Fictions of Climate Change: Communicating Through Literature, Film, and Games For Wide Societal Change


Despite the massive influx of climate change communication, the level of greenhouse gases entering our atmosphere has increased and the perception of risks from the population has decreased. This calls into question the effectiveness of relying on increasing public knowledge to create actual societal changes. People are feeling disengaged with the issue and experiencing what is known as “climate fatigue”. With the many challenges related to communicating about climate change, fiction may be one method that could help overcome some of these hurdles and influence people’s behaviour. Fiction has been shown to be very persuasive in changing people’s attitudes and beliefs about the real world. It can create empathy towards the people of the future who will be dealing with the worst impacts by seeing the world through their eyes. It allows for people to consume the information in a more passive way, rather than the analytical way we view non-fiction and accept the information more easily. Literature, film and games are discussed as mediums for fictional storytelling about the future of our world. While climate fiction has gained popularity over the years, I theorise that it can be improved in two ways. First by informing the creators of these pieces about the challenges of climate change communication so they can best address them. Second to implement these creations more subtly into mainstream entertainment so that the message reaches those that might be already disengaged.


         After decades of communicating about climate change, particularly having an influx of media attention from the late 1990s to today, carbon emissions continue to increase worldwide (Nerlich, Koteyko, & Brown, 2010). Scientists and policymakers have reached a general consensus that the validity of anthropogenic climate change (IPCC, 2007) and the general public largely accept these findings (Hulme, 2018). However, there is still a lack of engagement and action despite the abundance of content (Moser, 2010). As awareness without action is inadequate, this raises questions about the effectiveness of our current methods of communication around this challenging issue (Nerlich et al., 2010).


         The lack of sufficient response is particularly concerning in light of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report. This report strongly highlighted the urgency of the issue and the need for immediate action. Even then, this would be only to limit warming to 1.5º Celsius which would avoid the most devastating consequences (IPCC, 2018). Despite the enormous news coverage of this report, public interest seemed only to be increased for a short period, soon returning to baseline levels of concern. This may be due to climate fatigue, which was noted soon after the IPCC released its 4th report in 2007 (Kerr, 2009). Due to the saturation of media about climate change, instead of the public being more interested and concerned about the issue, they are disengaged instead (Maibach, Nisbet, Baldwin, Akerlof, & Diao, 2010).


         In this essay, I will seek an answer to the question: do fictional spaces communicate concerns about climate change more effectively where traditional communication methods fail? To do this, I will outline the reasons as to why communicating about climate change is especially challenging, in what ways current methods are lacking, and possible ways to improve engagement with the message. I will be discussing the merits of three popular mediums for fiction: literature, film, and games.



Challenges of Communicating Climate Change

         Climate Change is a particularly difficult topic to communicate about when aiming for public behavioural changes. There are a number of reasons that this is different from other areas of environmental sciences or even other controversial areas within health, economics, and policy (Moser, 2010). The main thing is the ease at which humans can distance themselves from the issue and we can see this happening for a number of reasons. The first being the lack of visibility. This is twofold, not only is the pollution of the greenhouse gases not visible to our naked eyes but there are no immediately measurable health impacts (Moser, 2010). The second reason is the public’s distance from the issue. This also can be taken in two ways. First, the worst of the impacts will happen in the future, and therefore not an immediate threat to us. The second is the strongest impacts that are happening right now are not where many people live, such as the Arctic, in the oceans, or on mountain tops. Even though we can see these changes through reported media, it is not the same as seeing the environments you live and visit changing (Zwiers & Hegerl, 2008). The third reason is the fact that many people live in urban environments and are separated from nature, spending most of their days indoors in climate-controlled buildings. This makes them less sensitive to the changes in climate we are already experiencing, making the issue easier to dismiss (Moser, 2010).


         There are several other factors about human nature that make an effective change from Climate Change Communication (CCC) difficult. One of these reasons that prevent people from taking action is the lack of instant gratification they would receive from doing so. Even if we were to take strong and immediate action now, we still would not see a return to our previous climate situation, at least in our lifetimes (Solomon, Plattner, Knutti, & Friedlingstein, 2009). Another reason humans are unlikely to do anything is that it goes against their own self-interest. Whether it is that the person is directly profiting from not changing their behaviour or that they simply do not want to sacrifice any modern comforts, they have a direct motivation for wanting things to continue on as they are (Moser, 2010).


