Challenging Climate

1. Neal Stephenson on solar geoengineering and Termination Shock

January 11, 2022 Jesse Reynolds and Pete Irvine Episode 1
Challenging Climate
1. Neal Stephenson on solar geoengineering and Termination Shock
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Neal Stephenson is a leading author of science- and speculative fiction and is a recipient of the Hugo and Prometheus Awards. His most recent novel Termination Shock is an eco-thriller that explores the political fallout from the use of solar geoengineering to counter climate change. Neal, Pete, and Jesse discuss reducing greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide removal, his research process, climate impacts, public perception, billionaires in innovation vis-à-vis  the government, the roles of models in decision-making, technocracy, planetary management, social media, biotechnology, and of course, solar geoengineering.

Neal Stephenson’s webpage:

His latest book, Termination Shock:

Neal in conversation with David Keith: 

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Unknown Speaker  0:13  
Welcome to challenging climate podcast where we discuss the science, technology and Politics of Climate Change. I'm Jesse Reynolds, an environmental policy expert.

Unknown Speaker  0:23  
I'm Pete urban climate scientist. Each episode, we bring on a guest with a unique perspective and deep expertise on climate change, and we put challenging questions to them.

Unknown Speaker  0:31  
In this episode, we spoke with Neil Stevenson, who is a leading author of speculative fiction and speculative history. And throughout his writing, technology plays a big role. He's the recipient of the Hugo and Prometheus awards. He's perhaps best known for his novels, Snow Crash, and crypto Nomicon. His most recent book, termination shock, explores a scenario of the use of solar geoengineering in the not too distant future. For those listeners, new to the idea solar geoengineering is a set of proposed techniques to artificially cool the planet in order to reduce climate change. The leading proposal would replicate volcanic eruptions, natural cooling effect by spraying small particles into the upper atmosphere.

Unknown Speaker  1:23  
And yeah, it was it was great to have me alone. I mean, Jesse and I both both work academically on solar geoengineering. And I think it's really interesting to see very accomplished fiction writers take on this topic, because I think science fiction and fiction in general, can help us explore issues that are kind of some extent out of reach of academia, or are not well covered there. So I think it's really interesting to have him on and really interesting to see him getting involved. And yeah, I really enjoyed our conversation.

Unknown Speaker  1:54  
Another layer that I think he added is that he is not deep into climate change and environmental issues in the past. And and that can actually be an asset by bringing some some fresh eyes to the question of climate change and technology and solar geoengineering. Such a perspective can help shake people up, perhaps, act as an antidote to the risk of groupthink.

Unknown Speaker  2:21  
And overall, it was a great conversation. So we all enjoy it.

Unknown Speaker  2:38  
Welcome to the podcast, Neil.

Unknown Speaker  2:40  
Thanks for inviting me to join you.

Unknown Speaker  2:42  
Oh, hi, Neil. I guess first off, could you explain to our audience what your new book is about?

Unknown Speaker  2:48  
Of course, it's meant to be a techno thriller that is on the subject of climate change, and geoengineering. And I have tried to present what I think is a frank account of where we are, and how things might look in the coming decades and some of the ways that people might react to that situation. So more specifically, what I'm depicting here is a situation in which an individual actor, a lone billionaire in Texas, decides that he's going to unilaterally implement a solar geoengineering scheme. In other words, as people who listen to your podcast may know, he's going to, in this case, inject a layer of sulfates into the stratosphere using a large gun as a way of blunting the effects of rising temperatures on the global climate. So that is all sort of a fait accompli at the beginning of the book, although we don't see it until we're a few chapters in. And so really what the book is about is, is the geopolitical knock on effects. So what do people think of what this man has done? How does it affect different regions, different countries in different ways? And how do different people respond, depending on how their own national interests might be affected? It

Unknown Speaker  4:36  
seems that you've written little on environmental issues over the course of your book. So I think from writes your second novel, Zodiac has quite an environmental theme. So what drew you to focusing on climate change and solar geoengineering?

