Another week has flown by as I continue to edit and revise the first two books in what I hope will be a three book Environmental Armageddon trilogy. The first book is science oriented as graduate students’ discoveries suggest a new ecological problem associated with increasing carbon emissions. Book two continues the scientific investigations but shifts to more focus on the question of why society refuses to accept the need for climate change action and the consequences of that refusal. Book three will delve into the recovery of remnant human populations after that refusal leads to worldwide chaos.
This week’s unprecedented wildfires spreading from California to Oregon and Washington fit right in with the theme of book two. Global warming must be playing a role in these fires. Why can’t humankind accept that we must bite the bullet and do something about climate change?
I dug out a story I wrote three years ago. The editor of the journal I submitted it to praised the story but didn’t accept it. It’s another look at how society needs to come to grips with its response to climate change, an environmental crisis that just isn’t going away. It’s a bit long, but I thought it might be interesting to post it here.
STARING INTO THE ABYSS
by Alan Kemister
The demise of hundreds of government and industry leaders shook the world. The mysterious deaths occurred over ninety-six hours, and autopsies failed to explain their sudden expirations. In the following days, gas stations and larger fuel depots reported inexplicable losses, and thermal power plants discovered massive shortages in coal, oil, and natural gas supplies. Power plants shut down, planes were grounded, and abandoned cars, trucks, and buses choked roads. Businesses locked their doors, and citizens concerned about their next meals rioted.
Electrical power was restored in the first days of Canada’s emergency response to the April 2034 crisis. Only Alberta, with its large population and heavy dependence on coal for generating electricity, suffered from serious ongoing outages. Elsewhere, shifts to renewable generating capacity and inter-provincial power-sharing solved problems caused by the initial shocks to the system. As power was restored, businesses reopened and civil unrest dissipated.
Three days into the crisis, the Honourable Robert Price, Member of Parliament from Nova Scotia, greeted fellow MP Jennifer McCutcheon in the hallway outside his House of Commons office. Robert was a research scientist who’d entered politics to advocate for a proactive response to the climate change challenge. Jennifer represented a riding in Saskatchewan, one of two provinces most resistant to Robert’s cause. The unlikely friends were backbench members heading to a special caucus meeting. On this bright spring morning, the party leaders would reconfigure government front benches after the untimely death of the prime minister and another cabinet member.
“Are you optimistic?” Jennifer asked.
“Hopes for a cabinet post. Imagine Robert Price, Minister for Science and Technology, emblazoned on your office door.”
Robert shook his head as they strode toward the meeting room. “Hardly likely. I’ve been too outspoken in my criticism of government policies.”
“Vocal in caucus, restrained in public—our deputy PM will respect that when she’s in charge.”
“You’re convinced Ms. Caruthers will take power?”
“Short term, it’s inevitable. Question is her long-term plans.”
The caucus meeting was brief. Ms. Caruthers position as interim prime minister was confirmed, and she introduced her new cabinet. She’d shuffled the positions of three cabinet members and reinstated a long-standing minister who’d recently resigned.
A status quo interim solution, Robert thought as he returned to his office. They would generate a minimal response to the emergency without altering the government’s fundamental beliefs. But they faced an existential threat posed by incomprehensible action from an unknown force. Robert remained convinced patchwork stay the course solutions would be totally inadequate.
After the caucus meeting, Robert contacted his informal team of science advisers. He’d joined the social media-based group focused on communicating their climate change concerns before entering politics. Now, he relied on private audio/visual conference calls to keep him in touch with the latest scientific thinking.
Brian Coleman, a medical school professor, jumped into the fray. “I detect a pattern in the mysterious deaths—they all defended continued fossil fuel usage.”
“What?” Amar Rao, a chemist in the Federal environment department, responded. “Our late prime minister was progressive, dedicated to implementing climate change accords.”
Coleman’s voice assumed the annoying condescending tone he so often employed. “For eighteen years, your government, and Mr. Trudeau’s before it, talked progressive but acted regressively. All they accomplished were minor decreases in the rate of increase, none of the carbon emission reductions they promised.”
“And continued to promise as recently as three weeks ago,” an unidentified voice muttered.
Coleman persisted. “Someone decided the PM should pay the price for this lack of progress.”
“That’s the real question, isn’t it?” Robert interjected. “Who orchestrated this disaster?”
