What is Climate Fiction? Cli-Fi and How It Can Help Us Respond to the Climate Crisis

White wind mills against a sunset in the Oregon desert.

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Climate fiction, or cli-fi, is a form of speculative fiction that features a changed or changing climate as a major plot device. People have been unwittingly writing cli-fi stories and novels for decades, though the term came into heavy usage in the past 10 or so years. A 2013 article from Scientific American credits journalist Dan Bloom with coining the term cli-fi, and authors like Margaret Atwood and publications like NPR, The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor, and the New Yorker have since endorsed it.

In recent years, climate fiction has been gaining a lot of steam, probably thanks in part to increased public awareness of the climate crisis. Goodreads now lists cli-fi as a fiction genre, Amazon Original Stories published a short story collection of cli-fi in 2018, and the prestigious literary journal Guernica published a special issue on climate fiction in March 2019. I think it’s safe to say that climate fiction is now an established literary genre, and, if done well, I believe it can help us adapt to a rapidly changing world by teaching us skills to build emotional resilience.

The climate crisis will force us to adapt in ways we’ve never done before and on an unprecedented scale

I cannot stress this enough: it is absolutely imperative that the world takes collective action to stop greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But we will also have to adapt, and rapidly. Even if we could halt all GHG emissions today, significant temperature rise in the Arctic is locked-in. This means many adverse impacts are unavoidable at this point, and we need to prepare for them.

Some efforts are already being made here. Coastal cities like Miami Beach, Florida and Delfzijl, Netherlands are installing sea rise pumps and raising sea dikes, respectively, to protect themselves against rising ocean levels. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) developed a public health-focused resilience framework called BRACE to help communities prepare for the negative health effects of the climate crisis.

Three excavators pile up dirt to raise the level of a sea dike near Defzijl, Netherlands.
Dutch construction workers near Delfzijl, Netherlands raise the level of a sea dike to guard against rising sea level. Source: PBS via Teake Zuidema

Efforts like these all aim to increase a community’s physical resilience, or capacity to rebound from setbacks, but there are painfully few initiatives for helping people build emotional resilience. Building more resilient communities starts with building more resilient people, and to do this, we need a shift in mindset. I believe stories are some of our best tools for doing so.

How climate fiction can help us develop emotional resilience

Climate change is scary. And whether or not you already knew how high the stakes are, it won’t help anyone to only focus on the negative effects. It’s good to be aware of the severity and urgency of the climate crisis, but only seeing climate change as a threat can make us feel afraid and hopeless.

Instead, we need to reframe the climate crisis as an opportunity to create a better future, accept that change is a fundamental part of being alive, and process the complicated feelings we have surrounding climate change. These are all ways to develop emotional resilience, according to the American Psychological Association, and climate fiction can help us take these steps.

Climate fiction can help us reframe the situation

Dystopian novels like The Hunger Games and Divergent line the shelves at many bookstores today. Fear sells; authors grab us by the collar and compel us to keep reading when they speak to our worst fears. But fear is not always a good motivator, and in the case of using emotional appeals to fear in climate change communication, it can actually be a better demotivator. When we focus too much on a threat’s potential for harm, we feel disempowered and become paralyzed.

Not every cli-fi story is dystopian, and the ones that are don’t have to end in catastrophe. Take Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, for instance. This book is a classic work of dystopian fiction, but the characters build a better future for themselves in the end, learning to take care of others and live sustainably. The book’s protagonist, Lauren Olamina, is the archetype of emotional resilience: she builds a strong support network of people around her, focuses on action steps she can take, and envisions what she wants for the future instead of dwelling on the misery of her circumstances.

Also read: S1 E1: Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

We may not live in the harsh world of Parable of the Sower, but we can learn from how Lauren reframed her reality to see it as an opportunity to make things better. By reading about her experience as a work of fiction, we can start thinking of ways to reframe our own situation before it’s too late to do anything about it.

Climate fiction can help us accept change

Benjamin Franklin may have been right about death and taxes, but he forgot to include change as a certainty of life. Change is a fundamental constant of the universe, underpinning every single event down to the particle level. Octavia Butler went so far as to have Lauren Olamina invent a religion centered around the belief that “God is change” in Parable of the Sower. Change is unstoppable, so instead of conspiring to thwart it, we should bend with it.

Climate change is unnatural, yes, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also adapt to it as we’re working to stop it. In Ursula K. LeGuin’s groundbreaking novel The Left Hand of Darkness, a representative from Earth visits an alien planet called Gethen. The people of Gethen have adapted to live in a changed climate—albeit an ice age—that renders large parts of the planet uninhabitable and other parts extremely dangerous. But instead of becoming hopeless as a result of the climate and the hostile living conditions it imposes, the Gethenians accept their situation for what it is and live appropriately in response.

Also read: Interview With Isaac Yuen of Ekostories

Gethenians don’t inhabit sprawled out metros like Atlanta or Los Angeles—they live in densely compacted cities. They take what they need from the natural world and nothing more since natural resources are scant. As Isaac Yuen puts it in Ekostories, “With little room for experimentation living on an unforgiving world, Gethenians have adopted a worldview that focuses less on progress, and more on presence.” By accepting their changing climate, Gethenians adapted over centuries to live in harmony with their world. We can learn from their example and from other stories like theirs.

Writing original climate fiction can help us process climate grief

Writing about traumatic experiences can be therapeutic, and writing about the climate crisis is no different. We can, of course, learn from the climate fiction that’s been written, but writing some ourselves is different. As the American Psychological Association notes, writing about the hardships we’ve faced is another way to build emotional resilience.

I once worked with a non-profit organization in Nashville that paired veterans with songwriters to write songs about wartime experiences that left many people with post-traumatic stress disorder. Doing this helped people heal. I watched veterans of Vietnam and Afghanistan break down into tears singing songs they’d written about the horrors they experienced. Later, I got to hear these people talk about how cathartic it was to tell their stories through song.

The American writer Kurt Vonnegut knew this too. It took him years to finally do it, but his famous novel Slaughterhouse-Five was his attempt to make sense of surviving the Bombing of Dresden during World War II. Vonnegut’s feelings about the bombing and war in general were complicated and came to be summarized by a motif from the book, “So it goes.” Earlier this year, I stopped by the Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library on the way back from Chicago and bought a copy of the literary journal the Museum publishes, So It Goes. The first volume features an excerpt from The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s book about the Vietnam War. A particular quote jumped out at me:

What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.

I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.

Writing a story is empowering, and I believe that just as storytelling can help war veterans, it can also help those of us suffering from climate grief and pre-traumatic stress disorder feel a greater sense of agency. Stories don’t have to be painstakingly written literary novels or movies or TV shows. They can be as simple as imagining the future you want.

Climate fiction won’t fix everything

When it comes to a problem as enormous and complicated as the climate crisis, there isn’t a silver bullet solution. But to fight for a better future and adapt to our changing world, we’ll need all the help we can get. Climate fiction can be a great source of help.

Also read: Where To Get Started With Climate Fiction (Cli-Fi)

I can give you some recommendations on where to start, but know that there are dozens, if not scores, of excellent cli-fi books out there. If you start reading one and realize it’s only making you feel more anxious or scared, set it down. Remember that good cli-fi should help you put the problem into perspective, accept that the world is changing, and feel empowered to do something about it.

If nothing you can find does this for you, try writing your own climate fiction. Write the book you want to read. Tell the story you want to hear. Envision the future you want to live in. As long as we can still do this, we have reason to be hopeful.

Cover photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

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