A conversation in 2051

Last week I posted the final chapter of the Souring Seas, the first part of my long and perhaps rambling climate change saga. The underlying theme for the entire story is humanities inability to deal with the impending crisis. As a result the story, at least this segment, does not come to a resounding climax, the discoveries I describe presage future consequences that will cause our current fixation on sea level rise, erratic weather, and other impacts of global warming to disappear into insignificance.

But the problems will not arise for decades, so humanity shrugs and continues with its normal behaviour, spewing ever increasing quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Our collective inability, or maybe unwillingness, to deal with this problem fuels the next two parts of my story without creating a serious lasting solution.  One might imagine from this 2051 conversation between Tony Atherton, the central character in the Souring Seas, and Dan Delacour, another Dalhousie University graduate student who’s a major player in the second part, it could lead to an as yet undrafted fourth part. Will I ever get to a dramatic climax, or will we just muddle on for ever, dealing with a more and more inhospitable environment?

 

A conversation between Tony and Dan during the summer of 2051

In July 2051, Marc Lavoie organized a special symposium to honour Professor Heinrich Krueger. He was retiring after a distinguished forty-year career as a professor of Oceanography at Dalhousie University. After the second day’s final talk, two former students, Tony Atherton and Dan Delacour, repaired to the Faculty Club’s Earl of Dalhousie Pub for a beer before the symposium banquet.

As they strolled from the Life Sciences building lecture hall to the Faculty Club, Tony raised an issue percolating through his mind since the afternoon’s first talk.

“In the nineteen nineties, citizens, businessmen and politicians finally noticed our expanding knowledge of the impacts of global warming. They may have appreciated what we were telling them, but they didn’t respond in a meaningful way. Thirty-five years later, a small group of industrialists took charge and implemented a technological fix. The underlying issues remained unresolved.”

“Yes, yes, we understand this. What’s your point?”

“We’ve focused, as we should, on the science. We’re celebrating Heinrich’s career pushing back those frontiers, most of it devoted to climate change research. His influence on society and how it responded to climate change has not been as impressive.”

“Common complaint about scientists’ inability to influence society’s response to climate change. He’s had more influence than most.”

Tony pulled open the pub door and gestured for Dan to proceed him. “And we know you’ve exerted far more influence.”

Dan turned back, frowning. “I had no role in developing the nanoparticle scheme that controlled global warming. Spent most of my career making the temperature control mechanism work. That’s led to several advances in our understanding of oceanic processes. Mostly by others, I should add.”

At a small table in the thinly populated pub, Tony raised his glass. “Cheers.” He took a swig and set his glass on the table. “Now, I’ll tell you what’s bothering me.”

“Please, do. You’ve been skirting around something in a very uncharacteristic manner.”

“Research from the beginning showed that global warming, we even called it the greenhouse gas effect, was a direct result of carbon dioxide buildup from burning fossil fuels.”

“You should include other sources for CO2 and other greenhouse gases, but I agree fossil fuels are the major contributor.”

“Then why did progress on the real issue suddenly stop when your industrial colleagues developed what we agree is a temporary fix?”

“You were there, a participant at one of the first international meetings. I remember talking to you shortly after the meeting. You bemoaned the political and business participants’ refusal to listen to the scientists’ warnings.”

“Exactly. I was thinking about that UN meeting earlier this afternoon. It was twenty-five years ago. We’ve spent twenty-five years beating our heads against a wall trying to convince first them we must do something about the real problem. It’s so reminiscent of the problem scientists faced in the nineteen nineties.”

Dan stood, holding his empty glass. “We’re climbing another enormous mountain. We must convince everyone. Keeping atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations within acceptable bounds will be challenging. My round. I’ll be right back.”

Tony started to gesture to a server, but quickly lowered his hand. Dan had been living in England for twenty years and become accustomed to the British tradition where pub patrons approached the bar to fetch additional drinks. It was less common in Nova Scotia, but still acceptable.