Melissa Tolbert, mathematician extraordinaire, and the only woman on today’s call, responded in her typical staccato fashion. “Can’t be one person. Hundreds died. Fuel supplies disappeared worldwide. Must be a massive conspiracy.”
“And we’re hearing oil and gas wells are drying up,” Jack Lu, a University of Alberta ecologist, added.
The discussion droned on. Consideration of the identity of the responsible agents and their agenda accomplished nothing. Robert ended the conversation and returned to his normal duties with no clear picture. He couldn’t concentrate. A major climate change crisis had engulfed the world, and he stood powerless watching from the sidelines.
The next morning, the prime minister’s email altered Robert’s perspective. The message said ‘Please join the daily Crisis Response Team meeting at nine to provide your insights as a climate change scientist’. Finally, my opportunity to make a difference, Robert thought as he hurried to the PM’s office.
The energy, transport, public safety, infrastructure, and science and technology ministers cooled their heels outside her office.
“Thanks for coming,” Christine Collingwood, the Minister of Science and Technology said. The simple greeting made Robert feel welcome at the high-level cabinet ministers’ meeting.
Minutes later, they were ushered into the inner sanctum, and Prime Minister Caruthers brought the meeting to order. “First, an update on electrical power generation,” she demanded.
The newly appointed energy minister shuffled his notes. On his second day in the critically important portfolio, David Lawrence was clearly uncomfortable. The previous minister, a vocal defender of Alberta Tar Sands exploitation, had succumbed to the mysterious ailment that felled hundreds of proponents of fossil fuel burning. His replacement had the difficult task of reorienting the country’s energy policy.
“With fantastic cooperation from all provincial governments and their power utilities, we now have reliable base power produced by renewable energy sources. Some provinces rely on thermal generation to augment this base power and respond to peak demand. If we stay the course, renewables will replace residual thermal generation in the next few months.”
Mrs. Caruthers addressed the table with a sweep of her hand. “Don’t worry about our government’s commitment or any of the provinces. We’re committed to meeting Canada’s climate change goals in the next twenty-four months.”
“It’s a well established psychological response,” Christine suggested. “We should anticipate a commitment of government and industry leaders and the voting public to get this done. Everyone has consciously or subconsciously accepted we need to deal with climate change. But our democratic system has barriers that prevent a concerted focus on controversial long-term goals. We needed an impetus to overcome the barriers, and the current crisis has provided it.”
The PM nodded in her direction. “Thank you, Christine. Now, Robert, will these developments achieve those goals?”
Robert paused, considering the missing Minister for the Environment and Climate Change. She, rather than a back-bencher whose views diverged from government policy, should be answering the PM’s question. But the environment minister had been a proponent of a go-slow attitude that matched the previous PM’s agenda. Clearly, the new PM wasn’t interested in the environment minister’s views. Robert wondered why Ms. Caruthers hadn’t replaced her if she was committed to rapid action.
“Most experts claim these changes will be helpful but insufficient to reach our goals.”
“So we must reduce emissions from transportation and space heating.”
“Ball’s in your court, Mr. Minister of Transportation.”
Paul Samson, an experienced senior cabinet member, launched into his summary. “Our largest cities, ones with subways and other electrified transportation links, are coping. This government’s support of expanded use of electric vehicles for personal transportation, intra-urban transit, and trucking looks prescient.” He paused and glanced at the PM before continuing. “Shortage of fuel plagues individuals and companies dependent on gas and diesel-powered vehicles, but overall, the major cities are functioning.”
“And the prognosis for smaller cities and rural areas?”
“Poorer because they rely on conventional combustion engines. Getting farm goods to market is our major concern, and for that, we need trains and large transport trucks.”
The PM continued to pose questions for the transport minister. “What is the situation re petroleum production?”
“Mostly back online after shutdowns during the initial shocks. But we’ve encountered a new problem. The US has closed its borders to exports of refined petroleum products.”
“Including exports to Canada?”
“Correct. Our decade-old policy of greater petroleum refining capacity has been vindicated.”
“Fine, Paul, reminding us and the public of our successful interventions in the free market is good retail politics. But they will be forgotten if we don’t resolve our current transportation problems while reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. That must be your focus… Any additional thoughts before we move on?”
David Lawrence raised his hand. “A lot of agricultural produce is shipped by air freight.”
