The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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A Speed Problem

Speed remains the one facet of global warming that almost nobody talks about.

Climate deniers point out, correctly, that there were comparatively few extinctions during the massive climate upheavals of the ice ages (until the megafauna extinctions at the end, which were likely due to over-hunting by humans, not climate). Nobody calls these people on the fact that the retreat of the glaciers took twelve thousand years.

Nine degrees of warming over twelve thousand years is radically different from two or three degrees of warming in a single human lifetime.

Speed matters. The faster a change happens, the more destructive it is because everyone else has less time to adapt. Speed is the only difference between a bullet thrown by hand and one shot out of a gun, but the latter can kill you and the former cannot. The measure of our current climate crisis is not simply how many degrees the planet warms, but how quickly the warming happens.

Take, for example, the purple martin. As discussed earlier, they have a scheduling problem. Like many other birds, they depend on a population explosion of insects in the spring in order to feed their young. A progressively earlier spring means a progressively earlier spike in insects, but purple martins (and at least some other birds) cannot adjust their migration schedules to adjust. They are long-distance migrants who have no idea what the weather is like on their breeding territories until they get there. They must rely on instinct to tell them when to head north. As spring changes, their inner calendars don’t, putting their chicks at risk.

Now, obviously, even purple martins can and do adjust themselves to different seasons, because the climate has never been completely static and purple martins still exist. What they cannot do is choose, as individuals, to migrate earlier when spring comes early. Changing an instinct takes a long time. It takes evolutionary time.

Evolution is less a process of learning and more a process of editing. An odd bird with an instinct to migrate early might be better able to feed its chicks when spring comes early. More of its chicks (some of them odd) will survive, while starvation edits out the chicks of more traditional birds. From one generation to the next, the proportion of odd birds in the population will increase. This editing process only happens between one generation and the next, so real change takes multiple generations–maybe hundreds of years. If the proportion of odd birds does not get high enough to sustain the species before spring moves completely, we’ll lose purple martins.

And climate change is moving so quickly at the moment that by the time the birds have adapted to the new conditions, even newer conditions will have come in and changed everything again.

Some bird species can adapt their schedules, at least to some extent, while others are less threatened by scheduling problems to begin with, but the point is that functional ecosystems depend on a careful choreography among the life cycles of different organisms. These carefully timed interactions cannot be changed on a dime. They can change, but they cannot change as quickly as the climate is changing.

Rapid environmental change causes extinctions, but the number of species lost is dwarfed by the number of ecological relationships lost. What goes extinct first is always the specialist species, the ones dependent on conditions being just so, the ones that have special relationships with very specific ecological partners. These are the ones that make living systems rich and complex. What is left behind are the generalists that can adapt to any conditions and any group of other species. So it has been in major extinction events in the past, and so it is now.

And we know these generalist species because they are the ones that do very well in urban areas where rapid change is common; pigeons and rats come to mind as examples. Given time—ten million years, perhaps, rich, complex ecosystems will evolve again.

We have a choice, here between ecological complexity–what many humans consider beautiful and awe-inspiring- a world of creatures that can tolerate almost constant change, the pigeons and rats. The next few centuries will likely be something in the middle of those extremes, but where it the middle the future will be depends on what we do now.

Speed is the issue, not absolute temperature. A world that warms two degrees in the next hundred years could be very different than a world that warms the same two degrees over the next thousand years. The hour is late, and it may sometimes seem as if there isn’t much left that can be done to avert disaster, but this is not true.

Even if digging in our heels only slows the rate of catastrophe, a slower catastrophe could give many species the one thing they need to survive; time.


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Hot Enough Yet?

This past May was the warmest May ever since record-keeping began, back in 1880, according to NOAA. That is a global average, so not every place in the world was particularly warm, only that most places were. The figure is derived from both ocean and land-based temperatures, combined. NOAA does not say how May ranked in comparison to other months–whether this was the hottest month ever (the hottest month ever could occur in May, or January, or any other month, since summer in one part of the world is winter in another). Still, this is an impressing figure. Here are some others, again, from NOAA’s website:

  • The previous May record was set recently, in 2010
  • The 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th warmest Mays on record were all within the past five years
  • This May was the 39th consecutive May with global temperatures above average (the average calculated for the 20th century)
  • Every month has been above the 20th century average for the past 351 months–that’s just over 29 years.

