Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
April 2017

Saving the World for Six Cents a Word

“From a tax perspective,
corporations are like the dragon in a Chinese New Year’s parade:
there really is no dragon, just people underneath playing one.”
-Ted Halstead, Unlocking the Climate Puzzle

Science fiction is a community with different narrative approaches. There's the escapist strain, with the best having some social commentary or satire thrown in. There's the philosophical strain, where we debate the eternal questions of right and wrong, and how new technologies create endlessly new versions of the same ethical dilemmas. There's the futurist strain, where we run social simulations of wildly varying scope and sophistication, asking over and over again: What if we did this?

At least one group in Washington has recently called for more of the futurist kind of SF, focusing on specific policy questions as a way of cracking open gridlock and getting some new ideas into the debate. I'll take that a step further this month, seeing as how it's Earth Day, and point out one very specific policy proposal that could benefit from extensive discussion in the SF sphere.

There are examples of SF authors being involved in policy at a surprisingly high level. According to this interview with Karl Schroeder, the Canadian military has been working with writers off and on for a hundred years. Arthur C. Clarke had a long-term relationship with NASA and apparently everyone else, too. Isaac Asimov told DARPA how to be creative. There’s a current group called SIGMA, involving about forty of SF’s heavier hitters. And Ted Halstead's New America think tank sponsored the Heiroglyph anthology, as well as a column in Slate and an ongoing series of Washington events with techies and policy wonks.

Interestingly, Halstead is also the main driver behind the Climate Leadership Council, which this winter released a series of three position papers, including The Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends, a four-page argument for a specific set of four interlinked policies to respond to climate change:

  1. A gradually increasing carbon tax, starting at $40 per ton, applied at the point of extraction, meaning that only the oil driller or the coal company pays it, and everybody else just deals with higher energy or feedstock prices. If gasoline costs more, the theory goes, people will use it more carefully. Studies support this, generally.

  2. Carbon dividends to individuals and households, kind of like what the state of Alaska does with oil drilling revenues, except that ALL of the money collected would go back to the people to offset the higher prices, encouraging those individuals to conserve energy and profit from the dividend. The dividends would also increase over time with the tax.

  3. Border Carbon Adjustments, meaning that exporters to countries without similar regulations would have their carbon taxes refunded (reducing the dividend pool) and importers would have their carbon taxes increased. The idea is to punish countries that try to undermine the carbon tax through lower prices.

  4. Significant Regulatory Feedback, by which they mean weakening the EPA's authority over carbon as a pollutant and throwing out Obama's Clean Power Plan. This is the red meat to get conservatives and libertarians on board.

The rest of the four pages consists of fluffy storytelling about What Would Happen if we implemented this policy package. There's some nuance about why all four pieces are necessary, about weaknesses that would result from leaving out one piece or another, but the authors—mostly academic economists and former Cabinet members—are very careful to stay on message. At one point in the press conference, James Baker did say that it would be “an uphill slog” to get it passed, but the document has no written discussion of the lobbyists who would actually write this legislation, of the loopholes that would inevitably be inserted, of the likelihood of carbon companies cheating on their emissions tests, of “accidental releases,” or of the drama and misinformation that would play out in the press as the carbon emitters pushed back. Not to mention the effects on emerging nanoscale technologies made of carbon. A good novel could do all of those things in a responsible and entertaining way. Sage Walker even made machinations about the krill harvest interesting.

I should also point out that the evidence-based arguments (the red meat for SF authors) are split into two other documents. Unlocking the Climate Puzzle lays out the psychological research on behavioral economics and the previous experiments on carbon pricing by various governments, the most successful of which was British Columbia’s carbon dividends program. A Winning Trade summarizes three attempts to estimate the relative emissions reductions of different programs. The four-page A Conservative Case, however, is essentially an argument from authority.

I ragged on politicians for their unscientific and undemocratic habits in November, and this month I find myself doing it again. I really don't want to go off on a rant here. Note especially that I am not knocking the policy recommendations themselves. I personally really like the first three, and I can at least entertain the possibility of the fourth. I also recognize that the CLC are at the earliest stages of their public campaign, and that the members of Congress they most want to convince are not scientists and don't necessarily care about scientific evidence. I totally understand the importance of rhetoric.

