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Novel Takes on Climate Change
Nathan E. Hultman

Sidebar: Q&A with Kim Stanley Robinson Print Exclusive

Two recent fiction novels use climate change as a framework for their tales.

In the 2003 movie The Day After Tomorrow, eager movie-watchers around the world got a view of abrupt climate change that uneasily straddles the world of fantasy and reality. Chaotic weather plagues Earth: Football-sized hail pummels Tokyo, storm surges inundate New York, and tornados eviscerate Los Angeles. Real-life scientists quickly highlighted the flaws and values of this portrayal, and advocates used the blockbuster to spin their own climate lessons. But the clear message from the movie was that Hollywood and pop-culture storytellers will always be more effective than scientists in selling science stories to the public.

Roger Pielke Jr., an expert on just such science and policy challenges at the University of Colorado, Boulder, speaks bluntly on this point: “Don’t kid yourself into believing that science will in the end dominate any public political debate.” As much as we would like to think otherwise, most researchers probably recognize the truth in this statement. While letters to Science or Nature may bend the ear of the community of scientists, they are no hotline to the masses. Nearly all the information buffeting the public will be launched through print media, broadcasts, movies and novels, and it can be useful to examine how these media capture and transmit knowledge.

This understanding is particularly relevant to climate change, which presents one of science’s largest communication and policy challenges. Specific weather events — most people’s window on climate — are difficult to attribute to climate change. Understanding the risks and uncertainties of a complex and changing climate is a challenge even for specialists. Thus, communicating this information accurately and effectively to a marginally interested public is harder still.

Two recent novels, Michael Crichton’s State of Fear and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain, illustrate the promise and pitfalls of fictionalizing climate science. While they offer dramatically different fictional worlds, they also provide insights into how people grapple with the climate question.

Reconstructing climate change

Like The Day After Tomorrow, Crichton’s bestselling thriller has provoked substantial media attention. Certainly some of this attention stems from the publicity machine surrounding the author who gave us Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain and the television series ER. However, this book is more than a simple natural disaster thriller like Twister or Deep Impact. The central tenet of the novel is that climate science suffers from a crippling lack of rigor — indeed, that it is driven by environmentalist dogma instead of dispassionate inquiry — and that the quest to mask the scientific flaws leads the environmental lobby to criminal activity.

Our protagonist in this adventure is Peter Evans, a lawyer for a multibillionaire international financier named George Morton. A generous supporter of environmental causes, Morton is considering supporting a lawsuit brought by the fictitious National Environmental Resources Fund (NERF) on behalf of the fictitious low-lying island state of Vanutu (not to be confused with the genuine low-lying island state of Vanuatu). The lawsuit runs into problems, however, as the slick legal team cannot produce good evidence that Vanutu is indeed threatened by rising sea levels. Predictably, chaos ensues.

To help us understand the problem, Crichton introduces us to two renegade, free-thinking professors who have not been co-opted by the oppressive paradigm of their peers. One, Professor Richard Kenner of MIT, is the ex-military scientist who refutes the conventional wisdom on climate science and thus, with both intellectual and physical derring-do, helps save the planet from the base plans of NERF. We meet only briefly the other professor, an unkempt but insightful academic maverick named Hoffman who studies “the ecology of thought” and how it has led to the oppressive “state of fear” of the book’s title: “Universities today are factories of fear. They invent all the new terrors and all the new social anxieties. The modern State of Fear could never exist without universities feeding it,” the fictional Professor Hoffman explains.

Crichton therefore depicts climate science as hobbled by political obfuscation and awkwardly constructed facades. Kenner informs us, for example, that “it [is] crystal clear that the IPCC is a political organization, not a scientific one. … If something is real, why does anybody have to exaggerate their claims?” To which the earnest and gullible young Evans responds, “I can give you a simple answer: The media is a crowded marketplace. You have to speak loudly — and yes, maybe exaggerate a little — if you want to get their attention. And try to mobilize the entire world to sign the Kyoto treaty.”

Unusually for a fiction novel, Crichton includes extensive footnotes, graphics and an appendix to bolster this argument, emphasizing that his “footnotes are accurate [and] real.” He therefore establishes a confusing structure: The narrative, of course, is fictional — exonerating the author from any duty to portray realistic or accurate details about the characters or their opinions — but the background story, as interpreted by the novelist, is true.

Crichton’s reality, however, was not extensively reviewed, nor was it written by somebody with expertise in a complex science that requires years of study to master. While these attributes alone do not condemn the narrative, they do render it prone to selectivity, factual errors and errors of interpretation, which are discussed in many other print and online reviews.

For example, one of many pieces of evidence used by scientists to support the claim that Earth has experienced some climate change in the last century is a measured increase of global average surface temperature. Averages, of course, can show an increase even if some individual components do not. Yet Crichton inserts a number of graphs showing cooling trends at individual stations, arguing that these 14 cooling trends discredit the conclusion of an average increase.

Crichton’s interpretive errors lead to two broad theoretical flaws in his scientific interpretation that point to larger problems in science communication. First, Crichton focuses almost exclusively on the detection of past climate change and climate impacts. Although detection and attribution are relevant to informed policy, setting societal priorities depends more on understanding climate processes that might lead to damages in the future climate. Detecting small levels of sea-level rise today is far less important, for example, than knowing what amount of sea-level rise may be possible in the future.

Crichton also conflates the modeling of future climate-change scenarios with predicting a specific climate outcome. The implication is, therefore, that because we cannot exactly predict the future, we should not even try bounding the possible outcomes. Neither in the novel nor in the footnotes does he articulate why climate change justifies this “what, me worry?” approach to uncertain and unpredictable risks.

