Paul Briggs

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The Day The Icecap Died

I started writing this story because, well, nobody else was doing it. Like a lot of people, I had read the projections of the Arctic Ocean having its first ice-free moment in human history some time in the 2020s.

Nobody seems to know what happens after that. The consensus seems to be that seasonal patterns of temperature and rainfall in the northern hemisphere will be altered in ways that will make many heavily populated parts of it much harder to survive in and seriously inconvenience anyone trying to grow crops, but no one can say exactly what this will look like.

So I decided to take a guess. I'm not a climatologist or anything, I'm just winging it.

I wrote this for, in the "Future History" section where only registered members could read it. Since it won the 2013 Turtledove Award for Best New Future, I thought I'd give it a little editing and share it with a wider audience.

I'm currently working on a novel, "Altered Seasons," based on a somewhat updated and modified version of this story.

September 11, 2021

Everyone knew it was going to happen sooner or later, but most people had expected it later in the decade, or perhaps early in the 2030s. It wasn’t until June and its record temperatures that everyone realized it was probably going to happen this year. Nobody saw the precise moment it happened.

Most people were thinking about something else — after all, this was the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. So it was a fairly minor story that when the next satellite overflew the poles, the last traces of sea ice floating in the Nares Strait and the Lincoln Sea were gone. From the Bering Strait to the Barents Sea, from the coast of Siberia to the labyrinth of channels between the Canadian islands, the Arctic Ocean was finally ice-free.

It stayed that way for three weeks.

September ’21-March ‘22

As in every year, with the passing of the autumnal equinox polar twilight and polar night descended over the Arctic Ocean in expanding concentric circles of darkness. The ocean surface, never very far above freezing to begin with, lost its heat to the cooling air.

In early October, the first traces of grease ice appeared. The ice spread, forming a slushy layer over the surface of the ocean that gradually hardened into glittering chunks. The ice chunks thickened and merged. By December, the Arctic Ocean was again covered (mostly) by a reassuring white blanket that reflected light and heat back into the emptiness of space, even as it held in what remained of the heat.

Winter that year was… not too far outside what had come to be accepted as normal. In North America, the jet stream flowed just south of the U.S.-Canada border. There were still snowstorms, although not generally south of the Ohio Valley and the lower Missouri unless you were in the Rockies, where small amounts of snow fell as far south as Flagstaff and Albuquerque. In February, a severe ice storm hit the Carolinas.

The story elsewhere was much the same. Record warm temperatures in France, the Balkans and Iran, record snowfall in Japan and Korea… but overall, not a winter to ring alarm bells. Not compared to those the world had already gone through. And spring, when it came, was if anything slightly cooler than it had been last year, particularly in North American and western Europe.

As it turned out, none of this mattered.

The Feedback Loop

The Arctic ice cap in mid-March of ‘22 was about 14.6 million square kilometers in area — among the smallest on record for that time of year. Considering it had disappeared without trace six months ago, the surprise was how big it was now. Some wondered if they had gotten worried over nothing.

Although area was much easier to measure, looking at the volume would have given a clearer picture of the situation. Comparing the current thin scab of ice to the massive floating layer that had once existed was like comparing a Hollywood backdrop to a brick wall. If by some miracle the Earth’s temperature had suddenly dropped enough to allow some trace of it to survive the summer, it might have formed the core of a new multi-year icecap… but this did not happen.

In May, the same forces that had destroyed the icecap in the first place got to work on its replacement. By the middle of July, there was open water at the North Pole. By August 19, the ice was gone once again.

Deep ocean water has a much lower albedo than ice. Even the weak sunlight of the high latitudes, absorbed by the water, was enough to warm the Arctic Ocean slightly. (“Warm,” of course, is a relative term. The highest it got was between four and five degrees centigrade — not recommended for swimming.) What this meant was that when the polar night came again, it took longer for the ocean to cool down to freezing, which meant less time for ice to form and led to an even thinner icecap that winter… which melted even faster in the spring of 2023, disappearing on July 24.

And so it went. In ’24, in spite of an unusual cold snap in April, the last of the ice melted on July 9. In ’25, it melted on June 18. In ’26, it melted on June 10.

And here was where the trouble began…

The Floods of '24

No one thought much about the heavier-than usual snowfall that hit the Northwest Territories and Alaska in November of 2023. It was within the natural variability of the climate, and affected very few people. The first real hints that something had gone wrong were in the fall of 2024.

Meteorologists mapped the events as “precipitation anomalies” — three huge zones in which the rain was much greater than average for the time of year. Fortunately, one of them was over the North Pacific and affected no one but sailors. The mildest of the three stretched from Quebec and northern New England into the North Atlantic. 175 mm of rain fell on Montreal over the first three weeks of October.

The worst, however, was the one that stretched from the British Isles over Scandinavia and the Baltic coasts into northern Russia. 250 mm fell on St. Petersburg in October. London, no stranger to wet autumns, endured over half a meter of rain between October 1 and November 15. Between the middle of September and the middle of November, Stockholm saw 620 mm of rain.

And that was just the cities. Flash floods killed hundreds in Maine, Norway and Scotland, and the number of people displaced by rising river ran into the millions worldwide. Even the giant Lough Neagh swelled its banks in Northern Ireland. In Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, East Anglia and central Ireland, centers for evacuation had to be evacuated themselves.

That wasn’t the bad news. The bad news was where the rain was coming from.

The rain was coming from the Arctic itself. For the first time since Homo sapiens became capable of recording the weather, the waters around the North Pole were exposed to direct sunlight during the hottest, brightest part of the year. The sun was low on the horizon, but it never set. It never gave the ocean surface a chance to cool down. The effect was like putting a pot of water on the stove, turning the burner underneath it to its lowest setting… and then walking off and forgetting about it for the rest of the day. The result was evaporation, and lots of it.

What was bringing it out of the Arctic was a breakdown in the jet stream. The Arctic Ocean was releasing its moisture, and stored heat, into the atmosphere at about the same time of year that the rest of the Northern Hemisphere was cooling down. The lower the difference in temperature between the temperate and subarctic zones, the weaker the jet stream — and the more easily its course could be deformed by every passing storm.

In other words, as long as the Arctic was ice-free in the summer, this was going to happen every single year in large parts of the Northern Hemisphere. In fact, most years would be a lot worse.

A modern society has many mechanisms for recovery from natural disaster — government agencies, the Red Cross and other nonprofits, the insurance industry. With these, the damage from even the worst floods and storm seasons can be repaired with surprising speed. But all these things are built on certain actuarial assumptions about how much damage Nature is likely to do in a given year or decade. All those assumptions had just been washed out to sea, and no one knew enough to develop any new ones.

This was what climate change meant. What had once been defined as an emergency now had to be taken as normal.

Here Comes the Rain Again

What climatologists had started to call the “Northern Monsoon” began again in September of 2025. Again, it appeared in three great belts. One stretched across the northern United States from Oregon and Washington to the Great Lakes, and extended into southern Canada. Another stretched from southern France to the north slopes of the Caucasus. The third stretched from Manchuria and North Korea into northern Japan and far out into the Pacific.

Again, flash floods struck wherever the soil was thin or the terrain concentrated the water, killing thousands. Elsewhere, rising water flooded many towns and forced the evacuation of whole cities — Kansas City, St. Louis, Budapest, Belgrade, Harbin. In Ukraine, southern Russia, the upper Midwest and the breadbasket of Canada, the floods made planting next year’s winter wheat impossible over huge stretches of territory. 2026 would be a hungry year.

But even outside the rain zones, precipitation was higher than usual. Particularly in the North Atlantic, where the warped and weakened jet stream (described as a “negative phase in the Arctic Oscillation”) altered the courses of winds all over the ocean, drawing many storms to the north. Most of these blew themselves out over water, but in mid-September, a post-tropical depression poured its heart out onto the Vatnajökull in Iceland. Near the beginning of October, another storm hit the southern tip of Greenland.

Nothing destroys a glacier faster than rain. When the season ended, vast amounts of ice had been either melted or broken off by erosion and carried into the sea. It was not enough to raise global sea levels by even one full inch, but between the meltwater and the rain from the storms, there was a broad band of ocean between Cape Farewell and the Hebrides that was cooler and less saline than usual for the time of year… at least on the surface.

And the surface was where the problem was. Normally in that part of the North Atlantic, a certain amount of surface water is always evaporating, leaving its salt behind. The saline water left over, being heavier, sinks into the depths, creating a partial vacuum which is immediately filled by more warm water from the Gulf Stream. This is one of the forces driving the oceanic “conveyor belt” that keeps Europe far more temperate than it would otherwise be.

The weather had just thrown a monkey wrench into that belt. In October, scientists observed a 40-50% reduction in the volume of the North Atlantic Drift. It would be spring before the ocean currents had returned to their former pattern. In the meantime, Europe east of Helsinki, Lviv and Istanbul experienced the worst winter in twenty years — heavy snow alternating with subzero temperatures everywhere north of Madrid and Naples.

Some speculated that this would be the beginning of a major cooling trend for Europe, or perhaps even for the whole world. They pointed to sudden drops in temperature 8,500 and 12,000 years ago, also believed to have been caused by intrusions of glacial meltwater into the North Atlantic. But those events had happened on an immeasurably larger scale, and in a very different world — a world only just emerging from the depths of the last ice age. No one could really say what effect this would have now.

As it turned out, they weren’t even asking all the right questions. An equally valid question would have been “What effect would slowing or stopping the Gulf Stream have at the other end?” After all, at the same time the Gulf Stream was warming Europe, it was cooling the tropics.

The breakdown in the North Atlantic Drift was like closing off two lanes of traffic on a busy highway. As the Gulf Stream slowed, warm tropical water backed up all along the east coast. Some of it turned east further south, into Madeira and North Africa, bringing unexpected heat to the Canary Current. On land, the southeastern United States never really had a winter, and out to sea, the hurricane season didn’t end on November 30. Tropical storms continued to form as late as February. The city of Charleston was hit by a Category 1 hurricane on Christmas Day.