Just to put that in context, the last time Planet Earth had a cooler-than-average May, I wasn’t born yet.

The last time the planet had any cooler-than-average month (a February, as it happens), the Space Shuttle Challenger had not yet exploded–Christa McAuliffe was still alive. Mt. St. Helens still had a snow-capped, cone-shaped peak because it had not yet blown up, either. Ronald Reagan had just been sworn in to his second term as US President. Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” topped the music charts.

When scientists look for the signs of global warming, they look for statistics. In 2012, James Hansen, then a climate scientist for NASA, and several colleagues, announced that recent heat waves were definitely caused by humans. Their statement was controversial, because climatologists usually say that specific events, like individual heat waves, cannot be traced to global warming. And, indeed, Dr. Hansen et al. did not actually study the cause of any heat waves directly. They looked at statistics.

The issue was that when people ask “is this heat wave” (or hurricane or drought) global warming?” They don’t really care about the details of meteorological cause and effect. They mean “is this what global warming feels like? Is it happening yet?” When scientists assert (correctly) that it is impossible to trace individual weather events to global warming, that sounds as though they’re saying the climate hasn’t really changed yet, or that they just aren’t sure. It’s a classic case of people talking past each other, with experts answering a question nobody really asked. Dr. Hansen answered the question people are actually asking.

What he and his colleagues did was to look at how much of the Earth’s surface has heat wave conditions at any given time and how the frequency of extreme heat has changed over the years. They found that between 1951 and 1980, 0.2% of the planet’s land surface had a heat wave between June and August. In contrast,between 2006 and 2011, 4-13% of the land was under heat waves during those months.

Just to be clear, 4 is twenty times larger than 0.2.

It’s like flipping a coin; everybody knows that a coin comes up heads half the time, and that while you can get a couple of heads in a row by random chance, those heads are balanced by tails later. If a coin came up heads twenty five consecutive flips in a row, everybody would know the coin had been fixed somehow. The statistics used in climatology are a lot more complex, but what Dr. Hansen did is essentially the same; the increase in heat waves is too much to be a random variation of the old climate patterns. The climate has changed.

But how does global warming cause heat waves? After all, the global average temperature rise is still less than a degree. How does that seemingly small change translate into the extreme temperatures we’ve seen this May in Africa, Europe, and Australia?

A detailed answer is hard to pin down. For example, some heat waves are caused by El Niño events and El Niños might or might not be intensified by global warming. In general, we know that climate change involves more extreme weather, including more heat waves.

However, even if the number of heat waves as compared to the current average were not increasing, we would still be getting dramatically more heat waves as compared to the historical average. That is, if the global climate had just gotten warmer by a degree or so, without otherwise changing, the increase in extreme heat would still be dramatic.

Picture a bell curve. The shape is famous enough that you have probably seen it. The bell curve is a graph of how most variable things vary, from test scores to adult height to temperatures in May. The shape visually expresses the statistical principle that extreme events are rare. For example, if you go to a public place and look around, most people will probably be somewhere between five and six feet tall. A few people will be a bit over that or a bit under, but if you spot someone bigger than six six, say, or someone under four ten, you’d probably be surprised. There are people over seven feet tall and adults under four, but it is possible you have never personally met one. That is the bell curve. Extremes are rare.

Apply the bell curve to temperature. Say, for convenience, that in your area 110° F days were extreme relative to the 20th century average. They occupy the narrow tail of the curve, so you get days like that maybe once every ten or twenty years. Move the whole bell over slightly, as global warming has done, and a somewhat thicker part of the curve moves into the 110° F spot. That temperature is now slightly less extreme, so it is much less rare. Now you get a 110° F day every year.

Temperature extremes are not just annoying; they kill people, more people, in fact, than more obviously violent weather events, such as hurricanes, do.

In the United States, about 117 people die of hot weather directly every year, a very small number in relation to the total population of the US, but that’s still more than the death toll from hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes combined.

