Written by Gerard Madden and first published at Rupture
Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest climate fiction novel, The Ministry for the Future, opens with a punch to the reader’s stomach. It is 2025, and northern India is struck by a mass casualty heatwave extending from Gujarat to Bengal with ‘wet bulb’ temperatures in excess of 35C, which humans cannot survive for more than a few hours.
We see events through the panicked eyes of Frank May, a 22-year-old American aid worker in a town in Uttar Pradesh, who ineffectively tries to respond to the humanitarian catastrophe around him as corpses pile up in the streets. Appealing to his headquarters in Delhi for urgent help, Frank finds them completely overwhelmed. With help not arriving, he invites as many locals as he can to his air-conditioned clinic, but its generator is stolen at gunpoint by raiders, one of whom pointedly tells the American, ‘you did this’.
Frank urges those taking refuge to shelter in a nearby lake, but this proves futile as the lake itself is too hot to cool anyone, and he is the lone survivor when help eventually arrives. The heatwave kills twenty million people in just one week.
The most terrifying aspect of this opening scene is that everything Robinson describes is consistent with current scholarly predictions of what will unfold if carbon emissions continue on their present trajectory. A 2017 study warned that ‘extremes of wet-bulb temperature in South Asia are likely to approach and, in a few locations, exceed this critical threshold [of a wet-bulb temperature of 35°C] by the late 21st century under the business-as-usual scenario of future greenhouse gas emissions’.
The Ganges and Indus River basins are described as most at risk. It is no surprise then that Robinson portrays India, rather than the West, as the global centre of resistance to climate catastrophe. As support for the BJP and Congress plummets, a new governing socialist coalition takes power; it geoengineers the cooling effect of a volcanic eruption by releasing sulphur dioxide into the skies, nationalises energy, decommissions coal plants and installs solar arrays across the entire sub-continent.
Nor will mass casualty heatwaves be confined to south Asia, and the novel describes one extending from Arizona to the Florida panhandle killing between two to three hundred thousand people in a single day. The heatwave’s political impact is blunted by the fact most of the victims are poor people of colour.
Robinson’s novel here reflects the current climate racism in the United States and Canada (see ‘Environmental racism & the climate crisis’ in this issue). The July heatwave in Western North America this year disproportionately killed working class people, people of colour and the elderly, paralleling Covid-19. In Oregon alone, two-thirds of heatwave fatalities were people of colour.
Given science fiction has long produced radical visions of how society can be reshaped, it is appropriate that a science fiction novel should be among the most important recent books on the climate emergency. Much of Robinson’s work, such as 2312 and New York 2140, deals with the future impact of the climate crisis, and he is probably the current leading exponent of the ecosocialist strand of science fiction pioneered by authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler and Marge Piercy.
Robinson has acknowledged the influence of Le Guin, his former teacher whose central works such as The Dispossessed outlined alternatives to capitalism. While Le Guin’s ‘ambiguous’ eco-utopia outlined in the novel takes place on the fictional anarchist world of Annares, Robinson frequently sets his books in the relatively prosaic setting of Earth in the near future and explores the worsening climate crisis directly.
The novel follows both Frank and Mary Murphy, the Irish head of the eponymous Ministry for the Future with whom Frank’s life intersects. The Zurich-based international agency is established in 2025 under the Paris Agreement to defend ‘all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves’. Robinson formerly lived in Zurich, and the book is filled with affectionate depictions of the resting place of James Joyce and its people, alongside withering descriptions of Swiss history and politics. In one chapter,
Murphy curtly reminds Switzerland’s federal council of the country’s wrongdoings and obligation to atone for its shameful past – ‘the Nazi gold, the Jewish gold, the tax havens for oligarchs and kleptocrats, the secret bank accounts for criminals of all kinds’ – and the novel contrasts the devastation of the climate crisis caused in India with the initially slow response in the West.