Tellingly, the characters in State of Fear are repeatedly asked, “Do you believe in global warming?” Yet they never seem to blanche at the obvious act of faith that is being imparted to them. The veracity of global warming is not a matter of angels dancing on the head of a pin, to be accepted or rejected based on one’s political color. For most geoscientists, the idea of anthropogenic climate change rests on well-founded scientific theories, and like all other theories, no data can actually prove it true. The current model simply represents the best of our understanding today, with some features of the model quite well-established, and others the subject of intense and exciting new research. The thought that a person can simply take a yes-or-no vote on its truth in toto is therefore misleading in the extreme. While all-or-nothing propositions can be exciting in sports, gambling and novels, they do not form a sound basis for science and public policy.

Foreshadowing climate changes

Whereas State of Fear’s stock storyline features good guys and bad guys battling about climate science, Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain treats climate as a more conventional external variable similar to that in The Day After Tomorrow. This novel, the first in a planned trilogy (by the author of a trilogy about “terraforming” Mars for human habitation), introduces a view of a climate future we might wish to avoid: a world with 600 parts per million of carbon dioxide, roughly double preindustrial concentrations, with serious consequent impacts on earth and human systems. Robinson’s measured and methodical narrative, more reminiscent of an introspective and episodic art film than a plot-driven Hollywood thriller, traces the intertwining paths of characters whose lives unfold in a world of increasingly erratic climate.

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest sci-fi book, Forty Signs of Rain, Washington, D.C. (shown here in present day), is plagued by perpetual floods as the world faces global climate changes. In the book, flooding on the National Mall allows D.C. residents to paddle boat farther afield. Courtesy of Lisa Pinsker.

The protagonist, Anna Quibler, is a National Science Foundation (NSF) staff scientist who befriends a group of novice diplomats from a fictional nation. This nation, culturally reminiscent of Tibet but actually a threatened low-lying island state, is attempting to influence an intransigent American administration to strengthen its climate policy; they have therefore decided to open an embassy, for reasons known only to the enigmatic Lama/Ambassador, near NSF headquarters outside Washington, D.C. Quibler’s husband is a congressional staffer working on environmental legislation, which provides a window on the policy world that is enabling the changing climate.

Robinson writes well and conveys images of everyday life and scientific ideas with almost poetic ease. However, this book is unusual in that no true conflict ever arises: As a series of juxtaposed episodes rather than a plot-like storyline, it is far from a page-turning thriller. Nevertheless, Robinson foreshadows some events in store for the rest of the trilogy that could later relate the characters, their relationships and their role in addressing Earth’s atmospheric future.

Despite the lack of plot, Robinson’s descriptions of science are substantive and subtle; but interestingly for a series so entwined with climate change, he reserves his most detailed descriptions for biotechnology and mathematics. His brief (albeit accurate) sketches of climatic processes do, however, provide some context for the increasingly strange meteorological events besieging the characters.

Many of the story’s events unfold in Washington, and even nonresidents should find intriguing the descriptions of which monuments get inundated for a given amount of Potomac flooding, especially the point at which people could begin recreational paddle boating on the National Mall. Geoscientists will appreciate Robinson’s detailed and even interesting descriptions of the scientific politics and funding — his section on a peer-review process of NSF proposals could even provide some reading for a science policy class. Refreshingly, Robinson does not invoke any pseudoscientific phenomena like the killer cold storms of The Day After Tomorrow, opting instead for relatively mundane rain events — albeit with extreme consequences — to portend the changing climate.

Translating climate complexity

These books highlight some of the familiar problems inherent in translating complex and evolving scientific concepts to a lay audience. In the past two decades, scientific understanding about climate has improved substantially. Yet the public debate about climate policy still focuses on the same few scientific issues that encompass both research and public perception: narrowing uncertainties, detecting the anthropogenic signal in the climate record, and impugning or defending climate science and the process by which it is communicated to policy-makers.

As many scientists, including oceanographer Wally Broecker, climatologist Steven Schneider and Science’s editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy have observed, fiction-based media tend to emphasize low-probability, high-danger climate events. This choice, of course, should not be surprising. (How exciting would it be to “Escape from Low-Security Detention” instead of “Escape from Alcatraz”?) Yet, in the real world, the media coverage of potential climate change scenarios tends to emphasize the uncertainty surrounding them. Unfortunately, this focus fosters the perception that much more probable — but still damaging — future scenarios are also unlikely and uncertain. Moreover this treacherous “uncertainty trap” often limits action on climate change to those rare instances for which the uncertainty is satisfactorily resolved for even the most recalcitrant stakeholders.

Most importantly, these novels illustrate the need to move beyond global warming as a yes-or-no proposition. Most people misunderstand not simply the technical details of climate change, but also the various risks it poses and the process by which climate science arrives at those risk judgments.

An informed audience would agree that Crichton’s question “Do you believe in global warming?” is absurd and unanswerable. Uncertainty will remain, of course; continued uncertainty is indeed the byproduct of a healthy scientific endeavor. Yet final judgment should be based not on whether there are even substantial uncertainties but on whether the evidence is sufficiently compelling. The key question then addresses which initial steps — toward both mitigating future climate change and adapting to its impacts — are justified by our understanding of possible future climate changes.

Recalling Pielke’s comment, science will never have the same influence over public opinion as the media, whether fictional or journalistic. Nevertheless, scientific communication can proceed with sensitivity to the ways in which complex scientific concepts inevitably get processed for the mass market.

Hultman is assistant professor of science, technology and international affairs at Georgetown University. His research includes estimating and communicating risk and uncertainty in climate change science. E-mail:

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