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Afterword: Pruning the Dystopiary

Published onNov 28, 2023
Afterword: Pruning the Dystopiary

The project behind this book grew out of an initiative at ClimateWorks Foundation called “2050 Today.” It tried to help us build a link between here-and-now policy debates and lofty future visions, describing a plausible pathway for success in our mission to end the climate crisis. As we developed storylines for scenarios, I was fortunate enough to be put in touch with Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination (CSI). They seemed well placed to use speculative fiction to help those working at the coalface (we need to update our metaphors) of climate policy to think more expansively. The point of departure for these early conversations with CSI was the role of the annual climate change negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—universally known as “the COP.”1

If you want to get involved in climate change diplomacy, it’s helpful to be content with delayed gratification. That’s one of the lessons of the past 28 years of COPs. The whole system operates on the principle of limited victory: devise a framework convention with the goal of preventing climate change, but without any way of implementing it. Negotiate the means of implementing it, but without the cooperation of the biggest polluters, like the United States and China. Create a system with every country committed, but without specific obligations or enforcement. Each year’s COP feels like the moment we might finally get the pieces in place to create change in the real world; as a prominent advocate I worked with used to say year after year, “if we can only just get the architecture in place, we’ll have what we need to really do something.”

The COP lives in a sort of parallel universe, defined by its very nature. It is a formal intergovernmental United Nations process; nearly 200 countries representing as many divergent interests meet twice a year in a bewildering array of committees and subcommittees, chaired by government functionaries from around the world who, for a few brief weeks each year, are treated like rock stars. The country hosting the event that year attempts to stamp its own character on the outcome—in 2023, the United Arab Emirates are highlighting energy transition from the perspective of a major oil producer; in 2022, Egypt brought extra attention to finance needs for clean energy and adaptation in Africa, and so on. They hope that the presence of ministers, and occasionally heads of state, will help douse the whole happening with some secret sauce that yields a major agreement of the kind that emerged in 2015 in Paris, but usually results in incremental changes that only specialists can appreciate. Meanwhile, advocates and the public at large watch from the sidelines saying, “why don’t you just get on with it already?” It certainly feels like a process in need of some more imagination.

A little more than thirty years ago, I was an intern at the U.S. Department of Energy’s solar energy office in Washington, DC. Our mission was to bring down the cost of solar power; the price of solar panels at that time was around $8 per watt, where it had been hovering stubbornly for the previous few years. In the infancy of its commercialization, it was still unclear whether solar would ever make a serious contribution to power supply. At the end of that year, 1992, my boss participated in the Rio Earth Summit, which produced several landmark agreements, including the UNFCCC. That agreement pledges signatories to the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”2

Fast-forward three decades: solar prices and greenhouse gas levels have followed wildly different trajectories. Solar panels now cost around $0.20 per watt—a fortyfold price reduction. That shift is so dramatic that in 2020, the International Energy Agency declared, “The world’s best solar power schemes now offer the ‘cheapest…electricity in history.’”3

Meanwhile, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has risen from 356 parts per million (ppm) when the UNFCCC was negotiated in June 1992, to 421ppm in June 2023.4 All anthropogenic greenhouse gases together “trapped 49 percent more heat in the atmosphere during 2022 than those same gases did in 1990.”5 The consequences of that radiative forcing is that while the global average surface temperature was 0.27 degrees C higher in 1992 than the twentieth-century average, in 2023 it is now 1.05 degrees higher,6 with the likelihood of rising at least another degree, if we implement only currently articulated and agreed-upon targets and policies.7

It’s hard to argue that these conditions don’t represent precisely the “dangerous interference” that countries agreed to stop thirty years ago. I’m writing after the Northern Hemisphere summer of 2023, which was the hottest on record.8 Parts of China, Europe, and North America experienced scorching conditions in a way that feels markedly different than in the past. Northern Italy was battered by storms producing hail the size of grapefruit, while the south of the country baked in 45-degree C temperatures. A tropical storm hit Southern California, driving confused surfers from the beach. Smoke from hundreds of Canadian wildfires drifted over New York and Washington, DC, where the media and politicians, unused to such conditions, erupted with concern about the implications of such historic conflagrations. Millions of citizens of that privileged region suddenly seemed to come to the same realization about the severity of climate impacts that is already all too familiar to the people of Pakistan, or the Philippines, or the horn of Africa.

