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This is the end of the world news, brought to you by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: catastrophic climate change is now inevitable. If all fossil-fuel emissions ceased tomorrow, temperatures would still rise by at least 2°C this century, the ‘maximum safe upper limit’ adopted at the Copenhagen summit in 2009. Two degrees of anthropogenic warming would be disastrous enough: we would see hundreds of millions of ‘climate refugees’, low-lying countries inundated, unprecedented heat waves, massive crop failures. The IPCC isn’t (yet) allowed to use words like ‘catastrophic’ in its executive summaries, but the consensus among the hundreds of climate scientists who compiled its latest reports is that if we carry on burning fossil fuels at the current rate, temperatures will increase by at least 4°C, perhaps as soon as 2060.

Despite the best efforts of the environmentalists (notably Bill McKibben, who has inspired a global survival movement), climate change still ranks very low in surveys of voters’ concerns in North America, the UK and Australia. If you happen to live in Alice Springs, four degrees of warming sounds pretty grim, but hey, mate, we’ve coped with worse. In Glasgow you might well say, bring it on. The end of civilisation? Try that on the unconverted and the most you can expect is, yeah, right.

So it seems as if business as usual will prevail until sheer collective terror tips the political balance. But how much terror will it take? The destruction of a major Western city by fire or flood? Are we collectively incapable of imagining such an event before it actually happens? There’s no shortage of attempts to imagine it for us. In mainstream cinema, television drama and popular fiction, climate change is generally depicted as imminent and cataclysmic. Climate-change fiction (dubbed ‘cli-fi’ by an aspiring author in 2007) is already teeming with dystopian thrillers set in the aftermath of ecological catastrophe, often in the genre of Awful Warnings. A list of seventy-nine cli-fi titles on the Goodreads website includes, so far as I can tell, only one work of denial, Michael Crichton’s State of Fear (2004), which unlike most Crichton schlockbusters wasn’t even made into a Hollywood movie.

Awful Warnings, however, only work in the present tense: even Orwell didn’t envisage us queuing to buy the latest telescreens. The coincidental release of The China Syndrome twelve days before the meltdown on Three Mile Island in March 1979 effectively (and ironically, as it now appears) shut down the nuclear power industry in the US. Four years later, the television film The Day After was watched by more than 100 million people and is said to have precipitated Ronald Reagan’s conversion from hawk to dove. But cli-fi has no contemporary iconography to draw upon, no mushroom clouds or burned shadows at ground zero, and the dystopian field is already heavily trampled. Many of these novels necessarily adopt one of two familiar sci-fi templates: a blighted, overpopulated world dominated by a high-tech elite, as furnished by Philip K Dick and William Gibson, with décor by Ridley Scott; or a blighted, depopulated world in which the survivors contend to shape the future, as in J G Ballard’s The Drowned World or Russell Hoban’s masterpiece Riddley Walker. I don’t imagine that Riddley Walker converted a single cold warrior into a dove, but it’s still the first book I would take into the bunker. If Hoban had set out to weave his extraordinary language around the idiom of climate change, rather than nuclear war, I doubt he could ever have matched the spellbinding intensity of the original, the sense of connections discovered rather than invented, such as ‘the Littl Shyning Man the Addom’: there just isn’t enough to work with.

All of which helps to explain the scarcity of realist, present-day novels about climate change. Of the seventy-nine titles on that Goodreads list, only two appear to qualify: Ian McEwan’s nihilist farce Solar and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, which turns on the fate of the monarch butterfly. There are any number of contemporary novels in which characters argue or obsess about the threat, but none that I know of in which the narrative is shaped by the experience of living under the creeping shadow of extinction, with all its bewildering contradictions. As Benjamin Kunkel recently observed in the New Yorker:

Fictional characters, like flesh-and-blood citizens, have more urgent concerns than the state of the climate twenty years hence … So it is that a crisis at the centre of our collective life exists for us at the margins of individual consciousness, as a whisper of dread or a rustle of personal implication.

This perfectly captures the novelist’s dilemma. If climate change is the ghost in the machine, then the present-day climate-change novel must be a ghost story, in which the one unbreakable rule is that the ghost should lurk in the shadows, manifesting itself only by way of hints and glimpses, whispers and rustlings, until its final, terrifying appearance. But we daren’t turn the last page, because short of a political miracle – a worldwide green revolution starting more or less now – this one ends as a horror story, when the monster we’ve unleashed devours us all.

Brooding over the problem a few years ago, the novelist Norman Rush concluded that ‘the doomsday shadow tends to make the social struggles traditionally addressed by political novels seem parochial, in a way. It’s tough, these days, for what Lawrence called the one bright book of life.’ If we do indeed burn all those reserves of fossil fuels, including shale oil and tar sands, then according to the eminent climate scientist James Hansen, ‘the Venus syndrome is a dead certainty’. Not much dramatic potential there for anything larger than heat-resistant bacteria.

So perhaps this effectively unnameable, invisible, all-pervading threat is as far beyond the reach of fiction as it seems beyond political solution. And yet I can’t help hoping that someone will prove me wrong, with a book that will come, as Kafka put it, ‘like a fist hammering on the skull, like misfortune, like the death of one we love better than ourselves … an axe to break the frozen sea inside us’. On second thoughts, hold that final simile: the ice is melting fast enough already. r m a r c h 2 0 1 5 | Literary Review 1