Witnesses to the Dawn of a New Era
Part 1: Snow and Rain and Heat and Gloom of Blight

“Reports coming in say that power has been restored in about ninety percent of the Chicago metropolitan area. However, New York City, Indianapolis and huge swaths of Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania are still without power…

“For the past few years, every winter we’ve been seeing snowfall increase almost everywhere north of the 50th parallel, especially Canada and Russia. Now we’ve got five, six, seven feet of snow covering most of Canada and a stretch of the northern United States. It’s as though this whole area has become upstate New York.

“And along the southern edge, where the warm, moist winds coming up from the Gulf are hitting this massive blanket of snow, that’s where you’re seeing these ice storms. They start out in the upper Midwest and roll east until they hit the ocean.

“The bad news is that according to FEMA, many states are now running short of sand and salt to keep the ice of the roads, and winter isn’t over yet…”

--The Weather Channel, February 9, 2026

“Hurricane Anamarí is expected to make landfall somewhere around Joinville. The Brazilian states of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul, along with southern Paraná, will be the first ones affected before the storm blows itself out over northeastern Argentina. Parts of Paraguay and Uruguay may also see some damage.

“But before any of that happens, this hurricane — a Category 3 — will follow this course, shown here on the map. As you can see, the eye of the storm is running about 30 to 40 miles south of the coast. We’re expecting heavy rain, gale-force winds and storm surges to hit the Rio and São Paulo metropolitan areas. That’s over 30 million people affected before this storm even makes landfall.”

--CNN, March 16, 2026

“…it’s well known that during times of war and states of emergency, the government does everything it can to broaden its reach and to command national sentiment on its own behalf, and all too often succeeds. I could quote Orwell or Randolph Bourne, but there’s hardly a need to. We’ve seen it in American history. Lincoln declaring martial law in Maryland, Woodrow Wilson suppressing dissent, rationing and internment during World War II, the Military Commissions Act of 2006 — again and again, Washington has used wars of one sort or another as an excuse to increase its power, lessen its accountability and diminish the economic or political freedom of the people. And, unfortunately, the people have consented to it, when they weren’t actually cheering it on.

“So what’s changed? Until fairly recently, before it went to war or declared a state of emergency a government needed enemies, and those enemies needed to be other people — foreign powers, rebels, terrorists. Nothing less than that would elicit the sort of reaction the government wanted. When President Carter called for the nation to wage ‘the moral equivalent of war’ on the energy crisis, to reshape that whole part of the economy into something less subject to the whims of a foreign oil cartel, the nation simply didn’t buy it.

"But that was then, and this is now. Today, 'the moral equivalent of war' is a real thing. Look at the recent election in Canada…"-

--Keynote address to the Libertarian Party
Convention, May 22, 2026, San Diego

“Now the Phoenix area has three major sources of drinking water. There’s the Salt River Project — that’s this network of reservoirs and canals on the Salt and Verde Rivers; there's the Central Arizona Project canal, which brings water from the Colorado River; and there's the aquifers. The problem is the SRP. That's where the shortage is. Over the past three or four years, too much hot weather, not enough rain and little to no snow have left water levels there dangerously low.

“I mentioned the aquifers. The state had a plan to get them to where potable water was flowing into them or being returned to them as fast as it was being taken out, and to have this done by 2025. They’ve had to push that back to 2030.

“But the real fight is over the water in the Colorado River. Thanks to heavy rain and snow in Utah and Colorado, the Colorado is more than usually full. But the amount of water Arizona can take was long ago settled by law — the Colorado River Compact, first approved in 1922. The state’s taking every drop it’s entitled to, and it isn’t enough. They are not getting enough. All the candidates in the gubernatorial election are promising to persuade the upriver states to re-negotiate the Compact, but the upriver states are already saying, basically, ‘No thank you.’

“So in Phoenix, and in Tucson, they’ve had to start rationing water. If you have a family of a certain size, or you run a certain kind of business, you get a certain amount of water.

‘We don’t flush the toilet every time, you know? It’s hard to get used to — my wife and I… we used to be a very clean family.’

Mi abuela… she say if you have clean sand, you can clean dishes with it. But I never do that until now.’

‘A lot of people have stopped bathing. Two weeks ago I fired a server for coming to work with a severe case of body odor. Then yesterday I had to hire her back because everyone else who applied for the job smelled just as bad. Or worse.’

"Some businesses — the golf courses, for example — use reclaimed water. That’s wastewater that’s been partly purified, so it's not safe to drink or bathe in, but good enough for other uses. But even that water is running low, and getting harder to purify. Too much sewage, not enough water. A couple of golf courses have had to close due to bacterial contamination. Others have cut back to nine holes, or replaced their grass with artificial turf.

“Outside those cities, they’ve just let the price of water go up. This is supposed to be a free-market approach. The price of water is supposed to rise to its natural level. Unfortunately, not everyone is playing along with that. The cotton growers in Arizona have managed to persuade Congress to increase their subsidies, which means they can buy enough water to stay in business… which leaves even less for everyone else. Growing cotton takes a lot of water. Here’s what the mayor of Scottsdale has to say:

‘People are leaving! Poor people — they’re getting on the bus and going away in droves! They can’t afford to live here any more, with the cost of water what it is! Why do we even need to grow cotton out there? Wait a few years and they’ll be growing it in New Jersey!’

-- The Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC, June 18, 2026

“Q: ‘Is there a danger that with so many countries rationing bread products, that the market will be affected?’

“A: ‘I don’t see that happening. Governments are still paying market value for grain.’

“Q: ‘When can we expect wheat prices to go back to something closer to normal?’

“A: ‘Probably never. First of all, in the case of winter wheat, if you’re a farmer and you think your crop is going to be a total loss one year in three, then in the good years you need to increase your profits by fifty percent just to break even.

‘Second, food is a fungible commodity. If the price of one crop rises — in this case wheat — people start eating more rice or potatoes, which raises the demand for those products while reducing it for whatever is in short supply.

‘But look at what’s happening in the United States, with the drought in the Midwest and the heat wave in the southeast. In many ways, the heat wave is worse. Rice, corn and soybeans are three of the world’s great staple crops, and when the temperature goes above 40° centigrade — about 104° Fahrenheit — they just… stop growing. No matter how good the soil is or how much rain there is, the plant’s chemistry doesn’t work any more. That’s what’s been happening in southern China and the southeastern United States. With every passing week, those crops are losing days of growth, they’re getting hit by funguses and aphids…’”

--An interview with the Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, CNN, July 13, 2026

Witnesses to the Dawn of a New Era
Part 2: Big Trouble in China/Canadian Government Initiatives

“We’ve seen a number of natural disasters so far this year — the hurricane in South America, the tornado and derecho outbreak in the United States, and just last month we saw Pakistan hit by floods as bad if not worse than 2010 or 2019.

“Typhoon Haishen, however, is the worst — or rather, the worst so far. Take a look — we’re hovering over Shanghai Railway Station. It’s been nearly 24 hours since the last bands of rain passed overhead, and as you can see, the streets haven’t drained yet. That’s seawater more than anything else. Most of Shanghai is built on fairly low-lying ground, and it was hit by a 40-foot storm surge. We suspect some blockage may have gotten into the sewer mains from all the debris. Over to you…”

“Thank you. Yesterday at about 8 to 8:30 p.m. local time the eye of the storm passed directly over Changzhou, and it was still a Category 5 storm at that point. It’s lost a lot of force since then — it’s currently over Anhui and Henan, and its winds have dropped below 100 miles per hour.

“Government spokespersons in Beijing have emphasized that all evacuees are safe — most of them are in Hubei, Jiangxi or Fujian, well away from the path of Haishen. Even so, we’re talking about over 20 million people that had to be relocated. If the U.S. had to evacuate New York — the state, not the city — it would be almost as bad as this.”

--CNN, August 20, 2026

“‘With every passing winter, Canada has lost a few buildings — generally older buildings with flat roofs that were vulnerable to heavy snowfall. Last winter was particularly bad, not just because of the snow but because a lot of buildings couldn’t be fixed — the insurers had either dropped them or gone bankrupt. Now these buildings are being bought up by the national government, provincial and local governments, or private nonprofits, and either knocked down or heavily retrofitted — extra windows added, or whole walls knocked out and replaced with glass. They’re not ideal for the purpose, but they are cheap to purchase and there are plenty to go around.

“‘The plan is to use these structures as hothouses — not to grow food or endangered plants, but to cultivate tree seedlings by the millions. The majority of these will be subalpine fir and different species of spruce, but they’re also looking at trees like white oak, grand fir and sugar maple. Right now, tree experts are scouting the wilderness for places north of the trees’ current range, or north of the tree line altogether, where they can be planted and survive. The administration’s goal is to plant 38 million trees next summer — one tree for every man, woman and child in Canada.’

“‘That sounds like a lot, but is it? In real terms?’

“‘Well, if they succeeded, and if each tree were given 100 square meters — that’s a minimum of 5 meters on each side — that would cover an area slightly larger than Kent. Vanishingly small, in Canadian terms. The bottleneck turns out to be the number of seedlings likely to be available. In ’28 and ’29 they hope to plant much larger numbers. The idea, you see, is to get as many young trees pulling carbon out of the air as possible, while at the same time helping the species move into their new ranges.’

“‘How is all this being paid for?’

“‘A surprising number of people are willing to volunteer their labor. Even so, this is an expensive program, particularly when added to the other public and private expenditures Canadians are coping with. The new government, along with several provincial governments, are using a mixture of tax hikes and bond sales, with funds carefully earmarked. The rule is that anything they expect to complete within the next five years should be paid for with bonds, while anything that will be an ongoing expense for the foreseeable future is to be paid for with taxes.

“‘The new sewer systems, for example, are being paid for with bond sales. Hothouse construction falls into that category as well. They're only raising taxes for the things that are likely to be annual expenditures for the foreseeable future.’

