Over the last three decades, more than 200 novels have been written that try to imagine our future in a climate-changed world. Novels are fanciful by nature, doomsaying or utopian, and would never be confused for serious policy arguments. However, this collection of novels, taken as a whole, indicates some of the fundamental difficulties we have in articulating a just and sustainable future.
Despite decades spent talking about climate change, our culture remains mired in political uncertainty. Anthony Giddens recently described the crux of the problem as follows: An effective response to global warming must be multilateral, but we lack the institutions, mechanisms, and international relationships needed to make progress. Simply put, we lack a politics of climate change.
Imagining what could fill this gap has proved as problematic as predicting the physical climate. The IPCC has long used emissions scenarios—narratives about policy, technology, population, the economy, and emissions—to describe climate outcomes. While no particular scenario is likely to come true 100 percent, the scenarios help describe some of the complex interactions we should expect.
What the emissions scenarios struggle to incorporate is a deeper level of complexity: the interrelated personal, aesthetic, social, and political choices people make as they react to changes in the climate around them. Novels typically explore this very range, tracing the interactions between personal perspectives and the larger forces of society, politics, and environment.
The majority of climate change novels are not explicitly political, though they do tend to engage with the fundamental argument over our need to act. Those who would delay cutting emissions typically assert that climate change won't be disastrous, particularly because our grandchildren will be richer, equipped with new technologies, and thus better able to adapt. Persuading people of the need to act involves shifting "the perceived trade-off between damage and cost," and addressing the harm done by present emissions to future generations.
Dystopia has become a common technique for shocking people. Thus in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, we see that scorched earth has led to the collapse of the state, bands of roving cannibals, and murder over canned food. In Octavia Butler's The Parable of the Sower, small armed bands of religious devotees fight water thieves and drug-crazed rapists in desertified California. In The Book of Dave by Will Self, a flooded Great Britain is governed by a benighted, repressive, medieval state.I've only found one climate change novel that describes, in detail, a successful ecological revolution, and it's also, hands down, the worst.
While IPCC emissions scenarios and other policy literature assume the state will persist and continue to make "rational choices" about greenhouse gas emissions, novels like these describe how climate change threatens the basic operation of our economies, democracies, and political institutions. The horror of these scenarios acts to shift our political calculation in favor of immediate action. In practice, though, these novels often efface and elide the political dilemmas of the contemporary moment.
A very different set of novels addresses the need for international cooperation on greenhouse gas reduction. From the late 1980s through the Copenhagen climate conference of 2009, many hoped the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change would lead to a meaningful international agreement, comprising "universal participation, binding emissions targets, integrated emissions trading and compensation to poorer countries to get their cooperation." Interestingly, not a single novel I have found follows the path from multilateral negotiation to a binding emissions deal: The complications of the process may well exceed the limits of both fiction and productive diplomacy!
Since the failure of COP15, many have wondered whether bilateral deals might bring more progress, and bilateral negotiations seem to offer the right level of complexity for a suspenseful plot. Clive Cussler's Arctic Drift traces the escalating conflict between Canada, made a rich, pugnacious villain by its tar sands deposits, and an energy-poor, emasculated United States, pairing a sophisticated account of energy production with cartoon politics.
Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl is a bit more nuanced, describing a future Thai kingdom torn between global enterprise and environmental protectionism. While American agribusiness threatens to colonize the country with private security troops and weaponized crop diseases, the Thai environment ministry violently polices emissions and guards the seeds of its edible plant stocks in an underground vault. Ultimately, Bangkok sinks under the pressure of natural disaster, corporate exploitation, weakened sovereignty, and an impoverished economy, leaving an indelible impression of a developing country in the era of climate change.
Perhaps the most important bilateral relationship is between the United States and China. America's size, massive per capita emissions, and diplomatic reach, along with China's inexorable expansion as the world's biggest emitter, make their participation in any international accord essential, yet both have refused to accept binding targets.
