The Most Important Stories of Our Time: Anthropogenic Climate Change in Fiction (Part 1)

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” – Jessamyn West (To See the Dream, 1956)

Introduction

“In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities like Kolkata, New York, and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what should they – what can they – do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.”  Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement

Human-caused climate change is one of the defining issues of our times. According to the 2019 UN Emissions Gap Report we are steadily marching toward catastrophic global warming that will irreversibly alter the planet as we know it. The science is in, and has been for decades: we know climate change is happening, and we know humans are the cause. Almost daily, we are inundated by climate change facts and figures, along with a near constant barrage of disaster-porn detailing the havoc wreaked by floods, hurricanes, wildfires, or extinction events. 

On Fire, K. Hydrick, digital illustration, 2020

Climate and weather affect so much of our daily lives that it is unsurprising to find mention of them over and over again in our spoken and written stories. From the flood stories in Gilgamesh and the Old Testament, agricultural conditions in Greek and Roman almanacs, Shakespearean weather, to seasons poetry from around the world, typical as well as divergent weather patterns have always featured in our narratives. 

The topics of weather and climate have been present in both fiction and non-fiction writing from the beginning. Today, there is no shortage of non-fiction in the form of books and news articles that sound the alarm about the changing climate, warning us of the dangerous path we find ourselves treading. However, while well-represented in non-fiction, issues surrounding human-caused climate change are often marginalized, missing, or misread in contemporary fiction.

Inspired by the recent youth-led climate strikes, I finally finished reading a volume that had been loitering on my bookshelf: Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Ghosh argues that literary fiction, i.e. the modern realist novel, has not adequately addressed climate change issues, a claim which seems to be bolstered by other writer and reader opinions.

In a 2018 article in The New Yorker, Katy Waldman asks if a “poetics of climate change exists.” She goes on to say that, “[a]s with gun violence, the [climate] crisis demands a form of literary expression that lifts it out of the realm of intellectual knowing and lodges it deep in readers’ bodies.” In an Earth Day article from 2005, Bill McKibben, an environmental scholar and founder of 350.org, puts this paradox of knowing without knowing more forcefully: 

“But oddly, though we know about it, we don’t know about it. It hasn’t registered in our gut; it isn’t part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?” 

I couldn’t agree more. Fiction helps us to make sense of the world and is “a way of engaging with the unthinkable.” A world being radically altered by climate change will need stories about this “unthinkable” situation. Yet it seems that any “poetics of climate change” are at the margins of art and literature. 

Since the 2016 publication of The Great Derangement, and even before, there have been increasingly clamorous calls for more representation in mainstream literary fiction of the issues surrounding climate change. Though the current marginalization may be disheartening, there do seem to be changes with ever more climate change stories being written and published. 

I’ll begin this three part series by taking a look at the history of climate change, the fact that non-fiction writing has come to dominate the discourse on this issue, and how a culture of “disbelief” along with political failures to adequately address climate change have, according to Ghosh, influenced the ways in which we tell the story of global climate change.

A Brief History of Anthropogenic Climate Change
Brendan Leonard (Semi_Rad) https://www.instagram.com/p/BpXomQyA5qv/

Earth’s climate has over the millennia gone through long natural cycles of temperature and rainfall fluctuations. Some of us may be familiar, at least in passing, with the Medieval Warm Period or the Little Ice Age. There were also smaller, one-off events, such as the volcanic eruption at Mount Tambora, Indonesia in 1815, which led to temporary global climate disruption. These natural climate fluctuations have been cited by climate change denialists in attempts to refute modern global warming. However, the rapidity of the increase in average global temperature over the past century cannot be attributed to natural climate variations. 

The rapid increase in global temperature coincides with the timeline of the Industrial Revolution and the large-scale burning of fossil fuels, beginning in the late 18th century and increasing exponentially. The current climate crisis in which we find ourselves (which includes rising temperatures, rising sea levels, more powerful severe weather events, habitat change and destruction, extinction events, etc.) is human-made, that is, anthropogenic. Human actions are now the main drivers of the changes in the Earth’s climate, so much so that some scientists have proposed a new geological epoch for our time: The Anthropocene.

Climate Change in the News

Scientists have speculated about the existence of human-caused climate change since at least the late 19th century. The issue has primarily been within the purview of climate scientists or environmental activists and has only been an on-again-off-again-cause for the general public, to be blithely set aside when caring becomes too inconvenient. It has only been within the past twenty-or-so years that information about climate change has begun to reach a wider audience. 

