Strange weather is happening all around us. Devastating heat waves and floods, soaring numbers of wildfires, rampaging storms of almost unprecedented frequency and ferocity—we’ve been warned about climate change for decades, yet many still refuse to believe that, a) it’s happening, b) we caused it, and c) it’s very unlikely that we can stop it. Most critically, some powerful world leaders are still trying to deny it (yes, I’m talking about you, Donald) and refuse to take the steps that might give us a fighting chance of at least reducing the disastrous effects still to come.
While some high-profile science fiction works have addressed the subject (including Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain and its two sequels, and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl) there’s not as much as I would have expected. Science fiction has a strong tradition of cautionary tales—spotting dangerous trends in society and extrapolating the potential pitfalls so as to warn our fellow humans which paths not to take. Climate change is not only a deadly precipice toward which we’re racing, but it’s brought about by things we’ve done and are still doing, and there are ways we might yet escape the worst of it if we take bold action in time. Plus, as with all things related to weather, it will affect every single human on the planet in a myriad of individual ways. In other words, it’s tailor-made for enough unique science fiction stories to fill a bookstore. I could argue that we might even have an obligation to write about it, because the alarm has been sounded and too many people just aren’t listening.
[Based on numerous interviews with climate scientists, David Wallace-Wells writes in New York magazine that the newest mass extinction event in Earth’s history has now begun and that we’re likely to become victims of it. Maybe it’s a worst-case scenario, but maybe not!]
Is it that we think the reading public has been oversaturated with climate news in mainstream media? Are we afraid to write about it because the potential effects are more suited to tales of the zombie apocalypse? Or is it because describing what we really see ahead on the road for humanity is simply too grim without enough real hope? After all, even disaster fiction (one of my favourite sub-genres) usually offers some form of happy ending, especially if brilliant scientists can come up with a last minute stroke of genius that saves the planet and everyone on it.
But climate change has been allowed to gain too much momentum for it to be solved by any single human solution, no matter how ingenious. So do we steer away from a subject that won’t give us that satisfying “quick fix”?
The top experts on climate change no longer talk about us preventing it—it’s already occurring, and while we must take drastic measures to reduce our carbon emissions, that will no longer be enough on its own to avoid disaster. We’re going to have to take proactive steps to remove carbon from the air and mitigate the warming of the atmosphere in other ways. Ideas being proposed already sound like science fiction (seeding the upper atmosphere with sulphur dioxide, or reflective particles to turn back sunlight. Giant sun shields in orbit.) So why not go all out and let our SF-trained imaginations run free? After all, it’s not only about trying to prevent further devastation, but how we’ll all cope with the unavoidable effects.
The potential plots are limitless: a family of refugees struggles to navigate the no-man’s-land between nations in a perpetual war over habitable land and water resources; a team of engineers races to create emergency colonies on the Moon or Mars in an attempt to save as many humans and other endangered species as possible; medical researchers frantically search for a cure for a deadly organism released by thawing permafrost (possibly even of alien origin); workers suddenly unemployed and destitute band together to build a new kind of nation from the ashes of the old. No matter what kind of book you like to write, you’ll find plenty of fodder in a world facing radical climate change.
Maybe the time has passed to write purely cautionary tales about it, but human beings facing terrifying scenarios with gutsy sacrifices and ingenuity is the stuff of compelling fiction. And maybe there is hope. Especially if we can help by pointing the way to the light.