Kim Stanley Robinson talks climate change

The author of Ministry for the Future explained connections between his novels and current environmental threats

Blake Ramsey and Catherine McKean

Science fiction author Dr. Kim Stanley Robinson answered questions about climate change, global collaboration and his book, The Ministry for the Future, in University Chapel on Nov. 10.

Washington and Lee’s Williams School, environmental studies program and politics department collaborated to bring Robinson, an author that often writes about social justice, sustainability and climate change, to campus.

The talk, titled “Climate Change: Science Fiction is Now Reality,” was moderated by professor of politics Brian Alexander. Audience members were later invited to ask their own questions in an open Q&A format.

The Ministry for the Future, published in 2020, follows the fictional titular ministry in its mission to advocate for the rights of future citizens during the climate change crisis. The main character, Mary Murphy, who leads the Ministry and is based on diplomats in real life, works to convince central banks about climate change’s threat to global markets and currency. 

“What starts the novel is something I’m afraid can actually happen: overpowering heat and humidity,” Robinson said. “We have to cope with climate change in many parts of the world where heat and humidity will become fatal.”

While this climate change crisis is happening, characters in the book suffer from food shortages, rising sea levels and unbearable heat. They discuss their ideas about ecology and economics as the plot progresses.  

The banks eventually mint environmentally friendly “carbon coins” that give global governments a financial incentive to reduce carbon usage and thus save the environment. The story ends with a utopia in which governments are able to put aside their differences to fix the climate crisis.

This ending reflects Robinson’s optimism that humans and their governments will come together to solve the climate crisis by recognizing that climate change is a common enemy. Once a common enemy is established, Robinson says governments will be able to take on a more authoritarian stance and band together to address it, similarly to the way governments collaborated to take on World War II and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In emergencies, people will often act very well with other humans,” he explained. “You get solidarity and mutual aid that is not otherwise present.”

In absence of global solidarity, Robinson advocated for individuals to nonviolently protest through political sabotage. He thinks these actions could hurt companies contributing to the climate change crisis, such as fossil fuel companies.

He took care to speak on the difference between political sabotage, which he adamantly promotes, and political violence, encompassing murder and terrorism, which he strongly opposes.

“Violence is counterproductive,” Robinson said. “But if we don’t cope with climate change well, we’ll see violence in order to bring about rapid change.” 

There are groups that pursue violence in “The Ministry for the Future” by targeting government officials rather than the companies causing the climate crisis, and all they do is exacerbate society’s problems.

Robinson said he toes the line between what is realistic for a human society and what he hopes for the future, writing novels that often include scientists and diplomats as heroic main characters. He researches the topics in his novels with great depth so as to “come across as an expert” in the field and to ensure that there are enough facts in his novels to make readers recognize the real threats they are under.

Born in 1952, Robinson grew up hearing  about World War II and the emerging Cold War. He was surrounded by science fiction media, brought to life by the televisions that had worked their way into many American households, and news of the development of scientific research was abundant at school and home.

As a writer, Robinson found himself particularly inspired by the works of author H.G. Wells, most notably “The Time Machine” and “The War of the Worlds,” which were being adapted into films during Robinson’s childhood. 

Wells, sometimes called the “father of science fiction,” was known as an imaginative writer of futurist and utopian novels as well as a progressive social critic for his time.

Now Robinson is an established and awarded writer himself with over 20 novels, including the renowned “Mars” trilogy, under his belt. Robinson has found himself adopting similar themes as Wells, such as discussions of utopia and social criticisms of economic and ecological policy.

“I’ve been writing utopian science fiction for the past 30 years, and it has gotten progressively harder to do as the threat of climate crisis has steadily risen,” Robinson said. “Everyone knows what needs to be done, but most still do too little.”