Climate Change’s Place in Literature

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

Climate change does not feature prominently in the landscape that comprises literary fiction. When the subject does appear, it is far more likely to be in nonfiction work. Sadly, the writers who write science fiction, the genre to which climate change has been relegated, are not taken seriously by the literary world. They will for instance rarely be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Global literature has shown that mainstream writers regularly respond to war and national emergencies of all kinds, but somehow climate change has so far proved resistant to their interest.

In the modern novel, it seems that subjects like climate change move to the background, while as what we experience in our everyday lives and relationships moves to the foreground. As Amitav Ghosh explains in his book The Great Derangement, the techniques that are identified with the contemporary novel exclude climate change, because its science and effects are difficult to grasp, and not something which we deal with regularly.

Even if we look at the array of science fiction films and television series being produced today, we find they are weighted towards vampires, witches, extra-terrestrials, and secondary fantasy worlds. Very few of them address the subject of climate change directly. It’s an odd thing that just when we are destroying our biosphere, films and television shows remain focused on the human experience or on extra-terrestrial life.

Three years ago, I read the nonfiction climate change book This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein. While Klein’s book was masterful, I suspected there would be many people who wouldn’t read it because of its dense content. To offer an alternative, I decided to write a fictional book on the subject. Thus began my adventures as a science fiction writer.

I had written three novels but never one in the science fiction genre. As I searched around for examples I might follow, I deliberately didn’t choose novelist Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy wrote the brilliant post-apocalyptic tale The Road, which follows the journey of a father and his young son over a period of several months, across a landscape blasted by an unspecified cataclysm that has destroyed most of civilization and almost all life on earth. Instead, like Andy Weir, author of The Martian, I focused on the science of climate change, and the practicalities of what it will take for human beings to survive it.

My book The Burning Years is a research-based, futuristic depiction of the struggle to survive on an earth that has been devastated by climate change. Alternative living environments are being created to sustain life until such time as the surface of the earth can heal itself and again become habitable.

This is the setting in which the story unfolds with its conflicts, challenges, and cast of characters exhibiting the best and worst of human nature. Beyond the story itself is a cautionary tale that urges us to take the stewardship of our earth more seriously.

If I had written a literary novel like McCarthy’s, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, I would have, like him, described the disaster not in scientific terms but through the thoughts and feelings of one or two characters. I would have shown these characters through the lens of the Anthropocene, and would have followed their interior dialogue and unfolding relationships as they experienced prolonged exposure to solar UV radiation. I would have described their pain as cancer rapidly spread to their lymph nodes and formed golf ball sized lumps throughout their bodies. I would also have described, either in the first or second person, their sight loss and slurred speech caused by lesions in their brains. I would have analyzed their humanness as they began to slowly and painfully waste way, losing everything and everyone they loved.

While this might have resembled the truth of what I imagine will happen, I couldn’t bring myself to write this story. Instead I chose to take a broader scientific and political perspective.  As part of this perspective, I focus on the neoliberals who are now in charge of our government. I analyze their motives as they heedlessly and cynically promote a high-consumption, carbon-intensive system, treating our atmosphere like a waste dump.

I wrote The Burning Years to inspire my readers to become involved in individual and collective actions that might increase the odds of our planet’s survival. As the great statesman and abolitionist Horace Mann once said: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

I hope my audience will come to realize at the end of the book that we are a society in love with the hyper-carbonized pursuit of short-term comfort, in the grips of worldwide political corruption, and plagued with wealth inequality and hoarding. I hope they will be moved to find practical ways to cut back on their own use of fossil fuels, and encourage their towns, cities, and state governments to do the same.

As I was writing The Burning Years, I knew in my heart that it would be well-nigh impossible for a society such as ours to change its economic system fast enough to prevent climate change. In the end, I had to acknowledge to myself that the book I have written is perhaps a prophetic warning of a mass extinction event, the proportions of which are beyond our capacity to grasp.


Felicity Harley is a polished public speaker, published journalist, and writer. Her work has recently been published in an anthology called Gathered Light – On the Poetry of Joni Mitchell, alongside writers such as Wally Lamb, Kim Addonizio, Fred Wah, and others. In celebration of the 65th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and on behalf of Poets for Human Rights, Felicity was the winner of the Anita McAndrews Award. In 2015 Felicity’s book of short stories Portraits and Landscapes, was published. The Burning Years, published in February 2017, is the first of a quartet called “Until This Last.”

About Artists and Climate Change:

Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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