December 24, 2021
Previously published on Forbes.com
What if the climate of planet Earth has already passed a point of no return?
Following COP26 in Glasgow, hope for 1.5° C is gone. Even if all the COP26 climate targets are fulfilled—as unlikely as that is optimistic—temperatures are expected to increase by at least 1.8° C. Yet that is on average and doesn’t account for seasonal and regional variations. The Arctic has already warmed by 3.1° C—triple the global average—with unclear consequences for the climate and human life.
Suppose we already have reached a climate bifurcation from which there can be no recovery and our linear-trained minds simply cannot recognize that. Perhaps delegates to COP26 merely reshuffled the deck chairs on the Titanic. If so, what life can our children and grandchildren expect later this century?
You must forgive this gloomy holiday topic from a generally optimistic cleantech investor. The climate-related disasters that struck my adopted home of British Columbia in 2021 inspired me to consider life in the future if climate action has failed. Until six or seven years ago, the climate here in Vancouver seemed relatively stable. Then came this year’s record heatwaves and a monstrous wildfire season—followed by record precipitation that displaced at least 17,000 people and swept away virtually all the crucial infrastructure that connects BC to the rest of Canada.
An average “atmospheric river,” like the one that hit British Columbia (BC) in November, carries 27 Mississippi Rivers worth of water vapor. Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory predict that climate change will cause 50% more atmospheric rivers to make landfall in BC, and they will be 25% bigger on average. How will BC withstand that, especially as most of them will strike in November?
To describe the Earth after 2°, 3° or even 4° C of warming is beyond the scope of a Forbes post. Besides, writers like David Wallace Wells have done a thorough job. What hasn’t been done sufficiently, in my opinion, is a discussion about what climate change means for the structure of society, the role of technology and the experience of human life. Let’s think about that for a moment.
The castle era
Imagine it is 2050, and unsurvivable heat waves, devastating storms and atmospheric river rainfall occur annually around the globe. Sea level rise imminently threatens 800 million people in more than 570 coastal cities. 1.2 billion climate refugees are on the move, demonized by political leaders who campaigned on border security, cultural purity, we-firstism and claims of election fraud.
Even in rich nations, climate change makes large swaths of country unhabitable. Drought in the U.S. southwest and toxic dust storms ruin livelihoods and drain urban populations, while the Great Lakes region sees unsustainable immigration. Coastal cities like Vancouver, New York, London, Bangkok and Shanghai cut loose neighborhoods and surrounding villages that cannot be protected against rising seas—or at least not at a cost taxpayers will accept. Besides, now that “once-in-a-hundred-year” climate disasters are beginning to happen almost yearly, why bother rebuilding infrastructure?
Political leaders look backwards for a solution. In the Middle Ages, populations stockpiled resources in castles and gathered within when facing imminent threats. Non-militants traded a percentage of the fruits of their labor for common resources and security, including access to the castle. Modern societies carry on that tradition through institutions like citizenship and taxation.
Americans First, says the U.S. President. French First, says the French President. Londoners First, says a cheeky mayor. Keep out the Immigrants, say their enablers. Instead of rebuilding fragile infrastructure, governments invest in modern castles designed to protect populations against the climate their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents knowingly signed them up for. Refugees from the coasts, the tropics, the floodplains and deserts seek clemency at these newly fortified cities but are usually turned away.
Castle life in 2100
“Welcome to True Vancouver,” says the digital billboard. “Processing Time: 3 hours 11 min.” Imagine it’s 2100, and True Vancouver is the epitome of climate-proof urban design. The entrance to this sea- and flood-proof city has separate lines—one for current residents and licensed business, and another for would-be residents, who must be processed. What novel viruses or ideologies do they carry? What skills can they offer?
Under the dome of True Vancouver, residents depend on city-wide air conditioning and filtration to protect them from wildfire smog and the dangerously high concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane in natural air. It is all powered by a fusion reactor, the hottest (no pun intended) technology worldwide, sought after by governments and the corporations contracted to build climate-proof cities, like True Vancouver.
Everything, including the air conditioning, rests on clean, abundant energy from fusion energy. It has powered the desalinization plant ever since the freshwater reservoirs on Vancouver’s North Shore ran dry during summers and, eventually, succumbed to landslides when yet another atmospheric river made landfall. Greenhouse agriculture, food manufacturing, public transit, flood prevention systems, nanotech security systems, and quantum computing infrastructure—they depend on fusion too.
The Canadian federal government focuses on its carbon capture and methane mitigation systems and exerts ever less control over True Vancouver, the only significant year-round population center left in BC. The city has contracted a private military to maintain order and keep undesirables out. After 20 years of continuously renewing its Emergency Powers, the True Vancouver City Council finally passes a referendum on “Enhanced Governance” in 2100.
A professor at the University of True Vancouver calls it a “Shameless, autocratic coup.” Her talk on domed cities cites a prescient 2018 paper from Nature: “Their reliance on sophisticated technologies to engineer specific ecologies and conditions can, however, leave these spaces smacking of technofetishism and anti-democratic tendencies.”
The professor is relieved of her post, her permit to live in True Vancouver revoked. A family in the processing line hears some good news: there is an apartment available.
What more desirable alternatives can we imagine?
Predictions about the future trend towards dystopian because the unknowable is inherently scary. Maybe, instead, we ought to imagine a future where new social norms, humane business practices and enlightened democracy enable human beings to flourish in 21st century castles. But if current behavior among politicians, business leaders and influencers are fair indicators, we are more likely to live under a Kardashian Consumerist Party than a Thunbergian Democracy. What can we do about that?
When as a young boy I filled the coal bucket for the only stove we had to heat our house, I couldn’t imagine the comfort we’d we live in today. But we were happy. Since then, progress has lifted billions worldwide out of poverty, and now as then, we don’t know what the future will bring.
In the scope of history, the world we know today is as unlikely as the one I imagine in 2050 and 2100. So-called “golden eras” in human history are brief. Eventually, they end and give way to something new—over time, hopefully something better. In our case, something better will require innovative brains and regulatory wisdom to implement new technologies and societal frameworks that balance safety with the human drive to flourish.
If indeed we’re living through a tipping point, then innovators must move from fighting climate change to finding the best ways to live with it. If we tap into our collective, open-source brain power, we should be able to work through the disruptions of climate change. In agony, communities tend to come bound together, build new wealth and find reasons to be grateful and happy again. While some people are already jumping ship to Team Mars, I remain a strong supporter of Team Earth.
Of course, I hope we haven’t triggered climate tipping points yet. I hope we haven’t consigned our children and theirs to dystopia (if we’re not already living in one). With heart and optimism, I ask our innovators, politicians and cultural influencers to give up the trivial and act like life on Earth as we know it depends on their leadership—because it does. Happy Holidays.