Climate change continues to wreak devastating havoc on the planet. So, why aren’t more people talking about it? To paraphrase the author and environmentalist Bill McKibben (The End of Nature, Radio Free Vermont): Where are the books, plays, poems, and other works of art about climate change? And to the extent that they already exist, what are they saying about the issue?
To help answer these questions, I sat down with five writers last December at the New York Society Library to discuss their thoughts on how climate change is portrayed in narratives across popular culture. Joining the panel were the critics Jeremy Deaton (of Climate Nexus) and Michael Svoboda (of Yale Climate Connections), and the authors Omar El Akkad (American War), Roy Scranton (Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, War Porn), and Ashley Shelby (South Pole Station). Our discussion was wide-ranging, touching on how climate change is represented in novels, film, and comic books, and how race, gender, class, and other identities inform those narratives. We also discussed why climate change, in its immensity, continues to pose communication challenges to writers.
To celebrate Earth month, here’s a video of highlights from our conversation and the full transcript, which has been edited slightly for clarity and length. The event was co-sponsored by the New York Society Library.
Amy Brady: To get us started, I’d like to ask each of you to discuss what drew you to the issue of climate change and why you pursue it in your work.
Jeremy Deaton: In grad school I studied journalism and was initially interested in several subjects—immigration, poverty, climate change. But the more I studied the latter, the more I realized it encompassed and affected everything else. It’s such an enormous and important subject, and it has been very rewarding to write about it.
Michael Svoboda: Years ago, I thought I was going to be a marine biologist, but that didn’t happen. Instead, I studied literature and ran a bookstore, where I noticed books about climate change slowly taking over the environmental section. When I got into teaching I began looking even deeper into the politics and psychology of the issue.
Omar El Akkad: I grew up in Egypt. In the 1980s there was no work to be had, so my father looked for work elsewhere. He found a job in Libya and another in Qatar, which no one had heard of at the time. It had yet to become the place it is today, which is pound-for-pound the richest place on Earth. My dad decided to take the job in Libya, but we couldn’t board the flight. My dad’s name is Mohammed Ahmed El Akkad, and Mohammed Ahmed is one of the most popular combinations of names in the world—it was also a name on the terrorist watch list. When got to the airport, my dad was taken into custody, and we missed the flight. That’s how we ended up moving to Qatar instead. Life works this way. I spent my formative years in Qatar, a country that wouldn’t exist if not for having the third-largest natural gas reserves in the world. The leading industry in Qatar is oil and gas, so I grew up in a place that was, in the long-term, destroying itself. The area that I grew up in is not going to be fit for human habitation in the next few decades; it will be too hot. So from a young age, I came to associate the changing of the world in a climate sense with the obliteration of memory, the thing that inspires literature. Climate has since become central in the things I write about.
Ashley Shelby: My interest in climate change stems from a story I did as a journalist for The Nation. The story brought me to Cordova, Alaska, which is a fishing village on Prince William Sound, an area completely decimated by the 1989 Exxon oil spill. By the time I was reporting on the spill, Exxon Mobil had already spent more than twenty years trying to get out of paying punitive damages. While there, I met a government scientist named Jeff Short, who said that even twenty years later there’s still oil in the Sound. This seemed like a pretty straightforward story to report on, but then I started talking to Exxon’s people; I came to find out they had engaged in a decade-long campaign to destroy Short’s career. They had hired university scientists to say that there was no oil in the Sound and that this man’s research was questionable. That was demonstrably untrue. Short took me to an island in the Sound. He had this child’s spade with him. We got down on our knees, and he dug two holes in the sandy ground. Crude oil just bubbled up. This story is what inspired my interest not only in climate, but also in denialism and bought science—how corporations manipulate data and engage in misinformation campaigns.
Roy Scranton: I grew up in Oregon and remember watching the timber wars of the 1980s and 90s. That inspired me, at least in part, to become an environmental activist early on. At that point, I had a vague general awareness of climate change as a sort of background issue. A few years later, for a variety of reasons, I joined the Army and went to Iraq. When I came back, I went to school and started writing about war, imperialism, and veterans’ issues. In around 2013 I attended a seminar at Cornell about the Anthropocene and postcolonial theory and wasn’t really sure what either of those things were. It was in reading up on those issues—along with the IPCC report that had just come out—that I came to realize just how serious and forgone the situation is. I wrote a short essay about it at the New York Times that became the most emailed story on the Times’s site that day, and I’ve been pursuing the topic of climate change since. But for me, climate change has become less and less an isolated topic and more about the kind of world we live in now.
Amy Brady: Thanks for sharing, everyone. Today we’re here to talk about climate change and narrative, and since so many of you are novelists, let’s start by talking about novels. Why do you think there have been so many novels published the last few years that deal directly with climate change?
