Bad Cli-Fi – Hey it’s not the End of theWorld. Oh, Wait…

January 24, 2018


A new paper from UCLA researchers took a look at the history of such stories and compared them to the real, existential threats facing life on Earth and — spoiler alert — fiction and reality don’t line up and that gap could have dangerous consequences.

Some of civilization’s earliest stories contain doomsday tales. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem from Mesopotamia written around 2,100 B.C., destruction came in the form of great floods. Christian tradition echoes these tales in the Bible, foreseeing Armageddon as “a final spiritual reckoning, or a battle between God and the armies of unrepentant sinners,” the paper noted.

In more modern narratives, people are frequently the cause of our own demise. “Technology run amok” is a particularly popular theme, according to authors Peter Kareiva, director of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, and Valerie Carranza, who graduated from UCLA in 2016 and worked as a researcher in Kareiva’s lab.

Whether it is the artificially intelligent machines in “The Terminator” or the genetically engineered dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park,” the idea that something of our own creation could turn on us connects with audiences, earning the movies billions of dollars.

When it comes to stories of environmental catastrophe, human and corporate greed are often villains, as they are in films like “Erin Brockovich” and Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax.” And as the planet continues to heat up, so have anxieties about climate change. This is reflected in Hollywood blockbusters such as “The Day after Tomorrow” and “Waterworld.”

But the UCLA researchers argue that there’s something missing from these popular stories: actual science.

This recent vid discusses credible research by senior scientists outlining one of the climate issues that eerily parallels the classic cli-fi film, The Day After Tomorrow.

“Notably, none of the environmental disaster films draw on any insights from environmental science or ecology,” they wrote in their paper, which was published in ScienceDirect.

“We need to change our narratives because for all the damage greed and human malfeasance might do, in the end ignorance may be our worst enemy — especially when it comes to climate shocks, which we have only just begun to understand,” Kareiva said.

Kareiva and Carranza said that even though economic systems and human greed can bring great harm, these threats can be mitigated by government action. On the other hand, ignorance of complex human-natural systems that include positive feedback loops — whereby small actions are amplified by natural processes — pose the greatest existential risk, they argue.

For example, the paper notes, as carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere and the climate warms, the warming releases even more carbon dioxide from the ocean and land, compounding global warming. (For another example of a positive feedback loop, see UCLA professor Alex Hall’s video on the albedo effect.)

Climate change is the most likely existential threat to humans, according to Kareiva and Carranza. Research indicates greatly elevated atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide could reach a threshold point that triggers a series of events — changes in ocean circulation, massive sea level rise and increased extreme weather — that would lead to “apocalyptic outcomes for humanity.”

Carbon emissions and climate change threaten life in other ways, too. Carbon dioxide enters oceans and acidifies them, endangering coral reefs and other marine ecosystems. Climate change is also expected to reduce the amount and quality of available freshwater, which people need to survive. The resulting scarcity of necessary resources increases the likelihood of wars, conflict and social unrest, the researchers said.

Another potential threat is extinctions, but Kareiva and Carranza see this as unlikely. Loss of too many species could lead to reduced food sources, but not to the point of threatening human existence. Unless all or nearly all of the species on our planet were to go extinct — something no one in the scientific community has predicted, they said — people would survive. The losses would be “ethical and spiritual,” but not existential.

Yet another example is loss of ozone in the stratosphere, but actions such as the Montreal Protocol, which called for the phasing out of substances that deplete the ozone layer, appear to be making progress toward correcting the problem.

“Humans are remarkably ingenious, and have adapted to crises throughout their history,” the paper notes. But with climate change, there are additional challenges. In addition to positive feedback loops, there is a long delay between increased atmospheric carbon dioxide and its effects, leading to a lack of urgency in dealing with the problem of carbon emissions,” Kareiva said.

The paper concludes that while environmental doomsday stories focus on over-exploitation of nature and unintended consequences of technology, the real risk is our failure to fully understand what is happening — leading to insufficient responses to real threats like climate change.

Kareiva and Carranza further argue that the narratives people write about “the end of the world” risk misleading society, causing people to look in the wrong places for existential risks.

“People are more likely to connect and recall a film than a scientific article,” Carranza said. “If Hollywood starts producing top box office films about eco-catastrophes that have a solid scientific basis, we can communicate to a much larger audience — and that can really have a large impact.”


7 Responses to “Bad Cli-Fi – Hey it’s not the End of theWorld. Oh, Wait…”

  1. Sir Charles Says:

    Seems like US Americans don’t learn at school, they learn from silly movies.

  2. […] via Bad Cli-Fi – Hey it’s not the End of theWorld. Oh, Wait… | Climate Denial Crock of the Week […]

  3. […] via Bad Cli-Fi – Hey it’s not the End of theWorld. Oh, Wait… | Climate Denial Crock of the Week […]

  4. Mike Risk Says:

    It seems as though, when the thermohaline loop DOES break down, it does so very rapidly: Nature 1997, vol 386 p. 818-Smith et al., “Rapid climate change…”

  5. Sadly, Kareiva (who I have been in touch with earlier this decade) and Carranza did not read this very important oped in the Guardian by John Abraham. ”Cli-Fi – A new way to talk about climate change”
    [If you’re not familiar with the new genre of climate fiction, you might be soon.]

    by John Abraham, USA scientist

    Wed 18 Oct 2017


    Cli-Fi refers to “climate fiction;” it is a term coined by journalist Dan Bloom. These are fictional books that somehow or someway bring real climate change science to the reader. What is really interesting is that Cli-Fi books often present real science in a credible way. They become fun teaching tools. There are some really well known authors such as Paolo Bacigalupi and Margaret Atwood among others. A list of other candidate Cli-Fi novels was provided by Sarah Holding in the Guardian.

