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Novelists illustrate the climate futures that could await us

A woman reads a book in Hyde Park in London, United Kingdom. (Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
A woman reads a book in Hyde Park in London, United Kingdom. (Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

Politicians and scientists gathered in Scotland this week to set goals to roll back emissions and save the planet from catastrophic climate change at COP26. It’s a task so daunting it’s even hard to imagine.

But fiction writers are trying to do just that.

Omar el-Akkad authored 2021’s “What Strange Paradise” and 2017’s “American War,” which is about a second civil war triggered by a ban on fossil fuels.

“[Climate change] is happening geologically in the blink of an eye,” says novelist Omar el-Akkad, “but in human terms, it’s too long to think about. Very few politicians in power right now have to worry about getting re-elected 30 years from now. Once you move past the lifespan of a mortgage, you’re in trouble.”

El-Akkad says that stories can make the abstract threat of the climate crisis real for readers.

“I think that’s one of the things that fiction allows you to do. To try to say, ‘hey, listen. Care about someone who’s not you,’ ” he says. “Is that going to work against the massive tide of incredibly individualistic society that we’ve created? I don’t know. But fundamentally I have to believe that it might”

Science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson has also been writing about the climate futures that may await us.

In books like “New York 2140,” “Red Mars,” and most recently “The Ministry for the Future,” he’s explored how a changing climate would change humanity. He’s also proposed solutions: “The Ministry for the Future” is about a UN agency that takes great risks to solve the crisis.

Robinson is so well-regarded that the real-life, non-fiction, UN invited him to COP26 this week.

Interview Highlights

On why he’s spent so many decades writing stories about climate

Kim Stanley Robinson: “Well, I’m a science fiction writer, and so what I mean by that is I like to set my stories in the future because it makes for interesting stories. So you set a story in the future. Well, it could be 5 million years in the future, and that’s what we think of as space opera. A lot of people think science fiction is just that, but there’s near-future science fiction. And what I’m going to say is that all near future science fiction has now become climate fiction because it’s an over determining situation that you can’t escape. So if you’re going to write about the near future, suddenly you’re writing climate fiction now.”

On whether something like the massive disasters he writes about in “Ministry for the Future” could spur climate action

Robinson: “I’m not so sure about that to tell you the truth. And my working method was that if I could tell people about it in fiction, they might become aware that it’s going to happen and it could happen almost anywhere. And this wet bulb temperature that is a combination of heat and humidity, which is what I described in my novel, one of the hottest wet bulb temperatures ever was recorded outside of Chicago. And the scientific community, warning us of that kind of coalesced about two or three or four years ago, and when I read about it, I thought, I have to take this on. It’s not well enough known that we cannot adapt to higher global average temperatures because we don’t even survive without air conditioning in wet bulb 35 temperature and we’re already hitting wet bulb 34. It could happen anywhere, any time. Most of the human world is in danger of heat waves of this sort, and so that really drove this particular book.”

On what innovations are needed to combat the climate crisis

Robinson: “The crucial one is finance, which is to say the software of civilization. How do we pay ourselves to quickly do the right things to decarbonize, as opposed to continuing to pay ourselves to exploit and destroy the Earth for the generations to come and drive ourselves into a mass extinction event merely because it seems to be profitable by the current system. So a new political economy, a new sense of what money is and how we create it and what we spend it on. This is the crucial technology.”

On the “economy 2.0” that could stave off disaster

Robinson: “The way it is now, investment capital goes to the highest rate of return. In other words, bad things can happen and still make a profit. So the highest rate of return, if you wanted to make that for good things, people are talking about carbon quantitative easing. So the original making of money in the first place by the central banks would be, like the quantitative easing in 2008 or 2020, would be spent first on decarbonization and then circulate in the general economy. The other notion that people have been discussing is that if you were to sequester carbon or draw carbon down, that you would be paid for it with what they call a carbon coin. Like they used to have a gold standard, in this case, there would be a carbon standard. You’d get paid for doing the good work rather than the false highest rate of return that’s wrecking the Earth.”

