Sci-fi writer is visiting Utah with a message: Forget Mars and get ‘all hands on deck’ for climate change

“Then, after conservation, these projects proposed to bring in more water to the Great Salt Lake, from the Pacific or from deep underground: yes, study them, for sure! Why not?”

In the next hundred years, the oceans will rise precipitously, water will be more scarce, especially in arid places like Utah, forest fires will become more prevalent, species will die off, and core parts of our environment, from the oceans to rainforests, will get sicker.

In short, civilization as we know it is at risk. So don’t panic and get to work.

That’s the climate message from science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, who seems bent on pushing the world beyond despair and into action. As Robinson told The Salt Lake Tribune, “cynicism is fake sophistication. It’s clumsy and stupid and mean. The way to be cool is to be optimistic, maybe angrily optimistic.”

Robinson will speak at the Tanner Humanities Center at the University of Utah for the Tanner Lecture on Human Values on Thursday, 7 p.m., at Kingsbury Hall. Admittance is free with registration.

Robinson won the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel, the highest awards in science fiction, for his series on colonizing Mars — a project he now says is “irrelevant to us now.”

His recent fiction has been focused on climate change and adapting. For Robinson, that means both confronting the scale of the problem but not being frozen by the coming tumult.

The novels “2312,” “New York 2140″ and “The Ministry for the Future” all feature humans coming up with massive engineering and ecological projects to save what they can of our planet as it gets hotter.

He’s spoken about climate change at the U.N. Climate Change Conference. The New Yorker called him “one of the most important political writers working in America today.”

Ahead of his visit to Utah this week, The Tribune asked Robinson about climate change, Utah and Great Salt Lake. (The interview has been edited for length.)

Several of your books try to show the impacts of a changing climate and how humanity could blunt its effects. I wonder if you worry that dreaming of big engineering solutions to climate problems can go too far.

I’m not sure what “going too far” means in this context. Also “big engineering projects.” For the latter, consider these: humanity has occupied and radically transformed the surface of the Earth and altered the oceans too, removing wetlands, whales, most wildlife (now down to 3% of the meat on the planet, the rest being humans and our domestic beasts), changing the pH of the ocean (very hard to do!) and adding to the CO2 in the atmosphere faster than any event in geological history.

These were big projects that were engineered — just engineered to do other things. Now, if some people talk about trying various relatively teeny engineering projects to try to tweak the effects of our big uncoordinated engineering projects, I’m not really sure how worried I am, or why. Since we have begun a mass extinction event that will hammer civilization to the point of potential collapse, what’s “going too far?”

In Utah, our Legislature has spent time debating a pipeline to Great Salt Lake from the Pacific, an expensive project that would probably take years if not decades. There was another proposal to mine deep saltwater aquifers in Utah and desalinate the water using thorium reactors. These solutions are being presented at a time when scientists are telling us the fastest, cheapest way to keep the lake from becoming a catastrophe is to use less water as soon as possible.

It’s another all-hands-on-deck situation. The Aral Sea is mostly gone, the Caspian Sea is in big trouble. Big inland seas can disappear under human impacts, we know that. So, keeping the Great Salt Lake around is a good idea and indeed very important. Dry lakebeds are quite poisonous, and the poisons carry on the wind — we’ve seen that in eastern California, where Owens Lake was drained dry and then the downwind air became the most poisonous in the USA. Mitigations (turning the lakebed to mud to fix the dust) are expensive and ugly. Much better to keep the lake a lake. I presume agreement on that is general. Lessons from the Mono Lake Committee, still alive but only by way of political and legislative action, would no doubt be useful here.

And what the scientists say matters a lot. Water conservation should be legislated, mandatory, encouraged, financialized: all to create less use. I don’t know the situation in the Great Salt Lake’s watershed, but if there is agriculture there using water for water-intensive crops, that should be stopped, either by making the water appropriately expensive, or by simply cutting off the water by regulation. For sure water conservation is crucial.

Scientists are the ones studying the situation to find statements that anyone looking at the evidence would have to agree with — that’s what science is. People disagreeing with science have to ignore the evidence to be able to disagree, and also, they run to a scientist the moment they feel sick, and beg for help. So I call bull---- on them, as hypocrites.

Then, after conservation, these projects proposed to bring in more water to the Great Salt Lake, from the Pacific or from deep underground: yes, study them, for sure! Why not? We are moving into climate change such that the American West may experience megadroughts, and yet we will still want to live here, so some big engineering projects may be in order.

Piping seawater to the Great Salt Lake seems like a good idea to me. It might even be the start of something more extensive, you never know. Sea level will be rising fast. Anything that lowers it would be appreciated. There are a lot of dry lake basins in this world (the Tarim, Lahontan, etc.) Who knows?

I know these ideas are huge and half-baked, such that some are impossible, others very expensive, etc. But: welcome to the Anthropocene! We’ll be doing many experimental things to try to dodge the mass extinction event we’ve already begun. Some of them might be crucially helpful. The 21st and 22nd centuries are not going to resemble any of the previous centuries of human history, because we’re going to be trying to come into a healthy balance with the biosphere. After having damaged it quite badly.

Is there a dark side to dreaming up a future where we can cope with global warming with big projects?

This is sometimes called “the moral hazard” — that if you think there will be a “big fix” later on, you can ignore all the little fixes you should start on right now. That was a real hazard in 1990, maybe, but now we’re in that “all hands on deck” moment I described.

So, the first thing to say is, we can’t fully cope with or dispense with global warming, no matter what we do. We’ve already started a catastrophe. Now the project is to minimize that catastrophe by every means we can think up, and also do, in the real world.

The immediate danger here is pushing the biosphere over tipping points into a runaway greenhouse effect, which would run away to a “Hothouse Earth” in which there is no ice on the planet. There’s nothing we could do to claw back from that runaway if it gets going strongly. And we are very, very close to that point.

Look up the paper on “Planetary Boundaries” (Rockstrom and Steffen, Nature magazine 2009) to see the parameters, or planetary boundaries, that we are breaking now. It is an eye-opener.

I read a quote from you recently where you said “Mars is irrelevant to us now,” which seems like a substantial statement from the author of books on settling Mars. Is humanity’s space dream dead?

Yes, as one of the great living Martians, I can say with full (fake) authority that Mars is irrelevant to us now. We have to get humanity into a good balance with Earth’s biosphere. That is so important it should take all our attention and efforts.

The idea that Mars is somehow a bolt-hole for rich people to escape to, or a second basket to keep some eggs in just in case we kill ourselves here — these are bad science fiction stories, in that they are fantasies in disguise.

If we create a civilization in good balance with Earth’s biosphere, with a roughly steady population, all living well, then thinking about Mars will become appropriate. It will be a kind of reward or prize for us doing well. As such, we could consider terraforming Mars as a great project for the 23rd century, undertaken by a healthy civilization here on Earth. That would be cool. But in 2023: irrelevant!