    What makes a Cli-Fi novel good? Well in my opinion, it has to have some real science in it. And it has to get the science right. Second, it has to be fun to read. When done correctly, Cli-Fi can connect people to their world; it can help us understand what future climate may be like, or what current climate effects are.

    As I write this, we are getting a steady stream of stories out of Puerto Rico the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria. It is hard to imagine the devastation, what life is like without electricity, food, or water. What is life like on an island of 3 million people, each fending for themselves, just trying to survive.

    Another thing that is hard to imagine is the future. What will the world be like decades from now when Earth temperatures have continued to rise? What will agriculture be like? What will coastal communities be like? What will international relations and armed conflict be like?

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    It is also hard to imagine what living a subsistence agriculture life is like, today. What happens to lives and communities when the rains change, or don’t come at all? What would that world look like?

    Cli-Fi stories are vehicles that can help us imagine. The authors get us to think about these what ifs – these future Earths. Cli-Fi novels (and movies for that matter) can make experiences far more real than endless graphs or plots of temperature variations. And that, perhaps, is the most important contribution Cli-Fi can make to the discussion of climate change in our everyday lives. These authors get us to imagine what experiences are or would be like.

    One recent example of Cli-Fi literature is South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby. In this book we follow an artist, Cooper Gosling, who is traveling to a research location on Antarctica to create paintings. Yes, an artist is sent to live with researchers and crew – with funding from the National Science Foundation. After arriving at the South Pole, Cooper has to become acquainted with the strange social system that exists there. Ashley writes the book in such a way that you actually feel you are huddled in the cold with her and her co-workers.

    Authors Ashley Shelby.
    Authors Ashley Shelby. Photograph: Starr Sage
    Cooper doesn’t uplift her life to travel to the South Pole on a whim. It is an outcome of a family tragedy and a history that involves romanticized stories of adventure to this remote place. While Cooper is stationed at the pole, she hears news that a radical scientist is coming. This scientist claims that climate change is a hoax – and his presence further upsets the delicate social balance that exists at the research location.

    You see the expected reaction of the regular scientists when this climate denier arrives to perform his research. There is backstabbing and sabotage where in the end we find Copper helping this climate-denying scientist carry out an experiment. The experiment goes awry and there are repercussions all the way back to the US mainland, and the halls of Congress.

    I liked this book because I don’t like fiction. That is, I find it really hard to get into fictional books because my mind always runs back to science, or my email, or papers to grade, or kids’ soccer practices to get to. I never feel like I have time to just read for fun. But this book was really engaging. It was the first fictional book in a decade that I didn’t want to put down.


    It is funny with really quick-witted humor that made me laugh. At the same time, I was impressed by how I felt like I was there – working amongst the staff and scientists. I enjoyed how Ashely weaved in threads of real and accurate science. And this, perhaps, is what makes the Cli-Fi genre so important. We can unintentionally learn real science.

    Ashley’s book is at the edge of this genre. It is not “dystopian” and it is not about a post-apocalyptic world resulting from climate change. It is topical and, though fiction, is as present-day as a news headline. This book is about what people, dedicated to facts, are really doing today. It doesn’t seem futuristic. It seems like we are at a point when a bunch of scientists and friends of facts could take over a research station and say, “Stop the madness!”

    Salman Rushdie recently said that in the present day the country is so filled with lies and fantasy and fiction surrounding the truth, that it might require the fiction writer to plainly lay out what is reality and what is not. I think Ashley’s book fits that notion.

    So, take a look at this new (newish?) form of literature. Particularly if you want a break from the usual genres. If you find something you like that I didn’t mention, please send it to me.

  6. J4Zonian Says:

    “Another potential threat is extinctions, but Kareiva and Carranza see this as unlikely. Loss of too many species could lead to reduced food sources, but not to the point of threatening human existence. Unless all or nearly all of the species on our planet were to go extinct — something no one in the scientific community has predicted, they said — people would survive. The losses would be “ethical and spiritual,” but not existential.”

    In an increasingly chaotic world rent by serial and eventually multiple simultaneous disasters–floods, fires, storms, avalanches, droughts, heat waves, sea level rise, wars, civil wars, revolutions, multiple refugee crises dwarfing any previous human migrations…–the combination of pent-up toxicity released by these (especially coastal toxic waste dumps that will destroy what little is left of coastal fisheries), nuclear accidents, nuclear wars, and dust bowlification of 1/3 of the Earth may destabilize the operation of the cybernetic system of all life on Earth we’ve recently come to call Gaia. That could mean the end of humanity, even the end of all life on Earth.

    Our response to this crisis has been overwhelmingly characterized by misunderestimating the direness and finding out after processes were in motion that oops, this is happening way faster than we thought, and way worse. In dozens of ways we continue that now. It would be irrational, and just plain fucking stupid beyond all belief, to assume this is not an existential threat to humanity.

    We need to do whatever it takes to assure immediate, adequate response, in other words, peaceful revolution involving non-cooperation with those who oppose rational action; blockading the operations of fossil fuel corporations and their owned governments; confiscating from the rich what they’ve stolen over the past centuries to create the only world in which democracy and sustainability are possible–an equal one made up of psychologically healthy people.

    • collin237 Says:

      Except that the ones pushing revolution are also opposing rational action.

      The only way to stop the fossil fuel corporations is to turn off the flow of fossil fuel. That’s going to take a worldwide team of people with enough expertise to be able to safely shut down all those huge factories.

      I don’t understand people like you. You start out sounding like you’re recognizing the physical reality of climate change. Then you segue into things like corporations, governments, and richness that have no physical reality at all.

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