Eirwen Abberley Watton draws our attention towards an often ignored sub-genre – climate fiction – and the tangible impacts it has.
Cli-fi, or climate fiction, is a fairly new genre which deals with global warming. The climate crisis has only really been at the forefront of public consciousness in recent years (even though CO2 emissions have been rising since the late 18th century and have been a concern for scientists for decades). Climate fiction is considered a sub-genre of dystopian and apocalypse fiction, because it usually deals with extreme conditions in which life is struggling to survive. It’s a well-known consequence of the global temperature increase that extreme weather events are becoming more and more frequent. Climate fiction addresses this threat, usually dealing either with the moment in which the world is reaching the point of no-return, or the moment after the devastating, world-ending event. One example of the latter is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which I would highly recommend. It is set after an apocalyptic event, when the earth has been completely blasted and very little life remains. While the event that has almost destroyed humanity remains unspecified, there are several hints that humans, and consumerism especially, are to blame. McCarthy’s harrowing imagination of the protagonists’ struggle to survive in an environment that has been almost obliterated is eye-opening, to say the least.
It’s tempting to bury the climate crisis in the recesses of our minds because it is so distressing and we as individuals feel powerless to do anything about it.
The term ‘apocalypse’ is one that has been tossed around more than ever since the outbreak of coronavirus. We are living through what feels like an apocalypse – it is illegal to leave the house unless for ‘essential’ reasons, and any trips outside are governed by two-metre space markers and signs enforcing face masks. But plague fiction is not the only hot topic for bored lockdown readers. Interest in climate change fiction has risen since lockdown began. There are different possible explanations for this. For a start, the outbreak arrived when climate change activism was reaching a peak, with figureheads like Sir David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg campaigning for immediate action to be taken. There’s also the fact that everyone has had a lot more time on their hands during lockdown, so book sales have been at a high (UK sales of eBooks were up by 17 per cent between January and June 2020 after six years of declines). However, the recent popularity of cli-fi is actually an unusual trend. Environmentalist theorist Amitav Ghosh has written about the worrying absence of climate change fiction. These books tend to be relegated to the sci-fi and non-fiction genres. One of the reasons Ghosh identifies for this is the fact that extreme weather events are often considered to be weak plot devices because they seem so unlikely. Fiction has long placed an emphasis on realism, so these apocalyptic stories have been delegated to sci-fi. The problem with extreme weather events being limited to sci-fi novels is the failure to acknowledge that they do happen, and are becoming an increasing threat to human life.
So why is climate fiction so important? It’s tempting to bury the climate crisis in the recesses of our minds because it is so distressing and we as individuals feel powerless to do anything about it. This is where cli-fi comes in. For those who no longer listen to the news because it is so depressing, climate fiction is a way of gaining awareness about the impending effects of global warming through a more appealing medium – a story with characters that you can get attached to. A study by the Yale Program on Climate Change communications tested how people’s mentality is altered by climate fiction. Participants were surveyed before and after reading two short stories about climate change. The results showed that people had greater understanding and higher levels of worry about climate change afterwards. If you’re a reader, you’ll know that literature informs and is informed by its real-world context. The potential for climate change fiction to increase awareness of global warming is exciting and hopeful. My research even encouraged me to take a walk to the library and pick out a few cli-fi volumes, and it should encourage you to do the same too.