Speculative Nonfiction on Climate Change

“Across colossal distances in time, the distinction between speculative nonfiction and speculative fiction dissolves almost entirely.”

I needed this article right now, thanks! Being a mathematician at heart, there’s always a tinge of guilt inside of me for investing myself in the truth of literary speculation. (Climate denying gaslighters, claiming by act of speculation the material is inherently flawed, don’t help my self-doubt. Or another favorite typical response: “Well, they predicted by 1990 X would happen, but it didn’t until 1995!”) Pieces like these that recognize the scientific impetus behind these works remind me of my sanity. It also helps to know just how diligent some of these authors are. I read Oreskes and Conway’s Merchants of Doubt last summer and was amazed at the sheer amount of detail packed into the text (the notes themselves span 67 pages). Surely the concern and intellectual rigor follow into the speculative genre.

For anyone who comes across this post, I’d throw out Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler as a fantastic work of speculative fiction. I’m making my way through the sequel now, but from what I’ve read, Butler might as well have been a psychic writing in the early 90s. (The novel takes place in the 2020s, with the sequel going into the 2030s. It’s a world riddled with resource scarcity, violating human rights, and the rise of fascism.) I’ll actually take “psychic” back. This genre doesn’t rely on looking into the crystal ball - just an awareness of social/environmental injustices; scientific curiosity; and empathy for humanity, existent and to come (not unlike the hyperempathy of our protagonist in Sower, enduring others’ pain in a socially and environmentally destabilized world).

All this said, I can’t get out of my head the person thinking they’ve “won” the climate debate by pointing out that a concerned writer/scientist was 5 years off their prediction, or that “it was only 0.2 degrees of increase, not 0.3!” I wholly appreciate this genre for its intent as described in this article: to encourage action now in anticipation of tomorrow. However, I’d hope it serves a second purpose. If our current behaviors, macroscopically speaking, are so detrimental and wrought with injustices such that they could very well lead to our universal demise, do we really need a peek into a speculative future to incite action? Why don’t we work for a better future solely based on our present? Isn’t the present scary enough? If it isn’t, why not? Of course, the answer to this is motivation for the genre (speculative fiction being the epitome of “If you don’t care now, you will care later”), but it’s worth pulling that thread.

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I find myself thinking about the deadlines set by the IPCC. They predict that if we don’t halve our emissions by 2030, we will exceed 1.5°C of warming. That gives us less than 10 years to change an increasing rate of emission to a decreasing one. I want to be optimistic. I want to believe that we will make the changes necessary to prevent warming beyond 1.5 degrees. But there’s part of me that thinks we will exceed the 1.5, even exceed 2 degrees. When these thoughts win out, my views of speculative climate fiction change.

When I read Parable of the Sower this summer, all I could think about were my own survival plans. Lauren, the young protagonist, anticipates the destruction of her home and the loss of all she loves. She doesn’t try to stop this change. In fact she forms her own religion equating God to Change. She accepts what is to come and changes herself instead. I can’t stop thinking about how I will prepare myself for the destruction that is to come. Where will I go? Who will I bring with me? How will I provide for myself? How can I hold onto my values when the world is falling apart around me?

I no longer see speculative climate fiction as a warning to prevent a dystopian future. I see it as imaginings of how to live with the damage we have inflicted on ourselves. It is important to think about how we will hold onto our humanity in the face of all this uncertainty.

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