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Science Fiction and Climate Change

The science fiction (SF) genre is currently experiencing an increasing level of public attention, which is mainly focused on climate and environmental issues. Many of these stories represent a socio-political projection screen and not only reflect different cultural perceptions of climate change, but are also able to explain real political positions. For international climate and environmental policy, this trend could be an indication that there is a need to focus more strongly on questions of climate policy storytelling and remain closely linked to the presentation of the future and possible innovations in order to counteract the growing political polarization in this field.


The extent of the burnt-out forest areas in California, the Amazon and most recently on the east coast of Australia has reached a dimension that we only know from films and literature. The incomprehensible images of the fires, which are now circulating around the globe with a definite regularity, are not only terrifying and frightening. They also show the powerlessness of man when extreme events occur and even in highly industrialized countries only flight remains. Numerous researchers around the world use the fires as an opportunity to draw attention to the dangers of climate change, which creates the conditions for extreme fires with droughts and heat waves. And the forecasts of climate research for the coming decades do not promise any improvement unless the emission of climate-damaging greenhouse gases is reduced significantly.

The effects of climate change, the excessive consumption of resources and environmental destruction are becoming increasingly visible today, not only through growing media attention, but also through the drastic changes that are actually taking place in our environment. What this means for mankind in the coming decades and how he should (or better, should not) deal with it is now the subject of a broad socio-political debate. Against this background, and particularly in view of the extreme weather events that have been well documented by the media and experts, fiction is increasingly addressing this subject. The science fiction (SF) genre is a pioneer in this respect. It has a long tradition of depicting dystopian scenarios in the field of environmental destruction and scarcity of resources. And more recently it has also explicitly addressed climate change in the form of the climate fiction and solar punk genres.

Just recently, the Avengers epic from the Marvel universe ended at the cinema along with all its various superheroes such as Iron Man and Spider Man. They brought down a villain who, equipped with universal omnipotence, wanted to wipe out half of all living beings in the universe with the snap of a finger, because they could not live "decently" due to a lack of available resources. The commercially very successful film Avatar also deals with environmental issues. In it, resources on a planet far away are supposed to be exploited, which, however, brings to the screen the inhabitants who in turn are existentially dependent on them and who strongly resist. In 1999, the Matrix series, which was groundbreaking with graphic effects, came to cinemas. In it, people were bred by an artificial intelligence to use their bodies as an energy source.

Many of today's popular cinematically filmed SF stories are based on well-known works that have shaped the SF genre. One of the first to explicitly take up the themes of resources, ecology and politics is Dune by Frank Herbert in 1965, which is still a groundbreaking work. The story is about a raw material that many parties argue about and that exists on only one planet in the universe. The author develops from it a deeply geopolitical dramaturgy which deals with ecological exploitation and political power games.

SF stories provide a socio-political projection screen that not only reflects the different cultural perceptions of climate change, but is also able to explain very different political positions, often oscillating between optimism and pessimism. For international climate and environmental policy, the consequence of this is to focus more on questions of climate policy storytelling and, closely linked to this, the representation of the future and possible innovations. The current political blockades and technological prohibitions on thinking could thus be possibly countered and help to promote understanding for various approaches to solutions. 


Future research and innovation

Looking to the future is part of the core business of policy consulting think tanks. Based on analyses and forecasts of possible political constellations in specific subject areas, recommendations are made to political decision makers. The still comparatively young discipline of futurology already has a broad spectrum of known and lesser-known methods available for this purpose. However, uncertainty remains in the prediction of political developments, even if the broadest possible scenario is outlined. Who would have thought - with the exception of The Simpsons’ scriptwriters - that Donald Trump would become US president and that Kim Jong-un would reach out his hand in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Or that a young Swedish woman named Greta Thunberg would become a global figurehead of the climate question, that Friday school lessons in German schools would be seriously impaired and that at least German climate policy would be catapulted back to the top of the political priority list within a very short time.

Companies face the same challenge in dealing with the future. For them, forecasting and preparing for future market developments are essential for survival. The large companies even maintain entire departments for this purpose. Others buy in external expertise. The aim is to assess risks for investments, upcoming product placements and technological developments based on uncertainty. Innovations, such as blockchain technology, are likely to deprive established companies in the banking and energy sectors of their business base if they fail to adapt. Just how difficult, and above all, how expensive it is to correct misjudgments is shown by the late anticipation of electro-mobility in the German automotive industry. Many years of important investment in this technology have been lost. As a consequence, the US company TESLA will soon be building electric cars in Germany, and China is using the opportunity to make up for Germany's technological lead in the development of combustion engines by developing its own electric mobility technology. 

Futurology is the discipline that deals with precisely such issues. But it is not concerned with predicting the future. Rather, it attempts to identify factors which form a relevant basis for possible scenarios using a variety of methodological approaches. In addition to the well-known technology assessment, foresight methods, which are intended to outline social change processes, are of particular importance in this context. The basic principles of foresight research, such as expert interviews and scenario building, are borrowed from classical science. More recent approaches are even simpler in that semi-finished products are thrown onto the market and further developed iteratively jointly with customers. This minimizes the risk of misjudging future market developments.

