Q&A with Gregory Benford

Drawing on his long history studying (and like all of us, living through) climate change, Gregory Benford contributed powerful works of both fiction—”Cooling Chaos”—and fact—”Veiling the Earth” to our March/April issue [on sale now]. Below, he delves further into the research behind these pieces, and into his history as a writer.


Analog Editor: What is the story behind these pieces?

GB: My story and article come from direct experience. I decades ago realized that for things to stay the same for us, we have to change. Our thinking, our worldview. Climate changes are not a moral problem, but for any chance of countering them, we must see it as an engineering problem.

I’ve worked for a quarter of a century, mostly for DARPA, DOE, NSF etc. Many surprises emerged. I first realized this by serving on a Department of Energy long-range study. Our years of work appeared in a prominent paper in Science. Renewable technologies exist in the sense that the science to make a nuclear weapon existed in the late 1930s, or the ability to send a crewed exploration craft to the Moon and return existed in the late ’50s. But it took the Manhattan and Apollo programs to make them so. The Manhattan-scale project we called for has not materialized.

I worked on new ideas about sequestering carbon, ending in a 2009 paper (https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/es8015556) proposing to put farm waste into the deep oceans. Deep ocean sequestration can potentially capture 1O% of the current global CO2 annual increase, about four billion tons. That could send that carbon into deep sediments, confining the carbon for millennia, while using existing capital infrastructure and technology.

The National Academy 1992 geoengineering panel report found that “. . . one of the surprises of this analysis is the relatively low cost” of implementing some significant measures. Even if their rough estimates are wrong by a factor of ten, they are striking. It might take only a few billion dollars to mitigate the U.S. emission of CO2. Compared with stopping people in China from burning coal, even hundreds of billions are nothing. We can stop thermal expansion of our oceans and melting glaciers, etc. by reflecting about 2 Watt/sq meter. That would cost (see ref below) less than 10 billion dollars/year. I worked out a plan for stopping sea ice loss in the Arctic for DARPA, and similar work on the Great Southern Ocean (which can be cooled from the pole to 45 degrees longitude without even covering much land – it’s a huge ocean).

“So veiling the planet is easy and will teach us much, as well. Simulations show little side effects, some quite positive—like lessening rainfall in the monsoons, which would save much damage and lives in India. That’s why it’s inevitable, after the shouting.”

[See Martin I. Hoffert, Ken Caldeira, Gregory Benford, et al, “Advanced Technology Paths to Global Climate Stability: Energy for a Greenhouse Planet”, Science 298(5595): 981-987, 1 November 2002, DOI: 10.1126/science.1072357; Justin McClellan, David W. Keith, and Jay Apt, “Cost analysis of stratospheric albedo modification delivery systems“, Environmental Research Letters 7(3): 034019, 30 August 2012, DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/7/3/034019.]

But in SF, you can expand your tank in ways mainstream writers seldom do. In this field for fifty-five years, I know you need to refill your tank by keeping up with science and its effect on our globe . . .


AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?

GB: I live in summer in the High Sierra so see firefighters often, smoke too. It’s hard dangerous work, so this story came from watching them—a good starting point toward a global solution, i.e., cool the land.

AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?

GB: You get a sense reading a novel that a novelist has a big tank, a huge reserve. Some people don’t and exhaust it quite quickly: Joseph Heller of CATCH-22, Alfred Bester in SF. They used up their originality. Some are reduced to rephrasing that. You only see it fully when they’re coming to the end of their careers; then you can assess the size of that tank. But in SF, you can expand your tank in ways mainstream writers seldom do. In this field for fifty-five years, I know you need to refill your tank by keeping up with science and its effect on our globe, as Fred Pohl did so well. So I began working on climate change solutions after hearing from economists that costs were small (Barrett, S. [2008] “The incredible economics of geoengineering,” Environmental and Resource Economics 49: 45-54, etc). I did similar work that implied futures very different from the gloom and doom filling our current worldview. Even a decade later, carbon tax hasn’t been enacted much. Carbon restriction has failed for thirty years. Time for new ideas in veiling and carbon capture.

AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?

GB: I look for big-landscape problems we face. Space industrialization, overpopulation, climate, ecology—all needing hard inventive work.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

GB: Some think that writing entails staring at a sheet of paper or a screen until drops of blood appear on your forehead. Not me. That’ll block you. So go for a walk. Only write when you feel like it. Done!

AE: How did you break into writing?

GB: In 1964 I read in F&SF an announcement of a little contest, to write a story of one thousand words around a poem by Doris Pitkin Buck about unicorns and Univacs, the early big computers. Wrote a story in two days, sent it in. Months later, won the contest: $20 from the two cents/word rate, plus lifetime sub to F&SF. It still comes, fifty-five years later. I used the $20 to buy some stock later, a stock I still own. Don’t know what happened to Doris Pitkin Buck. But I kept writing and two hundred and thirty stories later, thirty-three novels, still do—fun hobby!

AE: What careers have you had and how do they affect your writing?

GB: Physicist, mostly: postdoc for Edward Teller, staff physicist at Livermore Lab, professor at UCI, plenty consulting and advising for NSF, DOE, much CIA work, and the White House. Writing is my main hobby, but led to my running my investments, so economics too; managing millions takes work! Also founded five corporations in biotech, being CEO and Board Chair for most.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

GB: I’m on Facebook, have a website (gregorybenford.com), do signings. Not big into self-promo—it takes time!

Gregory Benford is a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine. He is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, was Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University, and in 1995 received the Lord Prize for contributions to science. In 2007 he won the Asimov Award for science writing. His fiction has won many awards, including the Nebula Award for his novel Timescape. He has published 42 books, mostly novels.

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