Is Climate Change for Real? Interview with ‘The Heatstroke Line’ Edward Rubin

Edward Rubin is the author of Soul, Self and Society: The New Morality and the Modern State (Oxford, 2015); Beyond Camelot: Rethinking Politics and Law for the Modern State (Princeton, 2005) and two books with Malcolm Feeley, Federalism: Political Identity and Tragic Compromise (Michigan, 2011) and Judicial Policy Making and the Modern State: How the Courts Reformed America's Prisons (Cambridge, 1998). In addition, he is the author of two casebooks, The Regulatory State (with Lisa Bressman and Kevin Stack) (2nd ed., 2013); The Payments System (with Robert Cooter) (West, 1990), three edited volumes (one forthcoming) and The Heatstroke Line (Sunbury, 2015) a science fiction novel about the fate of the United States if climate change is not brought under control.

The Heatstroke Line is his first novel.

Welcome, Edward! Can we begin by having you tell us what your new book, The Heatstroke Line, is all about?

Edward: The Heatstroke Line is a science fiction adventure story that envisions the future of the United States if we fail to take action to slow down global warming. I think many of the climate change deniers, who now include the President of the United States and a majority of the U.S. Congress, believe that increased temperatures will only cause suffering in remote tropical places. This novel is intended to bring home to Americans the potentially tragic consequences that our own nation is likely to experience. When the action in the book begins, rising temperatures, extensive droughts and repeated storm surges on the coasts have produced so much economic and social disruption that the U.S. has broken up into small, warring principalities. They are dominated by a more populous Canadian nation, the real beneficiary of an uncontrolled global warming process.

While The Heatstroke Line belongs to the genre of post-apocalyptic science fiction, it is, as far as I know, the first such book to portray a negative future resulting from the actual threat that climate change creates, which is the increasing temperatures. More significantly still, it differs from many other post-apocalyptic novels in that it doesn't use the envisioned disaster to clear away the modern world and tell an adventure story filled with journeys on foot, rival tribes and hand-to-hand combat. The characters are government officials, scientists and business people. The violence that punctuates the story is carried out with modern weapons or, in one case, a very contemporary torture chamber. In other words, the book is set in a recognizably modern world; the change is that our nation is in decline as a result of overwhelming stresses that global warming will produce if we fail to control it.

While your book is fiction, are there any aspects inside that show that climate change is real?

Edward: The book isn't designed to provide new information, but instead to depict the possible consequences of the information that we already have on hand. I felt that there was no need for me to show that climate change is real -- an overwhelming majority of climate scientists, both in the United States and throughout the world, have already demonstrated this. What needs to be made real for people are the consequences that are likely to result. We are already seeing the effects of global warming to a limited extent, but the most severe ones will occur in the future. So people who don’t want to accept the truth, for a variety of reasons, can convince themselves that all the scientists are lying and that nothing bad is going to happen. By the time the sand gets so hot that the ostriches are compelled to pull their heads out, it will be too late. The purpose of my book is to provide to people in the present with a convincing picture of the oncoming future.

Are you an advocate of helping others realize that climate change needs to be looked into more seriously?

Edward: I'm more than an advocate. Although my work (I'm a law professor) was originally in other fields, I have become positively messianic about the dangers of climate change. In addition to writing The Heatstroke Line, I now teach a course to undergraduates at my university about climate change science fiction ("cli-fi," as Dan Bloom has christened it) and a similar course to people from the surrounding community. I've just finished writing a law review article that attempts to discern the sources of climate change denial and proposes ways of circumventing or combatting it. When we are facing a crisis of this magnitude, I think everyone who understands the truth and is willing to face it has an obligation to speak out. Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who will suffer the effects of this disaster, will judge us on the basis of our present actions.

What do you say to people who believe that climate change is a made up theory for political purposes?

Edward: If a doctor told you that your child would suffer a debilitating disease unless gave the child a preventive medicine, and nineteen out of twenty other doctors that you then consulted agreed with that same diagnosis, would you even consider ignoring their advice to save the cost of the medicine? Every responsible public policy maker knows that it is important to plan for all possible dangers, even unlikely ones. They certainly feel compelled to take account of those dangers that experts tell them are likely or inevitable. U.S. military leaders follow this principle scrupulously. In fact, they are taking climate change into account in all their strategic planning, and doing so despite the fact that their new Commander-in-Chief and their oversight committees in Congress are denying it.

Anyone who seriously believes that tens of thousands of academic scientists, in the U.S. and throughout the rest of the world, could be persuaded to lie consistently knows nothing about modern science. Because scientists often establish their reputations by disproving an established theory, every significant finding is subjected to intensive scrutiny. It’s always possible to get a few scientists to misrepresent the truth by offering them economic incentives, as the energy industry has done, but no industry or government, no matter how powerful, could produce the overwhelming consensus that now prevails among scientists about the fact that global warming is occurring, and that we are causing it.

Back to your book, can you tell us a little about the characters who live inside it?

Edward: The main character in the book is an entomologist who is sent on a mission to the American South (below “the heatstroke line”) to combat an infestation of two-inch long flesh eating insects that have evolved and flourished in the torrid climate. Once there, he is captured and forced to work in a laboratory that is supposedly dedicated to eradicating these insects. His captors, among the small number of people who are clinging to life below the heatstroke line, turn out to be maniacal, obsessive American patriots. Even though they are barely surviving, they spend a great deal of their time and energy trying to convince themselves that America can be great again. They mount an elaborate parade on Christmas Day to celebrate the American victory in the Battle of the Bulge, and the man who takes charge of the main character runs a government agency that makes sure that people only cook American-style food. I based this depiction on historical experience. When a nation has undergone a catastrophic decline or is dominated by another nation, its people often resort to excessive patriotism as a means of denying their current reality. This often leads to tragedy, and it does so in my book.

The second major character is an enigmatic young woman who the main character meets while he is a captive, and with whom he has a confusing and ambiguous relationship. As it turns out, she has written a post-apocalyptic novel of her own (part of which appears in the book), filled with standard tropes of post-apocalyptic science fiction. I use the contrast between her teenage fantasies and the world of the novel itself to underscore the reality of the dangers that the novel depicts. The main character himself recognizes the contrast. In fact, it reveals the mystery of his capture to him and motivates the action that brings the novel to its close.

What message does your book portray?

Edward: The action is the book flows from a series of decisions that the main character makes -- first (before the action starts) his choice of career, and then about venturing into the South to find out about the biter bug infestation. Once he is captured, he has lost control of the situation and his only option is to seek a way to escape, an effort the results in unexpected and tragic consequences. As a society, we have choices to make as well. If we make the wrong ones now, that will limit our options in the future. Our successors may be unable to avoid the disasters that will inevitably result from the desperate measures they are compelled to adopt. The message of The Heatstroke Line is that those disasters can really occur, even if they seem remote or abstract at the present time. People need to recognize that when they deny the truth because it is inconvenient, as Al Gore says, or distort the truth for their own political advantage, they are condemning their grandchildren, and their nation, to a constrained and tragic future.

What’s next for you, Edward?

Edward: I’m writing another science fiction novel. The main character is a man who runs a French restaurant in a human settlement on a distant planet, and whose sister happens to have become the dictator of a newer settlement on a neighboring planet. The action also centers on people’s response to an environmental disaster, although in this case it’s something other than global warming. For my day job, which is as a professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt University, I’m writing a book about the theory of democracy and a treatise on administrative law for Oxford University Press.

You can visit Edwards website or connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.

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