         There are even further reasons about the issues of climate change itself that make it more difficult to respond to. To start with, it is a particularly complex issue. While we are building up more and more understanding around the science, it is a growing issue, and therefore it is difficult to make predictions around. This uncertainty around the future outcomes has been used in the debates to argue a “wait and see” approach by those with self-interest in not changing our current methods (McCright & Dunlap, 2000). It should rather add a sense of urgency to take action, while it could be on the more conservative side of the spectrum, it could also be completely devastating (Oppenheimer, O’neill, Webster, & Agrawala, 2007).

Problems with Traditional CCC

         One of the biggest pitfalls in science communication is the assumption that it is a lack of knowledge that prevents action and that if the public was educated on the issue then they would change their behaviours. This line of thinking is called the deficit model, and for almost two decades researchers have been finding that it simply is not true (Sturgis & Allum, 2004). The public is aware of the issue and more information is not helping the matter. There has been a move away from this direct one-way information giving strategy throughout science communication research (Nerlich et al., 2010), yet we still see it on a daily basis. As this is not a problem that can be solved by any short-term actions, the focus now should be on changing long-term perceptions and behaviours, something that is notoriously difficult (Moser, 2010).


         Another issue with CCC is that it often fails to engage in a relevant way to its audience, for instance on an emotional level. The person’s core values and how they identify themselves are often not considered but rather their short-term interests. An example would be framing using less electricity as a means to save money. This only deals with one small part of the issue. If the person’s core value is not saving money, then it is unlikely to be enough motivation for change. These methods may influence people for a short time but are ineffective in creating real lasting changes in behaviour (Nerlich et al., 2010).


         Another method of science communicators is to use alarmism. Recently, researchers have questioned this approach and in many instances found it to be counterproductive (Witte & Allen, 2000). In fact, using fear can make the audience defensive, damage their trust and result in them not taking the issue as seriously. This can result in a complete disengagement with the issue over a long period of time (O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009).

Ways to Improve CCC

         There are many ways in which to address the issues with CCC. Due to the complexity of the issue it is important to have clear and simple information, using metaphor and imagery and appropriately framing the issue. As the general public currently finds the topic ambiguous no matter how much research is accumulated, it is important to make the topic relevant to their own personal experiences. Another consideration is the number of competing issues being covered in the news. The audience requires constant direct signals that action is required so that the issue of climate change is salient in their minds (Moser, 2010).


         In order to make real changes in society that are needed to deal with the issues of climate change, communicators must address differing cultural issues and world views (Hoffman, 2011). They should also keep in mind making their message stimulating and relevant to their audience (Nerlich et al., 2010) and consider the values, emotions and attitudes of the person (Ockwell, Whitmarsh, & O’Neill, 2009). Rather than constantly warning the public about the dangers of climate change, they should instead use powerful, but non-threatening imagery as well as icons relevant to the person's daily concerns and emotions (O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009).


         Framing the issue may be one possible solution to combating climate fatigue. Rather than talking about it as an environmental issue, it can be discussed as a public health concern (Maibach et al., 2010), an issue of morality, economics, or security (Zia & Todd, 2010). Not only can this help with the issue of fatigue, but may also help to reach people of differing ideologies, such as if they have a more liberal or conservative mindset (Zia & Todd, 2010).


         There is no one solution about how to communicate in a way to change behaviour and a mix of approaches is required. The modes of communication should also vary, including written, visual, verbal, and digital (Nerlich et al., 2010). As much of what we have discussed so far relate to the individual’s values and beliefs, it makes sense to have many different methods of communication. What will connect with one person, will be different from what connects with another.


         I believe that fiction can be used as a way to overcome many of the challenges when talking about climate change. Research suggests that fiction is very powerful in the way that it shapes our attitudes and opinions about the real world. Stories draw us in and engage our emotions (Green, Garst, & Brock, 2004). While fiction is often overlooked and tends to not be taken as seriously as non-fiction, there is much evidence that fiction is no less persuasive to the person’s perceptions of a social issue then non-fiction (Green & Brock, 2000). Fiction is so persuasive in fact that people will often accept false messages if they are a part of a fictional narrative, as they do not separate out the fictional components of the story from the non-fictional ones (Wheeler, Green, & Brock, 1999). The persuasiveness of fiction may be because engaging with a story we know to be fiction allows the reader to be less critical of the information. We process fiction less rationally and systematically than we do non-fiction (Prentice & Gerrig, 1999). This allows the reader to be influenced through the communication passively, and more easily accepting the information (Green & Brock, 2000).

