In 1976, when Billy Joel released “A New York State of Mind,” his winsome tribute to the city he called home, few Americans were worried about climate change.

Climate scientist James Hansen’s critical testimony to Congress was still more than a decade in the future, and the one-two publicity punches of The Day After Tomorrow and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth were 16 years further out from that.

True, Americans were still struggling with the consequences of the Arab oil embargo, but that energy crisis was about access to fossil fuels, not about the greenhouse gas emissions that result from burning them.

Now in 2018, according to the most recent polling data, some 63 percent of Americans say they worry a “fair amount” or a “great deal” about global warming. Among those worried is novelist Kim Stanley Robinson. Though not a native New Yorker, Robinson has often expressed his love for the grit and grandeur of the city. In his most recent novel, he confidently predicts that even in the face of climate change, city dwellers will preserve their New York state of mind – by learning how to live with 50 feet of sea water flooding the lower elevations of their metropolis.

‘I’m just taking a Greyhound on the Hudson River line cause I’m in a New York state of mind.’

Billy joel

Recently re-released in paperback, New York 2140 is even more timely now than when it was first published in 2017. Over the next five months, Americans will observe 10th anniversaries of critical events in the 2008 financial crisis; several characters in Robinson’s novel refer back to that crisis at important moments in the plot. And one of those characters, a self-proclaimed “radical Democrat,” upsets her establishment opponent in a primary for the midterm elections of 2142 – rather like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s recent defeat of Rep. Joseph Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District, which includes parts of Queens and the Bronx. Like Robinson’s character, Ocasio-Cortez recognizes that climate change poses an ongoing threat to the city they love.

Climate change communicators should take note: this is a cli-fi novel in which activism, in its various guises, plays a leading role.

The pulses and the exoduses

To explain how New Yorkers found themselves coping with 50 feet of sea-level rise*, Robinson has “a citizen” interrupt the 613-page story periodically to offer critical background information. This citizen recounts how CO2 levels continued rising in the 21st century while the world’s nations and corporations made only half-hearted efforts to address the problem.

But the impacts on the world’s ice sheets were not merely increasing, they were compounding. In the 2050s, major ice sheets in Antarctic and Greenland had collapsed and melted, adding 10 feet to the sea level worldwide. That was the first pulse.

Despite a burst of activity – rapid conversion to clean energy, investment in carbon capture and storage, and even some attempts at geoengineering – “the general warming initiated before the first pulse was baked in by then and could not be stopped by anything the post-pulse people did.”

The second pulse, at the end of that century, was much larger and more dramatic than the first, adding another 40 feet to sea level.

Nowhere in his novel does Robinson spell out the full consequences of these cataclysmic events. Readers are not told how much the population shrank as a result of the floods, the droughts, the famines, and the conflicts that followed. The citizen simply observes that the second pulse “truly trashed the coastlines of the world, causing a refugee crisis rated at ten thousand Katrinas.”

Capital, too, abandoned the coastlines. In the U.S., Denver has become the new financial hub. But some people refused to leave the coastal cities, and others soon wandered back. Together they learned how to survive, and even thrive, in these floodscapes. By 2140, New York City had been dubbed “the super Venice.” Now capital wanted back in.

Metropolitan life in 2140

To illustrate life in “super Venice,” Robinson weaves together the stories of five people who live in the Metropolitan Life Building on Madison Square:

  • Charlotte Armstrong, an immigration lawyer who also heads the building’s residents council;
  • Amelia Black, the somewhat scattered social media star who creates wildlife programming for the web from her dirigible, Assisted Migration;
  • Franklin Garr, a hedge-fund trader who has developed a critical tracking tool, the Intertidal Property Pricing Index (IPPI);
  • Vlade Marovich, supervisor for the Met Life Building; and
  • Gen Octaviasdottir, an inspector in the city’s police forces.

Intersecting with these lives are the trajectories of two sets of friends granted permission to stay in temporary quarters at the Met. Ralph Muttchopf (Mutt) and Jeffrey (Jeff) Rosen are two “quants” who run afoul of financial firms operating illegal trading programs in the “dark web.” And Stefano and Roberto (no last names provided) eke out an existence as “water rats,” homeless adolescents who forage for food and salvage on the city’s flooded streets.

