In the movie The Martian, Matt Damon proves he can “science the shit” out of his situation to survive on a toxic planet. We, unfortunately, will not be so lucky.
I’ve written some 30 novels, where invariably our planet is threatened, but by and large it’s due to the usual suspects: a despot seeking power, science run amok, a ticking nuclear crisis, a global terrorist threat. And, as is often the case, we are frequently our own worst enemies. That’s certainly the situation in my latest thriller, The Seventh Plague.
The current novel deals with the looming threat of climate change and addresses the likelihood of our being able to “science” our way out of this crisis. Over the past decade, we’ve seen the debate on global warming shift from “It ain’t happening” to “OK, it’s happening, but there’s not much we can do about it.” Of course, this helpless shoulder-shrugging is just another shade of denial, manifesting as the rejection of any immediate need for a solution. I believe such sentiment is buried in a very human desire to put off the inevitable, a willingness to foist a present problem off to a future generation—in other words, to cross that bridge when we get to it.
Unfortunately, that bridge is already burning. November was the hottest November on record; the winter Arctic ice cap is nearly the smallest it has ever been. And with all that ice melting, cruise companies are now selling seats on ships slated to sail along the Northwest Passage, a voyage once considered too hazardous to even contemplate and that led to the deaths of countless explorers. In fact, the Jet Propulsion Lab recently announced that the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets is even causing the Earth’s axis to shift.
So where are we headed next? I suspect many of those in the denial camp are secretly hedging their bets, trusting that in some distant future, if the situation proves dire enough, the whiz-bang of science will pull our butts out of the fire (in such a case, perhaps literally).
So let’s “science the shit” out of that future scenario. What can be done when we’re past the proverbial point of no return? By that time, the more conservative approach of reducing carbon emissions and switching to green energy sources won’t be enough. It would take a truly massive engineering project, one on a global scale, in order to reverse course and steer this giant ship to safety. The scientific term for such projects is “geoengineering.” The non-scientific term is a “Hail Mary pass,” one last-ditch effort before all is lost.
What do such geoengineering projects look like? In a word: big. Some of the proposals already under consideration include flooding Death Valley to stave off the rise of ocean levels, or wrapping Greenland in a reflective solar blanket to slow the melting of its ice fields, or constructing a 100,000-square-mile solar shield made up of trillions of tiny lenses that could deflect a portion of the sun’s ray. Even Bill Gates teamed up with NASA to consider the viability of shooting seawater into the skies to increase cloud cover as a means of cloaking the planet from the sun.
As one might imagine, such projects would be astronomically costly and require the international coordination of many governments. Even NASA’s seawater-spraying project was estimated to involve 2,000 ships at a cost over $7 billion, and still there would be no guarantee of success. And that’s assuming the current stagnated government could even manage such an act.
It will likely take the participation of an individual like Bill Gates, someone with the freedom and financial resources to pull off such a project. At the beginning of the 20th century, when the American government was gridlocked and unable to deal with rising global threats, it was wealthy entrepreneurs—great barons of industry Henry Ford and John Rockefeller—who wrested control from complacent politicians and faced those challenges head-on, ushering in the technological age. And now with governments again stultifying, with politicians deadlocked and mired in one-upmanship, it may very well take a new set of forward-thinkers to step in, to advance new technologies.
The Norwegians coined a phrase for such projects, calling them stormannsgalskap, or “the madness of great men.” While the term was meant to be disparaging, it might very well become a badge of honor in the future. If rising carbon levels are left unchecked, the world will need pioneering innovation. It will need great individuals who are willing to defy governments and do what is necessary to make hard, bold choices.
But better yet, let’s do that now.
Even if one of these massive geoengineering projects could be developed, financed, and implemented in the future, the question arises whether it will do more harm than good. When you’re talking about trying to control climate via an engineering project, there are a thousand variables at play. Pull the wrong string and everything could unravel. An international team of researchers ran models for a dozen different geoengineering projects and concluded that such massive endeavors would likely have disastrous unintended consequences. Their final conclusion was even more disturbing. Even if a project was successful at controlling carbon levels for 50 years, once the project was stopped, the rebound effect could actually accelerate climate change.
So in the end, geoengineering is a lose-lose scenario. It’s a scientific pipe dream. We will not be able to “science” our way out of a climate collapse. Instead, we must act now. Rather than slamming on the brakes in the future, let’s start tapping that brake before we skid into oblivion.
What can be done? Instead of searching for that Hail Mary global engineering project, look closer at hand, at fine-tuning the “science” already at our disposal: improving solar energy, making nuclear energy safer, building a better battery, lowering the cost of desalination, expanding biofuel use. These projects aren’t as exciting as wrapping Greenland in a blanket, but they’re more likely to be successful and last longer.
So maybe, in the end, science will save us—but only if we act now.
James Rollins is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Seventh Plague.