Minister Samson defended his department’s approach. “Air freight is a lower priority than ground and ocean transport, so we’ve focused on diesel for trucks and bunker fuel for ships.”
Ms. Caruthers held up a hand. “We should move on to the intermediate term.” She glanced from one face to the next around the table. “Anything to add to yesterday’s discussion?”
When no one spoke up, she explained Robert’s new role. He would join the cabinet as Minister of State in Science and Technology with responsibility for facilitating development of alternatives to fossil fuels. These, the PM insisted, would become a major priority in the intermediate-term drive to reduce carbon emissions.
As he strode to his office, Robert texted the deputy minister in his new department to set up a meeting with senior program managers. Next, he began formulating priorities for technical developments they must facilitate. One huge problem plagued him. How could they make sensible plans without understanding the origin of the crisis?
Before he arrived in his Parliament Building office, he contacted his group of scientific experts to solicit their views on this critical issue.
“Where do we stand on scientific evidence that helps us identify the group responsible for the crisis?” Robert asked after everyone checked in to the requested call.
“Scant evidence,” Melissa announced. “But we can make several deductions and reach a credible conclusion.”
“Please, Melissa,” Brian Coleman interjected, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Forego the deductions, cut straight to the answer.”
“An alien entity based somewhere in the cosmos is responsible.”
Brian guffawed. “Have these alien incursions prepared us for an imminent invasion?”
“You’re the medical man,” Melissa responded, her voice flat like she was describing her latest mathematical proof. “You must acknowledge alternative explanations are not viable.”
“I disagree. A team of medically competent conspirators could have poisoned those people with an unknown fast-acting poison.”
Melissa shook her head. “No one witnessed these events or reported suspicious circumstances. Fuel supplies disappeared from tanks and depots without anyone noticing. How could anyone abscond with tonnes of fuel without observation?”
“Explanations for the disappearance of inground hydrocarbon resources based on intervention by human terrorists are equally incomprehensible,” suggested Jack Lu.
“I agree,” added Amar Rao. “No technology to immobilize resources in the ground exists.”
“Are you suggesting,” Robert asked, “the resources are still there, and we could liberate them if we determine how they’ve been trapped?”
“If Melissa is correct,” Brian responded, smirking, “we’re in the realm of science fiction and anything goes. Perhaps they were vaporized and whisked off to Alpha Centauri.”
“Please, Brian,” Amar interjected. “Let’s keep this civilized. Melissa has presented an hypothesis, and we should consider the implications of her conclusion. But first, let me answer Robert’s question.”
“Hydrocarbon industry scientists are convinced the resources remain in the ground. They’re working on releasing them.”
“Good,” Robert replied. “One problem I needn’t worry about. But let’s return to the bigger question. Do all but Brian accept Melissa’s explanation?”
“Not necessarily,” said Jack. “Insiders within the fossil fuel industry could have manipulated supplies to create a shortage. And they could be lying about the lost resources.”
“But,” complained Melissa, “many of the eliminated dignitaries were industry executives.”
“I agree,” Jack replied. “That suggests a conspiracy involving disgruntled underlings.” He paused while several participants expressed their disbelief with coughs. “I’m not trying to defend this suggestion. I’m presenting a logical alternative to Melissa’s aliens.”
“Bingo,” Melissa yelled. “I was playing devil’s advocate. Blaming aliens is a copout, an admission I had no explanation. Jack has suggested a rational hypothesis. I applaud his effort.”
“So where does this leave me?” Robert interjected. “I’m hearing similar suggestions to Melissa’s original one—invocations of external forces we cannot fight. Now you’re suggesting a sinister but human intervention—something we can fight.”
Brian attracted everyone’s attention by vehemently banging his desk. “Melissa, in her usual annoying way, has pushed us in the right direction. If we’re to help Robert, we should consider human interventions, not extra-terrestrial or divine ones.”
“Then Brian, you should start,” Amar replied. “How could human conspirators murder hundreds of VIPs without detection?”
“Imagine conspirators with an unknown orally administered toxin. Then explain how they accessed important, often well-protected, people without detection. A difficult task, but not impossible.”
Amar added the next jigsaw puzzle piece. “And Jack has already suggested a potential explanation for the lost resources.”
Robert strode to his office window, thinking they were finally making progress. “Who are these mysterious conspirators?”
