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A Toolbox of Tips: How to Write About Climate Change

Can literature be a form of climate activism? In The Lit Issue 3, novelists Ben Smith, Liz Jensen and Gregory Norminton explore the tools that fiction writers need to have at their disposal to depict our changing world.

We know that the natural world is suffering due to climate change. Entire ecosystems are falling apart, landscapes are burning, and more than 25,000 species are at risk of disappearing altogether. Fundamentally, the world as we know it is on the verge of total collapse. What is less clear is how to persuade people, governments and businesses to change their behaviour to reduce their impact on the planet. 

Issue 3 of The Lit, titled How the Light Gets In, was concerned with representing climate change through writing and the stories we choose to tell. It included a podcast interview from acclaimed novelist Ben Smith with Liz Jensen, author of climate novel The Rapture, and Gregory Norminton, author of The Devil’s Highway, in which they discussed all things climate. Among other things, their conversation focused on literature as a form of activism.

Notably, they explored the tools that fiction writers need to have at their disposal to depict our changing world. The question that resonated was: How can we ignore the heart-rending narratives of authors whose work allows us to conceptualise the fate of our planet? 

But why use fiction to convey this message?

Perhaps, a better question to ask is, why not fiction? If you can write effectively and capture people’s imagination, then why not use this gift to aid the environment and the fight to control climate change? While the novel is not the most dominant form of narrative, and writers aren’t the most influential people outside of the sphere of literature, they can still do their part as activists in their limited sphere of influence. Gregory Norminton asserts that we must do our duty and “bear witness” to something that no longer belongs to the realm of speculation; something that is now our present reality. 

Jensen analyses how artists possess both the tools and the capacity to connect with the emotional side of climate change – a type of activism that takes on an entirely different form  to the reels of facts and statistics we are confronted with (and arguably saturated with) daily. Specifically, writing allows you to reach beyond the surface and touch people’s hearts and minds, forcing them to listen to the truth and take responsibility for the world we are destroying. To incite a transformation, you need to access the minds of the people – and, as seen in politics, this is infinitely doable – all we need to do is take risks and, in Jensen’s words: “go where it hurts”.

What does a climate change novel entail?

Climate change novels are becoming more common and popular and as a result terms to categorise them have arisen, notably cli-fi. However, as discussed by Liz and Gregory these terms can be somewhat limiting and damaging”. This particular term, cli-fi, suggests it is a subset of science fiction, sci-fi, which not only limits the amount of readers interested, it also insinuates this a speculative story, as opposed to our reality.

Placing your novel in the ‘sci-fi’ or ‘cli-fi’ genre can limit your readership to those who hold a prior interest in climate change – and preaching to the converted is of limited value. Therefore, if you treat climate change as an inescapable aspect of contemporary life by using it as context rather than content, you are more likely to attract a readership that would otherwise be reluctant to pick up a book blatantly concerning global warming.

The term refuses to only encompass the ideas about wildlife extinction and the destroyed habitats, the aspects of climate change many of us are already aware of, and instead the term refers to a combination of many genres including eco-fiction. A climate change novel can be a collaboration of genres from historical to thriller to naturalist – there is not a set of criteria in which it must fit. As said by Liz, “write whatever you feel you need to write and let other people worry about where it fits within literature”.

If climate change is so present in every aspect of modern life, surely it makes sense for it to be similarly pervasive in all genres of literature?

Advice from our guest speakers

If you aim to inform the uninformed – to reach the yet unreachable – you will need to consider how to appeal to these fringes. 

Exercise: In what ways does Global Warming penetrate the mundane?

In order to seamlessly incorporate climate change into your novel, take the most overt examples of climate change and translate them into day-to-day experiences.

Climate change literature can manifest itself in many ways, from dystopian-esque novels such as the Hunger Games to eco-fiction such as Rapture and State of Fear. However, to access a broad spectrum of readers, you must ensure your novel is accessible. Ultimately, the aim of this article has not been to burden you with the responsibility of ending climate change. Rather, Jensen and Norminton are asking you to utilise the power you have to inform, and hopefully enact, positive change. 


Natalya Sharp and Sacha Mann

BA English at University of Exeter 

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