Given the wholly inadequate response of governments here to the climate emergency over the last decade, it is slightly amusing to an Irish reader that Murphy, an Irishwoman and fictional former Minister for Foreign Affairs, leads the agency spearheading the international response to the climate crisis. Appointed primarily as a conduit between the Ministry and the international corridors of power, a fraught encounter between Mary and Frank makes her more open to radical solutions, and she remains silent when her right-hand man from India, Badim, reveals he runs a black ops wing of the Ministry engaging in violent sabotage without her knowledge.
Other characters, from the Ministry’s legal expert Tatiana to its non-binary IT expert Janus Athena, bring Mary ideas which begin to inform the global response. Robinson’s novel portrays women as leading the global response to the climate crisis, and references how real-life women such as the Indian ecofeminist Vandana Shiva are responding to climate catastrophe, reflecting the importance of women at the vanguard of ecological movements across the global south.
Alongside these plot threads in Zurich, short chapters describing the unfolding horrors of the climate crisis, ranging from third-person descriptions to accounts by often unnamed first-person characters and even inanimate objects such as a photon, are interspersed throughout the novel. An unspecified city runs out of water after twelve years of continuous drought, and residents learn to use any water brought into the city for cooking and filter their urine into potable water.
The Los Angeles basin is flooded, forcing residents to travel around the city on boats and kayaks, and infrastructural damage means the entire city has to be replaced. Several chapters from Antarctica relate the devastating loss of ice cover on the continent and the trial-and-error efforts of scientists there to mitigate it and stabilise sea levels; they eventually succeed in doing so by pumping out groundwater under enormous glaciers.
Alongside this, the book details the growing resistance to the climate criminals responsible for the horrors emerging worldwide. Paraphrasing Trotsky’s thesis in The History of the Russian Revolution that the party is always trying to keep up with the masses, a French student recounts their experience taking part in a popular uprising in Paris which briefly establishes a commune in the city but is suppressed.
A series of spontaneous worldwide strikes bring major world cities to a standstill. In a grimly comic chapter, climate activists kidnap wealthy attendees at the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland and compel them to watch footage of the climate crimes they have perpetuated. The political, business and celebrity elites in attendance are unmoved, apart from petulant irritation at the inconvenience of it all. The chapter’s narrator, a Davos participant, tells the reader: ‘So, effect of this event on the real world: zero! So fuck you!’
Out of the mass deaths of the Indian heatwave emerges a network of climate militants, the Children of Kali, which blow up the infrastructure causing climate disaster and kill the individuals who own them. While they are initially scrupulous in taking care to avoid civilian casualties, groups using the name internationally become much less discerning as the climate crisis worsens during the 2030s.
On ‘Crash Day’, sixty global commercial flights are destroyed using thousands of drones which assemble into a missile seconds before impact. Container ships using diesel fuel are targeted and drones introduce mad cow disease to cattle populations on a mass scale. Even the US Navy is impotent in the face of the new drone weapons.
This will remind many readers of the ecosocialist author Andreas Malm’s How To Blow Up a Pipeline, which argues that sabotage of fossil fuel infrastructure is justified to keep global warming below disastrous levels, and Malm himself describes Robinson’s book as ‘the most important book on climate politics since Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything’.
His argument is controversial among climate activists, critics asserting he does not consider the threat of the state’s oppressive apparatus and the role of violence in repelling people from mass movements. In Robinson’s world at least, it proves effective - by going to extremes that Malm himself would not countenance.
Carbon emissions tumble as ‘Crash Day’ leads airships to replace airlines, while mass mad cow disease outbreaks lead consumption of beef and milk to plummet. The objections to Malm are applicable to Robinson here as well – would an event like ‘Crash Day’, with numerous civilian casualties, not instead repulse people internationally from the climate movement.
This violence – which, it is implied, is more than helped by Badim’s black ops unit – in Robinson’s narrative helps to accelerate the political changes the Ministry is pushing. Chief among these is Janus Athena’s concept of a ‘carbon coin’, a digital currency backed by hundred-year bonds underwritten by the world’s key central banks.
The ‘carbon coins’ are dispersed on proof that production is being shifted away from hydrocarbons, and are the focus of the second part of the book. Murphy’s attempts to convince central banks to support it are brusquely dismissed by their heads, who, Murphy morosely reflects, are the unelected and unaccountable leaders of the global economy.
