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Climate Change

Entry updated 1 May 2023. Tagged: Theme.

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Owing to the increasing scientific consensus that our energy-intensive technological civilization is measurably and in all likelihood irreversibly affecting Earth's climate, consideration of climate change has become virtually inevitable in serious Near Future sf of the twenty-first century; several hundred individual entries in this encyclopedia (see About This Entry) refer to Climate Change. Fiction centred on climate change is occasionally referred to as Cli-Fi, a term not usefully applied to sf – where climate change has underwritten or been the explicit focus of many texts for many years – though it may be of some use when applied to nonfantastic work set in worlds already affected.

Traditional sf treatments of the theme sometimes depict climate change as the result of massive Pollution (which see); an interesting example is the spoof television Space Documentary Alternative 3 (1977). Rather more frequently, human complicity is downplayed in favour of natural Disaster: a new Ice Age, for example, in John Christopher's The World in Winter (1962; vt The Long Winter) and again in The Sixth Winter (1979) by John Gribbin and Douglas Orgill. Earth's gravitational capture by a "dark star" leads to the freezing of its atmosphere in Fritz Leiber's "A Pail of Air" (December 1951 Galaxy), and the Sun is disastrously occluded by the titular space entity of Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud (1957). J G Ballard's moody The Drowned World (January 1962 Science Fiction Adventures; exp 1962) – a significant influence on the iconography of later sf climate-change scenarios – ascribes increasing heat, rising sea levels and the drowning of London to persistent solar flares. Philip José Farmer's Flesh (1960; rev 1968) presents a now all too familiar greenhouse-effect scenario, here resulting from volcanic activity all around the Pacific "Ring of Fire", which

... is alive with active volcanoes. All that carbon dioxide and dust released into the atmosphere has had a radical effect on the terrestrial climate. The ice-caps of the Arctic and Antarctic are melting. The oceans have risen at least six feet and will rise more. Palm trees grow in Pennsylvania. The once-reclaimed deserts of the American Southwest look as if they'd been blasted by the hot breath of the Sun. The Midwest is a dustbowl.

Other notable works shift the responsibility to Aliens, such as the deep-sea invaders of John Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes (1953; cut vt Out of the Deeps 1953), whose ultimate weapon increases sea levels in order to drown tiresome humanity. The Newts of Karel Čapek's earlier War With the Newts (1936; trans 1937) do not raise the sea but use explosives to dismantle and lower the land. In Gerald Heard's "The President of the United States, Detective" (March 1947 Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine) as by H F Heard, a Chinese plot to melt the Arctic tundra, raise sea levels and drown portions of the West is countered by the US President (a Scientist), whose atom-bombing of Greenland's and Antarctica's ice-fields will both reclaim these continents for Western use and inundate much of China. Aliens are responsible for climate change in La Morte ["Death Comes from Planet Aytin"] (1967; vt I Diavoli della Spazio; vt The Snow Devils; vt Space Devils). Scientific hubris can also lead to climatic doom, as in Piers Anthony's eccentric Rings of Ice (1974), in which vast masses of orbiting ice fragments moved into Earth orbit as solar reflectors (see Power Sources) soon fall to become planet-drowning rain and floods. The 1980s added the plausible speculation that one side effect of World War Three would be Nuclear Winter.

Among the unlikeliest scenarios of human-triggered climatic disaster is Frederik Pohl's "The Snowmen" (December 1959 Galaxy), which incorrectly assumes that widespread use of heat pumps to warm houses will lower outside temperatures and ultimately bring on an artificial ice age; however, the protagonist's wilful indifference to global issues is oddly prophetic of more recent climate-change denial. James Blish's "We All Die Naked" (in Three for Tomorrow, anth 1969, ed Robert Silverberg), though sharply satirical in tone, describes the whole now-familiar litany of human-caused increase in carbon dioxide levels, the resulting greenhouse-effect heating, the melting of the polar icecaps, and rising sea levels that flood New York; canoes ply the streets of this new Venice.

Plausible climate change is central in Dakota James's Greenhouse: It Will Happen in 1997 (1984), whose timescale proved overly pessimistic; in George Turner's The Sea and Summer (1987; vt Drowning Towers 1988), with the seas steadily and oppressively rising owing to greenhouse-effect melting of the polar icecaps; and in John Barnes's Mother of Storms (1994), whose eponymous killer storm is made possible by a sudden, human-triggered increase in atmospheric methane levels. Further novels set in futures made bleak by global warming include Kurt Vonnegut's Slapstick, or Lonesome No More! (1976), Dakota James's Milwaukee the Beautiful (1987), Richard Kadrey's Kamikaze L'Amour: A Novel of the Future (1995), Julie Bertagna's Exodus (2002) and Ray Hammond's Extinction (2005).

Inevitably, some authors have adopted contrarian positions. Environmentalists concerned with climate change are portrayed as villains in Fallen Angels (1991) by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Michael Flynn, where global-warming scenarios are rebutted – at least to the satisfaction of the authors – by the coming of a new ice age. Much the same attitude, bolstered by dubious science and (according to the scientists themselves) misrepresentation of actual work in climate science, pervades Michael Crichton's State of Fear (2004).

A particularly thoughtful sf examination of Near-Future climate change – including some plausible US Politics – is Kim Stanley Robinson's Science in the Capitol trilogy, comprising Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005) and Sixty Days and Counting (2007). Crises here include the drowning of Washington, District of Columbia, in book one (foreshadowing the 2005 impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans) and the stalling of the Gulf Stream, which is restarted at heroic cost. The term Anthropocene, denoting the current geological era in which human activities have became a significant factor in global ecosystem change (see Ecology; Gaia), was coined by ecologist Eugene F Stoermer (1934-2012) in the early 1980s and features in such sf novels as Alastair Reynolds's Blue Remembered Earth (2012) and Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 (2012). The Little Blue Marble anthology series edited by Katrina Archer, beginning with Little Blue Marble 2017 (anth 2018), contains a large number of tales focused on climate change.

The pervasiveness of the scientific consensus has spread awareness of climate change as a likely near-future default into more mainstream literary circles. Examples include Maggie Gee's The Ice People (1998); T Coraghessan Boyle's A Friend of the Earth (2000), offering a vision of related devastation as early as 2025; and Ian McEwan's Solar (2010). In the Cinema, the early Deadly Harvest (1977) hinges on food scarcity caused by Pollution-induced global cooling; The Arrival (1996) and its sequel Arrival II (1998) both ascribe global warming to the effects of Alien Xenoforming (which see); The Day After Tomorrow (2004) perhaps inevitably hypes up global-warming effects, converting steady decline to a rapid-action Disaster scenario. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) more plausibly uses flooding caused by rising sea levels as a future background rather than the narrative focus. [DRL]

see also: Andrew Bovell; Pseudoscience; Steve Waters; Weather Control.

further reading (highly selected)


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