But on top of that, around 1,800 more people die from other illnesses that the heat makes worse, such as heart disease or respiratory problems. And, since heat-related illnesses increase several days into a heat wave (heat injury is cumulative), more and longer heat waves are going to have a greater impact on human health than the temperature rise alone suggests. A three-day-long heat wave is more than three times worse than a one day heat wave.

The dangers of heat are born disproportionately by children, the elderly, the already ill, and those too poor to afford air conditioning or escape to cooler places (athletes are also at high risk, but they can choose to do something about that).

It is important to remember that not all places are hot at once. For example, this June has been lovely where I am–a few really warm days, but nothing too sticky, and long periods of crisp, cool summer weather, hot enough for shorts but not uncomfortable. India? Not so much. Earlier this month, temperatures in New Delhi stayed above 110° F. for seven days in a row. Parts of India, China, and Tibet rose 22°F above even the 2001-2010 average (a decade, you remember, in which every single month was above the previous century’s average).

Please think about this the next time you consider driving somewhere or buying non-local or factory-farmed food or, better yet, the next time you vote.

Thank you.

 

 

 


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California Burning

Climate change is finally getting some media attention in California. That is the good news.

The bad news is that the warming climate has been attracting attention though a series of unseasonable wildfires this winter and spring. The wildfires continue, though the national PL number (“Preparedness Level,” a measure of how much of the total US firefighting capability is needed) is lower now than it was a few weeks ago. There have already been injuries and property destruction this spring, and some of the fires have been incredibly intense.

As usual, “is this event due to climate change” is the wrong question, because climate change is a trend and is, by definition, only discernible across multiple events. However, the persistent drought in California that is causing that state’s terrible fire season is part of a larger long-term weather pattern related to the melting of the polar ice cap and the warming of the ice cap. So, yes, as much as any one event can be, these fires are, in part, climate change. And, overall, the trend of global warming includes more fires, and more severe fires, in muh of the Northern Hemisphere.

Climate Change increases fire activity in a number of ways.  Most directly, warmer air can hold more water, so fuels dry out faster. Also a longer growing season and, in some places, more rain at some times of the year, means more plants can grow, which means more fuels later during dry periods. Earlier snowmelt and winter rain both also leave the land drier earlier in the spring than it used to be.

Currently, fire danger in parts of California, Arizona, and Alaska is above normal for June, based on the amount of fuel on the ground, its type, and how dry it is, as well as what the current and long-range weather forecasts are. This is a bit scary as June is fire season in Arizona, anyway. Depending on specific area, the reason is some combination of low snowpack over the winter, an early spring, and drought (remember that the Western US had a warm, dry winter rather than the cold, snowy conditions in the East that kept making the news).

High fire danger itself is not that unusual,of course, especially as it is balanced by unusually low danger in other places. However, what’s going on in California is extremely unusual. And, although areas of greater and lesser fire danger are expected to move and change over the summer, California is predicted to remain under threat.

Wildfires have gotten worse over the past few decades. The Western fire season has grown by about three months since the early nineteen eighties and the number of acres burned per wildfire has also increased. Fires were also increasing prior to the nineteen eighties, but that could have been caused by a buildup of fuels due to a policy of fire suppression. In recent decades, climate change has clearly become the dominant cause. The trend is expected to continue going forward–and how bad it gets depends on whether we do something and stop causing global warming.

Wildfires themselves are not bad, of course. Many ecosystems are actually fire-dependent, although very hot, very large fires can be genuinely destructive. But we don’t want our own structures and infrastructure to burn, and that means controlling how quickly fires spread. Increasing fire danger is a problem for people whose homes and businesses lie in combustible areas and it is a problem for public finances because fighting fire costs a lot of money. What we don’t often hear about in the news is how global warming makes things worse for firefighters.

More fires means more risk for firefighters simply because more of them are exposed to danger; if twice as many firefighters have to go out, you’ll see twice as many injuries and fatalities, everything else being equal. Similarly, if more fires are large and intense, the risk goes up because the number of people exposed to danger goes up.

