Novelists illustrate the climatic futures that could await us

Politicians and scientists gathered in Scotland this week to set targets to cut emissions and save the planet from catastrophic climate change at COP26. It is such a daunting task that it is even hard to imagine.

But fiction writers try to do just that.

Omar el-Akkad is the author of “What Strange Paradise” in 2021 and “American War” in 2017, which deals with a second civil war sparked by a ban on fossil fuels.

“[Climate change] geologically happens in the blink of an eye, ”says novelist Omar el-Akkad,“ but in human terms, that’s too long to think about. Very few politicians in power today have to fear being re-elected in 30 years. Once you’ve passed the life of a mortgage, you’re in trouble.

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

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

Science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson has also written about the climate future that may lie ahead.

In books like “New York 2140”, “Red Mars” and more recently “The Ministry for the Future” he has explored how climate change would change humanity. He also offers solutions: “The ministry of the future” speaks of a UN agency taking big risks to resolve the crisis.

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

Interview highlights

Kim Stanley Robinson. (Ellen B. Wright)

Why he spent so many decades writing climate stories

Kim Stanley Robinson: “Well I’m a sci-fi writer so what I mean by that is I like to put my stories in the future because it creates 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 a space opera. A lot of people think that science fiction is just that, but there is science fiction in the near future. And what I’m going to say is that all science fiction in the near future has now turned into climate fiction because it’s an overdrive that you can’t escape. So if you’re writing about the near future, you’re suddenly writing climate fiction now. “

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

Robinson: “I’m not so sure of that to tell you the truth. And my way of working was if I could tell people about it in fiction, they could see that it was going to happen, and that it could happen almost anywhere. And this wet bulb temperature which is a combination of heat and humidity, which I described in my novel, one of the hottest wet bulb temperatures on record outside of Chicago. And the scientific community, warning us of this kind of merger, got together about two, three, or four years ago, and when I read about it, I thought I had to take responsibility for that. It is not known enough that we cannot adapt to higher global average temperatures, because we do not even survive without air conditioning at humid temperature 35 and we are already reaching humid temperature 34. It could happen anywhere, n anytime. Most of the human world is in danger of heat waves like this, so that’s what really motivated this particular book. “

What innovations are needed to fight the climate crisis

Robinson: “The main thing is finance, that is to say the software of civilization. How can we pay ourselves to do the right things to decarbonize quickly, instead of continuing to pay ourselves to mine and destroy the Earth for generations to come and lead us to a mass extinction event just because it appears to be? cost effective by the system current. 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 “economy 2.0” which could avoid disaster

Robinson: “As it stands, private equity achieves the highest rate of return. In other words, bad things can happen and always turn a profit. So the highest rate of return, if you wanted to do that for good things, people talk about QE. Thus, the initial gain of money for central banks would be, like the quantitative easing of 2008 or 2020, to be spent first on decarbonization, then to circulate in the general economy. The other notion that people have discussed is that if you were to sequester or remove carbon, you would be paid for it with what they call a carbon coin. Since they had a gold standard, in this case there would be a carbon standard. You would be paid to do a good job rather than the highest bogus rate of return that destroys the Earth. “

On more traditional scientific breakthroughs that could lower global temperatures, like so-called geoengineering

Robinson: “I’m actually behind the curve of real events. Now, the management of solar radiation is very controversial, sometimes referred to as geoengineering. It sounds like a bad idea, and that’s because in many ways it’s a bad idea, but it’s an emergency move to lower temperatures by mimicking a volcanic eruption. Sulfur dioxide is actually really bad for the ozone layer, but if you put more inert dust in it, like lime dust, that’s already up there and diverts some sunlight, the temperatures would drop suddenly for a while, the dust would fall to the ground and you could do it again, you might not. It is under discussion. People say, “Well, how do we govern it? How do we decide to do it? How to make sure that a crazy billionaire does not do it alone? And this is not a savage sci-fi story, it is a current reality that we might need anything we can do to avoid mass death.

On the question of knowing if the political violence about which he writes in “Ministry for the Future” could become reality

Robinson: “I hope not. I think this is a terrible idea. I think whenever people decide to use violence against other humans to gain their political will, the backlash is more intense than the initial action. I am a middle class American pacifist. But while writing this novel, I thought that there would be people a lot angrier than me who saw their families die. So this is such an obvious and bad possibility that what I was hoping for was that by describing it in a fictitious way I could give people a pause and think, “Well, we really should do the right thing first. to prevent these bad things from happening. ” “

On the duty of fiction writers to write about the climate

Omar el-Akkad.  (Kateshia Pendergrass)
Omar el-Akkad. (Kateshia Pendergrass)

Omar el-Akkad: “Something that fights the fundamental irrationality of being human. That is, to me, what literature is. And climate change is such a real example of that in the sense that we know what we are doing to ruin this planet and our ability to survive on it. We know what we need to do to fix it, and we’re not doing anything. The fundamental irrational human behavior at the heart of this is, to me, such a magnet for what literature is. So I think over time this idea of ​​’cli-fi’ or whatever you want to call it, being a new and weird thing is going to fade away and you’re not really going to have any kind of ‘cli-‘ books. fi ‘. You’re going to have any writer worth his salt who’s going to face the climate.

Robinson: “Literature exists to give meaning to our life. These are the stories we tell ourselves, and literature is the most beautiful story we have. And I totally agree. Omar is right on this point, that any fiction on reality, that is to say a kind of realism of our time, will become by default a climatic fiction, because it is the primordial reality of the next decades and a fiction which tries to pretend that these are your individual problems without reaching the social and planetary is diminished form and does not do its job.

On whether fiction could reach people that environmentalists and politicians cannot

Robinson: “Well that’s a good question. I think there is a percentage of the public who read novels to find out what their life means. These people will appreciate the fiction that includes the planet and the climate emergency, as it will help them ask, “What should I do as an individual?” How does life feel? What does it mean?’ These are traditional fictional questions that are inescapable. If you try to escape it, you make yourself irrelevant as an artist. If you try to deal with it you have a whole bunch of formal issues like how do you write the planet? How do you describe what it feels like when the climate emergency is on the other side of the Earth, but not on your side of the Earth? And so on.”

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 better as a global society, you can stabilize the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and you can even start to lower them. And at this point you’ve dodged the mass extinction event we’re starting. And so for me, as a utopian sci-fi writer, the bar has been lowered on that. If we dodge a mass extinction event and allow future generations to deal with the lingering problems that will always exist, it will be a utopian 21st century and we can do it. “

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a project to increase media attention to the climate crisis. WBUR is one of 400+ news organizations committed to a week of increased coverage around the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. Discover all our covers here.


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