Lightning Strikes Twice
A Cautionary Climate Lesson for Trump—From Jules Verne
An 1889 dystopian romance about extraordinary man-made changes to the planet may offer the president—world leaders up in arms over his rejection of the Paris climate deal—a lesson.
Calling for millions of people “to roll back the forces of carbonization” and “to combat the existential threat of climate change,” California Gov. Jerry Brown announced a climate summit in San Francisco in 2018.
Following the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, where President Trump candidly indicated his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement by 2020, Brown underlined his bold alarm by asserting that the president “doesn’t speak for the rest of America.”
Whom does Trump speak for?
Is there a previous example of a faction of political actors refusing the consensus of the planet’s great powers?
While there appears no easy historical precedent, there is a cautionary lesson in Jules Verne’s 1889 dystopian romance, The Purchase of the North Pole.
Baltimore Gun Club president Impey Barbicane, metallurgist Captain Nicholl, and the genius engineer J.T. Maston, disguising themselves as the North Polar Practical Association, concoct a scheme to purchase private possession of the unexplored region of the North Pole at a public auction to be held in Baltimore.
Rival representatives of the Arctic powers of Holland, Denmark, Sweden-Norway, Russia, and England attend the event in early December of 189_.
The newspapers are both dubious and fascinated why any group would want to own a region that is frozen, unknown, and likely worthless. The bidding is spirited, and the Gun Club wins with a cash purchase of $814,000.
Once the region is in possession, the schemers reveal that they intend to develop the “coal mines” of their still unexplored property; they offer a public subscription to raise capital for exploitation.
“Are there coal mines at the North Pole?” Verne writes. No one is certain, though there is certainty that “We are so much in need of it that the world may be called ‘an animal of coal.’”
The impressionable public invests $15 million in the hypothetical treasure.
The Gun Club then astonishes the world by stating that, before mining the resources, it means to move the North Pole.
How so? This is the Gun Club that circumnavigated the moon in a hollow projectile fired from a gigantic cannon using the super powerful explosive called “gun cotton.”
The plan, according to the calculations of the Gun Club’s genius engineer J.T. Maston, is to anchor a giant cannon to the earth that, fired with gun cotton’s replacement, “melimelonite,” will create a recoil that moves the axis of the planet “23 degrees 28 minutes,” so that the unexplored North Pole melts.
The Gun Club claims that the new axis will create a constant planetary-wide temperate zone and, according to the at first enthusiastic newspapers, “the real millennium of the earthly globe.”
Doubts appear in the voices of the rival European powers that lost out in the North Pole auction. If you change the axis, won’t the ocean basins empty and flood the dry land? Won’t London suddenly be as high as Mont Blanc, with air too thin to sustain life?
“What especially concerned Europe was,” Verne writes, “that although the central part would be nearly intact, it would be raised in the west and lowered in the east, half-suffocated on the one side and half drowned on the other.”
After a newspaper campaign of scare stories paid for by the Europeans, the new public opinion is that everyone enjoys the planet just as it is—with torrid zones, rheumatism, unexplored poles, brutal blizzards, fathomless deeps.
The Baltimore Gun Club must be stopped.
It is too late. Barbicane and Nicholl have secretly constructed their earth-moving cannon inside Mt. Kilimanjaro’s range in East Africa.
J.T. Maston knows where they are but refuses to tell, just as he refuses to divulge his calculations to a rival French genius engineer, Alcide Pierdeux.
The hour arrives on the fall equinox, Sept. 22. The public expects the end of the world as they know it. The cannon is fired. And not much happens except the damaging of unknown provinces of East Africa.
What went wrong? Genius engineer J.T. Maston’s calculations were off by a billion times—a fact discovered by the young Pierdeux. It seems that when Maston was building his formulas, the happenstance of two lightning strikes during two phone calls from his admirer, the widowed millionaire Evangelina Scorbitt, erased several zeroes from the metric of the circumference of the Earth.
“Therefore the inhabitants of the earth may sleep in peace,” Verne closes. “To modify the conditions in which the earth is moving is beyond the efforts of humanity.”
Verne’s story is rudimentary science fiction. It is the third and final volume of the adventures of the Baltimore Gun Club, From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Around the Moon (1870), all with the frantic entrepreneurs Barbicane, Nicholl, and Maston.
Thirteen decades later, it is fun to read Verne’s suggestive themes and see how loudly they echo in the debate about the Trump administration and the 2015 Paris Agreement and 2017 G-20 Declaration: American tyros, energy security, geo-engineering, public subscriptions, climate change, European consensus, miscalculations by experts, newspaper passions, public fears, existential risk.
The cautionary lesson I take from Verne’s tale is that extraordinary man-made schemes about extraordinary man-made changes to the planet are ordinary matters of state rivalries that, more than a century from now, may be regarded with the same smile as a public auction of the North Pole and a miscalculation because of lightning striking twice at the same genius.