He waited for Dan’s return. “You must have inside knowledge of the current difficulties?”

“Can’t deny it. It’s well known that a group of entrepreneurs orchestrated the original intervention with approval of all the major world powers. Some of these industrialists understood temperature control was a stopgap that would give them time to address the larger issue of carbon emissions. Others saw the success of temperature control measures as an opportunity to create wealth and consolidate power. A schism that impeded progress developed. Otherwise, we would have solved the carbon emission problem a decade or more ago.”

Tony stared with his mouth hanging open. “You’re talking about the unrest in America, an upheaval that almost became a revolution.”

“Unrest, yes. Revolution, no. A serious test of the checks and balances in the American’s democratic process. Their system was stressed to the extreme, but it prevailed.”

“But you are suggesting the overall problem is more political than scientific, and international cooperation by the Americans, something we haven’t seen for several decades, is important.”

“They manage the world’s largest economy. Their cooperation is critical if we’re to maintain global carbon dioxide concentrations within acceptable bounds.”

“And next year’s presidential elections will tell the tale.”

Dan shook his head. “Predicting political outcomes is a fool’s business. Only time will tell.”

“Why the skepticism?”

“Last year America faced a monumental constitutional crisis. I suspect history will decree that the Supreme Court acted appropriately and prevented the revolution you alluded to earlier. But a long-term move away from the precipice they found themselves on is far from assured.”

“Why?”

“Start with the reinstatement of Jacob Williams as president. The Court had no credible alternative when the president, the vice president and everyone else in the line of succession resigned.”

Tony looked up, a puzzled expression on his face. “Didn’t the court overturn an unconstitutional Congressional decision?”

“Nope. Nothing unconstitutional about Congress choosing Miller over Williams when neither gained enough electoral college votes. Mass resignations and refusals to accept the job forced the Supreme Court to go outside the dictates of the constitution. Their choice has broad support, but it’s not without risks.”

“What risks?”

“Williams was an insider tainted by the same revelations of massive political corruption that brought down Miller. He may have honestly repudiated those insider links in the runup to the 2048 election, but that doesn’t eliminate them. And his health concerns and the assumption he will not run in ’52 may be just that, assumptions.”

“Jesus, Dan, are you saying we’re no further ahead? America will still refuse to collaborate with the rest of us?”

“Not that bad. The recent political crisis generated a serious break from twenty-five years of nativist intransigence and repudiation of international cooperation. If the Republican and Democratic parties manage to reinvent themselves and chart new courses, we should have an opportunity to finally beat climate change into submission. But if they revert…”

“What about Ms. Taylor and her Progressive Party? Won’t her presence force a serious reassessment of their national goals?”

Dan smiled while shaking his head. “We shall see. The next presidential election could be a real turning point, but third parties never have a long-lasting impact?”

“You don’t sound optimistic.”

“I’m not. I’ve lived with industrialists trying to manipulate the political process to first control temperature and then carbon dioxide emissions for twenty years. It seems like a Faustian bargain, but one we cannot avoid if we’re to influence climate change. But it won’t be easy.”

Tony gazed around the room filling with students and faculty as he swirled his beer. “The other G20 countries are approaching net-zero emissions. America could match that. India and China are moving in the right direction as they fight air pollution associated with coal burning. That leaves third world countries with rapidly increasing populations and Mother Nature.”

Dan smiled. “Mother Nature, ocean acidity, and the reversal of the CO2 trend. Something you know better than anyone. Where do we stand?”

“Already there. If we’re looking for stability, we must return oceanic pH to the levels we had in the last half of the twentieth century. And that would require a substantial reduction in atmospheric CO2.”

Dan thumped his empty stein on the table. “That, my friend, is the challenge we face. We have the technology, but do we have the political will?” He stood and pushed his chair under the table. “Time we headed upstairs to the banquet. Don’t want your old buddy Marc sending a search party.”

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