Brian, not surprisingly, attempted an answer. He always sought the limelight. “Imagine a global effort of technically competent operatives supported by a network of insiders in the oil and gas industry.”
“Coal also,” someone added.
Brian ignored the interjection. “It would need the support of a major industrial nation, a ruthless and secretive one.”
“North Korea?” Robert suggested.
“Too isolated. China or Russia are better candidates.”
Robert returned to his chair. “Motivation?”
“Ending global dependence on fossil fuels, which eliminates Russia. They’re too heavily invested in that industry.”
“I understand it’s speculative, but a conspiracy led by China is intriguing. You’ve given me much to consider as I tackle mundane issues like getting supply chains for agricultural produce working. But where does this logical argument lead us?” A warning for an impending meeting flashed on Robert’s computer screen. “Damn, the prime minister beckons. I must bid everyone adieu. Continue the discussion and email the results.”
Thoughts of a conspiracy led by China propelled Robert toward the prime minister’s office. The brutal, secretive, and globally ambitious People’s Republic was a hydrocarbon importer committed to alternative energy production. Rapid global withdrawal from the hydrocarbon economy would benefit them. And they’d have had time to prepare for the chaos they generated.
Was such a conspiracy possible? Could China with its integration of state production and capitalism and its aggressive political agenda use subversive methods to supplant countries respecting the principles of traditional democratic capitalism? Too soon to say anything publicly, but the consequences were sufficiently dire that Robert knew he had to inform the prime minister. She could mobilize experts to assess the situation and determine the best approach for the country. But first, he must convince her to investigate what sounded like a preposterous suggestion.
His attempts to convince the PM made one thing abundantly clear. Robert should focus on technological developments that would help alleviate the fuel shortages and leave security concerns to the appropriate authorities. He was forced to abandon his thoughts of geopolitical conspiracies and focus like a good soldier on his assigned task.
As spring merged into summer, acute problems associated with energy supplies were resolved. In the process, government regulation and intervention in the economy increased. These changes resembled government controls implemented during wartime, an implicit acknowledgement that Canada was at war against an unknown enemy.
Fossil fuel output increased from virtually nothing on day zero to seventy percent of pre-crisis production. Government and industry accepted this level represented the new norm, a baseline production that would not increase. The public accepted the hardships associated with the inevitable dampening of economic growth. The April 2034 crisis had finally convinced everyone that climate change was a critical problem demanding immediate action, and changes were being implemented.
On Thursday, June twenty-ninth, Robert Price met fellow MP Jennifer McCutcheon in the parliamentary cafeteria. She sat with Thomas Gideon, an undersecretary in the finance department.
“So,” she said as Robert approached, “I can return to Saskatchewan, but I must travel by train.”
Robert took his chair. “Most travellers face that prospect. Diesel is in reasonable supply, but we remain short of jet fuel.”
“I’m leaving on July second, after our Canada Day festivities on the Hill. The official propaganda I’m supposed to relate to my constituents is rather rosy, implying everything is running smoothly. Obviously, that’s not the case if we have a jet fuel shortage. What other problems should I anticipate?”
“After we re-established electrical power, we focused on supplies of diesel and other heavy fuels. These were our priority because we had to get our supply lines, especially those for basic foodstuffs, working. Then we moved on to gasoline and jet fuel. We have work to do on those two.”
Thomas raised an arm to attract Jennifer’s attention. “Robert hasn’t mentioned the most important development.” He paused, perhaps waiting for comments that didn’t materialize. “We wouldn’t have made the progress Robert described without government developing priorities and insisting on compliance.”
Robert looked up from stirring sugar into his coffee. “But we faced an emergency as dire as any in a major war. Everyone accepted government intervention in industrial activity during wartime. Why shouldn’t our current involvement be as acceptable?”
“I wasn’t suggesting government intervention wasn’t necessary or would be opposed by the public. I was describing a major increase in governmental coordination of industrial activity that will become the norm as we move ahead.”
“Gentlemen, don’t squabble. Tom, are you saying we’re moving into a permanent new way of doing business?”
“We don’t anticipate a return to carbon emissions we saw in the past. We’ll be living with fuel shortages until we come up with viable long-term replacements.”
Jennifer twirled a strand of her shoulder-length blond hair. “So, ongoing incursions into the private sector? Something akin to the way China’s government forces businesses to contribute to its political objectives.”