With these stories increasingly in the headlines, it’s no wonder that climate writing veers dystopian. We’ve gone too far to avoid major climate disruption. Even worse, despite knowing that fact for decades, we’ve yet to react accordingly—project that dysfunction forward and how can you get anything but a dystopia?

Climate fiction might be said to have started with J. G. Ballard’s novel The Drowned World in 1962, which features many elements we recognize today: rising temperatures and sea levels, paired with social breakdown. What is striking about Ballard’s vision of the future, however, is that the cause of this climate crisis isn’t pollution, but solar activity. Back then, before significant developments in climate science, one was as likely to find a climate dystopia brought about by global cooling (e.g., John Christopher’s The World in Winter, also published in 1962) as global warming.

Novels calling into question the constancy of the sun surely reveal deeply unsettling insights about human fragility in the Cold War age of potential nuclear holocaust. But another global worry was beginning to take shape. In the 1960s and 70s, industrial prosperity was shown to come at a cost, with Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking work of environmental nonfiction, Silent Spring, sounding a clarion call in 1962. Garrett Hardin coined the term the “tragedy of the commons” in 1968,9 and by April of 1970 there was the first Earth Day. Novels like John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up (1972)10 and Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sing (1976) build pollution into their narratives of disaster. It wasn’t much of a stretch to incorporate global warming into this literature of existential threats, once scientific understanding began to solidify at the end of the 1970s. The Cool War by Frederik Pohl (1981) and The Last Gasp by Trevor Hoyle (1983) reflect a growing understanding of climate change as distinct from general environmental decline.

Along with the first celebrations of Earth Day, 1970 was also the year that China experienced its highest GDP growth rate ever: 19.3 percent. With the exception of 1976, China’s economy has grown every year since then, frequently at rates above 10 percent. By contrast, the United States saw declining GDP in 1970 and faced recurring recessions several times thereafter; the last time the United States had a positive trade balance with China was 1993. Fears about Chinese economic dominance threatening U.S. employment have circulated and influenced U.S. policy since then.

Unsurprisingly, as climate understanding grew in parallel with China’s greenhouse gas emissions, the country’s activities became a major concern. The introduction to a television program about China’s role in global warming on the U.S. broadcaster PBS in 2004 captures the sentiment of the time:

China may soon be the world's largest economy, with a middle class of 300 million people, all consumers, reaching for the good life: shopping, buying and even driving in record numbers. For many, it's the ultimate dream. But unless China cleans up its act, the dream could become an environmental nightmare, with a poisoned atmosphere, a world of dying forests and disappearing wildlife, flooded and baked by the searing heat of global warming.11

Ironically, China’s industrial expansion included a vast increase in solar manufacturing, which is where the cost reductions we’ve seen really come from. And Asia’s increasing industrial emissions are in no small part due to taking over manufacturing that left the shores of Europe and America, simply shifting it from one place to another. Meanwhile, from 1970 to 2017 the proportion of the population of China living on less than $5 a day dropped from 17.4 to 1.5 percent.12 Its prolonged economic boom has represented improved circumstances for hundreds of millions of people.

As John Holdren of Harvard University pointed out in that same PBS program: “what people too easily forget is that the great bulk of the problem, up until now, was caused by the industrialization of the countries that are now rich, the United States, Japan, Europe. And now we're saying to the developing countries, ‘Gee, we're terribly sorry. We used up the ability of the atmosphere to hold carbon dioxide, so you can't put any more in.’”

The focus on China is no accident—it has long been the focus of anxieties about climate, given its size, growth rate, and perhaps most importantly, its form of government. Here we see the Cold War legacy of concern about communism crashing into climate politics. In a piece of speculative writing in 2013,13 Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway try to take advantage of that dynamic as a warning. They look back on our current period from the perspective of 350 years in the future, positing that western civilization collapsed in 2074 because of free-market fundamentalism, whereas China’s centralized form of government was able to cope with climate change, so ultimately “neoliberals did more than expose the tragic flaws in their own system: they fostered expansion of the very system of government that they most abhorred.”

Meanwhile, at the other end of the economic spectrum, the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, low-lying small islands, and parts of Latin America and Southeast Asia receive far less attention. They have been seen on the one hand as climate victims to inspire action, and on the other as resources to help ease climate action. Countries in the Global South14 have been relied on to provide carbon offsets that allow the overdeveloped economies of the North to continue to pollute, and some of the poorest countries in the world are the leading sources of critical minerals enabling the transition to renewable electricity.15 Plus ça change.