Unknown Speaker  4:52  
Well, you're right that my second novel, Zodiac was described as an eco thriller, but it didn't Have anything really to do with climate change, it was about toxic waste. The, in this case, I guess there I've had a growing consciousness and awareness of the severity of the problems that we're facing. Over the last couple of decades, and almost 10 years ago, I actually spent a while working with a study group that was looking at a form of possible carbon capture. And we sort of moved away from that project when we began to run the numbers. And it started to understand just how much carbon has to be removed from the atmosphere in order to make any substantive difference. And realize that it was something that would have to be implemented on an incredibly enormous scale. So that was kind of the when I first became a little bit more conscious of these things. And I guess in 2019, having having delivered my previous book fall, or dodge in hell and and looking around for what I would write next, it just suddenly became clear to me that this is such a, an enormously important issue. That it seemed a bit odd that I hadn't tackled it yet. And I began to feel as though given that my niche, as a writer is supposed to be writing approachable books on technical subjects. That it behooves me to take a crack at climate change.

Unknown Speaker  6:58  
Do you think it would have been much harder to take on climate change? If you weren't able to use the idea of solar geoengineering as a hook?

Unknown Speaker  7:07  
I think it is a particularly good hook. Because it I mean, a few reasons. One is that, by its nature, when you tell a solar geoengineering story, you're telling a story that involves a big technology project. I mean, in my case, it's a large gun system. But people have also talked about using balloons, they've talked about using special airplanes. They've even talked about space based solar geoengineering, where objects are put into orbit, to bounce back the sun's rays. But however you slice it, it's always a big technology project. And big technology projects could just kind of lend themselves to science fiction storytelling, it gives you it's kind of a structure to build a story around. So that's part of it. And then another part is the the geopolitical angle, the fact that any solar geoengineering scheme is going to have globally distributed effects. And so it immediately gets you into all kinds of possible plot ideas in that area. And And finally, it's a I don't want to use the word hopeful or optimistic because I don't think that exactly captures it, but it is a a way to talk about something other than we're all going to die.

Unknown Speaker  8:47  
That is something that also struck me i One of the things that I've not, that's kept me a bit away from indulging too much in science fiction broadly defined as a kind of a dystopian bent to it. And I found that this book, and I recently read another one of your books to get a sense about where you're coming from. It's mixed. There's there's challenges. There's opportunities of technology that can address problems to some degree, but it's not smooth sailing. It's also not a utopian story, either. Right? What I seen across common in your books is something you just mentioned, is that the technical aspect, or you have an attention to technical detail, it wasn't wasn't extremely deep in this book. I also read print seven Eve's and that goes in a bit more depth. I'm curious, how do you go about background research getting up to speed because as far as I can see on the solar geo side, you had dotted your I's and cross your t's at a technical and physical level it held together.

Unknown Speaker  9:44  
Right. So I have a I grew up in an academic family in an academic town that was geared towards science and engineering. My My educational background, is in in technical subjects, I didn't go terribly far, I have a bachelor's degree and that's it, but I've maintained or tried to maintain my, my contact with that world since then. I'm a heavy user of Mathematica, which I found to be a really valuable kind of general to, for doing kind of, somewhere beyond back of the envelope calculations. And so, but but obviously not at the level of, of serious engineering, but it's, it's, it's kind of in the right, Goldilocks zone between those two extremes, and enough to make me feel as though I'm not grossly violating the laws of physics and that the things I'm describing in the book might actually be achievable. So in the case of, of, of seven Eve's, for example, there's a lot of, of material in there having to do with orbital mechanics, which is, it's not a trivial subject, but it's, it's, uh, you know, the basic math of, of conic sections and orbits and so on has been very well understood for a long time. So, you know, it's a matter of simply kind of transferring those equations into Mathematica and then running the numbers. In the case of, in the case of, of termination shock, I'd really, I'd had aspirations early of trying to get my head around some of the climate models that are out there, which are very complicated, very powerful models, but didn't really have the time to, to plunge into that. So. So there's nothing in the book that is based on actual, you know, actual simulation of the atmosphere. But, but what I did do was try to do some calculations on the performance of the gun, the big gun that there in the story, constructs in West Texas to launch shells full of sulfur, into the air. And so I can't vouch for it completely, I mean, nobody's reviewed the notebook that I created, and for showstoppers, but I think that in general terms, the, the numbers pencil out on on that system, and, and, and yields a kind of the key number that falls out of it is the the amount of sulfur that gets delivered into the stratosphere per year, while this thing is, is running. And I think it's enough of a number two, to make a detectable difference. But not a big enough, number two, to fully counteract the effects of too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But But even that is, has desirable and useful knock on effect in in the development of the plot, because, because that enables me then to say, Well, okay, if he's built this thing, and it works, but it's not big enough to completely achieve his goal, then then that implies that he he's going to need to build other systems like it and other parts of the world. And you know, where would those be built? What political accommodations we need to arrive at, in order to to get permission to build and operate these things? And how does that then fall through into various geopolitical considerations that I can have some fun with, as a writer?

