Thursday, July 27, 2017

Alexandra Nikoleris, Johannes Stripple and Paul Tennar -- ''On narratives, literary fiction and climate modelling'' ACADEMIC PAPER LINK - Narrating climate futures: shared socioeconomic pathways and literary fiction

Narrating climate futures: shared socioeconomic
pathways and literary fiction

On narratives, literary fiction and climate modelling,


academic paper by Professors Alexandra Nikoleris
Johannes Stripple and

Paul Tenngart
Received: 7 December 2016 / Accepted: 19 June 2017
The Author(s) 2017. This article is an open access publication

Abstract In parallel with five new scientific scenarios of alternative societal developments
(shared socioeconomic pathways, SSPs), a wide range of literary representations of a future
world in which climate change comes to matter have emerged in the last decade. Both kinds of
narrative are important forms of Bworld-making.^ This article initiates a conversation between
science and literature through situating, relating, and comparing contemporary climate change
fiction to the five SSPs. A parallel reading of the SSPs and the novels provides the means to
make links between larger societal trends and personal accounts of climate change. The article
shows how literary fiction creates engagement with climate change through particular accounts
of agency and focalized perspectives in a different way than how the factors important to
challenges of mitigation and adaptation are narrated in the SSPs. Through identification with
the protagonists in literary fiction, climate futures become close and personal rather than
distant and abstract.
1 Introduction
Scenarios have been at the heart of climate change assessment for many years (IPCC SRES
2000; UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) 2007; International Energy Agency
2008; Hulme et al. 2002) and bring shape to a range of debates around science and policy
issues (Parson 2008). Scenarios are widespread in the development of national climate policy,
EU policies, and in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. While there
are many different kinds of scenarios, exploratory scenarios attempt to construct plausible
representations of the future (Alcamo and Heinrichs 2008) and often use both qualitative (e.g.
storylines, narratives) and quantitative elements to create alternative Bfuture worlds^ within
which a wide variety of actors can situate themselves (de Jouvenel 1967; van der Heijden
1996). Exploratory scenarios are not predictions of the future, but they help to envision
Climatic Change
DOI 10.1007/s10584-017-2020-2
* Johannes Stripple
Lunds Universitet, Lund, Sweden
alternative future contexts against which current strategies could be articulated. They are, then,
not Btruth machines^ but Blearning machines,^ thought-experiments that provide a means of
asking Bwhat if^ questions (Berkhout et al. 2002) in order to develop the robustness of
different climate policy strategies.
In parallel with the modelling communitys narratives for alternative futures of societal
development, a wide range of literary representations of a future world in which climate
change comes to matter have emerged in the last decade (Trexler and Johns-Putra 2011;
Trexler 2015; Johns-Putra 2016; Kaplan 2016). There is now a wealth of literary fiction
addressing various topics in multiple genres, from post-apocalyptic narratives of highly
unequal societies and dystopian visions of a bio-based economy to intimate stories of daily
life in a warming and carbon-constrained world. While scientific and literary scenarios differ
significantly in terms of means, methods, practices, functions, and effects, they both rely on
forms of narrative: of telling compelling stories about the nature of the world and the means
through which climate change can be mitigated or adapted to.
The aim of this article is to initiate a conversation between scientific and literary scenarios
through relating contemporary literary climate change fiction to five scientific scenarios. These
scientific scenarios are attempts to Bportray worlds that have varying challenges to mitigation
and adaptation^ (ONeill et al. 2017a, b: 3), describing factors and trends that would affect
such challenges. Bert de Vries (a senior scientist at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment
Agency), when he talked in public about the SRES scenarios, used key books at the time to
make people better grasp different scenarios.
In a similar fashion, we exemplify how literary
fiction can open up our imagination to what it might mean to act on climate change in a set of
alternative futures. Our approach shares Michael Hulmes (2015) call for a cultural appraisal of
climate change. The climate, Hulme notes, takes shape in cultures and can therefore be
changed by cultures. There are different ways of knowing the climate, and these have to come
into dialogue. For this, the world needs the arts. As Bill McKibben phrases it, Bwe can register
what is happening with satellites and scientific instruments, but can we register it in our
imaginations, the most sensitive of all our devices?^ (McKibben 2005). In this paper, we
explore two of what literary scenarios might do in relation to SSPs: (1) how they affect the
understanding of challenges to mitigation and adaptation and (2) how they affect engagement
with climate change as an issue.
2 Rationale
To initiate the conversation between scientific and literary scenarios, we will contrast five
novels with a new generation of scenarios that is currently being developed, the shared
socioeconomic pathways (SSPs) (Moss et al. 2010). The SSP scenarios are developed as part
of a larger set of scenarios together with representative concentration pathways (RCPs) and
shared policy assumptions (SPAs). This work was initiated at a workshop in Aspen in 2006,
and two recent special issues have reported on the progress so far (ONeill et al. 2014; van
Vuuren et al. 2017a, b). While the RCPs are time- and space-dependent trajectories of global
greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations resulting from human activities, they do not contain
