Thursday, November 08, 2012

Global Warming as a Casus Belli: An SF Idea

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have spent a good deal of time recently arguing issues connected with global warming on the Usenet newsgroup, an experience interesting less for what it taught me about global warming than what it taught me about people arguing for and against it. It occured to me that expanding that online war of words to a literal war in realspace might provide material for an interesting science fiction novel. I don't plan to write it, since I don't think it is the sort of story I would be good at telling. This post is an invitation for someone else to.

The setting is sometime in the fairly near future. Two dissimilar states are adjacent. The larger, richer, and more technologically advanced is dominated by environmentalists concerned with the dangers of global warming. It has replaced virtually all of its fossil fuel energy with energy produced, at a higher cost, in ways that do not produce CO2—solar, wind, perhaps nuclear. Many of its inhabitants, most of its leaders, believe that everyone else should do the same. The neighboring state which is poorer and much less concerned with environmentalism, however, has a lot of coal, which it uses as its chief source of power.

The richer state attempts to pressure its neighbor into following its example, without success. Eventually it takes the latter's refusal to behave in what it considers a globally responsible manner as a casus belli and invades. 

To make it a good story the invasion cannot lead to an easy conquest, despite the advantages of the richer state. Perhaps the terrain does not favor high-tech/low manpower warfare. The inhabitants of the poorer state, used to a less comfortable style of life, are more willing to accept the sacrifices that warfare requires. Faced with the threat of foreign conquest, they are willing to pay a higher price to defend themselves than the invaders are to conquer them. What was supposed to be a quick victory turns, as in the case of the U.S. Civil War, into a long and bloody grind.

The military element of the plot is necessary but ought not to be central.  What the story is really about is the moral ambiguity of the war on both sides, especially that of the attackers. Seen from one angle, it is the old story of the strong beating up on the weak, with a new excuse. Seen from another, the attackers are risking their lives to protect the world they live in from those who selfishly and irresponsibly threaten it.

The closest actual novel I can think of to this, although without the war, is Fallen Angels by Niven and Pournelle. It is an entertaining story, especially for science fiction fans, since fandom plays a central role in the plot. But it is also an entirely one sided story—there is no question which side is right and which is wrong, who are the good guys and who the bad. 

I want my author to play fair, to show good guys and bad guys, good motives and bad, on both sides. A hard core of support for the initial invasion comes from environmentalist fanatics whose real if unstated motive is not to prevent global warming but to punish the evil people who are, as they see it, raping the earth—ideally, after the war is won, trying the leadership of the losing side for global treason. On the other side, an important faction opposing any compromise is made up of people who really are as biased, arrogant, and scientifically ignorant as many of the people on the warming side of the online controversy believe their opponents to be. 

Somewhere in the middle are people on both sides who want the rich state to subsidize the poor, either paying the costs of converting its power and transport industry to non-polluting sources or providing it with heavily subsidized energy from their own output. They are opposed, on one side, by those who believe that sinners should be punished, not paid, and on the other by those who see such a proposal as a step towards an energy neo-colonialism that will leave them at the mercy of the providers.

Ideally, it should never  become entirely clear which side is right on the scientific issues. The scientific case against the environmentalist program should turn out to be stronger than it at first looks but not clearly correct, leaving the question of whether holding down CO2 output is necessary or even desirable at least somewhat open—so that honest and reasonable people can be found on both sides.

My model for how the conflict should be presented is "No Truce With Kings," an old Poul Anderson novelette set in a post-catastrophe west coast. What I liked about it was that Anderson played fair—fair enough so that the reader was well into the story before he could tell which side the author was on. It helped that the side the author was on was what many readers would consider the wrong one. I won't ruin the story for you by saying which side that was.

Any would-be novelists up for the challenge? They can get lots of free ideas by simply watching the online arguments.


Anonymous said...


Alexander Jablokov said...


I've been thinking about something along these lines myself. Only I saw it as more a covert war--deniable sabotage teams heading into China to blow up coal plants and other carbon sources. The tangle of motivations on both sides would be great fun.

If I ever get around to it, I'll be sure to give you a credit.

VangelV said...

The problem ultimately comes down to reality. The rich people can argue all that they want about the need to stop global warming right up until they look around and figure out that the problems that are most serious have to do with exposure to extremely low temperatures. And then there is the inconvenient fact that a higher average temperature may not have much real meaning because it may simply be caused by milder winters and the earlier arrival of spring, not higher absolute temperatures.

In my book we would be dealing with the dangers of a coming ice age and the failures of harvests due to early frost in the fall and cold spells in the spring and summer.

Mark Horning said...

More amusing yet, modern warfare probably dumps more CO2 into the atmosphere than coal plants do.

Hammerhead said...

So nice of you to share your creative story ideas. Without presenting a compelling techno-economic account of how the 'rich' green guys were so prosperous I would think their efforts at green energy ( based on existing know-how) would lead them to a depressed economy/society. I've toyed with an alternate climate story in which a society struggles within an eco-ideological totalitarian state engaged in draconian measures to hide the growing empirical evidence of an approaching ice age. said...

There's a bit of this in "Fallen Angels" a 1991 Novel by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournells, and Michael Flynn. Although primarily background the 'greens' are firmly in charge and Glaciers are a fact-of-life in the central US.

It's a good 'rescue' story and focuses on the efficacy of informal networks, as opposed to Top-Down 'Official' ways of doing things.

Last I checked it was availible for free download at the Bean Books Webpage.

David Friedman said...


I mentioned Fallen Angels in the post.