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Why the world needs more climate fiction

The Books Blog
Credit: Premier of Alberta
Fort McMurray Wildfire Credit: Premier of Alberta, Flickr

Visitor numbers at Bletchley Park, the home of UK wartime code-breaking, have soared in recent years. From fewer than 50,000 in 2005, ticket sales grew to 196,000 by 2014. The next year they suddenly jumped per cent, with an extra 84,000 people visiting the park.

Why the sharp rise in visitors? Word about Bletchley had been building for years but there was a specific reason visitors suddenly flocked to the museum after 2014. What had changed was the release of the Oscar-winning film, The Imitation Game, which dramatized Alan Turing’s wartime experience at Bletchley. Visitors rushed to the park not because they had seen a documentary or read a book about it, but because they had been told a story.

The story the film tells is, of course, about how Turing and others cracked the Enigma code – but it’s not just about that. It’s also about how women and gay men struggled in the strictures of mid-Twentieth Century Britain and how the country mistreated a hero. Without those sides of the story, the film wouldn’t have had such wide appeal and the park probably wouldn’t have had so many visitors.

Stories about individuals are easy to dismiss as trivial but are essential for conveying bigger stories. Anne Frank’s diaries help us grasp the horror of the Holocaust; photographs of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, dead on a Turkish beach, drew global attention to the European refugee crisis in a way that 3,000 deaths in the Mediterranean the previous year had not.

The roots of climate apathy

When it comes to climate change you might think the world has no need for human-interest stories. The record-breaking heat of this summer came after a year in which the US suffered its costliest hurricane season on record, much of South Asia was under water and Cape Town got within weeks of switching off the taps.

But there is little sign that these changes in the world’s weather are causing a surge in public worries. Long-term studies suggest concern about climate change has drifted up and down over the last 20 years. As I show in my book, climate apathy is widespread and resilient: most people understand climate change is real but don’t spend much time thinking about the subject.

A lack of science communication isn’t the problem. Since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2001 report, scientific confidence that humans are the cause of recent warming has gone from 66% to more than 95%. The latest report – at nearly 5,000 pages, the definitive statement of knowledge about the subject – had plenty of media coverage yet little measurable impact on public opinion.

Psychologists wouldn’t be surprised by this. To the human mind, climate change is distant, complex and slow-moving – a bad combination according to Harvard social psychologist Daniel Gilbert, who described the brain as a “get out of the way machine”. It has evolved to deal with problems that are proximate, clear and rapidly changing and it prioritizes these over distant threats like climate change. However quickly the planet is changing in geological terms, it’s still slow in human terms.

Perhaps this reflects the limits, in terms of persuasion, of the factual description of climate science. To persuade more people that the world needs to urgently cut emissions means making climate science personal and that requires storytelling. This is why a new genre, climate fiction – cli-fi for short – has so much potential.

Climate fiction

Most people’s experience of cli-fi is limited to one or two blockbusters. The 2004 disaster film The Day After Tomorrow is the best known: it may be the only work of cli-fi that editors assume audiences know. Other prominent ones include the post-apocalyptic book and film The Road – which doesn’t actually mention climate change though is often categorised as cli-fi.

But the famous works of cli-fi are perhaps the least important. They’re dramatic because they show a world that has been utterly transformed. But the world they show is so unrelatably different from everyday life that viewers might as well worry about a zombie apocalypse as about climate change. They’re unlikely to persuade many people that climate change is a threat they need to act to prevent.

Instead of this extreme transformation, cli-fi is most persuasive when it doesn’t try to do so much. Paradoxically, it’s the works that tell the smallest stories that may be the most important: those that focus on one change and explore what it means for the people living through it.

Among the most interesting, The End We Start From, by Megan Hunter, is narrow and simple. A woman gives birth, her home floods and she has to flee with her partner and baby. We hear no more about the rest of the country – let alone the rest of the world – than the woman does and the short book is dominated by the day-to-day of life with a growing baby as she seeks refuge. In its simplicity it conveys, more powerfully than any scientific report, what it would feel like to live through a climate change-induced flood.

Others don’t narrow their scope so much but still convey the emotion of global warming. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora isn’t obviously cli-fi – it’s mostly set on a generation starship – but gives a compelling description of a particular loss that could come from climate change when a character sets herself to remaking beaches that have been swallowed by rising oceans. The reader could easily have been alienated with descriptions of a future Earth but beaches are familiar. As a translation of the dull term “sea-level rise”, a woman’s experience of restoring sandy beaches conveys their loss in a way that makes it painfully imaginable.

If any descriptions of climate change could trigger Gilbert’s get out of the way machine, it’s ones like these. The power of the most persuasive cli-fi is its relatability. Homes flooding and beaches drowning, experienced through the eyes of a character we’re behind, are easier to imagine and care about than any scientific report or desperate struggles after a world-shattering apocalypse.

Cli-fi is still little known – it’s still largely limited to books (no big-budget Netflix show yet) and most of those are published with little attention. For now the climate change story is mostly told through dry reports, whose facts may be terrifying but whose story is barely heard.

But there is one sign that things might be changing. A production company, SunnyMarch, last year acquired the rights to turn The End We Start From into a film. The name behind that production company is someone who knows about telling personal stories: Benedict Cumberbatch, star of The Imitation Game.

Leo Barasi is author of The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist)

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