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'It’s terraforming, but for our own planet.' Neal Stephenson’s case for climate optimism

In his 2021 novel Termination Shock, famed sci-fi author Neal Stephenson imagines a world in the not-too-distant future amidst the harsh realities of climate change.

From the familiarity of nations drowning, tropospheric superstorms, and rising sea levels to the shock of people walking around in “earthsuits” to cope with the heat, Stephenson doesn’t find much difficulty in imagining a future where climate change is real.

The chat between Stephenson and Jason Pontin, a longtime editor of the MIT Technology Review and now a venture partner at DCVC, kicked off the second day of SOSV Climate Tech Summit, a two-day virtual event highlighting the role climate tech startups play in the race to decarbonize our economy, and in their words, “save planet Earth.”

“There are enormous reasons to be an optimist,” Pontin said as he and Stephenson chatted about hollows in our current movement. Rather than starved for innovation, Pontin proposes hunger may instead be for policy support, capital, citizen support, and of course, an all-necessary optimism.

“There are a lot of quite brilliant people. Who right now, 20 years ago, no question would’ve gone into classic tech startups,” Stephenson said. “And maybe they did, but now what they’re doing is using their brainpower to solve these sorts of problems.”

According to the novelist, the speed with which carbon emissions have increased is “ like the old joke: How did you go bankrupt slowly and then suddenly?”

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, CO2 parts per million were in the mid-200s, rising to 320 when Stephenson was born in 1959. Today that number is almost at 420. “I checked this morning,” he said. “it’s 419.”

Over the course of Stephenson’s lifetime, the amount of carbon dioxide and CO2 equivalent has risen 30%. Click on this map by the 2 Degrees Institute. Wave your mouse over the year 1760, the start of the industrial age, and watch the global CO2 levels skyrocket. Compare that map to the speed of the world’s heating just between the revolution’s end and 2011.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of pessimism, watching our world’s map morph from a cool blue to a blazing amber. Paired with the United Nation’s Emissions Gap Report – released just this week – we’re reminded that the window is rapidly closing, and the international community is falling short of reduction goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement.

Still, there is a case for hope.

Despite believing he understood greenhouse gas emissions as a younger person, Neal Stephenson says he slept on it for a number of years.

According to Wired, Termination Shock is the speculative fiction writer “finally” taking on global warming.

Over the course of his career, Stephenson assumed the prevailing belief of the sci-fi writer-as-prophet, predicting both virtual worlds and cryptocurrency. He even coined the term “metaverse” in his 1992 novel Snow Crash.

“But now, suddenly,” he says, “I think it [climate change] is almost the only thing worth thinking about.”

In Termination Shock, an eccentric Houston billionaire oilman embarks on an unsanctioned and unregulated attempt at solar geoengineering the planet. As the temperature of Texas routinely exceeds 113 degrees Fahrenheit, the billionaire schemes to inject sulfur into the atmosphere using a giant gun, in a radical plan to artificially cool Earth’s climate.

In our modern time, experts worry that this type of geoengineering could put some regions at risk, dangerously altering rainfall and storm patterns in some parts of the world.

The act of shooting sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere mimics the gas of volcanos, reflecting the sun’s heat. Despite the major uncertainties, authors of a 2019 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Climate Change, say researchers shouldn’t rule out solar geoengineering just yet.

Image Credit: By Hughhunt - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

So, are the actions in Termination Shock, “a prediction, a warning, or a prescription?” Slate’s Laura Miller asks in a 2021 review of the novel.

“I think what’s really needed is an effort that’s much much larger than what’s described in the book,” Stephenson answers.

Instead of a Band-Aid approach that constructs a hemispheric screen to bounce back the sun’s energy, “we need to remove carbon from the atmosphere on an incredibly gigantic scale,” he said. Direct air capture and carbon removal to Stephenson, will be the largest technological effort in human history.

The gravity, scale, and necessity of such an effort, reverberated throughout the virtual summit. Whether it be through the technological techniques of companies like Climeworks and Twelve or nature-based approaches like the algae desserts from Brilliant Planet or Terraformation’s reforestation, reducing CO2, in many eyes, is the call of the twelfth hour.

On the virtual mainstage, the founders and chief executives of each of those companies called for entrepreneurs to follow their example of fostering carbon reduction, capture, utilization, and storage in any way they can. Why? Because a handful of “unicorns” in the reduction sector cannot take on this massive feat alone.

“Sounds like replication is the key here?” Tim DeChant, Senior Reporter at TechCrunch+ asked the Brilliant Planet, Terraformation, and Twelve panelists, to which each agreed.

“We need like a thousand copycats,” Terraformation CEO Yishan Wong emphasized through a screen. “That’s really the only way we’re going to meaningfully achieve the scale we need.”

While there are groups that want to do similar things to Terraformation, the CEO says the main barriers are bottlenecks like financing, training, tools, and seed supply. “It’s not so much the technology we built,” he said in speaking about the obstacles, “it’s increasing the throughput of more projects in parallel all over the world.”

