Neal Stephenson on his new geoengineering local weather change thriller and coining the time period ‘metaverse’

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Neal Stephenson

Source: Mercatus Center at George Mason University

Author Neal Stephenson shot to fame almost 30 years ago with the science-fiction novel “Snow Crash,” which envisioned a future dominated by mega-corporations and organized crime, competing for dominance in both the real world and the “metaverse,” a computer-generated world accessible through virtual reality headsets.

Since then, he’s written several more novels encompassing technology and history, including a trilogy set at the dawn of the scientific revolution, and has done work for various technology companies including Jeff Bezos’ space travel company, Blue Origin, and augmented reality company Magic Leap.

His new novel, “Termination Shock,” out Nov. 16, focuses on the looming issue of our age — human-generated climate change, projecting a near future of extreme weather and social chaos. Against this setting, a maverick oilman decides to take matters into his own hands and builds the world’s biggest gun to shoot canisters of sulfur dioxide into the air, echoing the effects of a volcanic eruption and temporarily cooling parts of the globe. Geopolitics, social media and Dutch royalty all play a part.

Stephenson acknowledges that geoengineering is a radical step, but suggests as the effects of climate change grow more destructive, the demand for radical solutions will grow.

But if geoengineering does happen, it probably won’t be because a billionaire took matters into their own hands.

“In real life, somebody like that would probably get shut down,” he told CNBC in an interview.

“By far, the more plausible scenario is that some government somewhere just makes the calculation at some point that doing this would be fairly cheap and easy. And better than not doing it, as far as [their] selfish purposes are concerned.”

Personally, he favors an all-of-the-above set of solutions to climate change, including more clean energy sources, decarbonizing the economy and carbon capture to take some of the CO2 we’ve emitted over the last 150 years out of the atmosphere. The trouble is convincing large numbers of people that this kind of action is necessary.

He points to two factors that he expects will convince more people that climate change can no longer be ignored. One is rising sea levels.

“You can be as ideological as you want. But you can’t argue with the fact that your house is full of water,” he says.

“And the other one is these possible so-called wet-bulb events, where some areas become so hot and humid that everyone who’s outdoors will just die.” Stephenson points to the “heat dome” that descended over the Pacific Northwest last summer, causing temperatures to skyrocket for a few days and killing hundreds of people.

He does not necessarily believe governments will come together and agree on solutions, although he says the recent 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP 26, was a necessary and useful event. “We have to have those conferences. And we have to hope and pray that their strongest and most optimistic recommendations are put into effect.”

But even if they can’t agree, governments will be forced to respond.

“I think we’ll see the big governments, the Indias and Chinas of the world, charting their own path,” he says. “At the end of the day, most politicians want to retain their power. And they’re going to do what it takes to keep getting votes or to maintain their grip on on the political system. And if they’re seen as having presided over huge apocalyptic disasters and not taking effective action, then they’re in trouble.”

Although he was one of the first writers to popularize the idea of virtual reality, he does not necessarily believe that people will retreat into artificial worlds as the real world becomes harder to live in.

“I don’t hate VR,” he says. “But the reality has been so far that most people don’t like to hang out there for more than a short period of time. That may change as the technology gets better, but there’s just inherent limitations on things like the problem of getting motion sickness, the problem of how do you move around?”

He’s more bullish on augmented reality — the idea pioneered by Magic Leap and currently being developed by Microsoft, Apple, and others, where computer-generated images are blended with the real world. But he agrees it won’t take off until there’s a good reason for people to wear headsets or glasses for long periods of time. “It’ll probably have something to do with making it even smaller, more compact, and less of an intrusive experience to wear around.”

As far as the metaverse goes, Stephenson has stood back and watched as the tech and business worlds have claimed the term for themselves, most notably the company formerly known as Facebook, which renamed itself Meta to emphasize its interest in building a computer-generated universe.

“All I can do is kind of sit back and watch it in amazement,” he said. But, as many have noticed, “There’s a pretty big gap between what Facebook is actually doing, like running Facebook and WhatsApp and Instagram, and the visions that they’re talking about for the metaverse.”

