Extreme winter is coming. Or super droughts or hurricanes or hoards of displaced butterflies. Take your pick.

Such is the world of the relatively new genre of cli-fi, a shortening of "climate-change fiction."It’s what it sounds like: a literary genre for novels and movies that handles themes of climate change and global warming. It's not a subgenre of any other genre, and it's a standalone genre of its own. In short, it’s all a way to shine some light on AGW issues and our place in the battle to save the planet.    

Cli-fi is now its own distinctive genre. You can search the term on Amazon and get hundreds of listings, hundreds of colleges worldwide now offer courses studying cli-fi in literature and films, and some of the works have won literary prizes and seats at the top of bestseller lists.           

Cli-fi: not as new as we might think

Journalist and climate activist Dan Bloom coined the term “cli-fi” in 2008 in a blog post about Hollywood cli-fi movies in the future, and the genre and themes of climate change have been around for over a 100 years.

Jules Verne was writing about climate change in his 1889 book, “The Purchase of the North Pole,” which envisioned a shifted climate due to the manmade tilting of the Earth’s axis.

In addition to Bloom's coinage in 2008, Wired reporter Scott Thill coined the term separately and independently from him in two Wired movie reviews in 2009 and 2010.

And Ivan Schneider in Seattle created a @clifi Twitter account in 2009 also on his own and without knowing either Bloom or Thill at the time.

And David Carter, a climate ''humorist,'' started blogging about ''cli-fi'' in 2009 also, creating the term himself independently and separately, although he used the term to mock climate activists like Al Gore and James Hansen for spouting FICTION DISINFORMATION about climate change. So several people were thinking along the same lines, although Carter took it the wrong way.

In 1962, “The Drowned World” by British sci fi writer JG Ballard was even depicting a world where the polar ice caps melted due to solar radiation and global warming. All of civilization was then overrun by Triassic-era jungles due to the climate shift.

Even “Dune,” the Hugo and Nebula awards superstar, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has strong eco-fiction themes. The story follows a civilization that mines and trades the powerful natural resource melange. The entire civilization hinges on this powerful drug that extends life, increases mental abilities, gives prescience and allows for interstellar travel.

Then there’s the more recent and well-known cli-fi like the silly movie with incorrect science “The Day After Tomorrow,” from 2004. Sadly, it’s works like these that may give the genre a bad image of over-reactionary pseudoscience meant to rile people up and provide cheap thrills. In the movie, the Earth’s climate is suddenly plunged into a new Ice Age, thanks to global warming. We’re fine, and then within a few hours, boom, Ice Age. It’s enough to make even the most scientifically uninformed amongst us giggle.

What is the role of 'cli-fi'?

While “The Day After Tomorrow” did get people talking about global warming, to be sure, it also made the issue into somewhat of a joke. We’re years and years past that movie, but it didn’t help people to look at the truly subtle and incremental problems we face. Indeed, it made the issue of climate change too sudden and downright hyperbolic to be taken seriously. The movie even prompted the denizens of South Park to run away from an invisible and imaginary incarnation of “global warming” in the episode “Two Days Before the Day After Tomorrow.” 

But is it all bad? Could something that gets us talking and thinking about environmental issues really be so terrible?

Some benefits to cli-fi

Cli-fi has its supporters worldwide now. And not all works of cli-fi are overblown stories of scientifically dodgy super disasters.     

The University of Washington’s Conservation Magazine mentioned some of the merits of climate fiction on show in “Flight Behaviour,” despite a wary eye towards the genre’s tendency to come across like it’s capitalizing on a serious issue: “The way the characters choose to respond to these challenges [of the community-altering arrival of millions of Monarch butterflies] in their varied and individual ways provides in a microcosm the challenges our society faces in developing a consensus on a suitable response to a very real and disturbing threat. And importantly, does so without transporting us to an imaginary, post-apocalyptic world but by making us, like the people in Kingsolver’s rural Tennessee town, confront our changing world and the people that populate it.”

When addressed intelligently with a dash of sound science and a serious, heartfelt look at the myriad of ways global warming could influence us, cli-fi has its place. It has the potential to take the merely theoretical and make it real for millions of people. And if that makes one more person recycle or look into getting an electric car or buying locally, the genre is useful. 

What to read?

If you want to try getting into cli-fi, there are many titles to choose from. The current big deal book is “The Water Knife” by Paolo Bacigalupi. Bacigalupi’s known for taking the biggest problems we face as a species and making them into thought-provoking, intense novels. In the “The Water Knife” he tackles the drought issue and writes about a world where water is exploited and tightly controlled by an elite upper class (I’m getting thirsty just writing about it).

Another often-recommended starting point is Margaret Atwood’s “MADDADDAM” trilogy. Atwood’s always been the dystopian novel queen, but here she takes on plagues, floods and genetic engineering.

Don’t forget to go to where it all began, and look at some of the classic novels listed at the beginning of the article.

For more recommendations and news articles, you can find more info and cli-fi titles at The Cli-Fi Report, an academic link farm curated by Dan Bloom  here.