This phenomenon is visible in the local news. I conducted a search for the terms “climate change” or “global warming” appearing in news articles from the Worcester Telegram and Gazette from 1989 to December 2019. Some of the early articles I found questioned the validity of human caused climate change or used the idea as a punch-line for jokes. In one instance, the term “global warming” was used to describe the winning efforts of a local ice hockey team: “The IceCats are the latest contributors to global warming. Red-hot Worcester extended its win streak to four in a row with a nifty 5-1 victory over the Lowell Lock Monsters last night.” Go Worcester! Although there was some in-depth reporting, many articles before the mid-2000’s only briefly mentioned global warming and were generic feel-good stories about the efforts of local organizations to “save the earth,” or else a brief mention of a political candidate’s position on the issue.

Climate change news reports in the Telegram and Gazette steadily increased in number and depth of reporting from the 1990’s to the 2010’s before a substantial increase in the last few years of the decade. The International Collective on Environment, Culture and Politics (ICE CaPs), an environmental research group based at the University of Colorado Boulder, completed a comprehensive analysis of climate change coverage in eight North American newspapers from 2000-2020. Their extensive work also shows increasing numbers of climate change news stories throughout the 2000’s and 2010’s with a continued upward trend in the last three years of the decade. The spike in news stories from 2007-2010 is perhaps due to coverage of the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which, for the first time, showed a consensus that “it is ‘very likely’ that humanity’s emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases have caused most of the global temperature rise observed since the mid-20th century.” Also in 2007, the Bush administration was accused of censoring scientists and their data relating to climate change which also may have resulted in an increase in news reports.

ICE CaPS https://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/icecaps/research/media_coverage/north_america/index.html

Although climate change has been a known issue for decades, it has not been at the forefront of the news or wide-spread public interest until relatively recently. Despite this recent interest, these stories are a drop in the proverbial bucket. In 2019, news stories mentioning climate change or global warming accounted for less than 2% of the total articles published in the Telegram and Gazette.

The Non-fiction of Climate Change
Library of Congress and C/W MARS

Publication of non-fiction climate change books most likely follows a similar trend as news article publication. I say “most likely” because there is, as of now, no centralized way to search for the total number of climate change books published per year. The category of “climate change” often doesn’t exist on publisher’s book lists. Instead these titles are subsumed under an all-encompassing “science” category, making it difficult to pull out specific numbers without going through multiple lists of publications manually.

In an attempt to work around this shortcoming I tried searching the holdings in the Library of Congress as well as all libraries in the Massachusetts C/W MARS system. Libraries would seem to be an ideal resource to search for numbers of non-fiction climate change publications over time, and indeed they were, with a few caveats. Libraries only catalog items in their collections, and even in the case of the Library of Congress, which houses over 168 million items, they do not contain every book ever published. Additionally, there is no standardized way of classifying books within subject categories. For example, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need A Green Revolution – And How It Can Renew America by Thomas Friedman, which spent one week on the NYT bestseller list in 2008, did not appear in my subject search for the C/W MARS libraries because it was not classified under either “climate change” or “global warming;” rather it appeared under “green movement,” “ecology,” “social conditions,” “environment,” “energy policy,” and “climate” among others. Even with these gaps, the data from the Library of Congress and the C/W MARS collection can provide us with a useful baseline for the numbers of non-fiction climate change books published from year to year.

I searched both the Library of Congress general collection and the C/W MARS libraries, using the same search terms as for the news articles (the phrases “climate change” or “global warming”) and received over 2000 results combined. Neither library search engine allowed me to distinguish between fiction or non-fiction publications, though the overwhelming majority were non-fiction. Many of the results of both searches were not published books but instead government agency reports, conference proceedings, policy papers, or white papers which had been collected in “book” form. While these are important publications, it is unlikely the average reader will get a copy of Climate change: conference before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources by the United States Senate to read at the weekend (I could be wrong though).

Many of the published books were school and academic textbooks while others were written for the general reader or fell under “pop-science.” The Library of Congress collection contained more adult oriented titles like textbooks and general informational books while the C/W MARS libraries had a higher number of non-fiction children’s books about climate change. Subject-wise, the holdings ran the gamut from climate change ethics, the economics of climate change, geological and historical climate change, “how to” survive climate change, denialist titles, along with the unmistakable black and yellow cover of Global Warming for Dummies.

