The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Leave a comment

A Third Novel Excerpt

This is a short excerpt from an early draft of my novel-in-progress, Ecological Memory. The book is set twenty years after the sudden end of civilization and, with it, the Age of Fossil Fuel. A new civilization is starting to put itself together. Climate change is one element of the story, given that the characters are creating a true post-petroleum society and coping with a changed climate.

The climatologist, Diana Cartwright, traveled with an apprentice, a big, physically powerful man named Dashawn Harris. Not only was his body tall and broad but his thick black beard covered half his chest and a full mane of narrow dreadlocks hung to his shoulders and swung when he walked. Even his personality seemed big and not quite in control. Some irrepressible giggle seemed always about to burst forth. Beside him, Diana looked like a tiny but very authoritative bird. Elzy liked both of them immediately.

Elzy and Dashawn left the others to catch up in private and ate lunch with each other. While they ate, a thick, driving rain blew in, thundering on the roof. Occasional rumbles of actual thunder added to the noise. Dashawn could talk over the din without effort. He ate much and with much enjoyment and told a long series of wonderfully horrible jokes that made Elzy blush and choke on her food. And Elzy didn’t blush over such jokes easily–she could be pretty ribald herself, when not around Andy. Besides being very funny, Dashawn was a self-taught roboticist. Dr. Cartwright was his teacher, rather, she was his partner and supervisor in the project that he hoped would make him a real professional. He was going to design and program her drones.

“I make things friggin’ fly, dude,” he explained. “Oh, sorry—dudette.”

After lunch, the gusty rain continued. There being little else to do, the four of them sat together in the dining hall off the little museum and chatted about their work. Andy described some of his projects but in brief and vague terms suitable for social discourse. Diana was more technical, excitedly bubbling forth about the acute lack of data plaguing her field. Elzy had learned of the problem in school, but she had not heard the details. She could not tell whether Andy had or not.

The woman explained that a number of research stations had brought trace gas detectors online over the last five or ten years and the carbon dioxide concentration seemed to be falling slowly but steadily. That was the good news. The bad news was that the detectors underestimated methane, chlorofluorocarbons, and hydrofluorocarbons, because all those powerful greenhouses gasses were all concentrated in clouds near their release points. No one knew where most of the release points were, so no one had any idea how much was actually leaking into the sky. Water vapor, another major greenhouse gas, was a problem too, since no one had enough data to accurately model the changing hydrologic cycle. In days gone by all this could have been studied by satellite, but launching new satellites was still out of the question.

Climatology was basically flying blind.

Dr. Cartwright wanted to use her drones to replace the satellites, at least within American airspace. Her plan called for hundreds of solar-powered, fully autonomous drones able to fly repeated transects across hundreds of miles, sampling trace gasses, humidity, wind speed and direction, and temperature. Obviously, building and flying that many drones would take a lot of money and the permission of many different air traffic jurisdictions—but few towns would raise money for climatological research, which most people still saw as irrelevant. Most climatologists depended on private donations, but Diana needed money on an entirely different scale.

Her solution was to seek funding through the meteorological observatories. The towns did fund those, because everybody needed accurate weather predictions, and the meteorologists missed the satellites, too. Diana hoped to find ways to make her drone networks serve the observatories, so that they would fund the project. Perhaps she could use existing weather drone data as well.

Elzy enjoyed listening to the woman describe her project. Before long, they had tentative plans for Elzy to do a lecture circuit on behalf of Diana’s work the following year in order to help secure the cooperation of more towns. They traded contact information. Andy smiled slightly.

The four spent the day together. Elzy never heard Andy talk to Diana about anything besides work, but he seemed happy at it. Before she retired for the night, Diana said that if the weather cleared she would head up Tuckerman’s Ravine early. As she explained, a person of her age did not climb mountains quickly and she wanted to be able to get right to work that same day. Andy said goodbye to her with typical cool professionalism and she replied in kind. A fond twinkle in her eye told Elzy she was used to it.

“Dr. Cartwright!” Elzy called, giving in to curiosity at last, “what is that humming? Do you hear it?”

“Oh, yes,” the woman said, turning back towards her and smiling. “It’s just my dancing pants!” And she pulled up one leg of her trousers to reveal the straps and bars of a robotic exoskeleton. She was paraplegic.

“You’re going up Tucks in an exo?” Elzy exclaimed. Most exos she had seen were cranky and stiff. The older models required use of canes or crutches.

“I told you I do good work,” Dashawn said, and winked.

In the above passage, I’m touching on several issues. One is that, without fossil fuel, all use of energy is going to get more expensive. While I hate to say never, I’d be surprised if any technology ever gives us as much energy as fossil fuel did, at least not without also giving us similarly serious side-effects. Giving up fossil fuel will mean adjusting to a lower-energy society. What advanced technology will do is give us more energy-efficient ways of doing things so that we won’t miss that extra energy. But there may be some exceptions. In the novel, I’m guessing that one such exception will be the loss of the space program–which would cause a serious problem for both meteorological and climatological research.

But I also believe that most problems have solutions.

Another issue stems from the way many people talk about technology as if it existed as a series of ridgedly structured steps–there is the accusation “you want to take us back to the Stone Age!” As if, were we to give up certain technologies, we would also suddenly find ourselves without all of the scientific and cultural progress we’ve made since whatever-it-was was invented. If course that isn’t true.

In my novel, there are no more personal automobiles. Cars and trucks exist, but for emergency use only. The sustainable energy sources that sustain them are too expensive for every-day use. So this is a society where people walk or ride horses or use carts drawn by horses or oxen. But it is also a society where a paraplegic woman can wear a robotic exoskeleton so advanced that she can walk up Tuckerman’s Ravine on Mt. Washington, an extremely challenging trail.

Not to mention the fact that she is a world-class climatologist and no one ever uses either her gender or her race (the character is Indian) to question her ability.

All this is fiction, of course, but there is a place for dreaming.