‘Nobody wants to be the bad guy’: Authors of optimistic climate novel say don’t write off oil industry solutions

Former petrochemicals industry executives Steve Willis and Genevieve Hilton have written a novel set 50 years into the future that has a happy ending. They tell the Eco-Business podcast that the book is a pitch to carbon-intensive industries to try workable climate solutions.

Sea orchards developed on decommissioned oil platforms

Oil and gas engineer Steve Willis looked 50 years into the future and worked backwards to write Fairhaven, a novel about climate change that is rare in that it has a happy ending.

“One of the reasons we wrote Fairhaven is so that it’s a shared vision of a future that doesn’t suck,” Willis tells the Eco-Business Podcast.

His book, which he co-wrote with science fiction writer and former communications chief of petrochemicals giant BASF, Genevieve Hilton, offers a cheerier alternative to the apocalyptic visions of the future that play out in climate movies such as Don’t Look Up and The Day After Tomorrow.

“If we start out with the message of doom and gloom and it’s too late… that’s not going to help, is it?” says Hilton, who goes by the pen name Jan Lee. “We want to show that it is possible to succeed [to fix climate change], by thinking ahead, having solutions ready, and being able to seize the opportunities when they arise.” 


The cover of Fairhaven features a “sea orchard”, a reef habilitation programme on decommissioned oil platforms.

The climate solutions that feature most prominently in Fairhaven, which is set in the flood-prone northwestern Malaysian state of Penang, are borne out of the fossil fuel industry. They include using retired oil platforms to grow coral reefs and oil field supply vessels to refreeze the Arctic.

“If you’re going to undo the damage that has got us into the climate crisis, it has to be done at the scale at which the damage was done,” says Willis, who works with oil and gas companies on large-scale environmental problems through his engineering consultancy, Herculean Climate Solutions. “You have to use the industries that are able to do big projects,” he says.

Each chapter of the book is like a pitch to industry to try out climate solutions that would cost “a few million dollars” to implement, says Willis. 

Renewables don’t feature in the book because they are already being adopted on a large scale in the real world, he says. He wanted to showcase solutions that are possible today, but are not being deployed at scale, he explains.

If you’re going to undo the damage that got us into the climate crisis, it has to be done at the scale at which the damage was done. Which means you have to do it with the industries that did the damage. You have to find a way to turn them around. 

Steve Willis, co-author, Fairhaven, director, Herculean Climate Solutions

The book begins with the story of a young Malaysian woman working at a land reclamation project in Penang. She is suffering from climate anxiety. Willis says that he, too, is climate anxious, and writing the book and working on climate solutions has been a therapeutic experience.  

Genevieve Hilton and Steve Willis

Genevieve Hilton and Steve Willis talking about their book. Image: Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club on YouTube

Tune in as we discuss:

  • Why the authors have written this book
  • Why we need an optimistic take on climate change
  • Does individual action matter?
  • Refreezing the Arctic – is it a far fetched idea?
  • Criticism of fossil fuels executives writing a novel about climate solutions
  • A climate novel as a pitch to industry

Why have you written this book?

Steve Willis: I’m a chemical engineer and I’ve worked in large-scale industry my whole career. So I’m very familiar with what it does and what it’s capable off. For the last 20 years, I’ve been working with the oil and gas industry, sorting out their environmental issues. So I also know that when industry decides that they’re going to do something, they will actually do it.

When I first came out to Malaysia, we were working with the oil companies. When they were confronted with a set of technical problems their first port of call was denial. It’s really easy to see the pattern repeated. They’re doing the same thing with the climate crisis.

But when they accepted that they had a problem, we spent hundreds of millions of their dollars fixing it. So it’s quite inspiring to see what the industry can and will do when it puts its mind to it. When the Covid-19 pandemic started, we were working on a couple of big climate startups and there was a bit of space to think about are our startups big enough to make a difference.

Because if they’re not going to make a difference, we’re wasting our time and we should be doing something else. And will all of these things add up to solve the climate crisis? So I started using climate fiction as a means to project out 50 years, see what was out there in the future, and then back-calculate to what is needed today that we’re not necessarily doing.

Renewables – the technology is obviously happening, because people make money from it. So we haven’t written very much about renewables because we took it as a given. But there’s a couple of pieces within the story that aren’t being done at the moment. We really need to pick those out so that they’re more easily seen.

Why I’ve done the book is a slightly different question. I’ve experienced climate anxiety. It’s a very real issue. I found that exploring large scale solutions and letting he story run was actually quite therapeutic.