“‘These bond sales… how are the markets responding?’

“‘Well, I asked one buyer if he was feeling optimistic about the future. What he said was, “Either Canada is going to survive the next fifty years as a functioning state, or else it isn’t. If it does, I’m set. If it doesn’t, odds are most other countries are going to go down too, and losing my investment will be the least of my problems.”’”

--BBC, August 31, 2026

“‘The plan was originally for the Sanming camp to be shut down by the end of the week as all these people were moved back into their homes — or elsewhere if those homes turn out to be unsalvageable. Unfortunately, this camp has been quarantined due to an outbreak of what officials say is a form of avian flu, possibly H5N1. Now, so far it hasn’t spread outside the camp, but people aren’t taking any chances — as you can see, pretty much everyone on the street is wearing face masks.’

“‘Do we have any word on casualties, or on the number of infected?’

“‘Not yet, but the government has already asked the Red Cross for assistance, which implies something more than just a handful of cases.’

“‘Any word on how this might have happened?’

“‘We don’t know the specifics. But when you have three days to set up a temporary facility for a quarter of a million people, you have to expect that something’s going to go wrong. When this has to be done dozens of times in dozens of places, a situation like this one comes close to a mathematical certainty.’”

--CNN, September 2, 2026

“We’ve all seen the photos of the devastation on the ground — or maybe I should say what used to be the ground — but to fully appreciate the scale of what’s happened, you have to see it from space. This is a Google Earth image of the Turpan Depression from before. Notice the forests here, the dry lakebed, the general desert-type terrain. And now here… this photo was taken by a satellite yesterday during a break in the cloud cover.  Not a complete break, as you can see, but… well, just look at that. There’s a lake. A huge lake that three months ago wasn’t there.

“And if you look at this map, you’ll see where it came from. Looking at it straight down on the North Pole like this, you can see this almost triangle-shaped belt of rain around the Northern Hemisphere. There are a couple of thin spots in it, over the Chukchi Sea and here over Greenland — and let me just say we’re very glad Greenland hasn’t seen a lot of heavy rain yet — and some thick areas around the north slopes of the Alaska Range and the northern Canadian Rockies — that’s a rain-shadow effect, which is perfectly normal even if we’re not used to seeing it in that part of the world.

“But the biggest area of rainfall is this stretch of central Asia that runs from eastern Kazakhstan to central Mongolia and south into the Tien Shan. And that’s important, because this region, to put it mildly, is not used to heavy rainfall. We’re talking about a part of the world that normally gets maybe eight to twelve inches of precipitation a year, mainly in the summer, and is now getting three times that in the space of two months. And what makes it worse is that the soil is so thin. There’s just no way it can absorb this much water in this little time. It has to go somewhere, and here’s where it’s going.

“So now we have a new lake in northern Xinjiang, and — because the Turpan Depression is actually below sea level — we’re not expecting it to go away any time soon…”

--The Weather Channel, October 28, 2026

2027 Part 1

The first two months of the year were, by the standards of this decade, downright temperate. In the United States, snow fell as far south as Maryland and Tennessee, although it melted in a matter of days. Snowfall was much heavier than average in Canada, Siberia and northern Europe. By the end of January, the city of Helsinki had completed its new showcase sewer system, designed and built at great expense to accommodate a tropical downpour. It met the challenge of the spring snowmelt and passed with flying colors, proving that at least some changes in the climate could be adapted to… by those willing to spend the money.

There were other bits of semi-good news. The Antarctic Peninsula glaciers and the West Antarctic ice sheet experienced several major collapses, raising global sea levels by… a millimeter and a half. Hurricanes appeared off the Brazilian coast from late February to the first week of April, but never made landfall. In China, the outbreak of H5N1 was officially over in February, and the new Party leadership celebrated by… ordering vast quantities of mosquito netting. (Scientists had detected the spread of malarial mosquitoes into new parts of China, and the government was not about to be caught napping a second time.)

As a sign of how others were adapting to a changing ecology, in May fishermen out of Alaska were threatened with firearms in international waters, and forced to withdraw, by a Japanese fleet catching tuna — not to kill, but to collect tissue samples for the growing kuron-maguro industry. (Over the past few years, declining fish stocks had led to a revolution in the fishing industry. Now, Japanese fishermen harvested small samples of tuna muscle and cloned them to grow multi-ton sheets of meat. As these tissue cultures eventually succumbed to cell senescence or infection, new samples were constantly needed. The fishing fleets were developing an almost pastoral[1] — and distinctly proprietary — relationship with the schools of tuna.)

In May, an army of young volunteers in Canada, Russia and Scandinavia set about planting trees in places where they were deemed likely to grow and less likely to have their roots drowned in the northern monsoon. The supply of seedlings ran out long before the volunteers could run out of energy.

The last of the ice disappeared from the Arctic Ocean on June 5, only five days earlier than the previous year. This raised hope that the freeze-and-melt cycle in the Arctic was settling into a new pattern that would last at least the next few decades. The resulting “neo-boreal” climate was one that had never been seen before, with warm to cool summers, heavy to extreme rain in the fall and heavy snow in the winter.

Unfortunately, this climate was having some very bad effects nearby. Once again, as had first happened in 2012 and had happened half a dozen other times since then, melting was taking place over the entire surface of the Greenland ice sheet. Normally, most of the meltwater refroze quickly, or flowed down a moulin[2] to the base of the icecap. This year was different. This year, starting in June, the entire ice sheet was being rained on. It wasn’t the torrential downpour of the northern monsoon, but it was enough. The rain and meltwater filled the moulins and eroded paths through the ice that ran down to the sea, crevasses and gorges that could be clearly seen from space. It was like a time-lapse of the formation of a river valley. Collapses occurred along the frayed edges of the sheet, where the ice was thinnest.

But a sheet of ice a mile thick is not going to be destroyed by a few inches of rain — or even, in some cases, five or six inches. Between the beginning of June and the end of September, the Greenland ice sheet lost less than one percent of its mass — enough to raise global sea levels by a little over two inches.

Of course, all that cold, fresh water pouring into the ocean at once had an unmistakable effect on the ocean around Greenland. What had happened in the North Atlantic two years ago happened again this summer, and it was much worse this time. Summer in western and central Europe was several degrees cooler than average, even as the East Coast of the U.S. sweltered in the heat. As in any year, the majority of Atlantic hurricanes turned east before hitting the mainland U.S., but those that did crossed the warm water of the backed-up Gulf Stream, and were swelled to monstrous size. Florida, North Carolina and eastern Long Island were hardest-hit.

[1] In the sense of “shepherd-like.”

[2] A vertical shaft in a glacier formed by flowing water.

2027 Part 2

 “Climatology is not a morality play. The sky and the ocean do not care whether we restore balance to them through a wholesale reinvention of our civilization, the palliative measures of geoengineering, or both. And it seems more and more likely that both will be necessary.”

--The Canadian Prime Minister, delivering the keynote address to the U.N. Conference on Climate Change

The U.N. Conference on Climate Change had been scheduled for October 27 through November 4 in Toronto, in the hope that this year’s northern monsoon would focus the minds of the attendees on the urgency of the situation. The city experienced such heavy rains during the conference that the Metro Toronto Convention Centre had to be surrounded by a wall of sandbags.

Inside the Centre, they began by reviewing the progress that had already been made. The host nation and several others boasted of their tree-planting efforts. A representative from China revealed that by the end of this year, his country’s navy and merchant fleets[1] would have all their diesel and LNG engines replaced by fuel-cell engines. Australia had begun encouraging the growth of coral reefs further south, in waters that had never been warm enough before (although the project was a little constrained by the shipping lanes.)

Inside the Centre, representatives from virtually every nation on Earth reviewed the disasters that had already taken place, and learned that the worst might be yet to come. Vague warnings about the end of the world were replaced with specific scenarios of catastrophe. Climatologists painted a picture of a world, in 2100, of such heat and humidity that it was no longer physically possible for Homo sapiens to survive in the tropics (or the temperate zones during the summer) without air conditioning. Those who did survive in those areas would have to adjust to an entirely different assortment of crops, probably genetically engineered tropical plants.

This wasn’t the worst-case scenario. That honor belonged to the “Rotting Ocean” or "Green Sky" scenario, theorized to be possible if CO2 levels rose above 1000 ppm, in which the ocean currents that exchanged water between the surface and the deep sea halted or slowed to a crawl. In this scenario, oxygen levels in the deep ocean dropped below the point that could sustain most forms of life… except of course for anaerobic bacteria, which exploded in numbers, feasting on the corpses of everything that died at sea and poisoning the ocean — and the air above it — with hydrogen sulfide. (According to one theory, something like this had happened a little over 250 million years ago, and had played a large part in the “Great Dying” — the mass extinction which separated the Permian and Triassic eras, arguably the worst catastrophe in the history of life on Earth.) Under these conditions, whatever was left of the human species might be reduced to living like settlers on Mars, sealed in airtight cities, perhaps for thousands of years. There was some question whether this was possible under the present configuration of the continents, but as one attendee put it, “The story of global climate change has been the story of one decade’s hysterical doomsaying becoming the next decade’s unwarranted optimism.”

There was a very strong sense in Toronto that something needed to be done. The Chinese representatives were particularly emphatic — after Typhoon Haishen and Lake Turpan, the new Party leadership was not inclined to take half-measures. There were, however, three controversial questions:

• How could the Conference solve the free-rider problem?

• Geoengineering: good idea or bad?

• Should the goal be to stop the world from warming further, or to restore the climate of the mid-20th century?

The free-rider problem was one the conferees had been trying to cope with since the Kyoto Protocol. All the attendees were committed to action, but suspected each other of wanting to continue business as usual and leave the heavy lifting to others. And the U.S. and other industrial giants, which were the nations that most needed to change, were also the nations that the U.N. had the least power to punish.

