On Solarpunk #6

Geoengineering and everything in between, as told by Kim Stanley Robinson and Elizabeth Kolbert

I’m writing about Solarpunk, the optimistic, climate-focused sci-fi genre. This newsletter is a mix of reflections on Solarpunk content, original Solarpunk fiction, and essays on Solarpunk-adjacent topics (like this one on geoengineering). I also maintain the Solarpunk Canon which has a list of relevant books, essays, films, and more. If you’d like to follow along, subscribe below to get new posts emailed directly to you!

This post has been a long time coming. I’m a huge Kim Stanley Robinson fan and think he writes some of the best near-future Solarpunk sci-fi. Today I’m writing about a common topic in his books: geoengineering.

Geoengineering is a big, scary word, and it can mean a lot of things. So I’m going to give an overview of geoengineering and highlight examples from three books: Green Mars and Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson and Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert. Robinson’s books are sci-fi, and Kolbert’s is non-fiction, but they all are based on the same science.

After walking through various categories of geoengineering (solar geoengineering, glacier geoengineering, atmospheric geoengineering, and ecosystem engineering), I’ll talk about common arguments against these ideas. Geoengineering is not popular, especially among so-called environmentalists.

Finally, I’ll explain why I think geoengineering is inherently Solarpunk and explore what a culture of geoengineering might look like. These books offer a wealth of examples of geoengineering (both good and bad) that are worth earnest consideration.

Background on the books

Green Mars (1993) is the second book in Kim Stanley Robinson’s incredible Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars). It’s an epic tale about terraforming the red planet and the socio-political ramifications of doing so. Terraforming in this context is just geoengineering under a different moniker and applied to a different planet. Despite the foreign setting, familiar arguments for and against geoengineering come to a head—Mars ends up having both a Greens political party (for terraforming) and a Reds party (against terraforming).

Ministry for the Future (2020) is a recent cli-fi (climate fiction) book also from Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s set on Earth in the near-future and tells the story of how the world grapples with climate disaster and eventually re-bounds. The book is a combination of vignettes from many perspectives, mostly human, but not always—there’s a short chapter from the perspective of a carbon molecule and another told by “the blockchain.” The format makes the book feel like journalism. And with the dizzying number of ideas discussed, it’s sometimes hard to differentiate between fact and imagination. Like Green Mars, the book is as much about the socio-political effects of changing the biosphere as it is about the science of doing so.

Under a White Sky (2021) is a just-released account of historical and ongoing geoengineering projects from Elizabeth Kolbert. Each chapter is devoted to a different category of human intervention, like levees and river engineering in Louisiana or genetically modifying invasive toads in Australia. While not as philosophical as either of the Kim Stanley Robinson books, Under a White Sky still covers a lot of the drama, morality, and hubris of geoengineering—making humans look like both heroes and comical idiots.

Together, these three books make for a generative and inspiring trio. And given that Ministry for the Future and Under a White Sky are written so recently, it’s both impressive and discouraging that Green Mars wrangled with many of the same ideas 27 years earlier.

What is geoengineering?

Okay, here goes…geoengineering is a catch-all term for large-scale interventions in a planet’s climate. The most common form of geoengineering is solar geoengineering, where we artificially change how much sunlight penetrates the atmosphere. There’s also glacier geoengineering and atmospheric geoengineering. And ecosystem engineering (what might otherwise be called conservation) is another set of interventions that I’m putting under the geoengineering banner.

Solar geoengineering

Usually the conversation about solar geoengineering goes something like this: after big volcanoes have gone off on Earth and spewed a bunch of sulfur into the sky, the global temperature has dropped for a couple years, so can we simulate a volcano to mitigate the warming effects of climate change? Let’s slow down and take that point by point. How exactly does a volcano affect the climate?

Two past volcano eruptions are often used as examples of solar geoengineering: Tambora in 1815 and Pinatubo in 1991. Here’s Kolbert in Under a White Sky:

Tambora fired its first warning shots on the evening of April 5, 1815. People across the region reported hearing loud booms, which they attributed to cannon fire. Five days later, the mountain issued a column of smoke and lava that reached a height of twenty-five miles. Ten thousand people were killed more or less immediately—burned to cinders by the clouds of molten rock and searing vapor that raced down the slopes. One survivor reported seeing “a body of liquid fire, extending itself in every direction.” So much dust was thrown into the air that, it’s said, day turned to night.

So that sounds all-together bad, but what was notable from a climate perspective was how the eruption temporarily cooled the entire planet.

