This is part 3 of a 3-part series on the sea level changes we will likely need to deal with in the future, and what science fiction has to say about the matter. Earlier posts are here: Part 1, Part 2.
“May You Live in Interesting Times”
What will people do when the sea rises as much as 6″ a year, and in a few years washes away their beachfront homes, and floods the streets of their coastal towns and cities? What will businesses do, when in a relative handful of years, the properties they own and have developed become worthless structures below sea level on a new flood plain? It’s certain they won’t have buyers for those properties, and they can forget flood insurance, once the inevitability of the sea’s encroachment becomes evident to all.
How will society and government respond when the public discourse switches from, “it’s not going to happen anytime soon, if it happens at all,” to, “Oh my God, we’re losing our homes, businesses, and the urban area where our friends, family, and resources are.” It is a scenario that reminds one of Katrina, on a global scale: not as abrupt, but every bit as long-term devastating as the waters that swallowed vital parts of New Orleans.
Maybe the Katrina experience holds some vital lessons for us, some clues about what not to do, and how best to navigate a future where the earth has changed around us. We will certainly need some role models and inspiring visions for the eventuality of dealing with significant sea level changes. Right now real-life examples are few, and it is here, perhaps, that science fiction can be helpful. Stories let us test drive scenarios, explore responses in an imaginary realm before we need to work them out in the material world we live in. What does science fiction have to say about sea level changes?
I think it’s precisely the job of science fiction to ask these “what if” questions, and to help us look at uncomfortable scenarios of this sort from the safe remove of a fictional distance. While some state and urban agencies are already doing contingency planning for a climate-changed future, these issues have barely begun to surface in the public consciousness. Science fiction allows us to think them through in advance, see how they might play out, and gives us a role-playing jumpstart on possible reactions and responses to disaster.
So far there is not a large quantity of climate-change related sf on the market. I predict there will be a significant jump in this genre of science fiction over the coming decade, as we see more earth changes that cannot be ignored. Right now, there is what I think of as the “pebbles before the avalanche” of this kind of future exploration. They seem to fall into two camps: one is directly climate change related, the other is catastrophic climate change on the heels of an unimaginable and sudden earth-scale disaster. Some things in this vein that have left an impression on me:
Lucifer’s Hammer. This 1985 classic by Niven and Pournelle takes as its jumping off point the scenario of the earth being impacted by a comet. It causes quakes orders of magnitude off the Richter scale, creates globe-flooding upheaval in the oceans, forces abrupt temperature shifts (in this case, global cooling) and climate change. This is on a scale with events posited in prehistoric times that might account for dinosaur die-offs and so on. The bulk of the story is about survival and rebuilding civilization after such a literally earth-shaking event. The science and the descriptive fiction about the sudden climate change is riveting. Though perhaps not directly relevant to real futures we may face in the coming decades, it touches on global change. Its speculation on massive public response to disaster is interesting food for thought.
Forty Signs of Rain. This 2005 book by Kim Stanley Robinson deals directly with global warming, and the consequences thereof. It portrays an all-too-realistic scenario of scientists and engaged civil servants battling endless bureaucracy and political in-fighting that stifles any effective response to rising sea levels and altered storm and weather patterns.
If you check out the flood map link and play with it a bit, you’ll see that a 2-meter sea level increase imperils portions of Washington, D.C, and a higher rise overtly floods areas of the city. Even at the modest 2-meter level, during threatening weather a storm surge could make parts of the city unusable and uninhabitable, just as New Orleans succumbed to Katrina. How will our government function if our seat of government is destroyed or incapacitated by natural forces? Without adequate planning and response, the damage done even by something predictable like flooding is out of all proportion to the actual event. Again, witness New Orleans’ unhappy experience. Robinson describes such an event on the heels of rains and a record storm surge, atop already elevated oeans:
Constitution Avenue looked like the Grand Canal in Venice. Beyond it the Mall was like a rainbeaten lake. Water sheeted equally over streets,m sidewalks and lawns. Charlie recalled teh shock he had felt many years before, leaving the Venice train station and seeing the canal right there outside the door. A city floored with water. Here it was quite shallow, of course. But the front steps of all the buildings came down into an expanse of brown water, and the water was all at one level, as with any other lake or sea. Brown-blue, blue-brown, brown-gray, brown, gray, dirty white – drab urban tints all. The rain pocked it into an infinity of rings and bounding droplets, and gusts of wind tore cats’ paws across it. (Forty Signs of Rain, p361)
A.I. – Artificial Intelligence, Steven Spielberg’s provocative and moving science fiction film from 2001, considers a similar scenario. Global warming is a given and its effects are present as part of the backdrop of the movie. Here, the flooded city scenario moves to New York, where the stark image of the drowned Statue of Liberty, only her hand and torch above the waves, tells the sad tale of the submergence of that metropolis. (I consider this one of the top 10 sf movies of all time. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out. It is something of a Pinnochio story, although with a sad, maybe bittersweet ending instead of a happy one.)
Other sf works include global warming as part of the backdrop in notable ways. In Bruce Sterling’s Heavy Weather, the focus is on monster storms and tornados born of a runaway greenhouse environment. In the background of the movie Blade Runner, the constant rain is because of climate change, though I don’t recall how this is treated in Philip K. Dick’s original book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In Kim Stanley Robinson’s excellent trilogy about the colonization of Mars (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars), the people of an overpopulated Earth struggle to adjust to the consequences of global warming run amuk, including sea level rises, elevated temperatures, food shortages, and more. The references to this are brief, but compelling glimpses into a possible future – one I hope we can use our real-world knowledge to mitigate.
Do you know of other science fiction dealing with the consequences of global warming, or related aspects of climate change? Please share your reading or media suggestions in the comments.