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  • Writer's pictureKatie Babson

Science Fiction of Climate Change: “Cli-Fi”


Photo by Andrew Amistad on Unsplash.

The emerging genre “cli-fi” refers to the science fiction of climate change. It describes a post-apocalyptic world where climate change was left unchecked and has resulted in societal breakdown. This genre encourages conversations, triggers discussions, and reframes eco-anxiety through its call to action and critical rebuttals to climate change denial.

Stories have always inspired audiences to engage in empowering change and speak directly on an emotional and literary level through the core motifs embedded within the work. Authors and directors do this by conveying information, stimulating discourse, and raising awareness. In turn, this helps us define goals, create order out of chaos, and face our future. As a result, the concepts literature and film rely on spark emotions that might otherwise not exist or oppress niche topics related to climate change. Stories help us engage with situations we may otherwise find overwhelming or distressing. This is especially apparent in themes of climate change, which are being used to show examples of the prophetic and bleak environmental future humanity must contend with.

Cli-fi” was originally coined by journalist and climate activist Dan Bloom in 2008. This term is modeled after the genre sci-fi, and stands for “climate fiction”. It serves as a way to provide a new term for a world we have become less familiar with. The thematic use of climate change serves as the protagonist’s motivator–an opponent more profound and destructive than any hostile human could possibly strive towards. This emerging genre turns research jargon and scientific graphs into experiences and emotions, conveying a “sick planet” fragmented by social breakdown, global warming, and climate refugees.

As an overall genre, it is the antonym to solar punk, which is an egalitarian future characterized by vibrant green communities with rooftop gardens, floating communities, and a world powered by clean-energy. While both cli-fi and solar punk seek to express concerns about climate change through media, cli-fi strives to reimagine a near-future, alternative dystopia where the threat of climate change has been ignored and climate chaos dominates every aspect of society. It draws heavily from gloomy post-apocalyptic and dystopian themes exacerbated by apathetic corporations and people who ignore the impending consequences of a changing climate. This genre speculates on impending global calamities, showing us an austere world submerged in water with cities demolished by climate disasters.

Cli-fi has become an emergent genre, with notable contributors including George Turner’s “The Sea and Summer,” “Flight Behaviour” by Barbara Kingsolver, and Jim Laughter’s “Polar City Red.” But one of the most notable examples is Nathaniel Rich’s “Odds Against Tomorrow,” which helped popularize cli-fi in the media. This book’s premise precariously rests on the dangers of corporate irresponsibility and the treacherous implications this has on climate change. The main character, Mitchell Zukor, is a mathematician with the ability to predict worst-case catastrophes. He is hired by an ominous consulting firm, FutureWorld, who uses his predictions to profit off of tragedy. Overall, Rich uses climate change as a central theme and metaphor. His work explores the risk and fragility inherent to life in a post-modern world through climate disruptions. This novel enables audiences to emotionally engage with climate change and exercise problem-solving skills, while also providing a physically safe space where readers will not become entrenched with eco-anxiety and avoid the topic entirely.

However, cli-fi is not only about an unchangeable dystopian world, instead it also offers us a glimpse of hope into a future we can actively avoid. This genre serves as cautionary tales about arrogance, inaction, and apathy. It provides a look into what could be a utopia if we end our reliance on greenhouse gasses, reckon fossil fuel with capitalistic lies, and acknowledge our complacency in a system perpetuating climate change. Ultimately, cli-fi triggers conversations, promotes discussions, and reframes pervasive eco-anxiety through its call to action and critical response to climate change denial.

Cli-fi has been used to depict apocalyptic destruction, a weapon to be handled by the media to show a world ravaged by global warming. Through the genre, cli-fi shows us a fictional future where people confront the folly of our menacing fossil fuel use to emphasize that immediate climate action is not only necessary, but imperative to our survival. This genre explains concepts and terminology in a digestible, non-threatening way for an audience less literate in heavy scientific research. Cli-fi alone will not stop climate change, but it can inspire climate conscious conversations, answer impending climate change questions, and triumph over despair in the face of insecurity and uncertainty.

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