This is a scary time for the health of the planet. Earth’s biosphere is under stress from myriad human causes. Climate scientists have reached nearly unanimous consensus about the existential threat of human-induced global warming. Scientific organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists, and activist groups like 350.org, fight to raise public awareness of the issue and its implications. While the entire biosphere is under siege, many believe that the oceans are the canary in the coal mine. Recent scientific surveys report that more than 70% of the Great Barrier Reef’s shallow water corals north of Port Douglas are now dead; 29% died from bleaching in 2016 alone.
These findings paint a grim picture for the oceans and the world. Still, the U.S. remains hopelessly embroiled in political debate over scientific facts that are accepted by almost all climate experts around the globe. Why? And how do we break the deadlock?
Scientific and environmental advocacy groups are certainly crucial to sway public opinion, and they continue to present the evidence. But polls have shown that too many Americans remain utterly entrenched in their beliefs on this issue, ignoring arguments to the contrary. A growing movement within fiction-writing circles hopes to shift hearts and minds in ways that rational debate simply hasn’t been able to achieve. The emerging literary genre of “climate fiction” (also known as “cli-fi”) or “eco-fiction” features gifted authors of traditional science fiction, fantasy, and mainstream fiction who are channeling their imaginations to portray the potential future of an Earth ravaged by climate change.
Renowned mainstream writers like Barbara Kingsolver (Flight Behavior) and Margaret Atwood (Oryx and Crake) have contributed novels that strike a chord with readers, affecting them on a visceral level that rational scientific argument simply hasn’t yet been able to duplicate. Of course, science fiction lovers like myself would argue that this is nothing new; brilliant SF authors like Frank Herbert (with his Dune series) and Kim Stanley Robinson (with his Mars series) have been dramatically illustrating the vital importance of environmental stewardship for decades.
My own award-winning science fiction trilogy, Aquarius Rising, explores a future Earth where global warming, and a disastrous attempt to reverse it, have forced humans to adapt to radically altered ecological niches. The bulk of the action takes place in the coastal shallows of the Eastern Pacific Ocean, where human-dolphin hybrids called Aquarians have built thriving reef communities amid the ruins of drowned human cities. This is no utopia by any means. Genetic engineering (biosculpting) is vital to allow the Aquarians to combat the ravages of ocean acidification and rising temperatures. They face an ongoing threat from human scientists clinging to the desiccated lands who strive to resurrect the continents at any cost. It is a brutal, bruising vision of one possible future we might face if we fail to act soon to mitigate climate change. While it offers hope for a successful outcome, it presents a cautionary tale that is representative of the works within this vibrant new literary genre.
Can fiction of this kind succeed where raw, unadorned facts have failed to convince so many Americans? I don’t honestly know. But I do believe in the power of story, of imagination, to move us. So do many, many fiction writers across many genres. Climate change is daunting when it acidifies our oceans, destroys ancient reefs, melts polar ice, and leads to relentless sea level rise that threatens to swallow coastal cities. Let’s hope that the combination of science fact and fiction can succeed where either, alone, seems doomed to fail.