Solar Radiation Management

This is part of an ongoing series annotating Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future.

I remember the first time I heard Stewart Brand advocate for increasing reliance on nuclear power. It was disconcerting to hear someone whose thinking I generally respect advocate for something I generally oppose. I was not (and am not) on board with increasing humanity’s reliance on nuclear power, but after listening I understood his argument. It’s not the worst solution to the problems we face.

I felt the same way when reading KSR recommending large-scale geo-engineering projects. It’s a shock because I don’t think it’s a good idea, and after listening to his argument, I’m not sure I’m totally convinced, but concede it’s not the worst solution to the problems we face.

In MftF there are several examples of solar radiation management.

Solar radiation management is pretty much just as it sounds. A way to manage solar radiation. On an individual level we do this with sunscreen, or UV protection sunglasses.

For a large-scale project, you have to affect huge chunks of the sky or sea if it’s going to make any notable difference. In Ministry KSR deploys three major geoengineering strategies for managing solar radiation, one in the sky, one in the sea, and one on land.

Early in the novel India seeds the sky over their nation with sulphur-dioxide. KSR uses the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo as a reference/measurment. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the effects of that eruption on the atmosphere.

The effects of the 1991 eruption were felt worldwide. It ejected roughly 10 billion tonnes (1.1×1010 short tons) or 10 km3 (2.4 cu mi) of magma, and 20 million tonnes (22 million short tons) of SO2, bringing vast quantities of minerals and toxic metals to the surface environment. It injected more particulate into the stratosphere than any eruption since Krakatoa in 1883. Over the following months, the aerosols formed a global layer of sulfuric acid haze. Global temperatures dropped by about 0.5 °C (0.9 °F) in the years 1991–1993, and ozone depletion temporarily saw a substantial increase.

In interviews KSR pushes back against the kneejerk rejection to major geo-engineering projects. Geo-engineering solutions should be on the table, he argues, because the fear is unwarranted (for some proposals). Plus, we have gone too far not to consider large-scale geoengineering projects.

Wikipedia also give us background on stratospheric aerosol injection, the solar radiation management stategy Indian employs in MftF.

I suppose my objections, speaking as someone who is not an expert in the subject, are the potential for unexpected consequences, and the ethics of an elite group imposing this solution on a global population.

Something like spreading sulphur-dioxide in the atmosphere will likely negatively affect the ozone layer (as mentioned in the un-bolded portion of the Wikipedia excerpt), it will affect plant life in uncertain (and perhaps unpredictable) ways, and, if it works, it may become a crutch that’s trotted out every five years or so, while the substantial changes that need to happen are kicked down the road.

The global elite making a decision that affects every person on earth smacks too much of colonialism (as well as many other manifestations of power imbalance).

KSR argues that modelling atmospheric particulate dispersion on volcanic eruption provides us with an understanding of what the opportunities and threats look like. And, even if it’s a bad idea, the effects will mostly vanish after half a decade. It’s an emergency solution for emergency times.

Mentioned in passing later in the novel we learn that the arctic ocean has been died yellow to reflect more sunlight away from the ocean and reduce ocean warming. The most SFnal geo-engineering method is a method of reducing glacial slide. These I’ll discuss in future posts.

(NOTE: As I was editing this to post, the following article popped up in my feed: The U.S. Is One Step Closer to Establishing a Research Program to Block the Sun.)

“[A report from the National Academies of Sciences] chronicles three of the most common ideas to hack the sky, which includes injecting tiny reflective particles into the stratosphere, brighten marine clouds also using tiny particles, and thinning cirrus clouds.”

This post is part of a Ministry for the Future annotation project. Some of the ideas/concepts/terms used by Kim Stanley Robinson in MftF I want to incorporate into the the next edition of the Green New Deal book I published with Hillsborough River Press.

Paris Agreement

This is part of an ongoing series annotating Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future.

We will end up in Paris and with the agreement, but I want to take a bit of a leisurely detour.

Let’s start in London in the summer of 1967 at the BBC studios. Reflecting the sense that the world is increasingly interconnected, the BBC has planned the first “worldwide” programming event, a special episode of a series titled Our World. The London studio intends to switch between 14 different nations and broadcast to twenty-four. 1967 is five years after Marshall McLuhan coined the term ‘global village’ and a decade after Sputnik launched the Cold War space race.

The BBC commissioned a song from the Beatles and asked that it be simple and provide a message of hope. The Beatles premiered the song “All You Need is Love” which helped give the name to the Summer of Love.

