Climate change is too abstract for most people. Scientists focus on impacts decades out, while hedging predictions with “may” or “could.” Activists often turn these prognostications into apocalyptic visions, and the hyperbole turns people off. When something truly frightening occurs, such as a super typhoon or powerful late season tornadoes, an audience ready to hear the message gets equivocations, e.g., “the event can’t be tied to climate change, because weather is too variable.” Average people tune out.
Enter a fiction writer, such as Rachel Meehan, author of the young adult novel Water’s Edge, the first in a series titled Troubled Times, published by Cherry House Publishing, a small UK press. Meehan takes the abstractions of global warming and shows how they might affect the lives of a Scottish family caught up in a near-future crisis. Through believable characters in a plausible situation, Meehan shows how the damage to the earth’s climate can cause real and permanent damage to human relationships. In Water’s Edge, the evolving atmosphere forces the social climate into a tailspin. For Meehan, that’s the most important impact of global warming.
The story is simple. Near a small Scottish border town, 14-year-old Nairne Grear, her father Daniel, and her older brother Zane, a special-needs child, have built a “green” farmstead. They grow their own vegetables, raise their own animals for meat, generate electricity with a wind turbine, and live frugally. Active in the community, Daniel is convinced that climate change will compel people to abandon their consuming ways, and he wants to be ahead of the curve. As it turns out, he’s prepared. A season of record floods and killing heat forces the government to “temporarily” relocate tens of thousands of people to the north. The generous Daniel allows the local government to assign the Unwin family–father Garrick, partner (not wife) Pamela, and son Paul–to stay at the farmstead as renters. The opportunistic Garrick turns his misfortune into a money-making scheme, with disastrous consequences for the Grears.
Standard dystopian tropes of gun-toting nativists, a descent into social anarchy, and an imagined utopia over the hill, appear in Water’s Edge. But much of the narrative centers on a community’s effort to cope with forces beyond its control while struggling to keep strained institutions intact. At times, the timeline is too compressed. Climate change is a slow-motion disaster, another one of its difficulties for storytellers. But Water’s Edge shines as climate fiction. It gets at what the real day-to-day impact of a climate disaster might have on teen Nairne’s life, at school, among her peers, on the adults she loves, on her town. It turns the abstruse theories of global warming into an imagined reality anyone could experience, showing how a warmed world turns ordinary lives upside down.
What do you think? Is global warming a ripe topic for young adult fiction?