Why is there so little climate emergency fiction?

The trickSomething I've thought a lot about in recent weeks is the role that fiction can play in bringing ideas to life - and specifically climate change. If you look at the main body of dystopian work, either in print or on film, end-of-days work tends to be focused around zombies, deadly viruses (where truth is scarier than fiction) or apparently unavoidable catastrophes such as meteorites, earthquakes or volcanoes. While a zombie apocalypse seems unlikely - although it would be unwise to rule anything out in 2021 - the others are clear and very present dangers, but neither clearer nor deadlier than the climate emergency. 

 

And yet, the climate emergency is largely noticeable by its absence in fiction and therefore two recent television shows stick out for me. The first was The Commons, a 2019 Australian series, that highlighted in the starkest terms both the geophysical perils of climate change and the human cost - a huge refugee crisis. Then this week I finally caught up with The Trick, a BBC film detailing the events of 2009 when data was stolen from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit. The data were subsequently manipulated and leaked to the media with the purpose of undermining the growing scientific consensus behind the dangers of man made climate change - in the run up to the 2009 COP meeting in Copenhagen.

What The Trick showed perfectly were the lengths that vested interests will go to undermine and discredit science that damages commercial activity. While the perpetrators of the data theft were never revealed, the evidence appeared to point to either state or commercial fossil fuel interests. Towards the end of the film, Professor Phil Jones, the leading climate scientist whose work was first discredited and then vindicated, estimated that the scandal may have cost us 10 years in the fight against climate change. While the science is now largely settled, those vested interests haven´t gone anywhere and will be in or around next week's COP in Glasgow, working to halt progress that threatens their wealth and influence.

And there's a great deal at stake here. As he prepares for a critical Select Committee meeting investigating the affair, the fictional Professor Jones (brilliantly played by Jason Watkins), is asked what would be the consequences of not halting climate change. "What happens if everyone ignores your measurements, your graphs? What happens Phil, for our children and their children? No numbers, just consequences."

"Well...," he says. "By 2100 dust bowl conditions across North America and Africa, Asia too. Sooner than that, a massive reduction in agricultural production, access to drinking water, migration in huge numbers. Bushfires on a massive scale in Australia, on the West Coast. Annual melting at the poles, the West Antarctic ice sheet, because of that the global sea level rise of, well, metres. In this worst case scenario 70% of the habitable world will no longer be able to sustain human life. Millions of species will become extinct. And coastal and delta cities will be underwater and if the methane in the permafrost and on the seabed is released, well, the climate will collapse and the world as we know it will be gone."

It's an incredibly powerful piece of television and the starkest of warnings. And made all the more powerful by being a dramatization charged as it is by emotion that no scientific paper could reproduce. So, I wonder again, why isn't there more of this? It feels like this is a serious deficiency in our armoury in the fight against climate change. Or maybe I've just missed it and ask for recommendations for reading material as I warm up for my trip to Glasgow next week. 


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