ARE FOREST FIRES OUR DEFAULT FUTURE?

 Image Courtesy: NASA Worldview, Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS)

Image Courtesy: NASA Worldview, Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS)

In my part of the world (Ontario, Canada) we’ve had a summer of devastating forest fires, but we were far from alone in that. The Canadian province of British Columbia has been hit even harder, and the US state of California has been on fire all summer. Siberia has been ravaged, Greece endured a fire that killed 83 people, and Berlin firefighters are now battling a blaze that includes the threat of unexploded WWII ammunition. NASA’s Worldview imagery appears to show “A World On Fire”. Surely this extraordinary heat and drought is the result of human-caused climate change, some will say. But others in my province will refute that, pointing out that this past winter persisted for a month longer than usual (True).

These seeming contradictions are why scientists now use the term “climate change” rather than “global warming”. It’s most likely that the addition of extra heat energy to Earth’s atmosphere is behind these weather extremes, but it doesn’t (yet) mean that we’ll have warmer days all year long. It does mean that weather patterns in the coming decades will be a whole lot different from those of the past century and more.

Earlier this month, William Gibson (@GreatDismal)—author of SF classics like Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive, and the recent The Peripheral—tweeted this:

All imagined futures lacking recognition of anthropogenic climate-change will increasingly seem absurdly shortsighted. Virtually the entire genre will be seen to have utterly missed the single most important thing we were doing with technology.

It’s hard to argue with that, unless you’re a stalwart climate change denier. Humans have done some big things: inventing the wheel, crop cultivation, electricity, space travel. But we’ve never done anything as momentous as changing the weather systems of the whole planet long-term. To set a story in the future and ignore climate change seems lazy, at best, and irresponsible at worst. A case might be made that to ignore climate change is to deny climate change, and science fiction writers like to think of ourselves as devoted supporters of rationality. The world desperately needs voices of reason, not flat-Earth types. (I speak from some experience: Canadians elected a climate-change-denying prime minister for two terms, and the newest premier of my province has just muzzled all of his government ministries on the subject. Hard to believe.)

We’ll almost certainly see more summers like this one, and worse. Journalist Ed Struzik, author of Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future describes the combination of factors that have seen the number, intensity, and size of forest fires steadily escalate and the cost of fighting them soar. More and more people are visiting and building communities within the boreal forest. Plus our very act of suppressing fires produces forests full of tinder-dry debris just waiting for a match or a bolt of lightning. In May of 2016 88,000 people were evacuated from the Canadian city of Fort McMurray when a raging wildfire destroyed more than 2000 homes and buildings, and continued to burn for three months. Experts predict more fires like that will happen. Especially in hot, dry climates such as California’s—that state has been home to seven of the ten costliest wildfires of the US in the past twenty years. Struzik also points out that subarctic and arctic areas of Sweden, Siberia, and even Greenland are suffering huge fires that not only produce lots of smoke and carbon monoxide, but also thaw swaths of permafrost, releasing vast amounts of trapped carbon dioxide, boosting the “greenhouse effect” and raising global temperatures still further. So we should expect a future with even more fires.

But does it have to be that way? And should SF writers be manacled by that outlook when we write about the future? William Gibson seems to suggest that such scenarios are the default future of the planet Earth. But SF writer and futurist Karl Schroeder wrote an insightful blog post for Tor.com recently called “Escaping The Default Future When Writing Science Fiction”. His main point (like a recent post of mine about having kids) is that economic, political, technological, and (yes) climate-related factors will all push the human population downward. And lower population will reduce the relentless pressure toward some kind of human-created apocalypse. We might not ruin the planet after all!

Schroeder doesn’t dwell on climate change per se, but his hopeful outlook includes the kind of post-scarcity society that Star Trek is known for. And, just maybe, the lower demand for fossil fuels and industrial processes that stimulate global warming will come in time to give human efforts to mitigate climate change a chance to work.

I’m not optimistic enough to say that we’ll escape a century or so of very difficult times caused by the way we’ve messed up the atmosphere, but at least it might not be permanent. We might not be forced to undergo an exodus into outer space—it’s still possible that the Earth of a few centuries from now will be a pleasant place to live.

So I hereby give myself permission to keep some hope in my SF.