How important it is to look into the future and be prepared to engage in it is particularly evident in the area of a society's technological innovation capability. The creation of an environment in which innovation can take place is central to the economic development of a country. Those who are technological leaders can also help shape the future. It is not by chance that Silicon Valley in the USA or the Greater Bay Area of China have developed into the world's leading innovation centers. One recipe for success is the courage to invest in technologies, even if they may seem unrealistic at first.

This approach is being implemented not only by the private sector, but also by the state, as the US "Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency" (DARPA) shows. It is explicitly intended to secure the technological superiority of the USA. It promotes future technologies that are highly unlikely to have a chance of becoming reality. Success proves this approach to be right. The forerunners of the Internet - the ARPANET, GPS, speech recognition, the computer mouse or artificial intelligence - are among the products of this approach. The Chinese innovation ecosystem pursues another approach, which is much more state-controlled, but not necessarily less successful. The advantage of a relatively closed market has been exploited to mature its own technology companies such as Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba. Today the US media giant Facebook is also taking a very close look at social media applications from WeChat, China's most popular messenger service.


Science fiction, climate fiction and solar punk

In order to achieve the highest possible level of imagination about possible "futures," companies and management consultancies are now also relying on SF authors. Their core competence is to show developments in as much detail as possible and to tell exciting stories about developments that lie in a distant or sometimes even less distant but de facto unknown future.

The origins of today's SF can be traced back to classics such as Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," which deals with the victory of technology over nature. In this context, known technologies, but also technologies that were only possible much later, are dealt with. While the Nautilus, the submarine in Jules Verne's novel, presumably draws on theoretical plans of underwater vehicles that already existed at the time, his novel "From the Earth to the Moon" takes a technological perspective that only becomes feasible a hundred years later: The manned flight to the moon. Today we can already look back on visits to the moon by humans and existing space stations. And entrepreneurs like Elon Musk are currently taking space travel into the commercial area. In Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis, the viewer sees a video call for the first time. Today this is a matter of course. A particularly reliable technology predictor is the Star Trek series. It features a "replicator" as early as the 1960s which produces everything from spare parts to food dishes at the push of a button, thus solving a major supply problem of the voyages of the starship Enterprise. It is an almost perfectly fitting model for today's 3D printer. In modern industry it is impossible to imagine life without it. The "Communicator," on the other hand, is the model for today's mobile phones, without which today's globalization would be hardly conceivable. And hardly any developer of robots can ignore the well-known SF author Isaac Asimov who, even before there existed humanoid robots and artificial intelligence, intensively considered the ethical aspects of their programming. The list of examples of technology predictions in the SF genre is long. To what extent the creativity of the author has always contributed to this is difficult to assess. For example, the physical phenomenon of a black hole in space, on which countless SF stories are based, was first a scientific discovery.

Social policy was and is likewise a constant companion of the SF genre. Ideas for technologies and their effects were not viewed uncritically from the very beginning of the first SF novels. By overcoming death, Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein" impressively shows how medical boundaries are constantly shifting and what questions can arise from this. Today, the cloning of humans is technologically not that far away anymore and genetic engineering allows interventions in the genome to fight diseases, but also to "improve" humans. Deeply ethical questions are thus raised. The atomic bomb and its final destructive power that will destroy mankind was already a topic in Herbert G. Wells' SF novel "The World Set Free," published in 1914. He coined the term atomic bomb in his book. George Orwell's 1949 novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four" shows an all-powerful surveillance state in the year 1984. Today's surveillance systems come very close to this fiction.

How concrete SF can become for the immediate future is shown by a series of novels that were written explicitly in a business context. In his future thriller "Germany 2064," for example, Martin Walker describes an image of Germany that exaggerates the urban-rural divide that can already be observed today, and at the same time has a police robot solve a criminal case. The projection of the future is detailed and addresses numerous political, economic and ecological issues. The semi-documentary television series "MARS" follows on from this. The series is essentially a fictional documentary about the colonization of Mars. The related challenges in the form of particular political interests as well as technological and human hurdles are discussed with real politicians, scientists and entrepreneurs of today and represented cinematically by well-known actors. The series culminates in very familiar resource questions, and this should be said here with reservations since there are to be further episodes.

