Cli-Fi: [Re]Imagining our world through film and literature

Chicago River during the Polar Vortex in January, 2019. (Photo credit : Matt Gnegy)

This past winter, a severe cold wave caused by a weakened jet stream around the Arctic polar vortex triggered the coldest Arctic outbreak in the United States in over two decades. Low temperatures shattered records: more than 340 daily low temperatures were broken across the Midwest alone, hospitals reported hundreds of cases of frostbite and hypothermia, residents of Minnesota were shocked to discover that their toilet bowls were freezing over, and cities scrambled to prepare shelters for those who were not fortunate enough to live in a warm house.

The internet went wild with memes comparing the polar vortex to a 2004 climate-fiction disaster film, The Day After Tomorrow. The film depicts an international cataclysm, but the story mainly focuses on a father doing everything in his power to save his son. Paleoclimatologist Jack Hall (played by Dennis Quaid) tries to warn U.N. officials that the slowing and immediate collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) will have devastating impacts on the world’s climate. The collapse of the current causes “abrupt climate change,” wreaking havoc worldwide with catastrophic storms and thrusting North America and Europe into an ice-age overnight. Wolves break loose from their zoo cages (unclear as to why), tornados demolish skyscrapers in Los Angeles, and hurricanes the size of continents cover the globe. Jack Hall ventures through these extreme weather conditions from Washington, D.C. to New York City to rescue his son, Sam Hall (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who is trapped in the New York public library with his friends battling massive storm surges and violent weather. Don’t worry! There is romance too. Sam happens to be trapped in the library with his crush and if you’ve never been to the New York public library on fifth avenue – it’s very romantic.

The film, which depicted an extreme perspective of how climate change will affect the world, was a hit with moviegoers, but was highly contested between scientists, politicians, activists, and filmmakers. Although we will not have an ice age overnight, the film is indeed based on a real climate phenomena: the weakening of the AMOC. However, more research is needed to fully understand if the AMOC is slowing down due to anthropogenic causes, which the film eludes to, or if it is a natural slowdown phase. The film generated more news coverage than the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate change. An Environment article by Yale research scientist Anthony Leiserowitz discussed the impacts of The Day After Tomorrow. Leiserowitz found that the film actually heightened movie-goers’ level of concern and worry about climate change despite the fact that the film was an extreme exaggeration.

The Day After Tomorrow is one of the most well known films of climate fiction (cli-fi), a genre that has thrilled followers for quite some time, but is now reaching new audiences. The term “cli-fi” was coined in the late 2000s by Dan Bloom, journalist and founder of The Cli-Fi Report, a site entirely dedicated to the cli-fi genre. Bloom graduated from Tufts in 1971 with a literature degree. He continued to study poetry, French, Russian, and Spanish literature and eventually worked in the journalism field for a number of years as an editor, reporter, book reviewer, humor columnist, and teacher. In 2006 Bloom read an IPCC report and was awestruck by an interview with James Lovelock, environmentalist and originator of Gaia theory. He began to think of ways to garner awareness of film and literature that explored the cultural narrative of climate change. Lo and behold: cli-fi.

Perhaps the term seems almost counterintuitive. Climate change, which is founded on substantial scientific evidence, is far from fiction, but some of the more exploratory and engaging stories are. These stories allow us to explore the human condition in the face of the immense challenge of climate change. Stories teach us. They fill our imagination with infinite possibilities. They allow us to connect with our past and our present, and to imagine what our futures will look like during a time when they are plagued with uncertainty. Whatever change may occur will affect us disproportionately and the genre reflects this through its diversity of storytellers their visions. Some cli-fi works explore ancient myths and parables and others try to show readers how the world might look in fifty years according to research coming out now. Cli-fi explores the social change that is occurring due to climate change and allows readers and viewers to connect to communities who are different form their own through narrative rather than a series of predictions.

Protestors during a global climate strike on March 15, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. Photo Credit: wikimedia.

However, is there a cost to this narrative? Does the emergence of this genre challenge facts that are already twisted into fiction? Does it do more than sensationalize climate change without actually increasing people’s understanding of the science? Perhaps the genre connects people in a way that traditional scientific writing and the overload of doomsday news reports have not. This is currently being debated. While new research is exploring how cli-fi influences its audience and if the genre poses a challenge to climate science communicators who are already working against climate change deniers, it is difficult to do so since the genre is so varied. A 2016 study found that extreme weather events make up the largest subgroup (34 %) of films, whereas flooding or sea-level rise is the climate change impact most often written about in cli-fi novels. The second largest subgroup of climate change impacts among films depicts the earth being consumed by an ice age, like The Day After Tomorrow or Snowpiercer. Another study has found that some films focus on an attempt to solve climate change, but many portray strategies, such as bioengineering, to have more disastrous outcomes than climate change itself.  What seems to be missing in all these films are successful examples of worldwide collaboration.

