To Dream… The Impossible (Energy Transition) Dream

How a work of science fiction highlights just how precarious our world is becoming and inspires optimism about our energy future.


I was walking under a bright red sun, haze clouding my view of the skyline. My tightly-fitted mask blocked out some of the pollution, but I suspected that I should have stayed inside.

This was no dystopia, but the Schuylkill River Walk in Philadelphia in the summer of 2021. I’m sure that many remember how the wildfires on the West Coast sent up colossal plumes of smoke that descended upon the Northeast for days.

It was around this time that I cracked open Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Ministry for the Future, a popular piece of climate fiction. As a prolific writer and reader, I well know that inspiring words can start revolutions. But as I read the book, I grew increasingly skeptical of Robinson’s ideas: they felt too infeasible. His resolution to our climate crisis involves restructuring capitalism, a novel currency to track carbon removal, and several acts of eco-terrorism. The absence of backlash that Robinson’s climate warriors face made the book ring hollow. How can one imagine a world united, when we can’t even agree that climate change is happening?

Despite my disagreements with Robinson, the first chapter of Ministry for the Future was so enthralling that I had to finish the book. An American working for a non-profit in India gets caught up in a heatwave exacerbated by climate change that kills over twenty million people. Robinson masterfully appealed to readers’ emotions, describing viscerally a scenario that, as terrible as it sounds, could happen within the next decade. This past spring, India suffered a severe heat wave. Wet-bulb temperatures, a measurement of the lowest temperature achievable through evaporative cooling, did not hit the level fatal to humans described by Robinson—35 degrees Celsius—but they were close. One district in Kerala experienced a wet-bulb temperature of 34.6 degrees Celsius, a record high in the area.

At the end of the day, it’s okay that I don’t see eye to eye with Robinson on how we solve this climate crisis, because it is still not yet clear if we will solve this climate crisis. As Robinson put it in an interview with The New York Times, our current, economics-oriented concerns “fade to insignificance when you take the long view and see us teetering on the edge of causing a mass extinction event.” The exact details of how we reach a carbon neutral civilization don’t need to be set in stone, but we need the world to appreciate the precarious situation that Robinson describes.

Working toward a sustainable civilization is not about finding a solution that everyone will agree to overnight. It’s about inspiring people to work toward a solution every night.

As an undergraduate researcher studying the potential for carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS), I am constantly reminded of its political vulnerability. What government leader stands to gain from investing copious amounts of money to manage a “waste product” that most constituents aren’t even aware of? It sounds like such an industry should not even exist, and yet, it does, thanks to American policymakers that devised the 45Q tax credit in place today. Policymakers worldwide continue to propose inventive strategies such as improved carbon accounting standards and tracking carbon credits with blockchain, a technology not far removed from Robinson’s carbon coin.

What we need, to keep people working on those solutions every night, is hope, and that is what Robinson’s literary work and public speaking provides. I may see his work as fantasy, but it has nonetheless opened my eyes and taught me to dream. And when we look to our energy future, which can often feel cold and bleak, there is no talent more necessary than dreaming.

Caroline Magdolen

Student Advisory Council Member
Caroline Magdolen is a Kleinman Center Student Advisory Council Member and an undergraduate student studying in the Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research (VIPER) program. Magdolen was also a 2021 Undergraduate Seminar Fellow.