In New England, 1816 became known as the “year without a summer” or “eighteen-hundred-and-froze-to-death.” In mid-June it was so cold in central Vermont that foot-long icicles dripped from the eaves.

Pinatubo also affected temperatures around the world.

Following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, in the Philippines, in 1991, there was a brief downturn in global temperatures of about 1°F.

Volcanoes have this effect because they release gas and fine particles into the atmosphere that reflect sunlight.

“Sulfuric acid,” he continued, “is a very sticky molecule. And it starts making particulate matter—concentrated sulfuric acid droplets—usually smaller than one micron. These aerosols stay in the stratosphere on the timescale of a few years. And they scatter sunlight back to space.” The result is lower temperatures, fantastic sunsets, and, on occasion, famine.

Naturally, when we’re all worried about global warming, temporary global cooling like this seems compelling. And it’s something that India ends up undertaking in Ministry for the Future. After a massive heat wave decimates millions of Indians, they decide to start solar geoengineering themselves. Here’s an account from one of the pilots performing the particulate releases, which even includes the volcano inspiration:

Once up there we deployed the fuel lines and pumped the aerosols into the air. The plumes looked like dumped fuel at first, but they were really aerosol particulates, we were told mostly sulfur dioxide and then some other chemicals, like from a volcano, but there wasn’t ash like in a volcanic explosion, it was a mix made to stay up there and reflect sunlight.

Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of bad side effects of releasing sulfur dioxide, like damaging the ozone layer. So the most recent idea is to spray calcium carbonate into the stratosphere. Frank Keutsch is one of the leading scientists with Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program. Keutsch and others say calcium carbonate doesn’t deplete the ozone layer and is plentiful:

Of all the substances that might be deployed, Keutsch was most enthusiastic about calcium carbonate. In one form or another, calcium carbonate turns up everywhere—in coral reefs, in the pores of basalt, in the ooze at the bottom of the ocean. It’s the main component of limestone, which is one of the world’s most common sedimentary rocks.

On Earth, we’re almost always talking about solar geoengineering in the context of reflecting sunlight away from the planet and cooling the planet down. But on Mars, the goal is the opposite (to heat the planet), so companies (“transnationals”) end up building an enormous magnifying glass (“the soletta”) that orbits Mars and increases the amount of sunlight hitting the surface.

“Tell me more about the soletta,” Sax said carefully.
They told him in a kind of round. A group of transnationals, led by Subarashii, had built a circular slatted array of solar sail mirrors, placed between the sun and Mars and aligned to focus inward sunlight that would have just missed the planet. An annular support mirror, rotating in a polar orbit, reflected light back to the soletta to counterbalance the pressure of the sunlight, and that light was bounced back onto Mars as well. Both these mirror systems were truly huge compared to the early freighter sails Sax had enlisted to reflect light onto the surface, and the reflected light they were adding to the system was really significant.

The soletta in Green Mars is a far more dramatic and sophisticated feat of engineering than the solar geoengineering projects proposed for Earth, but they’re all accomplishing the same thing—artificially changing (increasing for Mars, decreasing for Earth) the amount of sunlight entering a planet’s atmosphere.

Glacier geoengineering

One of the problems with global warming is that the effects of global warming happen faster the warmer the planet gets. We know that glaciers are melting and raising sea levels, but as the temperature rises, glaciers melt faster. One reason for this is that a layer of meltwater develops between glaciers and the bedrock they sit on, making it easier for them to move. Here’s an overview of the problem from Ministry for the Future:

“So, the reason for that is there’s more meltwater created on the ice surface every summer, because of global warming. That water runs down moulins until it reaches the undersides of the glaciers, and there it has nowhere else to go. So it lifts up the ice a bit. It lubricates the ice flow over the rock beds. The ice used to be in contact with the rock bed, at least in some places, and usually in most places. The ice is so heavy it used to crush out everything under it. It bottomed out. Kilometer thick, that’s a big weight. So the glacier scraped down its bed right on the rock, bottomed out, ice to rock. Even sometimes frozen to rock. Stuck. A good percentage of glacial movement at that point was viscous deformation of the ice downhill, not sliding at all.”

So the warmer the planet gets, the faster glaciers slide off into the ocean. That’s bad because lots of ice sliding off into the ocean means the sea level will rise (a lot).

