Loud alarms sound from seat to seat on my train journey from London to Rotterdam. As we zoom past the waterlogged fields of northern France, passengers’ smartphones flash up one by one with an automated government alert: “Exceptional floods are under way . . . take refuge on high ground.”
The world is approaching the “zombie years” of natural disasters and rapidly warming temperatures as imagined by my lunch date, the science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson’s 2020 novel The Ministry for the Future struck a chord with the climate anxious, just as his bestselling epics from the 1990s and 2000s, in which humans colonise the Moon and other solar systems, spoke to a more optimistic era of government-led space exploration.
At the opening of The Ministry for the Future, 20mn people die in a 2025 heatwave in Uttar Pradesh, India. One of the closest real-life equivalents to this disaster was when early monsoon floods, swollen by glacier melt, swept through Pakistan last year. “One-third of the country’s [districts] underwater and everybody displaced. That [was] apocalyptic,” Robinson says. “Now I’m meeting policymakers and powerful people who are terrified and want to act. That’s new in my experience.”
I’m lucky to catch the author of these grotesque visions at all, I realise, as we settle in for a glass of dry Sauvignon Blanc and a complimentary platter of cheesy pear tartlets in the efficiently posh hotel where Robinson is staying in the Dutch port city. In recent years, Robinson has become a sounding board for politicians, economists and climate negotiators eager for his take on fringe ideas such as pumping water under glaciers to stop them melting, or “carbon quantitative easing”, whereby central banks would pay the worst polluters to stop.
Like many of Robinson’s more than 20 novels, including Pacific Edge and Red Mars, The Ministry for the Future is mostly a tale of people scrambling for financial, political and scientific solutions to civilisational breakdown. And people are hungry for solutions right now. By the end of the narrative, in 2053, the fictional UN agency after which the book is named has co-ordinated an effective global response spearheaded — after much delay and denial — by developing countries including India. The concentration of CO₂ in the atmosphere falls with every passing year.
It’s a scenario that contrasts with the low expectations for progress ahead of the COP28 climate summit starting in Dubai at the end of this month — and one that some critics found far too optimistic.
“What people find encouraging in the book is that we could repeatedly fuck up and have a lot of humans fighting vigorously to wreck the world and wreck our plans, and we could still get to a good result,” Robinson tells me. This message can replace “feelings of futility or despair” with “relatively justifiable hope”, he adds. “People grab this book like it’s a life raft or a life ring out in the ocean.”
There is something of the sci-fi superhero about Robinson, despite his standard-issue steel-rimmed glasses and patterned beige jumper. At 71, his cheekbones are implausibly sharp, and set off by deep diagonal grooves that run from cheek to chin. A large green jade ring on his middle finger seems at first glance to be a symbolic nod to alien watchers and mystics. He says it is simply a childhood present from his parents.
Robinson ploughs politely through a menu in Dutch, which he does not speak, before finally admitting defeat to the waiter. We quickly scan the English menu, and I order pan-seared langoustine and turbot. “Oh, my God,” says Robinson, choosing a pigeon dish — “I feel a little guilty, but I’ll try it” — and for starters a salad of lettuce hearts.
Wading into a traditionally male-dominated genre, feminist sci-fi icon Ursula K Le Guin, who taught Robinson literature at the University of California San Diego in 1977, was one of the first to show the ways that human greed can wreak a slower kind of planetary havoc than nuclear war. In The Word for World Is Forest, her 1972 novella, timber traders come close to wiping out life on a small and distant tree-covered planet. Ecocide is halted after a revolt sparked by the rape of a small green female inhabitant.
More recently, climate fiction — or “cli-fi” — has gone mainstream, with novels such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour and The Deluge by Stephen Markley exploring the causes and consequences of climate change.
Robinson’s first hit novels Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars, published between 1992 and 1996, surfed on “red planet fever”, which gripped space enthusiasts after US rovers revealed Mars to be slightly more hospitable to life than previously thought. These books were already distinctly ecological in theme. The Martian atmosphere is thin, poisonous and rich in carbon dioxide, so his first characters devote most of their energy to removing CO₂ from the atmosphere in a bid to “terraform” the planet and make it liveable.
