KP Reads

Saving the Planet Isn’t Science Fiction

Can the same capitalist system that runs the fossil fuel industry be used to change it? This novel describes how it could.


Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 novel presents a sobering but plausible time for us as our planet warms due to sunlight-trapping gases derived from the use of fossil fuels. While fiction, its descriptions of the changes taking place as Earth continues to warm are scientifically accurate and easy to understand. This a book of enormous scope that unfolds with short, punchy chapters.

Unlike many nonfiction books on climate change, ‘Ministry’ explores why it is so hard for us to reduce the use of fossil fuels by discussing the economics and geopolitics of the companies and countries that control them. The novel develops a rational plan based on taxes and incentives that monetizes the removal and storage of carbon, and the world’s central banks and economies adopt it.

The story starts when Frank May, an American aid worker in rural India, tries to cope with high heat and humidity by jumping into the town pond, along with everybody else. By the next day everyone in the pond except Frank had poached to death. Frank survived but suffered from a form of post-traumatic stress. Here is a first takeaway for us: When heat and humidity are so high that perspiration can’t cool the body by evaporation, heat stroke is likely unless the body cools off.

Wet bulb temperatures measure both heat and humidity. Wet bulb readings of 95 degrees Fahrenheit can be fatal, even if one is unclothed and in the shade. Deaths from extreme heat are increasing in the U.S. as they are in parts of Africa and Asia.

As Earth’s climate changes, entire ecosystems suffer as well. The novel lists more than 200 species of mammals, 700 species of birds, 400 species of reptiles, 600 species of amphibians, thousands of species of plants, and an uncounted number of insects that are extinct or nearly so. Extinctions, along with sea level rise and ocean acidification and deoxygenation, are examples of things we have done to the Earth that we can’t easily reverse, even if we stopped the use of fossil fuels tomorrow.

The story reminds us that we are “burning more than 40 gigatons (a gigaton is a billion tons) of fossil carbon fuels per year” and that if we burn as much as 500 gigatons total, we will “push the average global temperature over 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) higher that it was when the industrial revolution began.”

Fossil fuel companies or nation-states have “already located at least 3,000 gigatons of fossil carbon in the ground,” and consider them assets. At current prices “the notional value of 2,500 gigatons of carbon that should be left in the ground … is on the order of $1,500 trillion. Even as the climate worsens, the owners of the fossil carbon continue to sell and burn the portion they own while they still can. The novel presents the dilemma: how do we transition away from the use of fossil fuels, since as the temperature increases, the problems it leads to cannot be undone?

Our reluctance to take more serious steps to slow and hopefully reverse climate change has roots in human nature: We are not very good at taking personal action to solve collective problems. It’s a phenomenon known as “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Many of us and our institutions still ignore or deny the effects of climate change, even as climate problems become increasingly urgent, obvious, and potentially catastrophic. That we tend to discount the value of future human lives and thus underinvest in climate mitigation is another phenomenon: “The Tragedy of the Time Horizon.”

The agency commissioned to solve these problems, the Ministry for the Future in the book, was created and funded by the Paris Agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. It is led by Mary Murphy, a former minister of foreign affairs for the Irish Republic.

To prevent a full climate catastrophe, the ministry devises a carrot and stick plan for the world economy: various taxes on burning carbon would be imposed but there would be a payment of a fungible currency called a carbon coin to any person or corporation for carbon not released or carbon that is sequestered for at least a century by a verifiable method. The carbon coins would be tradeable or could be exchanged for other fiat currencies. “The central banks would guarantee it at a certain minimum price so it wouldn’t crash. But also, it could rise (in value) as people get a sense of its value.”

Murphy tells the central bankers “You can short civilization if you want (by not participating), but there will be no one to pay you if you win … but if you go long on civilization, we all win. So go long.”  Bankers began to realize that money was worthless unless there is a civilization to back it up, so they signed up.

Not everyone is happy about the actions of the ministry; some feel it should pursue more direct or brutal methods while others want it abolished. One direct action group stops all jet aircraft travel virtually overnight, using swarms of small smart drones that fly into the engines, killing thousands. This came to be called “crash day” and seems quite credible given the use of drones right now in the Ukraine war.

Climate change shows that the Earth responds to humanity’s use of fossil fuels. It reminds me of the insights of the British chemist James Lovelock, who suggested that life transforms and, in many ways, regulates our planet. Perhaps all other living creatures are not just inhabitants of Earth — we are Earth, an outgrowth of its physical structure.

Just as we perceive that our climate problems appear not only unjust, unsustainable and entrenched, can we find ways to use the Earth’s innate natural climate stabilizing processes in time? “Ministry” will take you to that future.