What I want to recommend is that policy people such as CLC (or CCL, the Citizens' Climate Lobby, who came up with the idea first; or LCC, which I just made up) put some resources into engaging the broader world through SF, to provide some of the demographic and ideological diversity that their movement will need to reach people in a twenty-first century social media ecosystem. Otherwise, it’s going to be just a bunch of old white guys talking to themselves on C-SPAN. Authors (like some politicians) are experts at illustrating the effects of broad social policies at the personal level through emotionally evocative examples. There's already a growing sub-genre of SF called cli-fi, although it seems more about the dystopian effects of global warming than about solutions, whether geoengineering or financial and political solutions like carbon dividends.

A major difference between politicians and SF authors is that authors work cheap! SFWA rates for professional level magazine stories are still only six cents a word. That's crazy value for a funder, as long as the funder's goal is to enable honest discussion and not to shape that discussion to have a particular outcome. SF authors tend to be non-conformists.

Authors, I hope this doesn't sound too dirty and entrepreneurial. Most of us have to rely on patronage of one form or another. The Internet has enabled a bunch of new forms, but here's an old one, a classic: Find someone with money who wants a message spread, and get paid to spread it.

Randall Hayes, PhD, is one of the 42% of Americans who identifies with neither dominant political party.

If you happen to be within driving distance, Greensboro Science Cafe will be debating the merits of the CCL and CLC carbon dividends proposals—both pros and cons—with a panel of local experts at 7 p.m. on April 27, 2017, at Gibbs' Hundred Brewing on West Lewis Street. If there’s interest, we might even do a webcast. Leave a message at the PlotBot Facebook page.




You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”






In addition to this really smart blog, this site has some discussions of the policy world and recommendations for places where readers can find (or writers can sell) policy-relevant SF.


The story he did for the Canucks, “Crisis in Zefra,” is available for free through this link.


Clarke congratulating NASA for the Cassini flyby of Saturn. Good job, NASA!


Eighty-seven cubic feet seems like a lot of letters to me.



SIGMA is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the understanding of the future and the long-term consequences of government actions. As the future is the common ground for science fiction writers, so SIGMA is willing to share its knowledge of this unknown territory for the good of the nation.”






An international research and advocacy organization whose mission is to mobilize global opinion leaders around the most effective, popular and equitable climate solutions.”


Especially the 2013 paper by Burke & Nishitateno and the public transit paper by Smart (2014). Though there are suggestions of other good effects, too, on physical activity, etc.





In the case of VW, transparency was the enemy: regulators should have been vaguer about the emissions test to prevent cheating.”


Drama at a shareholders’ meeting! Where else you gonna find that?

Mayer, Jane. 2017. Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. Anchor Books, New York.

Get it at your library, or start with the first chapter free at www.jane-mayer.com


My ancestral home is near coal country, and as much as I hate the environmental damage done by the mining industry, I don't see it going away permanently. Those space elevators are going to be made of something, and it may well be coal or asphalt (scroll down for related articles).





A competing lefty plan for the same general solution package, but leaving out the regulatory red meat and including the blue-tofu population control version, with a cap on the number of kids per family (two) who can receive the carbon dividends. The group behind this has grassroots chapters around the US, and their site has a lot more background information. They've been working on this since 2007, at least.


Seriously. Scan the crowd starting at 28:56.


Lakoff is right about many things, and I wish more people would use his insights in their fiction.

If you’re a conservative going into politics, there’s a good chance you’ll study cognitive science, that is, how people really think and how to market things by advertising.”

As opposed to studying Descartes’s Enlightenment reasoning, which—if you go all the way back to column 1—has been fundamentally wrong for 350 years.


Nobody did this better than The West Wing, except for The Wire. And don’t tell me WW is not SF. Those people got stuff done.


The West Wing also inspired or at least reinforced personal decisions, up to the level of career choices. Storytelling matters.



The Cli-Fi Report (CFR) is a research tool for academics and media professionals to use in gathering information and reporting on the rise of the emerging cli-fi term worldwide.”

Blame Dan Bloom for the punny name.


My head exploded multiple times trying to come up with interesting novels about this stuff,” Robinson said. Lots more good stuff on this site, including a geoengineering cheat sheet.


Mammoths are not just cool; they might be cooling, as in slowing the cataclysmic thawing of the Arctic permafrost by knocking down trees in favor of faster-growing grasses that store carbon in the soil. Includes a video.



Edited by Neil Clarke, not the ghost of Arthur C., as I had always kind of assumed.




Read more by Randall Hayes

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