More fire itself does not necessarily increase the danger for individual firefighters, except in that they are more likely to be called in to work. The National Interagency Fire Center and its associates have very strict rules for keeping its people safe. A very bad fire season could exhaust the system as a whole, but individuals will still be sent home before they can get personally exhausted. When conditions are particularly dangerous, firefighters back off. When people die fighting wildfires, it is almost always because someone didn’t follow the rules and climate change cannot change those rules, even if it does change fires.

That being said, there are important exceptions to this principle.

One is that extreme weather events, which increase infrequency and severity with global warming, cause fires to change their behavior suddenly. A front coming through can, quite literally, cause a previously stable fire to explode. With good weather forecasting, firefighters can get out of the way, but if a ground crew does not get the message or responds improperly to the warning, people die. This is what killed 19 people in Arizona last year.

The other issue is that global warming means warmer weather and, particularly, warmer weather at night (daytime temperatures are largely governed by the heat of the sun, which is not changing. It is the cooling quality of the night that the greenhouse effect inhibits). Firefighters wear a lot of protective gear and carry a lot of protective equipment and they have to work very hard, physically. All this makes heat stroke a very real concern.

To escape the heat, firefighters sometimes work at night. At night, cooler moister conditions also make fires lie down a bit, safer to work around. Warmer nights rob people of this respite. Hot weather also makes it harder to sleep, increasing the risk of accident and injury.

All this is not an academic concern to me. My husband is a wildlands firefighter (and has contributed some information for this article). He will probably go out on a fire this summer, probably to California.

 


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Dry Heat

This is an article I posted some years ago about an earlier horrible drought and heat wave after heat wave. I’m re-posting an edited version of it in preparation for a few articles about this year’s horrible droughts and heat waves.

The word “drought” just sounds hot and uncomfortable, doesn’t it? A lot of people speak about heat waves and droughts together, almost as though they are the same thing.

They aren’t the same thing at all. Hot weather can be rainy and droughts can and do happen in the winter. Parts of Antarctica are among the driest deserts in the world. But drought and heat are connected; they each make the other worse.

 

First, many animals and plants, humans included, need more water when it’s hot out. Animals pant or, in our case, sweat, using evaporation to stay cool. The hotter the weather, the more water we use panting or sweating. Plants neither sweat nor pant, but in order to photosynthesize they have to open pores in their leaves so they can breathe. But they also lose water through their pores, a process called transpiration. The hotter the weather, the faster plants transpire. If they cannot draw enough water up from their roots to keep up, and cannot shut down photosynthesis, they wilt or even die.

A drought during a heat wave is like losing your job when the rent is due; the loss is not actually bigger, but it seems bigger because you really need the money.

But heat does not just make drought seem worse, higher temperatures actually dry out the land. More heat means rivers and lakes evaporate faster. The soil surface dries out, too (and, once dry, the soil heats up, baking the air above it and making the heat wave even worse). Meanwhile, all the plants that have not died or gone dormant are sucking huge amounts of water up from deep underground in order to keep up with transpiration.  A drought is a gap between the amount of water the land needs and the amount of water the land actually gets, so a heat wave can create a drought, even if rainfall itself remains normal.

But rainfall is not going to remain normal. Global warming does not just mean more heat, it also means changed weather patterns so that some areas get more rain (or even snow) than previously, while others get less.  Some areas, such as the Mediterranean countries and the central areas of the United States and Mexico, simply must adapt to a new, dryer reality. New England is one of the regions that will likely get more rain, but if a greater proportion of that rain falls in a couple of very heavy storms there could still be more drought in between the storms. Heavy rains also do not recharge aquifers very well because the water flows away before most of it can soak in. Even snow that melts early can cause drought, because the water is lot available later in the year when the land needs it.

So heat makes us need more water at the same time that it drives more water away through evaporation and transpiration, on top of weather pattern changes that give some places less water and other places a lot of water they cannot really use.

This dreary prediction is fairly well locked in for the next few decades, because there is a time delay in how the atmosphere responds to what we do to it. We are now dealing with the consequences of our parents’ and grandparents’ mistakes. The fact that our grandparents didn’t know any better, and our parents were busy dealing with a lot of seemingly more pressing problems (like raising us, for example) is important emotionally, but it doesn’t actually make the weather any less messed up.

