Why Do We Fail When We Try to Tell the Story of Climate Change?

Perhaps we don’t want to see climate horrors clearly.

The Hollywood sign submerged in water
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Anastasia Taioglou on Unsplash and Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images.

David Wallace-Wells will discuss his new book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, with writer Bina Venkataraman at a Future Tense event in New York on Tuesday. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

It should be no great prize to be right about the end of the world. But humans have told those stories incessantly, across millennia, the lessons shifting with each imagined Armageddon. You’d think that a culture woven through with intimations of apocalypse would know how to receive news of environmental alarm. But instead we have responded to scientists channeling the planet’s cries for mercy as though they were simply crying wolf. Climate change movies may be millenarian, but when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers—what happens after The Day After Tomorrow—pop culture suffers from an incredible failure of imagination. This is climate’s kaleidoscope: We can be mesmerized by the threat directly in front of us without ever perceiving it clearly.

In a storytelling culture obsessed with bigger stories and higher stakes, climate change should be irresistible. And yet when we try to tell the story—whether it’s motivated by politics or the genre intuition that climate change is horror at the grandest scale—we fail, invariably, to do it well. Why?

On-screen, climate devastation is everywhere you look, and yet nowhere in focus, as though we are displacing our anxieties about global warming by restaging them in theaters of our own design and control—perhaps out of hope that the end of days remains “fantasy.” We don’t want to see climate horrors clearly, for the obvious reasons, and so the list of TV shows and movies that approach it in an off-kilter way is almost too easy to compile. Game of Thrones opens with an unmistakable climate prophecy but warns “winter is coming”; the premise of Interstellar is an environmental scourge, but the scourge is a crop blight. Children of Men depicts civilization in semi-collapse, but collapsed by a fertility menace. Mad Max: Fury Road unfurls like a global-warming panorama, a scrolling saga of a world made desert, but its political crisis comes, in fact, from an oil shortage. The protagonist of The Last Man on Earth is made that way by a sweeping virus, the family of A Quiet Place is hushed by giant insect predators lurking in the wilderness, and the central cataclysm of the “Apocalypse” season of American Horror Story is a throwback—a nuclear winter. In the many zombie apocalypses of this era of ecological anxiety, the zombies are invariably rendered as an alien force, not an endemic one. That is, not as us.

What does it mean to be entertained by a fictional apocalypse as we stare down the possibility of a real one? One job of pop culture is always to serve stories that distract even as they appear to engage—to deliver sublimation and diversion. In a time of cascading climate change, Hollywood is also trying to make sense of our evolving relationship to nature. We have long regarded the environment from at least arm’s length and assumed we had built our way out of it. Climate change is making us acknowledge it again—both that we live within nature, and all the ways we have damaged it and therefore made ourselves vulnerable to it. The adjudication of that guilt is another thing entertainment can do, when law and public policy fail, though our culture, like our politics, specializes in assigning the blame to others—in projecting rather than accepting guilt. A form of emotional prophylaxis is also at work: In fictional stories of climate catastrophe, we may also be looking for catharsis and collectively trying to persuade ourselves we might survive it.

It may seem likely that our imaginations will be totally colonized by climate change if, over the coming decades, the world is, too—as warming transforms, in most cases by deforming, our politics, our relationship to capitalism and technology, our sense of history and social justice.

But actually, I’m not so sure culture will change in that way—in fact, I suspect the opposite. Already, with the world having warmed just 1 degree Celsius since the 1800s, wildfires and heat waves and hurricanes have inundated the news. They promise to cascade shortly through our stories and inner lives, making what may seem today a culture suffused with intuitions of doom look like a comparatively naïve season. End-of-the-world nightmares will blossom, including in children’s bedrooms, where siblings once whispered worries over the fact of death or the meaning of godlessness or the possibility of protracted nuclear war; among their parents, climate trauma will take its place in the pop-psychological vernacular, if often as a scapegoat for more personal frustrations and anxieties. What will happen at 2 degrees, or 3? Presumably, as climate change colonizes and darkens our lives and our world, it will do the same for our nonfiction, so much so that climate change may come to be regarded, at least by some, as the only truly serious subject.

In what was once praised as “high” culture, a different, weirder course suggests itself. At first, the onrush of change might propel us backward, culturally. Perhaps we may see a revival of the antiquated genre known as “Dying Earth”—initiated in English by Lord Byron with his poem “Darkness,” written after a volcano eruption in the East Indies gave the Northern Hemisphere “The Year Without a Summer.” This is a musty precedent, but is actually the way the world responded when first alarmed by environmental disorder in the Victorian era, including with H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, which depicted a distant future in which most humans were enslaved troglodytes, laboring underground for the benefit of a pampered and very small aboveground elite; in an even further future, almost all life on Earth had died. Dystopias like these already appear in our YA fiction, which should probably not surprise us, given how much more fiercely teens seem to feel the pressure of climate change than their parents. In the years to come, we might also see a wave of epic lamentations—as climate journalist Kate Aronoff has pointed out, the ones we’ve seen already do seem to make it a distinctly male style—and a flourishing of what’s been called “climate existentialism.” One scientist recently described to me the book she was working on as “Between the World and Me meets The Road.”

But the scope of the world’s transformation may just as quickly eliminate this genre—indeed eliminate any effort to narrativize warming, at all, once it grows too large and too obvious even for Hollywood. You can tell stories “about” climate change while it still seems a marginal feature of human life, or an overwhelming feature of lives marginal to your own. This is how you get something like The Day After Tomorrow—movie executives considering climate change enough of a strange curiosity that it might redeem what is otherwise a completely flat film.

But at 3 degrees of warming, or 4, hardly anyone will be able to feel insulated from its impacts—or want to watch it on-screen as they watch it out their windows. And so as climate change expands across the horizon—as it begins to seem inescapable, total—it may cease to be a story and become, instead, an all-encompassing setting. No longer a narrative, it would recede into what literary theorists call metanarrative, succeeding those—like religious truth or faith in progress—that have governed the culture of earlier eras. This would be a world in which there isn’t much appetite anymore for epic dramas about oil and greed, and where even romantic comedies would be staged under the sign of warming, as surely as screwball comedies were extruded by the anxieties of the Great Depression. Science fiction would be seen as even more prophetic, but the books that most eerily predicted the crisis will go unread, much like The Jungle or even Sister Carrie today: Why read about the world you can see plainly for yourself? At the moment, stories illustrating global warming can still offer an escapist pleasure, even if that pleasure often comes in the form of horror. But when we can no longer pretend that climate suffering is distant—in time or in place—we will stop pretending about it and start pretending within it. Often, I think, by turning away.

The Uninhabitable Earth book cover

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.