Overall, the number of climate change books in the library collections follows a similar trend as the number of climate change news stories published, with a quite noticeable spike from 2007-2010, subsequently decreasing again, and a slow upward trend in the last few years of the 2010’s. 

Climate change has been in the news and the subject of non-fiction books for well over thirty years, and there has been a definite increase in non-fiction coverage of the issue in the past ten years. It would seem that such a major, life-altering issue would be represented ad nauseum in fictional writing as well. Rather than an abundance, however, there is an apparent lack of fiction dealing with anthropogenic climate change. Why? Is something preventing us from telling the compelling stories of our changing climate? 

The Suspension of Disbelief
Too Big, K. Hydrick, digital illustration, 2020

Former U.S. vice president and environmentalist, Al Gore identified public disbelief as the first major hurdle to be overcome in dealing with climate change. He perhaps got to the heart of the climate issue best in a statement from 1989:

“We are facing a generalized ecological catastrophe worldwide … Common sense fights against the notion because we have never faced it before … it seems like a bad science fiction movie.” (Patton, Madeline. “CHILLING GLOBAL TRENDS \ SCIENTISTS URGE SOLUTIONS NOW.” Worcester Telegram and Gazette, Aug. 20, 1989)

In The Great Derangement, Ghosh does not deal with denialism but rather “disbelief.” He argues our “disbelief” in climate change stems from several factors, one of which is the perceived improbability of events linked to climate change. Climate change events are still thought of as “superlatives”: the biggest wildfire in state history, the strongest hurricane on record, Massachusetts’ worst year for EEE (Eastern Equine Encephalitis), etc. These climate change events are not yet thought of as commonplace occurrences and thus can readily fall into the realm of hyperbole, making them easier to discount as anomalous and thus not worth serious consideration. 

Another factor contributing to a culture of disbelief is the scale of the problem. A BuzzFeed News article, reporting on how the Reuters newswire service compiles climate change visuals, put it succinctly: “Climate change is a notoriously hard topic to effectively cover, since it’s so big, and often considered too slow or too scientific to be a visual study.” Spatially (climate change affects the entire planet) and temporally (the worst effects of climate change will likely only happen in the lifetimes of our children and their children), the issue of climate change is too big to conceptualize effectively. 

While we can objectively understand that climate change is real, it is so big and the ramifications are so dire that it breeds an attitude of disbelief, giving rise to the thought that “the worst could never happen to us.” This is an eerily familiar sentiment that is often experienced when we’re faced with other awful situations like hate crimes, mass shootings, terrorist attacks, all of the terrible things that we push away because they are too uncomfortable to consider. As a result, very little has been accomplished in the political arena in terms of addressing the problems of climate change. Although there have been promising starts, this collective discomfort and disbelief has led to a failure to address, either politically or artistically, the climate crisis in any meaningful way.

Political Failings and Grassroots Momentum
Silent Spring, K. Hydrick, digital illustration, 2020

Public incredulity regarding climate change has meant that, for the most part, any actions undertaken to combat or mitigate the problem have been short-lived and largely ineffective. In 1997 the U.S. became a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, however, “almost immediately signaled that it didn’t intend to pursue its responsibilities” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. More recently, the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement was a watershed moment for political action confronting climate change when the U.S., along with almost 200 other countries, signed on to “combat climate change and adapt to its effects.” Although groundbreaking in its nearly worldwide consensus, The Paris Agreement is just that, an agreement between what Ghosh calls “a small circle of initiates,” the political elite, and is largely symbolic with little practical significance. 

The Paris Agreement’s lack of clout has become more apparent since the Trump administration took office. Since 2017 the administration has reversed ninety-five environmental protection rules, and last November the U.S. formally notified the United Nations of its withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. 

Since I began writing this article late last year, the Corona virus has swept throughout the world, upending lives in ways that might presage life in a future in which climate change remains unchecked. May Boeve, the executive director of 350.org, has said that “[w]e’ve seen that governments can act, and people can change their behavior, in a very short amount of time,” when it comes to protecting themselves and others against the virus. She continues: “that’s exactly what the climate movement has been asking governments and people to do for years in the face of a different kind of threat—the climate crisis—and we don’t see commensurate action.” Unfortunately, the kind of social and political action needed to inhibit further climate change seems to be unforthcoming.

While the current political response to combating climate change and other environmental degradation has been lukewarm at best, there have been grassroots efforts focused on these issues since at least the early 1960’s. Although we can look back and determine that individual environmental issues were a part of human caused climate change, early environmental movements tended to focus more on singular concerns rather than climate change as a whole. 

Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s seminal work published in 1962, warned of the dangers posed to the environment by chemicals like DDT. Her book, which led to a nationwide ban on DDT as well as the eventual founding of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is often credited with starting the modern environmental movement. The Greenpeace organization, which originally formed in an effort to stop nuclear testing, was founded in 1971. Now a large international entity, Greenpeace continues to address environmental threats. And in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the world’s rainforests took center stage in the environmental movement as several activist organizations formed in an attempt to preserve tropical forests. 

In addition to their specific causes, more recent environmental actions have also focused more broadly on anthropogenic climate change. The protests at Standing Rock, School Strike for the Climate led by Greta Thunberg, and the young people who sued the U.S. federal government over what they claimed was irresponsible fossil fuel use, are evidence that there are certainly people the world over who think human caused climate change warrants our attention and immediate corrective action. The influence these groups have on political policy and public opinion should not be underestimated, even though their efforts have generally fallen short of realizing the kind of systemic change needed to prevent disaster.

Our Failure of Imagination

When it comes to addressing global climate change, not only have we shown ourselves impotent in the political sphere, we seem to be neglecting the artistic realm as well. In the introduction to a special edition of the journal Science Fiction Studies, Brent Ryan Bellamy writes that “[t]he political challenge of overcoming the relentless drive of an ecologically and socially devastating fossil-fueled capitalism is just as much an imaginative project as it is a practical one.” The improbability and scale of climate change issues feed into our common “disbelief” which, Ghosh argues, has transmuted into a “failure of imagination.” And this failure of imagination has seemingly manifested in a dearth of literary fiction addressing anthropogenic climate change. 

In order to test Ghosh’s theory, I surveyed nearly 100 people online regarding whether they thought climate change was well-represented by fiction writing. 

The most pertinent question from the survey was whether or not respondents thought climate change was well-represented in fiction. Only 2% of respondents thought that fiction writing represented climate change adequately. 38% thought fiction did not represent climate change well, while the majority of people (60%) weren’t sure one way or the other if fiction does a good job dealing with climate change issues. I was not surprised by these numbers. In The Great Derangement, Ghosh claims that climate change stories are mostly absent from literary fiction, a claim which my survey results seem to confirm.

***

Anthropogenic climate change is arguably one of the most important and life-changing issues of our time. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution the rate at which the global temperature is increasing is unprecedented in geological history. This increase in temperature has led, among other things, to the warming and acidification of the oceans, abnormal melting of the polar ice caps, unusual weather patterns, changing ranges of diseases, and extinction events. Such issues threaten at best our modern ways of life and at worst our very survival.

It has only been within the past thirty years that climate change has entered into the public discourse. Non-fiction publications relating to climate change have markedly increased from then until now, however, fiction writing has not kept pace. Author Amitav Ghosh posits that the lack of fictional climate change writing is due to the size and scope of the issue and our subsequent “failure of imagination” in being able to effectively translate anthropogenic climate change into works of fiction.  

In Part Two of this series, we’ll look at the importance of fiction in contextualizing complex issues, then go into the history of climate and weather writing as a useful lead-in to a discussion about the relative lack of climate change writing in modern literary fiction while also commenting on the role of genre fiction. From there, I’ll investigate the idea that climate change actually is present in more writing than we realize and the ways in which we as readers often overlook its presence.

Look for Part Two next week.

Author: Kelly Hydrick

2 thoughts on “The Most Important Stories of Our Time: Anthropogenic Climate Change in Fiction (Part 1)

  1. I wonder if people are more apt to consider the possibility of climate-responsible alterations to their lifestyle and the health of the global community as we go through the COVID Pandemic. Reading Dan Carlin’s book The End Is Always Near taught me that despite the fact that people live in an age that is the byproduct of cataclysmic events and disruptions, we seem to stubbornly believe our current age is “special” and resistant to such redefining forces. Looking forward the rest of the articles!

    1. That’s a very good question that I’ve wondered about as well. I think that I’m a pessimist at heart. Although people are making extraordinary changes to their lifestyles to combat the spread of the coronavirus, I think the article I linked above got it right. People are changing for the virus because it is an immediate and recognizable threat; climate change is, in the end, such an abstract and by comparison slow-moving threat that it’s more difficult to get mass support for lifestyle changes. I seriously hope that I’m wrong though!

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