What most pessimistic climate visions have in common, fictional or not, is that underneath the story of environmental decline away from the presumed “climate norm” noted by Adeline Johns-Putra elsewhere in this volume, there’s anxiety about economic and social decline in the Global North, built atop outdated visions of the subordinate place of the Global South in the world order. The unspoken subtext of that decline is found throughout the climate fight. For example, when we see temperature models set a base (globally cooler) year from which we have now strayed,16 and which will continue to worsen in the future if we don’t act, they reinforce the notion of divergence from a norm of security, progress, and prosperity. This is a story that only the denizens of the wealthiest parts of the world are able to tell themselves.

In fact, we are already living in a postapocalyptic world for many populations, like Indigenous people in the Americas. We’re already in a world with vast numbers of people living in poverty, subject to corrupt and feckless leadership, facing the effects of deforestation, dispossession of land, and rampant violence. These are facts on the ground today, about which precious little has been done—indeed, much of the political discourse in the North revolves around how to dig a bigger moat around its remaining privilege.

The climate predicament of those on the frontline in the Global South is insult piled on top of injury. Colonial rule entailed extracting people and resources to create and bolster industrialized economies in colonizing nations, which has led to climate effects that hit hardest in those same countries in the South. When people try to escape climate chaos by emigrating, they are rebuffed; when they try to exploit fossil resources to grow their economies, they’re blamed for adding the straw that will break the camel’s back (but are still expected to export the fossil fuels the North desires).

Perhaps the tendency toward fatalism about our climate future isn’t due to our failure to heed climate warnings for the past five decades, but rather the failure to tackle the long list of social and economic exploitations for the past five centuries, of which people in wealthy regions are at least subconsciously aware. They barrel forward nonetheless, tolerating or justifying the implications—“barricaded inside their history,” as James Baldwin wrote of white America.17

The alternative to dystopia in climate fiction isn’t utopia, because we have gone too far to avoid massive climate change that will have terrible impacts. Instead, the opposition is between resigned pessimism and an optimism about our capacity for resilience in the face of great challenges. Here, though, there are important caveats. In 2012, Rex Tillerson, then the chairman of Exxon Mobil (and not yet, briefly, U.S. Secretary of State), argued that we’ll find a way to adjust in the face of climate change: “As a species, that’s why we’re all still here. We have spent our entire existence adapting…so we will adapt to this.”18 Pulling through adversity is an important part of our history; humankind has at times been reduced to very small numbers indeed—there’s speculation that our ancestors nearly perished 900,000 years ago,19 and we’ve faced any number of population bottlenecks since then.20 Tillerson and his ilk appeal to a deep instinct about our inherent abilities to overcome. But there’s a catch: adapting after the fact is an admirable human trait. Anticipating, and indeed causing, tragedy—using our ability to cope with the consequences as a justification not to avoid it—is an atrocity.

Today we need to prevent as much climate change as possible, while remaining hopeful about our ability to cope with the consequences—a difficult balance, to be sure. Authors have been rehearsing the apocalypse in literature since well before climate was part of the equation, from Ragnarök to Revelation. We seem predisposed to ponder not if civilization as we know it will end, but just when and how. But anthropogenic climate change puts this work of imagining the end of civilization into a different category from immutable threats like divine intervention, asteroids, or solar flares, because we know for a fact that the severity of the eventual impacts is largely still in our hands. Climate fiction, in this context, ideally plays the role of both warning and inspiration.

A couple of years ago, I asked Kim Stanley Robinson whether he thought it would take the death of millions of people in a climate disaster to kick climate action into high gear, which is what happens at the outset of his novel The Ministry for the Future. No, he said, that’s not why he writes—that scene of mass death is not a prediction but a warning, so that we can understand and avoid that outcome by acting more quickly.

If the climate models developed over the past several decades aren’t enough to reinforce that warning, then the wildness of this year’s climate conditions should make it clear what we’re going to be confronting in the future. Increasingly, climate despair is a real thing, as the full weight of what we’re facing sinks in.21 And when it comes to slow-moving processes like the COP, full of the best-informed people in the world and yet seemingly unable to rev things up any faster, it’s easy to see how malaise could spread.