Matthew Glass's Ultimatum dramatizes future climate negotiations between the two superpowers. David Victor has described Ultimatum as "the most insightful look at how [the relationship between the United States and China] might unfold," trumping all existing nonfiction. In 2032, the incoming Democratic president receives a secret briefing from his Republican predecessor: Global warming is accelerating exponentially; if massive emission cuts are not made immediately, whole regions of the United States, as well as whole countries, will become uninhabitable and tens of millions of people will become climate refugees.
President Benton realizes that no meaningful deal will result from the Kyoto process, but pressure from Europe, the UN Secretary-General, and his own party force him to pay lip service to it, even as he pursues secret, bilateral talks with China. Within the American camp, coherent action is delayed by cabinet rivalries, legislative momentum, election cycles, the need to mislead or inspire the public, media leaks, and ideological differences between party strategists, State Department officials, and military generals.
President Benton's negotiators struggle to convince the Chinese of their sincerity. They also have difficulty navigating the internally divided Communist Party, such that they can't tell when their interlocutors are milking them for more concessions and when they genuinely cannot budge. All of this generates tremendous suspense. The negotiators turn belligerent, renege on agreements, and walk out. Economic sanctions build pressure. China invades Taiwan. Military "exercises" engage the enemy and ultimatums are exchanged. Limited nuclear strikes kill millions and threaten mutual destruction. Benton finally stands down and both sides declare victory.
Although the war finally leads to an unprecedented emissions deal, the novel's political portrait is actually nostalgic, invoking comparisons to the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis. Worse, the suspense plot all but obscures the fundamental dilemmas of political representation, social justice, global governance, and conservation. A few powerful men must resolve climate change for the world, despite almost insurmountable economic and political obstacles, and only the rhetorical force of nuclear war is able to overcome their inertia. Although Ultimatum presents international diplomacy as the appropriate space for overcoming the crisis, its nihilism about the effectiveness of negotiations calls the whole process into question.
Of course, environmentalists have long questioned whether mainstream political action merely bolsters the legitimacy of a system that is ultimately responsible for environmental degradation. Some even argue that sustainability must be pursued in tandem with direct democracy, since the prescribed emission cuts already amount to "civilization change." There is an abundance of climate change novels that imagine activist resistance to totalitarian repression and the collapse of democratic society. However, novels in this vein tend to realize political progress while neglecting to provide a vision of environmental sustainability.
I've only found one climate change novel that describes, in detail, a successful ecological revolution, and it's also, hands down, the worst. In George Marshall's The Earth Party, global warming makes Britain as hot as Kenya. The country is flooded and the energy infrastructure destroyed. Parliament responds by forming a cross-party coalition and declaring a police state.
The emergency also transforms the Earth Party—a fringe group advocating decentralized democracy and a green lifestyle—into a hierarchical organization controlled by ex-military extremists. After the state declares the new Peoples Earth Party a terrorist organization, it leads a successful revolution, evacuates the cities, and breaks the population into self-sufficient farming groups. In these "Earth Cells," people are policed by an "Earth Guard." Suicides keep the numbers low, leisure time is treated as a disciplinary problem, and supplies are withheld to keep the workers fighting for survival.
The repugnant protagonist relishes his authority as a cell leader before rising through the party and resuming a middle-class lifestyle. PEP policy, it emerges, is guided by a computer model: How it learned to emulate medieval pastoral fantasies, misogynistic dystopias, and Soviet authoritarianism is anyone's guess.
What's least convincing is that the "optimal" Earth Cells just wouldn't work. Cultivating all arable land would decimate wild species, and local self-sufficiency is impossible if unpredictable weather ruins crops. Revolution itself will never stabilize the climate, since the existing greenhouse gases will continue to trap heat for thousands of years.
Despite these faults, The Earth Party does point to a real problem. Our representative democracies and consumer economies depend on choice as a fundamental organizing principle, but can individual choice create the mass consensus, reduction of consumption, and unprecedented social organization needed to respond to climate change?
T. C. Boyle's incisive satire A Friend of the Earth also explores activism in the era of climate change. The novel moves back and forth between two time periods. In 2025, California's climate is "like leaving your car in the parking lot in the sun all day with the windows rolled up and then climbing in and discovering they've been sealed shut—and the doors too." The comfy security of air conditioning, weather insurance, and social security is also long gone. The main character, Ty Tierwater, is in his seventies and still working, managing an aging and eccentric rock star's menagerie of all-but-extinct animals too ugly for anyone else to conserve. When Tierwater's home is swept away in a flash flood along with all the animal pens, they are all forced to take shelter in a new habitat: the rock star's mansion. The animals prowl the twenty-car garage, sleep in piles of shredded rock memorabilia, and are fed decadent cuts of extinct meat from the walk-in freezer.
Much like the recent tragedy of escaped animals in Ohio, a SWAT team mows down the entire collection. With his job now defunct, Tierwater regroups to the Californian wilderness he once loved, only to find the "trees snapped at the base, uprooted and flung a hundred yards by the violence of the winds." Thirty years prior, activists had tried to block environmental "criminals" from destroying vulnerable species, forests, and communities, yet global warming swept them away anyway.
The other strand of the novel examines why the environmental movement failed to stop climate change while there was still time. From 1989 to 1995, Tierwater was a member of Earth Forever!, a "radical enviro group" modeled loosely after Earth First! and locked in a logic of twentieth-century social protest—fighting the logging and energy corporations, their working class employees, and a justice system that defends them. Tierwater's environmental rage is amplified by his own implication in the system: His inherited strip-mall fortune, redwood-sided house with a massive oil burner, Jeep Laredo, and Eddie Bauer habit simultaneously deliver and destroy the nature he wants to protect.
Inspired by Black Power, revolutionary socialists, and ecological saboteurs, Tierwater finds himself in a cycle of imprisonment and revenge. He blocks loggers, attacks police, destroys heavy machinery, topples electrical towers, and finally tries to poison Santa Barbara's water supply. "To be a friend of the earth, you have to be an enemy of the people," he explains. With 30 years of hindsight, the older Tierwater sees his violent tactics as a political failure, exacerbating rage and separating him from all the people chasing "the new and the improved, the super and the imperishable."
While Tierwater serves time, his wife Andrea brings EF! into the mainstream: selling berets, t-shirts, and coffee mugs; directing actions with a clipboard, Evian water, and $300 cowboy boots; wooing big donors with a sleek, black BMW, cocktail parties, and slideshows. By the time Tierwater is let out of jail, Andrea is "knocking down eighty-five thousand dollars a year as a member of E.F.!'s board of directors" and utterly convinced that a 73 percent voter approval rate for the environment will translate into political action.
From the longer perspective of 2025, her misjudgment is clear. While EF! environmentalists were unwilling to give up their luxury cars, kitchen appliances, and suburban ranch houses, the electorate proved even less willing to inflict self-sacrifice.
The Tierwater tragedy repeats itself in countless climate change novels. Radical environmentalism creates an excellent vantage point, outside the system of contemporary capitalism, to understand how difficult it ultimately is to oppose climate change. But 30 years of environmentalism and climate change novels suggest it is very difficult to imagine how environmental activism leads to a new relationship with nature or a social reorganization that excludes fossil fuels. Even so, climate activism indicates the great shortcoming of politics-as-usual, which requires the threat of annihilation to take structural action.
Across the board, the novel has long depended on human conflicts—national, social, and political—to narrate different points of view. Bilateral negotiation, ultimatums, two-party politics, and activist resistance have unfolded along the same logic. However, these recent novels about global warming suggest we need new ways of envisioning political alliances, blending technocratic and utopian aspects of policy.
Unlike policy scenarios that are rooted in the hegemonic institutions of the day, the novel can begin to describe whole systems of interests, and simulate new forms of collective association between individuals, animals, corporations, regions, and countries. Yet after 30 years spent imagining our possible futures, the limits of the genre are starting to bump up against the limits of our political imaginations. Whether or not we successfully respond to global warming, much of the existing order may not survive. Perhaps the time has come to start reflecting on which extinctions we could embrace.
Adam Trexler is a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Exeter. The research for this article was enabled by the European Social Fund.