Climate Change Fiction of the 21st Century
If there is one genre of fiction that has celebrated global disasters, it is science fiction. The villains are Artificial Intelligence gone berserk, alien invasions, pandemics brought in by virus infection, global famines because of crop failure. All these have been themes that have spawned gripping dystopian stories of doom. However, we can now add another sub-genre to these annals: disasters caused by global warming.
Climate change has a languid pace, which gives it deceptive innocuousness. It takes decades for the temperature to rise by 1 degree Celsius. The sea levels rise at the rate of millimetres in a year. This slowness of climate change does not register in human perception as a hazard. Amitav Ghosh compares our inability to perceive the dangers of climate change to how the people of Sunderbans react to the tigers that live in those forests. Despite being aware of the presence, the tigers are not perceived as threats. In Ghosh’s words (1), “The tiger is watching you; you are aware of its gaze, as you always are, but you do not see it; you do not lock eyes with it until it launches its charge, and at that moment, a shock courses through you and you are immobilised, frozen”.
Reports on climate change science published by global bodies like the IPCC use the restrained language preferred by science. The writings articulate the problem without shouting about the immediacy of the impending danger with the result that there is no forewarning to elicit a strong reaction from people.
Climate change fiction has grown around three main themes: the new ice age, the burning world and the drowned world. The last has a resonance in the Western mythos, dating back to stories of the deluge in the Bible. A new ice age is related to the melting of the Antarctic icebergs shifting huge volumes into the North Atlantic, creating large-scale ocean circulation patterns, pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere and reducing the so-called greenhouse effect.
With ‘The Drowned World’, J.G. Ballard launched science fiction’s “New Wave”. It vividly depicts the atrocities associated with industrialisation, capitalism, and colonialism. In ‘The Drowned World (1962)’, the Earth is drowned under an unstable, smouldering Sun. Earth burns in the second book, The Burning World (1964), and the final book, The Crystal World (1966), sees everything turning to crystals. Ballard considered these three works as stories of transformation(2).
In the 1960s and 1970s, the environment movement embraced science fiction and its penchant for promoting alternative cultural values. For example, the book ‘Ecotopia’ (1975) by Ernest Callenbach describes a group in the pacific northwest that declares freedom from the US to set up a political entity based on sustainability, recycling, minimal use of fossil fuels, localised food production, and gender equality(3). The message is that new environmental idealism requires a fundamental change in our social outlook, eschewing old values like patriarchy and capitalism. Octavia Butler’s ‘Parable’ series (1993–1998) is about California affected by massive displacements because of climate change(4). She advocates building communities while struggling against adversities, including issues about diversity. This community(3) is founded on a new religion, Earthseed. Butler believes that environmentalism promotes social justice by firmly aligning with movements against racism and colonialism.
The 21st Century climate fiction strongly promoted stories of post-apocalyptic environmental narratives. We see a shift towards climate change stories caused by greenhouse warming as the leading cause of the engine of the grim futures. For this second generation of writers, SF becomes a weapon for activism. The knowledge about humanity dominates writing rather than exotic technology. The science-fiction returned to Earth and gave rise to several important stories now considered classics.
Paolo Bacigalupi’s trilogy consisting of Ship Breaker (2010), The Drowned Cities (2012), and Tool of War (2017) happens in a world threatened by rising oceans and beset with both growing economic difficulties coinciding with diminishing democracy. His ‘The Water Knife’ (2015) is about near-future water wars in California, Arizona, and Nevada.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s persistent theme has been environmental damage caused by capitalism. But he expresses optimism that technology can alleviate the problems. ‘Science in the Capital’ series (2004–2007) is about the issues in mobilising politics and science to resolve the problems brought by climate change. ‘Forty Signs of Rain’ (2004) focuses on obstacles in the path of scientific investigations that could address issues arising from global warming and the legislation necessary to implement countermeasures. In ‘Fifty Degrees Below’ (2005), a new Ice Age is caused by the disruption of the Gulf Stream. It explores possible technological fixes like a carbon-cleansing lichen, ocean re-salination to trigger the Gulf Stream, and various enablers for a low carbon lifestyle. the last book of the trilogy, ‘Sixty Days and Counting’ (2007), imagines a US president prioritising climate change and instituting radical policies to move the US economy into sustainable energy while admitting the link between capitalism and global disparities. ‘The Ministry for the Future’ is Robinson’s latest work. It is about impending disasters that flow from a warming planet and humanity’s response in mitigating them. The Ministry of the Future is the name given by the Press to a new Subsidiary Body established in COP29 held in Bogotá, Colombia for Implementation of the Paris Agreement. It is a novel that squarely blames the Capitalist economic system for bringing our natural environment to its current level of instability.
Fiction has a powerful capacity to mobilise people into action to prevent the disastrous future brought about by climate change. Climate change fiction’s capacity to highlight and project the proximity of climate crises is an essential motivator for readers to prevent potential disasters(2). Thus, this genre of fiction has the power to spread the message of the importance of pursuing steps for climate change mitigation. Moreover, the fear of humans suffering in the aftermath of an eco-apocalypse or eco-catastrophe is not only credible but also morbidly relatable(2).
Climate fiction is the new weapon to fight the battle against the climate crisis. It strongly influences the readers’ perception of climate change and the degeneration of the environment. This impact may spark much-needed action on climate mitigation and the need for change in our practices to rescue the Earth from the apocalypse.
1. The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh, Penguin India June 2019
Gode, Lauren, “Climate Change in Fiction: The Evolution and Challenges of Environmental Apocalyptic Literature” (2021). CMC Senior Theses. 2583. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cmc_theses/2583