Friday, April 3, 2009

Doomsday is Not a Foregone Conclusion

In Book III of The Chathrand Voyage (still very much a work in progress) I am struggling to inhabit the minds of people who believe they're witnessing the end of the world. Quite a challenge, especially for someone who hasn't. But the real world, tragically, is proving instructive.

Yesterday, in the frankly excellent Virginia Quarterly, I read that many scientists now believe that the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet may collapse this century, and that among the probable results would be (sit down) a weight shift so massive that the angle of the earth's axis would change by about half a kilometer. That change, along with the newly displaced seawater, would raise Northern Hemisphere sea levels far more than the worst predictions to date. Consider the effects on the U.S. alone:

Boston, Providence, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and the nation's capital would be submerged. Likewise, most of the California coast--from San Francisco to San Diego. Much of southern Florida--Orland, Tampa, Miami--would simply vanish into the sea, as would the cities of the Gulf coast... As many as half of our forty most populous cities would face catastrophe.
It's hard to settle on words to describe the threat we're under; every choice seems inadequate. "Threat" for example, suggests an affliction we're yet to suffer. Not so: millions are already paying for the carbon load in the atmosphere. They pay with their flooded villages, burned forests, withered crops, empty aquifers, blighted lives.

Given such mega-downer news, I try also to keep up with its opposite. Energy efficiency is a bright and hopeful frontier, as Amory Lovins proves each time he harvests bananas at 7000 feet in the Rockies in a house without a furnace. And it is with great satisfaction that I read in the Guardian about a serious, science-backed and likely benign mitigation campaign. This particular idea (more reflectivity in built structures = more heat reflected to space = lower global temperature) is simplicity itself, but it's not the grand solution we'd all love to find. As the scientists themselves point out, mitigation cannot substitute for reducing greenhouse gas emissions--that point must be constantly stressed--but it could buy us some time to avert disaster.

It's gratifying that an idea laymen and carpenters and SFF lovers have long talked about over beers is turning into a policy movement with climatologists' backing. We writers ought to be part of the wider effort. We're in the vision business, aren't we?

P.S.: Just came across this new blog by wonderful SFF writer Vandana Singh, where she discusses the recent Earth Hour project, with great details from Asia.

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