Such is the resistance to the Ministry’s proposals on this and other matters that it is attacked with the same drone weapons used on Crash Day and key members of the Ministry are targeted for assassination. It ultimately sets up a social media site which acts as a credit union for climate coins, challenging the authority of banks internationally when it gains mass acceptance, which helps to finally compel central banks to accede to the Ministry’s scheme.
The book is dedicated to Robinson’s former PhD advisor, Fredric Jameson, and its plot is reminiscent of the saying attributed to Jameson that the end of the world is easier to envisage than the end of capitalism. In exploring resistance from the capitalist class to attempts at socialist change, Robinson specifically notes the example of Syriza, who were elected on a platform of repudiating the debt imposed on Greece, only to accede and implement the Troika’s austerity programme.
The lesson Robinson concludes from Syriza’s failure is that a Plan B is always necessary. However, his conclusions seem to overstate how an instrument of monetary policy could make a difference. Writing in the Financial Times about the book’s description of monetary policy, he argues that through carbon quantitative easing, ‘along with regulation and taxation channelling private capital into useful, survival-oriented projects, we might squeak through’ by ‘returning to some kind of Keynesian balance of public and private’.
The argument here feels out of kilter with the rest of the book, which clearly outlines how capitalism is responsible for the climate crisis.
By the end of Robinson’s book, society as we know it has been utterly transformed. He takes inspiration from an array of present-day challenges to the status quo, from the Mondragon federation of worker cooperatives in the Basque Country to the agroecology revolution in Sikkim in northern India spearheaded by Vandana Shiva, which reduces the use of chemicals and increases soil’s capacity to sequester carbon.
The mass adoption of renewable energy finally causes the global CO2 ppm to fall, an income ratio of one to ten is implemented worldwide, and climate refugees are granted world citizenship in a move reminiscent of the League of Nations’ Nansen passports. A movement known as the Half Earthers return much of the earth, from Montana to Siberia, to wilderness and forest, and wild animals thrive. Discreetly encouraged by the Ministry, in a section of the book which feels unconvincing, a pseudo-religion springs up around ‘Mama Gaia’ underlining the new importance of nature to humans.
Nonetheless, despite all these dizzying successes, Robinson emphasises that the damage caused by man-made climate change will continue for centuries to come, and the radical transformation he envisages only comes after worldwide struggle. The climate catastrophes predicted by Robinson appear certain on our current trajectory, as the most recent IPCC report reminds us – the necessary solutions we need, many of which Robinson outlines, are far less so.
 Eun-Soom Im, Jeremy S. Pal and Elfatih A. B. Eltahir, ‘Deadly heat waves projected in the densely populated agricultural regions of South Asia’, Science Advances, vol. 3, no. 8, August 2017, p. 1.
 Rachel Ramirez, ‘Climate change is fuelling mass casualty heat waves. Here’s why we don’t view them as crises’, CNN, 13 July 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/07/12/weather/climate-change-mass-casualty-psychology/index.html, accessed 14 August 2021.
 Kim Stanley Robinson, ‘Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018’, Scientific American, 25 January 2018, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/ursula-k-le-guin-1929-2018/, accessed 13 August 2021.
 Jess Spear, ‘Women and nature: towards an ecosocialist feminism’, Rupture, no. 3, 10 March 2021, https://rupture.ie/articles/women-and-nature, accessed 30 August 2021.
 Andreas Malm, ‘When does the fightback begin?’, Verso, 23 April 2021, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/5061-when-does-the-fightback-begin, accessed 13 August 2021.
 Michael Coleman, ‘Should the climate movement always reject violence? A review of Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up A Pipeline’, Rupture, no. 4, Summer 2021, https://rupture.ie/articles/should-the-climate-movement-always-reject-violence, accessed 15 August 2021.
 Kim Stanley Robinson, ‘A climate plan for a world in flames’, Financial Times, 20 August 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/ff94df96-b702-4e01-addd-f4253d0eecf6?, accessed 30 August 2021.