degrees C at the surface; no liquid water, no life. Right now, the solar radiation arriving on the earth is believed to be not high enough to generate the kind of feedback that would transform earth into a twin of Venus. But there are always uncertainties in these calculations and the “Venus scenario” cannot be completely ruled out. The only escape from the Venus catastrophe would be leaving Earth for another planet, supposing that humans were able to build spaceships early enough. This is, clearly, the ultimate catastrophe: the sterilization of the whole planet.

It is fiction, it is only fiction, but……..

Offline agelbert

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Re: Cli-Fi
« Reply #1 on: September 04, 2014, 05:03:23 PM »
Interesting.  :emthup:

As to CO2, always remember the concentration is NEVER going to be an issue for human DIRECT biochemistry and breathing. For decades, the US Navy has run the atmosphere inside their nuclear submarines at 8,000 Parts Per Million. Nobody is adversely affected.

The CO2 problem is mainly associated with ocean acidification along with the temperature rise. The arthropods and mollusks (that are almost at the bottom of the ocean food chain that feeds on phytoplankton) simply CANNOT adapt to dissolving Calcium carbonate shell and chitinous shell weakening from increased acidification caused by the CO2 absorbed by the oceans. They die. Then all the other more complex ocean life dies too. The function of all this life involves fertilization of much photosynthetic type life. The end result is a a lot of microscopic phytoplankton and some microscopic zooplankton that feeds on it in a high acid and low oxygen ocean. That's THE BIGGEST problem with CO2 concentration above 350 PPM followed by other green house gas increases like methane to supercharge the heating. The point is we run out of food long before we run out of breathable atmosphere.

And throughout it, we INCREASE the viability and reach of viruses and disease bacteria vectors. They LIKE heat.

So we have to do whatever we can to get back to 350 ppm and transition to a 100% Renewable Energy Civilization QUICKLY.

If you agree, please sign my petition: 

About this Petition:

This action is important because the health and very survival of future generations depends on it. We must strive tirelessly to provide a Viable Biosphere for our children. They deserve as beautiful a planet as the one we have lived in.

It's time to reverse all this environmental trashing and get real about the fact that sustainability is not optional for a caring, intelligent human population. We are the caretakers of the biosphere because we are self aware beings. It's high time we began living up to our responsibility to be good stewards of nature.

"Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors; we borrow it from our Children." Ancient American Indian Proverb

Progress on Petition to Demand a 100% World War 2 Style Transition to Renewable energy using the Manufacturing Miracle Model of the Liberty Ships:

Name not displayed, WA Sep 02, 08:18 # 364

Ms. O'Neill Louchard, WA Sep 01, 21:16 # 363

Mr. Milt Hetrick, CO Sep 01, 18:53 # 362 The simple installation of rooftop solar Pv and a geothermal heat pump to replace our gas furnace allowed us to transition totally away from fossil fuel - 8 of the Solar panels provide enough power for us to drive our EV 10,000 mile per year without fossil fuel. It took about 8 working days to make this transition to solar.
  :emthup:  :icon_sunny:


Mr. Richard Horton, ME Sep 01, 09:36 # 361 Where are your priorities, people? This petition has been up for some time -- only 360 people signed so far???? That is very discouraging! The issue of changing over to renewable energy is so important that it's hard to understand the lack of signers here. WAKE UP !!!!
Mr. Jose Castro Reino, NJ Aug 31, 19:54 # 360
Ms. Jan Thomas, IL Aug 25, 06:51 # 359 OK--358 signers in two months. I guess that says something about how much we care about the most critical issue of our lives!

Ms. Pam Russell, CO Aug 08, 14:08 # 353 Please get moving on cleaning up the environmental damage; on putting all USA intellectual and technical energy, governmental funding into transitioning to CLEAN ENERGY! We the People are SO tired of waiting the "The change we can believe in." Fracking, deep sea drilling, nuclear power plants, spreading poisons over our farmlands, pouring poisons, filth, fossil fuels, etc., into our lakes and rivers, manufacturing SO MUCH JUNK THAT IS MOSTLY PLASTIC only to throw it into landfills, AND THE OCEANS - This ALL MUST STOP IMMEDIATELY!! PLEASE!

Mr. Ron McCullough, TN Jul 18, 19:51 # 304 We as a nation have to free ourselves from the tyranny and boundless greed of the fossil fuel oligarchs that keep us in the Dark Ages of renewable energy. How is it good governance to destroy the Earth for short term gains for the 1%? It's not. It's the result of corruption and cowardice of elected officials and it must stop!

Mr. Troy Kilbourne, MN Jul 18, 18:48 # 303 A "Manhattan Project" for renewable energy is, I believe, the only thing that can reverse our course towards catastrophic climate change. We did it back then, and we can do it now.

Mr. Stephen Spaulding, NH Jul 17, 06:00 # 302 The fossil fuel industry knows its stranglehold on us inevitably has to end. It's feverishly trying every way it can to lock us into dependence for another half-century. We cannot allow this to happen.

Ms. Jean Elliott, IL Jul 16, 09:44 # 300 This is an emergency. Climate and pollution disasters loom unless we get off fossil fuels.

Sandra Doney, LA Jul 15, 13:02 # 294 Let's care about quality of life and get our priorities straight!

Ms. Cecily Smith, AB Jul 13, 15:01 # 288 The technology for renewable energy has already been developed and just needs investment.Leave fossil fuels down in the ground, No more pipelines!  

Here is the link to the petition:

Thank you and please pass it on. The Biosphere you save WILL BE your own!
Leges         Sine    Moribus      Vanae   
if it has not works, is dead, being alone.