The fact that we are likewise busy dealing with our own other pressing problems will not make our legacy any easier for our children and grandchildren to deal with—but we do have some choice over what burdens they will have to bear.

The time-lag means that many of us alive today will not see the consequences of what we do to the climate. If we push the sky past a tipping point beyond which life as we know it is no longer possible, we will be safely dead by the time things really fall apart. If we work and sacrifice and bend our minds towards solving the most important puzzle our species has ever faced, we will not live to see the fruits of our labor.

The big question then is are we the sort of people who will put ourselves out for future generations or not?

Ideas and plans, like trees and vegetables, grow if they are fed and watered and die if they are not. With a limited amount of time and money, and against a backdrop of climatological principles we cannot simply wish away, we still have some choice over which of the seeds we have planted will get water.


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And the Beat Goes

Think of spring as a ballet, perhaps, a choreography of dancers each moving to the beat of a complex music, each counting his or her steps and rests by measure so as to arrive the right marks at the right time. One dancer leaps just as another moves into place to catch and lift her at the exact moment the music swells.

Plants break dormancy after the danger of frost passes, but not so late as to miss the first warm weather. Insects hatch out just in time to eat the young leaves. Birds fly in to catch the caterpillars for their young.

Timing is everything, because a bird cannot wait until the food is available before starting to breed; making bird babies is a multi-step process that begins with hormonal changes weeks or even months before the little ones actually hatch out. For a bird, breeding is an act of faith, like the dancer who launches herself into the air knowing that her partner will arrive in time to catch her. And with climate change, increasingly, the partner just isn’t there.

The problem is that the ballet of spring is accompanied by something less like an orchestra and more like a frog chorus, where each instrument is free to play its own song to its own rhythm for its own reasons. Different dancers in turn follow the beat of different drums, so when some drums change their speed and others do not the choreography as a whole fails.

For example, some birds migrate at the same time every year, regardless of the weather, using changing day length as a kind of calendar. The insects the birds eat, on the other hand, might time their development according to warming temperatures. In a stable climate, warming temperatures occur at about the same time most years, so even though bird and insect are keeping time differently, they arrive at center stage together. But as climate change pulls the weather and the climate out of sync, species that time their spring by different methods fall out of sync with each other. A related problem is that organisms lower down on the food chain tend to be able to adjust their schedules faster than those higher up, again resulting in birds getting hungry when their food isn’t available.

These kinds of mismatches are a major worry for those who study the effects of global warming. It is difficult to predict when and where scheduling problems will develop, because ecology is complicated and sometimes counter-intuitive. We do know some scheduling problems are already happening.

Birds who migrate long distances face special scheduling challenges, because conditions on their wintering grounds bear no relation to those on their breeding territories. They can’t tell spring has come early until after they get there.

Some species cannot adjust migration at all. Purple martins, for example, which winter in Brazil and breed in the United States, migrate strictly according to the date, regardless of weather. Once they leave, they travel very fast, covering several hundred miles a day towards the end of their trip. If they discover warm weather on their way north, they can’t speed up in order to make up time. Purple martins are part of a group of birds that hunt insects in flight, migrate long distances, and are currently in decline. Scheduling problems as a result of climate change could be why.

Some birds can adjust their schedules. Pied flycatchers, for example, who winter in Africa and breed in Europe, can travel faster in response to warm weather, but that only saves them a few days at most. They can’t leave any earlier than they do because from so far away they can’t tell they need to.

Even birds who arrive late do have some options. Many birds normally lay one egg per day but only start to incubate when the clutch is complete. That way, all the chicks hatch at once. In an early spring, some mother birds start incubating right away so the oldest egg can hatch a few days earlier when there is still food around.

But these adjustments are probably only stop-gaps, not long-term solutions.

It is true that sometimes a timing mismatch is less of a problem it seems. If a bird population is limited, not by how many chicks fledge but by how many can survive the winter, then it might not matter if more chicks starve to death. The survivors will have less competition and a larger proportion of them will make it to spring, for no net population change. But eventually, if breeding success drops too low, it will start to shrink the adult population even in these species.