At the end of Green Mars, the entire West Antarctica ice sheet slides off into the ocean and proceeds to raise the Earth’s sea level six meters. It’s hard to imagine just how much water is being stored as ice in our glaciers, which causes panic:

“Well, theoretical models have world sea levels rising about six meters.”
“Six meters!”
“Well, it will take a few years for the full rise, but it’s definitely started. This catastrophic break will raise sea levels about two or three meters, in a matter of weeks. What’s left of the sheet will be afloat in a matter of months, or a few years at most, and that will add another three meters.”
“How could it raise the whole ocean that much?”
“It’s a lot of ice.”
“It can’t be that much ice!”
“Yes it can. That’s most of the fresh water in the world, right down there under us. Just be thankful the East Antarctic ice sheet is nice and stable. If it were to slide off sea levels would rise sixty meters.”

As expected, scientists have ideas for how to slow down glacier run-off. One of the ideas that ends up being successful in Ministry for the Future is to pump out a bunch of the meltwater from underneath the largest glaciers in the world.

But if you suck the bottom water out and slow the glacier back down, it won’t shear as much, and you won’t get that friction melt. My modeling suggests that if you pump out about a third to a half of the water underneath the glaciers, you get them to slow down enough to reduce their shear heat also, and that water doesn’t appear in the first place. The glaciers cool down, bottom out, refreeze to the rock, go back to their old speed. So you only need to pump out something like thirty cubic kilometers, from under the biggest glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland.

Easy enough. Similar ideas (pumping or freezing meltwater, building a wall around Antarctica, etc) have been proposed by scientists in real life, though to my knowledge actual glacier geoengineering has only happened in sci-fi thus far.

Atmospheric geoengineering

The most common form of atmospheric geoengineering discussed today is probably carbon removal—try to suck CO2 out of the air and store it somewhere for long periods of time. Carbon removal is compelling because greenhouse gas emissions are cumulative, for all intents and purposes. So in order to cool the planet, you don’t just have to stop adding new greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, you also have to remove the stuff already up there that’s been accumulating since the beginning of the Industrial Era.

There are a bunch of companies working on carbon removal—Climeworks and Carbon Engineering are two direct air capture companies that are written about in Under a White Sky. Charm Industrial is another. An alternative approach is to plant an incredible numbers of trees.

Plants absorb carbon dioxide while they're growing; then, when they rot, they return that CO2 to the air. Grow a new forest and it will draw down carbon until it reaches maturity. A recent study by Swiss researchers estimated that planting a trillion trees could remove two hundred billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere over the next several decades.

The trick with trees is getting rid of them (and their sequestered carbon) before they rot, so there are a whole host of other ideas to address that problem. Here’s one paragraph I love from Ministry for the Future about individuals looking for ways to earn a living capturing and sequestering carbon (“DAC” = Direct Air Capture):

People began to look for ways to earn a carbon coin or two. Only a few of these would be a lot in the local currencies. Surely sequestering a hundred tons of carbon couldn’t be so hard. DIY DAC became a vibrant side activity, like growing a truck garden for food; and sometimes the two were even the same thing.

We may not like it, but fossil fuel companies have been Earth’s most successful atmospheric geoengineers to date. We burn an excessive amount of coal and natural gas and have tangibly changed the atmosphere. The extra greenhouse gases in the atmosphere prevent heat from leaving, and the planet gets warmer. The greenhouse effect has caused an enormous mess on Earth, but it’s one clear way to warm a planet if you’re in the practice of terraforming. In Green Mars they discuss aggressive atmospheric geoengineering in both directions:

The only obvious warming strategy that he had avoided in the early years was the massive release of CO2 into the atmosphere. Those supporting this strategy had wanted to start a runaway greenhouse effect and create a CO2 atmosphere of up to 2 bar, arguing that this would warm the planet tremendously, and stop UV radiation, and encourage rampant plant growth. All true, no doubt; but for humans and other animals it would be poisonous, and though advocates of the plan spoke of a second phase that would scrub the CO2 from the atmosphere and replace it with a breathable one, their methods were vague, as were their time scales, which varied from 100 to 20,000 years.

Ecosystem engineering

While it’s not commonly thought of as geoengineering, I’m including ecosystem engineering (like conservation) here as well. The Anthropocene is a new term for the geological epoch we occupy. It is marked by human’s permanent impact on Earth’s climate and ecosystems. (Fun fact: in geology, an era has many periods, a period has many epochs, and an epoch has many ages.)

Some say the Anthropocene began over 10,000 years ago with the invention of agriculture, though the more widely agreed upon start is in the 1950s.