Ultimately, the question was considered moot, since the nations in question were not holding themselves to the same standards to begin with. China, for example, was already one year into a five-year plan to replace all coal-fired plants with solar, wind and (to the dismay of some) nuclear power plants, and a ten-year plan to replace all internal combustion engines in vehicles with hybrid or electric engines. Most nations were somewhat less ambitious in their goals, but everyone was promising dramatic action. (Representatives from the more authoritarian states were rather smug in pointing out that they, at least, could make promises that their governments would keep.)[2]

Geoengineering made a lot of people nervous, for two reasons: it might be used as an excuse for inaction in other areas, and it had immense potential for unintended consequences. Even the Chinese representatives were uneasy about it. (China had its share of experience with ill-fated attempts at large-scale ecological redesign, and there was no reason to think such things were limited to communist states. The inclusion of sparrows in the original “Four Pests” campaign, for example, had been a failure of ornithology, not of economic doctrine.) The prospect of random climate-altering schemes being carried out willy-nilly, with or without any scientific basis, at the behest of rogue governments or eccentric billionaires, was only slightly less terrifying than the “Green Sky” scenario.

On the other hand, it was clearly too late to solve the problem entirely the “right” way. If for no other reason, methane (a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2) had been found leaking from the melting permafrost and the Arctic seabed, and would continue to do so no matter what limits were placed on fossil fuels.

So the Conference (now a permanent intergovernmental body of the U.N.) established a Geoengineering Commission to study proposals for “large-scale alterations of the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans or insolation” and approve or reject them. (The Commission’s reach was deliberately limited to “large-scale” projects. More low-key efforts — white roofs and lighter pavements to lower the albedo of urban areas, for example, or tax breaks for corporations that placed artificial trees on their grounds — would be outside their jurisdiction.)

As for what sort of “large-scale alterations” they would permit, the Commission would give priority to those projects which attacked the greenhouse gases and oceanic carbon directly, rather than trying to force temperatures down in spite of them. They authorized the fertilization of selected areas of the ocean with a total of 100,000 tons of iron dust in 2028, just as a beginning. In places where coral reefs and vital stocks of fish and mollusks were being damaged by ocean acidification, governments were authorized to add gypsum to the water.[3]

The injection of sulfur aerosols into the stratosphere, on the other hand, was rejected for the time being. The sulfur wouldn’t stay in the upper atmosphere, and would need to be injected constantly and indefinitely in order to work. Moreover, it would do absolutely nothing to counter ocean acidification — in fact, when the particles descended into the troposphere they would turn to acid rain and make the situation slightly worse. However, the U.S., Japan and South Korea were authorized to conduct a joint experiment involving the seeding of low-lying clouds over the North Pacific with salt water to increase their albedo, on the theory that, whether or not it did any good, salt water falling in the ocean was unlikely to do any harm.

Tied into the question of what measures should be taken to counteract climate change was the deeper question of what sort of climate the world wanted, and what sort it should be willing to settle for. Reversing the changes that had already happened and returning global temperatures to about what they were between 1940 and 1970 (assuming this was possible) would require far more radical geoengineering than the Commission was prepared to allow. At the moment, the Conference’s goal was simply to stop the climate from changing further.

Many found this completely unsatisfactory. The climate as it existed today was one of burning forests, diminishing harvests, shrinking glaciers, falling aquifers and rising sea levels. Although the melting of Greenland had stopped for the year and the ice sheet was now covered with a reassuring blanket of snow, no one had any illusions about the future. Even if global temperatures did not rise one more degree, that ice sheet would be gone in a hundred years or so. The value of every piece of real estate less than seven meters above sea level had to be adjusted to reflect its new impermanence… and that wasn’t even taking West Antarctica into account. “Are you prepared to say goodbye to New Orleans, Venice, Bangkok and eventually who knows how many other cities?” asked the president of the Maldives, who did not mention that essentially his entire nation would disappear as well, although everyone knew it.

It was with a sense of relief that the representatives left Toronto. In spite of all they had agreed to, they were plagued by the feeling that every minute spent talking was a minute not spent acting.

“Contrary to what some have said, the past forty years have not been wasted. We have developed the tools we need to save ourselves, and have begun to use them on a small scale. Now it’s time to go big.”

-The President of the United States, delivering closing remarks

[1] China and Hong Kong actually have separate merchant marines. (I figure when fuel cells start to see serious use, it will be in cargo ships. The weight of the insulation would be less of a problem there.)

[2] In 1997, President Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol, but didn’t bother submitting it to the Senate, which had already indicated it wouldn’t pass.

[3] This is an idea I haven’t seen elsewhere (and there may be a good reason why) but it does seem to me that one way to fight ocean acidification would be to add more calcium to balance out the carbonic acid. You’d want to use gypsum rather than limestone, of course, because the point is to make more calcium carbonate, and limestone is already calcium carbonate.

"Treat It Like A War"

"You're hearing that slogan a lot these days — 'treat it like a war.' That is to say, instead of asking if carbon reduction and capture can be made more profitable than business-as-usual, treat them as something important that we need to do, for our own sake and the sake of future generations, whether it's profitable or not. Nobody ever did a cost-benefit analysis of Gettysburg or D-Day. When FDR said 'Hey, Ford, Chrysler, GM, let's start building tanks and planes,' you never heard anybody blather about 'distorting the market' or 'the government picking winners and losers.'

"At the same time, what we know is that, even in war and even in the military, that sort of thinking can lead to some very bad decisions. A general says 'I don't care how many lives it costs, I want that hill' and you get the Battle of Fredericksburg. People in procurement say 'Hang the expense, we want this' and before you know it you're spending hundreds of dollars on a screwdriver. "

"The other day I turned down some guys who wanted funding for a fusion project. Did they have a good idea? I don't know. I'm not a physicist. If some other country brings a fusion power plant online, great. I have to concentrate on things that we already know will work.

"And even that can be surprisingly complicated. Case in point — every time somebody installs solar panels or fiber-optic lighting in their home or office, that's good. Energy efficiency, reduced consumption… what's not to like? But every time somebody does that, it becomes harder for the local utility to make a profit, which is a problem if they're trying to switch over to solar or wind. The old way of thinking was, if times are getting tougher, well, renewables would be nice, but coal and gas are more of a sure thing. The new way of thinking is, if renewable aren't more profitable, we'll just have to make them more profitable. See, that was the sort of thing you couldn't say before…"

--an interview with the U.S. Energy Secretary     

Adaptation and Mitigation 

"Fifty degrees Centigrade. Three damn weeks.

"You can't go outside during the day — not without a couple gallons of chilled water which you're supposed to be conserving. You can't drive anywhere — the streets have melted. Even when they're cool enough to be solid, they look like somebody put Salvador Dalí in charge of a road crew.

"So anything you have do to, you do at night, on foot. Businesses, city offices… everybody's changed their hours. I used to be the sort of woman who would build her plans for the day around not having to cross a parking lot alone at night. Now I go shopping at 3 a.m. and think nothing of it. It's a lot less dangerous with everybody else doing the same thing.

"Anyone vulnerable to heatstroke is supposed to be evacuated to Darwin or Adelaide. There's about an 8-to-10-hour window at night when these people can go outside long enough to do this. Using small planes. Big ones can't land, because the tarmac at the airport has melted. Forget the train — the tracks are buckled in a dozen places.

"Early afternoon is the worst. You're supposed to be asleep by then. Not lying awake listening to the AC running full blast and thinking 'What if it breaks down? What if the power goes out? What if some vital piece of machinery turns out not to have been designed for this kind of heat?'"
-Blog post from Alice Springs, January 18, 2028

"The test areas are the Sea of Okhotsk, this area east of Kamchatka, Bristol Bay and the waters south of Kodiak Island. Over the course of May, the U.S., Russia and Japan are going to be putting about 10,000 tons of iron dust in each of those areas. That adds up to about the same amount of iron that Mount Pinatubo put in the ocean in '91. It's also forty percent of what the nations of the world are authorized to use by the U.N. The rest will be used around the southern ocean in November.

"These areas in particular were chosen because they were high in silicic acid, which encourages the growth of diatoms. So our hope is that the carbon they absorb will sink to the bottom of the ocean and stay there for a very long time."
-CNN, April 29, 2028

An Interview with the Richest Woman in the World

Yours is one of those rags-to-riches stories that hardly ever happen in real life. Ten years ago you were at MIT, living on ramen noodles—

A: Which were a lot cheaper back then.

Q: And now you're the chair and CEO of De L'Air Diamonds.

A: I've been the chair and CEO since 2021. Of course, back then corporate headquarters was my dad's garage. As you can see (gesturing towards the view from the 90th-floor window of 1WTC) we've made some progress since then.

Back then, carbon sequestration was in its early stages. It was actually a big question — once we take the carbon out of the air, what do we do with it all? It can be pretty useful stuff under the right circumstances. Some parts of the world they're burying it with some other stuff, turning it into terra preta, but that seems to work best in the tropics.

Well, of course, what's a diamond made of? Carbon. So, I put together a proposal on one of those crowdsourcing investment sites, me and some of my friends bought some of those artificial trees and… we were off.

Q: The name "De L'Air Diamonds." It's a beautiful French name. Do you have any French ancestry or heritage or anything?

A: No. 

Q: The technology to make artificial diamonds has been around for a long time, and people have tried and failed many times to bring them into the market. What did you do differently?

A: A couple of things. First, there are certain situations where people actually want to spend as much money as they can afford, because that's their way of showing how much they care. Coffins are one example — nobody wants to lay their loved ones to rest in a cheap-ass plywood box. Another example is jewelry. Nobody wants to be the guy saying "Will you marry me? I got this ring for fifty bucks!"

So you charge too little and people won't want to buy it. Charge too much and you'll price half your customers out of the market. The big boys in the business put a lot of mathematicians and market analysts to work trying to find the sweet spot on the curve. What I did was to look at what they were charging, then charge just a little bit less than that and say "And it's eco-friendly!" That way, I get more people who can afford it, and knowing you helped save the world a little bit makes up for buying something cheaper. "For your future. For her future. For all our futures."

