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A New Cold War

Melanie Harding-Shaw is a speculative fiction writer, policy geek, and mother-of-three from Wellington, New Zealand. Her stories have been published in Breach Zine and New Orbit Magazine among others. This is her first story in Daily Science Fiction and her first "pro" sale. She's currently querying a Young Adult novel and revising another. She can't wait for CoNZealand 2020 in her home town. You can follow her writing on Twitter @MelHardingShaw and on Facebook @MelanieHardingShawWriter.
Sarah glanced up at the TV above the bar and saw a red "breaking news" banner appear at the bottom of the screen. She called out to the bartender to turn it up.
The head of the Security Council was holding a press conference. "Today, we have learned of the greatest threat humanity has ever faced...."
She sat back in her chair and raised a hand to her mouth. It had worked. It had really worked. She was so shocked she couldn't even listen and realized she'd missed half the statement. She leaned forward, ignoring the way her elbows stuck to the table in the dingy bar, and forced herself to concentrate.
"Effective immediately, we are introducing severe restrictions and sinking caps on fossil fuel usage. We expect our allies to support these measures. This is a matter of global security. Legislation is being passed under urgency to introduce sanctions for any breaches. Our military budgets will be redirected to replacement technologies as a matter of priority. We will be working with the largest contributors first and carefully monitoring results. If those measures are unsuccessful, we will have to severely restrict any non-essential travel using fossil fuel combustion engines."
The speaker paused in his speech and the camera zoomed in to watch him look down and take a shaking breath. Then his head raised and he stared right down the barrel of the lens. "These creatures are threatening our very existence. We need every citizen of the world, every business, every Government to do their bit to drive them back to where they came from. We can all be heroes in this fight. We will not go gentle into the hot night!"
When Sarah got back to her hotel room, a woman who'd asked pointed questions during her presentation earlier in the day was waiting by the door, talking on her phone.
Sarah stopped searching for her key card, hand paused halfway into her purse. She could feel panicked heat rising in her face.
The woman hung up her phone and looked at her for a long moment.
"Don't worry, I just want to talk. These guys will wait outside," she said, gesturing to her security detail standing partway down the hall in both directions.
Sarah couldn't do anything but open the door and let her in. She wondered if it was all about to come crashing down before it even started.
The door shut behind them with a bang and the woman walked straight to the minibar and found a bottle of whiskey. She poured them two glasses neat and sat down at the table. She waited till Sarah collapsed into the opposite chair before she started talking.
"I'm not a scientist, but I like to think I know my way around evidence. Today is the first time I can ever recall my science advisor not giving me a lecture about correlation versus causation when faced with data like yours."
Sarah stared at her face looking for a hint of what she wanted, but it didn't give anything away. "Well, the data builds on the foundation of consensus that has emerged in climate science in recent years. While the premise may seem alien, the data is very robust."
Sara winced at the pun as soon as it left her mouth. She wished she hadn't gone to the bar. She needed to be more careful. The woman looked down into her drink, contemplating the amber swirling liquid. She didn't look up when she spoke.
"If we take away the 'invisible alien premise' for a minute. Could you tell me truthfully--are the temperatures and timeframes accurate?"
"Yes, completely accurate," she said. The strain was starting to show in her voice.
The woman nodded to herself. "And the scientific community, specifically all of the science advisors at the presentation today, they agree with the interpretation of the data on those points?"
"They do," Sarah said.
"And you know this because you had spoken with them beforehand, yes?" she asked.
"Yes," Sarah said again. A bead of sweat trickled down her side. She hadn't meant to admit that.
They had wondered how many leaders would question the science. They'd used the latest behavioral psychology and persuasion research to shape the presentation, but the debate had raged on whether the risk to the reputation of the scientific method was worth it. It was actually the insights of the security council science advisors that had finally won the day. They had been confident that the leaders who were smart enough to understand the science were smart enough to understand that this may be Earth's last chance. The sunk cost fallacy and political pragmatism should be strong enough to hold them all to the course of action once a commitment was made. The risk was all in these early days.
The silence stretched across the cheap Formica hotel table. Sara could see the woman working through the moral dilemma in her mind, just like she had. She could almost feel the strain of the ethical gymnastics she was forcing on her.
Finally, the woman leaned back in her seat and looked up at her again. "I'm impressed. I've never seen them agree on anything."
Sara took advantage of the sliver of hope she was offering. "When the future of humanity is at stake you'd hope that people would put their differences aside and do what's needed. The stakes are the same with or without the alien premise," she said.
The woman knocked back her whiskey in one hit and slammed it down on the table. "I guess we'd better go starve some malevolent gas-based life forms then. A cold war for our generation."
Sara raised her glass. "A new cold war."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, April 23rd, 2019


Climate change looms large in my mind often, but there were several events that led me to this story in particular. One was seeing "Anote's Ark"--a brilliant documentary about the catastrophic sea-level rise faced in Kiribati and its former President's efforts to find a way to protect his people. Another was attending an event organized by Track Zero--Arts Inspiring Climate Action, where the audience heard from climate scientists presenting the latest research and artists with related projects in the one session. It was a fantastic opportunity to get inspiration from both hard data and a variety of striking visual representations. Finally, I wrote an earlier version of the story in response to a competition prompt "Nothing but hot air," which seemed particularly apt when thinking about some of the political approaches to the issue. Speculative fiction is unique in its ability to explore possible futures to help society process the issues we face now. "Cli-Fi" is an area I am continuing to explore in the Young Adult novel I'm revising now. Thanks for reading!

- Melanie Harding-Shaw
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