Thus, the company is creating accelerator plans for projects that want to start. “Like both Rafael and Etosha have touched on, we’re not the only ones to do this,” Wong noted in reference to comments by Brilliant Planet’s founding scientist Dr. Raffael Jovine and Twelve’s co-founder Etosha Cave.

“If we want to reach meaningful percentages of carbon sequestration, we’re going to need an entire movement, an entire industry doing all these things in parallel,” he said.

Stephenson thinks collaborative carbon reduction will succeed eventually, but in the meantime, “it’s possible that some people might try some of those geoengineering efforts as described in the book.”

Compared to the scale of the problem this kind of geoengineering is “cheap and easy.” Informed by years of research, scientists over a decade ago said its low price could lead single nations or regions to embark on aerosol solar radiation management, despite the risks.

On a similar, but smaller scale than the fictional billionaire, startups like Cool Roof France are advancing surface albedo geoengineering. The company is working on decreasing solar radiation through orbital mirror installations, stratospheric aerosol injection, and albedo modifications, or solar reflection.

While the former two remain in scientific investigation, albedo modifications have numerous commercial applications like radiation reflection paint on building rooftops to decrease building temperatures and reduce A/C CO2 pollution.

Earlier this year, scientists at Purdue University released an upgraded version of the world’s whitest paint to lower the surface temperature of cars, airplanes, and even spacecraft all while reducing pollution.

Further backing the solar geoengineering revolution, the federal government recently coordinated a five-year research plan to study how modifying sunlight can temporarily temper the effects of global warming.

While there are several kinds of approaches under consideration, brightening clouds, thinning clouds, and stratospheric aerosol injection are the most discussed.

“The only thing that prevents people from doing that sort of thing,” Stephenson said in reference to aerosol injection, “is the fear that somebody else won’t like it,” However, according to the writer, it’s obviously in the national interest to take steps of this scale in nation-states’ suffering from cataclysmic damage and loss of life due to our climate crisis.

In the opening of Kim Stanley Robinson's recent book, The Ministry for the Future, that cataclysmic event is a wet bulb.

The WetBulb Globe Temperature, as described by the National Weather Service, takes into account temperature, humidity, wind speed, sun angle, and cloud cover/solar radiation. A “wet-bulb” temperature is the lowest possible degree to which air can be cooled by the evaporation of water. And when both the temperature and humidity rise to a point incompatible with human life, we reach what’s known as a “wet bulb” event.

Without air conditioning during a wet bulb, Stephenson says, death is seemingly inescapable.

In Robinson’s scene, an American aid worker sits alone in the street, amid the wet bulb, the only living person. Due to a heatwave in India killing 20 million people, the fictionalized country decides to try and limit the amount of sunlight that reaches Earth through geoengineering.

Reporting by CNBC’s Catherine Clifford on this adaptation measure, comprehensively explains the research, benefits, and risks associated with such a drastic approach.

“That’s an example of the kind of event that I fear we’ll begin to see within the next decade,” said Stephenson. In Robinson’s book, the lethal heat leads to the dispensing of what Pontin calls, “our normal forms of capitalism.”

While Stephenson is all in favor of such an action, perhaps he says, he’s crippled by his own cynicism: “I think we’ll have to find a way to make capitalism work in our favor on this.”

Since reaching a pessimistic low point prior to writing his book, Stephenson has learned a lot more about what’s happening in the realm of carbon capture. As people pivot from traditional tech careers into climate, inventiveness argues the case for climate optimism.

He points to ventures like Stripe Climate, which last year committed $8 million to six carbon removal companies, and Pasadena’s Terraform Industries, whose founder started the company after years as a space scientist. The company aims to produce cheap natural gas with sunlight and air with the goal of zeroing out the net transport of carbon. What Stephenson points to is a larger trend of career changes with the planet in mind.

Like Stephenson, Pontin’s pessimism has waned due to working directly in the field of climate tech investing after years as a journalist and editor. “I’m astonished by how many brilliant men and women, who can lift up whole buildings with the sounds of their voices, are working on real solutions one problem at a time.”

The sheer scale of the problem is often difficult to imagine. Even in fiction, allegory serves as an illustrator, like the moon exploding in Stephenson’s 2015 book Seveneves, or the comet that crashes into the Earth in the 2021 film Don’t Look Up. Alternatively, fiction can open the door to imagining a better, more climate-conscious future.

While it’s likely too late to solve our problem by simple actions like riding bikes to work or turning our thermostats down, “it’s not too late to solve this problem with big engineering,” Stephenson declares. The mission of saving the planet and building something that’s “big and cool” is inspiring, opposite to, and in light of, the dystopia and apocalypse typically depicted in climate fiction.

“It’s terraforming,” he said using the 80-year-old sci-fi term for “Earth-shaping” distant worlds. “But frankly we’re terraforming our own planet.”

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