Futurist Thomas Lombardo has indicated various ways that science fiction (sci fi) can help up us imagine better futures. The same can be said for the newer genre of climate fiction (cli fi), which is usually a fictional work set in the future dealing with the effects of climate change and global warming. As the wise writer Wendell Berry often pointed out, our failures of imagination have often been a major cause of various contemporary problems, whether personal, economic, environmental, social, cultural, or political.
Now, in July 2022, with western Europe and the USA experiencing record-breaking climate-change related heat waves, wildfires, and drought and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warning that “half of humanity is in the danger zone from floods, droughts, extreme storms and wildfires,” we again are collectively failing to imagine what our futures (and that of our kids and grandkids) will probably be like.
Once again, other problems, this times inflation, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, food shortages, Supreme Court rulings, mass shootings—there’s always something that our U. S. electorate considers more pressing, more important—divert our attention from climate-change problems. But these problems are like a slowly developing hurricane, and we are failing to prepare.
As Guterres warned, “No nation is immune…we are failing to work together as a multilateral community. Nations continue to play the blame game instead of taking responsibility for our collective future. We cannot continue this way…We have a choice. Collective action or collective suicide. It is in our hands.”
I alluded to an example of climate fiction in an earlier LA Progressive essay that referred to T. C. Boyle’s novel A Friend of the Earth (2000). It depicts California and much of the rest of the world in 2025-2026 experiencing an ecological nightmare.
A more recent cli fi novel and one that suggests many more ways of dealing with climate change is Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 book The Ministry for the Future: A Novel (hereafter Ministry). About the author, leading environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote that he “is an essential authority for our time and place.” New York Times columnist Ezra Klein labeled the novel “The Most Important Book I’ve Read This Year.” And former President Obama listed it as one of his favorite books of 2020.
Although this was not Robinson’s first cli fi novel, he was previously known primarily for his sci fi works. His newer book (which could also be considered sci fi) begins in in the mid 2020s. Frank May, an American aid worker, looks out his apartment window in a northern city in India. It is only about 6 a.m., but it was already about 103 degrees, and he sees that some people had made beds on their rooftops because it was too hot to sleep inside. The heat wave that struck soon killed millions of people in India.
Later on in the novel, Frank briefly kidnaps and argues with the novel’s main character. She is the Irish woman Mary Murphy, and she heads what is commonly called the Ministry for the Future. Although no such international agency now exists, it could be argued that there is an urgent need for just such a one, and that it would follow logically from what has already been established.
For example, a “Conference of the Parties” (COP) has been held annually (except for Covid concerns in 2020) since the first COP met in 1995 in Berlin (see here for an essay on last year’s COP26 in Glasgow). The annual COPs were called for in the 1994 UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Robinson’s fictional “Ministry for the Future,” he tells us, was created by COP29 (in 2025) to “advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens. . . . who cannot speak for themselves.” Thus, in this 2020 novel his new key UN “ministry” comes into existence only about a half decade into the future, and the same goes for the killing heat wave in India, which begins the novel.
That the deadly Indian heat wave Robinson imagines is not too far fetched is supported by the climate-change crises occurring this spring and summer. Both March and April 2022 were the hottest such months in India in the past 122 years, and the heat wave continued into June. In mid-May 2022 climate-change journalist David Wallace-Wells wrote that in late April “a heat wave swallowed South Asia, bringing temperatures to more than a billion people—one-fifth of the entire human population—10 degrees warmer than the one imagined in the opening pages of…‘The Ministry for the Future.’” That this South Asian heat wave did not kill millions, as it did in the novel, was due to lower humidity, which both Robinson and Wallace-Wells realize also factors into any mortality calculations. Yet, the journalist adds, “in parts of India, humidity was still high enough that if the day’s peak moisture had coincided with its peak heat, the combination would have” been “at or past the limit for human survivability.”
Also related to climate change was the worst monsoon flood in many decades which struck Bangladesh and northern India. One climate scientist noted that “the densely populated South Asia is the most vulnerable to climate change due to its proximity to the rapidly warming Indian Ocean on its south and the rapidly melting glaciers on its north.” Thus, the “intensification of heat waves, cyclones, extreme rains and sea level rise in recent years.”
Although the spring 2022 heat wave in United States was not as bad, it was still record breaking. On 16 June, in a piece entitled “A string of climate disasters strike before summer even starts,” The Washington Post declared, “Hit with an unseasonably early heat wave in May that smashed records, the region [Midwest] has since been buffeted by more heat.” The day after the Post article, the PBS Newshour stated, “More than 100 million Americans this week were under some sort of heat advisory, and were warned to stay indoors if possible. From Texas to California, a massive heat wave has set record temperatures.”
Later, in mid July, another heat wave again produced new records in some U. S areas, as well as in parts of Europe. Wildfires and droughts in parts of both regions were additional concerns. In the U. S., for example, the southwest’s Lake Mead, normally containing our largest reservoir of water, is at a historic low.
Just as Ministry depicted a killing heat wave so too it recognized the impact of climate change on causing more fires, droughts, and flooding. On one occasion Mary Murphy, the head of the ministry, flies to California, and Robinson writes, “Water had always been the weak link, and now climate change was making it worse. The entire state was now plumbed for water, they moved it around as needed; but when droughts came, there was not much to move. And droughts were coming more and more frequently. Also occasional deluges. Either too little or too much was the new pattern, alternating without warning, with droughts predominating. The upshot would be more forest fires, then more flash floods, and always the threat of the entire state going as dry as the Mojave desert.”
