Hot Earth Dreams, by Frank Landis

Unfortunately, climate change is something that matters to all of us, and is going to matter even more as this century wears on. With this grim fact in mind, Hot Earth Dreams is a serious work of speculation on what the Earth’s warm, storm-ridden and wet future might be like.

The short version is, we’re completely and nightmarishly fucked. Things aren’t quite as bad as is conceivable, but there aren’t many grounds for optimism either.

Overview

Regrettably, I can’t see many grounds on which to disagree with Dr. Landis’s conclusions, bleak as they are. There isn’t much in the way of a silver lining; for what it’s worth, Hot Earth Dreams posits that human extinction is unlikely (we’re a bit too tough and a bit too adaptable for that), and the book also discounts the possibility of a Venus-style runaway greenhouse.

So, there are our two rays of light. Hang onto them, because you’re going to need them.

Basically, take one part the backstory to Fallout, one part Eva Fairdeath and one part Gaia’s vengeance. Put them in a mixer and shake well. Then find something else to drink, because this cocktail will burn on the way down.

So, let’s have a detailed look at our nightmare carbonated future…

What I Liked

First of all, it’s good to see a serious exploration of the implications of climate change. Basically, Hot Earth Dreams assumes that eventually, our current civilisation will burn through all the fossil carbon – the so-called ‘terafart’, as Dr Landis puts it. We can expect to have run out of fossil carbon by the start of the 22nd Century, at which presumably, industrial civilisation will crater in a particularly-spectacular style. (Even now, too many key technologies are dependent on fossil carbon. Take that away and we’re in trouble.)

The writing style of the book is a definite plus – colloquial rather than academic and with some black humour, which keeps the subject from becoming unmanageably-depressing.

The book covers a range of topics. Each chapter handles a different issue. Social issues are considered alongside scientific ones; there’s a lot of context to look at. Hot Earth Dreams isn’t afraid to ask “what if?” and isn’t afraid to explore implications. A wide variety of knowledge is drawn on, from chemistry and mineralogy to agriculture and astrophysics.

Another point in the book’s favour is that it acknowledges that some of its extrapolations are on firmer ground than others, and it’s honest about the limitations and error-bars that exist on current knowledge. Incidentally, this is how to spot real science as opposed to press-release pabulum – real science has ifs, buts, domains of validity and error bars. Press release pabulum basks in the warm light of false confidence.

The book points out that one of the most dangerous aspects of climate change isn’t the rise in average temperatures – whilst that’s bad, the real problem is likely to be the so-called ‘global weirding’. Take a complex, interdependent system where all the components act on each other to some extent, and kick it with a terrifyingly-large amount of extra energy – and watch it spasm around in some crazy and self-destructive way. Then, realise that’s what we’re doing to our planet’s atmosphere. Think rapidly-varying weather, storms, droughts, snow in summer, all kinds of craziness. Think fields of crops destroyed by freak hailstorms, think hurricanes tracking across Europe, think three feet of snow in the Gobi desert. And realise you’re thinking of a world where agriculture probably isn’t workable anymore.

Yeah, it’s fucked up, isn’t it?

Also, the terafart’s effects will hang around long after we’re gone. Dr Landis estimates that it will take around 400,000 years for the Earth to completely-remove the terafart from the atmosphere. Peak temperatures aren’t due for several centuries, even if we stopped vomiting carbon tomorrow, and oceanic thermal expansion will carry on for several thousand years. (It takes a long time for the deep waters to heat up.)

As to why Dr. Landis thinks this is locked in – well, basically, the current political economy requires carbon-based energy sources to make it function. He cites in particular the example of the US land-value system, which has a built-in presumption in favour of development. This is great from a point of view of getting roads and cities constructed, but it has the effect of ensuring the destruction of the wilderness – and the carbon sinks that exist in said wilderness. As to why this can’t be reformed, well, it would have the effect of messing with the whole system of land ownership and value, which would affect hundreds of millions of people, and probably also require rewriting the Constitution. In other words, it’s quite literally politically-impossible. The system simply can’t be reformed.

Also, most of the world’s population are fed via fertiliser-mediated farming. And, umm, a lot of modern high-grade fertilisers are petrochemical derivatives. Yeah, think about that for a minute. And shudder.

The worst thing of all is, we’re doing this to ourselves.

Dr. Landis is sceptical about the likelihood of future technologies coming to the rescue. He notes that yes, in theory, fusion-based electricity would be the sort of thing that could save us, and yes there has been a lot of progress in solar power recently. But, fusion has been a long time coming – it’s been forty years away for the last forty years – and it’s not clear that anything’s changed. And solar power has huge problems with power-plant life cycles, unexpected things like water bills(! – these being to clean the panels when they get dirty) and also the crippling electric storage issue. (The oil companies own the patents to the batteries and guess what? They don’t like people doing research on high power-density storage media, because this would undermine their profit margins. Another tick to the box about the economically-locked-in nature of this problem! Capitalism, unfortunately, is part of the problem here, and probably not part of the solution. However, too many peoples’ careers and bank accounts depend on hanging onto every single dysfunctional aspect of the current system.)

Also, the current priority of most so-called ‘tech’ companies at present seems to be less critical infrastructure and more ‘free’-pr0n apps for your mobile phone. Yeah, depressing.

Dr. Landis reckons the real meltdown will begin sometime after 2050, so just in time for most people reading this to be retiring. Lucky us. (On the plus side, I feel less guilty about not bothering much about pensions now!)

What I Found Problematic

It’s a book about climate change causing the collapse of our civilisation and killing most of our grandchildren – everything is problematic!

Ahem.

Okay, the book is currently being self-published via Amazon, so it has a few issues here and there with typesetting. I didn’t find them to be critical, but they were niggles.

Also, some of the sources were a bit shaky. Whilst it only happens a few times, and to his credit Dr. Landis acknowledges the weakness, I’m not very keen on relying on Wikipedia as a source. There’s a lot of inaccuracy and propaganda on there, sadly.

Lastly, the astronomical sections had some weaknesses. Whilst the discussion of the Milankovitch cycles is broadly accurate, it’s worth noting that they’re more down to the interactions with Venus and Jupiter than they are to Saturn. Also, a surprising lacuna was that the book didn’t discuss at all the growing body of research on solar variations. (Since “Its’ the Sun wot did it!” is a common – and wrong – refrain of climate denialists, I found this absence surprising.)

Also, as a specific nitpick, the red giant expansion timescale for the Sun is 5 billion years, not 1 billion as the book states. (In fairness, this affects none of the book’s conclusions, though.)

Summary

If you’re interested in a serious exploration of the likely consequences of anthropogenic climate change, then this book is an essential read.

If however you want to sleep again at any point in the rest of your life, then you might want to read something else.

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