Ashley Shelby: Right now I think writers are still experimenting with the genre; that’s why we’re seeing so many dystopic treatments of climate change. But I’ve been thinking a lot about dystopias and whether we need to reimagine new ways of framing the issue. I actually looked up “dystopia” to make sure I had a good grasp of it, and the definition was basically an imaginary world in which people are living in a dehumanized or fearful state. That sums up a lot of what people are living through right now. Ultimately, I think we may need to stop using the term “climate change” and come up with something else, because the term creates distance in a way; it makes it sound like we’re all living in a sort of imaginary state.
Omar El Akkad: My editors a while back published a book called The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which became a huge bestseller. In the years afterwards, bookstores everywhere would have hundreds of books on their shelves with the word “girl” in their titles. It became a trend in the publishing industry. I think with climate change we’re seeing an element of that. Yes, writers are genuinely interested in the topic, but there’s also this sense that “climate change” is going to be the next big thing. At the same time, there’s this quote by William Gibson that I think about a lot, which, to paraphrase, goes something like this: the future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed. For a lot of people living in relatively privileged parts of the world, climate change is something that will happen in the future. But it’s not the future for someone living in, say, Bangladesh. I hope that climate fiction will tell their story, will show what is happening to people who don’t have much of a voice.
Roy Scranton: I think that people are just desperately trying to grapple with a changing world. William Gibson also said, and I’m paraphrasing as well, that people are living about six years behind the time they live in. Fiction coming out today is already six or ten years behind the clock when it comes to climate change. That’s partly due to market forces, and partly because it’s really hard for us to change our conception of living in a [climate-stable] world.
Amy Brady: Michael and Jeremy, the both of you are prolific critics who’ve written extensively about how climate change appears in movies and comic books. What trends do you see in those narratives?
Michael Svoboda: I’ll speak to film. The first [cli-fi] films to come out took some strange paths. There was The Day After Tomorrow, which was based on a book with equally strange origins. And that book was based on an article in The Atlantic. The success of that article, which was about a new ice age, spawned many others, and they all grew increasingly absurd. Here’s why that matters: When a person is trying to engage with climate change, the brain tends to get overwhelmed and kind of shuts down or repeats the same stories it’s already heard. That’s one reason why these absurd narratives get repeated. This happens with other kinds of narratives as well. Look at the well-known man vs. nature story; we frequently recreate it. The challenge to us now is figuring out how to tell a new kind of story.
Jeremy Deaton: I was reviewing Michael’s list of 60 climate fiction movies today to prepare for this panel and I noticed an absence of movies that represented climate villains. It’s a difficult thing to adapt climate change to popular media because popular narratives are often based on stories about good guys versus villains, and with climate change, we’re the villains. That’s not an appealing idea for most people. This is an area where I think comic books might be ahead of the game. They’ve been a little less reluctant to look at fossil fuel companies and make them the villain. The DC universe in particular, the one that includes Superman and Batman, has comics in which a planet is facing a coming apocalypse. Others are even more explicit. There was a run of Thor, where the hero goes up against a villainous oil company called Roxxon, a not-too-subtle play on Exxon. There’s another comic from an independent publisher that features vampires who realize that climate change is a threat to humans, and humans, of course, are the vampires’ source of food. So vampires start to build solar farms and things like that. [Audience laughs] What’s really interesting is that when movies adapt comic books they tend to make the bad guy an environmentalist.
Michael Svoboda: Yes, the next Avengers movie was recently announced, and the villain in that has an environmental agenda. It’ll be curious to see the results.
Amy Brady: A recent peer-reviewed study suggested that narratives about climate change in popular culture can have at least a small effect on the people who consume them. If that’s true, how important is it that novelists, screenwriters, and comic book creators get the science right?
Jeremy Deaton: Michael mentioned The Day After Tomorrow, which is a film about the jet stream stopping and the Earth freezing over. Moveon.org used that movie as an excuse to talk about climate change. Some experts thought that the movie would make for a good case study to see how people respond to climate fiction narratives, and studies were done on this around the world. What they found was that while the movie tended to raise concern about climate change, it also distorted their views of what it actually is, because the movie is very inaccurate. A few of those studies also looked at the movie’s impact on not only moviegoers but on the general American public. One of them found that there was a spike in interest in climate change online—people were searching for it more often—and another found that the film had no impact on how people thought about climate whatsoever. So, to answer your question: If fiction writers want to have a positive impact, they should try to get the science right, but at the same time, there probably isn’t any one work of fiction that could have a massive impact on consciousness.
Amy Brady: Thanks for that, Jeremy. So far tonight we’ve discussed how contemporary narratives address climate change. But Michael, I know that you are an expert in ancient rhetoric and specifically in the works of Plato. What could Plato tell us about climate change?