Depending on whom you ask, you’ll get a lot of different dates for the onset of the Anthropocene. Stratigraphers, who like clarity, tend to favor the early 1950s. As the United States and the Soviet Union vied for Strangelovian supremacy, aboveground nuclear testing became routine. The tests left behind a more or less permanent marker—a spoke in radioactive particles, some of which have a half-life of tens of thousands of years.

The point of the Anthropocene is that we live in a world where “nature” and humans are inseparable, defined by each other.

Twenty thousand years ago, wolves were domesticated. The result was a new species (or, by some accounts, subspecies) as well as two new categories: the “tame” and the “wild.” With the domestication of wheat, around ten thousand years ago, the plant world split. Some plants became “crops” and others “weeds.”

Conservation is a form of ecosystem engineering. Unlike geoengineering, conservation is politically popular, but it’s just another way humans are playing God. The pupfish from Under a White Sky and Bengal tigers in India are examples of species that are now reliant on humans to survive.

But for whatever reason—call it biophilia, call it care for God’s creation, call it heart-stopping fear—people are reluctant to be the asteroid. And so we’ve created another class of animals. These are creatures we’ve pushed to the edge and then yanked back. The term of art for such creatures is “conservation-reliant,” though they might also be called “Stockholm species” for their utter dependence on their persecutors.

A recurring theme in Ministry for the Future is large-scale re-wilding, specifically an effort called the Half-Earth Project. The Half-Earth Project is a real-life endeavor, spurred by a 2016 book by E. O. Wilson of the same name. The idea is to move humans out of half the Earth’s surface and encourage ecosystems to re-wild. Kim Stanley Robinson is clearly a supporter of the movement, and much of the American west is made into a massive wilderness park in his story:

The land would become part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of the greatest ecosystems on Earth. Buffalo, wolves, grizzly bears, elk, deer, wolverines, muskrats, beaver. Fish in the rivers, birds in the air. The animals would migrate, and maybe if the climate kept getting hotter they would move north, but in any case it would be their land, to live on as they liked. The people still here, or still visiting here, would be like park rangers or field scientists, or some kind of wildlife wrangler, or even I suppose buffalo cowboys. Buffaloboys.

There’s something romantic about trying to preserve large swaths of the Earth for non-human biodiversity. Though it’s very hard to imagine people turning over land to these efforts as easily as they do in Ministry for the Future, even with substantial relocation payments. Re-wilding is ecosystem engineering—just another human intervention no more or less “natural” than other forms of geoengineering.

There were more wild animals alive on Earth than at any time in the past two centuries at least, and also there were fewer domestic beasts grown for human food, occupying far less land. Ecosystems on every continent were therefore returning to some new kind of health, just as the result of the planetary ecology doing its thing, living and dying under the sun.

The problems of geoengineering

Across the board, geoengineering is unpopular. It’s a scary, unnatural-sounding term with unknown side effects. And the worry people have about geoengineering has prevented us from learning more about it.

A team at Harvard has designed an experiment to study solar geoengineering called SCoPEx (Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment). SCoPEx has been in the works for many years, and the idea is to float a balloon up 20km (12 miles), release a tiny amount of calcium carbonate, and study how the air changes as a result. Simple enough, but people are going crazy over it.

The goal of the experiment is not to test geoengineering per se—a couple of pounds of calcium carbonate or sulfur dioxide is nowhere near enough to make an observable difference to the climate. Nonetheless, SCoPEx would represent the first rigorous field test—or, if you prefer, sky test—of the concept, and there's been a lot of opposition to letting it get off the ground.

The experiment seems to be paused right now after environmental groups protested and got the most recent sky test in Sweden canceled. Here’s a quote from Niclas Hällström who runs What Next and organized many of the protests.

“The mobilization against this project in Sweden has been remarkable, uniting scientists, civil society and the Saami people, against the danger of a slippery slope toward normalization of a technology that is too dangerous to ever be deployed,” Mr. Hällström said.

What Next is thoroughly frustrating. They organized an online rally of sorts in June 2021 called #SayNo2SolarGeo, which featured Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, Greta Thunberg, and other well-known names. A manifesto-like statement on the event website reads:

I agree that cutting greenhouse gas emissions has to be done—geoengineering without decarbonization is useless. But the anti-science rhetoric and close-mindedness here (expressed by very mainstream authors and activists) is infuriating and dangerous.

Kim Stanley Robinson said a few years ago in an interview that “there is a bad tendency among some leftists to conflate science with capitalism. They are not the same.” It seems like these environmentalists have fallen into the same trap, letting their views on capitalism and the fossil fuel industry get in the way of science. That’s not a good thing.