A lot happens in these stories. The two quants hack an international trading system and are subsequently kidnapped. The two boys hunt for a treasure widely believed to have been lost when the HMS Hussar, an 18th century British frigate, sank in the East River. Vlade uncovers attempts to sabotage the Met’s waterproofing systems, just when anonymous buyers make an offer on the building. Amelia participates in an effort to move Arctic polar bears to Antarctica that goes awry, first comically, then tragically, and all of the action streamed live on the World Wide Web. A hurricane strikes the city with brutal force, leaving Charlotte and Inspector Gen to cope with thousands of homeless, hopeless, and angry New Yorkers. And throughout, Franklin monitors the fluctuations in an increasingly volatile IPPI.

Each of these stories entertains on its own. But each also provides a piece for the larger puzzle Robinson sets his characters to solve: How can they keep financial speculators from appropriating the flooded buildings they have transformed into homes and communities through their ingenuity and hard work?

Charlotte quickly arrives at the basic answer – they must crash the financial system these speculators both rely on and cheat. But it takes some time for the others to work out the details. One critical requirement: They must ensure that when the banks and investment houses turn to the federal government for help, the government must exact much deeper and more lasting reforms than it did during the financial crisis of 2008.

Climate change in the Robinson universe

The “Marvel Universe” – the 20 interconnected films released by Marvel Studios since 2008 – has become a staple of popular culture. Though not on such a grand scale, Robinson has been doing something similar – and for far longer. Of the 23 books he has published since 1984, at least 11, including New York 2140, can be fit into a larger story about humanity’s future, which Robinson so far has extended out to 2950.

Human-caused climate change is a given in all of these books. In fact, Robinson first imagined a flooded future for New York City in 1993 in Green Mars, the second volume of his Mars trilogy, but there it appeared only on the news feeds watched by the colonists struggling to survive on Earth’s closest equivalent.

Also givens in the Robinson universe, as factors that affect how humans act on climate change, are questions about political economy, human perception, and materials science.

The first two sets of questions can be traced back to Robinson’s graduate work, at the University of California–San Diego, with cultural critic Frederic Jameson. In the novels he has written since, Robinson appears to have taken up the implicit challenge posed by Jameson’s observation that “someone once said it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” In New York 2140, more clearly and directly – and more humorously – than in his other novels, Robinson imagines how determined citizens might resist the social injustice and environmental destruction associated with capitalism.

The subject of the doctoral dissertation Robinson wrote under Jameson’s supervision, the mind-bending novels of the late Philip K. Dick, might also account for his concern with human perception. But whereas Dick focused on mental states altered by drugs or neural programming, Robinson focuses on his characters’ efforts to understand the signals they receive, or think they receive, from their bodies, their friends, their lovers, their opponents, and their environments. In New York 2140, these signals include the read-outs that appear on computer trading screens.

The third set of questions, about technology in general and materials science in particular, arises from the extensive research Robinson undertook for his Mars trilogy. What would humans need to survive and work on a planet without a breathable atmosphere, and how would they transport those resources and technologies there? In New York 2140, the carbon fiber fabrics and construction materials, the new metal alloys, and the diamond-impregnated sealants are adapted for the needs of a flooded cityscape. Political will is of little use if one does not have the tools required to act on the decisions made. Robinson’s novels suggest that the requisite technologies are within reach.

A black swan on the Hudson River line

For climate change communicators, New York 2140 offers a combination rare in climate fiction: (1) a vision of the future that isn’t dystopic, (2) an engagement with political economics that illustrates the risks and benefits of taking on the system, and (3) humor.

For New Yorkers, Robinson’s novel is a tribute to the grit and grandeur of their city and to the state of mind that could sustain it through the next century. One can easily imagine some future Billy Joel sailing his yacht up one of New York’s flooded avenues and then writing a song about it. In fact, change “Greyhound” to “Black Swan,” or some other water-skimming form of transportation, and the song is already nearly written.

But our 22nd century song writer might want to add a coda along the lines of the citizen’s final interjection in Robinson’s novel: Antarctica and Greenland could still unleash another couple hundred feet of sea-level rise if greenhouse gas emissions are not kept under control. Neither New Yorkers nor anyone else can afford to rest on their carbon-fiber hydrofoils.

*Robinson arrives at this sea level in 2140 by extrapolating from a paper published by scientist James Hansen and 18 other colleagues in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics in 2016.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since 2005. Before completing his interdisciplinary...