To conclude the program the camera pulls back, seeming to pull all the way to space, where it shows a claymation image of a rotating earth. No single picture of the entire planet exists.

A few minutes of background on the Beatles “All You Need is Love” performance.

By the time Elvis performs to a global audience in 1973’s “Live From Hawaii,” these sorts of ‘world’ media events are becoming commonplace.

The span between these two global performances sees quite a few charismatic pollution events. For this blog post I’m focusing on US events, but US news is broadcast around the world, and developed countries can see their future in the growing pollution crisis in the states. If it hasn’t arrived already.

  • In October of 1967 an analysis of a dramatic smog event in NYC in 1966 indicated that 168 people likely perished from choking on the city air.
  • In 1967 the first endangered species list is released and the American bald eagle is at the top of the list. This seems somehow a metaphor for industrial hubris.
  • In 1969 California experiences one of the largest oil spills in history off the coast of Santa Barbara.
  • In 1969 the Cuyahoga River catches fire. This isn’t the first time a river had burned, but this one catches the attention of the nation.

Pollution in the developed nations was clearly a problem in the 1960s. Urban areas were poisonous environments, with cars pumping the exhaust of leaded gas into the air, and little regulation to control abundant industrial poisons used in construction. Any nation who aspired to US-level wealth could see that it might also come with health hazards associated with air and water pollution.

Rivers were gross oil slicks. Perhaps your grandparents might have fished in that river, but children of the 1960s were warned that falling into the water meant a trip to the hospital.

This culminated in the first Earth Day celebration in the US on April 22, 1970.

The United Nations, by its nature as a global deliberative body, necessarily moves slow. In 1972 the United Nations held its first Conference on the Environment in Stockholm. This was the first world conference addressing the environment. On the agenda as the most pressing global environmental problems: nuclear weapons testing, human population growth, wildlife conservation, and, perhaps stepping slightly outside their portfolio, advocating for the end of apartheid.

“We see around us growing evidence of man-made harm in many regions of the earth: dangerous levels of pollution in water, air, earth and living beings; major and undesirable disturbances to the ecological balance of the biosphere; destruction and depletion of irreplaceable resources; and gross deficiences, harmful to the physical, mental and social health of man, in the man-made environment, particularly in the living and working environment.”

Stockholm Declaration and Action Plan for the Human Environment

The Stockholm conference recommended the formation of the United Nations Environment Programme. From then to now the United Nations has been the key space (though not the only one) for negotiating international agreements on global pollution and climate change.

Not long after this first conference scientists started to notice how some types of air pollution damaged the ozone layer.

In 1987 the United Nations passed Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. This agreement affected nearly every nation on earth, and was agreed to by 196 nations plus the European Union. This agreement substantially changed industies across the globe, reshaped how materials were packaged and shipped globally, and changed they way we used air conditioning in buildings and cars.

Since the passage of the Montreal Protocol the ozone layer is by some measures improving, and by others leveling off. Most indices agree, at least, that it is not getting substantially worse.

The Montreal Protocol worked, and provided a blueprint for the future. When nations agree to cooperate they can radically reshape global industry for the benefit of the biosphere.

A few years later, in 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was launched under the auspices of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. The conference was held in 1992 to recognize the 20th anniversary of the first Conference on the Environment in Stockholm.

In 2016, 191 nations, including the United States, agreed to the Paris Agreement, which grew out of the decades of cooperation that grew from the UNFCCC.

It’s easy enough to find the aims of the Paris Agreement, but I wanted to take a deeper dive into why KSR argues in Ministry for the Future that it is such an important agreement.

The Paris Agreement didn’t spring from nowhere. It is rooted in nearly a half century of global cooperation on the environment. There have been many failures along the way. But there have also been substantial successes. Successes that can only come from international cooperation on a large scale.

The Paris Agreement is, as KSR notes, a thin reed on which to hang our hopes, but it is perhaps sturdier than it looks.

In 1972, moved by a grassroots campaign started by Stewart Brand, NASA release the first image of the whole planet.

The Blue Marble by the crew of Apollo 17 (1972)

This post is part of a Ministry for the Future annotation project. Some of the ideas/concepts/terms used by Kim Stanley Robinson in MftF I want to incorporate into the the next edition of the Green New Deal book I published with Hillsborough River Press.