While dystopian fiction is nothing new and post-apocalyptic stories have captured the attention of movie goers and readers for decades, the cause of the apocalypse is clear: humankind doing nothing to stop climate change. The question remains – how do we envision our future on both the pages of novels and in the real world? Do we do nothing or do we rise to the occasion and address the climate challenge?

Listed below are a few novels and films from the cli-fi genre, but there are countless other works from a diverse group of artists spanning globally.

The Maddaddam Trilogy: Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and Maddaddam
Author: Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s Cli-Fi trilogy is often recommended by many Cli-Fi fans as a great place to start when exploring the genre. The trilogy takes place in the near-future where plagues, floods, and genetic engineering have completely altered the world that we know today.

Odds Against Tomorrow (2014)
Author: Nathaniel Rich

Odds Against Tomorrow takes place in the near-future in New York City. A talented mathematician, Mitchell Zukor, is hired by a financial consulting firm to calculate the worlds worst-case scenarios. As he loses himself in his construction of these potential worst case-scenarios, an actual catastrophe consumes Manhattan and Mitchell must deal with a disaster first hand.






Parable of the Sower (2000); Parable of the Talents (2000)
Author: Octavia E. Butler

Parable of the Sower follows Lauren Oya Olamina, a 15 year old who lives in the remnants of a gated community in California during the 2020s. Climate change and severe economic crises drive the world into chaos and her home is destroyed in the process. Lauren must head north with other survivors in order to find safety. Parable of the Talents is a continuation of the same story, now set in the 2030s, and Lauren and new community need to decide if they should stay on earth or find a home elsewhere.








Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction (2014)
Author: Gerry Canavan

Green Planets is a series of essays that explore the relationship between ecology, science fiction, and environmentalism. The essays consider the role of science fiction in a world with an uncertain future that is being affected by climate change, global capitalism, mass extinction, and energy dependencies.

American War (2018)
Author: Omar El Akkad

American War takes place in the near-future during America’s second Civil War, which breaks out as a result of climate change and the depletion of resources necessary to survive. Florida is gone and Northern American coastal cities are disappearing. The story follows a family in Louisiana as they struggle to survive.

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Director: Roland Emmerich

Paleoclimatologist Jack Hall (played by Dennis Quaid), tries to warn U.N. officials that the slowing and collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) will cause “abrupt climate change” – wreaking havoc on North America with catastrophic storms and thrusting North America and Europe into an ice-age overnight. Jack Hall ventures through extreme weather conditions from Washington, D.C. to New York City to rescue his son, Sam Hall (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who is trapped in the New York public library with his friends battling massive storm surges and violent weather.

Waterworld (1995)
Director: Kevin Reynolds

A classic! Who doesn’t want to watch Kevin Costner floating around the ocean trying to save humankind? The earth’s polar ice-caps have completely melted and most of the Earth is now submerged. Only some humans have survived. “The Mariner” (Kevin Costner) helps a mother and her daughter escape an artificial island and look for dry land. Will they ever find it?!

Interstellar (2014)
Director: Christopher Nolan

In the sometime distant future a global crop blight and Dust Bowl are slowly destroying all of the Earth’s food resources. A team of NASA scientists attempt to travel through a wormhole across the galaxy to find a new planet where humankind can survive.






Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Director: Benh Zeitlin

Beasts of the Southern Wild was adapted by Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar from Alibar’s one-act play, Juicy and Delicious. Six year old Hushpuppy and her father Wink live in a remote southern Louisiana bayou community. Wink is helping to prepare his daughter for the end of the world. Climate change is causing sea level to rise and the ice caps to melt, releasing prehistoric beasts in the ocean. The rising waters are threatening their community, sending Hushpuppy on a quest to help her father and her community. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) pulls at your heartstrings the entire film. Wallis was the youngest actress to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress.

Every Thursday through April and May, Currents is covering the past, present, and future of the conservation movement in the U.S. and beyond. This is the seventh article in the series, read the first article here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, the fifth here, the sixth here, and the seventh here.