There’s a common moral argument made against geoengineering by environmentalists. They say that capitalism, technology, and ambition got us into this mess, so we collectively don’t deserve to engineer our way out of it (or even try). They think that arrogant humans need to learn to live within their means and that we’ll inevitably destroy the Earth if left unchecked. To me, that’s an overly cynical view on human potential, and I wholeheartedly disagree. I think humans are good and that our greatest gift is our capacity for learning and understanding (i.e. science and its application). Perpetuating this moral argument against human cleverness seems like self-sabotage.

There are plenty of scientists who oppose geoengineering. Alan Robock is one of them.

Alan Robock is a climate scientist at Rutgers and one of the leaders of the Geoengineering Model Intercomparison Project, or GeoMIP. Robock maintains a list of concerns about geoengineering; the latest version has more than two dozen entries. Number 1 is the possibility that it could disrupt rainfall patterns, causing “drought in Africa and Asia.” Number 9 is “less solar electricity generation,” and number 17 is “whiter skies.” Number 24 is “conflicts between countries.” Number 28 is “do humans have the right to do this?”

In 2019, Robock recorded a podcast about the risks of solar geoengineering with the Future of Life Institute. One of the notable risks of solar geoengineering that he brings up is called the “termination shock.” Here is he is explaining it:

So the idea would be to, for a limited time, have a cloud up there, and then ramp it down as the warming from the greenhouse gases goes down. In an optimistic scenario, however, that might take 50 or 100 years. So if you’re in the middle of this period, and you stop taking the sulfur up there, then after a year or two, it would all be gone, and you would have rapid warming at a rate much faster than we’re experiencing now. This is called the termination problem.

Robock’s right. In all forms of proposed solar geoengineering, you have to keep adding aerosols to the atmosphere until greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically reduced. The reason is that aerosols naturally leave the atmosphere in a few years. If performed successfully, solar geoengineering temporarily prevents the worst effects of climate change. But it’s a risky game to play, sort of like replacing heroin with meth, as Elizabeth Kolbert notes:

What the technology addresses are warming’s symptoms, not its cause. For this reason, geoengineering has been compared to treating a heroin habit with methadone, though perhaps a more apt comparison would be to treating a heroin habit with amphetamines. The end result is two addictions in place of one.

Solarpunk and a culture of geoengineering

So how do you reconcile the technological promise of geoengineering and its risks? First off, geoengineering needs a huge PR lift. Without a change in public perception, these projects (and more importantly the science around them) are dead in the water—granted, we’re also potentially dead in the water without them.

Part of what makes Solarpunk stories so compelling is that they’re optimistic about our ability (equipped with science, technology, and willpower) to fix our climate crisis. Books like Green Mars and Ministry for the Future are earnest and contrarian. They don’t comply with the common narrative that human intervention in our biosphere is always bad.

Here’s an excerpt from Ministry for the Future that addresses environmentalists’ hesitation in a fun way:

So, someone asked tonight in the mess tent, is what we’re doing down here geoengineering? Who the hell knows! What’s in a word? Call it Glacier Elevation Operations, Based on Estimates of Godawfulness Gobsmacking Interested Nations’ Goodness: GEO-BEGGING. Call it whatever you want, but don’t immediately clutch your pearls and declare we can’t predict the unintended consequences, we are sure to create backlash effects so bad they overthrow the good we intended, etc. There are some things man was not meant to know— my ass! We are meant to know everything we can find out. So get over that whole wimpy line of objection. And I’ll tell you what the unintended side effects of slowing down the glaciers of Antarctica will be: nothing. Nada. No side effects whatsoever, and the beaches and coastal cities of the world will stay out of the drink.

I wish we could immediately instill this indignation in everyone—we’d make a lot more progress, faster. A more empathetic approach is to re-frame a value system environmentalists already hold dear in a way that potentially includes geoengineering. In Ministry for the Future, they edit ecologist, Aldo Leopold’s, land ethic, as an example:

The orienting principle that could guide all such thinking is often left out, but surely it should be included and made explicit: we should be doing everything needed to avoid a mass extinction event. This suggests a general operating principle similar to the Leopoldian land ethic, often summarized as “what’s good is what’s good for the land.” In our current situation, the phrase can be usefully reworded as “what’s good is what’s good for the biosphere.”

