What is the best way to write about climate change in fiction?

By Dr Flora Whitmarsh, Grantham Institute

Last week I attended Weather Fronts, an event organised by Tipping Point. The event brought climate scientists together with writers of fiction and poetry to discuss how authors can bring climate change into their work.

Climate change is a global problem and solving it requires collective action. When too many citizens fail to exercise their voice, it is harder for such problems to be adequately addressed at the societal level. Artists have a voice they can use to communicate about the things that concern them. Writing about global warming of course has the potential to raise awareness of its impacts and possible solutions. Novels or poems can be more engaging for some audiences than scientific documents or news reports.

After two thought-provoking keynote speeches from John Ashton and Professor Chris Rapley, and a writer’s panel with Maggie Gee, Jay Griffiths, Gregory Norminton, and Ruth Padel, much of the time was spent in small group discussions. We talked about diverse subjects including utopia and dystopia in fiction, uncertainty in climate modelling, and who should take decisions about climate change. I met novelists, graphic novelists and poets who were passionate about the environment, many of whom are already writing about the subject.

Literature would seem to be the perfect medium to bring climate change to life, but the muse is fickle and anybody setting out to write fiction with an explicit message could struggle to create engaging art. The danger is in creating something more akin to propaganda: a story with an obvious message, and unrealistic or one dimensional characters who function as little more than a mouthpiece for the author’s own opinions.

We often hear that the best way to write about climate change is to create a “positive vision of the future”, something that probably works well in science communication and outreach. But in art this can be less effective, because one runs the risk of the message being too obvious.

It is often said of climate change communication that we should avoid overly frightening or guilt-inducing messages, because this risks evoking fear and powerlessness. At the conference one writer suggested that dystopias are easier to write than utopias, suggesting it could be difficult to create art with a positive message about the future. However, a future in which climate change has been solved need not be a utopia. One solution to all of this is to write a futuristic story about something else entirely, but set it in a world powered by renewable energy without explicitly alluding to climate science or policy.

The conflict between creating good art and giving it some sort of message cannot be easily solved, but one experienced writer summed up the answer in the words of Emily Dickinson: “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant”. In other words, in fiction it can often be more effective to hint at your message or arrive at it in a roundabout way than to spell it out explicitly.

 

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