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Can Climate Fiction Save The World?

Can Climate Fiction Save The World?

Editor’s Note: Lorin R. Robinson’s cli-fi book Tales from The Warming is an anthology of ten short stories taking readers all over the world and over time to experience—in human terms—the growing impact of climate change. Click here to order your copy.

Used to be that when people ran out of things to say, conversations almost inevitably turned to the weather. But now conversations often begin with the weather as the impact of global warming becomes increasingly and lamentably apparent.

Global warming—let’s take the obvious linguistic shortcut and simply call it “the warming”—has until recently been framed primarily in scientific terms.  What’s happening to our planet has been and is being thoroughly documented, described and defined by climate and earth science. But the science-based warnings about the climate crisis have largely gone unheeded.

Despite decades of red flags, recent polls indicate that fewer than 70 percent of Americans believe global warming is real and that the phenomenon’s existence is supported by solid evidence. Only nine percent rank the warming as their biggest worry. Polling data also puts the warming at the bottom of the list of American’s environmental concerns. Further, 57 percent do not expect it to threaten their ways of life.

The reasons for this apparent apathy are several. They include the long and well-financed campaign of disinformation, pseudo-science and lobbying mounted by the petrochemical, coal and utility industries to discredit the science behind the warnings. They have spent uncounted millions in an effort to convince the public that the warming isn’t real. Failing that, their focus shifted to blaming a “natural warming cycle” as the culprit instead of greenhouse gas emissions. Failing that, now we’re being told that the forecast negative impacts are exaggerated.

For another explanation we need to look inside our heads. It’s so difficult to change people’s minds or warn them of potential dangers because we employ mental defense mechanisms to protect us from information we believe to be threatening or contrary to our existing beliefs. The tools?  Selective Exposure, Selective Perception and Selective Retention. If we can avoid aversive information, we chose not to expose ourselves to it; if we happen to be exposed, we modify the information to fit our preconceived notions; if we are unable to do either, we simply forget it more rapidly than information that’s not scary or with which we agree.

Then, too, science sometimes can be its own worst enemy. Couching warnings in scientific jargon, statistics, charts and graphs can render people comatose. Because writing about implications, “what ifs”, is outside the realm of objective science, people are left struggling to understand why they should care. They can’t relate what they’re reading and hearing to their own realities.

However, it’s been suggested that fiction based on warming scenarios proposed by climate science could help bridge the gap. Enter the recently named new literary genre—climate fiction (cli-fi).

In discussing her recent novel, Flight Behavior (2012), Barbara Kingsolver said:

“There’s a new term, cli-fi (for climate fiction, a play on sci-fi), that’s being used to describe books in which an altered climate is part of the plot. Dystopic novels used to concentrate only on hideous political regimes, as in George Orwell’s 1984. Now, however, they’re more likely to take place in a challenging landscape that no longer resembles the hospitable planet we’ve taken for granted.

“Why do we believe or disbelieve the evidence we see for climate change?  I really wanted to look into how we make those choices and how it’s possible to begin a conversation across some of these divides between scientists and nonscientists, between rural and urban, between progressive and conservative.

“Science doesn’t tell us what we should do,” Kingsolver wrote in Flight Behavior. “It only tells us what is.”

Climate fiction, of course, isn’t new. But the name is. In 2007, journalist Dan Bloom affixed the title “cli-fi” to what he saw as a distinct literary genre consisting of new and older fiction not correctly categorized.

Several well-known older dystopian works by British author J.G. Ballard, for example, dealt with climate-related natural disasters.  In The Wind from Nowhere (1961), civilization is reduced by persistent hurricane-force winds.  The Drowned World (1962) describes a future of melted ice-caps and rising sea-levels caused by solar radiation. In The Burning World (1964) his climate catastrophe is human-made, a drought due to disruption of the precipitation cycle by industrial pollution.

Today all three novels seem eerily prescient.

Margaret Atwood explored the subject in her dystopian trilogy Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013). She presents a world where “social inequality, genetic technology and catastrophic climate change finally culminates in an apocalyptic event.”


Defintions of climate fiction vary widely but most contain similar language:  Literature that deals with climate change and global warming. Not necessarily speculative in nature, works of cli-fi may take place in the world as we know it or in the near future.

Thus, Cli-fi has evolved from a subgenre of science fiction into a class of its own. Unlike traditional sci-fi, its stories seldom focus on imaginary technologies, alien invasions, space travel or faraway planets. Instead, the pivotal themes include the impact on civilization of pollution, rising sea levels, increasing temperatures and violent weather.

Can climate fiction help people bridge the gap between the unemotional and rudderless objectivity of science and the potentially devastating human impact of the warming? Do novels that explore what the world could become in the throes of the warming have the ability to motivate people to take the threat seriously and to consider what must be done to blunt its impact?

Some observers have expressed doubts, citing the very human tendency described earlier to avoid exposure to aversive or scary information. This way of approaching and imagining the warming, they say, is often bleak, paralyzing and not conducive to thinking about how we can begin to adapt, adjust and negate this potentially civilization-changing phenomenon.

They suggest that, unless efforts are made by authors to insert hope into their novels, reading cli-fi can leave one feeling profoundly powerless.

Stories, of course, can never be a solution in themselves, but they do have the capacity to inspire action.

As Atwood wrote in MaddAddam, “People need such stories, because, however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void.”

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