Fiction Spaces for CCC


         Science fiction literature has been around for centuries, however, in the past couple of decades, the climate change narrative has been so pervasive in this genre that the term climate fiction or “cli-fi” was formed (Whiteley, Chiang, & Einsiedel, 2016). This upsurge may be due to the fact that climate change is an excellent topic for science fiction due the apocalyptic predictions and the fact that it is a hybrid of natural and social causes (Milner, Burgmann, Davidson, & Cousin, 2015). Cli-fi tends to focus on “future histories”, showing us our world’s future altered in dramatic ways through changes to the climate (Trexler & Johns-Putra, 2011). These worlds tend to be either utopic or, much more often, dystopic. Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017) is an example of a utopian scenario where New York is largely underwater yet has successfully adapted to these challenges. A dystopian example is Mindy McGinnis’s Not a Drop to Drink (2013) about a devastated planet where people have to struggle just to stay alive. Dystopian narratives may be much more popular as the environmental situation itself gives the character’s obstacles to overcome.


         Climate fiction, other than being entertaining, can also serve the purpose of CCC. Fictional literature is a very powerful tool to be used for persuasion, so much so that it can actually change long-term behaviour (Appel & Richter, 2010) something that, as we have discussed, should be the main objective of CCC. Cli-fi allows us to explore various possibilities through the experience of a character (Whiteley et al., 2016). This will help with some of the uncertainties by offering a glimpse into a single possibility of our future. Rather than focusing only on the environmental issue, cli-fi looks at how humans may respond to these stressful changes. Cli-fi is not about happy endings as the stories do not result in the environment being fixed but rather the characters’ survival in it (Whiteley et al., 2016). The fact that these stories are “hopeless”, at least about the state of the world, I think would help with the sense of urgency. Perhaps it will help people understand that this is an issue that needs to be solved now, rather than letting future generations deal with it because for them it would be too late.


         Literature allows the reader to be immersed in a fictional world. Arguably, this is why literature has such a strong impact on people’s core beliefs (Appel & Richter, 2010). In the past, it was shown to change people’s view of social issues in such a dramatic way that it changed history. An example of this is “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, a very popular American novel of the mid 19th century written by Harriet Beecher Stowe. It was thought to have such an impact on its readers that it changed their ideas about equal rights and has been attributed to one of the driver’s for the US Civil War (Strange, 2002).


         As far as using fear as a communication method, which research has shown can be counterproductive (O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009) one might assume talking about dystopian worlds might use this method. However, these stories use the struggles of this altered world to create a stimulating story, not to scare or depress their readers. The world created works as a way to challenge the characters with their relationships with one another, to society and to the planet  (Robinson, 2016). A good cli-fi still works well as fiction, to entertain and bring joy in reading them as well of giving warning about a possible future.


         Film is another popular method for telling a fictional story and a common medium for science fiction. Research has suggested that science fiction movies can both increase interest and understanding in science and technology topics among students not majoring in these fields (Laprise & Winrich, 2010). While science fiction movies have been around almost as long as film itself, climate change has become a topic of these films much more recently, around the start of the 21st century.


         One of the first high budget climate fiction films was The Day After Tomorrow in 2004. As one of the filmmaker's aims was to increase awareness of the issue globally, studies were done in five different countries on audiences to measure any changes in their perception about climate change after viewing. The film did manage to make its audience more aware and concerned about the risks, and even more motivated to make changes. However, while the result was quite strong, it was not long-term (Sakellari, 2015).


         The issue with why this film, along with a couple of documentaries studied, failed to create long-lasting change can be tied back the issues discussed earlier. They relied on the deficit model, did not gain the trust of the audience, use fear as the framing, and did not reach the audience’s particular values. The research suggests that a successful film should use narrative, an emotional storyline, use morality framing rather than fear, and empower the audience to address the issue (Sakellari, 2015).


         What is missing from the first two categories of fiction is interactivity. Both literature and film are telling a story, but the audience does not have any input. Students only retain 10% of what they read, 50% of what they see and hear, but 90% of the information when they are directly involved somehow (Ezrailson, Kamon, Loving, & Mcintyre, 2006). For retaining the message, this makes games and other interactive experiences a strong tool for science communication. Games have been referred to as “goal-directed learning spaces” by a professor of literacy studies, James Gee (Hoffmann, 2009). Games are hugely popular amongst both children and adults today and maybe many people’s “preferred communication channel” which we have seen is the best way to communicate to a particular individual.


