The Climate in Emergency

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

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A Novel Passage

Here is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress of mine. It is set in the near future, twenty years after the Age of Fossil Fuel (and civilization) ends in a cataclysm triggered by a global pandemic. Two characters are talking while hiking in Western Maine.  Andy is middle-aged now and remembers the world before the pandemic (our world) clearly. He is an ecologist. Elzy is in her mid-twenties and has lost her childhood memories.”Data” refers to a tropical storm that passed through recently. “Loosianer” is another hiker. This novel won’t be out for a year or two, but if you want to see what else I’m working on, check out my website, News from Caroline.

“Why did the pandemic have to happen?” She asked Andy. They were walking now through a mixed conifer forest with a rocky, irregular floor and a broken, equally irregular crown. The area had been damaged by an ice storm the previous winter and a couple more trees had come down in Data’s deluge. The place had a primeval, mystical feel. The weather was hot, sunny, and almost literally steaming after yet more rain.

Several days had passed since they’d seen the back of Loosianer, and they’d spent those days talking of inconsequential things or, more frequently, not talking at all. But the whole time, Elzy had kept returning to the thought of what might have been and the losses she could not remember. She stopped at the top of a little rise and waited for Andy to catch up to her. She was faster than he was on short slopes, though he had more discipline and hence more stamina.

“Why did the pandemic have to happen?” he repeated, when he came up alongside her. “What do you mean? I don’t know that it did have to happen.”

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s an irrational question. It just seems so meaningless for all those people to have died.”

“Maybe nothing has meaning unless we decide to give it some.” He leaned on his hiking poles for a moment, puffing his breath out in a sigh. Whether he was physically tired or emotionally so, Elzy couldn’t tell. Either way, he walked on, conserving momentum. He would not risk resting for long.

“I just keep thinking,” Elzy began, picking her way downhill after him, “why couldn’t everything have stayed the way it was? But I don’t suppose that’s an answerable question.”

“On the contrary, that one is answerable. Humanity’s energy use was unsustainable. Pandemic, transitioning away from fossil fuel, global warming, whatever form it took, radical change was inevitable.”

“Climate change and everything else would have changed things already? I mean, if we hadn’t been forced to quit oil?”

“Things were changing already when I was a kid.

“No, I mean, would things have fallen apart already?”

“Maybe. Maybe not, unless you lived in Manhattan, or Boston or Miami or Mobile.” He was referring to cities whose ruins had been raked by major hurricanes and which, presumably, would have been destroyed either way. It wasn’t an exhaustive list. “But generally? It’s hard to say. The climate might not be too different from what we see today—there’s a certain amount of lag-time in the system. Before the pandemic, heat-related illnesses and deaths were rising. There were a lot of droughts and floods and heat waves and so on. Food prices were starting to rise globally. It triggered weird problems in some of the poorer countries, revolutions and extremism and terrorism, which they then exported to their neighbors and to us. But you could ignore it, if you were wealthy and lucky, and many people did.”

Andy’s voice grew distant while Elzy climbed over and through a fallen tree. When she caught up to him he was waiting for her beside a soft little low point in the trail. She could see where water had coursed here, muddy and foaming, when Data came through. Wrack-lines of needles and leaves ran along some two or three feet above where clear water now trickled through braided beds of mud and sand.

“If we say for the sake of simplicity,” Andy continued, “that those trends would have continued…would national security and natural disaster costs between them have bankrupted the country by now? Would something else have caused the United States to unravel? Our descendants would be pretty well done for, but it’s possible the lucky and wealthy would still be able to pretend otherwise. Except”–and he hopped lightly across the water, turned, and faced her again. “Nothing is ever simple.” His eyes lit. All hint of exhaustion was gone. He grinned like he was daring her to join him in something.

“How so?” Elzy asked, from her side of the little stream.

“You remember bifurcation points?”

“Yes.” She had studied them in a class he taught, years ago in Pennsylvania. They were instances where complex systems—organisms, ecosystems, the biosphere—changed suddenly, like a switch had been flipped, and thereafter followed a completely different set of rules. Like how a hollow ball of cells could abruptly fold in on itself, becoming a human embryo with the recognizable beginnings of a spinal column, in a matter of hours. Bifurcation points aren’t random, their locations in familiar processes (like embryo development) are well-known, but neither can they be predicted from prior conditions alone. The first time such a system goes through a new process, anything could happen. “So, you mean we could have passed a tipping point by now, some kind of runaway positive feedback loop that would make everything horrible?”

“Or made everything better. Don’t forget, human societies are complex systems, too.”

Elzy hopped across the stream and landed beside him.

“You mean–we might have done it. We might have gotten off fossil fuel on our own?”