In the last several decades, as scientists have converged in understanding human-caused climate change, naturally many artists and authors have imagined a climate-changed world and gone on to create stories about it that hopefully will engage the rest of us to think about our world more.
This phenomenon is not a new one. Story-tellers have been fascinated by floods, drought, and other weather events since the beginning of time. The Bible's "Noah and the Ark", the "Epic of Gilgamesh", Shakespeare's works, the poetic Edda, and many other pieces of early literature centered on deluge, storms, and other natural events. This evolution has continued through time. We also know that anthropogenic climate change is not about single weather events but about long-term changes that we, as a species, are trying to realize. It is with this knowledge that the legacy of environmentally focused stories continues.
In 1977, Arthur Herzog, whom you might know as the author of The Swarm and Orca, which were made into movies, published a novel called Heat. I talked with his widow Leslie earlier this year and asked her about that novel, which may be the first well-known novel that made it into the science fiction/speculative canon dealing specifically with modern climate change.
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction shows climate themes in modern literature going back even further, some to the early part of the 1900s, including works by Karel Čapek, Piers Anthony, Gerald Heard, John Wyndham (who doesn't like a good kraken thriller!?), and others. Then there is JG Ballard, from the 1960s, who some consider the "father of climate fiction". This type of genre is an old one, going as far back as when humans first began story-telling.
As scientists began to agree about modern causes of climate change in the 1970s, thus came that first true modern climate change novel, Heat. Leslie, Herzog's widow, told me that her husband Arthur consulted, and credited, many scientists when he wrote the novel. George Turner's The Sea and the Summer, published in the late 1980s, is another early novel that examined climate change as we now understand it.
Since the late 1970s, many novels have followed these prototypes, and climate change themes in speculative and science fiction have grown. Authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, Nathaniel Rich, Kim Stanley Robinson, JL Morin, Paolo Bacigalupi, David Mitchell, and Emmi Itäranta are tackling the subject, and all with different approaches. This literature doesn't have to be dystopian or apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic; sometimes, as with Kingsolver's Flight Behavior, the story is told in a modern day setting. Climate change is already happening, after all.
Ironically, some say there are now a glut of these novels, yet publishers have yet to embrace these novels, at least overwhelmingly. This leaves authors with just a few outlets for getting attention for novels about climate change. Having curated Eco-Fiction, which archives climate and other environmental novels, for over a year now, I've spent a lot of time reading and researching the types of books being written—and, in the interim, have established a database of what's out there, though by no means is it completely exhaustive. The sample of these books is strong (there are a few notability requirements to be listed), however, and I always encourage authors to let me know if they have a new book to be archived and promoted at the site.
I use the term eco-fiction as a broad category for looking at books with nature and environmental themes found in science fiction, speculative or literary fiction, fantasy, and other genres. (Some have used the term eco-fiction as a genre by itself. I'm more into exploring content, not labels, and eco-fiction seemed to be a broad term.)
The database has 226 books listed currently, with more on the horizon, though some are not specifically climate-based and a tiny few are notable non-fiction essays. About 175 are climate stories of the fictional variety, and of these we see: 25% YA/teen, 3% children's, 34% apocalyptic, 13% post-apocalyptic, 30% dystopian, 11% fantasy, 33% suspense/thrillers (many taking place in the modern day), and a small bit of regional, romance novels, or adventuring stories. About a third are science fiction. There is more than one genre listed per title, so these numbers do not add to 100%.
In working at the site, my first priority is always to appeal to the author of these works, though because I'm kinda nerdy, I like to look at statistics. But the content is most important, and you'll find many author interviews, academic and journalistic guests posts, a YA/teen bookshelf, and a free membership area where authors can exchange contacts for reviewing work. Members may also write guest posts—which should be prearranged and are manually approved. I've also added a section for other media and the arts working with environmental themes: films, paintings, music, dance, photography, video games, etc.
Authors (and other artists) can also promote their works at our chat group. Over the summer I started this Google+ community, which is friendly, open to the public, and focused on what the novelist or other artist has to say about their work. We're nearly 250 strong, and we allow book, film, photography, dance, music, painting—all kinds of artistic discussion and promotion dealing with environmental themes. We even have a group of women who make beautiful quilts with nature scenes, who also donate some of their sales to protect the wilderness in their area.
Our newest project, in collaboration with 100,000 Poets for Change, was to host a short story climate change contest over the summer. You can see the results on our Eco-Fiction contest page. While dozens of people participated from all over the world, we chose the top 22 entries to appear at the site's presentation. Five authors received honorable mention, while Robert Sassor got 1st prize with his short story, "First Light."
All in all, it's an exciting time to be smack dab in this literary scene. While many books might seem gloomy and Ballardian-bleak, many are hopeful and positive as we enter what I've recently heard Jim Schaefer, professor of biology at Trent University, term the "Age of the Environment". At the same time, authors and artists just want to tell a quality story that others will enjoy, whether or not with a message; still, a well-told climate novel or film might be what it takes to move people into action and into caring more about our time, and our descendants' time, on this planet.