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Robinson Outlines Ways To Fight the Runaway Greenhouse Effect

Kim Stanley Robinson, a science-fiction writer, analyzed the future of the climate crisis as part of the Boston College Lowell Humanities Series on Wednesday night, explaining that it is not too late to combat the runaway greenhouse effect.   

“Our culture is driven between stories right now,” said Tim Kreider, a New York Times columnist and the opening speaker. “The old ones we lived on for thousands of years aren’t working anymore, and we had to come up with new ones to replace them. … What Robinson is telling us over and over is that it’s not too late. Don’t get scared. Don’t give up.”

Since World War II, Robinson said social scientists have identified what they call the “Great Acceleration,” a surge in human activity that causes issues such as population increases, pollution of the natural world, and possible human extinction. According to Robinson, acceleration is high right now due to world issues like COVID-19.

“I want to suggest that there’s been an acceleration within the acceleration … I think it’s feeling a little choppy again, and I’d like to point out the COVID pandemic, but also recently Russia’s invasion, and the financial crises that have happened,” Robinson said. 

Robinson also talked about the importance of staying within planetary boundaries, environmental limits within which humanity can safely live. According to Robinson, if humans cross these limits it could cause a crash in the biophysical system.

“The reason there are boundaries is that if we press beyond them, we can create a mass extinction event and a runaway greenhouse effect that could develop such momentum that even if all humanity decided to stop there, it might have got too much momentum,” Robinson said.  

Robinson said while he thinks mass extinction is unlikely, he still worries about various issues that threaten humanity, including food scarcity. 

“Humans are too clever, resourceful, and have too strong technologies to actually run ourselves to extinction of humanity,” Robinson said. “But we could wreck civilization. And the main driver of that would be the moment there’s a scare about adequate food. There are eight billion people on this planet. Keeping that system going is a remarkable achievement.”

To stay within planetary boundaries, Robinson said the process of decarbonization—creating an economy based on energy sources that produce low levels of greenhouse gas emission—is vital.

“Decarbonization is happening, but it’s not happening as fast as it needs to be to stay under the 1.5 degrees Celsius minus the global average temperature,” Robinson said. “We’re at about 1.1 degrees Celsius. We’re on course and it’s pretty good compared to where it has been, but it’s not good enough as resistance as we get closer.”

Robinson also emphasized the importance of regenerative agriculture, a farming practice used to reverse climate change through soil regeneration and increased biodiversity, as a way to not only increase employment, but also as a way to bring carbon out of the atmosphere and back into the soil.

“We’ve depleted carbon out of the soil,” Robinson said. “And right now there’s as much as about 1 percent carbon by weight in the soil, so you can increase that by way of regenerative agriculture to 3 or 4 percent.”

April 2, 2023