Robinson even has part of a chapter (# 59) dealing with LA, where he imagines tremendous rainfall, exacerbated by climate change, floods the city. “It rained hard all that first night…But it wasn’t your ordinary flood…the water came roaring down off the side of the San Gabriels onto us…The whole LA basin was flooded, all the way from the Hollywood Hills down to San Clemente…In lots of places the elevated freeways were the only flat surfaces that stuck up out of this new lake, so, with no other place to go, the freeways were where people went.”
Among other climate-change concerns, Robinson devotes many pages in which his characters struggle with the melting glaciers in Antarctica. (Two years after Ministry’s publication in 2020, environmentalist Bill McKibben reported “temperature in parts of the Antarctic was seventy degrees Fahrenheit above normal in mid-March,” hastening the melting). A main problem with the melting is rising sea levels, which will threaten many islands and coastal sea areas from Shanghai to Miami.
Thus, identifying many climate-change problems and the complexity of them is the first great service Robinson’s novel provides. Its second major contribution is suggesting some ways to tackle these difficulties. Here Robinson is especially helpful because the climate-change problem is so big and so complex, that most voters fail to imagine what type of multi-faceted response is needed. And absent that imagination, voter pressure on legislators, is liable to count for less than that exercised by lobbyists.
Among some of the climate-change responses brought to fruition by Robinson’s characters are creating new monetary currencies like carbon coins, geoengineering, eco-terrorism, Yourlock (a new Internet “co-op owned by its users”), increasing biodiversity, and “staining the open Arctic Ocean yellow, to keep sunlight from penetrating deep into the water and cooking them all.”
Although several of these responses might be problematic, climate-change activists have suggested some of them. For example, British natural historian David Attenborough stated in Netflix’s A Life on Our Planet (2020), “To restore stability to our planet, we must restore its biodiversity. The very thing that we’ve removed. It’s the only way out of this crisis we have created.”
Robinson greatly emphasizes Mary Murphy’s dealings with bankers and currencies:
Looking at the central bankers listening attentively to her, Mary saw it again; these people were as close to rulers of the world as existed. If they were now using their power to protect the biosphere and increase equity, the world could very well tack onto a new heading and take a good course. Bankers! It was enough to make her laugh, or cry. And yet by their own criteria, so pinched and narrow, they were doing the necessary things. They were securing money’s value, they still told themselves; which in this moment of history required that the world get saved. She had to smile, she couldn’t help it. Saved by fucking bankers. Of course the whole world was making them do it.”
Similarly, following the recent Supreme Court decision limiting the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to restrict carbon emissions from power plants in West Virginia and other states, climate activist Bill McKibben wrote, “Wall Street may be the only other actor large enough to actually shift the momentum of our climate system. The pressure on banks, asset managers, and insurance companies will increase precisely because the Court has wrenched shut this other spigot. Convincing banks to stop funding Big Oil is probably not the most efficient way to tackle the climate crisis, but, in a country where democratic political options are effectively closed off, it may be the only path left.”
At one point Mary Murphy asks her aides, “What should we be telling national governments to do now?” One of her staffers replies, “Set increasingly stringent standards for carbon emissions across the six biggest emitting sectors [industry, transportation, etc.], and pretty soon you’re in carbon-negative territory.” In response to her question about how to “get reductions in those six sectors,” she is told, “In essence: laws. Regulatory laws.” When she responds, “And yet it’s not happening,” they remind her that true, “there is resistance to it happening.”
That resistance, both in the novel and today in real life, remains our number one challenge. As one critic of the novel—yet admitting that “by introducing a mainstream audience to the dizzying prism of issues and the myriad proposals to address the climate crisis, Robinson is doing a great service”—wrote, “Climate silence is the overwhelming collective ignoring of the biggest and most vital issue in, arguably, the 350,000 odd years of Homo sapiens’ existence.”
Real-life resistance in the USA is especially crucial. As David Wallace-Wells recently emphasized, we are “the world’s largest producer of oil, its second-largest producer of gas, its third-largest consumer of coal and also its largest historical emitter by an outrageous margin, responsible for about twice as much carbon damage already done to the planet as any other country on Earth. Per capita, the country has done five or six times as much damage as China.”
The main reason we are such foot-draggers on dealing with climate change is Republican opposition. I mentioned this on LA Progressive in 2015, and it’s still true today. Because of such partisan unreasonableness, it is likely that “President Biden will have managed to deliver on only 9 percent of his climate promises.”
Why such opposition? As Robinson recognizes, people are often irrational. He writes, for example, of opposition from “capitalist ideology, fossil fuels industry and lobbying, cognitive errors (biases etc.).”
Our mass culture is also to blame. Already in 1985, Neil Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death, “Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.”
Earlier this year in a new book on wisdom, Jason Merchey wrote, “It is difficult to hear wise voices above the din, the distraction, and the disinformation that now plague society! Teachers, religious leaders, scholars, and philosophers have much to teach Americans, yet it is the titan of industry, the business mogul, the sports star, and the celebrity who garner the lion’s share of resources, attention, and respect. I often wonder what has gone so awry in America.”
As heat waves, droughts, flooding, wildfires, and other climate-change related disasters increase, more books like Ministry and more films like First Reformed will appear. And as such crises increase there is evidence that more people, in the U. S. and abroad, will gradually recognize what a dire predicament we have created. But…will it be soon enough?
Our position is akin to that of Britain after Hitler’s armies had taken over most of western Europe and by the summer of 1941 threatened the island country. But Hitler and fear of an invasion, as threatening as they were, were clearer, simpler, less complex targets to concentrate on than climate-change crises. Whether leaders like Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt will emerge and whether people in various nations can focus on the dangers of climate change as they once did on Nazi and Japanese aggression remains an open question.