Imagining Climate Change


Something’s been puzzling me about climate change.

It’s not how to stop warming. That’s simple: stop using fossil fuels; stop cutting down forests. Switch to renewables, use less electricity, travel by public transport, fly less … it will be a bumpy ride, but technically it’s pretty simple.

It’s not really “climate denial” either. As Naomi Oreskes details in Merchants of Doubt,, climate denial is fundamentally a misinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industry, the world’s biggest business, desperate to keep its vast profits flowing. And, alongside them, rightwing ideologues who would, literally, rather make large areas of the planet uninhabitable than admit free-market capitalism could possibly be flawed, or greenies could possibly be right. It may be depressing, but I think we at least understand it.

No, to me real puzzle is this: despite the deniers, surveys and polls consistently tell us most people – typically 60-80 per cent – accept humans are causing the planet to warm.

Why’s that a puzzle? Because the same surveys and polls – and actual election results – also tell us most of those people don’t rate climate as a top priority. For instance, less than 10 per cent vote Green, the only party serious about reducing our emissions.

Logically, it makes no sense. How can you accept warming threatens the future of humanity then simply ignore it?

I think the key word here is “logically”. Logic persuades intellectually but it doesn’t make us care. And that, I believe, is what’s going on with climate change. People accept it intellectually but they don’t care. They nod their heads then push it to the back of their mind.

To make people care, it is not enough to convince people intellectually. You also have to engage them emotionally.

If intellect and emotion are in conflict, most people go with their heart rather than their head. Emotion is a stronger driver of behaviour than reason. (And that’s a problem when it comes to climate change, because people are emotionally attached to the things that cause warming – our cars and holidays and big houses and all that other lovely stuff.)

Advertisers (who, after all, spend a lot of time studying the art of persuasion) understand this. That’s why adverts feature beautiful scenery and happy people, rather than any actual facts about the product. Facts are boring: it’s all about making an emotional connection with the “brand”.

But climate science is abstract and impersonal It’s statistics, graphs and charts, parts per million. And so, for most people, global warming remains just another of those distant problems on the far horizon of their consciousness.

So, how do we engage people emotionally with climate? My answer: imagination. Because, paradoxically perhaps, unless you can imagine something it doesn’t quite seem real. People respond emotionally to things they can visualise; things they can imagine.

Which brings us to another thing good communicators – advertisers, politicians, journalists, filmakers, novelists – know. People respond to individual, human-scale stories. In any big disaster, reporters look for personal dramas to humanise the overwhelming, awful statistics: a toddler trapped beneath the rubble, a honeymoon cut tragically short. Recently, one picture of a rescue worker cradling the tiny body of one drowned Syrian boy provoked more response than a hundred news reports of asylum-seekers dying at sea. A thousand people drowning is a statistic; one child drowning is a personal, emotional tragedy. Thus we respond to the one, not the thousand.

Imagination is also why we are more afraid of a shark attack or serial killer than of electrocuting ourselves at home, although the latter is more likely.

Or, another example: when Martin Luther King wanted to make people care about racial equality, he didn’t spout statistics about segregation but gave us an image, looking down from the mountain at all the little black children and little white children playing together.

In a nutshell: you’ve got to tell a story, about people. Or, preferably, about a person.

And here’s another interesting thing. The story doesn’t even have to be real. We can care deeply about fictional characters. Emotionally, it’s more important we can imagine something than whether it is real.

So how do we apply this to climate change? Because – and here’s the problem – climate scientists can’t tell stories. They must stick to the facts – the dry, complex facts – or lose credibility.

Climate activists can feel similarly hamstrung, afraid to make a “wrong” prediction for fear of giving the deniers ammunition.

Then, frustratingly, it’s impossible to attribute any single weather event – a bushfire, say, or a drought – to global warming, even though the science predicts more bushfires and droughts as the planet heats up.

The result is we are presenting the facts of global warming, but not telling the story.

Which is where climate fiction comes in. Fiction lets us imagine the warmer world that may be coming. It lets us tell the human story: what it will feel like to live in a world falling apart, fighting over food and water, a world of riots and refugees, cities abandoned to the sea. Fiction allows us to put real – but of course, imaginary – people into this world; people with names, hopes, fears. People like us.

(And note that all of this applies to sustainable living too. We need to paint pictures of a world based on sustainable ecological principles. What does that mean? What will our houses look like? Will there be cars? Will we still have the internet?)

Of course, as fiction writers we must still be careful. Our stories must be plausible, even though any vision of the future will inevitably turn out wrong. But readers and audiences understand fiction involves a degree of speculation. And this is precisely why it is a good way to explore climate change.. As fiction writers, we have a licence not available to climate scientists, activists and politicians; a licence to imagine.

For it is only by engaging people imaginatively with climate change; by helping them picture what global warming will actually feel, look and smell like, that we will engage them emotionally. And until we do that, most people will continue to “accept” the science – and ignore it.

The Stone Gate can be considered part of an emerging fiction genre called “cli-fi” – climate fiction – a term coined by US journalist Dan Bloom. For the reasons outlined above, climate fiction can play an important role in engaging people in the issue of climate change. Here are some links to other articles on cli-fi.

A blog/discussion group for environmental and climate fiction.

Article in The Guardian on cli-fi

Cli-Fi on Wikipedia

Interview with Dan Bloom on The Conversation

A list of young adult eco-fiction novels

Where’s the great climate change novel: Interview with Amitav Ghosh

1 thought on “Imagining Climate Change

  1. Meet Mark Mann, author of the cli fi YA novel THE STONE GATE

    I’ve also written a YA novel about climate change so I’ve given this some thought … and I think there is a key lesson here for climate activists.

    Most people now ‘believe’ in climate change intellectually yet still essentially ignore it (it doesn’t rank as an election issue for most, for instance).

    The reason, I suspect, is most people can’t actually imagine climate change.

    What will this warmed world be like? So it’s just abstract facts and figures with no emotional impact or engagement. The argument may be won (no credible scientist doubts warming) but we also need to engage people’s imaginations, because humans fundamentally don’t care about things they can’t imagine.

    That may be through fiction, or imaginative non-fiction, such as the brilliant ”Climate Wars” by Gwynne Dyer, or in general finding more emotionally engaging ways to talk about warming and what it will mean.

    ( SEE ”The Stone Gate”, Mark Mann,


    I love cli-fi. It scares the pants off me because it buys into my deepest fears, but most cli-fi also has messages of hope. Given my deep seated anxieties around what climate change will mean for children’s, and my children’s children’s futures, that message of hope is one I need to hear. Particularly given I’m blessed with a Prime Minister who believes climate change is “utter crap” (that’s a real quote, by the way), and is steadily undoing all progress made by the previous government. Anyway, enough of my politics.

    This book has a wonderful concept. Two kids come across a portal that takes them into three alternate realities. The first being a reality where indigenous Australians are living traditional lifestyles, and maintain their deep connection to the land. In the second, our main characters are transported to a dystopian, but likely realistic, vision of what our future will be should immediate action on climate change not be taken. The third and final alternate reality is a utopian vision of what society could be like if immediate action is taken to address climate change. The author is realistic in this vision; life as we know it will have to change. But for the things we lose, he envisages a society that – for me anyway – is very appealing. There is less waste, less plastic fantastic, more connection, more thoughtfulness. Woven through each of these are threads of Aboriginal Dreamtime.

    This is a book aimed at a younger YA audience. My kiddiwinks are years away from being old enough to read it. I hope by the time they do read it, the messages it contains are no longer needed because we are on the road as a nation, as a planet, to living more sustainably.

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