In recent years, the term cli-fi has moved from a fringe concept to a marketable genre of fiction. Coined 2011, it has grown so big now in the 2020s that scholarly researchers around the world are able to produce studies of the conventions. New novels and short story collections are now published in this category each year. Hat tip: Jennifer Hamilton
Cli-fi, in both film and fiction, does tend towards dystopia, but not always. For every The Day After Tomorrow, Snowpiercer, or The Water Knife, there are also movies and novels of hope and optimism. Cli-fi may very well be looking now for someone to write a Nevil Shute style ”On The Beach” of a speculative fiction novel reimagined from the original novel and movie in 1957 and 1959 to something resonating with readers worldwide in the 2025 or 2030.
The few years have seen such a sharp rise in sophisticated “cli-fi” that some literary publications now devote whole verticals to it. Hat tip: Josephine Livingstone
People who have contributed to the cli-fi movement from around the world: Michael Svoboda, Margaret Atwood, Alison Flood, Jeff Vandermeer, James Bradley, Cat Sparks, James Burgman-Milner, Amy Brady, Andrew Milner, Emmi Itaranta, Axel Goodbody, Bruno Arpaia, Lovis Geier, Bill McKibben, Greta Thunberg, Josephine Livingstone – among hundreds of others in over a dozen languages in addition to English.
”Meet cli-fi. It’s dark, it’s gloomy — and it might help.” Hat tip: Jennifer Hijazi
“The water swallowed the land,” Omar El Akkad wrote in in his cli-fi novel “American War,” a powerful novel about war and displacement set in a United States transformed by climate change. “To the southeast, the once glorious city of New Orleans became a well within the walls of its levees. The baptismal rites of a new America.”
Authors like El Akkad are turning to climate fiction to craft stories about the dark possibilities of a climate-threatened planet and the bright potential to avoid it. The genre is helping readers come to terms with global warming predictions and even imagine solutions for it.
El Akkad has said his novel was meant to overlay the catastrophes of other nations onto the United States. As such, climate change was “part and parcel” of the book’s landscape.
“Climate change for a lot of people in Britain, Canada and the U.S. is an abstraction,” El Akkad has said. “It is not an abstraction for many people on this planet. It’s not something that’s going to happen in the future, it’s something that’s happening right now.”
The boom in climate fiction has moved beyond space colonies and barren desert landscapes. Writers are setting their stories in hotter cities and on the eve of intense storms.
Climate doesn’t always need to be front and center for a story to be considered cli-fi, says Robert Moore, a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Some of the best climate fiction stories don’t hit you in the face with the fact that they are placed in a world that is being altered or has been altered by the effects of climate change. It’s something you start to just understand as the story unfolds.
Moore helped pair NRDC scientists with authors on a published collection of climate-focused short stories published by the literary journal McSweeney’s. The journal contacted the environmental group after the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 1.5-degree Celsius report.
McSweeney’s 58th issue, “2040 AD,” was the result.
The 2019 edition brought together a host of prominent fiction writers and included stories from specific areas of the world highlighting specific climate consequences.
The cli-fi movie “The Day After Tomorrow” shot climate fiction into the spotlight in 2004. The apocalyptic disaster film starred Dennis Quaid as a scientist who braved a perilous trek to New York City to save his son after massive storms decimated northern parts of the globe.
In the literary realm, similar narratives were crafted from the wellspring of speculative fiction. Seminal authors like Margaret Atwood were instrumental in cementing cli-fi as a genre in its own right.
Today, around the world colleges and universities offer courses that examine the growing trend of cli-fi in over 100 classrooms in 12 countries.
A 2018 academic study by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson at Yale-NUS College in Singapore examined the role of cli-fi in affecting future behavior. From a survey of 160 readers, he found that the genre can compel “readers to imagine potential futures and consider the fragility of human societies and vulnerable ecosystems.” He also found that younger, more liberal readers were top consumers of the genre.
Literary critic Amy Brady has called climate change a “wicked” problem for humans to wrap their heads around, saying: “It kind of brings home the fear and the trepidation and also the hope that those characters feel that otherwise readers would have a hard time imagining. I don’t think that news reports are as great at pathos as they are at logos. That’s where novels and poetry can kind of pick up the slack.”
Back to author Omar El Akkad who told a reporter that while there’s an “unappreciated” comfort in dystopian fiction like cli-fi, because it implies that the worst hasn’t come, it shouldn’t be a balm for the soul.
El Akkad added: “I don’t think that there should be anything comforting about reading climate fiction. And I don’t think it should give readers the sense that there’s plenty of time and we’ll be fine. But I think it does do both those things as dangerous as they are.”
Climate change got its first Hollywood credits in the 1970s, according to film historian Michael Svoboda. The publication of nonfiction books like “Silent Spring,” “The Population Bomb” and “The Limits to Growth” combined with the excitement generated by the first “Earth Day” persuaded filmmakers to experiment with fictional films about environmental issues. Fast forward to the 2020s: the trend continues. Hat tip: Micheal Svoboda
Cli-fi leads to more awareness of where we humans are as the 21st century approaches the 22nd century and beyond. There will be no shortage of cli-fi novels and movies as time moves on.
Cli-fi will not solve any questions. It will merely ask more.
Your life will be invested more and more in cli-fi as the decades roll on, and in 100 years who knows where will be?