The Climate Crisis Is Mind-Boggling. That’s Why We Need Science Fiction.

Only 29% of Americans report being “very worried” about the climate crisis. Climate fiction writers can help change that.

Amy Brady June 17, 2019

Illustration by Matthew Laznicka

Cli­mate fic­tion, or cli-fi ” as it’s some­times called, has offi­cial­ly explod­ed onto the lit­er­ary scene. The genre has been around since at least the 1960s, with such writ­ers as Mar­garet Atwood, Octavia But­ler and J.G. Bal­lard giv­ing ear­ly nar­ra­tive shape to the cli­mate cri­sis. Those clas­sic works helped inspire waves of cli-fi over the past 60 years, rang­ing from futur­is­tic sci-fi to lit­er­ary fic­tion set in the present day, and even main­stream movies. George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty writ­ing pro­fes­sor Michael Svo­bo­da recent­ly list­ed a bevy of cli­mate-themed films that hit the­aters in 2018, includ­ing the dystopi­an films Down­siz­ing star­ring Matt Damon and First Reformed star­ring Ethan Hawke.

Cli-fi is leading the charge to envision new, sustainable and compassionate social structures.

Clear­ly, Amer­i­cans are inter­est­ed in the top­ic. Accord­ing to a 2018 poll con­duct­ed by the Yale Pro­gram on Cli­mate Change Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, a record num­ber of Amer­i­cans — a full 73% — believe that cli­mate change is happening.

Yet, accord­ing to the same poll, only 29% report being very wor­ried,” despite an increase in the num­ber and sever­i­ty of hur­ri­canes and tor­na­dos, a wors­en­ing of wild­fires and the spread of inva­sive species, even with­in the rel­a­tive­ly cli­mate-sta­ble Unit­ed States.

Why do Amer­i­cans have such a hard time grasp­ing the dire threat posed by cli­mate change? In his 2015 non­fic­tion book, What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Glob­al Warm­ing: Toward a New Psy­chol­o­gy of Cli­mate Action, psy­chol­o­gist Per Espen Stok­nes argues it’s because politi­cians and the media tend to present cli­mate change as a series of abstract facts and cold sta­tis­tics, which do lit­tle to appeal to the human heart.

Where sta­tis­tics-heavy media reports fall short, cli­mate fic­tion writ­ers are fill­ing the gap. Works of cli-fi bring the present real­i­ty — and poten­tial future — of cli­mate change into sharp­er focus: floods, fires and extreme weath­er events are depict­ed as the new nor­mal. But it’s not the sci­ence behind the cri­sis writ­ers are focused on — it’s human behavior. 

In a recent pan­el con­ver­sa­tion I mod­er­at­ed that includ­ed nov­el­ist Omar El Akkad (author of the dystopi­an Amer­i­can War), one audi­ence mem­ber asked El Akkad whether he cares about get­ting the sci­ence right in his work. El Akkad’s response: I care about get­ting the irra­tional­i­ty of [human exis­tence] right. I think if you can get peo­ple to a place where they rec­og­nize their own irra­tional­i­ty, you might have a shot [at con­vinc­ing them to change their ways].”

By cap­tur­ing that pro­found irra­tional­i­ty — the con­tra­dic­tion between our refusal to give up fos­sil fuels even while using them leads to the destruc­tion of moun­tain­tops, inter­na­tion­al con­flict and glob­al warm­ing to a degree nev­er before expe­ri­enced by humans — authors like El Akkad serve as wit­ness­es to a trans­for­ma­tive moment in his­to­ry, a moment when we are becom­ing aware of our dis­as­trous influ­ence over the nat­ur­al world and what that means for the future of our society.

Matthew Schnei­der-May­er­son, assis­tant pro­fes­sor of envi­ron­men­tal stud­ies at Yale-NUS Col­lege, sur­veyed more than 100 U.S.-based read­ers and found that works of cli­mate fic­tion nudge [their] audi­ence in a slight­ly more pro­gres­sive direc­tion” and that most read­ers attest­ed to the val­ue of cli-fi as a tool for enabling the imag­i­na­tion of poten­tial cli­mate futures.” One read­er, an IT admin­is­tra­tor from Ten­nessee, was par­tic­u­lar­ly struck by Nao­mi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s fic­tion­al his­to­ry, The Col­lapse of West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion: A View From the Future, a har­row­ing tale in which humans bare­ly sur­vive the wide­spread cat­a­stro­phe of glob­al warm­ing. The read­er report­ed that cli­mate change was more the­o­ret­i­cal before. Now, while fic­tion, the book has made me more aware of what our plan­et could become.” The read­er also report­ed sub­se­quent­ly [shar­ing] the book with his wife and son, among oth­ers.” Oth­er read­ers also report­ed shar­ing their favorite cli-fi sto­ries with loved ones, a pat­tern that sug­gests cli­mate fic­tion might be a use­ful tool to open dia­logues about the cri­sis with those clos­est to us.

But dystopi­an nar­ra­tives can also have a par­a­lyz­ing effect on read­ers, despite cli­mate fiction’s abil­i­ty to dri­ve home the grav­i­ty of the cri­sis. In the same study, Schnei­der-May­er­son writes, From the emo­tions these read­ers described, it is clear that their affec­tive respons­es were not only neg­a­tive but demo­bi­liz­ing. While some neg­a­tive emo­tions (such as anger) can be fuel for per­son­al or polit­i­cal action, oth­ers (such as guilt, shame, help­less­ness and sad­ness) are much less like­ly to lead to active responses.” 