Wet-Bulb Temperature

If you’re hot, you sweat. Sweat is one way your body controls its temperature. The evaporating sweat cools your body.

Evaporation relies on the surrounding air not already being saturated. If the humidity is high, the surrounding air can’t absorb much more moisture. If it’s too humid your sweat doesn’t evaporate, and your body loses one of its key methods for regulating temperature. If you can’t sweat you can’t cool yourself, and so lower temperatures than you might expect can be deadly if the humidity is high.

When it comes to the dangers of climate change, we not only have to worry about high temperatures, we also have to worry about high temperatures combined with high humidity, aka high wet-bulb temperatures.

We already know a version of this as the “heat index,” which calculates for shady areas. Wet-bulb temperature focuses on direct sunlight temperatures.

“The WetBulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) is a measure of the heat stress in direct sunlight, which takes into account: temperature, humidity, wind speed, sun angle and cloud cover (solar radiation). This differs from the heat index, which takes into consideration temperature and humidity and is calculated for shady areas. If you work or exercise in direct sunlight, this is a good element to monitor. Military agencies, OSHA and many nations use the WBGT as a guide to managing workload in direct sunlight.”

National Weather Service- WetBulb Globe Temperature

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future starts with a heat wave in Uttar Pradesh, India, made catastrophic due to a high wet-bulb temperature. There is no way to escape for most of the population. There is no reprieve from the weather. The combination of high heat and high humidity kills millions.

Unfortunately, as in much of the book, KSR isn’t really stretching his forecasting muscles here. We’ve already seen multiple high wet-bulb temperature events, and are guaranteed to see more.

The first time I remember hearing about this was in the 1990s during the 1995 Chicago heat wave. Over 700 people died in that combination of heat and humidity. A younger, more naive, and optimistic version of me presumed that such an event would really capture the nation’s attention and people would start taking climate change seriously. LOL.

Robinson may have had a more recent event in mind when writing MftF. 2015 saw about 4,000 people die in India and Pakistan due to high hot-bulb temperatures.

Heat waves by themselves can be catastrophic climate events. High wet-bulb temperatures are just one more way a screwed up biosphere will harm humanity.

One reason the nation didn’t take deaths in Chicago in 1995 more seriously is because it was mostly old, impoverished people who died. Robinson makes this point in MftF. Because the catastrophic climate event he describes in the first chapter overwhelmingly affects the poor (many of the most wealthy were able to flee), it is quickly forgotten by most of the world (but not India, which is an imporant element of the unfolding plot).

For more about wet-bulb temperature affects on humans, see the following: Raymond, Colin, Tom Matthews, and Radley M. Horton. “The Emergence of Heat and Humidity too Severe for Human Tolerance.” Science Advances 6, no. 19 (2020): eaaw1838.

This post is part of a Ministry for the Future annotation project. Some of the ideas/concepts/terms used by Kim Stanley Robinson in MftF I want to incorporate into the the next edition of the Green New Deal book I published with Hillsborough River Press.

Annotating Ministry for the Future

I finished reading Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson not too long ago, and as I read I kept thinking “I need to add that to the next edition of the Green New Deal book.”

So, for the foreseeable future, I’ll be pulling out a bunch of ideas KSR drops in MftF and expanding on them here. Ultimately, some of these blog posts will be pureed and poured into the next edition of GND.

I’ll add the following notice, and categorize these posts as MftF.

“This post is part of a Ministry for the Future annotation project. Some of the ideas/concepts/terms used by Kim Stanley Robinson in MftF I want to incorporate into the the next edition of the Green New Deal book I published with Hillsborough River Press.”

What did I think of the book?

KSR is super-smart and does his homework, hence my wanting to draw from this work of fiction as if it’s a nonfiction work.

Science fiction appealed to me when I was young because of the riot of ideas. I had then an insatiable appetite for novelty and the unexpected. I still love that about SF, but I’ve come to appreciate stories that are tempered with insight to the human condition. I feel my humanity much more as a middle-aged man than I did as a self-centered teen.

KSR puts a little more effort into character development than most of his predecessors, but I still find them a little flat.

KSR also has pretty much one voice. While MftF strives to slice and dice the future so we can see it from many different perspectives, it all comes across as lecture from a moderately hip professor. It’s a really cool and interesting lecture, and I’m deeply committed to paying attention, but I never feel swept up into the story or the world like I do with some other writers.

If anyone were ever to actually institute a Ministry for the Future, they could do a lot worse than put KSR in charge.