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Author Robinson Discusses the Urgency of Climate Crisis in Presidential Lecture

Robinson lecture screen
Robinson lecture screen
President Maurie McInnis hosted science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, appearing on screen, at the April 1 Presidential Lecture in the Charles B. Wang Center. Photos by John Griffin.

Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels often end at an academic conference, in which researchers discuss ways for improving civilization, and his recommendations for addressing climate change also include researchers and scientists coming together to develop change on a global scale.

“We have made much more rapid the natural processes of geology, the human release of CO2 in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, much of it in the last 30 years as part of the great acceleration, and this is really new in geological history,” said Robinson, the featured speaker at the April 1 Presidential Lecture. “This has never happened before. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We do know that it’s dangerous and unstable.”

The event was the second Presidential Lecture of “Answering the Call: A Special Series on Climate Change,” hosted by Stony Brook President Maurie McInnis. Robinson addressed the campus community virtually and answered questions submitted by the audience in the Charles B. Wang Center Theatre.

Robinson has written more than 20 books, which frequently explore environmental themes. His masterpiece, The Ministry for the Future, was selected as one of Barack Obama’s favorite books from 2020 and one of Bill Gates’ “5 Great Books for the Summer” in 2022. It explores the interplay of politics, technology and ethics in climate change.

Robinson lecture presThough Robinson holds a PhD in English, he attends scientific conferences for research so that his novels are factually accurate, and offer plausible solutions to the climate crisis.

“Not only are so many of us avid fans, your work speaks to us as a university as we unite creativity as scientific thinking and respond to the urgent need for effective, thoughtful solutions to climate change,” said McInnis in her opening remarks.

The Ministry for the Future begins with a “wet-bulb” heat wave, a mixture of heat and humidity in which it becomes more difficult to shed excess heat and sweat evaporates slowly, if at all. In these conditions, even in shade, a healthy person will not survive.

These heat waves have occurred recently in Australia, India, Mexico, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, among other places. “Once the electricity system goes off and shuts down if the grid fails, people in that temperature only have hours to live even if they are indoors in the shade,” said Robinson. “Even with a fan on you, none of that will work in extreme heat and humidity combinations. The situation is severe.”

He outlined climate intervention methods to help cool the planet, including the urgent need to draw down carbon from the atmosphere to prevent a “hothouse Earth” scenario. He described the dangers of releasing frozen carbon and methane, which could lead to an “ice-free hothouse Earth,” and the importance of using radical climate interventions, despite moral hazard concerns, to save lives in extreme heat events.

Addressing climate change, Robinson noted, will require a coordinated global effort, and there is a need for a massive infusion of money to save the Earth. “If we could have gotten a 9% rate of return for destroying the world and 6% for saving the world, we’re going to go for the 9% because we don’t care about the world,” he said. “We like capital, so we go to the highest rate of return. And so do governments. If you want us to invest in good things like saving the Earth, you need to indemnify us, we need to be insured by the government.”

Robinson urged current Stony Brook students to find meaningful work that may be found for students graduating in any discipline. “Well, now we have climate despair. This is a shift in the structure of feeling, but the notion that life is meaningless can quickly be changed with meaningful work to get into a balance with the biosphere,” he said. “Whatever you are interested in, you can find the green angle in it.”

While Robinson admits feeling “not so much pessimistic as terrified” when creating the vision painted in The Ministry for the Future, he feels hope after seeing the coordinated scientific response to the pandemic, during which “everybody got a punch on the nose,” where we were forced to work together globally in order to fight COVID-19.

“The pandemic slapped us in the face with the realization that the biosphere could kill us and change your life drastically on a turning of a dime. I think that gave The Ministry for the Future more force in people’s minds when they read it,” he said. “It comes down to this: we really are paying attention and trying to do things and I’ve seen huge commitments by people all across the board, governments, diplomats, business people, academics, all of them focused on can we deal with this problem, and that is a powerful combination of social forces. I didn’t think that was true when I wrote the book, but now I think it is true.”

Robinson left the audience with a message of hope. “I want you to think of your Governors Island Project as being an exercise in utopian science fiction. You’re going to be looking out 50 years and saying, ‘it could be like this.’ The dystopias are too obvious and they’re painfully boring and repetitive. Instead, look to what could be if we work together to mitigate the climate crisis.”

— Beth Squire



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