What made the 21st century?
You could say that it was the Century of the Mind, given our new understanding of the human brain and the blossoming of AI. You could say it was the Century of Equality, thanks to the great strides made against sexism, racism, and income inequality. Or perhaps you could say it was the Century of the New Frontier, with the explosion of intelligence across the solar system.
But human-created climate change may trump them all. It scarred Earth in a way that will still be seen millions of years into the future, our most wretched legacy to our descendants. Even with our very best mitigation and geoengineering efforts, even with diligent and optimistic de-extinction programmes such as the 500 Project, we will never be able to restore all of the thousands of extinct species and ruined ecosystems to what they once were. And what of our inheritance? We will never rescue Venice from the waters or see the doomed Siachen Glacier Park again.
I've made the trip to Denver, Colorado to visit the National Ice Core Laboratory. It's a chilly -25C in their examination room, so I've had to change into a rather uncomfortable heatsuit, but it's a small price to pay in order to see an ice core taken from kilometres inside a glacier in Greenland. This core is a metre long, and if you look closely — even without deepsight — you can see the distinctive strata of clear and cloudy bands, a result of the gas bubbles in each layer.
The miniature atmospheres trapped within each bubble tell us what our world was like millennia ago — and they show that the world now is very different to how it has been for the past several hundred thousand years. In the late 2050s, we had carbon dioxide concentrations of around 480 parts per million. That may seem low compared to the 500-plus that we have today, but the rapid rise from a mere 350 ppm in 1950 caused an increase in surface temperature of almost 2C in the space of a century — all the result of breakneck industrialisation.
And the consequence? Rapidly changing climates. No place or person on the planet was left untouched — there was increased desertification in Africa and China and newly fertile land in the high latitudes; more extreme weather and stronger hurricanes; and most terribly and most memorably, the Flotillas.
By the mid-century, the sea level had risen by more than 20 centimetres compared to 50 years previously, a rise just about manageable for rich countries such as the UK and Netherlands, but more than enough to cause regular, devastating inundations in coastal areas such as the Ganges Delta and the Mississippi Alluvial Plain. Many placed their hopes in geoengineering projects such as the stratospheric sulphur aerosols, ocean iron fertilisation, industrial carbon capture programmes, and the sunshade project. All of the projects attempted to reduce surface temperatures, and some succeeded — but not rapidly enough, and not without considerable side-effects.
This hope of a technological solution to climate change meant that even continuous disasters — such as Hurricane Nestor, a category-3 storm that devastated New York in 2055, leaving much of Southern Brooklyn and Queens, and Lower Manhattan under water and uninhabitable for months — did not wake people up to the precariousness of the situation. Most had an ignorant or misguided faith that salvation would come, that life would not have to change too much before things got better. "We geo-engineered our way into this mess, we'll geo-engineer our way out again," some would say.
Things didn't get any better. They didn't even stay the same. They got a lot worse.
In July of 2058, the Canadian Space Agency issued a warning for a 'super-extreme melt event' affecting Greenland's ice sheet; unfortunately, this event coincided with an unusually strong ridge of warm air. Observers had been concerned that Greenland ice had been becoming more 'sensitive' to rises in air temperature for some time, and indeed the 2058 melt event triggered a vast glacial melt-water runoff. Global sea levels rose by an extraordinary 45 centimetres in less than a year. It became known as the Rise.
Many people today remember 2058 well. The lucky ones will remember friends and relatives from coastal areas abruptly visiting for just a few days, then a few weeks, then a few months, with continually fraying tempers. Others will have watched the desperate, occasionally successful, but usually futile efforts of hundreds of millions of drones and humans literally trying to turn back the tide with hastily constructed coastal defences.
But we all saw the Flotillas, the hundreds of thousands of boats and ships that evacuated the slow and the incapacitated from a thousand cities around the world, an ad-hoc massively-distributed rescue operation that briefly rivalled the Second World War in its scale and share of the world economy. For six months, fully 21 percent of the global economy was dedicated to Flotilla-led disaster relief.
The relief didn’t come about with the co-operation of the powerful, though. On the contrary, people 'on the ground' made a billion individual decisions to cede hoarded resources and authority to the loose networks of AIs, amplified teams, and humans that controlled the Flotillas. Using software developed in advance by reinsurance companies such as Munich Re and General Re, the Flotillas co-ordinated everything from the movements of paramedic drones to the delivery of food and medicine to stricken areas. In South Florida alone, they averted the meltdown of the Turkey Point nuclear power station, saving thousands of lives and protecting the Everglades National Maritime Sanctuary.
All told, tens of millions more lives were saved than the projections from the beginning of the crisis predicted, thanks to the rescue Flotillas. Yet despite their comparative organisational wizardry, they could not contend with the essentially unstoppable and irreversible global effects of the rise in sea levels.
Once the most acute effects of the Rise had passed, the Flotillas gradually dissolved into their thousands of constituent units. The world shifted to a new phase of extended crisis, throwing power and resources into rebuilding a more resilient, decentralised, multiply-redundant society. No-one wanted rescuing again. No-one wanted to be at the mercy of the climate any longer.