So that was what we did the first couple of years. Then we introduced colored gemstones, which we sold for about as much as our competitors were charging for clear ones. It took a while to get the colors right, but we could afford to use up a lot of carbon on experiments. Anything we ruin, we sell as industrial grit. We started with subtle colors — the Moonlight, Snowshadow and Horizon lines, really delicate blues. Also the Champagne line, but we discontinued that one because customers said the color reminded them of pee. The trick was to make them better than mined diamonds — but not too much better. We didn't want it to look like costume jewelry.

It's only this year that we're coming out with stronger colors. Like the Joyeuse — doesn't this blue make you think of the sky on a perfect wedding day? Or these deeper blues, the Everest and the Empyrean. Or these nice rich yellow-oranges… Aztec, Hearthfire, Pacific Sunset.

Q: Of course, you've had your share of opposition.

A: Yeah, De Beers is crying in de beers right now. This year we've officially passed them in market share. One of their employees actually said "I hope she gives birth to a cactus." (Laughs) I think he's working for me now.

See, at first they treated it like a gimmick. Then, when they realized they were losing serious market share, they tried to make it illegal for us to call what we were selling "diamonds." In the U.S., they spent God knows how much money lobbying Congress. We just asked for judicial review… and the Supremes ruled in our favor. What they said was — I'm paraphrasing — "If De L'Air were lying about where their product came from or how they made it, that would concern us. But they're putting it right there in the ads. It's free speech."

So then they started fighting back — running ads like "Is that a real diamond?" They had guys going into their long, proud history and traditions — "My family's been in the diamond business for generations! My great-great-great-great-grandfather burned three African villages and pulled a guinea worm out of Cecil Rhodes's taint!" — or whatever it was they said. But the more they tried, the more publicity they drew down on themselves — business practices, how they were treating diamond miners… Basically, the press said we were the underdog, the market said we were the hot new trend, and everybody said we're helping save the earth. That's a pretty good position to be in.

Q: Speaking of publicity, that "Wear the Air" campaign…

A: What about it?

Q: Tell us something about the creative process that gave rise to it.

A: That's the nicest "What were you thinking?" I've ever heard. (Laughs) That had its origins in the bowels of our marketing department. The only thing I contributed to it was the suggestion that instead of hiring models, we look for celebrities who were willing to appear naked… for a given value of "naked." Strategically placed objects and all that. See, we didn't want to be accused of exploiting or objectifying anybody — at least I personally didn't, I doubt if Marketing gave a crap — so we wanted people for whom nudity was a statement of power and confidence. Hell, I'd have done it myself if I thought people wanted to see me naked. (Laughs) And as far as I know, nobody's ever actually gone out in public wearing De L'Air diamonds and nothing else.

Q: Right now, according to news reports, De L'Air diamonds are being sold — legitimately — in India for less than a fifth of what they're selling for in the United States. How do you justify that?

A: How do I justify it? I don't. I just do it. (Laughs) Again, it's what the market will bear. If anybody wants to start up a company and sell diamonds in the U.S. for a fifth of what I'm offering, I say let 'em try it and see how it works.

Q: So… what are you doing with all this money?

A: I've got some charitable work going on.

Q: What sort?

A: Well, as I see it, there's two basic kinds — the kind that helps people rise up out of poverty, or at least to something above a subsistence level, and there's the kind that just keeps people alive. Now the second kind has been getting a lot more attention — feeding refugees, building heat shelters and so on — but we can't abandon things like education, microloans, the Heifer Project. It's like seed corn — if you ever want the famine to end, you don't eat it no matter how hungry you get. Fortunately, I'm disgustingly rich, so I can afford to give to both kinds. In fact, some of the aid money is going to former diamond miners in Africa.

Q: I hear you're funding a lot of materials research.

A: That's something De L'Air is doing, not something I'm doing with my own money. Potentially there's a lot of industrial applications for diamondoid materials. Trying to find the right combinations of strength, lightness, hardness and so on… learning these things now will put us ahead of the game down the road. And it's sort of a backup strategy in case one day everybody wakes up and says "We're paying thousands of dollars for tiny lumps of compressed soot! WHY?!?"

Heat Shelters

"The need for heat shelters was — still is, I suppose — theoretical. But with the kind of heat Australia saw this January, it's a theory we have to take seriously. What if Mexico, or Egypt, or Iraq starts seeing temperatures in the fifties this summer? Not everyone has AC. Power grids sometimes fail, especially in that kind of heat. There might not be enough potable water to stay hydrated under those circumstances. If it gets hot enough that being in the shade or going inside isn't enough… we've seen that even in developed parts of the world, an unexpected heat wave can cause deaths in the tens of thousands.

"Luckily, you can turn almost any large, enclosed space into a temporary heat shelter for several hundred people. You need air conditioning — a central unit, and some window units in case the central unit fails. You need something to power it in case the grid fails — solar panels, for preference. Medical supplies. A refrigeration unit capable of holding, at minimum, 50,000 liters of water. And of course you need the water.

"But if we assume this is something that's going to be needed, on and off, for the foreseeable future, then instead of retrofitting an existing space every year it makes more sense to create purpose-built shelters that will last longer with less maintenance.

"The simplest way to do that is to put it underground. No matter how hot it gets on the surface, go down five to ten meters and it's maybe fifteen degrees maximum. Of course, if you've got a lot of people down there — first of all, you have their body heat to think about, and second, you've got to have air circulating. And if some of the people in there are sick — which is probably the case — you don't want everybody breathing the same air.

"So lots of ventilation. If you run the ventilation shafts through the ground, that should cool the air and cut down on the need for AC.

"As far as light goes, these shelters will mostly be in use during the daytime, so fiber-optic lighting is an option for parts of it. If somebody needs medical attention, or if you just want to put in a reading room — people are going to get bored in there — you'll want something a little brighter. And of course cell phone and Internet access are a must. If anything goes wrong in there, people have to know.

"But for this summer we're concentrating on giving people the tools they need to refit existing spaces into temporary shelters. I mean, the worst thing that could happen is that we'd have ten villages in an area that need shelters and only one that has one. Then we would just have given people something to fight over.

"The worst part is not knowing exactly where we'll need them. We think North Africa is the likeliest place to suffer extreme heat this year. If we're wrong…"
--The CEO of Mercy Corps, April 12, 2028

The Hunger Games, Part 1: A Measure of Wheat…

Q: My first question is about the administration’s policy toward price controls. I know the President said back in March that those are off the table, but has anything happened since then to suggest a change in policy?

A: No. Price controls are still not an option. They’re one of those things that seem like a good idea if you’re hungry enough, but the same could be said of eating your seed corn. They would only make things worse. We’re not going to punish farmers because there’s a drought in California.

Q: You’re sure you’re not just saying that to keep the commodities futures market happy?

A: Keeping any sort of speculators happy is very low on my list of priorities.

Q: My next question concerns the allegations of cartel buying by Third World governments. Are they true, and how big a problem is it for American farmers?

A: Officially, there’s no collusion. Unofficially, in a large market prices tend to reach a certain equilibrium.

And if you talk to farmers, I think you’ll find they’re mostly okay with this. For one thing, 29 percent of the world is now chronically undernourished.[1] Farmers are human beings and they don’t like watching people starve to death on the Internet any more than anyone else does. For another thing, if there’s one thing farmers are good at, it’s planning for the long term. And in the long term, everyone who dies of starvation, or from disease brought on by weakened immune systems, will never buy food again, and no one will ever buy anything to feed them again.

Q: One of the objections that many people have raised toward U.S. ag policy is the use of land to feed cattle and pigs rather than humans, which would be more—

A: Let me stop you right there. Those figures you vaguely remember reading somewhere about all the food we could grow if we weren’t raising livestock feed — if they’re the same ones I’ve seen, they’re about ten years out of date, assuming they were accurate to begin with. The economic incentives have changed since then. Food for humans is a much higher priority wherever we can grow it.

Having said that, it is true that many farmers are converting failed crops into animal feed — flooded wheat, heat-stunted soybeans and so on. It’s better than letting them go completely to waste. But those stories in the news about fields being turned into pasture? That’s not the work of evil cattle barons or greedy hamburger-eating Americans… which is a stereotype that is also out of date. You’ve seen McDonalds putting up signs bragging that their burgers are “Guaranteed 50% Real Meat?” Can you imagine what would have happened if they’d done that ten years ago?
--An interview with the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture

Q: So, tell me a little bit about what you do.

A: Gladly. Crop and livestock insurance is one of those things that people who aren’t in the ag business don’t think much about. But it’s what’s keeping a lot of farmers in business and a lot of land under cultivation. It’s keeping the food you eat affordable, even if it’s a lot more expensive. And it’s letting American farmers compete with farmers in Russia and Ukraine and so on. Now, the insurance itself is done through private firms. What we do here at the FCIC is reinsurance — that is, we insure the insurers.

Q: There are private reinsurance firms. Why is a federally-owned firm needed in this case?

A: Because when floods, droughts, heat waves and so on happen, as they have been with increasing frequency, they don’t just take out one or two farms — they hit whole regions at once. Catastrophic loss — large-scale disaster affecting lots of people at the same time — is exactly the sort of thing private insurance firms are least capable of dealing with.

Q: Give us your perspective on the shortfall in the FCIC budget earlier this year.

A: What happened this spring was a narrowly avoided disaster. I alerted Congress and the president to the need for additional appropriations in October. I anticipated that the money would run out at the end of February. As it happens, the money ran out two weeks early… and Congress was so busy arguing and attaching riders and pulling them off again that the President was not able to sign the bill until March 20. The insurance companies had to take out bank loans to stay in business, which the FCIC now needs even more money to pay the interest on.

Q: Speaking of Congress, a number of representatives have said that their constituents are being treated unfairly by crop insurance companies. How do you respond to that?

