Monday, March 29, 2021

The Ministry of the Future

I loved Kim Stanley Robinson's The Ministry of the Future and recommend it to anyone who is interested in the subject of climate change.

I mean that broadly -- anyone interested in and concerned about climate change and how the world will be affected by it, is going to deal with it and how it will address it. So not just sci fi readers, or climate fiction readers, or KSR fans -- everyone. Robinson is full of ideas about what the future might bring, and he's worth listening to. If I were teaching a class on how we should deal with climate change, I might well assign this book to my students, it's that thought provoking. 

The book covers the period from about 2020 to 2050, when the shit of climate change really hits the fan. I'm not going to cover the book in detail -- it's too large. The "Ministry of the Future" is (and this is clever) a UN-formed agency tasked with representing the interests of those not yet born. This happens in the wake of a serious climate catastrophe that takes place in the beginning of the book that I won't reveal here, but which looms over everything that happens after, that makes some (at least) treat the issue as a war. 

I think this is perhaps my biggest takeaway from the book. We know -- we know -- what the future will be if we continue on our current emissions pathways. So do politicians. So do oil executives, coal executives, gas executives, business executives, the wealthy of all stripes. They know, these few thousands of people, or tens of thousands on top. But they are actively choosing to exploit climate changing assets for the sake of their own wealth -- actions that will change the climate for untold billions, harm untold billions, alter the lives of untold billions for the unforeseeable future.   

Why is this allowed?

In the book, some people decide that it will no longer be allowed, by any means necessary. These people will no longer be allowed to gain obnoxious wealth at the expense of billions now and tens of billions, if not hundreds, of the future. So they, the climate criminals, begin to covertly be eliminated, in their homes, their businesses, their private planes are brought down, their mountain retreats are flushed. Entire units of trained assassins in "black" groups make this their priority until the message gets through. It's not ever clear who is training these black groups, or who sponsors them, if anyone does. Is it the Ministry of the Future? Not officially. No one knows, not even those at the top. Everyone prefers it that way, and looks the other way. Because the tactic works.

Is it too much? 

The other most interesting idea in the book is carbon quantitative easing. Basically, the Ministry of the Future convinces the major central banks of the world -- the US, Europe and China -- to give a "carbon coin" to anyone who sequesters a metric ton of carbon. (One small mistake in the book is that Robinson often confuses a ton of carbon with a ton of CO2.) How do they do this? They simply create the carbon coin out of nothing. It exists on a market and can be exchanged at any bank for any currency. It is traded on markets and its value fluctuates like any currency. How do the central banks afford to do this? By creating money in their computers! That's what quantitative easing is. That's what they did in the 2009 financial crisis. That's what central banks do all the time. They create money in their computers and send it to banks to loan. Look at the M2 money supply. It isn't the whole story because money is also created that never makes it into circulation, such as excess reserves. By no means do I pretend to understand all this, but I'm glad those in charge do. I keep trying to understand it but haven't found the right book yet. KSR more or less posits that the carbon QE doesn't lead to inflation, without putting forth a real argument. Or any argument. But then, QE or QE2 after 2009 didn't lead to inflation either, after many people predicted it. This is Paul Krugman's hobby horse, which he loves to ride, while spitting in the face of the inflationists, who, he points out over and over again, were wrong. 

I won't give away the ending of the book, or say much more. I also need a new keyboard (having typed most of this several days ago), so can't go any further now. I highly recommend the book.


Entropic man said...

I'm only a few chapters in, but agree that it would be useful reading for anyone involved in the climate debate.

Personally I regard what we're doing as too little, too late. If you do the numbers, we committed to 1.5C ten years ago and the current CO2 level commits us to 1.7C once the lags work through. In ten years time we'll be committed to 2C under any likely scenario.

David Appell said...

I think you're right, that it's likely already too late. At a global warming of 2 C, land-only warming will be about 3 C. That's 5.5 F. (Sorry, I'm American.) More for the interior of continents. And that's sea level rising forever, 10s of meters. Etc.

More and more I see people discussing geoengineering, solar radiation management. I am getting the impression it's almost inevitable now. It's going to be a mess.

Entropic man said...

"More and more I see people discussing geoengineering, solar radiation management. I am getting the impression it's almost inevitable now. It's going to be a mess. "

Emission control isn't working, so now we try geoengineering, etc.

That has its own costs and not just the economics. In 1952 London had extreme pollution from local coal fired power stations.

The cure was to move the power stations out into the countryside and to build high chimneys to release the pollution above the boundary layer.

The result? Spreading sulphur and acid rain across Europe.

The cure was to fit scrubbers to remove the sulphur.

The result? Reduced albedo and faster global warming.

The suggested cure is to release more sulphur to raise albedo.

The result? More acid rain. 😣

Most of the "cures" will be as bad as the disease, and once started, we won't be able to stop them.

Entropic man said...

Enjoying the book, and it's prompting me to do some research.

I'm familiar with the concept of money as a shared fantasy, but I've only just found out that I'm a member of the rentier class.

David Appell said...

I am a member of the same class. I make money by shuffling things around. The last time I did any hard work was when I was 13 and my grandfather had me pick rocks out of his cornfield before he planted. He didn’t pay me or my cousin a nickel.