What is the role of a writer as climate change creeps up on us?

Conference

People in suits gather in Paris to decide the fate of a climate-change world.

It’s a ripe scene for satire. Twenty-five thousand bureaucrats and another 25,000 hangers-on are gathered in Paris at COP21 to exchange climate change jargon over sustainable wine and cheese. It’s hard, however, to ignore the seriousness of their effort, especially as a pall lingers over the city three weeks after the November 13 terror attacks. The spectacle of so many people in sensible shoes working as one reminds me that most problems are solvable with elbow grease and cooperation. Best to leave them alone to do their jobs.

Maybe I’m a little jealous. It must be exciting to be part of an effort that could save the planet while exchanging tips on the best places in France for glamping. Instead, my head is buried in my laptop as I try to tell stories about survival in a future that no one can predict with any certainty. Even if COP21 is wildly successful, the planet will still warm by a couple of degrees, and millions of mostly poor people will have to cope with the changes.

I’m torn between fear and fascination. A warmer world will be an interesting, if scary place. The conclusion came to me as I watched activists in Seattle push the city government toward ever more “nanny state” policies, such as banning plastic grocery bags and threatening to fine homeowners if they failed to separate food scraps from other garbage. The policies are rooted in an ideology regarded as benign by most people; who doesn’t want to hand a clean world to future generations?

Environmentalism, like all ideologies, can’t escape a dark side. I imagined waking up and seeing a ticket on my recycle bin, not unlike a parking ticket on my car. What if, in some future world where climate change has wreaked havoc on the environment, people allowed their leaders to crack down on those who can’t quite get with the plan to save the world? What if that ticket were a preface to an arrest, or worse? For all we know, the road to hell could be paved with papier-mâché puppets, anti-corporate sloganeering, and grandstanding city ordinances.

I’ve explored this idea in Carbon Run, a completed novel I’m shopping around to agents. It’s about a man running from a charge of genocide against a non-human species. Another novel, Restoration, is sitting on a shelf awaiting a top-to-bottom revision. In this story, a failed tech entrepreneur is hired by the national government to take down the last hydroelectric dam on the Columbia River in order to restore the river to its free-ranging glory. What would this mean for a desert town dependent on the water behind the dam? My current project, Antarctica 2261, imagines an Antarctica warm enough to attract climate change refugees. Like the pioneers of the American West, they begin a pilgrimage inland, heading for a mythical city that, unbeknownst to the pilgrims, is terrified of their arrival. What happens when desperation caused by global warming meets fear of contamination by outsiders?

My stories contain no warnings or calls to action. I’m not on a mission, and I’m not interested in frightening people into actions we might later regret. I mostly see climate change as the anvil on which I hammer my characters to see how they adapt to new conditions. I think this is the role of the fiction writer as humanity copes with the inevitable sea level rise, desertification, and other disruptions in the coming decades. If I can get a reader to imagine himself in a world the people at COP21 are working to prevent, I think I’ve made a useful contribution.

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