But disaster isn’t a wall we smash into; it’s a labyrinth we can navigate, full of dark corners and bright openings. Anyone who has coped with hard news in their lives—the death of a family member, a cancer diagnosis—knows that when you get the news, it’s just the beginning of a long process. Throughout this book there are descriptions of futures that to us now seem unthinkable, but the people in them navigate their realities with the optimism inherent in the human spirit.

A few years ago, I moved into a pleasant city, but it’s on land that was forcibly taken from the Ohlone people, who maintained a society for thousands of years living from the abundance of nature.22 Today, the productive land has been paved, the redwoods decimated, the coastline filled with buildings, the rivers confined to channels, nearly empty of the salmon that once thrived here. For anyone living in close relation with the land, this agreeable community is a devastated hellscape, with most people today completely ignorant of the transformation. Among those who understand what has happened are the Ohlone, who through it all have persisted. They continue to fight for access to sites they hold sacred,23 to maintain their culture and traditions,24 and to honor the land they live on.25

In a world where it isn’t just one coastline being reshaped, but every coastline, where we aren’t just losing salmon on the closest river, but thousands of species each year globally, those communities who have survived devastation and disruption should by all rights be seen as our most valuable teachers. As the engineers are helping us shift to clean energy, our cultural leaders and storytellers can help us reshape our relationship to the landscapes and ecosystems around us, and help us envision new economic, social and political arrangements.

For decades, communities on the frontline of environmental impacts have wanted to talk more about how to navigate the tricky path to prosperity in a climate-limited world, about how to finance adaptation and resilience, and about how to cope with unavoidable losses in societies already pushed close to the margin. Although they represent issues of importance to the vast majority of people in the world, these conversations have long been relegated to the sidelines of COPs, as major polluting countries tied themselves into knots trying to create a system to induce drastic, coordinated global action on climate, despite every aspect of their economies and politics being optimized to do the opposite. When the World Climate Conference first brought climate change to public attention in 1979, a quarter of the world’s population lived in Europe and North America. By 2050 that number will have dropped to 14 percent.26 By that year, one in four people in the world will be African.27 Even within richer countries, there are growing populations of people who are marginalized and haven’t shared in increasing agglomerations of wealth,28 whose interests and viewpoints are poorly represented in politics and the media. Demographics alone show us that visions of the future, and the tools we employ to bring those visions into being, have to be much more representative.

Fortunately, over time the discussion has been broadening. The vague 1992 UN climate convention goal of “avoiding dangerous anthropogenic interference with the global climate” gelled into a goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C—a significant achievement by progressive countries and their supporters in the 2015 Paris Agreement. At COP27 in 2022, after decades of pressure, the COP agreed to establish a “loss and damage” fund to help address the effects of inevitable climate impacts.29 And the longstanding concern that talking about adapting to climate change would diminish momentum to avoid it seems to have faded. We’ll need to have both hands working at the same time; every tenth of a degree of warming that we can avoid is vital, while we simultaneously prepare for inevitable impacts. This new sensibility increasingly tends toward envisioning everyone in the same boat together, with common cause to forestall the worst effects.

Unsurprisingly, given the way environmental literature has paralleled the zeitgeist—or arguably shaped and molded it—there are many new voices emerging in climate fiction. In the words of Baboki Kayawe, a researcher and journalist from Botswana, African authors can “warn people about the dangers of complacency and inaction, while also offering some hope of a better future.”30 Writing in the New York Times, literary critic Alexandra Alter shares that Indigenous writers find that science fiction can “provide a measure of freedom to tell stories that feel experimental and innovative, and aren’t weighted down by the legacies of genocide and colonialism.”31 Writing their own stories also counters narratives about destruction—as speculative author Darcie Little Badger puts it, “people think we didn’t survive, but we did, and we’re still flourishing.”32

In this Climate Action Almanac, there are essays and stories from authors all over the world, building on the sense of “reckless optimism” Chinelo Onwualu advocates in her introductory essay. The picture painted by this diverse set of global voices balances warning, fear, and hope, and in doing so is less ineluctably dystopian—not because these writers downplay or ignore the urgency of the climate challenge, but because they are able to contextualize the struggle for survival in the sweep of history, in which people around the world time and again face insurmountable odds and still manage to express their agency and humanity.

We are not and have never been in a state of perfection that is under threat. Now is the time to reset our vision toward resilience, radical cooperation, and reacting to crisis in ways that lead to meaningful and ultimately rewarding shifts in economics, society, and politics. We need the voices and energy of the whole world, and wisdom from every corner of it, to grasp the pen and write a different story for our future.

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