When it was first proposed, the idea wasn’t as controversial as you might expect. The decision was made in 2089 and carried out barely two years later.
The scientists had been right, of course. The rapid industrialization of the planet, followed by the aggressive expansion of the human species in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, had incited warming beyond what the planet could sustain. What little media coverage there had been through the first half of the twenty-first century had been dedicated to discussing how severe the problem might be. When Supertyphoon Mirinae struck the Indochinese peninsula in 2056, the reality was undeniable. Flooding from storm surges and rains, combined with rising sea levels, left much of Cambodia underwater. Images of the tallest spires of Angkor Wat cresting the floodwater circulated the globe. Seven Red Cross members were killed by submerged landmines during the following aid effort, grim punctuation to the price of delayed action.
For a few brief moments in the late 2050s and early 2060s, it appeared as though change might come. Petrol and oil reserves had begun to run dangerously low already, and so leaders around the globe rallied to switch to renewable resources. Fuel companies restructured entirely, leaving skeleton crews in the oil fields in order to refocus on green energy. It was perhaps the greatest global industrial effort in the world’s history, surpassing even that which followed the Second World War.
But it was not enough. Change was too slow. Drought raged in much of sub-Saharan Africa, the blighted rainforests swallowed by the desert. Seasonal monsoons in Asia became semi-annual floods. American and European farmland dried out, turning into desiccated dust bowls. Political interest faded as the public’s focus turned to survival. Savvy and cunning politicians seized on the moment, rising to power amidst a swell of popular support and desperation. Resources were divested elsewhere as countries shifted from a global effort to one of self-sufficiency. Half-completed dams, windmills, and solar farms laid derelict across much of the planet. Rolling power outages became more common as the rich hoarded energy in order to preserve the lives to which they had become accustomed. Extortionate rates only ensured greater grid stability for those who could afford it. All others were left to scrape out what meagre existence they could.
This brings us to the decision made on the afternoon of April 19, 2089. All voting members of the United Nations Security Council supported the motion. They did not consult non-permanent members. The plan was to be carried out two years later. The public would not be notified until a week prior to the event. This time-frame was selected so as to reduce panic and resistance.
The idea itself had been proposed by a group of scientists who worked for FutureGro, a conglomerate of energy companies that had formed in the late 2040s in order to consolidate around the remaining resources. The pitch was simple: the planet was swiftly running out of resources, while the environmental collapse only seemed to be accelerating. Any solution would need to resolve both of those problems, as failure to do so would only postpone the problem until feedback loops began the crisis anew. Once these determinations were made, scientists began exploring the options for swift environmental change. After the failed investments in green infrastructure, any solution which necessitated mass construction seemed impossible. Carbon-capture technology had been studied as well, but the technology was untested and the scale too great.
This left the scientists with a single option, which they presented to the necessary governments under a veil of total secrecy. Any leaks were quelled immediately, the parties discredited, the allegations denied.
The plan was almost beautiful in its elegance: a series of co-ordinated pinpoint nuclear strikes across the globe to depopulate certain areas of the planet and trigger a nuclear winter. While the loss of life, culture, and biodiversity would be incalculable, the resulting cooling of the planet would allow nations to reset and rebuild. With the subsequent fall in demand, energy companies could then prioritize green technology that would allow future generations to enjoy clean, safe, and plentiful energy. The scientists expected some opposition to their plan, but the only question that was asked concerned the survival of the members in the room.
Once the launches were approved, all officially-sanctioned nuclear states worked in collaboration with one another to determine the best strike points.Nuclear scientists and climate engineers were tasked with figuring the best yield for each bomb, as well as how many strikes would be necessary to trigger the desired environmental change.
When the results came in, the numbers were startling. Almost every single bomb in these nations’ arsenals would be required to achieve the desired effect. Major cities would need to be targeted, as well as swaths of wilderness so as to distribute the effects sufficiently to prevent environmental cascade. The estimated death toll stood at approximately six and a half billion souls, with higher concentrations in the Global South, where none of the nuclear states existed. In a show of equanimity, all parties agreed to cities within their own countries that could serve as targets as well. This was a consequence of geography as much as politics; three of the states were among the largest in the world, and as such they needed to allow strikes within their borders in order for the plan to work.
One week prior to the day the bombs would fall (hereafter called “Reset Day” or “R-Day”), an announcement was broadcast to every computer, television, cellphone, or appliance. It featured the Secretary-General of the United Nations informing the world in solemn terms of the plan to save the planet. He likened it to a controlled burn, a technique in forest management where fires were deliberately set so as to diminish the risk of future greater fires and promote new growth. He thanked the citizens of countries around the globe for their sacrifice. He pledged to ensure that they were honoured in the coming century, once the world had had an opportunity to rebuild. He then asked that they spend these remaining days in comfort and security with their loved ones. He encouraged those who might be angry to abstain from baser impulses in light of this news. He then thanked the citizens of the world once more before ending the broadcast.
The reaction was immediate. The media replayed the message endlessly. Newscasters would speak in sober tones to their audiences, asking them to refrain from violence. Others spoke of the news with an exaggerated swagger, telling their audiences that the time had come, and that the elites had finally cast the first stone.
It is unclear whether or not the media reaction had anything to do with the surge of violence in the coming days. Not all of humanity took it this way, of course; it seems as though the vast majority of the planet’s citizens retreated into their homes, where they spent time with family and friends in their final days. Congregations swelled as others turned to religion. Celebrities, politicians, and billionaires retreated to islands and bunkers, safe points that had been circulated within the upper class. Less fortunate citizens took to the Internet to scold people about the importance of voting, suggesting that this might not have happened had the correct party been chosen in the previous year’s election. For a small but not insignificant minority, wanton violence was the path forward. What records exist suggest that riots, murders, and rapes spiked. Nobody came to stop it.
In the end, the bombs fell as scheduled. Six and a half billion people died.
The plan itself worked, of course. The existence of this record proves as much. Enough ash was thrown into the atmosphere to trigger the nuclear winter that they had sought. It lasted for twelve years and cooled the planet to levels not seen since the birth of the Industrial Age.
When those who remained emerged from their enclaves, they found a world that was rich with opportunity. FutureGro and other energy companies took advantage of a ready populace and put them to work, building hydroelectric dams, solar panels, and wind farms. A new era in human history dawned. Cities were rebuilt, glittering monuments for the dead.
During his final days, some twenty years after R-Day, the Secretary General was asked about his fateful decision. The reporter wanted to know whether there was any part of him that regretted making the call.
The Secretary General looked at her with old, tired eyes, surprise apparent on his face.
“What the hell else were we supposed to do?”