Here’s a transcript of the complete interview, lightly edited for clarity and length.

Matt Rosoff, CNBC: The plot of your new novel “Termination Shock” is essentially about a maverick businessperson using geoengineering to reverse climate change. For CNBC readers who may not be familiar with the concept of geoengineering, can you tell us a little bit about it?

Neal Stephenson, author: The first point to emphasize is that it doesn’t fix the actual problem, which is too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But it’s thought that it could be a stopgap way to slow down the rate at which the climate gets hotter.

And it’s basically imitating the effects of large volcanic eruptions by putting sulfur dioxide or something else into the atmosphere, right?

Exactly. There have been many cases throughout history where a big volcano — most recently, Pinatubo in the Philippines — does exactly this. And it puts particles or droplets of sulfates into the stratosphere, and those sort of act as a veil that bounces back a little bit of the sun’s radiation back into space so that it never reaches our planet and doesn’t warm us up. So we know that this cools the planet down because it’s happened a bunch of times throughout history. And we also know that the sulfates will kind of naturally wash out of the atmosphere in a couple of years. And you go back to where you were before.

The eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, 1991.

Thomson Reuters

So you almost need a constant infusion of them. While you decarbonize.

Exactly. The only sane way to use this, if it’s done at all, is as a way to buy time for decarbonization, which is what we really need to do.

How did you get interested in this subject and become fascinated with it enough to base a novel on it?

I’ve been hearing about the idea for a number of years. I’m interested in history. I’m interested in science and the physics of the planet. And so, the idea that a volcano could erupt somewhere and affect temperatures all over the planet is a natural, fascinating topic for me. Over the last decade or two, it’s become increasingly clear that the CO2 content in the atmosphere is a huge problem, and that it’s getting worse fast, and we’re not really being very effective. Despite efforts by a number of people to draw attention to the problem and and push for emissions reductions, that number is still climbing rather rapidly and probably will keep climbing for a while. So rolling that together in the brain of the science fiction novelist, that looks like the basis for a story that that’s got that technical angle to it, but that’s also got a strong geopolitical and personal storytelling basis.

Do you think it’s a realistic likelihood that this could happen in 10 to 15 years? Maybe a maverick individual, but more likely a government that doesn’t particularly care much about world opinion will take it into their own hands?

I agree. In this book, it’s the maverick billionaire because it makes for a good story. But I have to do a lot of explaining as to how he’s able to get away with it, because in real life, somebody like that would probably get shut down. By far, the more plausible scenario is that some government somewhere just makes the calculation at some point that doing this would be fairly cheap and easy. And better than not doing it as far as [their] selfish purposes are concerned.

It’s considered a pretty radical out-there idea. If you look at the overall landscape and what you’ve been seeing over the last few years, what do you think the likelihood of countries in industry and individuals voluntarily taking steps to reduce emissions enough to keep global warming to a minimum? Or how do you think it’s likely to play out over the next 10 to 15 years?

The number that matters is the CO2 in the atmosphere, which is above 400 parts per million and climbing, That’s higher than it’s been in millions of years. So when we talk about emissions reductions, all we’re saying is that the rate at which that number grows, will slow down. But it’s still growing, the numbers still get higher every year. It’s just not climbing as fast because we reduced our emissions. If we could get to zero emissions, which might happen in a few decades — like China’s saying maybe by 2060, it might get to zero emissions. That just means that that number stays wherever it is, for about a million years, which is how long it takes natural processes to remove it. So emissions reductions are great and zero emissions would be better than than not doing that, but still leaves us stuck with the number at a dangerously high level until we take active measures to remove that carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

What do you think of carbon capture as a technology? Have you followed it at all?

I know an increasing number of people who are techies who are altering their careers to think about this and work on this. There’s a bunch of ways that it could be done. We have to do it. It will be the biggest engineering project by far in human history. We have to do it. We have to succeed. And it’ll take many decades.

Did you follow the COP26 conference at all? What did you think of it?