In oth­er words, the dystopi­an fram­ing of cli-fi nar­ra­tives might actu­al­ly be under­min­ing their poten­tial to spur polit­i­cal and social change.

Schnei­der-May­er­son goes on, In place of doom, psy­chol­o­gists sug­gest that cli­mate com­mu­ni­ca­tions be framed pos­i­tive­ly,” which might include … val­ues and a com­mon cause’ and oppor­tu­ni­ties for inno­va­tion and job growth.’ ” Some cli-fi nov­els are doing just that, mov­ing away from fire and brim­stone in favor of some­thing per­haps more polit­i­cal­ly effec­tive: telling nar­ra­tives of col­lec­tive action. Schnei­der-May­er­son notes, These are not the dom­i­nant themes in the nascent canon of Amer­i­can cli­mate fic­tion, though a num­ber of these works — espe­cial­ly [Bar­bara Kingsolver’s] Flight Behav­ior and [Clara Hume’s] Back to the Gar­den—were inter­pret­ed by read­ers as con­tain­ing mes­sages relat­ed to pre­pared­ness and resilience.’ ”

Such cli-fi that depicts peo­ple band­ing togeth­er to address the cli­mate cri­sis can help read­ers rec­og­nize the pow­er of col­lec­tive action. El Akkad’s hope of get­ting peo­ple to a place where they rec­og­nize their own irra­tional­i­ty” might be under­stood this way: If we acknowl­edge that cli­mate change is a prod­uct of our own col­lec­tive mak­ing, then we might simul­ta­ne­ous­ly real­ize we have the pow­er to col­lec­tive­ly fix it.

The main­stream film indus­try has yet to catch on to this pos­i­tive fram­ing.” In a recent arti­cle in Lit­er­ary Hub, Rebec­ca Sol­nit cri­tiques the typ­i­cal sto­ry­line of recent cli­mate dis­as­ter movies: The stan­dard action movie nar­ra­tive requires one excep­tion­al per­son in the fore­ground, which requires the rest of the char­ac­ters to be on the spec­trum from use­less to clue­less to wicked, plus a few mod­er­ate­ly help­ful aux­il­iary char­ac­ters. There are not a lot of movies about mag­nif­i­cent col­lec­tive action.” Down­siz­ing, First Reformed and Mar­vel Stu­dios’ Infin­i­ty War and Endgame all fea­ture envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns, but these movies still focus on sin­gu­lar indi­vid­u­als try­ing to save the plan­et, often through super­hu­man means, when in real­i­ty no one per­son can stop cli­mate change.

Kim Stan­ley Robinson’s 2017 nov­el New York 2140 offers one such view of mean­ing­ful col­lec­tive action. The book depicts a New York City par­tial­ly sub­merged by sea lev­els a full 50 feet high­er than where they are in 2019. For the city’s rich elite, lit­tle has changed — they’re still mak­ing mil­lions from their desks in high-ris­es. But the major­i­ty of the city’s pop­u­la­tion has begun to sour on hyper-indi­vid­u­al­ism and free mar­ket ide­ol­o­gy. As a super­storm bar­rels its way to New York, we see forms of col­lec­tive action stir up and cul­mi­nate in small move­ments through­out the city: Mid­dle-class home­own­ers form a union and a mutu­al aid soci­ety coor­di­nates the dis­tri­b­u­tion of resources dur­ing storms. The city becomes home to open uni­ver­si­ties, free trade schools, and free art schools” as New York­ers seek to live more com­mu­nal­ly. By the novel’s end, a hous­ing bub­ble bursts and an extreme weath­er event throws life into chaos. How New York­ers col­lec­tive­ly respond is best left unspoiled, but suf­fice it to say they main­tain their hope­ful deter­mi­na­tion to weath­er the storm, while cap­i­tal­ism, it seems, may be see­ing its final days, amid a glob­al move­ment to nation­al­ize the world’s banks.

Of course, read­ing cli­mate fic­tion won’t change the world alone, nor will sim­ply imag­in­ing cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe and its poten­tial solu­tions. Cre­at­ing real social change requires real polit­i­cal action, such as the mas­sive, youth-led Sun­rise Move­ment, which advo­cates for the Green New Deal. To achieve a liv­able future in a cli­mate-changed world, we need pol­i­cy reforms on a glob­al scale.

But cli-fi has the poten­tial to inspire us to get start­ed. Rather than be dis­cour­aged by bleak sci­en­tif­ic reports or the doom and gloom of today’s pop­u­lar cli­mate-relat­ed films, nov­els like Robinson’s — and oth­ers, like Richard Pow­ers’ 2018 The Over­sto­ry, a Pulitzer Prize win­ner that fea­tures an anti-log­ging protest camp — are lead­ing the charge to envi­sion new, more sus­tain­able and com­pas­sion­ate social struc­tures. Amer­i­cans already know cli­mate change is hap­pen­ing; now we need to believe we can band togeth­er to stop it.

Amy Brady is the deputy pub­lish­er of Guer­ni­ca Mag­a­zine and the edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor of the Chica­go Review of Books. Her writ­ing on art, lit­er­a­ture and cli­mate change has appeared in the New Repub­lic, O mag­a­zine, Pacif­ic Stan­dard, the L.A. Times and elsewhere.
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