By Gary Symons
Since my first novel hit the Amazon shelves, and also hit the Top 20 for Canadian high tech Sci Fi, a lot of people asked me why I wrote this book. Why this topic, and why now?
It came generally out of my concerns about climate change, and the more research I did, the more concerned I became. While I no longer work full-time in journalism, I’m still a journalist at heart. Research and writing is my life’s blood, and I literally can’t stop myself from spending hour upon hour researching topics of interest.
But the precise inspiration came when I read sections of the research which will be published in the next major report – The Sixth Assessment Report, or AR6 – by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That report is due in 2021, but some parts of it can be seen now. This particular area of research I’m referring to has less to do with climatology, and more to do with politics, industry, culture, and human nature.
The research essentially led to the establishment of various political and socioeconomic scenarios to see what impact they would have on climate change in the future. These are called ‘Shared Socio-economic Pathways, or ‘SSPs’. Without getting two complicated, they essentially look at five different scenarios and how they impact humanity’s attempts to mitigate global warming over the next 80 years.
The SSP scenarios range from a relatively rosy scene in SSP-1, called ‘Taking the Green Road’, to very negative scenarios such as SSP-3, with the authors call ‘The Rocky Road’. The first scenario results in global warming of 1 to 1.9 degrees of global warming over pre-industrial levels, and paints a pretty bright future of our world in 2100.
By contrast, SSP-3 is indeed a Rocky Road. It shows what would theoretically happen if the world’s efforts to mitigate climate change are interrupted or derailed by increased nationalism, a lack of global cooperation, continuing disparity between rich and poor nations, increased military conflict, and so on. Climatologists predict that if the SSP-3 scenario is followed, it will result in a temperature increase of more than 4 degrees Celsius, perhaps even 5 degrees.
That may not sound like that much, but it would result in a catastrophic rise in sea levels of more than two metres; large parts of the world becoming too hot for humans to live in; the collapse of major agricultural areas; widespread famine and plagues; the inability to feed a growing population; and as a result, almost constant military conflict. It is, quite literally, our road to ruin.
Here’s the actual summary of the SSP-3 scenario:
“SSP3: Regional rivalry (A Rocky Road)
A resurgent nationalism, concerns about competitiveness and security, and regional conflicts push countries to increasingly focus on domestic or, at most, regional issues. Policies shift over time to become increasingly oriented toward national and regional security issues. Countries focus on achieving energy and food security goals within their own regions at the expense of broader-based development. Investments in education and technological development decline. Economic development is slow, consumption is material-intensive, and inequalities persist or worsen over time. Population growth is low in industrialized and high in developing countries. A low international priority for addressing environmental concerns leads to strong environmental degradation in some regions.”
The reason this struck me is that, even while scientists are researching these scenarios, the world has clearly taken a hard turn toward SSP-3, and away from SSP-1. Specifically the last five years have seen a sharp rise in nationalism in the United States, Europe, many parts of South America, Russia and China. The brief period of cooperation we saw after the Cold War and prior to the Arab Spring has now descended into a state of global chaos.
In the United States, the White House and Senate have pulled back from their allies and friends in all manner of things, from its bonds to NATO to its trade links with the EU to cooperation on the Paris Accord. As well, the White House has reversed decades of progress in environmental protection, and has thrown its considerable weight behind the fossil fuel industry.
Nationalism has also risen in Italy, France, the UK, several Eastern European nations, Russia, most of the Middle Eastern nations, and so on. Part of this was clearly driven by the massive waves of refugees flooding into Europe from conflicts in the Middle East. Some might say these events had little to do with climate change, but in fact, most experts say the conflict in Syria was driven by years of drought, brought on by increasing temperatures and changing weather patterns.
What is truly terrifying about SSP-3 is that there is a feedback loop that increases its effect over time. In other words, the longer cooperation is held back by nationalism and isolationism, the higher global temperatures become, creating more refugees and conflict, which creates even more nationalism and isolationism. And so on.
In the book The Uninhabitable Earth, author David Wallace-Wells explains this feedback loop very effectively, describing a world where we could see in this century a billion or more refugees searching for safe haven, only to meet a literal wall of steel from wealthier nations attempting to preserve their own wealth and the safety of their own citizens. It is, in fact, perfectly logical for nations to do so. Governments serve the people who vote them into power; not refugees from other countries.
Right now, we can’t even handle a few million refugees. The idea of a billion refugees is beyond comprehension.
In my novel, Burning Earth: Climate Wars, this trend is taken to its logical extreme. Hotter countries face economic devastation, starvation, plague and internal conflict, leading to waves of refugees leaving their homes. Richer nations – just as they are doing today – reject the majority of these refugees, and conflicts erupt on their borders, or even within their countries, driven by terror attacks. In turn, this leads to even greater militarism and isolationism, driving the mitigation of climate change to the bottom of the human priority list.
None of this means the world of my novel is inevitable. Action to mitigate climate change is happening. For example, literally hundreds of investment banks and funds have recently joined alliances pledging to increase investment in ‘Clean Tech’, while pulling their support from fossil fuels and dirty industries. At last count the total of investment pledging allegiance to the Clean Tech movement had reached $47 Trillion, more than half the world’s GDP.
The question now is which future we will choose. Will those with a long-term view and dedication to climate change mitigation win the day? Or, will the nationalists and isolationists succeed in frightening their supporters into focusing on the short term goals of border security and their own economic development.
I think the jury is still out on that question. We could still go down either path, and at the end of the SSP-3 pathway, we literally travel a Rocky Road to potential annihilation. As much as possible I have crafted a story in my novel that plausibly shows what that would will look like, based specifically on the SSP-3 scenario. You won’t see the SSP-3 mentioned in my book though; the entire point was to create an entertaining, highly readable novel that paints the picture in simple, emotional terms. It’s a novel, not a climatology report.
Hopefully, however, novels like Burning Earth will create an awareness of the climate crisis at a gut level. In the end, it will be human emotion that either drives the solution to climate change, or that worsens the crisis. Quite literally, what we choose to fear most will determine the future we live in.