I followed it. Not super closely. But all of that stuff is great. We have to have those conferences. And we have to hope and pray that their strongest and most optimistic recommendations are put into effect. For sure. It’s just while we’re doing that, we can’t lose sight of what I said before, which is that reducing emissions or taking emissions to zero still doesn’t begin to solve the problem. It just means that we’re not making the problem worse.

What about other forms of energy? Nuclear energy in particular is one that draws a lot of interest from from readers. It’s zero carbon, but there’s fear about it, and some of that fear is grounded. What about that and other energy forms?

Nuclear, I think during the Cold War it kind of got rushed into service, too soon. And before the whole picture was was fully understood. So it’s not where where the engineering resources have been going in the last few decades. And with more resources, more engineers, more money, maybe we can find ways to do it that are that are safer. There are still intractable problems around what to do with nuclear waste, and and so on that need attention. But we’re entering into this phase in our history where we have to start thinking in terms of relative risks. If you’re talking about a particular new technology, they have to compare its risk to the risk of not using it.

There’s a lot going on that’s promising. Beyond just nuclear, there’s geothermal and the usual suspects, wind, solar, etc. And we need it all.

A lot of these discussions get bogged down by ideological purity tests. So one one side you’ve got activists who say if you even talk about adaptation, that’s wrong. Because you’re giving up on reduction. And if you even talk about carbon capture, you’re just giving the current economy and the current fossil fuel industry more more leeway to keep burning. Then you’ve got other people, the Bjorn Lomborgs of the world, who say, “Oh, we’re focusing way too much on the risks and not talking about the costs enough, and growth is the only way out.” How do you think about this? How do you parse this when you’re looking at all of these different, really strong ideological beliefs?

Yeah, a whole separate dimension to the problem that we’re facing is weird, weird polarization of everything. It’s incredibly obstructive. There was just an article in The New York Times about Republicans who are furious at other Republicans who voted for the infrastructure bill. Like, how dare you vote for bridges?

It’s really disheartening and seems like it’s definitely this partisan shift by bad actors who think they’re gaining something from it.

I personally can look at something like carbon capture, and I can make an argument that convinces me that we should be doing it, so it’s not hard for me to formulate my own opinion on that. Much harder is getting millions and millions of other people to agree.

What do you think will be the tipping point? I’ve noticed a lot more people coming around to the idea that we need a multifaceted, throw-everything-at-it solution. And I think some of that comes as the effects become harder and harder to ignore, so it’s harder to presume that this is just happening somewhere else. Do you imagine some kind of event, or series of events, that can break this logjam?

So here’s an example. We had this heat dome event in Seattle over the summer, where out of nowhere, from a normal summer’s day, just suddenly, it was 115 degrees. Much hotter than it has ever been in Seattle.

I grew up there, and lived there for 10 years as an adult as well. So yeah, that was staggering.

So that happened overnight, and after three days of that, overnight, the temperature dropped by 50 degrees. A bunch of people died. So I think an event like that might convince a bunch of people who live in Seattle.

But I think one is going to be rising sea levels, which is something you can’t argue with. You can be as ideological as you want. But you can’t argue with the fact that your house is full of water.

And the other one is these possible so-called wet-bulb events, where some areas become so hot and humid that everyone who’s outdoors will just die.

How can people come together to ensure that solutions help the broadest number of people, rather than pulling up the drawbridges — let’s just escape into space or our compound in New Zealand or something like that? Or do you think it’s inevitable that the people with the means are going to run?

Of course, some people are going to do that. And other parts of the world are going to be depopulated one way or the other. But I think we’ll see the big governments, the Indias and Chinas of the world, charting their own path, going their own way, doing what they think they need to do, in order to basically prevent their their governments from falling. At the end of the day, most politicians want to retain their power. And they’re going to do what it takes to keep getting votes or to maintain their grip on on the political system. And if they’re seen as having presided over huge apocalyptic disasters and not taking effective action, then they’re in trouble.

I have to ask about the metaverse, a term that you coined in the book “Snow Crash” in 1992. Now it’s everywhere in tech. It was on Disney‘s earnings call! Everybody in the tech world is suddenly using the term, probably not the way you intended it or originally envisioned it. What are your thoughts on that?

