Can Climate Change Fiction Succeed Where Scientific Fact Has Failed?

The majority of Australians accept the science of climate change these days. But it seems to have made little difference to the way we behave.

Jane Rawson is former environment and energy editor at The Conversation and author of the ‘cli-fi’ novel A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists. She’s uniquely placed to ask the question: can climate change fiction make a difference, where scientific argument hasn’t? Can it get help us to truly imagine the future - and act to change it?

Last month, three separate scientific papers came to the same conclusion: the West Antarctic ice sheet is melting, and it’s too late for us to reverse the process. If you heard the news you’d have realised, at an intellectual level, that we’re in serious trouble and something needs to be done.

So what did you do? Did you quit your job and travel immediately to the Leard Forest Blockade to stop Australia’s massive coal exports? Did you call your bank and demand they pull all your money out of fossil fuels ? Did you move to New Zealand and buy a house a long way up a mountain? Maybe you did, but it’s more likely you felt awful for a bit, maybe even a day or two, then you got on with your life. I know I did.

There are two kinds of climate deniers. There is the small group of people who deny human behaviour is affecting the atmosphere in a way that is disrupting the climate. This group is beyond the reach of persuasion; their objection to accepting climate change is ideological, financial or both and facts don’t enter into it.

So let’s forget about those guys (and they mostly are guys) and focus on the much bigger group – the rest of us. We think humans are changing the climate, but live as though nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, we drive less, buy more efficient appliances and maybe even install solar panels, but it’s disproportionate to the size of the threat we face.

Why do we behave this way? Fear, distraction, convenience, busyness, conviction this will happen somewhere else to other people or species: they all play their part. But over-arching all of this is, I think, a failure of imagination. Climate change just doesn’t feel real, not like trying to get the kids to school on time or wondering whether you can afford a decent holiday this year or what that pain in your stomach is. Perhaps cli-fi is the answer. You know, cli-fi: fiction which explores what climate change will do to the world. Over the past year or so there’s been a surge of interest in cli-fi, a ‘genre’ which has arguably existed since 1962. The Conversation, NPR and the Guardian have all run features; Time magazine has looked at the rise of cli-fi in film.

Writer Danny Bloom blogs extensively on the topic at Cli-fi Central; he claims responsibility for classifying ‘cli-fi’ as a genre. New genre or not, climate change has definitely become a popular topic for novelists in recent years, with more than 100 books listed on Cli-fi Books. A lot of them are rubbish. Some of them are bestsellers, or at least critically acclaimed, including Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, Ian McEwan’s Solar, Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. Australia got in on the action with Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, and two of the Aurealis Award’s science-fiction shortlist for 2013 take place in a climate-changed world – Andrew Macrae’s Trucksong and my own A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists. Cli-fi may be headed for its biggest coup yet with Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book shortlisted for a Miles Franklin award, a prize not normally associated with speculative fiction.

A lot of is getting written, but will cli-fi make any difference? Will it give us the material we need to imagine a climate-changed world – and finally behave as though our future is under threat?

Researchers in a number of fields think it could certainly help. The Climate Outreach and Information Network recently interviewed leading climate change communicators (admittedly, a bunch biased toward storytelling) and concluded:

Stories are the means by which people make sense of the world, learn values, form beliefs, and give shape to their lives. Stories are everywhere [but] they are absent from climate change communication. The careful, considered science and statistics of the IPCC cannot compete with the siren stories of climate change scepticism … (where one man’s fight against a wind turbine trumps a thousand scientists setting out the case for decarbonisation).

Scientists working in climate adaptation have been planning for an uncertain future using ‘scenario building’. They collaborate with communities to imagine what will happen to their home in future decades under a range of different climate change projections; it prepares them better than statistical data could. John Wiseman, Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Sustainable Society Institute, says:

This process of using alternative futures and pathways to test strategic choices was originally popularised by companies such as Shell, which was famously well-equipped to respond to the 1973 OPEC oil embargo due to prior imagining and careful consideration of this scenario … Scenario planning techniques help open our minds to the future and hold it open.

Far more anecdotally, some of the people who have read my novel – set in a hot, dry and occasionally flooded Melbourne where the electricity is always going off, the trains barely run and the divide between the handful of rich and great mass of poor has become canyon-like – reckon it’s made climate change feel like a thing that happens here and now, not in the far-distant future to Bangladeshis and polar bears. For most Australians, climate change pops into their heads when their train gets cancelled or they have to slog their way up a city street on a summer day.

But there are plenty of readers who are alienated by any hint of a polemic when they’re reading fiction. While many thousands of readers loved Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘climate change is here and now’ book Flight Behavior, there’s no shortage of reviews such as ‘I don’t like to feel like I’m being beat over the head with it’, ‘one long, preachy slog to the finish line’ or, from the Washington Post’s Ron Charles : ‘Imagine if “most characters in most novels” lectured each other about climate change. I’d push the last polar bear off his melting ice floe to avoid that’.

Danny Bloom reckons if someone would just write the climate change equivalent of Nevil Shute’s anti-nuclear On the Beach, everyone would be convinced and everything would be solved. I don’t think that’s true. Fiction is great – it can help us really feel the horror of what we’re headed for, change our lives in a deeper way than scientific projections alone could do, and give us ideas to help us adapt to the change – but it’s up against entrenched interests, big money and corrupt politicians who love convincing us to vote against our best interests.

Some very powerful people have a lot invested in us mining and burning fossil fuels. Even a Margaret Atwood trilogy may not be enough to stop them.