An offshoot, sub-genre or even independent area - literary studies are still arguing about what is true - of the SF genre which deals explicitly with climate change is climate fiction. Climate fiction can be understood as stories that deal with the possible timely or distant effects of climate change and environmental degradation on the Earth. In the meantime, numerous authors, including some very well-known ones, are active in this field. Many of them have previously published in completely different fields. Amitav Gosh, a well-known Indian author, first dealt with climate change in his non-fiction book "The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable" and recently in his novel "Gunmen," with very impressive descriptions of the effects of environmental destruction in the Sundarbarns, a mangrove area in Bangladesh's Ganges delta. Frank Schätzing, a German SF author, sketches in his novel "The Swarm" a scientifically precisely researched story, which deals with nature's revenge on humans in the form of an unknown intelligence, among other things through extremely destructive tsunamis. The precise description of tsunamis in the novel was tragically followed shortly after its publication at the end of 2004 by a real tsunami that claimed numerous lives in Southeast Asia. With her "MaddAddam" trilogy, the Canadian author Margarete Atwood focuses on a particularly dystopian and almost religious future scenario. In it, the Earth has become partially uninhabitable due to environmental destruction and climate change, including floods and storms. At the same time, companies are facing tough global competition in health research. The battle for pharmaceutical, medical and genetic innovations is being fought with all available means. A large part of humanity falls victim to a man-made virus. In this world, people fight for survival. Among other things, they have to deal with the remnants of medical research in the form of mutated aggressive pigs that were previously used for organ replication.

The US author Paolo Bacigalupi shows a similarly gloomy, and above all, very political scenario in his novel “The Windup girl”. The story is set in the Thai megacity Bangkok. The world is marked by a lack of resources, to which numerous states have already fallen victim. Other states live in absolute isolation and fight waves of refugees. There is no more international trade. In the novel, the Thai Ministry of Environment and Trade and corporations compete for political influence. Genetic changes in humans are common and corpses are composted to cater for energy needs. Chinese SF author Cixin Liu takes a different perspective. His short story "Wandering Earth," which was recently even filmed and was a great commercial success in China, shows the scenario of a dying sun. Against this background, the Earth is turned into a spaceship by building huge rocket engines into the Earth, which make the Earth fly out of the solar system. People are to survive in underground cities until another solar system is found.

The SF genre is dystopian in many areas. Stories about doomsday scenarios in the form of man-made catastrophes or aliens attacking the Earth are common enough. In this environment, the Solarpunk genre is currently emerging alongside the Climate Fiction genre, with multiple overlaps. It explicitly wants to be an alternative to the dystopia of the SF genre. Most of the stories also deal with catastrophes like climate change, interstellar travel or aggressive aliens. However, the human race is attributed the ability to deal with them by developing highly innovative technological solutions. For example, the energy supply is obtained from completely renewable energy sources and nature is to be found in the form of lush vegetation on almost all book covers, thus shaping the style to some extent. Interestingly, the first collection of short stories "Solarpunk: Histórias ecológicas e fantásticas em um mundo sustentável" from this genre originates from Brazil, a country with overwhelming natural surroundings and at the same time environmental destruction and over-exploitation on a scale difficult to imagine.


Good stories promote understanding

The growing number of stories from the SF genre dealing with climate change, environmental degradation and the excessive consumption of resources indicates an increasing awareness of the topic worldwide. They represent a social projection screen with different cultural characteristics and perspectives. They also reflect the discussions concerning pessimistic and optimistic future scenarios that can be observed in politics. They also sketch highly creative technological innovations and their socio-political limits. 

The catastrophic and future scenarios presented in many SF stories are usually perceived by the reader in a fictional context. However, a glance at the most recent status reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that extreme weather events such as droughts, rising sea levels, severe typhoons and hurricanes or floods have long since become reality and will continue to increase in frequency if climate-damaging greenhouse gases are not reduced. In the meantime, a certain adaptation effect is emerging which is repeatedly punctuated by new phenomena such as the current forest fires in Australia, but which ultimately only increases the tolerance threshold of perception. It is precisely the example of Australia that again illustrates the core political problem of climate policy. The current government is struggling to gain political recognition of the link between climate change and the heat waves that fuel the fires. This would require comprehensive and possibly lifestyle-changing countermeasures.

Perhaps this is where SF literature can open up new perspectives. Technologies, such as those that are repeatedly re-invented in the SF genre on the basis of the findings of contemporary science and which exist at best in fantasy or theoretical considerations, can be used as models for innovation. In the automotive industry, Daimler has just presented a future concept car based on the film "Avatar." It is an extremely futuristic electric car. Innovation can be an alternative to abandonment by creating more sustainable product alternatives. Today, there are already bags that dissolve completely in water without leaving any residue, for example to replace plastic bags. The list of highly innovative products with minimal ecological fingerprints that permeate our everyday life is growing. However, innovation can also be an incentive for voluntary changes in behavior, in that new technologies such as Blockchain technology, for example, together with artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, can turn energy consumers into decentralized networked prosumers. In other words, these are actors who determine the origin of the energy that they consume and produce at the same time.

For technological innovations to have a chance, however, there must be a certain willingness to embark on something new without prohibitions on thinking. Good SF does this by telling the future in the form of a good story and the depiction of innovative technologies. International climate and environmental policy, which is currently highly polarized, could also do well to expand its communicative basis. Good stories can increase understanding of different positions and improve the process of finding compromises.


Dr. Christian Hübner


Head of the Regional Programme Energy Security and Climate Change Asia-Pacific +852 28822245