22 Aug 2023
Fiction To Combat Climate Denialism
Despite widespread scientific agreement on climate change, a stubborn undercurrent of denialism continues to defy reality. Notwithstanding experts’ warnings and obvious signs of a warming world, a small group clings to false claims. This movement thrives on political polarisation and money, spreading false information that stops action. As the world faces growing environmental problems, resistance […]

Despite widespread scientific agreement on climate change, a stubborn undercurrent of denialism continues to defy reality. Notwithstanding experts’ warnings and obvious signs of a warming world, a small group clings to false claims. This movement thrives on political polarisation and money, spreading false information that stops action. As the world faces growing environmental problems, resistance and science-based solutions to fight climate denial have never been more urgent.

Discussing her novel ‘South Pole Station’ with LetMeBreathe, Ashley Shelby, an investigative journalist turned author from Minnesota, USA, delves into the intricacies of this complex issue. In this climate-fiction novel, the story revolves around Cooper Gosling, an artist grappling with creative blockage following a personal tragedy, and a bunch of misfits at Antarctica’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. By installing Frank Pavano, a climate denier in the mix, Ashley explores the diverse viewpoints and avoids binaries. Cooper’s openness to diverse viewpoints, emphasising the importance of unity between scientists and artists in uncovering the world’s truths. 

Edited excerpts from the interview: 

Photo: Ashley Shelby

The year 2023 is being forecasted as an el-nino year. Given our present perils, do you think we are prepared to face its consequences on both human lives and the planet? 

I don’t believe current efforts are sufficient, and many who care about this issue share this view. Some politicians, including a significant portion of the United States legislature, downplay the importance of climate change. Delaying action will lead to more severe consequences and potentially autocratic interventions during emergencies.

Both the United States and India are experiencing more frequent climate-related disasters, impacting a growing number of individuals. Despite strong public support for addressing climate change, a vocal minority of politicians deny its reality or protect industries like coal and oil.

Personal experiences with climate disasters can change perspectives, motivating individuals to demand action from their representatives. Younger generations, even if not directly affected, show empathy and recognise the urgency of the climate crisis. Voting is a crucial tool for change, particularly among younger people who are increasingly concerned about climate issues. While older generations tend to resist climate action, almost 70 per cent of younger Republicans support carbon neutrality and view climate change as an existential threat. Therefore, I believe it isn’t necessarily about politics but about age.

Voting and collective organisation are essential to pressure comfortable politicians to take meaningful action on climate change.

In your novel, you took a witty approach by introducing Frank Pavano into the mix of ‘Pollies’, creating a scenario where thesis and antithesis could potentially lead to some synthesis.

When I wrote ‘South Pole Station’, I was fascinated by climate deniers and the phenomenon of denying reality, especially when those denying it lack a scientific understanding. This reminded me of my involvement in the pro-vaccine movement when my children were young. I witnessed anti-vaccine activists targeting new immigrant communities with false claims that the measles vaccine caused autism. These activists used compelling stories to sway opinions, despite a lack of scientific evidence.

Educated individuals, often not in scientific fields, were falling for anti-vaccine narratives, making me ponder how smart people could be misled. Climate denial was similarly puzzling, given the clear scientific consensus on climate change. Financial interests played a significant role, as I had learned while reporting on the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Frank Pavano, a character in my book, represented my curiosity about individuals who distort science for personal gain. Understanding their motivations, whether fear in the case of anti-vaccine activists or financial interests in climate denial, helped me approach communication and outreach more effectively.

In both cases, it became apparent that convincing the most entrenched deniers might be futile. Instead, focusing on those willing to listen and engage in discussions, like hesitant parents during our pro-vaccination drives, proved more productive. While we might have moved past straight climate denialism, we now face an era of climate delay.

My experiences with climate deniers and anti-vaccine activists shaped my understanding of how misinformation spreads, particularly among educated individuals, and influenced my approach to communication and outreach efforts.

How would you suggest we talk to the people of this “school of thought” without making them act defensive? 

As a writer and storyteller, I see immense storytelling potential in climate-related narratives, whether in fiction or nonfiction. For instance, David Wallace Wells’ work ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ bravely confronts the harsh realities of climate change. Interestingly, even respected climate communicator Dr. Michael Mann, a personal friend, criticised such a bleak approach, advocating for a balance between hope and urgency.

Many corporations, including oil and car companies, have tried to shift the responsibility for climate action onto individual consumers, despite their limited impact. This blame game has made those of us privileged enough to be part of the conversation feel guilty.

In my climate-focused writing, I strive to strike a delicate balance between depicting potential realities and showcasing the resilience of the human spirit. Storytelling undoubtedly plays a crucial role in raising awareness, but it must be approached with care, considering the inherently frightening nature of the topic.

In the United States, prior to President Joe Biden taking office, there was an unfair expectation that countries like India should shoulder an equal or greater burden in addressing climate change. This perspective disregards the pressing issues faced by sizable populations struggling to secure basic necessities.

Writing ‘Frank Pavano’ taught me the importance of listening and understanding differing viewpoints rather than immediately asserting my own beliefs. Engaging in thoughtful dialogue helps uncover the underlying fears and concerns that drive opinions.

In ‘South Pole Station’, a character unfamiliar with climate change initially wishes it were a hoax, as many might secretly desire. However, denying reality only perpetuates suffering, emphasising the critical need for action.

Storytelling offers a potent means of addressing climate change, but it must be approached thoughtfully to balance hope and urgency. Understanding diverse perspectives and fostering open dialogue are crucial steps toward meaningful change.

What advice would you give to the next generation of environmental activists and potential specialists, in order to make their struggle more effective? Is novel writing an essential part of it?

I grew up in a generation where reading was just a part of the fabric of our daily life because we did not have a phone in our hand at all times. So, I tend to suspect I overestimate how important the written word is in terms of books to the conversation. The reason I say that is because my experience as an author has been that the vast majority of book readers in the United States, particularly those who read more than 12 books a year, are women between the ages of 45 and 65. Younger generations, however, are increasingly discussing books, particularly genres like sci-fi, fantasy, and romance, on platforms like TikTok.

So, I’m actually not sure how important literature is because I tend to think the people who are going to take the time to seek out a book of climate fiction and then read it are probably already engaged in this question. To truly make an impact on climate change, we must reach to those not yet engaged but holding political power. This includes voters and community organisers who understand the nuances of the issue. Opinion columns, shorts, and essays in newspapers remain valuable tools to target this demographic, even in our evolving media landscape.

TikTok is very problematic in a lot of ways, but there is an opportunity there too for young climate activists to reach their audience. And that is a form of storytelling. However, effective communication about climate change must not merely highlight the problem but also offer actionable steps.

Local engagement is another vital avenue. Change often starts at the community level, where laws and rules can be established independently of federal decisions. For instance, New York’s ban on gas stoves in new construction demonstrates how local initiatives can contribute to broader climate goals.Regarding books, it’s uncertain whether they alone can drive significant change. However, they have the potential to touch individuals, fostering empathy and expanding perspectives. My book on polar bears, for example, prompted readers to consider the broader impact of climate change on non-human creatures. Humans, complex and diverse, find motivation to act through various means, making every avenue of awareness crucial. So, I think there’s always stuff to learn that humans are really complex and eclectic about what moves them to act.

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