It is true that the climate has changed before and birds adjusted their nesting schedules and survived. But those changes were much slower than this one and schedules take a while to adjust. The problem is that at least some aspects of bird breeding behavior are instinctive. A bird cannot change its instinct by an act of will any more than it can change the color of its feathers. Only through evolution do instincts change and that can take hundreds or thousands of years.

Purple martins don’t have that kind of time.

We’re not necessarily looking at losing all migratory songbirds, because ecology is complex, as noted. But even if only a few bird species are lost from a few areas, these birds’ behavior could an important part of some other organism’s timing; the loss of one bird could then cause scheduling problems for other species.

The choreography of the dance of spring would then continue to unravel, progressively, possibly in ways we cannot yet even predict.

Resources

Berger C, Belskii E, Eeva T, Laaksonen T, Magi M, Mand R, Qvarnstrom A, Slagsvold T, Veen T, Visser ME, Wiebe KL, Wiley C, Wright J, Both C (2012) Journal of Animal Ecology 81, 926-936

Both C, Bijlsma RG, Visser ME (2005) Climatic effects on timing of spring migration and breeding in a long-distance migrant, the pied flycatcher Ficedula hypoleucaJournal of Avian Biology 36, 368-373

Fraser KC, Silverio C, Kramer P, Mickle N, Aeppli R, et al. (2013) A Trans-Hemispheric Migratory Songbird Does Not Advance Spring Schedules or Increase Migration Rate in Response to Record-Setting Temperatures at Breeding Sites. PLoS ONE 8(5): e64587. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064587

Reed TE, Jenouvrier S, Visser ME (2013) Phenological mismatch strongly affects individual fitness but not population demography in a woodland passerine. Journal of Animal Ecology 82, 131-144

Schaper SV, Dawson A, Sharp PJ, Gienapp P, Caro SP, Visser ME (2012) Increasing temperature, not mean temperature, is a cue for avian timing of reproduction. The American Naturalist 179(2)

Stanley CQ, MacPherson M, Fraser KC, McKinnon EA, Stutchbury BJM (2012) Repeat Tracking of Individual Songbirds Reveals Consistent Migration Timing but Flexibility in Route. PLoS ONE 7(7): e40688. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0040688

Vedder O (2012) Individual birds advance offspring hatching in response to temperature after the start of laying. Oecologia 170, 619-628


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Where Dreams May Go, Part II

Last week I talked about cli-fi, a new literary genre being promoted as a way to expand social awareness of climate issues. I regard this an an essentially good and helpful development, though with certain caveats I’ll get to later. But climate is a big topic that interpenetrates other topics almost without end. Virtually any book about anything could reasonably be said to have a climate component. Where do we draw the line?

For example, take Grumbles: The Novel, by Karen Faris.

On the face of it, this is an interesting book that isn’t about climate change. Or, rather, it is very much about a change in the climate, but not one directly due to the greenhouse effect. The novel is set in a dystopian future in which a dictator has somehow frozen the weather of the American Northeast at 72° and sunny for years on end. How this happened, or where the water for the thriving (but disturbing) plant life comes from, is not explained. Scientific explanation is not the point. The whole story has a disjointed zaniness that is at first funny (Ms. Faris freely claims Douglas Adams as a literary  influence) but gradually develops the feel of nightmare.

And yet, Ms. Faris publicly describes Grumbles as an example of cli-fi. She is one of the authors advancing the concept.

Grumbles does have a message. It isn’t purely a zany romp and its resonance with reality is exactly what makes its fantasy elements memorable and creepy. For example, the title character, secret agent Pettie Grumbles (that’s her on the cover) is also a criminal because she grows and consumes a contraband plant. Drugs? No–her secret crop is the sweet potato. She lives in a world in which only industrialized, pre-processed food is legal. The insane force of the war on drugs has been brought to bear on home vegetable gardens and home cooking. Far-fetched? Maybe not, given that American agricultural regulations favor large, industrialized growers and one of the Supreme Court justices is a former employee of agribusiness giant, Monsanto. A half-dozen different issues cast their shadows over the novel, from invasive plants to social justice to fracking. And that’s just the first of the trilogy. The second one is coming out this summer, on Saturday, June 14th.

But climate change?

