We were very fortunate to hear from Scottish author Peter Romilly, who wrote 500 Parts Per Million, a title we recently listed here. His sequel Cli-Fidelity will be published soon. Peter was an economics teacher and researcher for many years, but now writes novels. His fiction focuses on one of his biggest concerns: climate change. Having authors become a part of the Cli-Fi Books project adds extraordinary depth to the site, and we invite all authors to participate.
1. You remember the sixties! Do you think that youth back then were more proactive about changing the world than they are now? Have you seen any movement among youth in the UK regarding raising awareness about climate change?
The sixties was a unique period – rising living standards, rapidly changing social attitudes, mostly for the better, and the music wasn’t bad either. There was a definite buzz amongst young people that the world could and should be changed. Environmental groups like Greenpeace emerged to raise public awareness, and they received serious media coverage.
Fast forward nearly fifty years and what have we got? America and Europe are still mired in a long term recession created by the biggest financial crash since the 1920s, with unemployment and job insecurity rife. It’s hardly surprising that young people who can’t see any way to get a foot on the jobs and housing ladder are more worried about their own problems rather than what’s happening in the wider world.
And big business, especially the fossil fuel lobby, has become adept at spreading misinformation and sidelining green issues. Chunks of the media are controlled by pro business, global warming sceptics like Rupert Murdoch, so it’s much harder for campaign groups to get their message out and mobilise support.
If I can point to a specific example, I live near Dundee in Scotland. Years ago the local Greenpeace group was thriving, now it’s teetering on the brink. In spite of the fact there are two universities and lots of young people in the city, few of them come along and support green campaigns. As far as the UK generally is concerned, I don’t see much sign of any youth movement to raise awareness of global warming, so it’s a very worrying state of affairs.
2. You mention reduce, recycle, reuse. Another R word I’ve seen in this system is “refuse”, which goes along with reducing. What do you feel are some items we should refuse to buy/consume that contribute heavily to climate change?
I don’t buy in to the consumerist society, so I refuse to buy new for the sake of it and always try to repair things if they break or wear out. My car is over twenty years old, so are my work boots, and I refuse to drive my car if I can cycle, take the bus or train, or walk. I’m involved with a project called Skillshare, which organises workshops and teaches people reuse and upcycling skills that have been largely forgotten, like how to repair bikes and garden tools, and how to use a sewing machine. I wear clothes handed up to me by my sons. I refuse the plastic bags routinely offered in shops and supermarkets and use ones I’ve had for years, literally.
I refuse bottled water when there’s nothing wrong with the tap water. I once picked up a plastic bottle in a supermarket in Dundee and discovered its water had been sourced in Fiji, an island off the coast of Australia. Imagine the amount of CO2 emitted in its transport to Scotland, a country hardly lacking in the rainy stuff, not to mention all that plastic. A particular gripe of mine is gadgets. A friend gave us an electric pepper grinder which lights up. It uses four batteries. You press a button on the top and it whirrs away, saving you all that heavy manual work of twisting a little handle. Progress is a wonderful thing.
I refuse to eat meat because of its impact on land use, especially the destruction of forests to graze cattle. I believe it takes about eight pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat, which is an incredibly inefficient use of our scarce resources.
In case you’re getting the impression from all this that I live in a cave and walk around in rags, then I have to point out that I live an enjoyable life, eat and drink well, and don’t look too bad fashion-wise, considering my age.
3. It sounds like you have a background that many climate fiction novelists do not have, with your economics teaching and crunching numbers. For 500 PPM, did you develop any tools that use your data in a creative way that would appeal to readers of fiction?
I’ve used econometric techniques like ‘generalised autoregressive conditional heteroscedasticity’ in my academic work on global warming, but as you can imagine it’s difficult to weave something like that into a work of fiction. I must confess, however, that I did slip the term in very briefly in my sequel novel Cli-Fidelity, just for the hell of it.
But it was my research on global warming that gave me the ideas for 500 Parts Per Million. I like to think that the themes in it aren’t fantastical but are based on sound science. I was particularly influenced by the Stern Report for the UK Treasury, although it’s not so well known in the US and Canada.
4. How did you come about choosing the 500 PPM of CO2 for your title? How would you compare life in the past with that amount of carbon dioxide to a climate crisis in an industrial age with that amount of carbon dioxide?
CO2 is already hovering around the 400 PPM mark in 2013, and 500 PPM seems to me to be a natural extrapolation of the actual CO2 data up to the year 2050, which is when my novel is set. I also thought it would make a good title, slightly esoteric, appealing to people wanting to know more about it.
I don’t think comparing life millions of years ago when there were high CO2 concentrations to what’s happening today is particularly useful, although some people like to do it, especially if they’re trying to play down our current problem of global warming. We’re all aware that the climate lurched chaotically from one extreme to another millions of years back. The key difference is that today we’re fortunate to live in a climate which has settled into relative stability, or to use an economics term, there is ‘equilibrium’ in the system. But it’s a very finely balanced equilibrium, which is why any temperature increases, however small, could throw the whole system back into chaos.
5. Finally, it seems that you, like other cli-fi authors, want people to start talking about climate change and hope that fiction might do a better job at inspiring people to start caring about the issue (compared to nonfiction). It seems that this is a common goal among novelists. Have you seen any reaction yet to your own book that would show people are starting to think more seriously about it?
You’re absolutely right. My main reason for turning away from academic papers to fiction is the hope that I might persuade readers to start thinking and caring more about global warming. There are countless scientific studies on the issue, and a scientific consensus that the problem is real and very serious, but that message doesn’t seem to get through at a basic level. The 5th IPCC Report was published recently, confirming the message, but apart from a burst of publicity on its launch day it seems to have had little effect on policy. The UK environment minister even tried to put a positive spin on it by saying that its forecasts weren’t quite as awful as he feared, and that we shouldn’t worry too much about the threat because we can respond to it by growing our crops further north. And this is the UK environment minister!
In addition to writing cli-fi, I blog once a week on my website at www.peterromilly.com where I like to rant about some of the issues we all face, particularly global warming.
I’m not aware of any reaction to 500 PPM that would give me much cause for optimism about our warming world. Sales have been disappointing, although the feedback I’ve had on it has been good in terms of its value as a work of fiction per se. I’m hoping that the sequel will have a bigger impact, but I do wonder if the general reading public prefer to play safe with the usual fiction categories like crime, romance, historical and sci-fi, rather than facing up to the uncomfortable messages of cli-fi. I’d be interested to know about the experiences of other cli-fi writers in this regard.
I don’t like admitting it, but overall I’m not optimistic about the course our planet is taking. Rich developed countries might be able to find ways to adapt to global warming, albeit at a lower living standard, but if you live in a hot, poor country you’re facing huge problems. Economic migration from the developing to the developed world could become an even bigger issue than it is now if there are ongoing crop failures and food shortages. And of course, there’s a generational injustice issue here, namely that our younger generation, who’ve done least to cause global warming, will be the one which suffers most from it.
Having said all that, I do have hope that our younger generation will do better than mine, and that it will eventually succeed in pulling us back from the brink, but it will be a difficult and fraught process in a very different world. If you want to know more, you’ll have to buy 500 PPM!
Thanks so much, Peter!