On more traditional scientific advances that could lower global temperatures, like so-called geo-engineering

Robinson: “I’m actually behind the curve of the real events. Now, solar radiation management is highly controversial, sometimes called geoengineering. It looks like a bad idea, and that’s because in many ways it is a bad idea, but it’s an emergency gesture to lower temperatures by imitating a volcanic eruption. Sulfur dioxide is actually very bad for the ozone layer, but if you put more inert dust up there, like limestone dust, which is up there already and you deflect some sunlight away, suddenly temperatures would drop for a while, the dust would fall to the ground and then you might do it again, you might not. It’s being discussed. People are saying, ‘Well, how do we govern it? How do we decide to do it? How do we make sure that some mad billionaire doesn’t do it on his own?’ And it’s not a wild science fiction story, it is a current reality that we might need everything we can possibly do to avoid mass death.”

On whether the political violence he writes about in “Ministry for the Future” could come true

Robinson: “I hope not. I think it’s a terrible idea. I think every time people decide to use violence against other humans to get their political will, the backlash is more intense than the original action. I’m a middle class American pacifist. But when writing that novel, I thought there’s going to be people a lot angrier than me who’ve seen their families die. So it’s such an obvious and bad possibility that what I was hoping was that by portraying it fictionally, I might give people pause and think, ‘Well, we really ought to do the right thing first to avoid these bad things happening.’ ”

On whether fiction writers have a duty to write about climate

Omar el-Akkad: “Something that contends with the fundamental irrationality of being human. That, to me, is what literature is. And climate change is such a concrete example of that in the sense that we know what we are doing to ruin this planet and our ability to survive in it. We know what we need to do to fix it, and we do nothing. The fundamental irrational human behavior at the heart of that is, to me, such a magnet for what literature is. So I think over time, that idea of ‘cli-fi’ or whatever you want to call it, being a new, strange thing is going to fade away and you’re not really going to have sort of ‘cli-fi’ books. You’re going to have any writer worth their salt having to contend with the climate.”

Robinson: “Literature exists to give our lives meaning. It’s the stories we tell each other, and literature is the finest stories we have. And I totally agree. Omar is right about this, that all fiction that is about reality, that is a kind of realism of our time will become climate fiction by default, because that’s the overriding reality of the next few decades and fiction that tries to pretend that it’s all about your individual problems without getting to the social and the planetary is a diminished form and not doing its job.”

On whether fiction could reach people that environmentalists and politicians can’t

Robinson: “Well, that’s a good question. I think there is a percentage of the public that reads novels to find out what their life means. Those people are going to be appreciating the fiction that includes the planet and the climate emergency because it’ll help to orient them to, ‘What do I do as an individual? How does life feel? What does that mean?’ These are traditional questions of fiction that are inescapable. If you try to escape it, you render yourself irrelevant as an artist. If you try to face up to it, you’ve got a whole bundle of formal problems like how do you write the planet? How do you describe how it feels to be in, that the climate emergency is on the other side of the Earth, but not on your side of the Earth? And so on and so forth.”

On whether humanity can really change course

Robinson: “Yes, we are not doomed. It’s a question of better or worse. If we react sooner and we react better as a global society, you can stabilize carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, and you can even begin to draw them down. And at that point, you’ve dodged the mass extinction event that we are beginning. And so for me, as a utopian science fiction writer, the bar has been lowered to this. If we dodge a mass extinction event and allow the future generations to cope with the subsequent ongoing problems that will always exist, that will be a utopian 21st century and we can do it.”

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a project aimed at strengthening the media’s focus on the climate crisis. WBUR is one of 400+ news organizations that have committed to a week of heightened coverage around the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. Check out all our coverage here.

 James Perkins Mastromarino produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Perkins Mastromarino also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.