The date at which the book begins – Tuesday, 30 December, 2036 – was very deliberate based on the science that you’ve worked on, Steve, right?

Steve Willis: We’re in a hurry. So it was important to compress everything that happens in the story so that it’s done in a time scale which would be needed to achieve what needs to get done. 

Genevieve, tell us about your motivation for writing the book and your background. 

Genevieve Hilton: Well, it’s a fascinating difference between what Steve was doing. He was also in the chemical industry, but he was out in the field, working on the oil rigs. And I was the one sitting in the corporate offices and in the windowless conference rooms or having conference calls. So we’re both seeing very different parts of the same industry. 

I was already a science fiction writer when Steve approached me. I had already been writing science fiction by that point while working in communications and ESG (environment, social and governance). I was able to see not just in the present day how storytelling is able to make a difference. If you look all the way back for centuries, this has happened time and time again – that a book or a TV series or a movie changes public opinion.

Look at Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle, which is credited with creating the food safety industry because it was an exposé of immigrants’ working conditions and food safety.

[Fighting climate change] is not about trying to win against an enemy. There’s not one side who is good and another side who is evil.

Genevieve Hilton, co-author, Fairhaven

More recently, the TV series, Will and Grace… the now US president Joe Biden said this is what changed his mind about gay marriage. It’s been measured to have had impact on public opinion in the United States in particular, but also around the world. 

How many times have I heard the question: ‘Oh, does anybody actually read the sustainability report?’ Some people do. But a lot of people watch TV, a lot of people read books, a lot of books get changed into Netflix series, and these impact public opinion.

If you look at the way stories of climate change are told in Hollywood, the likes of Don’t Look Up and The Day After Tomorrow are very much focused on the negative angle. What makes you think that people will be interested in consuming positive material about climate change?

Genevieve Hilton: The simple answer is that if we start out with the message of doom and gloom and “it’s too late” and “we’ve all given up”, that’s not going to help now, is it? We’re shooting ourselves in the foot before we even start.

Having said that, I do want to point out that the book is not entirely a happy one – it’s not that everybody is living in a utopia. There is a lot of pain. Our main character at some point gets bashed in the head. 

Ultimately, we want to show that it is possible to succeed and that one of the key ways that that is made possible is by thinking ahead, having the solutions ready, being able to seize the opportunities when they arise.

Steve Willis: So the word ‘optimism’ is an interesting word, which means multiple things to multiple people. To me, it means determined persistence. It doesn’t mean magical thinking. It means you’re going to stick at a thing until eventually it gets done. We find a lot of people give up too easily and then they stop trying – and that’s not good enough. One of the reasons we wrote Fairhaven is so that it’s a shared vision of a future that doesn’t suck.

Taking a starting point and saying, “okay, this is a tough nut to crack”. And now I’m going to talk about how people get through all of that and find a way of resolving it is much more intellectually interesting.

Steve, I’ve got to ask you this again given your background in oil and gas. What was your thinking when it came to the fossil fuels industry running through the narrative and how fossil fuels are much part of the positive outcome envisaged in the book?

Steve Willis: There’s a number of big themes that we choose not to look at. One of the obvious things is about how renewables develops. So, renewables has got to be done and so on and so forth. That is already taking place and there’s already a transition to some extent, slow though it is, away from the fossil fuels. There are fabulous conversations I have with people in the oil industry who say, “I used to be the good guy. I used to provide cheap energy for society. And now I’m the bad guy. How on earth did that happen?”

Exactly what becomes of the oil industry we don’t state because I don’t know exactly where that’s going. But the piece that we do talk about is the decommissioning of the oil platforms. There are hundreds of oil platforms in Southeast Asia, and they are the best coral reefs in the ocean and the part of the ocean restoration work that we described fictionally is to take what they call the jackets, which is the legs of the platforms and take them and cut them into smaller pieces, move them into shallower water where the habitat has been destroyed by trawling and put back the habitat that used to be there. So you’re taking the redundant pieces of the old industry and you’re using it as the foundation for the new industry and you build what we call “sea orchards” in the story in the biggest possible scale that you can imagine.

Genevieve Hilton: I do want to raise one more point on that, which is one of our three main characters is Marina Zainal – she’s a Malaysian aristocrat. She comes from a wealthy family, which is involved in the oil exploration business. Right when we meet her, she’s on her way to COP 31. She’s having something of an existential crisis, talking to the head of her family office about what is the future of their business. How are they going to maintain the fortunes of the Zainal family as time passes? And clearly the old ways are not going to work. And that is what sets her on a different path. She ends up being the one who starts the Sea Orchards project and then later on hires our hero, Grace Chan.

