How science fiction could get climate change right

We've all seen how terrible things can get when science fiction tries to tackle environmental issues. There's The Day After Tomorrow, with its super ice-hurricanes, and The Host, starring fish monsters created by pollution. Still, there's no reason you can't have disaster porn and accurate representations of climate change at the same time. Here's how.

Timescales

The biggest error that we see time and again in environmental apocalypse stories has to do with timescales. Climate change — whether it's an ice age caused by volcanic eruptions, or a greenhouse caused by fossil fuel emissions — takes a hell of a long time to happen. The climate perturbations we're experiencing right now have been brewing for centuries, while humans burned massive amounts of fossil fuels.

And of course this isn't the first time climate change has changed the Earth. The geological history of our planet is basically a series of climate disasters, from floods and droughts to ice ages and massive volcanic outpourings of lava. 200 million years ago, the planet's two vast supercontinents were scourged by wildfires that make the ones in Australia's outback look like a birthday cake. A megavolcano in India, spewing lava that streamed for thousands of miles, rivaled the asteroid strike 65 million years ago for "worst thing to happen to the dinosaurs ever."

But other than that asteroid strike we've all heard about, all of these climate-altering disasters unfolded on timescales far beyond a human life. You couldn't watch an ice age freezing things in real time, the way Jake Gyllenhaal does in The Day After Tomorrow. And when carbon emissions heat the planet up, the effects are only perceptible on timescales of centuries.

This is a scenario that's incredibly frustrating for writers and creators who want to deliver a punch-bang 2012-style story. So how do you make slow-moving climate disasters exciting?

How science fiction could get climate change right

One possibility is to focus on one disastrous outcome of climate change. Superstorms are a good possibility, as are massive wildfires. Or you can go the Blade Runner route, and show us a world in the wake of many climate change disasters: most animals have gone extinct, the air is a hazy, poisonous mess, and many people are suffering from cancers and other diseases. There's room for a political story, here, too. Tobias Buckell's incredible novel Arctic Rising explores how the loss of ice in the Arctic Ocean will change international relations and reverse some countries' economic fortunes.

We could also use more climate change epics, Roots-style, tracking the fortunes of a family or community over two or three centuries as the environment deteriorates. In Kim Stanley Robinson's recent novel 2312, we see how Earth is coping with a world where Florida is underwater and wolves are extinct. We get a complete picture of how the planet got that way, and what it means for the rest of the solar system. With this wide-angle lens view of history, the disastrous nature of climate change is easier to perceive.

The Real Effects of Climate Change

The other major problem with current science fiction about climate change is that we don't ever get a realistic picture of why it's a disaster. Sure, climate change is associated with big, recognizable disasters like storms. But why is it such a big deal that the planet is warming up and flooding?

How science fiction could get climate change right

A movie like Waterworld doesn't help us understand the real outcomes of this situation. The problem isn't that we'll all be living in boats and wearing really bad swimwear. It's that climate change is going to usher in an era of famines that are a direct result of climate-caused extinctions. Humans will be starving, and many other creatures will be starving along with us.

If we look back in the geological record on Earth, it's easy to see where climate changes took place. Some of them are recorded in chemical changes in rocks caused by shifting seawaters, growing ice caps, and different molecules in the atmosphere. But when geologists look at the layers in ancient rocks, the most astonishing thing they see are the dramatic changes in the fossil record. Animals and plants who were everywhere in one era have vanished in the next. When over 75 percent of the life forms on the planet disappear in one of these great shifts, it's called a mass extinction.

How science fiction could get climate change right

After studying this phenomenon for over a century, geologists realized that mass extinctions were closely associated with climate change. When habitats change, animals and plants can't adjust and they die out. In many cases, "climate change" doesn't just mean a change in temperature. In the oceans, carbon mixes with sea water to create carbonic acid. So the water becomes more acidic. This prevents animals from growing shells, and eats away at coral reefs.

OK, so climate change causes some extinctions. But why does this mean famine? Because every species is part of a food web, or a set of relationships between predators and prey. When a prey species dies out, it's likely some predator species will also die out because their food supply is gone. The extinction of some species, like bees, can be catastrophic. Bees fertilize many food plants, from apples to onions, and their deaths will mean the deaths of these plants too. Any animals (including humans) who eat those plants will be affected.

The worst outcome of climate change isn't going to be flooded cities, though that will be bad. It will be the destruction of our food supply. And when food supplies dwindle, undernourished people are much more vulnerable to pandemic diseases.

The real disaster at the heart of climate change is starvation, followed by disease. Most importantly, these problems will affect many species — not just humans. Realistic stories about climate change have to deal with famine and its effects. We're not going to be fighting over gasoline. We'll be fighting over the last greenhouse full of apple trees.

Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9, and this is her column. She's also the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter.