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Climate fiction literature is on the rise; can it help spark debate, and even climate action?
By SWS staff, Rachel Winks

Climate fiction, or cli-fi, has been steadily gaining prominence in literature. As the climate crisis escalates, it’s no surprise that this genre is rising in popularity. Works like The Blue, Beautiful World and The Ministry for the Future vividly illustrate the consequences of global warming. But can cli-fi effectively convey the real threats of climate change to spark debate, and even climate action?

‘Climate’ is becoming a cross-cutting theme in literature

Cli-fi is technically considered a subgenre of science fiction. And it’s easy to see its connection with science and technology. However, resources on the Hub show how ‘climate’ as a theme is now crossing over into many areas of literature to become a norm. Moreover, the resources reveal a growing desire for cli-fi to blend with other genres and explore diverse perspectives well beyond the archetypal heroes of science fiction.

Denise Robbins, in How to write climate fiction without being a doomer, proposes cross-cutting genres from climate-themed murder mysteries to romances. In How storytelling advances solutions, panellist Tory Stephens talks about welcoming “the whole breadth of culture” in climate storytelling to include, for example, religions and traditions. In Futureverse, Janice Pariat reflects on the power of storytelling to show indigenous cultures’ perspectives on climate change. And the Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors contest features short climate stories from a wide range of voices, offering a multifaceted approach to cli-fi.

Climate change is showing up in all types of storytelling. This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. It reflects the growing impact of climate issues on our day-to-day lives, from the mental health of young people to coping with unseasonal heatwaves and water scarcity. And expanding cli-fi into mainstream literature increases opportunities to discuss the scale of climate change impacts, and even foster change.

Does cli-fi need to be scientifically accurate to communicate climate change?

While cli-fi is a powerful tool for raising awareness about climate change, the question of scientific accuracy arises. How plausible does cli-fi need to be to contribute to the climate dialogue? Ann-Marie Cahill explores this question in How accurate is climate fiction (and if it’s not, why don’t I feel any better). She points out that “climate fiction is as accurate as the author wants it to be.” On the one hand, The Ministry for the Future is based on carefully researched climate science. On the other hand, The Blue, Beautiful World tells a climate story about first contact with an alien race.

Like any literary genre, one of cli-fi’s primary roles is to engage readers emotionally through storytelling. While scientific accuracy is vital in real-life climate discourse, cli-fi may take creative liberties to convey its message effectively. It can create scenarios that, while not scientifically precise, stimulate discussion, evoke empathy and even inspire action. Moreover, different readers respond to different approaches. Some prefer their cli-fi served up through ‘hard’ science fiction, others through allegory and metaphor. When it comes to fostering climate debate and action, perhaps ‘accuracy’ is more about offering readers authentic emotions and experiences.

Does cli-fi need to adopt an uplifting tone to communicate climate change?

At first glance, cli-fi might conjure images of bleak, dystopian tales centred around the struggle for survival. The 2018 paper, The Influence of Climate Fiction, suggests that various cli-fi works have led readers to associate climate change with intensely negative emotions. The paper explains this “could prove counterproductive to efforts at environmental engagement or persuasion.”

Hope is a strong emotion when it comes to climate communication. And several resources on the Hub discuss an emerging shift towards more optimistic storytelling. Lauren James, in Positivity in the apocalypse: can a climate fiction novel be uplifting, argues that the best stories provide an enjoyable experience. Denise Robbins explores this in her above-mentioned article. She presents six alternatives to the ‘apocalypse’. These include climate utopia and solarpunk, a growing subgenre of sci-fi that envisions societies finding solutions to climate change and living sustainable lives.

Cli-fi can vividly depict the grim consequences of wet-bulb temperatures or the elation of watching rewilded animals crossing a plain. And by presenting a range of emotional experiences, from despair to resilience, it highlights the multifaceted nature of the climate crisis. Eliciting a range of emotions in storytelling is valuable. Whether the tone is sombre or uplifting, emotional range can encourage deeper reflection and motivate action. Some are even turning to comedy to help tell the climate story and cope with difficult realities.

Cli-fi novels offer a compelling means of raising awareness. They inspire change in response to our growing environmental concerns. Humans are natural storytellers (and story consumers). Narratives can inspire us, change our perspectives and cause us to take action. This makes cli-fi a valuable asset in the climate communication toolbox.

For more cli-fi resources, explore the Hub. If you’re a cli-fi writer, consider joining the Climate Fiction Writers League. This community of authors is dedicated to urgent climate action.