Genevieve, you wrote under the pen name, Jan Lee. You thought that it was important for your pen name to have a more, I guess, Asian flavour, right?

Genevieve Hilton: Actually, no, I have been writing science fiction under the pen name Jan Lee for a while already – and that was to separate my professional life from my fiction writing life, so it wouldn’t get confused. If I’m appearing on a press release or a sustainability report and someone else sees my work about aliens or whatever… But it’s not supposed to be an Asian name. Jan could be male or female. Lee could be more or less any ethnicity. 

That said, Asia is most affected by climate change and where the solutions may come from. One of the things you might find interesting about the book is that it is not centred on the Big 3 - US, China or EU, but on Southeast Asia. One of the projects is from a small team from Japan. There is a part that is centred on the island nations of the Pacific. We found a fascinating way to look at the climate issue from a different lens. 

What’s your view on the power of individual action versus system change to stop climate meltdown?

Steve Willis: The value of individual action depends on what you view as individual action. So in the book what Grace Chan is doing is individual action and she goes out and she does some massive things, and that’s what we should aspire to. To my mind, individual action is: Have I covered my whole footprint? That’s a base point. Then is have I covered the whole footprint of my family. And then have I covered the whole footprint of my wider family and my street. It’s an expanding challenge. Once you’ve done a thing, it becomes possible to do the next thing, which is bigger. So what is individual action? It’s a lot bigger than people think.

What about individual action within the context of a big company, Genevieve?

Genevieve Hilton: Well, there are two points. One is that individual actions like going vegan or separating your waste are not going to fix the problem by themselves. But I have been in a lot of boardrooms and conference rooms where senior executives who control massive amounts of capital are making decisions. “Do they take more sustainable action A or less sustainable action B?”

The question they ask is, do the customers want it? And it doesn’t take that many customers saying they want it for this senior executive to feel as if he or she is beset on all sides by requests for sustainability. If the sales people come back to the regional business unit heads and say “look, my customers want this” or “they’re demanding this, it happens pretty fast.”

On the other hand, one of the things we really want to show in this book is that there is a role for everyone. So Grace Chan in the beginning chapter of the book, she’s working on this project called Fairhaven, which is a coastal adaptation project set in Penang. There are a lot of people working on this, and it involves everyone from engineers, but also PR people, and yes, journalists as well.

Tell us about how solutions were woven into the book. Genevieve, you’ve written science fiction. Was there a temptation to feature quite far fetched climate solutions into the book, like geoenginneering and blocking the sun?

Genevieve Hilton: A lot of climate fiction and science fiction does depend on what they call “magical thinking”. So there’s some technological solution that has already been done or fixed, like efficient fusion power. That is something that we have endeavoured not to include in this book. These are things that can be done.

Steve Willis: There’s three main groups of solutions. The title of the book is Fairhaven and it’s about Penang. And Penang is an area that already suffers from flooding. Back in 2017, it was flooded up to the letter boxes. There’s a large low lying area there, and whether it’s eventually done or not, it’s a great example of the scale of the work that needs to be done.

We know what needs to be done on Singapore, what can be done in pieces of Shanghai and elsewhere. It’s a really, really big project, much larger than anything that’s on the books at the moment. So it’s adaptation to the inevitable change that’s coming and accepting the fact tha, if we’re going to build a new area, we’ve got this great big new piece of land that we can use. We can build, in effect, a new capital city to take over some of the the city life that is in Jakarta and Bangkok, which will be badly affected by sea-level rise. 

The second one is ocean-related. So, when I looked out 50 years in the future and what is out there that is really important that we’re not doing at all today – one is the massive scale ocean restoration.

They often say that coral reefs are as productive as rainforests. And it’s far easier to put out a great big new area of sea orchard that you’re managing carefully than it is to plant a new rainforest. So you take the load off the rest of the ocean, you make it a great big new area, you fish in a more sensible way, and you don’t trawl at all because trawling is an extraordinarily destructive way of fishing.

The third piece is the refreezing of the Arctic. So when we talk about this, people say, ‘Oh, that’s ridiculous’. You’re never going to do that. But actually refreezing of the Arctic is quite a practicable thing to do.

So there’s four small teams working on it today. They haven’t got very much funding, so they haven’t got very far. But in the book, we take a long shot and cast our eye on the future. We assume that some of these groups get enough money to do a big refreezing project.

The principle is quite simple. You would go up into the high Arctic with an ice-hardened tug, and you use the existing firefighting equipment pumps to pump seawater on to freshly formed sea ice to make the sea ice thicker.