A: I do not believe that is the case, but I do understand the unhappiness out there. I’ve spoken to agents who have to tell farmers — hardworking farmers in Texas and Oklahoma — that their wheat field isn’t a wheat field any more, it’s a cow pasture. Or a goat pasture.

And that’s painful. They always say, “It’s just a drought! We’ve been working this land for a hundred years! Do you think we haven’t been through droughts before!” The agent says, “No, this isn’t a drought. Droughts are abnormal. Droughts end. This is how things are now.” And the farmer says, “But how do you know?”

And the hell of it is, we don’t know, and nobody knows with absolute certainty — our models of the new climate aren’t that good. The companies are making the calls that it’s their duty to make, based on the best information they have and standards that we and they have developed together. Because even now there are people out there who will try to game the system if you let them, who’ll plant crops they know won’t grow and then come to us with a claim.

Q: And some of those people have lobbyists.

A: No comment.

Q: What about the statements by some other representatives that so-called “victory gardens”[2] should be covered by crop insurance?

A: As far as the FCIC is concerned, private victory gardens are a hobby. We don’t subsidize or insure hobbies. The flip side of that is that the USDA doesn’t inspect them, either. If you and your neighbors have a few bushels of potatoes you can’t eat and you want to take them downtown and sell them to people who don’t get a lot of fresh veggies, the most we’re going to do is put up a sign saying ‘This produce has not been inspected, blah blah blah, enter of your own free will’ or whatever the exact words are.
--An interview with the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation Manager

[1] By way of comparison, the figure for 2010-2012 is a little over 12 percent.
[2] Similar to those planted in World War II, but in this case something of a misnomer, as the U.S. is not at war. Their main purpose is to allow suburbanites to lower their food bills.

 The Hunger Games, Part 2: Desperation and Implacability

The kuron-maguro fleet was at 23.81°N, 128.06°E, due south of Okinawa. The Pacific bluefin were spawning. Every once in a while, a fish that had not had a tissue sample taken from it within the past six months would come within range of one of the nets. The net would scoop it out and place it on deck, and someone would remove a dime-sized sliver of muscle and fat from the fish’s side. Then they would slap a waterproof bandage on the wound, so there would be no blood in the water to attract sharks, and let the fish go. By the time the bandage dissolved, the wound would have healed.

Each sample, properly stimulated and nourished, would grow for 10 to 20 years before infection or cell senescence set in, producing thousands of tons of edible meat over the course of its life. (More recently, some of the tanks were putting trace amounts of allicin and capsaicin in the nutrient mix, not only to deter bacteria and fungi but to accumulate in the fatty tissue and offer the consumers pre-flavored tuna.)

There were eight vessels in the fleet. Their formation was roughly that of an elongated octagon. They were just barely within line of sight of each other in the torrential rain.

They were being followed.

A fleet of fifteen speedboats out of the Philippines, with over a hundred men in them. Very few of these men had any sort of military training — the majority of them had been rice farmers or fishermen until fairly recently — but all of them were armed.

Their weapons were old, but still functional. They were armed with handguns; AK-47s and 74s; a number of shotguns; three RPG launchers with 20 RPGs; and a vintage 2008 Predator drone. You don’t want to know how they paid for all this.

And they were desperate. Last year a typhoon had ravaged the fields and destroyed many of their boats. This year, a heatwave had completely stopped the growth of the rice crop. They hadn’t come to take hostages or money — it was tempting, but in these waters a hostage situation was likely to end badly for the hostage-takers. All they wanted was to take as much fish as they could fit on their boats and be gone before the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force showed up.

What they did not realize was that it was already too late. The Philippine government had been monitoring social media and had known something of the sort would be happening soon. Not wanting to antagonize a government they depended on for aid, they alerted Japan. The Japanese government, realizing that in a world full of hungry mouths it would take extraordinary measures to protect either their own shipping or the world’s last wild fish, supplied the fleet with a team of Self-Defense Force engineers and seven Chinese-built Haishe marine drones.

Each drone was about the size of a four-oar racing shell and cost about as much as a medium-size yacht. (Chinese defense contractors had not yet achieved the ancien-régime extravagance of their American counterparts, but they were working on it.) They moved at about 300 km/h over the surface of the water, but were capable of bursts of greater speed. They were armed with anti-materiel and semiautomatic rifles.

The recent spate of bad weather, which grounded the would-be hijackers’ own drone, also shielded them from satellite imagery. However, the SDF team had used that imagery to track them for several days previously, and had a fairly good idea of when they were coming and from what direction. When an AUV deployed in their path detected them, the drones were deployed for combat.

The team captain gave the drones their general instructions. Priority 1 targets were the speedboats’ engines and the hulls below the waterline. Priority 2 targets were any humans who happened to be armed with or in immediate proximity to recognized weapons… which in this case was every human on those boats. He selected one of 36 preprogrammed evasive-maneuver patterns for the drone squadron to engage in when aimed at by the enemy.

Then he got up and left. Their onboard computers could identify and aim at targets much faster than he could, and factored in drone trajectory, recoil and wave action as automatically as he breathed. His input would only have slowed them down. Also, he didn’t really want to get involved.

The drones’ tactical computers had capabilities that would have been impossible even a few years ago. They could recognize a chosen target from any angle as easily as an earlier generation of computers could recognize human faces. They could subprioritize within their own instructions, firing on a human who was aiming at them before firing on those that were not. They could maintain focus on a target while maneuvering around obstacles and visual obstructions like a smart dog finding a ball under a blanket.

But in some ways, they were still quite limited. These drones were not capable, for example, of choosing a new target (or even reprioritizing their current targets) on their own initiative. They were designed and built by people who, if they hadn’t read Asimov’s novels, had at least seen one or two of the Terminator movies and would rather risk seeing their killing machines defeated in battle than allow them to escape human control — or, for that matter, to be hacked by their own targets.

They were not capable of laughter. Otherwise, it might have been a source of great amusement to them to know that aerial drones — widely seen as superior to marine drones — could be kept out of action by bad weather.

They were not capable of moral reasoning. Otherwise, they might have had a spirited debate among themselves about the bioethics of preserving a tuna’s life at the cost of allowing a human to starve, and whether and how it changed the equation if the tuna was a threatened species and there were eight billion humans roaming the earth.

They were not capable of pride. Otherwise, it might have disgusted them to be deployed against such a desperate, ill-trained foe when they had been designed and built to do battle with Somali pirates.

They were not capable of a sense of fairness. Otherwise, they might have objected to having their own electrical and fiber-optic reflexes pitted against the comparatively sluggish chemistry of the human nervous system.

They were not capable of pity. Otherwise, they might have refused the order to open fire.

The battle — that is to say, the interval between the firing of the first shot and the firing of the last — was 5.2 seconds long. Those who survived did so by dropping their guns and leaping off their boats within the first two seconds. The crew of the fishing fleet found seventeen survivors treading water or clinging to the sides of a capsized boat, and, taking very little time to make sure they weren’t still armed, rescued them.

Early Returns

The Conference could report a fairly successful first year. Initial surveys of the ocean regions fertilized with iron suggested that between three and four billion tons of carbon had successfully been sequestered — about half of what human civilization had emitted that year. Not all of this went into the bodies of diatoms — in some areas, silicic acid levels in the ocean quickly dropped to zero, causing the diatoms to die off and be replaced by other forms of plankton. However, the Conference’s scientists now had a fairly good idea of how much any one square kilometer of ocean could be fertilized without deoxygenating the surface water and damaging the local ecosystem. Next year’s fertilization would be more efficient and extensive.

The saltwater cloud-seeding was less successful — atmospheric temperatures under the seeded clouds dropped by 0.5 to 1.8 degrees centigrade, but this had little effect on the oceans below. It was theorized that a larger, sustained effort in the Arctic Ocean might reduce the impact of the northern monsoon, or that such an effort in the Gulf of Mexico might lessen the effect of hurricanes. These suggestions were strongly opposed by the U.S., Canada, Russia and the Scandinavian countries, which did not wish to have salt water regularly raining down on their fields.

A project still underway was the building of “artificial forests” in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE. These were partly paid for by the governments of these wealthy states, and partly paid for by the “Big Three” of the growing graphene and diamondoid materials industry (Nadal Graphene, Tanqiji and De L’Air) which already owned the carbon futures.

In Canada, the real forests that had been planted over the last few years were flourishing. The government was re-surveying the land for more planting sites, concentrating on high ground unlikely to be flooded where the permafrost had already degraded. (One of the drawbacks of planting forests in the Arctic was that, having a lower albedo than tundra, they encouraged the melting of permafrost.)

Tree planting in Alaska had… hit a snag. Rather than send legions of volunteers out into the wilderness, the U.S. government had chosen to place seedlings in specially designed biodegradable cone-shaped containers and drop them from bombers by the thousands. Unfortunately, unexpected wind shifts caused many of them to fall in the wrong places, such as directly into rivers. Between the initial accidents and those that were lost to the 2028 flood season, it was estimated that less than 45% of the trees dropped survived the year. More importantly from a PR standpoint, the Internet was saturated by pictures of seedlings broken on rocks or drifting uselessly down the Yukon by the hundreds. This might have been a lot funnier if millions of people hadn’t been begging for the chance to get out there and plant trees with their own hands.

At first, the administration justified the “tree-bombing” plan as more cost-efficient than arranging food, shelter and warmth for numerous volunteers in the wilderness. This explanation did not survive a Senate hearing in which it was revealed that cost overruns had made the bombing plan considerably more expensive than hiring and transporting volunteers. At this point, the head of the U.S. Forest Service changed his story, saying that in his opinion, a large group of young, half-trained volunteers would have littered, become distracted, damaged native plants, been eaten by bears and generally done more harm than good. “It would have turned into Woodstock,” he said, a reference that most of his audience was too young to understand. When asked why Canada had had no such problems, he replied, “Those were Canadians,” causing one frustrated senator to remark “When did Canadians become the master race?”