Ms. Faris acknowledges the validity of the question but explains:

Everything is connected and everything that you’ve mentioned—including trying to control the weather–falls under the climate change umbrella. I would caution against defining climate change too narrowly. You can’t just say oh global warming is only about temperature and rising sea levels, although these things are its dramatic effects.   Why do we have climate change? Climate change is happening because of the intersection of how humans are using their resources and what the ecosystem can support.

On the one hand, a “narrow” definition of climate change–changing climate–is, in fact, correct. Not all environmental issues are climate change, even if all of them are connected in some way. But on the other hand, Ms. Faris isn’t really talking about climatology. As a former municipal conservation board member, she is hardly indifferent to conservation science. Her website doesn’t just publicize her book, it also discusses a wide range of environmental issues intelligently and well. But her creative muse seems less interested in science than in people, what people do and why they do it and how a novelist might be able to get through to them. And while climate change as a scientific issue is distinctly different from, say, genetically modified organisms or excessive and toxic lawn care, Ms. Faris is quite correct that, as social and psychological issues, these are all the same.

So, what is cli-fi? Does it include only stories firmly rooted in climate science? Does it include only stories that, like Grumbles, seek to actually do something about our environmental crisis? Or should stories that, like the movies A.I. and Waterworld, are not about climate change but include climate change as part of their back-story also count?

Here is where the caveat that I mentioned at the beginning comes in.

My concern is that cli-fi, if used as a way to categorize books for marketing purposes, could have the effect of keeping climate change marginalized. After all, if there is a section of a bookstore labeled “cli-fi,” then it follows that the books in all the other sections are not about climate and readers can decide which section to shop based on their interests. In real life, of course, climate is unavoidable because we live on planet Earth. Whether a writer wants to address global warming specifically or not, climate, like money, food, and gravity, climate is one of the background factors the characters have to deal with, unless the writer decides to pretend otherwise.

I have no objection to marketing books as dealing with climate in particularly interesting ways. Whatever gets my fellow authors the attention they deserve. But I’d rather see the cli-fi lens used to discuss books more than to sell them. How a book addresses climate should be, like how a book addresses race, gender, or other politically sensitive issues, one of the ways we talk about what a book means to its readership. As Karen Faris says,

People listen to stories differently than they listen to lectures and scientific information. The every day person doesn’t want to see charts and hear statistics and they turn off at just how dismal some of these things are. However, when you say, “and now I’m going to tell you a story”…people become engaged. So that’s what I’m trying to do. Engage people. Make’m laugh as that old show tune goes.

Given the power of stories to engage, it makes sense to pay attention to what stories are helping people engage with.


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Where Dreams May Go

Fiction is the societal dream, one might say. Dreams embody our hopes and our fears, our expectations and assumptions, our frustrations and contradictions. When we are trying to figure something out on a deep level, recurrent dreams sometimes help us wrestle with possibilities we aren’t able to understand while awake. So, too, with fiction.

I developed this idea myself, although I’m sure I’m not the first or the only person to have done so. When I heard about how the Godzilla movies are, in their original Japanese context, about nuclear weapons, I immediately thought about dream imagery, how the mind seeks to process events through metaphor and allusion.

When I was 19, I pulled the front break on my bicycle by mistake, flew off into the air, and broke my pelvis. The pelvis is a very personal bone to break, because it lies at the body’s core. It felt like I’d broken me. I’d never broken a major bone before or had any serious medical problem. For the first time since I could remember, I was unable to walk. I dreamed, over and over, that my body was being replaced by that of an alien or a robot. In time, I healed completely and the body snatching dreams went away. Maybe someday the Japanese will heal completely and Godzilla will go away. The monster’s American fans will be disappointed.

On America’s psyche, right now, and that of all other “developed” nations in the world, rests global warming. We know, many of us, what is happening, what has to be done, and what is likely to happen if we continue to not do it. But for us, climate change is not just a logistical and technical crisis but a two-edged existential threat. If we continue to do nothing, life as we know it ends and something else happens. But in order to avert such catastrophe we must change our economy and society radically and thus, also, ends life as we know it. And what comes after, and how we get there from here, we do not know.

And so we dream.