Michael Svoboda: Plato lived through the self-destruction of Athens and its defeat by Sparta. He wrote The Republic, I would argue, to answer the question of how Athens might have survived such a state, how it could have avoided total destruction. If they were to change the very nature of the city, he reasoned, to make it a more temperate, prudent, and foresight-ful place, they would have had to have changed the very souls of the citizens, which in our parlance, means their psychologies. And if they were going to do that, then they would need to change the kinds of stories they told their children. At the very least, they would have to stop telling them about the volcanic egos of the gods and the vainglorious exploits of warriors. Plato can teach us to think in similar ways today. What kind of psychological shift do we need to enact in order to address climate change in a productive way, and what kind of stories should we be telling to foster that kind of psychology? Or, to put it differently: Are the stories we’re telling ourselves now fostering that kind of psychology, or are they creating a psychological block?
Roy Scranton: I’ve also been thinking about recent interpretations of Plato and can see that he was responding not only to political changes, but to the advent of literacy and massive transformations in media technology. We can see this in his arguments to throw the poets out of Athens. He wasn’t talking about “poets” in the sense of people who write what we’d today call poetry, but rather, reciters of Homer, the people who participate in an oral tradition. He’s advocating for a different kind of truth-telling—not just the received truth that one gets from someone who’s standing in front of you and reciting the Odyssey. I’ve been thinking about that in terms of climate change, because one problem we face today is a silo-ing of the issue. We tend to look at climate change in isolation, without taking into account the massive transformations in media technology that we’re living through. I feel that we have to ask ourselves not only what kinds of narratives we want to tell in novels and films and elsewhere, but also how people seek out or approach different kinds of truths and information in an era of Facebook and Twitter. More people read those social media platforms than novels, and probably more than that go see movies. The ways in which we tell stories are changing and we need to acknowledge that. This guy in the White House was able to get there by controlling the narrative in certain ways, and that narrative was supported by various media industries—a kind of entertainment news mashup—that has immense consequences when it comes to stopping or losing the fight on climate change.
Michael Svoboda: I would add that we need to keep in mind that climate change isn’t the only problem that needs solving, that some basic functions of our systems have broken down. There are things we used to do and manage that, for whatever reason, we’re not managing well now. It’s conceivable that by taking on a problem as big as climate change we might be able to rethink the way we engage other problems. For instance, you can imagine a configuration of carbon policies that have an impact on infrastructure or social policy, but the larger point here is that something very fundamental has broken down.
Amy Brady: Let’s open up questions to the audience.
Audience member: Ashley, in your novel you write about a climate change denier. How do you talk to someone who’s still a denier in this day and age?
Ashley Shelby: Some might say it’s a lost cause at this point. But something I say to my children, who ask me this question as well, is that whether or not they believe in climate change, it’s happening. It’s science. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot, and this relates to the kinds of stories we tell, is that you can only really get through to someone once they’ve been impacted. In Omar’s book, the people are impacted. In this new book I’m writing, the characters are impacted. What I’m curious about—and Omar, I’d love to hear your response to this—is whether fiction that depicts these impacts can get readers to take the threat of impacts seriously. Is it enough to write a book that encourages readers to experience climate impacts through their imaginations, or do they have to experience them in real life?
Omar El Akkad: That’s a great question. I worked as a journalist for ten years and was a US correspondent for a non-US paper, so I was covering the lives of people in this country who don’t live in this country. For one story, I went to this small town in southern Florida where a mayor was starting to tell residents that their grandchildren probably wouldn’t be able to live there, that the town might be a shipping port or put to some other industrial use, but that’s it—people wouldn’t be able to have homes there. I also spoke to this professor who’s been sounding the alarm on climate change for more than thirty years and will speak at any community group that extends an invitation. He told me that when he goes to communities like the one in southern Florida, he brings a relief map of that community with overlays to show what their land will look like with one or two meters of sea-level rise. He said that inevitably at the end of every presentation, someone comes up to him and says, Oh, I’ll be okay, because my house is on a hill. What doesn’t occur to these people is that there will be no infrastructure; they’ll need a boat just to get around. My point is that here’s a man who deals exclusively with what is rational in life. He deals with science and evidence, and what he’s coming up against is the fundamental irrationality of human existence. Anyone who’s been in love, for example, knows that most of human existence is not rational. So I think of the novel’s obligation as being the inverse of what that professor is doing. Do I care that much about getting the science exactly right? No. I care about getting the irrationality of it right. I think if you can get people to a place where they recognize their own irrationality, you might have a shot. Because, listen, that professor is much smarter than me, and he has been trying for thirty years and keeps running up against the same wall.
Audience: How do you wrestle with the fact that individualism is such a prominent part of our society? How do we overcome it?
