Will prize-winning novels shift attitudes on global warming?

A New York couple rushes toward the Hudson River at the end of a January day, eager to see the sunset. They crave a view of nature because the Manhattan they live in sits partly behind a wall, a barricade built to block rising waters.

The sun will slip below the battlement at 4:23 p.m., winter days ending early because the Earth's orbit has shifted.

It's a vision of the future in the novel that won this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

"A Visit from the Goon Squad," which tells the story of people connected by the music business, bounces back and forth over time. When it flashes forward two decades, it shows a world that has been altered by climate change. Trees bloom in January. A February day hits 89 degrees. Lawns and golf courses vanish because of water shortages.

The award-winning novel joins a recent group of fiction books with scenes that show a world changed by or wrestling with climate change.


"People tend to write about what's current, and climate change is current," said Annie Merrill Ingram, professor of English and environmental studies at Davidson College. "Because climate change and other environmental issues are scientific, political, global, etc., they also lend themselves to interesting plot lines."

Ian McEwan's "Solar," also published last year, tells the story of a Nobel Prize-winning scientist working on climate change. The 2009 book "Far North" by Marcel Theroux depicts people living with the consequences of planetary warming. Post-apocalyptic books like Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" symbolically speak to concerns about climate change, Ingram said.

"While a lot of the apocalyptic fiction might not specifically name climate change as the apocalyptic event, I think it's very much part of the larger sort of climate or cultural consciousness where people think about the fact that we know about this," Ingram said.

Some environmentalists have hoped that fiction could galvanize action on climate the way other books have spurred social and political movements.

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" stirred consciousness about slavery. Presses ran around the clock to meet demand for Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 book, Ingram said. George Orwell's "1984," published in 1948, stoked fears about totalitarianism. Nevil Shute's 1957 "On the Beach" added to concerns about nuclear war.

Fiction might be the best way to reach people on climate, said John Atcheson, a former Department of Energy senior policy analyst who has written on books and global warming at, a Center for American Progress Action Fund project.

"What I sort of concluded in the twilight of my career was that people aren't motivated by facts," said Atcheson, who worked on climate change issues. "They have to feel something viscerally before they respond."

Others are less enthusiastic about fiction books that include climate change imagery.

Fiction can make people believe things that are not true, something called "subliminal desensitization," said Calvin Beisner, founder and spokesman for Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.

"This is a way without coming out and trying to make an argument that this is true or right ... it simply acts as if the argument is settled," and people go along with it, Beisner said.

Beisner's group believes that planetary warming is part of a natural cycle and is not cause for alarm. He said he was not concerned that novels could increase people's fear of climate change.

"Fiction can propagate ideas, often compellingly, but propagation's not persuasion," Beisner said. "Propaganda requires only conception. Real persuasion requires evidence and logic-true premises, and valid inferences. By definition, fiction doesn't present true premises."

So far, there has not been a book that has inspired many people to act on climate change, Atcheson and Ingram said.

"We don't yet have a 'Silent Spring' of climate change," Ingram said, referencing Rachel Carson's 1962 nonfiction book about the chemical industry, credited with helping trigger environmentalism. "We don't yet have that galvanizing work."

Ingram is skeptical that it can happen for the climate problem.

"I'm not sure that we are that kind of audience anymore," Ingram said. "People get their information from so many different sources, I'm not sure any single book is going to do it."

Climate change is "so big and so complex," she added, "that it's hard in some ways for people to wrap their minds around, even in fiction. Who's the villain?"

Atcheson, who is writing his own fiction books, believes that a series might work.

"You have to trace things through time," Atcheson said. "Climate change happens in slow motion."

Future visions

The effects of climate change play a small role in the last chapters of "A Visit from the Goon Squad." Author Jennifer Egan said that she did not plan to write about temperatures and rising seas but envisioned them when she set scenes some 20 years ahead to show what happened to a character who is first seen around 2007.

She didn't research potential effects of climate change, Egan said, but she had read a New York Times article that mentioned warming might shift the Earth's axis.

"I found that absolutely horrifying," Egan said. "It touched me on such a deep level to think that what we've done to the planet could have much more impact than just the state of affairs on the planet's surface, which is worrisome enough. But the fact that it could actually change the planet's position in the solar system even slightly, that was just shocking to me.

"That really stayed with me, and I guess it returned when I was imagining forward," Egan added.

The same chapter that tells of the Earth's shifted axis shows trees blooming in January. That was based partly in reality, Egan said.

"Three Januaries ago, it got so warm that a bunch of fruit trees bloomed, and that was really sobering," said Egan, who lives in Brooklyn, New York. "At the same time that it was lovely, as it always is when trees bloom, but it was really troubling."

"A Visit from the Goon Squad" also imagines a future with miles of solar panels in the desert, placed where lawns and golf courses once stood. The book tells of protests when the panels were installed because they threatened wildlife habitats.

Egan said she extrapolated from miles of windmills that she has seen.

"There's been this huge, endless debate about doing this stuff near Nantucket," Egan said. "Will it deface the landscape, or is it a beautiful sign of moving into the future? I could easily imagine the same kinds of debate about solar panels."

The panels can also track moonlight, an advancement Egan said she wholly invented.

The book's scene along the Hudson River does not directly state that waters have risen, but talks about the wall. It has been branded enthusiastically "Water Wall!" with an exclamation point.

Egan said it is meant to be satirical "with a serious undertone."

"If the sea level really does rise drastically, life in New York is going to change. I mean, we're at sea level," Egan said. "But do I really think that's going to happen? Probably not."

Egan paused and then added, "You need to be careful in this world when you write satire. A lot of things do end up happening. It's kind of sobering."

Fighting human nature?

McEwan's book "Solar" was on the reading list for one of Ingram's classes at Davidson College. The novel is satire, Ingram said, but she and her students in discussions have asked, "Does the satire go far enough?"

The book does not present a vision of climate change that is enough to scare people, Ingram said, and the lead character fails to inspire.

The protagonist is unlikable, with appetites for food and women that Ingram said stand in for "Western society's gluttony and overconsumption."

"It's clearly not 'Silent Spring,'" Ingram said.

McEwan could not be reached for an interview, but told PBS's Charlie Rose that a trip to the Arctic with artists and scientists partly inspired the book.

"In the evenings, we had passionate, idealistic discussion about climate change and how we should live, and so on," McEwan said. But as the trip went on, a room that held people's belongings fell into disarray. "And I thought, ah, if you're going to write about climate change," McEwan said, "you're going to have to write about human nature and how we have these bold ambitions for ourselves and yet daily life and our own souls overwhelms us."

McEwan also attended a climate change event in Germany where he saw about 30 Nobel Prize winners.

He said nonfiction is the best form to write about climate change, whereas fiction can "lay out the terms, as it were, of the problem for human nature." There is in people, he told Rose, capacity for brilliance but also tendencies toward tribalism, self-interest and scheming.

"The heart of the problem with climate change is that we are really struggling with our own natures to do favors with people whom we'll never meet, in other words, our great, great grandchildren," McEwan said. "And it's not the nature of human traits to do favors with people that you don't yet [know]."

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