JG Ballard’s The Burning World (1964)

What Cli-Fi Can Do To Save The Planet

As science sounds the alarms on our warming world, climate fiction authors need to ramp up the fear factor.

(Author’s note: this article originally appeared in The Daily Climate)

Global warming is casting meteorological horrors across not only the planet, but in literature as well. For more than a half-century novelists have made mayhem of Earth by peering at it through the lens of climate change.

J.G. Ballard wrote forcefully of our blue marble, riven by heat, in The Burning World in 1964, and by floods in The Drowned World in 1962. Of more recent vintage is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy, launched in 2004 with Forty Signs of Rain.

Both Ballard and Robinson belonged to a coterie of sci-fi writers who took climate change seriously, then helped birth a sub-genre: climate fiction, or cli-fi.

But climate fiction has also drawn the attention of mainstream literary figures, such as Margaret Atwood, who penned her own cli-fi trilogy, MaddAdam in a prolific decade that began in 2003. Her sister in letters, Barbara Kingsolver, wrote movingly of the warming in Flight Behavior by focusing on one young woman’s shocking discovery of millions of monarch butterflies near her home in rural Tennessee.

New novels embracing cli-fi arrive every month. Most are dystopian, which is understandable. While Atwood infuses her work with flashes of wit, the most enduring leitmotif of cli-fi is basic survival.

We authors of cli-fi find ample fodder for our grim themes in news cycles that churn out daunting climate reports almost every day, though little of it appears to spark any real urgency among our fellow citizens.

This has left some of us wondering why — with the preponderance of North Americans now accepting anthropocentric climate change as real — we are so emotionally unmoved by a disaster that could claim much of the planet by the end of the century.

That scenario sounded extreme just a few years ago; now it appears, in so many words, in the official projections of staid organizations, such as the World Bank and, once again in its most recent report, the International Energy Agency.

As Pope Francis has fused theology with climatology to try to move the masses — and the U.S. Department of Defense has analyzed and publicized the startling links between global warming and national security — perhaps we as authors should use our imaginative skills to increase cli-fi’s fear factor. Science is not only sounding unnerving alarms, it may also be giving us ample justification for scaring people into action — or inaction, if it means they’ll fly, drive, and consume less — thanks to the work of psychologist Daniel Kahneman.

Kahneman is a Nobel Prize winner in economics and the author of Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow, which posits that emotionally derived knowledge can be more effective than rational knowledge in influencing behavior.

In an outstanding essay about Kahneman’s work in The New York Review of Books, the theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson offers a striking example of emotionally derived information and its impact by noting that for every person killed by a shark in the waters near San Diego, ten lives are saved. Why? Because the fear of shark attacks is so sharp, if you’ll excuse the pun, that it keeps people out of the water — and out of danger of drowning — for a number of years afterward.

Harvard University’s Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science and an affiliated professor of Earth and planetary sciences, and California Institute of Technology’s Erik Conway, a historian of science and technology, have recently turned to fiction to try to dramatize their deep concerns about warming.

Oreskes is quoted in The New York Times as saying that writing The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future “gave us the freedom to extrapolate and show what’s at stake. Our narrator concludes that in the 21st century, the forces of climate denial prevailed.”

This is how the novel’s narrator put it: “Western civilization had the technological know-how and capability to effect an orderly transition to renewable energy, yet the available technologies were not implemented in time.”

So the climate denialists won. Now that’s scary fiction.

Or is it?

What is most frightening, of course, is that to date they are winning. As authors, we need to fight back harder with our pixels and pens, and ever more powerful blends of climate science and compelling fiction.

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Thomas Waite is a bestselling thriller author. In his latest novel, Trident Code, terrorists aim at a target so unusual — yet so vulnerable — that their success could change Earth forever.