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Considering Climate Change: Via Writing Fiction and Statistics

I have just completing reading the book How the World Really Works by Vaclav Smil. In this book, Dr. Smil, who has written over forty books to date, takes on task of explaining how different processes which include energy production, feeding the world and a variety of material processes intersect with the challenge of Climate Change. In the introduction to this book, Smil explains that he is a scientist and that his life work has been to conduct a series of interdisciplinary studies which have resulted in many books. In style, he views scientists as either highly specialized (drilling ever deeper holes within a particular narrow discipline) or scanners of wide horizons. Smil prefers the latter approach and in this book devotes initial chapters to helping the reader understand diverse topics which include energy, food production, what he calls "four pillars of civilization" (cement, steel, plastics and ammonia). Smil makes a key point that in all of these areas, the use of fossil fuels has been highly integrated into the related processes and that this deep integration will make the overall challenge of de-carbonizing the world economy much more difficult than many of the "experts" perceive.  

I don't have the deep background in areas such as energy and food production which Dr. Smil describes, but like him, I've looked at the matter of climate change in an active way for many years. I studied engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for five years and earned bachelor and master's degrees in my chosen field of Management Engineering. After that I joined the high tech business world and took on diverse roles in information technology, operations, product management, consulting and marketing in the business world. I've also paid a great deal of attention to geo-politics. I like making connections between diverse fields and enjoy taking a systems view of how the world works. These perspectives have served me well for me in both the business world and in the diplomatic world of international standards. In parallel, I have pursued another passion, writing fiction, and I finished writing my first novel, a coming of age novel called Growing Up Single in 2006. Shortly after that, I decided to take all I'd learned from writing the first novel and choose a theme that energized me for my second novel. I thought hard about my various fields of interest and wanted a deep, challenging area could draw on the skills I'd developed in my professional life and where I could tell a unique story. 

In the fall of 2006, the concept of global warming was already getting attention in the news media and among climate scientists. But despite numerous international efforts, which at the time included agreements developed in Kyoto and other exotic locales, I wasn't seeing much progress reducing the carbon emissions that were causing global warming and It was obvious that the politicians in major countries, including the United States, and the powerful fossil fuel companies, were happy with the status quo. My sense was that this situation could go on for many more years and that the consequences of inaction would likely create a cascading series of climate-related disasters in the years to come. 

I started crafting a novel about a future year of climate disasters which would force the diplomats and politicians to act and approve treaties which would make a measurable difference in reducing carbon emissions. The lens I used to view this situation was through the experience I'd gained during ten years of developing domestic and international standards in telecommunications and in my business experience in working with vendors and customers from many countries.  

In my view, global warming was a classic example of what were often called "If This Goes On" science fiction novels which I devoured as a reader in high school and during college. I outlined a book tentatively titled Riding the Sea Change and started writing. I personally love statistics, but I'd noticed that the general public tended to ignore statistics, particularly of news they didn't like and needed to be reached another way. My goal was to create an exciting narrative story to reach those readers. I finished writing a first draft six years later and got copies out to beta readers who gave me a lot of useful feedback. I did more edits and started marketing the book to literary agents. My book tells a story about climate change as it follows diplomats who travel the world, fight battles amongst themselves and ultimately get pushed to do the right thing and create a treaty which could really change the world and reduce the carbon emissions trends.

In the years since I wrote the early versions of this book, my sense about how difficult it would be to forge an international consensus has been borne out. We have also seen many examples of climate related disasters over the past few years. I still feel that novels are a great way to grab the attention of readers by bringing the challenges of climate change to life in a narrative form. My journey in writing, editing and marketing this novel has been a great learning experience both in its writing and in keeping up with developments in climate.   

Returning to Dr. Smil's book, I think he has done a fine job in showing how deeply our society has baked in the use of fossil fuels into many aspects of our world. But the key tool he has used is to break down these trends and show the reader the trends is by using statistics. This is a great way to reach the engineers and scientists of the world, but many readers with less technical background may find it difficult to read through 229 pages that are crammed with statistics.  

In summary, I recommend that people who want to get a much deeper view on climate change and what it will take to address it should take a shot at reading How the World Really Works. But if you would prefer not to delve into a highly quantitative book such as this, you can also learn a lot by reading one or more of the novels that take on climate change in a narrative form.  

My book isn't published yet, but I'm working on getting it out there one way or another. Stay tuned. In addition, there other novels on climate change that are worth reading and can offer readers insights in a story form. Some books which I've read and can recommend include Bandwidth by Eliot Peper, Forty Days of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson and Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver.

Good luck on your climate change journey, whether its via the world of statistics, through reading great stories or some other approach which you choose to pursue.  


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