Future Tense

If You Still Don’t Get How Global Warming Will Alter Everything, Read Some Climate Fiction

Officials in the Marshall Islands blamed climate change on March 5, 2014, for severe flooding in the Pacific nation’s capital.

Photo by GIFF JOHNSON/AFP/Getty Images

Earth is hotter in 2016 than it has been in 115,000 years, according to a (not yet peer-reviewed) paper from climate change pioneer and former NASA scientist James Hansen and an international team of colleagues, published Oct. 4.

Colossal numbers like this are certainly alarming. But the bombshells that should motivate us to start making big changes immediately often fall into a familiar trap of troubling climate change news. Climate change is a gradual force, a creeping calamity. The roughly half of us who believe it’s caused by human activity say, “We’ve got to do something about this, and quick.” But it’s abstract. The signal of a changing climate is too easily lost in the noise of fluctuating weather patterns and the usual daily catastrophes of the 24-hours news cycle. Other divisive issues, like abortion rights, are more tangible, and they come with human protagonists and antagonists. As Phil Plait put it: “Part of the problem … is the scope and scale of climate change itself coupled with our puny brains trying to deal with it.”

This is where climate fiction can help out. A genre of speculative storytelling dedicated to exploring the effects of climate change on humans and Earth, climate fiction is an increasingly recognizable part of the literary landscape, with entries in 2015 alone ranging from Paolo Bacigalupi’s hardboiled thriller The Water Knife to Claire Vaye Watkins’ dreamy Gold Fame Citrus. Climate fiction makes climate change a stage for playing out compelling human dramas: fractured families, political intrigue, bitter arguments. It’s flexible enough to accommodate thrilling stories about geoengineering and water wars, but also more reflective, elegiac narratives (like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior) about people’s frustration or wistful nostalgia for a world and a way of life being wiped away.

Like a lot of good literature, climate fiction can help us to empathize with people whose lives are utterly different from our own. When I talked with Bacigalupi about this last fall, he said that fostering empathy is fiction’s “superpower.” In The Water Knife, he unfolds a story of a climate change-powered megadrought in the U.S. Southwest through the eyes of a jaded hired gun, a climate refugee forced into sex work for subsistence, and a fatally persistent investigative journalist. Each character illuminates different aspects of the climate crisis, helping us to construct a holistic picture of the messy human consequences of drastic environmental transformation.

Presenting a diversity of perspectives is important, because climate change looks dramatically different depending on where you are and who you are. In Everything Change—a new, free anthology of climate fiction I co-edited—our stories take place in locations including Tibet, Madagascar, Venice, Malaysia, and rural New England. In some of these places, the stories show climate change leading to catastrophic flooding or extreme storm systems, while in others, it ignites ethnic tensions, kills coral reefs, destroys local crops and indigenous cuisines, fuels catastrophic wildfires, or turns a sturdy umbrella into a rare and expensive treasure. And in almost every story in the book, climate change sets off deep conversations, vexing arguments, and frustrated hopes and ambitions within friendships, families, romantic relationships, and small, close-knit communities. (Everything Change is published by Arizona State University’s Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative; Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, ASU, and New America.)

Climate fiction can help us see how a rapidly changing planet affects people in a host of geographically specific ways. The challenges are very different in coastal regions than in landlocked cities. Changes in the planet’s temperature might create floods, fires, or food shortages, as we’ve all heard, but also rampant xenophobia and other surprising manifestations. Our stories highlight how the disruptions caused by climate change will likely exacerbate existing inequalities based on race, ethnicity, social class, gender, religion, and more. In Everything Change, for elites, climate change might be an occasion for an unexpected political realignment, or the establishment of secret mountain oases where privileged people rebuild the world with the help of advanced science. For marginalized people, it often spells displacement, deprivation, unsafe food and water, and increased scrutiny from law enforcement and military forces. Climate fiction makes these nuances emotionally immediate. Intellectually, sure, we know that a changing climate matters differently in different geographic locations. But the right story can help make those distinctions feel real and urgent. It broadens the scope of our personal experience of climate change beyond the vagaries of the weather.

Some of the most moving stories in our anthology are about resilience and mutual support: a Burning Man-style collective of geo-hackers working on the fringes of society to save the Florida Everglades, or a family of Venetian artisans safeguarding the traditions of gondola-building and glass-blowing even as the city itself is reclaimed by rising seas. In another story, two young climate refugees face a bleak future living rough on tiny boats tethered to a rocky island, but they find hope and exhilaration in the bespoke bicycles they build meticulously from salvaged scrap metal.

It’s too late to avoid the effects of climate change entirely; it’s already happening. Climate fiction is an affordable laboratory for ideas about how we can adapt in the face of change, and how we can respond in ways that are equitable and ensure livable lives for the most vulnerable populations.