Unknown Speaker  14:02  
I've heard it said that. When authors write about the future, there's a mix of things going on their predictions, some of them are things they think are likely some things they think should happen. And others are just there to make a good story. So I want to run through some of the aspects or some elements of the date or potential climate future and sort of see where you fall on those. So I think you mentioned a little bit about very briefly about carbon dioxide removal, but in terms of emissions cuts and carbon dioxide removal. I mean, what do you think of the prospects of us achieving the kind of rapid emissions cuts that'd be necessary to limit warming to one and a half Celsius? Without solid engineering? I should say.

Unknown Speaker  14:40  
So I don't follow this extremely closely. My sense is that the cuts needed to to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. C. I'm extremely optimistic, and I'll be very pleasantly surprised if if those actually happen. You know, I'm all in favor of any efforts that get made in that area. But it seems like like a lot of countries are going to have to make very big changes in their economies in order to hit that.

Unknown Speaker  15:15  
Is it possible to dramatize the kind of decades long energy transition that we're talking about? I mean, as you mentioned, your focus is on big technologies, and they're, they're big technologies and, you know, realizing emissions cuts and carbon dioxide removal, but they're a different character from solar geoengineering.

Unknown Speaker  15:32  
Yeah, it's true. It's true. And it's a, it's, it's a fundamental part of the problem here is that, you know, yeah, for a different kind of, of big goal, like, Let's build a Mars colony, that can be realized through some, some very charismatic and, and singular technologies, you know, building giant rockets, launching them into space, and so on, and so forth. And, and there's an element of human adventure tied in with that kind of project as well, where, you know, we get to see the individual stories of astronauts and what happens to them be good or bad. And as you point out, the problem with emission reduction and with carbon capture, is that these are projects that are distributed across the entire surface of the globe, and they take place in industries that don't have that inherently charismatic quality to them. So it's, it's it's a lot more difficult to kind of capture the imagination of a reader, or anybody who's not, you know, a process engineer in in, in undertaking those kinds of projects, and yet, we have to, we have to do it. I guess

Unknown Speaker  17:03  
on the other side of things, I believe there are quite a lot of stories about how the impacts of climate change could play out in the future. So what worries you most about climate change? Well,

Unknown Speaker  17:14  
I think the the big bad is, is wet bulb events, where the heat and humidity in a particular area become so high, that the survival of unprotected human beings is physically impossible. And if events like that happen in heavily populated areas, there could be mass fatality events. And in his book, the Ministry for the future, Kim Stanley Robinson opens with a very powerful and, and, and well, well rot depiction of one such event. And so we've we've, we've brushed up against this a few times already. And even in my hometown of Seattle, we had a heat bubble last summer, where the temperature went up to something like 115 Fahrenheit for three days and then dropped, dropped by 50 degrees Fahrenheit overnight. So but but in its wake, it left a couple of 100 fatalities. So that's the big bad, but then there's, as you know, a whole list of other negative effects of climate change. Maybe not as dramatic as that. But but but potentially even more damaging in kind of pervasive ways. When you integrate them over the whole surface of the Earth, decades of time,

Unknown Speaker  18:56  
I guess, in your story, sea level rise features quite prominently as a concern. Was there a reason to focus on on sea level rise over these other risks?