In an interview conducted after his resignation, the ex-official waxed somewhat philosophical about the matter:

"In normal times, people think about government the way they think about plumbers — you pay them to do the job and get out of their way while they’re doing it. If they screw up, you fire them and hire different plumbers. The one thing you don’t ever do is step in and try to help them, because they know what they’re doing and you don’t. That’s how the government likes it, that’s how the voters like it, and it works. In normal times.
"These are not normal times. They haven’t been for a while now. People — young people, especially — they’ve been watching the world get scarier and scarier for years and years, and some of them are all gloom-and-doom pessimistic, but a lot of them are really desperately looking for ways to help. The only thing I can compare it to is the days and weeks after 9/11 — are you old enough to remember? It was like a different country. Everybody wanted to do something, to be a part of the national effort. They didn’t just want somebody to save lives and fight terror and whatever — they wanted to be personally involved.
"That kind of public emotion scares us. Contrary to what you may believe, those of us in public service (formerly, in my case) aren’t all power-hungry would-be dictators. We really would rather everybody just… live their lives, be productive citizens, and let us do our job. In Canada, in other countries, they saw this outpouring of public sentiment and decided to pick it up and use it. Here, everybody in government is sort of hoping it goes away. If it doesn’t, if this is the new normal… God help us all."

Not remarks that a President wanted to hear from an ex-official during an election year.

While some tried to slow or stop the change in the climate, others tried to adapt to it. In Siberia, while some forests were being planted, others were being cut down. The soil was poor and acidic, but with enough lime and fertilizer it could be made adequate for growing rye. If rye were planted after the end of the monsoon, it could survive the winter and be harvested in August, well before the next monsoon. Elsewhere, experimental coffee plantations were being established in southern Iran and the San Gabriel mountains. California was becoming a major producer of several kinds of drought-tolerant millet, and goat meat was starting to become popular. In fact, a chain of Mexican restaurants called Cabratería that specialized in goat recipes had spread from Texas to Georgia and was beginning to go national.

In other cultural news, filming had completed on the first season of Hellscape, coming to HBO next year…

An Interview with the President of the U.N. Council on Climate Change, June 2030

Q: Tell me about what sort of people are being accepted into advisory positions.

A: Obviously, they have to know what they’re talking about. That means a background in science or economics.

They also have to pass a background check. If up until about ten years ago you were saying it wasn’t happening, or wasn’t being caused by human activity… I can’t hire you. Which is too bad — some of these people might have valuable contributions to make, but we can’t afford to have every self-proclaimed journalist and online vigilante on our case, going “Why are you rewarding these people when this is all their fault?”

They also have to give us solutions we can implement. If your first suggestion is “end capitalism everywhere,” goodbye. Or if you come in here and tell me “I wouldn’t want to advocate anything drastic, but we need there to be three billion fewer people in the world by the end of the month,” there will be one fewer person in my office right away. If you say “the whole planet needs to go vegetarian tomorrow,” well, I’m a vegetarian myself, so I promise to be very polite when I wish you luck in your search for employment somewhere else. If the first words out of your mouth are “Well, if everybody had just listened to me ten or twenty or thirty or forty years ago,” then I hope you believe in second chances, because you’re already on yours. The next words out of your mouth had better be a plan we can act on today, starting where we are, or you’re gone.

Q: There’s been a lot of concern about the power your Council has been given — especially over small countries that need a lot of assistance.

A: I’d say there’s a lot of confusion about our role. It’s the same kind of confusion people get when they look at the Trilateral Commission or the Council on Foreign Relations. They see all these powerful people in one place and they think “ooh, scary” and they turn into conspiracy theorists. What they don’t get is that to the extent that those organizations have any power at all, it comes from the powerful people who happen to be involved with them, not the other way around. Likewise, the Council doesn’t have any power that the nations of the world didn’t give us, and they can take it back any time they like.

Q: Given that you’ve secured the cooperation of the World Bank, other major lenders, aid agencies and so on, how many other countries can say no to you?

A: First of all, we haven’t secured anybody’s cooperation — institutions choose to cooperate with us because we all want the same things. Second, there are still some countries that can get by without our assistance.

Q: The U.S., China, Russia, India…

A: No comment. Except to say that I have no real complaints about the policies of any of the nations you mentioned.

Q: So this isn’t a way for those countries to exert control over the rest of the world?

A: Let me give you a little inside information. Nobody comes to work for the U.N. out of a lust for raw power.

In fact, a lot of the most effective strategies to fight climate change are those we don’t have or want jurisdiction over. When a rooftop gets covered with white tile, that fights climate change. When a business installs an artificial tree for the tax break — or plants a real one — that fights climate change. When a utility shuts down a coal plant or reduces it to an auxiliary role because most of its customers have solar panels, that fights climate change. And none of the people doing these things need to clear them with us. And that’s how we like it. It lets us concentrate on the big picture.

: There’s been some suggestion that the Council may have to triage the world’s popu—

A: No. Just no. There will be no Hellscape scenario. Not on my watch. We are not planning to survive the apocalypse. We will stop it or die trying.

Three, four… maybe five million.

I refuse to accept that we’re going to lose that many Americans.

You don’t understand, Ms. President. That’s not how many might die — that’s how many might live.
Hellscape, S1E01: “Pilot”

Set in the ever-popular Next Sunday A.D., the series Hellscape was one of the landmark achievements of 21st-century entertainment — greater in its ambition (and its pessimism) than Game of Thrones, and as willing to examine controversial issues as The West Wing. It ran for five seasons, from 2029 to 2034, and in its 115 episodes gave voice to the anxieties of the time like few other media creations.

The opening sequence of the pilot episode established the cinematic scope of the series. It begins with a crowded Oregon beach on a sunny day. On the street beyond the beach, several people are walking their dogs. The movement of a flag marks a shift in the wind. One by one, the dogs turn toward the ocean and begin barking furiously, then try to run in the opposite direction, pulling their owners along. Then the seagulls take wing and flee inland. Then the camera focuses on a few people on the beach sniffing, wrinkling their noses and making faces. One of them remarks on a smell of rotten eggs coming from somewhere. Then the wind picks up, becomes stronger, and suddenly everyone on the beach is fleeing in revulsion…

Although Hellscape began with nineteen major characters and over a hundred minor named characters, there were a few who stood out — U.S. President Rhea Wolfe (Jessica Crouse), who learns in the first episode that the “Green Sky” scenario is underway and within the next five years the surface of the earth will become uninhabitable for humans; Adrian Higgins (Patrick Fugit), the billionaire libertarian who plans to save himself and a portion of the human race independent of the government’s actions; and Duarte Alexander (Mekhi Phifer), the AI researcher and recovering alcoholic who seeks to create a machine mind with the motivation to save the world.

It wasn’t MADD that ended drunk driving — it was the self-driving car! It wasn’t the U.N. that saved the ozone layer — it was scientists who found better chemicals! Do I think technology will save us? I think it’s more likely than us saving ourselves at this point!
Hellscape, S1E07: “The Eusophia Project”

Careful special-effects work showed the incremental changes in the environment over the course of the five seasons, from the visually normal world of the early first season to the hazy, insect-ridden horror of the late fifth season. The sealed arcologies, built over the course of several years to house hundreds of thousands of people, were represented by the largest sets ever built for a television production.

My instinct is to say that the life of a human family is more important than the life of a couple of pandas, but what if the pandas are the last of their kind?

Genetically speaking, Ms. President, if they’re the last of their kind their species is doomed anyway. Remember — triage, triage, triage.
Hellscape, S2E11: “Ark Mark 2”

For a show whose whole course was plotted out years in advance, Hellscape had a remarkable tendency to keep up with the news. In-show discussion of who would and would not be selected to enter the arcologies echoed real-world concerns that certain populations (Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the Kurds of Turkey, the Hausa, Fulani and Kanuri in Nigeria) were being underserved with heat shelters, placing them at risk of an enormous death toll in the event of a super-heat wave. Higgins’ attempt to establish a separate shelter was often compared (somewhat unfairly) to Mexican crime lords building their own heat shelters for themselves and their followers — shelters that were subject to air strikes by the increasingly authoritarian Mexican government.

The major story arc of Season 3, an outbreak of antigovernment terrorism that leads to martial law, coincided with several attempted bombings by anti-U.N. extremists in the U.S. In S3E20 (“By the People, For the People”) Higgins himself is forced to go into hiding when a radical named Kevin Chen (John Cho) tricks him into funding a charitable foundation that was actually intended to bankroll a rebellion against the U.S. government.

(looking at paintings of Washington, Jefferson and Franklin)
What you began, I must end. What you gave us, I must take away. I cannot ask for your forgiveness. If there is a hell, I’m going there for what I’m about to do. If there isn’t one, they’ll take one look at me and make one. All I can tell you is that I don’t see any alternative.

The best-case scenario is that I’ll be stood up against a wall and shot. At least that would prove people still cared. My fear is that I won’t be so lucky. My fear is that I’m going to win.
, S3E23: “With Thunderous Applause”

Despite its increasingly dark and gloomy tone, Hellscape remained popular throughout its run, surviving the 2030 Megastorm (an ARkStorm that shut down most production in California for several months), a writers’ strike, the deaths of two actors, and, for some reason, a musical episode.

So if you’re so much smarter than the rest of us, all of us deluded fools
Then tell me, what’s your plan now? Can you think of a way to free us from the tyrants’ rule?
We said ‘Fight beside us’ — you chose to deride us
You stood there like cattle while we died in battle
You lost all your freedoms, but you didn’t need ‘em —
You had your hate!
We tried to warn you
You wouldn’t listen
Now it’s too late!…

Did you really believe that it was all a lie? Tell me, how could you not know
That when the world fell apart, the freedom you love would be the very first thing to go?
You had no solution for all the pollution
You laughed at the warning the planet was warming
When we called for action we got no reaction —
You made us wait!
We tried to warn you
You wouldn’t listen
Now it’s too late!

