June 30, 2002
Planning Ahead

In last week's Spectator, Andrew Kenny observed that human efforts at global warming may be the only thing delaying the advent of an overdue Ice Age:

Of course, the ultimate irony might be that the increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are warding off the ice age. In this case, we should give tax relief to coal power stations and factories for every ton of carbon dioxide they release.

(Link via Daleynews, whose permalink doesn't seem to be working at the moment.)

I would take Kenny's argument two steps further:

1. It seems likely that technological advances will make wholesale use of fossil fuels superfluous some time in the next century or two. Nevertheless, we had better preserve our capacity to commit global warming on a large scale, so as to be ready for the next Ice Age. Padlock the fossil-fuel power plants, but don't tear them down. Cap the oil wells and plug the coal mines, but keep the locations on file. Mothball the equipment, but do not recycle it. Better safe than sorry.

2. There are some hopeful signs that nuclear proliferation is not irreversible. If the apartheid regime of South Africa could give up its nuclear deterrent, it obviously doesn't take extreme levels of virtue or trustworthiness -- just a lack of any plausible enemy to deter. The Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan are also postnuclear powers, though they had not become nuclear powers by their own efforts, which must have made it easier to give up the dubious honor. At the moment there are more, and more dangerous, countries trying to join the nuclear club than allowing their memberships to lapse, but that could easily change.

To get to my point, even in the paradisal world some of us still hope to see achieved in this century, we had better preserve some weapons of mass destruction. If every country were as peaceful and non-threatening as Denmark or Costa Rica today, even the major powers would be tempted to dismantle all their nuclear weapons and the missiles that deliver them. It would be a pity if such a delightful civilization were to be wiped out by a wandering asteroid or comet, particularly if it arrived with plenty of advance warning and a few well-aimed nuclear-tipped missiles would have sufficed to divert it.

I have a feeling that some science-fiction writer has already written up one or both of these scenarios. If so, I would appreciate knowing the author(s) and title(s). If not, I trust the first one to do so will send me 10% of the royalties.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at June 30, 2002 12:49 AM

The idea of a time of peace, disarmament and then great need isn't orriginal. Although one about nuclear weapons would be recent, i suspect the origianl story dates back to greece or earlier. (Early versions have invasion as the need not natural disaster).

Posted by: Andrew Rettek on June 30, 2002 03:10 PM

Fossil fuels would be a pretty inefficient way of stopping an ice age (I suspect). There are other gases that deliver more "warming" for the same quantity of gas (e.g. methane) that would probably be easier to reproduce.

Posted by: Ben Sheriff on June 30, 2002 05:04 PM

Scenario 1 has been done in 'Fallen Angels' by Niven, Pournelle and Minchael Flynn- an amusing tribute to SF fans.

Posted by: James Wolf on June 30, 2002 10:24 PM

Scenario 2, with a cure for it (and an amazingly good book considering it's not by a known author -- and I found it in an airport).
Firestar by Michael Flynn ISBN 0-812-53006-3 (just in case anyone's interested)

Posted by: Kat on July 2, 2002 08:27 PM

Alderaan in Star Wars, of course!

Posted by: Robert Bauer on July 6, 2002 03:03 PM