My entry for the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Manhire Prize for science writing (in the fiction category), made the shortlist but didn’t win. My congratulations to Brian Langham for his story Fourteen [pdf] (and to Renee Liang for her winning non-fiction piece — Epigenetics: navigating our inner seas [pdf]). For the sake of posterity, here’s my little tear-jerker. Some might do well to remember that it is intended as satire.
The last climate denier in New Zealand slapped his battered old panama hat on to his balding head, adjusted the bulky wrap-around sunglasses over his bifocals and stepped out into the hot morning air. He groaned. His car, the last petrol V6 in the city — a classic, his wingèd American chariot made stationary by lack of fuel — slouched under a coat of red dust. Again. Some urchin child of an Aussie refugee had written “wash me, fossil fool” on the back. The letters were ill-formed and childlike. You could say the same for the parents, he thought. Could there be any soil left in Australia, now that so much of it was blowing over the Tasman to coat the city? Come to that, were there any Australians left in Australia? It didn’t seem like it. The rich ones had bribed their way in, bought big properties well inland and built mansions. The poor were huddling in their masses in the abandoned beachfront baches, camping out on the top floors when the spring tides lapped around the gardens, trooping inland with tents when storms brought waves washing through the eroding dunes to pound at their doors.
The dairy was only a hundred meters away on the street corner, but the heat was already beginning to beat up from the pavement and the tar on the road was tacky under his old leather sandals. He wished he hadn’t put his socks on. The sun struggled to cast shadows through the waves of wispy smoke spreading undulating fingers down from the alps and over the plains to the sea. More fires in Victoria, more refugees in boats heading east over the Tasman. There would be unpleasantness at the barricades on the West Coast beaches. He pulled a grubby handkerchief from the pocket of his baggy shorts, lifted his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow before it could burrow down through shaggy eyebrows and drip into his eyes.
Two youths sucked ice cream cones outside the dairy. They stared at him, passing the time with uninterested eyes. He pulled a carton of milk out of the fridge, paid the girl behind the counter, and set off for home.
He liked his tea hot and strong, a little splash of milk to tame the tannins that browned his teeth while the caffeine scared his thoughts into action. He took his second cup of the day into his little book-lined office and lifted the ageing ‘pad off the desk. The air conditioner creaked into life, and blessedly cool air began to trickle down to the scuffed old leather chair that was his workplace. He pulled his silver neck chain over his head, and plugged the data stick disguised as a St Christopher into the ‘pad. His fingers began to chase arthritically after the dancing icons, but with the remnant dexterity of long practise he was quickly tunnelling his way through virtual networks and secret anonymising proxies to log in to the denier underground. It was time to do his duty, to play his small part in the continuing fight against the dark forces of totalitarianism and socialist environmentalism.
He flicked through the daily newsletter, looking at the talking points he was expected to post under alarmist news items about weather disasters and sea level rise. It was his job to point out the facts — the real truth. It’s all a natural cycle. Nothing we can do about it. The cooling will come. It’s not carbon or coal or oil’s fault. It’s not our fault. It’s not my fault we’re all hurting. The denier trials in the Hague are a travesty, the victimisation of coal companies a rejection of capitalist freedoms. He felt his temper rise, the old rage flood back into his system. His motivation returned refreshed as it always did at this time of day. He tapped at the screen for an hour, pausing only for a pee and another cup of tea.
Lunchtime approached. The air conditioner struggled to cope with the heat, and the room was stuffy. His eyes unfocussed from the bright little images of floods in Europe and icebergs cascading out from Greenland glaciers. His mind wandered back to the good old days when to be a climate sceptic was to wear a badge of right wing honour, when the force of a rapid fire of carefully calculated pseudo-scientific non-sequiturs could baffle people into inaction. Serious emissions cuts had become politically impossible. He smiled, remembering the days when MPs would stand up in Parliament and read the lies he’d written for them. His American friends, still the core of the dwindling movement, had made the world safe for fossil fuel companies for decades. It wasn’t their fault that the cooling hadn’t come, that some strange and unidentified wrinkle of solar physics had warmed the planet. It wasn’t fair that they’d had to hide themselves away in the new settlements in Greenland and Canada, that they had to cower in their beds at night fearing the knock on the door that would mean they’d been found by the climate gestapo. He wiped a tear from his eye, shook his head slowly, and pushed himself up out of the chair. He would feel better after something to eat.
He clambered off the biofuelled bus and began the slow walk up the hill towards the cemetery. As he climbed, the city opened up behind him — the hateful green city of low rise, low carbon buildings that was the legacy of the great quake. The afternoon tide was lapping at the steps of the pathetic cathedral, its cardboard walls already beginning to swell and distort. Over the foothills to the west and the plains to the south great towers of cumulus were marching steadily north, signalling a change in the weather. Lightning flashed in the distance. He felt the thunder rumbling in his viscera, and quickened his step. It would not be a good idea to be caught in the open when the front arrived. He clutched the bunch of flowers to his chest and steeled himself against the muggy air. There was vigour still in his old legs, and another duty to perform.
The cemetery was quiet. A few graves sported fresh flowers vibrant against the faded and colour-shifted photographs of loved ones long gone. He walked along the rows looking at the names. He’d known some of these people. Been at school with this one, slept with that one when she’d been a lissom young student. He stopped for a moment and looked around. A small ripple of pain crossed his chest and buried itself in his armpit. He shivered. There was nowhere to go beyond here. He would never see the cooling come, never experience the vindication that was rightfully his. A draft of cold air rustled the flowers in his hand and a large drop of cold rain hit his nose and rolled down to dangle off the tip.
The grave had been disfigured again. Crude fluorescent yellow letters spelled CLIMATE CRIMINAL across the marble, which had been pitted in places by blows from something — a hammer perhaps? He’d expected no better. It happened every year around this time, when some of the wilder young people sought vengeance for the lives they were living, the future they faced. A few years ago he’d tried to argue his friend’s case, pointed to the signs of imminent cooling, the negative feedbacks starting even as the temperature climbed, but all he’d got for his troubles was a good kicking. Now he kept his peace, and tended the grave once a year. Someone had to keep the flame burning, parade the torch that had been lit so long ago by the sheer force of this man’s television presence. He pulled the bottle of solvent from his bag and began rubbing at the letters with a rag. The paint wouldn’t shift.
Waves of particulate water began to pummel his coat, as if someone were shaking a hose around the ranks of stones. He rubbed harder and harder, down on his knees on the wet grass, the floral tribute forgotten as he bent to his task. The drops turned to soft hailstones and grew larger. He looked up and saw white curtains of ice sheeting down in the stiffening southerly. The hail was bouncing off his hat, pummelling his shoulders and back, as big now as broad beans and as hard as stone chips on the highway. He pushed himself to his feet, and began to stagger towards the lychgate over the cemetery entrance, holding his hat on to his head against the gusting wind. A great tearing noise ripped the air around him. Bright light flashed in his eyes and he fell to the ground, his St Christopher clutched in one hand. The lightning blasted his hat to charred straw, but left his coat untouched and his skin unblemished. He was dead before the hailstorm reached its apocalyptic peak, at peace before ice balls as big as grapefruit made his body jump and turned his upturned face to a bloody pulp.
Outside the last climate denier’s house, the last petrol V6 in the city gave in to the hail and subsided in a heap of battered sheet metal and red mud. It no longer had a driver. Its world had gone. There was no need to stick around.