We are thankful to Detlef van Vuuren for pointing this out. In the SRES report, B1 was connected to Our
Common Future (Brundtland), A2 was connected to Clash of Civilisations (Huntington), A1 was connected to
the End of History (Fukuyama), and B2 would be connected to No Logo (Klein).
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fixed assumptions about the kinds of society (e.g. population growth, level of economic
development, forms of technology) that generate these GHG emissions. Each of the four main
RCPs could occur under several different socioeconomic conditions. The concept of SSPs, on
the other hand, emerged to describe plausible alternative trends in the evolution of society over
the twenty-first century. SSPs are articulated at a world regional level and consist of a narrative
storyline and a set of quantified measures of development (ONeill et al. 2014: 389). The SSP
narratives are intended as descriptions of plausible future conditions that can provide the basis
for a range of different scenarios to emerge. The SSPs could thus be seen as possible
Bcontexts,^ Bscenes,^ or Bsettings^ for the present century, in which future stories about the
challenges to mitigation and adaptation can take shape. The narrative features of the SSPs
make them comparable with climate fiction, while their ability to produce general models
offers a constructive method to systematize and categorize the fictional worlds.
Unlike the SSPs, literary narratives seldom elaborate on general societal factors of future
worlds. Novels are always situated: their stories are told from the perspective of specific
places, specific moments in time, and from the point of view of specific characters. In
literature, general societal conditions are often presupposed rather than described, and when
they are addressed, fundamental conditions are depicted via specific events, actions, thoughts,
and emotions, unsystematically and subjectively. In order to make sense of what kind of
society the fictional characters are faced with, the reader must interpret the textadd what is
not directly described and draw conclusions from fragmented and biased information. In
contrast to the SSPs, then, climate fiction does not directly display general conditions for
adaptation and mitigation in the future worlds depicted. These factors need to be extracted in a
process of interpretation, which, in turn, requires a framework. The SSP narratives provide
such a framework.
From a large set of literature in which climate change is a theme (Trexler and Johns-Putra
2011), we have selected five literary works that narrate particular challenges to act on climate
change. These were all published before the SSPs. The first book, Solar, written by the
renowned British author Ian McEwan and published in 2010 by Jonathan Cape (imprint of
Random House publishing) is a satirical account on the shortcomings of our dealings with
climate change. Solar was awarded the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize and has been
translated into several languages. Kim Stanley Robinsons trilogy Science in the Capital is a
series of science fiction novels (published in 2004, 2005, and 2007 by science fiction publisher
Bantam Spectra). Robinson has published science fiction novels since 1984 and his Science in
the Capital trilogy has been followed by more novels on the climate change theme (e.g. the
newly published New York 2140). Saci Lloyds The Carbon Diaries 2017 is a sequel to her The
Carbon Diaries 2015, a young adult story about teenage life when carbon rationing has been
implemented. It was published in 2009 at Hodder Childrens Books and the rights to make a
movie out of the two books were sold to Company Pictures. The two books have been
translated i nto 15 languages. Flight Be havior, by renowned American author Barbara
Kingsolver, was published in 2012 at Harper. The novel was a national success in the US
and listed as a New York Times Bestseller. Lastly, Liz Jensens The Rapture is a climate thriller
published in 2009 at Bloomsbury Publishing. Due to their different genres, these narratives are
addressed to a variety of different audiences, illustrating the large scope of climate change
fiction. Even so, all novels are written by established authors and distributed by well-known
publishers. Their visibility and accessibility have been generally very high.
Because the SSPs are supposed to be plausible, they do not deviate too much from present
societal conditions, and we have thus chosen novels which are placed in a time and reality
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which rather closely resembles the Earth in the twenty-first century. For the same reason of
comparability, our selection of novels is culturally narrow: all five novels are originally
published in the UK or the USA. The issue of climate change appears in fiction from many
parts of the world written in many different languages. Some climate fiction thus challenges
the predominantly Western outlook in the modelling community. This article, however, does
not raise the issue of greatly diverse cultural perspectives on climate change, but rather that of
different narrative approaches within a common cultural realm.
3 Understanding climate fiction through the SSPs
The SSP narratives of five futures worlds (ONeill et al. 2014, 2017a; van Vuuren et al. 2017a, b)
are developed as general descriptions of the kind of social, economic, and political conditions that
policies for mitigation and adaption will have to manage. SSP1 (Bsustainability^) is characterized
by inclusive development and reduced inequality, international collaboration, a shift in societal
goals from economic growth to well-being, and a less resource intensive lifestyle with a larger use
of renewable energy sources. This scenario is concluded to have low challenges to both
mitigation and adaptation. SSP2 (Bmiddle of the road^) does not see any breakthroughs in
technological development and can be understood at large as a Bbusiness-as-usual^ scenario
with high societal stratification and continued use of fossil resources, including unconventional
ones. SSP3 (Bregional rivalry^) is the opposite of SSP1, with a growing nationalism and concerns