The re-frame zooms us out, asking us to think about what’s good for the planet that houses all of us. It’s a reminder that we’re living in the Anthropocene, a biosphere permanently imprinted by human civilization. The principle doesn’t tell us not to intervene or not to geoengineer. It just implores us to figure out what’s good for the biosphere and do that—at a very large scale and very fast.

In Green Mars, this same principle becomes a religion of sorts. On Earth, we’re trying to maintain a biosphere. On Mars, they’re trying to create a biosphere, and geoengineering is really the only way to do that.

Green Mars is an ode to life and its ability to thrive, even in harsh environments. But it’s also an ode to humanity’s role in creating and maintaining those environments. The characters are unquestionably God-like, but they use their larger-than-life capabilities in service of the world. Hiroko, one of the first hundred humans to colonize Mars and the spiritual leader of the growing Martian civilization, shares this about their endeavors on the planet:

“We are children of Earth,” Hiroko said, loud enough for all to hear. “And yet here we stand, in a lava tunnel on the planet Mars. We should not forget how strange a fate that is. Life anywhere is an enigma and a precious miracle, but here we see even better its sacred power. Let’s remember that now, and make our work our worship.”

There are so many anecdotes from Green Mars about this spiritual pursuit of terraforming. Here’s another that is simultaneously reverent of nature and awe-struck by humanity’s potential to assist it. Sax, a climate scientist and another one of the first hundred colonizers, reflects on early plant growth:

And it was awesome as well, to see how fast this primitive biosphere had taken root, and flowered, and spread. There was an inherent surge toward life, a green electric snap between the poles of rock and mind. An incredible power, which here had reached in and touched the genetic chains, inserted sequences, created new hybrids, helped them to spread, changed their environments to help them grow. The natural enthusiasm of life for life was everywhere clear, how it struggled and so often prevailed; but now there were guiding hands as well, a noosphere bathing all from the start. The green force, bolting into the landscape with every touch of their fingertips.

So that human beings were miraculous indeed—conscious creators, walking this new world like fresh young gods, wielding immense alchemical powers. So that anyone Michel met on Mars he regarded curiously, wondering as he looked at their often innocuous exteriors what kind of new Paracelsus or Isaac of Holland stood before him, and whether they would turn lead to gold, or cause rocks to blossom.

Ministry for the Future is full of similar passages—full of an appreciation of nature, spurred on by human intervention in the biosphere. After large-scale re-wilding, geoengineering, and bioengineering, California’s Central Valley is converted into a nature utopia:

Now the necessity of dealing with droughts and floods meant that big areas of the valley were restored, and the animals brought back, in a system of wilderness parks or habitat corridors, all running up into the foothills that ringed the central valley on all sides. These hills had always been wilder than the flat valley floor, and now they were being returned to native oak forests, which provided more shelter for wild creatures. Salmon runs had been reestablished, tule marshes filled the old dry lake beds; orchards were now grown that could live through periods of flooded land; rice terracing was also built to retain floodwater, and they had been planted with genetically engineered rice strains that could stay flooded longer than previous strains.

In the Kim Stanley Robinson universe, geoengineering is one way we appreciate life. It’s how we do what’s good for the biosphere.

What’s wonderful about both Green Mars and Ministry for the Future is that the culture of geoengineering eventually becomes so commonplace that it’s routine. Young people on Mars work to create an ocean the size of the Caribbean and are unimpressed by its significance or scale:

It was their work, their life—to them it was human scale, there was nothing unnatural about it. On Mars, simply enough, human work consisted of pharaonic projects like this one. Creating oceans. Building bridges that made the Golden Gate look like a toy.

And in Ministry for the Future, glaciologists are nonchalant when they realize they’ve probably saved the world from catastrophic sea-level rise:

Got to be blocked, someone said.
Yes but where?
Eventually we got to the bottom of the hole; no water at any point along the way.
Hey you know what? This glacier has bottomed out. There’s just no more water to pump!
So it will slow down now.
For sure.
How soon will we know?
Couple years. Although we should see it right away too. But we’ll need a few years to be sure it’s really happened.
Wow. So we did it.

We were 650 meters above sea level, and ready for food and drink. Another great day in Antarctica, saving the world.

These accounts are obviously optimistic. But they’re the type of narratives we need to be hearing more of. Environmentalists and the media dominate the public’s perception of geoengineering, portraying it as immoral, catastrophic, and artificial.

Not all geoengineering projects should be undertaken—some just don’t make sense—but none of them should be off the table. Support and act on science. And remind ourselves of our ability to literally change the world. Solarpunk can help with that.