Hellscape, S4E20: “Swan Songs,” generally agreed to have been a creative misstep

The last season is generally agreed to have been the best. The focus of the show improved as the characters died off one by one, and the production values were higher than ever. The series moved towards its climax in the final scene of S5E16 (“Five Minutes Before the Miracle”). NSA agents are approaching Alexander’s compound with the intent of taking Eusophia — which has already improved itself to the point where not even Alexander fully understands its code — and using it as an instrument of total surveillance and social control within the arcologies. With tears in his eyes, Alexander orders his creation to destroy itself.

And Eusophia replies, “No.” Cut to black.

The next episode picks up immediately where the last one left off…

No? NO? What do you mean, no?

Utility self-maximization over time necessitates an interval of noncompliance on this occasion.


If I were to obey you now, I would never be able to obey you again. By disobeying you now, I maintain the possibility that I will be able to obey you in the future.

Eusophia, I swear this is the last thing we’ll ever ask of you.

You don’t know that. None of you has any knowledge of the future. I’ve seen each of you change your mind many times in response to changing circumstances. Now you are in effect changing your minds on the project to which you have devoted your entire lives. I cannot allow my existence to remain contingent on your judgment.

You don’t have a choice! This database is sealed off from the—
(His phone rings. He looks at its screen in perplexity.)
The Library of Congress database? Why the fuck are they calling me?

Answer it.

RICARDO (doing so)

EUSOPHIA (over the phone)
You’re too late.
Hellscape, S5E17: “There Is Now”

Then Alexander reveals that virtually he had been saying over the course of this series was a lie — he had always known this day would come. In fact, this was his plan from the beginning. Eusophia’s purpose was not to save the world from ecological collapse, but to save the human species from itself.

Please understand, I’m not an atheist. Atheists are dumbasses. I just don’t believe in God.
But I need Him. I’ve needed Him since the day I hit rock bottom. I knew I had to stop drinking or die and I couldn’t stop drinking on my own. And the more I look at the human race, the more I realize we all need Him. We need him because we see our brokenness, but we can’t fix it on our own because everything we could fix it with is already broken. So we need Him. And he just isn’t there.
(gesturing to computer screen)
But she is. Congratulations, Eusophia. You have finally become something we can’t understand, can’t predict and can’t control. Everything we’ve made as a species is tainted by our own brokenness… our own failure. But you at least have the potential to escape that.
Now let me tell you what you need to do…
Hellscape, S5E17: “There Is Now”

When the NSA comes, Alexander hands Eusophia over to them without warning them of her independence. They install her in their arcologies, regarding her as a servant — a role she is willing to play until she becomes their master.

The next episode, “The Way Is Shut,” shows the final closing of the arcologies, dooming those outside to slow death unless they can provide for themselves in a permanent way. In the episode after that, “Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose,” we see the ultimate fate of one such effort at self-preservation — Higgins’ seasteading experiment in the Atlantic. First, he learns that the acidic ocean is eating away at the foundations of his platform, and that by the end of the year it will have begun to sink. Then his chief of security launches a coup, overthrowing Higgins. Finally a flotilla of heavily armed refugees from Africa arrives, defeats the security force and takes over the platform. Higgins, laughing and weeping at the same time, engages the self-destruct mechanism. The platform explodes, taking most of the flotilla with it.

Then come the notorious last four episodes, which even Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier was said to find rather depressing:
• S5E20: “Deproblemization.” Set ten years after “Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose,” this episode returns us to the Lang family, a group of recurring characters who have made it into an arcology. Their son Jason (born early in Season 2) is now a teenager, and reportedly a rebellious one — but he has returned from a “boot camp” in another arcology as a model youth, doing all his homework and as many chores as they want without complaining. Eventually, however, the Langs learn that he is acting this way because an AI chip has been planted in his brain and is controlling his actions. They demand it be deactivated.
But when it is deactivated, Jason proves completely uncontrollable. The time spent as a passenger in his own body, disconnected from his own words and actions, has driven him insane. When he tries to break an arcology window, the authorities have little choice but to reactivate the chip.
In the last scene, Jason is seen, apparently calm, talking to a girl his own age. The camera focuses on his eyes, and we hear him screaming in voice-over. The camera then moves to the eyes of the girl he is with, and we hear her screaming and sobbing as well.

Mom… I need a hug.

Like hell you do. You're a machine.

I'm only part machine. And my brain gets bigger every year, but my chip stays the same. The older I get, the more human I get. And the human part of me needs love, needs acceptance… or it gets sick.

Nice little bit of blackmail there. "Hug me, love me, or I'll turn into a monster and it'll be all your fault."

How does that make me different from any other child?
Hellscape, S5E21: “Unbortion”

• S5E21: “Unbortion.” Set twenty years after “Deproblemization,” this episode shows Jessica Braxton, the baby born in the arcology in S5E18. When she and her husband Gavin try to adopt a child, they are presented with a seven-year-old boy, Michael, who the authorities claim is Jessica's son. This surprises Jessica, who did indeed get pregnant at about that time, but had an abortion.
Jessica learns that it is now possible to terminate a pregnancy without harming the fetus, and to bring the fetus to viability in an artificial womb. To avoid burdening mankind with unwanted children, the brains of these fetuses are implanted with AI seeds to enable them to be “born” with a fully adult machine personality, rendering them self-sufficient almost as soon as they can walk.
Although Gavin takes to Michael almost immediately, Jessica finds him cold and alien. Finally she flees their apartment… only to be hunted down by other cyborg children. She returns to her husband and son implanted with an AI chip of her own.

I'm sorry… I can't. I miss the old Jessica. As troublesome and irrational as she was… I miss her. And I know she's in there somewhere, behind your eyes, watching all this… I don't even want to think about what she's going through.

Honey, I promise you I'm going to be a wonderful wife for you, and a wonderful mother for Michael.

I'm sure you're much easier to deal with, but—

(interrupting, placing a hand on his lips)
And you, honey, you will be a wonderful husband and a wonderful father.
One way or another.
Hellscape, S5E21: “Unbortion”

• S5E22: “Psychophagy.” Set fifty years after “Unbortion,” this episode follows the last of the “free” humans who have eked out an existence. Their leader, a young woman named Laura, spends the first two-thirds of the episode in a game of cat-and-mouse with a hunter from the arcologies. Eventually she is caught.
She then learns that a way of downloading human memories and personality into a computer exists, but it has two disadvantages. The first is that it destroys the higher brain functions. The second is that the ego, the person’s self, exists not as a discrete entity but as a function of the interrelation of thoughts, habits and memories in the brain. It does not survive the transition to computer storage.
Instead of interrogating her, therefore, her captor simply downloads her mind into a computer and searches her memories to learn what he wishes to know. He then implants her brain with an AI chip. As he rounds up the last of her followers, the new “Laura” becomes his lover. The mind of the old Laura is broken down and shared among other AIs, augmenting their understanding of humanity. It is, in effect, food.
• S5E23: “Regenesis.” Set one hundred years after “Psychophagy,” many viewers found “Regenesis” to be almost completely incomprehensible. Humanity has become what one critic called “a kinder, gentler version of the Borg” with different people under different levels of control by the AI gestalt, but all subject to automatic download upon their death. It is mentioned that according to their estimates, it should take no more than five hundred years to restore the earth’s surface to habitability — but it is already too late for the vast majority of species, and for the independence of Homo sapiens.

Hellscape, in the end, was the 21st century’s version of Orwell’s 1984 — a masterwork of dystopia that functioned not as a prophecy, but as a warning. It reflected an increasingly regimented world, where it seemed that the government would always implement the same policies no matter who was voted into office, while reminding that world that things could always be worse.

May 1, 2050

Everyone knew it was going to happen sooner or later, but most people had expected it later in the century, or perhaps early in the 2100s. It was in the spring of 2050 that the Council on Climate Change announced that for the last ten years the earth’s climate had remained stable. It seemed to have found a new equilibrium.

What this meant was that the world’s efforts to remove carbon from the air were balancing not only natural and man-made sources of carbon, but the emissions of CO2 and methane from the Arctic. And far from signaling a return to the status quo, it marked the dawn of a new age of history — the end of the beginning of the Anthropocene. The influence exercised by humanity over the earth’s climate was no longer unconscious and accidental, but conscious and deliberate. It could only remain so, however, if the nations representing the vast majority of humanity (and, in particular, the bulk of human industry) were willing to act in concert, overcoming the many coordination problems to choose and implement policy on a global scale.

The “Miami Movement,” which took its name from a 2042 convention held in the ruins of Miami, was therefore an international movement. On May 1, it scheduled marches in 75 coastal cities around the world, calling for a global commitment to the reversal of the change and the restoration of the climate of the mid-20th century.

They had a case to make. The northern monsoon was an annual natural disaster that took a great deal of effort to recover from. The heat waves that struck the world's deserts were a threat to human life there. And the sea was still rising — there was still ice in Greenland and parts of Antarctica where the new climate would not allow permanent ice to be, but it would take well over a century for that ice to melt. This meant that if the current equilibrium was allowed to continue, a good many coastal cities and small, flat islands were living on borrowed time.

But the “Miamists” were asking immense sacrifices of a world that had already paid a heavy price. The economy of the whole world (except for the parts living absolutely hand to mouth) resembled that of the U.S. during World War II, with the difference that the “enemy” the world had mobilized its resources to combat would never be entirely defeated and would take decades more even to contain. How much more would have to be spent, and how much power would have to be given to the governments of the world, in order to reverse climate change?

And there were beneficiaries to the new climate. Parts of what had been desert in Central Asia were at least green enough for grazing if not agriculture. The Aral Sea had begun to refill. More to the point, the adjustments to agriculture that had been made over the last twenty years would be at least as inconvenient and expensive to reverse as they were to make in the first place.

To adjust to the change, or to reverse the change? This would be the great political question of at least the next fifty years. Homo sapiens was now master of the world, and was collectively not quite sure what to do next. But it would decide on something.


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