The Millèn, Marriott Hotel
Weena 686, 3012 CN Rotterdam, Netherlands
Salad of lettuce hearts vichyssoise, potato, mustard €17
Langoustine with beetroot, hibiscus, Pierre Robert cheese, buckwheat and crustacean jelly €30
Turbot prepared on the bone, with white bean, kohlrabi, anchovy and hollandaise €46
Farmer’s pigeon, hachée of pigeon leg, pumpkin, sea buckthorn, ras el hanout, pigeon jus €48
Bottle of water (x2) €9
Glass of Sauvignon Blanc (x2) €13
Coffee with madeleines and chocolates (x2) €17
Digging into my langoustine starter, which involves beetroot and a strong French cheese, I ask whether these books drew the attention of space junkie Elon Musk. He and Robinson met at a dinner held in 2001 by members of the non-profit Mars Society, which advocates for human exploration of the planet. “He was like a big puppy. He was enthusiastic, he was interesting, he was smart, and he had a lot of money. He was thinking about the Mars Society, but he saw instantly that this was like a treehouse club and not worth it, that he could do better on his own.”
Robinson no longer thinks space travel should be a priority for humanity. Musk’s SpaceX, in contrast, aims to build a rocket that can reach Mars, and dominates the market for launching satellites into space. “I don’t trust his judgment, he’s smart but volatile,” Robinson says, though he concedes that SpaceX has built “a damn good rocket”.
These days Robinson gets excited by less flashy technologies. “Disrupt, innovate, entrepreneur: these are all buzzwords out of a failed political economy that has wrecked things,” he says. “I would rather go to hell than be called an innovator.”
Among his relatively low-tech obsessions are lightweight ships equipped with solar panels and hydrofoils to propel them forward, which pop up regularly in his books. In his 2017 cli-fi novel New York 2140, they are used to navigate a city that is mostly underwater, as well as for global trade, whose centre of gravity gradually shifts from west to east to make the most of the air currents created by the jet stream.
He sees these technologies as having real-life applications. But he says that when he met an executive of the Danish shipping line AP Møller-Maersk at a conference in 2021, they shot down his idea that the company could start switching out its giant container ships for sailing boats. “It requires a post-capitalist view of things where time is not of the essence,” Robinson says. “They [the bosses] have got their quarterly statements, they’ve got their shareholder value. If they got too radical, they’d be replaced.”
Scientists and politicians, not businesspeople, are the heroes of Robinson’s books. He claims that The Ministry for the Future gave a much broader platform to the concept of the fatal heat stress known as “wet bulb temperature” — a way of saying that “if things get hot and humid enough, humans will die automatically”. While the theoretical limit to human tolerance for heat and humidity was already known, in part thanks to a 2010 paper, policymakers had not properly thought through its consequences as a result of climate change. “Ministry is like the first mass-market, general cultural publication of this idea that is quite obvious.”
Robinson says science fiction is more of a “modelling exercise” than a “prediction”, serving to draw public attention to under-discussed scientific theories. “You tell the story in an attempt to forestall it by informing people in advance.”
His next novel is likely to be set in the Arctic, where scientists are debating controversial ideas for manipulating the climate in a bid to stop the region’s self-fulfilling feedback loop of ice melt and warming waters. The techniques, which could be implemented in polar regions and elsewhere, range from injecting aerosols into the atmosphere to underwater curtains that shield glaciers from warm water, or seeding massive algae blooms that can sink carbon to the seafloor.
Some of these suggestions have alarmed certain groups of scientists who see hubris and the potential for distraction where Robinson sees noble desperation. “I see immense resistance to geoengineering that is ignorant and reflexive and comes out of a moral calculus of, like, 1990,” he says. The moral hazard associated with continuing to burn fossil fuels because of the existence of an escape clause is “not relevant”, he adds. “We know we have to decarbonise. We know we’re not. It’s desperate.”
