In the grand scheme of things, what we have is a waste disposal problem. Fossil carbon was once nicely tucked away underground, where it had little impact on the atmosphere, the oceans, or the biosphere. Then we dug it up, and I don’t much blame us, for millions of years and immense pressure had packed into those hydrocarbons incredible potential to do work and release heat. But now all that burned fossil floats free through our world in a low energy state, a waste product, garbage in the air, a billion roaming genies, released from their barrels, with all their wishes used up.
So we have to stop emitting air-trash, of course, and if we are very fast and lucky we might halt the runaway train, find a stable perch for the Earth at the edge of more dangerous attractor basins. A stable hothouse would be very different than the planet our ancestors knew, but perhaps we could live there and continue to make love and beauty and interesting lives.
Eventually, however, I’d like to think that we’d talk about taking out some of that trash. It’s possible; we can do most anything, chemically, if we harness enough of the sun’s energy. The amount of carbon we need to dispose of is about the size of Lake Michigan. We could try to put it back where it came from, sucking it out of the air with solar-powered machines, pumping it into vast underground reservoirs. But we could also imagine grand afforestation projects. If we made the arid Sahel in Africa into a jungle as dense and long-lived as the Black Forest of Europe, that would fix into wood and soil much of the 500 gigatons of carbon that’s causing us so much trouble.
There are limits to such a plan—nutrient bottlenecks that would need to be finessed, heat waves that would need to be adapted to—but what interests me more is the politics. Imagining that winding the Earth back to pre-industrial temperatures might be just as controversial for some parties as letting us fall into the hothouse today...well, I think that brings some perspective to our present climate dilemma. Solarpunk is uniquely equipped to think about these choices and the long, slow process of taking responsibility for maintaining the subtle machinery of our world.
I am drawn again and again to this future history. So while my story “Black Ice City” takes place at the North Pole, it is overshadowed by events at the equator. The Burning Man-style festival culture the story explores depends on iceless arctic summers; I wanted to imagine a kind of beauty that could only exist in a hothouse world we would desperately like to avoid—guiding the freezing of the pole into something beautiful, architectural, and rare. And then I wanted that precious culture to be threatened by a change that we, from our fearful 21st Century vantage, would likely support. Their impending solastalgia is in some ways the mirror of our own.
At the end of Kim Stanley Robinson’s melancholy generation ship novel Aurora, the interstellar settlers who retreat back to Earth are given work moving beaches swamped by rising seas. It’s a poignant idea. After all, sandy playas are worn by millennia of wave and tide. If the waters overtake them in a few decades, we’ll be walking into the ocean through mud and concrete and dead grass.
The other option is described in this story: moving the seas. We cool the world, pump new glaciers back onto Greenland, Antarctica, and reclaim the sunken land. An almost unimaginable infrastructural effort, but I say solarpunk should imagine it.
In the very long run—past the disasters and dislocations and societal breakdowns that climate change has in store for us—we’ll need to decide how much we want to accept and live in the hotter world we’ve made, and how much we want to engineer the planet back on track. Are we going to move the beaches? Or are we going to move the seas?