There are 850 oil field supply vessels in cold storage not being used. There are probably a couple of hundred boats that you could take out, clean up, and have up there by Christmas this year if you wanted to do it.

It’s something you could actually do and start purposefully putting the ice back. And it would also show society as a whole, that here’s a really big thing and we’re having a go. It would give people heart to say, ‘all right, if that’s happening, I won’t go on an AirAsia flight to wherever, I’ll take the train to somewhere else’ and it will encourage people to reduce their consumption because they could see something big being done.

It seems like it would take a lot of energy to refreeze the Arctic…?

Steve Willis: We’re engineers. Obviously we’ve explored all of that. The amount of energy you need to use in a pump is very much dependent on how high you’re pumping the water. We’re not throwing the water very high or far into the air to refreeze it. A modern ship with a modern pump can shift a vast amount of water for relatively little energy. The amount of ice you get for the amount of fuel that you use is enormous. 

Steve, have you had any pushback given your background in oil and gas? Have you had any negative feedback around the book as an oil and gas engineer proposing a positive outcome from climate change?

Steve Willis: It’s a fair question. I know a lot of people within the industry and they on the whole are really quite interested. We’ve done a job recently with a equipment supplier and they make pumping equipment for the oil and gas industry. They’ve worked out that that’s not going to be the same in 50 years’ time or even 10 years’ time.

So within the industry, people are really quite keen to see another way. Outside the industry, people struggle with the numbers and the concept of how big the problem is. If you’re going to undo the damage that has got us into the climate crisis, it has to be done at the scale at which the damage was done. Which means you have to do it with the industries that did the damage. You have to find a way to turn them around. You have to use the industries which have the capability at the moment to do big projects.

I would agree that there has to be some involvement from the fossil fuel industry in designing and engineering solution. It’s just that we haven’t seen the pivot from the fossil fuel industry that we need…

Steve Willis: And that’s part of the reason for writing a vision that they [the fossil fuel industry] can buy into. It’s also for the shipping guys who can say, ‘Actually, I ought to be doing that. I should fund that project.’

In some ways, the chapters are like pitches to industry [to get involved in climate solutions]. Here’s a project, this is how it starts, and this is what it’s like two, five, and 10 years out. These are the businesses of the future to which the other companies will transition.

So your book could be a nudge in the ribs to carbon intensive industries?

Genevieve Hilton: I spent a long part of my career inside companies trying to convince my colleagues that they should get to know the activists. Maybe the environmentalists could come up with solutions that could be helpful. Almost 100 per cent of the time, when we as a company would reach out and engage with the activists, and help them understand how the company works better, there was some positive outcome.

Since I have left industry, I’m now a little bit on the other side of the fence working with the NGOs (non-governmental organisations), and helping to teach and train them about how companies work, so you get a company to change its actions. 

There’s this myth of the monolith – the monolithical giant company that has a hundred thousand people all in lockstep believing that fossil fuels are great, and we should just take what we can get from Mother Earth.

There are many, many different opinions within a company. Even within a board of directors if you have eight people on your board, probably with eight different opinions. So how can we bring those opinions together, take advantage of that complex decision-making structure to move that giant organisation to work towards solutions?

This is where we actually need to make that connection. The world of fiction is a wonderful way to do it because you can describe what it looks like. We can show them a picture. Here’s what the sea orchards look like – we’ve painted a picture in words. 

That is so necessary for someone who’s in a big organisation with lots of competing interests to see what could it look like. How could they be part of the solution instead of part of the problem? Nobody wants to be the bad guy. They want to be that part of the solution.

How has the process of writing this book changed you?

Steve Willis: The very first story that I wrote was Saving the Titanics. It looks at the Titanic story and how there could be a different [positive] outcome.

There was a lot of despondency around COP28. From talking to delegates about fiction and having a vision of a pathway to a future that works, they go, ‘Yeah that’s a good idea why haven’t we got one?’.

So everybody is puzzling away on their little piece of the silo and no one has tried to see the bigger picture because they all think it’s somebody else’s job.

But the writing of that bigger picture is something like we’ve stumbled into, but it’s a very important part of the puzzle – what is the picture on the box?

Genevieve Hilton: Fighting climate change is not about trying to win against an enemy. There’s not one side who is good and another side who’s evil, who’s hell bent on doing bad things. There are many sides, and we need to see cooperation and collaboration to allow people to work together on this problem in large groups. That is the only way that we’re going to make it work.

The transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity


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