Global Water Security Center

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Why I Read Climate Fiction, and You Should Too

This opinion article was written by GWSC Environmental Data Scientist Dr. Kaitlin Kimmel-Hass.

A book that starts with a flood that wipes out rural Nebraska and another that begins with an astronaut with amnesia on a spaceship with two dead companions – they may not look like they have much connection, but both are inextricability linked to climate change. 

Indeed, over the last few months, I have found myself reading several novels driven by climate change. I first noticed the theme of climate change while reading Kassandra Montag’s After the Flood and Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary and sought it out in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife

My mind kept coming back to these novels. I was talking to my friends about them and drawn to their climate change themes. Because of my newly found fascination with these books, I decided to take a deeper dive into ‘climate fiction’ novels. 

Climate fiction novels have a theme or plot that revolves around climate change. This type of fiction is not new; authors have been speculating about the impacts of a changing climate for several decades. What is new is the term “climate fiction” (a.k.a. cli-fi), which was coined to describe them within the past 15 years, and the increasing mainstream popularity of this genre.

Now, reading about climate change is nothing new to me as a scientist whose career revolves around understanding the effects of climate change – but these novels about climate change had a different impact on me than reading scientific manuscripts on the same topics.

As I reflected on my draw to cli-fi novels, I settled on three main reasons why I think it is important to read fictional accounts of climate change impacts (that are by all means rooted in a scientific understanding of what may happen in the not-so-far future). 

A wider-reaching audience

Climate fiction has the potential to reach a wider audience than scientific publications and provide some of the same context and information in a more engaging way.

For example, I picked up Project Hail Mary without knowing that it would mention climate change or explore some of the extreme methods that could be used to curb climate impacts in the future. Someone who just enjoys sci-fi or books about unique friendships would also like Project Hail Mary but also will get the climate change topics in that novel. People may accidently find themselves reading a cli-fi book and enjoy it for the other themes it explores.

Fiction also tends to be more engaging than scientific writing (see the third item on this list for more of my thoughts on that) and does not require years of training to understand. Thus, it can reach more people. Scientific publications are also often buried behind paywalls and not easily accessible to the public. My top cited publication has about 1,000 citations and Project Hail Mary has over half a million ratings on GoodReads. That is several orders of magnitude difference in the reach. 

Empathy for future generations

Climate fiction introduces us to people who will experience future climate change, thereby generating empathy for people we will never meet. 

Humans are notoriously bad at long-term planning. I have read articles that attribute this pattern to uncertainty in the future (it is stressful to try to plan for something you cannot predict), to intergenerational social discounting (e.g., it is hard to determine what something worth one million dollars today will be worth hundreds of years in the future), and to disconnection from our future selves (and thereby likely an even greater disconnected to even more distant future strangers). While climate fiction will not be able to reduce uncertainty in the future, it can create a connection to future generations to help overcome the latter two issues.  

Climate fiction may be able to bridge the gap between our current selves and future generations by creating empathy through characters in these novels. Empathizing with future generations may decrease discount rates because we now care more about how our actions play out in the future. Decreasing discount rates can even feed back into how scientists model climate change impacts. Further, if we can see ourselves in these future characters, we will likely want to create a world where they can thrive rather than struggle.

Visualization of climate scenarios

Climate fiction creates vivid depictions of future climate scenarios that many of us are unable to construct based on numbers alone. 

The language of my scientific work revolves around phrases like ‘effect sizes’, ‘confidence intervals’, and ‘standard deviations.’ I have written many sentences akin to: ‘Overall, fertilization decreased species richness by 22% and Simpson’s diversity by 45%,’ and I have thought that was the most precise way to describe what occurred in nature. I also understand that my sentence was likely the blandest way to describe what occurred in that scenario. But scientific writing is supposed to be impartial, precise, and (as much as I hate to say it) bland. 

Fortunately, fiction writing does not have the same constraints as scientific writing. Whereas scientists stick to impartial writing to describe a 2°C warming scenario would, fiction authors depict it using vivid language; they can place you in an extreme heat wave or in Las Vegas when the water from the Colorado River is slowed to a trickle. Fiction authors are able to invoke all of our senses to tell the story of climate change and move past precise quantitative descriptions of events. 

Climate fiction depicts future climate scenarios in a way that is sometimes more “truthful” and impactful than traditional science writing, for all its precision and numbers. As Nobel Prize winning author Gao Xinjiang said, “It’s in literature that true life can be found. It’s under the mask of fiction that you can tell the truth.” 

Numbers can be hard to grasp. 2°C seems like a small change when temperatures can swing 15°C or more in a single day. Losing two million species over the next century seems impossible to imagine as well when we likely only notice a handful of species in our daily lives. Through cli-fi, these numbers become more than numbers – they become a truth that has more meaning because readers can visualize and “participate” with the depictions of these climate change scenarios. Numbers become real experiences. Without these experiences of the future, it is unclear if people will willingly make any changes to prevent them. 

Climate fiction may not create a large-scale systemic change in how people act, how decisions are made, or how policies are enacted. However, it grounds my research into something more real than science – it humanizes my work in a way numbers and graphs never could.