Most fiction ignores climate change. Of books and movies that have come out in the past 30 years, most treat climate as a non-issue; those set in the near future do not even anticipate changes in climate as part of the background, unless climate change is in some way the point of the tale. The Matrix movies, for example, centered around several plot devices that utterly ignore the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the way Earth’s atmosphere works (hint: if the sky is “scorched” such that solar-powered machines cannot operate and there is no non-synthetic food, why is there still free oxygen?). When we dream, the carbon cycle still feels beside the point. Collectivity, we aren’t convinced it is really real.

Fortunately, there are exceptions.

The term “cli-fi,” for climate fiction, is being popularized by the Cli-Fi Books website, which publicizes books that deal with climate change in some way (fiction or otherwise). The website also publishes reviews, interviews with authors, and essays on climate change in literature, film, and journalism. From the site:

“Cli-fi” is a useful label to describe literature, film, and other creative media that involves climate change fiction, whose genres may be speculative, literary, or science fiction. Cli-fi is not necessarily always set in the future nor always apocalyptic. Look at Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, for instance, which tells a present-day story of Monarch butterflies that have migrated to the Appalachian Mountains rather than to their normal Mexican winter habitat. Cli-fi should be seen as wildly creative and inventive. It is both reactive and proactive. It is open-ended.

Cli-fi therefore transcends genres and unites creative works whose authors might not have thought of themselves as a group. The website is pretty clearly trying, not just to publicize books on a subject, but to create a new lens through which to think and talk about literature.

I have a mixed reaction to this development. On the one hand, I am concerned that grouping these stories together under the cli-fi heading might create a sort of intellectual ghetto for the topic. That global warming might continue to be seen as a specialty concern, to be safely ignored when people are not in the mood. But on the other hand, if we do not begin and continue the hard work of dreaming our way through the issue, how are we ever going to be able to deal with climate change while awake? The cli-fi label might become an effective way of getting these stories into the national (and international) context where they need to be.

Cli-Fi Books subdivides its reviews into subgenres, such as apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, fantasy, and young adult. Such categories primarily serve to direct readers towards the books that best suit their personal tastes, a fine thing for a reviewer to do. But for the purposes of social commentary it might be better to subdivide cli-fi in a more function-oriented way. For example, is the book (or movie) trying to say something about global warming, or does it just mention global warming in the course of talking about something else? The Korean movie, Snowpiercer, based on a French graphic novel and now set for limited release in the US, is set in an ice-age triggered by a failed attempt to stop global warming. Climate change is therefor a dominant force in the story. But the story is not actually about climate change, it is about social class. South Korea is dreaming about North Korea’s totalitarian regime. So is it cli-fi or not?

I can suggest several subheadings based on how a work of fiction engages with climate change: warnings, or dystopian novels about what might happen if we don’t deal with global warming; explorations of options, or what life might be like if we do; science education, or fictional vehicles for presenting climate science concepts; and acknowledgement, or stories that are not about climate change per se but do acknowledge that it is happening.

That last one may be especially important as a way to drive home the reality of our situation. The truth is that fiction set twenty or fifty or a hundred years in the future can no more ignore changes in climate (or changes in economy and technology that prevented changes in climate) than they can ignore changes in fashion or technology. Fictional characters set in the future shouldn’t dress the same as we do or use the same gadgets as we do, and writers know that. Those characters shouldn’t have the same weather as we do, either. Keeping the world as we know it isn’t an option.

Obviously, such categories overlap. But there are and will be some cli-fi stories that defy functional categorization because they have no particular message, or some important aspects of them have no particular message, and yet they mull, they explore, they grieve, and they question.  Nature’s End, for example, works as an effectively creepy warning, but it also does something else. There is a badguy, but he is a badguy offering a cynical, but perhaps radical and maybe effective, kind of hope. Are the protagonists really correct to reject his plan? The book poses more questions than it answers. It is a restless dream.

And that is, ultimately, what dreaming is for. We can construct rational plans and cogent arguments while awake, and we should, and people are. But underneath, the way we think and feel about the world has to shift. We have to entertain nightmarish possibilities and face them and see what they’re really about. Dreams are good for all of this, the subterranean shifts that occur where the waking mind cannot follow.

We have to dream. And then we have to wake up.