Six rules for putting climate change into your fiction

Six rules for putting climate change into your fiction
Six rules for putting climate change into your fiction

Writers, especially new writers, are on the lookout for rules that will guarantee, or at least enhance the potential for success in the artistic or commercial marketplace. If you’re interested in writing in the new genre of “climate fiction,” here’s a few boundaries that will help you understand your role as climate storyteller.

1. Climate change is the driving force behind the narrative. The impact of long-term change in the earth’s climate is the single most important factor distinguishing climate fiction from other genres. Put another way, the absence of long-term climate trends would render an otherwise well-constructed story meaningless or confusing. It’s important to remember the difference between weather and climate. Weather happens over a short period of time. Climate happens over a long period of time, e.g., decades or centuries. Stories that depend on a specific weather event, such as a tornado or hurricane, don’t qualify as climate fiction, unless the narrative makes clear that the weather event is closely tied to long-term climate change. For example, the story of Noah’s Ark is not climate fiction, because the Biblical Flood was a single, one-time, divinely caused disaster, not the result of long-term climate trends.

2. Understanding climate change within the story depends on science. Climate fiction is rooted in science fiction; some think of clifi as a sub-genre of scifi. As such, climate fiction works best when the change driving the narrative is based on established science, or at least speculation that stems from science. A writer could base a climate fiction novel or short on the scientific consensus, or on a minority viewpoint. But facts derived via the scientific method are key. A story that posits an impossible effect of climate change is not climate fiction. For example, the 2013 schlock motion picture Sharknado linked a weather event spawning flying sharks to climate change. This is patently impossible, and therefore Sharknado is not climate fiction.

3. Climate fiction happens on earth, mostly. From a scientific perspective, climate happens on any celestial body with an atmosphere. The planet Mars has a climate, as does Venus. Many scientists view Venus’ climate as a model for runaway greenhouse effects. And theoretically, a writer could set a climate fiction story on a distant world facing a climate disaster, or in the case of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, an upgrade. But a hallmark of most clifi stories is the exploration of the potential impact of climate change on 21st-century human societies, and we only know of one: on Earth. Unless the writer NEEDS to place her climate change story on a non-earth world, it’s probably best to make Terra the setting.

4. Writers do not have to label work as climate fiction for it to qualify as such. The term “climate fiction” goes back to 2008, when activist and public relations man Dan Bloom first suggested it as a way to classify certain climate-based stories. Several dozen books and movies (no plays or poetry that I know of) have received the label. Of course, writers working before 2008 would not have used the term. (One of the earliest identified climate fiction novels, The Drowned World, was published in 1962.) At present, the term is not widely accepted in the literary community, so writers probably shouldn’t use it when pitching new work to agents or publishers. Maybe someday…

5. Keep your political views on climate change to yourself. The history of literature is filled with authors who change public policy with exceptionally crafted fiction. Charles Dickens highlighted the poverty of mid-19th century London in Oliver Twist and other novels. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle exposed conditions in early 20th-century meat-packing plants. But most authors avoid this approach, because it’s very difficult to do so without appearing preachy or dogmatic. In the case of climate fiction, a writer may create a character who discovers that climate science is a hoax. The trick is to convince readers that perpetrating the hoax is plausible without coming across as a thoughtless denier. Good luck with that.

6. Like all other fiction, climate fiction has no rules. Experienced writers will tell you that fiction has no rules for success, though various guidelines or best practices are useful. Climate fiction is no different. For example, 95 percent or more of climate fiction is dystopian. Clifi usually assumes that climate change is detrimental to human societies, often wiping out civilization as we know it. However, at least one recent climate fiction novel, The World We Made, presents a utopian view of human reaction to climate change. In this book’s future, societies thrive and the environment is saved. In other words, fiction rules are made to be broken. If you break the rules, be smart about it.

Video: Six Rules for Writing Climate Fiction, Part 1
Six Rules for Writing Climate Fiction, Part 2

What do you think? Any other rules for climate fiction?

10 thoughts on “Six rules for putting climate change into your fiction

  1. Sgt. Murchison explains the bug-killed trees and heat waves to one of her youthful charges in Starvation Ridge (he does ask). She’s not sure he gets it, as no one is receiving science education any more and he has no frame of reference. But hopefully it’s the only preachy page out of 462. 😉


  2. Excellent post, I particularly agree with rules 5 and 6 (yes, our own political views should always stay in the background, it’s the story that makes the point, not our views). Well done! I mentioned you in a blog post I just published (both on Blogger and WordPress, I use both sites!)

    It’s all about climate fiction and I’d love to have your point of view! Please visit if you have a minute:


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