Chinese sci-fi film 'The Wandering Earth' reminds us humanity has common destiny

For alumnus Yanzhu Zhang, a new film triggers discussions on geoengineering for the climate.

Estimated reading time: 5 Minutes
NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2 (Artist Concept)
NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2 (Artist Concept). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

At the beginning of Chinese Lunar New Year of the Pig, a purely “made-in-China” domestic science fiction film 'The Wandering Earth' rocked the global box office igniting people’s imagination and passion.

This hardcore style sci-fi film quickly topped global box office and received praise at home and abroad. It also triggered heated discussions (watch the official trailer on Youtube).

The classic lines in the film "For our children, there is nothing we cannot lose", "We have no more time", "Regardless of the outcome for the history of mankind. We have decided to choose hope!", "Best of luck to Earth!”, made us feel worried yet united for the sake of the survival of future generations, the destiny of the earth, and the continuation of human civilisation at the time when the Earth is under catastrophic threat.

The plot is as follows: in the near future, the Sun ages and is about to turn into a red giant, pushing the nations of the world to consolidate into the United Earth Government and initiate a project called 'The Wandering Earth' to physically move Earth out of the Solar System and embark on a centuries-long voyage to a new solar system, the Alpha Centauri system in order to preserve human civilisation. But humanity is threatened with annihilation almost immediately, when scientists discover that Earth is on an apparent collision course with Jupiter…  

The film has sparked a wide range of discussions on the plot of “saving the Earth”. Unlike the usual (mostly) American science fiction plots in which humans abandon Earth while searching for a new planet, “The Wandering Earth" reflects the old Chinese cultural tradition of considering the land and home inseparable. Besides, "The Wandering Earth" embodies a concept of uniting all mankind to "concentrate power to do great things." Therefore, despite 'The Wandering Earth' being a Chinese science fiction film, it does not deliberately highlight China's status and instead reminds us that humanity has common destiny. It also has a vision of the international cooperation necessary to cope with the threats facing the planet.

Recent reports issued by many international organisations and research institutes showed that humanity is indeed facing an imminent threat and challenge: climate change. If we cannot work together to cope with it properly, the survival of future generations will be at risk and the continuation of human civilisation on Earth will face irreversible consequences.

In particular, in the first month of 2019, extreme weather swept many countries around the world, breaking historical records. The Midwest in the United States was hit by unprecedented extreme cold weather, with some states recording temperatures as low as -52°C. While the United States experienced extreme cold, temperatures in parts of Australia have reached record highs, even exceeding 50°C, which have caused widespread wildlife deaths, including killing a third of a bat species in just two days. Earlier, in the summer of 2018, the heatwave swept across the northern hemisphere, with high temperatures recorded in North America, the Arctic Circle, the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and several countries and regions suffering from different degrees of extreme weather. This series of extreme weather reflect the increasingly catastrophic consequences of climate change. In June 2018, a World Meteorological Organization report warned that floods, heatwaves and other extreme weather conditions could continue and increase as climate change accelerates.

Just as the "Roche limit" tipping point that appeared in the movie 'The Wandering Earth', the tipping point of global warming at 2°C is also an irreversible critical point for the survival of the Earth's life support system. Once above this temperature, the Earth will become a purgatory of frequent large-scale droughts, extreme weather and catastrophic sea-level rise. Population may be severely affected by the spreading of various diseases and increasing famine.

As the Earth's temperature continues to rise, the international community's actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are faltering. Global warming poses such a terrible threat that scientists around the world are studying geoengineering as a last resort to deal with climate change and to cool the planet.

Geoengineering, or climate engineering, is the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change. It has been more widely considered as an accompanying strategy to conventional climate change mitigation measures to combat global warming. The Royal Society’s 2009 study has divided geoengineering into two major categories: Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and Solar Radiation Management (SRM). However, climate engineering is far from achieving agreements from different institutional domains. Geoengineering, intended to be deployed on a planetary scale, would cause fundamental interventions to the human-environment system and create new risks and problems with high uncertainty and uneven distribution around the globe.

At present, scientists and experts have put forward many possible solution schemes, but the implementation of each method is facing enormous challenges. The completion of these programmes requires precise and sustained cooperation between almost every country on the planet, a feat that has never been achieved. More importantly, scientists still disagree on the safety of geoengineering. Because there are so many variables affecting the Earth's climate system, any solution may have unpredictable side effects. But proposals to change the planet with geoengineering remain strong. Many scientists around the world insist on geoengineering strategy as the last resort to save the future of mankind if conventional climate actions are ineffective.

However, in any country, the decision-making process to implement geoengineering is complex and difficult, and risk, time, cost, ethics, politics and many other factors need to be considered. In my own earlier article, I have briefly addressed the difficulties and complexity of geoengineering through six main arguments: complex cross-boundary feedback, economic affordability, decision criteria, conflicts of interests and values, lack of central governance, and probability risk of decision-making.

In 2015, China officially launched the first national research project for geoengineering. The project is the "Basic Theory of Geoengineering and Impact Assessment Research" of the National Major Scientific Research Program (973 Program). It is jointly undertaken by Beijing Normal University, Zhejiang University and the United Nations National Climate Center of the Institute of Urban Development and Environment, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The project lasts for five years with a total budget of 14.48 million yuan.

Germany and the European Union also support some geoengineering research programmes, while the biggest research in the United States is Harvard University's new multidisciplinary Solar Geoengineering Research Program, which has raised about $7.5 million in research funding, mostly from private sources.

While some approaches such as placing shields or deflectors in space to reduce the amount of solar energy reaching the earth sound still a bit sci-fi to us, geoengineering and the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment, is already viewed as the last resort to save our planet if humans are unable to curb their emissions. If we do not act together immediately for the sake of humanity’s survival, the day when we will need to deploy geoengineering on a large scale will soon come, before we finally desperately embark on “the wandering Earth”.

Yanzhu Zhang is an alumnus of the Blavatnik School of Government (MPP Class of 2015). He has previously worked at the World Bank headquarters in Washington D.C. and at UNIDO headquarters in Vienna.