When Matt Bell, an Arizona internet researcher, novelist and creative writing professor, recently asked colleagues on his Twitter feed ”who first used the cli-fi term in print or other media,” I, having done some research on this myself over the past 10 years, sent him some notes for a something he said he was writing on this topic.
Here’s what I found in my research.
Scott Thill, a middle-aged maverick and one of the most important visionaries in the film and animation industry, lives in Los Angeles, where he writes, blogs, codes, tweets and fights for climate sanity in cinema and against the forces that try to mock climate change as a hoax.
Beginning in 2009 and 2010, Thill was the first film critic worldwide to use the ”cli-fi” term in published movie reviews in Wired magazine. As of that time period, I had never heard of the term he coined, nor had I ever heard of Thill.
One film review he published in Wired magazine in September of 2009 was headlined “‘The Age of Stupid’ gets smart on the enviro-pocalypse.” Although Thill didn’t use the term itself in the actual review, his editor included it as one of several keywords at the end of the article: ”Killer CGI, dystopian cli-fi, heart-wrenching footage.”
A year later, in 2010, in another article for Wired titled ”Methane Apocalypse Threatens World in SyFy Schlocker ‘Ice Quake,”’ Thill this time dug right in and for the first time in a public magazine used the ”cli-fi” term in his review of a movie, writing: “Are you prepared for a holiday-friendly methane apocalypse? Syfy’s new ‘Ice Quake’ trains its B-movie bombast on a real-world problem that’s got some climate scientists increasingly worried. The ”cli-fi flick” finds Brendan Fehr and Victor Garber struggling to survive after the Alaskan permafrost thaws, unleashing subterranean rivers of volatile liquid methane and planet-killing earthquakes on Christmas Eve.”
Thill also wrote two think pieces for the Huffington Post in 2014 and 2016, one of which was headlined “Cli-Fi is Real.” As of this time, in the 2020s, Thill continues to ”tweet” almost daily about the cultural prism of cli-fi using the #CliFi hashtag created in London by a PR maven there.
For literary critics and pop culture historians, it’s worth noting that even before Thill began using the cli-fi term in 2009, several right-wing climate denialists earlier in that same year had started using the cli-fi term in a derogatory, mocking way to criticize climate activists such as Al Gore and Michael Mann. For them, cli-fi stood for climate fiction with the stress of the second word in the term “fiction,” meaning that the entire global warming movement was based complete fiction and not worth taking seriously.
David Carter, who blogged under the pen-name of Paco in 2009 and still blogs even in 2019 at the same site called Paco Enterprises, wrote such things as this sentence below in a blog titled ”Another Book From the Sweaty Palms of Al Gore:” ”Smitty, at another blog, brings us the profoundly depressing news that Al Gore’s puffy paws have typed out yet another volume in his ongoing series of Cli-fi pot-boilers.”
On August 1, 2009, Carter, again writing as Paco in a blog post titled “Variations on the Tea Party Theme” wrote:
”The spirit of revolt is in the air, even among the folks in white lab coats. 84 Rules draws attention to the Rising of the Chemists, who are protesting the acceptance by Rudy Baum, editor-in-chief of ‘Chemical and Engineering News,’ of the Cli-Fi hokum being peddled by the Obama administration.”
As you can see, the use of the cli-fi term has a long history in early 21st century Western pop culture, dating back to Scott Thill and David Carter in 2009 before most people had ever heard of the term.
It wouldn’t be until April 20, 2013 that the NPR radio network broadcast an explosive 5-minute segment produced by freelance radio reporter Angela Evancie titled ”So Hot Right Now: Has Climate Change Created A New Literary Genre?” She called the genre “cli-fi” in her broadcast and in the text transcript of her radio segment.
Evancie told her national radio audience in 2013, four years after Carter and Thill first started using the buzzword in different and opposing ways: ”Over the past decade, more and more writers have begun to set their novels and short stories in worlds, not unlike our own, where the Earth’s systems are noticeably off-kilter. The genre has come to be called climate fiction — “cli-fi,” for short.”