Thomas shook his head. “China is a dictatorship that uses the economic clout of supposedly independent business to achieve its political objectives. As long as those companies make money, they help the country’s leadership achieve its objectives. Canada is a democracy and will remain so. But we need closer coordination of government and industry to achieve the long-term objectives of our citizens.”
Robert jumped back into the fray. “Are you suggesting our response to this climate-change-driven crisis produces a new political dynamic? One that changes the democratic capitalism we’ve defended for generations?”
“Exactly. Everyone’s focused on electrical power security and supplies of hydrocarbon fuels. But the real problem is the inability of modern capitalist democracies to address various global issues, most recently climate change.”
Robert laughed. “I’ve focused on the climate change question for decades. But in recent months, I’ve worried about nothing but electrical power and transportation fuel. I think you’re right; I’ve lost sight of the underlying problem.”
“But Tom, are you describing a new political-economic system?” Jennifer asked.
“China has shown for decades that their sometimes brutal, interventionist model works. It ignores the desires of China’s citizens, but it accomplishes the government’s goals and enriches thousands of entrepreneurs. They’ve moved from a struggling third world country to a leading economic power.”
“But at a huge cost in terms of individual rights and freedoms.”
Thomas nodded. “In the west, we must develop a new democratic model that respects the citizen’s freedom but shows leadership coordinating government and industry efforts to solve long-term global problems. Our response to the current crisis tests our ability. If we develop a successful new political-economic paradigm, we can anticipate generations of prosperity.”
Robert brought the conversation to its logical conclusion. “And you’re saying the climate crisis has triggered this change in our fundamental political-economic model.”
Later, Jennifer stared at the Ottawa River from a hallway window near Robert’s office. “You didn’t mention your concerns about China’s role in the fuel crisis.”
Robert sighed. “I still think it’s our best explanation, but we have no proof. Our PM’s death was attributed to natural causes, and none of the other deaths were tied to an identifiable conspiracy. Same for the losses of fuel supplies. Despite massive forensic efforts, no culprits have been identified. Prime Minister Caruthers says we should bury the idea, and I reluctantly agree.”
“I don’t believe you! How can you ignore that unidentified conspirators murdered hundreds of people and disrupted worldwide economies?”
“I can’t, but I accept that it’s a job for others.”
“So, we move into a Brave New World where government manages energy supply. Sounds like the short-lived National Energy Program from the 1980s that caused so much grief. Why will this one be different?”
“The circumstances are different. In the eighties, we had a central government promoting energy security and western provinces convinced central Canada was making them pay for it. This time, the public agrees climate change is a real crisis demanding action.”
“That suggests a return to normal once we resolve the crisis.”
Robert shook his head. “Thomas is right, the current problem demands a long-term reshaping of society.”
“First, reductions in fossil fuel usage here, in Japan and Europe, and virtually all other developed countries must be permanent. The developed world cannot go back to increasing fossil fuel usage and the carbon dioxide emissions that entails.”
“But the United States is the largest emitter and there’s no sign they’re altering their usage.”
“Correct, and that’s the second reason we must rethink our business model. Their isolationist America first policies and abrogation of trade agreements had already forced changes like our expanded refining capacity. Since the crisis began, they’ve closed their borders to refined petroleum exports to Canada. That exasperated our problems and validated our push to greater refining capacity. None of that would have happened without the closer cooperation of government and industry Thomas is advocating.”
“But will our electorate pay the price of dealing with global warming while our American neighbours ignore the issue?”
“My boss, the psychiatrist Christine Collingwood, Minister of Science and Technology, says the citizens are committed. We have several years to reduce carbon emissions and establish a new robust economy.”
“So, what does that mean?”
“For me, it means an opportunity to address the climate change challenge and get this job done. For Thomas, it offers an opportunity to move our democratic capitalist political system to a new level that can compete with the autocratic model the Chinese developed. And for you, the retail politician, it gives you the opportunity to cater to your constituents demands while doing the right thing for the global environment.”
“So, we accept Tom’s new economic model and hope for the best.”
“Living with lower carbon emissions won’t be easy, but we have no choice. We must develop a robust new political-economic paradigm and a level of international cooperation that permits proactive action on major global issues. Otherwise, we’ll once again find ourselves staring into the abyss without a politically achievable mechanism to handle our next global crisis.”