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New York Times: "Will fiction influence how we react to climate change?"

With a novel by climate-science historians in the news, six thinkers engage "cli-fi" books and movies.

Though the New York Times doesn't credit Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway or their latest book for it, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future seems to have inspired a new approach to Times climate-change discussions. In the latest in the Times's occasional online Room for Debate opinion features, six different voices comment on the prospects for fiction to affect the course of climate technopolitics.

Oreskes, a Harvard historian of science, has been known for at least a decade for researching and reporting on the degree of climate-consensus acceptance among climate scientists. In 2010, she and her Caltech colleague Erik Conway published Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Now an blurb seeks to convey a sense of their attempt at fiction:

The year is 2393, and a senior scholar of the Second People's Republic of China presents a gripping and deeply disturbing account of how the children of the Enlightenment, the political and economic elites of the so-called advanced industrial societies, entered into a Penumbral period in the early decades of the twenty-first century, a time when sound science and rational discourse about global change were prohibited and clear warnings of climate catastrophe were ignored. What ensues when soaring temperatures, rising sea levels, drought, and mass migrations disrupt the global governmental and economic regimes? The Great Collapse of 2093.

This political novel has been drawing media attention. Chris Mooney reviewed it at Mother Jones in a commentary with the subhead "Two historians turn to science fiction to scare the hell out of you about climate change." At National Public Radio, On Point hosted the coauthors for an interview. Abroad, a review appeared in the South China Morning Post and an Oreskes interview appeared in the UK's Guardian

The Washington Post published excerpts from the novel under the headline "14 concepts that will be obsolete after catastrophic climate change." The novel's future scholar summarizes "physical scientists," for example, as

practitioners in a network of scientific disciplines derived from the 18th-century natural philosophy movement. Overwhelmingly male, they emphasized study of the world's physical constituents and processes—the elements and compounds; atomic, magnetic and gravitational forces; chemical reactions; flows of air and water—to the neglect of biological and social realms, and focused on reductionist methodologies that impeded understanding of the crucial interactions between the physical, biological and social realms.

The Times's April news article "College classes use arts to brace for climate change" foreshadowed the current Room for Debate opinion feature. It cited the novels Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich and Solar by Ian McEwan, and added,

Novels set against a backdrop of ruinous climate change have rapidly gained in number, popularity and critical acclaim over the last few years, works like The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi; Finitude, by Hamish MacDonald; From Here, by Daniel Kramb; and The Carbon Diaries 2015, by Saci Lloyd. Well-known writers have joined the trend, including Barbara Kingsolver, with Flight Behavior, and Mr. McEwan.

One of the contributors to the Times's climate-fiction debate, Climate Central's chief scientist Heidi Cullen, cites two precedents that the April news article also cited: Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, which had a political effect a century ago by giving readers a personal sense of unhealthy practices in the meat industry, and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which caused pre–Civil War political effects by putting the inhumanity of slavery on vivid display. Sinclair and Stowe operated long ago, and Oreskes and Conway recently, on a principle that Cullen enunciates: "Emotionally derived knowledge is more effective than rational knowledge in influencing behavior."

Does that mean fiction can influence the politics of climate change? Debate contributor J. P. Telotte, professor of film and media studies at Georgia Tech, says that while "science fiction films and novels often, and quite naturally, raise awareness of—or stimulate discussion about—scientific and technological issues including climate change, they seldom function as primers for the solutions we need for these very knotty problems. More often, they make us feel better about our ability to survive them."

Another contributor, Climate Outreach and Information Network founder George Marshall, acknowledges Cullen's kind of thinking, but predicts that climate fiction "will reinforce existing views rather than shift them." He writes, "The unconvinced will see these stories as proof that this issue is a fiction, exaggerated for dramatic effect. The already convinced will be engaged, but overblown apocalyptic story lines may distance them from the issue of climate change."

Seán Ó Heigeartaigh of the University of Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute offers a similar thought about science fiction and climate fiction. "At worst," he writes, sci-fi "may mislead us." The "most notable stab at a 'cli-fi' film was The Day After Tomorrow, which depicted a sudden and cataclysmic climate shift that scientists have described as 'extremely unlikely.' Films like this risk providing ammunition to climate change deniers when reality doesn't follow the fast-moving template of Hollywood fictions."

The blogger Dan Bloom, another debate contributor, expresses hope for the principle Cullen enunciates. He quotes a novelist who praises books that "go beyond abstract predictions and statistics to show the moment-by-moment reality of a painful possible future, the price we may have to pay for our passionate devotion to all the wrong things."

Sheree Renée Thomas, writer in residence at Smith College, expresses hope for climate fiction too. She observes:

And sometimes if we wait long enough, what is imagined on the page or the screen comes true. Before our nation elected President Obama twice, science fiction writers like Philip K. Dick and Irving Wallace penned novels that featured black presidents. Comedians like Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Paul Mooney and Eddie Murphy took on the role satirically, and the actors James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman and Dennis Haysbert all acted as president in television and film. What looked like fantasy decades before was made more possible because we imagined it.

"There is power in fantasy," declares Thomas, "especially in stories that urge us to face the impossible or find ways to survive."


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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