Why We Need Stories of Climate Optimism

Article In The Thread
New America / Owlie Productions on Shutterstock
April 4, 2023

We’re all going to spend a lot more time thinking about the weather. Freakish storms from California to Australia are only the latest headlines in a quickening pulse of fires, floods, and famines underscoring that climate change is no longer on the horizon: It’s right here, right now.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pleads, again, for dramatic action, reminding the world that the next decade will be decisive in shaping the fates of millions of people for the rest of the twenty-first century. Of course, that’s old news. Scientists have been sounding this clarion call for decades, and we are still struggling with a global crisis of imagination around climate.

But how do we motivate large-scale collective action around a problem that is so complex, abstract, and vast in scale? One of the reasons it feels so impossible is that we have few stories of what a successful transition might look like. Even the most ardent champions of decarbonization sometimes focus more on sounding the alarm than on imagining and mapping out successful outcomes. Without positive climate futures, visions of climate adaptation and resilience that we can work toward, it’s much harder to motivate broad-based efforts for change in the present.

Scientific models and policy trench warfare are insufficient responses to the crisis. We have to start with imagining our way through it first, and telling stories that inspire hope and action. Perhaps the greatest fundamental challenge facing our species is that far too few of us feel empowered and inspired to imagine our own futures. Meeting the myriad challenges of climate change is going to require imagination at every level, from local communities and companies to government agencies at local, regional, and international levels.

That perspective has animated a decade of work at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination, most prominently in our Climate Imagination Fellowship. Inspired by the work of science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, this project aims to galvanize global imagination around positive climate futures by supporting four fellows (hailing from China, India, Mexico, and Nigeria) to write stories of local and regional climate resilience. We’re combining their work with creative nonfiction essays from other contributors around the world in a collection we hope to release during the next meeting of the UN climate negotiations this November and December.

The same sense of stubborn hope in the face of crisis, and dedication to the idea that we need many climate stories tracing diverse pathways toward coordinated action, undergirds several other related projects.

“Without positive climate futures … it’s much harder to motivate broad-based efforts for change in the present.”

From 2016 through 2020, we joined with ASU’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing to host three global climate fiction contests, garnering hundreds of short story submissions from writers in more than 75 countries. We published three Everything Change anthologies featuring tales unfolding in all corners of the world — from remote islands and bustling cities to rural tourist traps and the ocean floor. The stories depict individuals and communities grappling with hope, struggling for survival, building solidarity, and mourning the loss of people, places, creatures, and landscapes. Through these anthologies, we learned that hopeful climate stories needn’t be undeservedly sunny or patently optimistic: Climate fiction often processes a range of emotions, with grief and anger leading to mobilization and catalyzing new thinking about adaptation, resilience, and mutual support.

We’ve also returned to climate themes time and again in Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short science-fiction stories we’ve been publishing in collaboration with Slate magazine and New America since 2018.

Each month’s entry is paired with a response essay by an expert in a related field, exploring how fictional glimpses into possible futures help us think through difficult policy choices at the intersection of technology and society. Chinelo Onwualu’s “What the Dead Man Said” explores climate migration in a future Nigeria fractured by armed conflict. Karl Schroeder’s “The Suicide of Our Troubles” imagines a blockchain-powered technology that enables rivers, mountain ranges, and other natural systems to speak for themselves in policy contexts. JoeAnn Hart’s “Good Job, Robin” and Matt Bell’s “Empathy Hour” consider the ethical quandaries of being a survivor of climate catastrophe, looking at food systems and “disaster porn” reality-TV hijinks, respectively; Brenda Cooper’s “Out of the Ash” follows the struggles of the governor of Washington, forced to move the state capital in the face of rising sea levels, but unable to persuade people to move to the newly built city. And Premee Mohamed’s “All That Burns Unseen” wonders if supercharged wildfires, harder each year to fight back, will make vast swaths of forestland functionally uninhabitable. These stories illuminate tricky, unexpected climate challenges, but also opportunities for intervention and spaces where thoughtful, humane applications of technology might change things for the better.

While we hope these visions of the future inspire positive change in the present, their most important work is not to point out particular pathways so much as to remind us all that better worlds are possible. Imagination is a team sport, and the greatest gift we can offer others is an invitation to begin imagining their own futures.

Read more from our Climate Changes Everything themed issue:

🌎 Barbados’s Urgent Call for a Global Climate Finance Plan: Global coordination is needed to tackle the climate crisis, and the Bridgetown Initiative would overhaul the global finance system for the fight.

🏘️ The U.S. Can Build Climate-Resilient Housing Solutions — Here’s How: The climate crisis has major impacts on the current U.S. housing crisis, but proactive policies can help secure housing for all communities.

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