about competitiveness and security, paired with material-intensive consumption, fossil fuel
dependency, and slow technological change. Challenges to mitigation are high, and so are
challenges to adaptation due to persisting inequalities and slow economic development. SSP4
(Binequality^) is characterized by increasing inequalities and uneven technological and economic
development. As low carbon technologies are available, among international elite in some parts
of the world, challenges to mitigation are low, but as inequality and stratification are growing,
challenges to adaptation are high. In SSP5 (Bfossil-fueled development^), lastly, technology
development is stimulated by increasingly integrated global markets and high economic growth,
and there is a strong investment in health and education. Challenges to adaptation are thus low,
but because of a low global environmental concern and a continued reliance on fossil fuels,
challenges to mitigation are high (ONeill et al. 2017a).
In the following, the SSPs are used to understand what kinds of future conditions are being
depicted in the five literary works, whereby each novel is positioned in relation to the five
3.1 Solar
Ian McEwans novel depicts the life of Nobel laureate Michael Beard during the early twenty-
first century. Having been a passive (but sceptical) supporter of mitigating climate change,
Beard becomes an advocate of large-scale investment in renewable energy technologies. We
follow this progression alongside the obsession with his fifth wife, the death of his post-doc,
and Beard becoming a father against his will. The story takes place mainly in London, but
includes a minor excursion to Svalbard and ends in New Mexico, wher e Beard is to
demonstrate a new technology using artificial photosynthesis.
Just like in SSP5, climate mitigation is to take place only through new technology. Solar
describes a world which shares many characteristics with the SSP5, such as an Bincreasing
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faith in competitive markets, innovation, and participatory societies^ (ONeill et al. 2017a: 6).
Another factor which points to high challenges to mitigation is that people do not really care
about climate change, something which should be interpreted as fully natural for Bhuman
nature.^ Major breakthroughs in renewable energy technologies are delayed because of
personal greed and pride, as well as the lack of economic incentives to invest in renewable
energy, and few investors are convinced to shift away from lucrative fossil fuels. Solar does
not tell us much about the challenges to adaptation, but based on the general setting of the story
(it is placed in the UK during the first decade of the twenty-first century), a guess is that
challenges are medium, about as high as today. Solar could thus be placed between SSP5 and
SSP3, with high challenges to mitigation and low to moderate challenges to adaptation.
3.2 The Rapture
Liz Jensens thriller is set in the UK in a not very distant future. A teenage girl, institutionalized
after having murdered her mother, starts to have visions of future natural disasters due to
climate change, predicting exact dates and locations. When these predictions, one by one, turn
out to be correct, her therapist needs to take action, especially since the foreseen catastrophes
keep getting worse and closer to home.
The world in The Rapture must be placed in SSP3. It is a world full of conflict: suicide
bombings are frequent, the war in the Middle East is spreading, large nations quarrel about
emissions, and people fear the use of biological weapons. The most troublesome conflict,
however, has to do with the significance of climate change. The emerging catastrophe is
interpreted in a variety of waysas a meaningless and destructive result of human exploita-
tion, as a long-awaited religious apocalypse, and as a benign ecological development getting
rid of the human speciesmaking any collective response practically impossible. International
cooperation is thus low, just like in SSP3 (ONeill et al. 2017a). The problem is, furthermore,
seen as too vast and too profound: the facts of climate change are said to be Bso appalling we
turn the other way politely^ (p. 23). The situation is generally interpreted as being beyond
human control, and the only way to deal with it is that of passive acceptance. Jensen describes
a shattered world without hope, a world Bincreasingly full of distressed people^ (p. 37).
Challenges to both mitigation and adaptation are thus very high, and the inability to cooperate
determines political attitudes both within and between nations.
3.3 Flight behaviour
In Barbara Kingsolvers novel, the issue of climate change is addressed through a story on
social relations and personal growth. The reader follows a stay-at-home wife in rural Tennessee
and her discovery of an enormous community of monarch butterflies, whose migration pattern
has been disturbed by global warming. Through this discovery, the protagonist encounters
science and ends up leaving her husband to begin an education elsewhere. In this novel, the
world is determined by inequalityeconomically as well as in matters of education, experi-
ences, and opportunities. A socially, geographically, and culturally immobile local community
is strongly contrasted with an educated and mobile social sphere of scientists. These differ-
ences determine the ways in which climate change is understood, conditioning the ability to
mitigate and adapt. However, the impression is not that of Bincreasing inequalities^ as in SSP4,
but rather of a stable, non-decreasing inequality. Therefore, the world of the novel should be
placed in the SSP2, with moderate challenges to mitigation and adaptation.
Climatic Change
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Figure 1 | Graphic illustration of how the novels relate to the SSPs. As the story unfolds, challenges to mitigation and adaptation might grow or decrease, so that the placement of the novels might change, which is indicated by the arrows
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