Omar El Akkad: That is a very good but difficult question. We’re all looking at each other, so I’ll take a stab at it. [Laughs] I did another story in southern Louisiana, which is one of the most beautiful places on earth. It’s also a place that’s disappearing at the rate of one football field of land every hour. Now, every time I cite that statistic someone comes up to me afterwards and tells me I’m wrong, but it’s true. One whole football field of land per hour melts into the Gulf of Mexico. So when you’re there, you almost can’t help but look around and ask why these people can’t see what’s happening. This is one of the biggest climate disaster areas in the US. But then you go into some of those parishes and see that the oil industry, which has exacerbated all of this, has made those parishes some of the richest places in the country. And without the oil and natural gas industries, those parishes would be among the poorest places. And everyone there knows it. So when it comes to the subject of individualism, I think you address it head-on. We have this tendency to take self-interest out of certain equations and try instead to frame them as the moral failings of a few. But when talking about climate change, it’s important not to separate out self-interest. Earlier this evening I talked about Qatar, a place that in the long run is obliterating itself. Well, it’s having a great time doing that! It’s an incredibly wealthy place with the highest quality of life maybe in the world. Self-interest is a part of that. We can’t ignore that fact. I don’t know how to solve this problem, but I think the first step is acknowledging that climate change isn’t caused by just a few people with a bad moral compass. It’s a phenomenon that has made life a lot easier for a lot of people, who are willing to turn a blind eye to its effects as a result. And that’s a really hard thing to change.
Roy Scranton: The idea that if we could just find the right story or make the right movie about how climate change is affecting us, then we could somehow break through to people’s consciousness and change the world isn’t really accurate—that’s not the way that fiction works. You can’t just force a message down people’s throats. The relation between readers and moviegoers and their mediums of choice is very complex. Yes, there’s this sense that the Avengers or Game of Thrones is about climate change, but neither is going to inspire collective action, because that’s not a message people really want to hear. That said, I think one of the obligations an artist has is to think not about how we fix the problem as it exists today, but to try to think about the situation we might be dealing with in the future.
Ashley Shelby: I recently had a conversation with a critic who asked me if, because I write about climate, I’m an activist. That’s something I grapple with, because as a novelist, I want to create art. But that’s something I grapple with as well. I want to address climate change at a deep level, to get people to relate to the characters, and then maybe feel something. Anyone who’s read Jane Eyre has never forgotten that young woman. My hope is that contemporary fiction, when done well, can get people to think about their own lives and the decisions they make as they relate to climate change and beyond.
Jeremy Deaton writes and edits stories about climate and energy for Nexus Media News. His work can be seen in Popular Science, Quartz, Fusion, HuffPo, Business Insider, ThinkProgress and Grist, among other outlets. He also manages theclimatechat.org, an online guide to the science of climate change communication. Jeremy holds a bachelor’s degree in Jazz Studies from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree in Media and Public Affairs from George Washington University, where he was the recipient of the Larry King Endowment Fellowship.
Omar El Akkad is an Egyptian Canadian author and journalist. He has reported from Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and numerous other locations around the world. He is the recipient of Canada’s National Newspaper Award for Investigative Journalism and the Goff Penny Award for young journalists. His debut novel, American War, is an international bestseller and has been translated into a dozen languages. It won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers’ Award and the Oregon Book Award for fiction, and has been nominated for eight other awards. Omar lives in the woods just south of Portland.
Roy Scranton is the author of We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change, War Porn, and Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. His essays on war and climate change have appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, the Best Science and Nature Writing 2014, and elsewhere. He holds an MA from the New School for Social Research and a PhD in English from Princeton, and has been awarded a Whiting Humanities Fellowship and a Lannan Literary Fellowship. He is currently an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.
Ashley Shelby is the author of the novel South Pole Station, which was a New York Times Editor’s Choice, a Shelf Awareness Best Novel of 2017, and the winner of the Lascaux Prize in Fiction. She is also a former environmental journalist, whose work appeared in The Nation, Sierra, and other outlets. Her first book, Red River Rising: The Anatomy of a Flood and the Survival of an American City, was released in paperback in 2017.
Michael Svoboda is a professor of Writing at George Washington University. He earned his interdisciplinary PhD in Hermeneutics from Penn State University, where he also owned and operated an academic bookstore for seventeen years. His research interests encompass two different disciplines: ancient rhetoric and environmental communication. In 2010 he became a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections—formerly The Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media—for which he now curates a monthly column on books and reports related to climate change. In 2016, he published a comprehensive survey of sixty fictional films (theatrical releases, made-for-TV movies, and straight-to-DVD stories produced since 1966) that have addressed climate change in some way. He is now working on a book that will expand and update that study.