It’s Not the End of the World: Rethinking How We Tell Stories About Climate Change

Apocalyptic stories of rising sea levels and choking dust storms come to mind when most people think about climate fiction, the emerging genre often referred to as cli-fi. Dystopian anarchy where nations battle over water resources appear in books and films that imagine our environment in the not-so-distant future.

But maybe it’s time to expand what we consider climate fiction and how we choose tell these stories.

Last week I attended a panel discussion called The New Climate at the Sundance Film Festival moderated by Janaya Khan, a community organizer, lecturer, and the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Canada. Joining her on stage were representatives of three indigenous communities from around the world who came to share their stories of environmental devastation.

“The climate change apocalypse is not in the distant future,” Khan told the audience. “It has already arrived.”

In this post-Weinstein moment, in this shift of awareness stirred by Black Lives Matter, amid the surge of anti-LGBTQA legislation, and in a moment when oil pipelines leak on sacred indigenous land, Sundance sizzled with a sense of urgency, a feeling that filmmakers wanted to grab moviegoers by the shoulders and shake them.

Listen to my story.

At The New Climate panel, Kahn introduced a phrase I had never heard before: intersectional climate justice. Analogous to intersectional feminism, intersectional climate justice widens the conversation about climate change to consider race, education, nationality, ethnicity, gender identity, indigenous communities, and socioeconomics.

Just as the Women’s March was accused of excluding women of color, indigenous women, and trans women, Khan pointed out that stories about climate change too often relegate many voices to the margins.

Policymakers determine who can emit pollutants and how much. They decide if economic interests should dictate whether big corporations can lay oil pipelines across sovereign Native American soil, jeopardizing sacred land and water resources. The people who feel the first and most devastating environmental impacts of these decisions often have no voice in these market-driven actions.

Without including their voices, the climate narrative is incomplete. But telling a complete story presents its own challenges.

“Sundance is about storytelling,” Khan said. “But we have to be careful we’re not telling other people’s stories.”

Sundance has always been a place for pushing the edges of social movements. This year, films about race, immigration, and gender identity brought audiences to their feet and took home some of the biggest awards.

Sundance filmmakers are shouting. Listen to my story.

As I listened to the experiences shared by The New Climate panelists, I felt their urgency because the catastrophe of climate change is already affecting them.

“We have to remember that for many indigenous people, they’ve already experienced an apocalypse,” Khan said.

Storytellers tend to silo environmental stories into bite-sized pieces. We talk about pollution in China. We discuss rising sea levels in Pacific Island nations. We wring our hands about deforestation in South America and off-shore drilling in the US.

But these are not separate stories, according New Climate panelist Tashka Yawanawá, chief of the Yawanawá tribe in Brazil. They are all part of the same story. “We are connected. If I burn my forest, you’ll be affected,” he said.

We don’t need dystopian, futuristic novels to scare us. We should already be scared.

“Climate change is the biggest moral challenge facing humanity,” said panelist Anote Tong, a climate activist and the former president of Kirbati, a pacific island nation at risk of catastrophic flooding due to rising sea levels.

Marginalized US populations are already feeling the effects of climate change more acutely than privileged communities. Think about the Lower Ninth Ward that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina and the thousands of people without power in Puerto Rico months after Hurricane Maria.

So how do writers and filmmakers tell these stories?

According to Khan, we need to start by talking about them more. “We need to bring climate justice to the dinner table, to our communities, and into art spaces.”

I thought about novels like Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning novel about an African-American family in the path of Hurricane Katrina, and about Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior about a monarch butterfly invasion in Appalachia. They both told contemporary stories about the effects of weather and climate on specific communities.

And I thought about my own novel, a contemporary climate fiction story about how a four-degree rise in temperatures led to drought, an invasive beetle infestation, wildfire, crop failure, farm foreclosure, migrant worker job loss, economic upheaval, and a widening racial rift in one small town. Mine is not a futuristic or dystopian story. It’s based on real phenomena happening right now.

“Who is going to be devastated and how can we protect them?” Khan posed a question to the audience as I thought about my own book.

What and who am I leaving out? I wondered.

When the panel ended, I raced down to the stage to talk to Janaya Khan.

“What is the role of the fiction writer when it comes to intersectional climate justice?” I asked her.

“Push as far as you can,” she said. “Take risks. Let it scare you.”

I held my breath. I was already scared of messing up. But I’m also afraid of not telling my story. I own a farm in a state where the growing season has increased by twenty-two days in the last century. Climate change isn’t just coming—it’s already here.

But was I telling the whole story?

“Don’t just write about characters who always do the right thing. Write racist characters when you need to,” Khan paused and smiled. “But leave room for redemption.”

She also cautioned me to do my homework. Hire sensitivity readers. Get the climate science right. Be brave in the storytelling. “But don’t leave voices out because you’re afraid,” she said.

But I am afraid. I’m terrified of getting it wrong.

Adding to my anxiety, Khan assured me that no matter how hard I try, someone will always find fault. She shrugged as she told me to brace for the inevitable criticism—but still write the story.

These were hard concepts to reconcile:

  1. Don’t tell someone else’s story.
  2. But don’t leave marginalized voices out of the story.
  3. No matter how hard you try, someone will tell you that you did it wrong.
  4. But no matter what, tell your story.

Despite the contradictions in this advice, it all made sense to me. Don’t take someone else’s story. If I’m not brave enough to tell a complete story, I shouldn’t be telling this story. If I can’t take criticism, I need to find a new vocation.

It isn’t enough to implore people to listen to my story.

How I tell that story will determine who hears it, if the audience will be moved, and if that story will have a lasting impact.

Climate change is everyone’s problem. What if we, as storytellers, envisioned a world where people listened to each other’s experiences and learned from them?

Fiction can be a gateway for readers not versed in science to understand the impacts of climate change without wading through the politics. Fiction can tell deeply human stories, such as the plight of a struggling Mississippi family in Salvage the Bones, and of an Appalachian community in Flight Behavior.

Climate fiction can do more than scare us or teach us something. It can evoke empathy, the way good fiction does. We can recognize struggles faced by someone we don’t know as our own problems. We can come to understand that burning the rainforest is our problem here in the US.

“We are constantly imagining the world,” Khan said during the Sundance panel. “Somebody imagined borders and enough people believed it to make it true.”

Maybe if writers and filmmakers keep telling the difficult climate justice stories—complete, inclusive, and thoughtful stories—the world might listen. Although cli-fi, in general, skews toward the dystopian, apocalyptic variety, there is plenty of room on the bookshelf for contemporary, realistic novels about climate change as it is already occurring.

After all, it’s not the end of the world—yet.



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