“Watch out for bullets,” a waiter warns Robinson, as he places bright red slices of seared wild pigeon on the table in front of him. I’m given a less exciting plate of turbot with a white bean purée.
Robinson tells me he has been invited to meetings about the future with central bankers and defence department officials, as well as associations of hedge fund managers, although he can’t share their names. “They don’t want to shake the confidence of the world by telling [everyone] that they’ve been consulting with a crazy science-fiction writer . . . They thought it might shake the stock markets.”
His key message is that “in a practical sense . . . if the world fails, business fails.” Insurers, for example, could find it impossible to hike premiums enough to finance the global cost of payouts linked to natural disasters and rising temperatures. “The backstop [provided by the insurance sector to the world] will fail,” is what Robinson told staff at Swiss Re, one of the world’s biggest providers of cover for insurance groups.
Perhaps because of his desire to engage with change-makers in the real world, business leaders sometimes confuse him for a futurist, which he describes as “a bullshit industry” and “a scam”. Science fiction is more subtle, he says. “It really is trying to speculate about futures that might happen. But it’s also a metaphor for how things are now.”
I wonder whether policymakers and economists seek him out to discuss his broad vision of an interventionist socialist state successfully tackling the climate crisis, or for his specific policy ideas, which are wild and numerous, and which he admits can sometimes be “flat wrong”.
In Geneva last month he discussed the need for a global carbon price with the director-general of the World Trade Organization, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, to stop high-polluting activities from leaking to countries where taxes on emissions are low. He also received feedback in Paris from leftwing economist Thomas Piketty, who told him he had not made enough of the role of taxation on high-polluting goods in his most recent books.
His 2020 novel features a secretive militia that sabotages highly polluting ships and planes, and assassinates the executives of top fossil fuel companies. In real life, Robinson has told leaders of the protest movement Extinction Rebellion that they should try to stay out of jail and stop disturbing everyday people’s lives. “As direct action goes, I don’t like lying on freeways. I do like glueing yourself to a bank because it’s the bankers who are harassed by that,” he says.
Robinson advocates targeted non-violent protest, which could mean anything from showing up for debates at local council meetings to slashing tyres of the most highly polluting SUVs. “If you have a big honking car in London, its tyres should be flat every time you come back out to it [so that] you [have to] get yourself a little Mini,” he says.
The waiter brings us a platter of madeleines and chocolates, and we order a cup of coffee each, as the mid-afternoon light starts to draw in.
I speculate that Robinson is good at utopia-building in part because he is lucky enough to live in his own miniature idealised world, an ecological community on the outskirts of Davis, California. It’s a kind of “heaven”, where houses are powered using solar energy and the streets are lined with fruit trees that in autumn are heavy with jujubes, persimmons and pomegranates.
He estimates that he has also spent a total of two years of his life camping in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, whose raw otherworldly beauty is the subject of his latest published book, 2022’s non-fiction The High Sierra: A Love Story. Robinson’s female characters, who usually play a leading role, are all “somewhat derivative of my wife,” Lisa Nowell, a chemist specialising in environmental toxicology.
Light relief comes in the form of daily frisbee golf, a “hippy sport” that works exactly how it sounds. He is learning to make mozzarella, and grows broad beans on the community’s land, which fertilises the soil without needing pesticides. Robinson has even managed to make writing novels an outdoorsy job, working from his yard through the winter, keeping out the cold and rain with a tarp overhead and head-to-toe hiking gear.
One small thing is irking me amid all this positivity: my lunch date’s choice of pigeon from earlier on. Why isn’t he vegetarian? I put this question as we are ushered out so that the restaurant can prepare for dinner. Before Robinson insisted that it would be easiest to meet at his hotel, I had phoned up every vegan café in Rotterdam, assuming this was part of the basic due diligence required to meet a climate guru. Beef is a no-no, for sure, because of the methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and deforestation, that are both linked to cattle farming. Pork, however, is “quite delicious”, he adds with a smile. “It’s a mistake to think purity is the solution.”
Kenza Bryan is a climate reporter for the Financial Times in London