Unknown Speaker  19:05  
Yeah, a couple reasons. One is that I didn't want to write it, it's tempting to write about huge, dramatic, horrific disasters. And I, I didn't want to play that card. And but but the key reason is that sea level rise can't be argued with so you can if there's a heatwave, people are always going to say that it's just a random anomaly. Well, we've always had heat waves. You know, there's no proof that this doesn't prove that there's global climate change. And it's not such a big deal, but In the case of sea level rise, you cannot argue with the fact that your house is full of water. Or that there are streets in your town that are underwater that were not underwater just a few years ago. And it's worldwide. So it affects every place. That's, that's a long a coast. So it affects a lot of people, it's easily visualized. And, and it provides a, an economic motivation to do something. So the the actors that we see in kind of the opening chapters in the book, all have one thing in common, which is that they're they represent countries where rising sea levels are posed kind of an existential threat to them. And so they're all kind of despite being otherwise very diverse, and distributed around the world. They're all brought together by a shared existential concern with this one phenomenon.

Unknown Speaker  21:04  
And finally, to solar geoengineering. So, in your story, Stratospheric Aerosol geoengineering is deployed unilaterally by billionaire, do you think this is likely or

Unknown Speaker  21:16  
I think that some kind of, of, of solar geoengineering is going to be implemented within the next couple of decades. But I don't think it's going to be by alone billionaire. So there's some places sometimes I make decisions for storytelling purposes, that may not be entirely realistic. In in this case, it's simply more interesting and makes more for more fun and readable story. If, if the person who does it is a person as opposed to a committee or, you know, coalition of countries or something like that. And that's just kind of storytelling one on one, I have to sort of bend over backwards a little bit to explain how he's able to get away with it. In other words, why doesn't he just get shut down by governmental authorities. So there is a story to to explain that. But it's a story that requires some effort on my part. So I think that, that the emission reduction goals, which are laudable in which I'm all in favor of are are not going to happen fast enough to prevent, you know, very serious consequences of climate change, and that there are going to be countries in the world who, who take a look at this situation, who run the numbers, and who simply conclude it's in their own national best interests to take action and try to cool. So I would not be at all surprised to see it happen. But I don't think it'll be a lone, wealthy individual, I think it'll be one or more countries.

Unknown Speaker  23:15  
Because one thing with sci fi books, when they, you know, predict what not to predict is the right word birthday, they forecast the future in some way. There seems to be maybe two ways that they could take on a development. One is to foreground it and make it the, you know, a core part of the story. And another is to have it as a background element. Oh, by the way, we can fly to Mars or whatever it is. Which do you think's more likely is this is the development of soldier engineering likely to be a foreground issue or, or more of a background issue?

Unknown Speaker  23:46  
That's a question that is more interesting to talk about than it is to have a an answer to because it could go it could go either way. And what the the initial, kind of my, my knee jerk answer is that oh, well, it's such a big dramatic kind of thing that that it's got to be in the in the foreground, and that's certainly one decision I've made with with termination shock. But I did a book tour appearance last week with with David Keith at Harvard, in which he so raised the idea that maybe it's not that dramatic, that that if it were done right and done in a controlled and and measured way. That could be just sort of a thing that exists in the background, as you say, and and doesn't impress itself on on in their day to day lives. Very

Unknown Speaker  25:00  
I listen to that talk with David Keith, we'll put a link to that in the show notes. And I'm increasingly thinking personally, the more that I I look at solar geoengineering, that it might be a bit more boring than a lot of people speculate. And an analogy that I increasingly draw upon to think about how it might fit into society into planning, isn't nuclear weapons or whatnot? It's not these big centralized technologies. But its monetary policy, which is

Unknown Speaker  25:28  
incredibly boring, but pervasive.

