oped in the WASHINGTON POST-- The Washington Post
Is climate change due for an Uncle Tom's Cabin moment? The 1852 bestseller helped transform abolitionism into a mainstream cause. Now, "cli-fi" is trying to do the same for environmentalism.
The emerging genre is a cousin of sci-fi. But its books are set, writes Angela Evancie on the NPR books site, "in worlds, not unlike our own, where the Earth's systems are noticeably off-kilter." And it's gaining both fans and writers.
The climate-change canon dates back to the 1962 novel The Drowned World by British writer J.G. Ballard. In it, polar ice caps have melted and global temperatures have soared. Presciently, he depicts some coastal American and European cities under water.
But Ballard's work didn't pinpoint humans as the cause of Earth's precipitous decline. It wasn't until the mid-2000s that authors started grappling seriously with our role in impending environmental catastrophe.
In 2004, Michael Crichton released State of Fear, a novel about eco-terrorists. Ian McEwan followed up in 2010 with Solar, a story about a jaded physicist who tries to solve global warming. And in 2012, Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior gracefully explored how one town is reshaped by a changing ecosystem. As The New York Times wrote in its review of the book: "How do we live, Kingsolver asks, and with what consequences, as we hurtle toward the abyss in these times of epic planetary transformation?"
Perhaps the best-known "cli-fi" work is Nat Rich's Odds Against Tomorrow. The book sold more than 100,000 copies and drew major media attention.
In it, a near-future New York is submerged when a Category 3 hurricane hits. As Rich was editing the final proofs, Sandy submerged much of the East Coast, a strange moment of life imitating art.
Rich and others say that fiction can stir emotion and action in a way scientific reports and newscasts don't. Kim Stanley Robinson has a new cli-fi novel coming out in March 2017 titled "New York 2140" and set in the year 2140, about a NYC half submerged by rising seas, with the rich remaining in the tall skyscrapers and the novel is, according to KSR, utopian in nature, rather than dystopian.
"You know, scientists and other people are trying to get their message across about various aspects of the climate change issue," Georgia Institute of Technology professor Judith Curry told NPR. "And it seems like fiction is an untapped way of doing this — a way of smuggling some serious topics into the consciousness" of readers who may not be following the science."
"I think the language around climate change is horribly bankrupt and, for the most part, are examples of bad writing, really," Rich said. "I think we need a new type of novel to address a new type of reality … which is that we're headed toward something terrifying and large and transformative. And it's the novelist's job to try to understand, what is that doing to us?"
A growing number of young adult YA books also attack this topic, including Mindy McGinnis's Not a Drop to Drink, and Saci Lloyd's The Carbon Diaries 2015.
Even the post-apocalyptic Hunger Games trilogy hints at a climate-ravaged earth.