Climate Action

Can ‘cli-fi’ help raise climate awareness?

Kyle Plantz
Journalist, The Thomson Reuters Foundation
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In Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, “Forty Signs of Rain,” floodwater has inundated parts of Arlington National Cemetery, risen to Abraham Lincoln’s feet in the Lincoln Memorial and submerged Ronald Reagan Airport.

But Charlie Quibler, a Washington D.C. environmental policy adviser, is still struggling to get people to take action on climate change. Will it take a catastrophe to make them concerned enough to act?

The story is just one of a flood of “climate fiction” – or “cli-fi” – tales now on the shelves around the world as this environmentally-focused variant of science fiction finds ground as its own genre in the literary world.

Dan Bloom, a climate activist who coined the term “cli-fi” in 2008, hopes the stories will help people connect with the problem and give them greater motivation to act than listening to lectures or looking at scientific data might.

“Climate fiction cannot educate people in terms of science facts and statistics,” Bloom said. Instead, “through the emotions involved in reading a novel” readers may feel more stirred to care, he said.

“Cli-fi mirrors our fears of the future and at the same time our hope for solutions to the predicament we are in,” he said.

Just as a share of science fiction tales have in time come true, tales of global warming threats no longer feel like quite such a distant worry to some readers. Weather-related disasters in places like the Philippines and Vanuatu regularly hit the news, and even the U.S. is struggling with large-scale drought in California.

Escapism versus reality

Some “cli-fi” novelists see their work as a sub-genre of science fiction, as both usually take place in the future and build on already-known science and technology to tell a dystopian tale. Bloom, however, hopes to see “cli-fi” stand as a genre apart from science fiction.

“Sci-fi is mostly for escapism and entertainment,” he said. “Cli-fi is about facing the reality of global warming via literature or movies.”

A number of books, over decades, have touched on climate change, academics and activists say, from the 1975 novel “The New Atlantis”, by Ursula K. Le Guin, which deals with rising sea levels, to Barbara Kingsolver’s “Flight Behavior” and Sarah Holding’s “SeaBEAN”.

But with even Pope Francis warning of the dangers of climate change and key U.N. negotiations set to agree a plan to act on the problem in Paris in December, “cli-fi” authors say now is the time to spur action – and they feel a growing sense of urgency to do that.

“Climate change is the most pressing issue of our times,” said Holding, a U.K author. “They (governments) will make a commitment, debate it, and agree that it’s important, but then not really act or implement anything. I feel bad that the next generation is inheriting our lack of taking responsibility.”

In SeaBEAN, a novel written for young adults (aged 8 to 14), it’s 2018 and 11-year-old Alice lives on the remote island of St. Kilda, off the coast of Scotland.

One day, she and her schoolmates find a bean that allows them to instantly travel anywhere in the world. They journey to New York’s Central Park, Hong Kong, even to the Amazon. Along the way, they discover that people are participating in activities that are seriously harming the planet’s environment.

At the same time, their own island is threatened by oil drillings and it’s up to them to save their home.

Raising awareness

At first, Holding said she was unaware that she was writing cli-fi. It wasn’t until she saw a table in a bookshop in London advertising the genre that she realised her book fit in.

“I felt comfortable with it,” she said. “I’m not writing sci-fi. In a way, it’s a bit more serious.”

She hopes that raising children’s awareness about climate change can help lead to solutions – one reasons she became an author, she said.

“We are experiencing more random and severe earth changes … and people are starting to think, ‘Well maybe, we’re in for a rocky ride here,’” she said. “Reading fiction can be a great way for people to wrap their minds around it (climate change).”

Just teaching children to recycle and turn the lights off isn’t enough, she said.

“The message doesn’t get through about the havoc we are wreaking on our planet,” she said. “(The effects of climate change) are happening much more quickly now and our children need to know it.”

Stephen Siperstein, who teaches an English class at the University of Oregon about cli-fi, said while there are many teachers who include climate change in their curriculum, that is not enough to make students “climate literate.”

“Climate literacy is more than just understanding climate science,” he said. “It’s about understanding the social, cultural, and human dimensions of climate change. It’s about grappling with the impacts of climate change on our minds and our hearts, and it’s about grappling with the ethics of climate change.”

Siperstein said cli-fi provides “a way in” for people who never studied climate change before.

“Everyone loves good stories, and reading and analysing cli-fi is a non-threatening and not-so-intimidating way to get students engaged with the issue of climate change,” he said.

This article is published in collaboration with Thomson Reuters Foundation Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Kyle Plantz is an intern reporting on climate change issues for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Image: The Lincoln Memorial is seen at sunrise in Washington April 5, 2015. On April 15, the United States commemorates the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

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