I have to assume that some of this is pre-emptive. Making sure that one company — that Facebook — doesn’t establish a trademarkable position. If they begin to throw the term around, and nobody else does, then they might be able to later prevent other people from from using the term. So that might be part of why they’re doing this.

I don’t know. All I can do is kind of sit back and watch it in amazement.

There’s a pretty big gap between what Facebook is actually doing, like running Facebook and WhatsApp and Instagram, and the visions that they’re talking about for the metaverse. They’re two very different things. That’s important to keep in mind.

I had a conversation with a VC maybe six or seven years ago, and he was sort of a pessimist in general about the course of humanity and where things are going. He said, “Hey, you know, if you’re a pessimist, VR seems like a great bet. Because everybody’s going to want to escape from their real world conditions.” Do you see things that way at all?

I’m personally more interested in AR than in VR. I mean, I don’t hate VR. But the reality has been so far that most people don’t like to hang out there for more than a short period of time. That may change as the technology gets better, but there’s just inherent limitations on things like the problem of getting motion sickness, the problem of how do you move around? I mean, while I’m talking to you, I’m just kind of wandering around my house. And that’s a normal human thing to do, to want to get up and move around. That’s a difficult thing to do in a VR environment because you’ll step on your cat.

I know you were involved with Magic Leap, and that seems to have gone in a different direction with Peggy Johnson in charge, focusing on enterprise a lot, like Microsoft has, but what’s it going to take for for AR to really take off? What are the technological barriers? I look at how mobile was with Windows Mobile and Palm and some of those things, and then all of a sudden, the iPhone had enough new things in it, the capacitive touch screen and the idea of apps, that it was 18 months ahead of everybody else. And that was enough for it to take off. Is there something like that, that would have to happen for AR to take off?

I think that’s a good analogy. Somewhere out there is that tipping point. And nobody knows where it is until they’ve found it. And so timing is tricky. I think what Magic Leap accomplished in the way of hardware is impressive. I mean, they’re shipping a headset with a 6D controller and a whole system that tracks the room around you. And it makes it possible for applications to interact with things that it sees in your environment. And there’s a lot of engineering that has to happen to make those things all work together in a package that doesn’t immediately catch on fire or run out of batteries.

I actually saw [former Oculus CTO John] Carmack tweeted, not about Magic Leap, but he was saying maybe what VR headsets need is a big heat exchanger that would sit on top of your head.

So engineering-wise, I think it’s been going pretty well. The question is what will prompt people to want to wear something like this all day long and make it just a routine thing to carry around. And it’ll probably have something to do with making it even smaller, more compact, and less of an intrusive experience to wear around.

You’ve been writing about technology for about three decades now. When you look back at when you started this, when the internet was young, what has surprised you and what do you think you’ve been right about? What did you anticipate, and what did you not anticipate?

The popularity early on of relatively simple forms of the internet, just simple web browsers with words and pictures, and how catchy that was, how rapidly people adopted it. That was a surprise to me because as a techie, I wanted to have more splashy kinds of technologies like full 3D immersive experiences. Who knew that reading a few words on a webpage and maybe seeing a grainy JPEG would be so transformative?

On the not-so-happy side, the speed with which and the completeness with which it was taken over by bad actors. I remember when Obama was elected. People were saying, ‘Well, you know, Obama’s team, they understood the internet, they understood how to use the internet. And Republicans, they’re old. And they don’t get it. So they’ve been left in the dust.’ And then eight years later, not only did they get it, but they got way in a way deeper, and much more kind of cynical way than the Democrats had.

I know that there’s an HBO adaptation of “Snow Crash” in the works, maybe coming out this year. I haven’t heard much about it recently, can you talk about that?

The reason you haven’t heard about it is because they passed on it in June. So it’s no longer an HBO Max project. It’s reverted to Paramount. And Kennedy/Marshall.

Are we going to see it soon?

All I can say is stay tuned. A lot of people want it to happen.

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