Unknown Speaker  25:30  
Right, right. Right. So it involves models, there's uncertainties, there's asymmetries of power between countries. There's not a centralized global decision maker, we have the IMF sort of coordinate some policy and share some information. Sometimes countries bicker about it about, you know, the exchange rate or the interest rate or whatnot. But the forecast of a, of a war over monetary policy is outlandish, and it's not on the front page news, the monetary policy. Well, sometimes it is during economic crisis. But usually it's it's page 24. I think solar Geo, if it is used, might recede into this background of something that's normal, it's got its ups and downs, and there's disagreements, but page 24,

Unknown Speaker  26:10  
I would add another analogy, which is just oil and mining industries, which happen on an incredibly huge scale, but they happen far away from and so even well informed persons, you know, when they when they go and visit a major oil field or a big mining operation are just gobsmacked by how big it is. But, but if you don't, if you're not driving by it every day, you just you're not even aware of its existence.

Unknown Speaker  26:49  
In your book, in termination, shock, the language and perception of solar geoengineering is, is highly important, perhaps even more important than the impacts. For example, at one point in time, the media coverage of solar geoengineering is described by one character as being much wrong. And the chattering classes were knocked off balance quite badly. That there's there's multiple layers here, there's the physical, and then there's the linguistic and the perception. And in my experience, people really do seem to have this deep affective reaction to solar geoengineering, especially those who are most involved in environmental issues and climate change that it touches something deep. What might that mean for the ultimate politics of solar? Geoengineering? Is this going to play out in ways that cut across traditional political coalition's is this? Is there a serious if not insurmountable perception problem among those who are most active in the relevant issues areas? How might this play out in the next decade or so?

Unknown Speaker  27:55  
Agreed. Some people have a very visceral, negative reaction to it. And the and it's easy to see why a lot of people who are environmentally conscious, I think, have a sort of a narrative in their heads that there is this thing called the natural world that was pristine, and that everything that humans have have done, has has tended to degrade it and make it worse. And, and so this seems like an egregious example of that. I think, I mean, like more recent research has tended to suggest that that's been a really long time since there was a truly natural world unaffected by by human activity. And North America, for example, when Europeans arrived, they tended to think of it as an unspoiled wilderness. But, you know, there's strong arguments to be made that the people who got there before them had massacred all of the megafauna that had been living there when they arrived and then turned large chunks of the continent into basically parks or gardens that were managed by, by wildfire and other techniques to give them the foods that they wanted, and it was it was all beautiful. That's how we get the Great Plains. It's how we get the Amazon rainforest, but none of it is is natural in any sense.

Unknown Speaker  29:42  
So a bit of a digression there but point being that

Unknown Speaker  29:50  
if that's your kind of grounding narrative for our relationship to the to the world, then then mess With the weather seems terrible, even though we've already been messing with it for for hundreds of years. So and there's also kind of the, you know, the precautionary principle which has taken hold in the last few decades in the wake of disastrous things that we, that we did like introduction of DDT and, and some of the early mishaps with nuclear power. So solar geoengineering cuts across all of those grains quite dramatically, all I would say is that, it seems like the tide is beginning to turn that at least for nuclear power. So a lot of of environmentalist environmentalists who are the kinds of people who formerly would, would hate and, and do everything to oppose nuclear power are coming around to the view that, that we just have to do it, you know, as a way of reducing carbon emissions. So, so it could be that as, as awareness spreads of the severity of the problems that we're facing, and and the danger of, of possible mass fatality, events, wars, and so on, as a result of climate change that that that people will begin to come around to the view.

Transcribed by

Termination Shock
Why climate change
Solar geoengineering as a hook
Background research
Emissions cuts
Climate change impacts
Solar geoengineering's likely future
Solar geoengineering in the background
Solar geoengineering politics
The power of the ultra-wealthy
Models and decision-making
Managed planets and intelligent extraterrestrials
Other risks
Reasons for hope