         Climate change narratives started being used in games starting over 30 years ago taking the form of board games that dealt with increasing carbon dioxide levels (Robinson & Ausubel, 1983). From there the number of games, mainly digital now, has risen dramatically particularly in the last 10 years (Wu & Lee, 2015). The most popular games tend to be either role play or management style. They are being produced by universities, governmental agencies and by commercial operations and range widely in terms of style, complexity and scientific accuracy. Within this genre include games such as FutureCoast, Fate of the World, and EcoChains: Arctic Crisis (Wu & Lee, 2015).  Here in Wellington, a virtual reality experience was recently made to show how sea-level rise will impact the CBD (Cann, 2018). While there is lacking research to quantify engagement with the science after playing these games, one game called Future Delta was made specifically to deal with some of these issues. It involved the user in informed decision making and used cultural relevance by using the audience’s own local environment, resulting in the people of this community to feel very engaged with the climate change issue (Dulic, Angel, & Sheppard, 2016).


         Games have been argued to be an effective tool for communication about climate change as the player learns by doing, rather than the more traditional one-way transfer of information (Wu & Lee, 2015). The player is also immersed in the world, providing an emotional connection to the message. Engagement is high with this method and the player should develop empathy through experiencing different roles and perspectives (Gee & Paul, 2003). The person is able to envision themselves in the future, seeing the consequences of our present action, or lack thereof (Wiek & Iwaniec, 2014). These experiences can also tap into our emotions, not only through fear but also wonder and joy (Squire, 2003). For these reasons, games can tackle some of the most difficult challenges with CCC by targeting the player’s motivations, values, and attitudes. Games also promote a “winner’s mentality”, the belief that there is always the possibility of a big win. This big win could be finding a solution to climate change (Wu & Lee, 2015).


         In a time where the media is saturated with talk of climate change and the public is experiencing climate fatigue because of it, I think it is important that we look outside traditional methods of science communication. Fiction may be one way to combat some of the issues with traditional CCC. It may be easier to focus on personal core values through more creative means. Information could be accepted easier if the person is processing it passively, rather than scrutinizing the details, which is how we consume fiction. It can engage with the audience on an emotional level and tap into their empathy. It is also a way to keep giving a clear and consistent message about these risks in an entertaining way that a person is less likely to shut off from.


         While further research is certainly needed about the effectiveness of using fictional spaces to communicate about climate change, it seems to me that there is a possibility for making strong change through fiction. I believe that literature and games are the most promising. Literature is shown to be highly persuasive in making long-term changes and interactively is also a strong learning tool. Both are very immersive and both readers and gamers are likely to be absorbed into the world that’s been created. While film certainly has its place, especially to reach those that prefer this communication channel, the fact that its effects have been shown to be short-lived is discouraging. While there may be some areas to improve on, it is hard to know if the limitations are in the current films or with the medium in general. It would be great if we could have science communicators working alongside filmmakers to help combat some of these issues.


         It is important to note that these climate narratives are being used in fiction increasingly often, and we are still seeing a lack of response in terms of action. While I believe there is a lot of potential for fiction in CCC, I have come up with a couple of possibilities that may be limiting the effectiveness. The first is that when making climate fiction, in any form, writers, filmmakers, and game developers need to be aware of the issues discussed above to make as persuasive material as possible. This can happen when creative people study the background in this field or science communicators team up with these artists. The second is that climate narratives should be implemented in unexpected ways. For example, those consuming cli-fi books likely already have an interest in climate change as it is such a specific genre. In fact, it’s possible that calling these stories cli-fi could be detrimental as someone experiencing climate fatigue may avoid them. Implementing these narratives in more subtle ways into more mainstream media could be a way of reaching a wider audience, including the disengaged.


         I believe that CCC needs to come in a large variety of forms so that as many people can be targeted as possible. This is not to say that everyone will prefer fiction as their source of entertainment. As individuals will respond best to their preferred method of communication, I believe that books, film, and games cover a large audience. While traditional non-fiction methods certainly have their place, it is clear, due to increased urgency of the matter, that the more methods we can implement the better. The best thing we can do right now is cover as much ground as possible and whenever possible to monitor the response so we have a better idea of what works going forward. However, from this research, I do believe that fictional spaces have a place in CCC and do succeed in filling some of the gaps left behind by more traditional media sources.


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