The novels on this list take a positive, visionary approach to the subject of climate change, focusing on fighting and adapting to climate change. Through envisioning cultural tools and social strategies for transitioning to a post-carbon world, these stories offer inspiration and guidance for how we might address our very real problems—not just through magical new technology, but through cultural shifts that make use of the technology we already have.
These texts could be used for whole-class reading, and could enrich a larger unit on climate change or even lead to students researching and creating their own artistic explorations of futures altered by climate change. Questions for discussion follow each listing.
For more see:
- Introduction: Climate Change Fiction for Students & Teachers
- Short Stories
- Further Fiction about Climate Change for High Schoolers and Adults: Dystopias, Allegories, and Films
- Sarah Outterson-Murphy's post about her experiences using climate fiction in her high school English classes
- See the PDF version of the guide
The Light Pirate, by Lily Brooks-Dalton (2022).
This novel explores the devastation of hurricanes, floods, and the loss of civilization in a surprisingly peaceful and optimistic mode. The novel tracks the birth and life of Wanda, whose connection with the Florida coastal ecosystem guides and sustains her through change and loss. The story works on three levels: It is a plot-driven survivalist adventure, a psychological exploration of the balance between loneliness and love in various types of relationships, and a dreamlike, speculative vision of an emerging relation between humans and the land to which they belong (a vision which, as noted in the author’s acknowledgements, owes a debt to the Indigenous tribes of Florida who lived it first). The book’s vision of social change is not in rallying civilization to fight climate change, but in imagining how the survivors of these changes might in turn relate to nature in a changed way, recognizing that security is an illusion and relationships require risk. In that, it reminds me of the visionary ecofiction of Always Coming Home (1985) and Earth Abides (1949). But it addresses climate change and sea level rise much more directly than those novels do.
Discuss: How do different characters (Frida, Kirby, Phyllis, Lucas, Corey, Bird Dog) respond to climate change in different ways, and what are the key factors that help Wanda survive? If you had to survive in your local area without modern technology, what would you eat and drink, and what other needs would you have? What would change the most about your life, and what would remain the same?
The Deluge, by Stephen Markley (2022).
This novel balances six narrators, each presenting a different response to the climate crisis through the chaotic span from 2020 to 2040. Including a radically bipartisan climate activist, a marketing strategist working to greenwash heavy industry, and a drug addict who falls in with ex-military eco-terrorists, among others, these narrators demonstrate the emotional weight of different paths people might take in their efforts to respond to a changing world. Set in the U.S. amidst dust storms and derechos, industrial wastelands, ubiquitous digital surveillance, and congressional subcommittee meetings, the book explores the way class, gender, race, and political identity shape our responses to climate change, particularly the tension between being a useless purist and being a selfish sell-out.
Discuss: What makes some people respond to disasters with despair, and others with energy and joy? What emotional, ideological, and material sacrifices do various characters make to preserve humanity’s future, and are they worth it? Be aware: depictions of drug abuse, violence, and sex are probably not enough to make this 880-page novel attractive to any but the most determined teenage readers.
Termination Shock, by Neal Stephenson (2021).
Adventurous, ironic, and lighthearted despite its subject matter, this novel follows wildly disparate characters, including the Queen of the Netherlands, a Texan hunter of wild hogs, and a Sikh martial arts kid. Their lives intersect in intricate and surprising ways, as each becomes involved with a businessman’s plan to go rogue on climate change by geoengineering the stratosphere. Ultimately, the slow, unreliable wheels of democracy cannot compete with the power of individual genius and/or propaganda in this action-packed narrative, though that action gets somewhat derailed at times by impressively-researched details of mechanical engineering and geopolitical history. Allusions to Moby Dick and The Iliad offer rich parallels.
Discuss: When people go rogue with world-changing actions like building a sulfur gun without permission, are they courageous heroes or destructive lunatics? Is our society even able to tell the difference? When considering how to be safe in a rapidly changing world, do you think Uncle Ed is correct that “it was better to live somewhere obviously dangerous, because it kept you on your toes,” or not?
The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson (2020).
This novel imagines life in the 21st century as the effects of climate change—starting with a deadly heat wave in India—slowly begin to change the social order on earth from the bottom up. Through the international web of activists, terrorist cells, farmers, banking systems, and government coalitions that populate its pages, the book imagines in startling detail how the world might reverse its current course. The title refers to a new international organization working to enforce the Paris climate agreements, nicknamed "Ministry for the Future" because it is fighting for future generations. This is a terrifying but ultimately optimistic view of what that fight might look like and how it might turn out. Though this is another doorstop of a novel, the haunting tour-de-force of a Chapter 1 can stand alone as a text for discussion.
Discuss: What response could or should a country like India make to climate change in light of its experiences in this book? Is violence in defense of the climate justified or not? Which of the solutions or actions to fight climate change as described in this book are the most plausible?
The Disappearing Shore, by Roberta Park (2019).
This is a short, mystical little novel-in-parts about our present and our future, with each layer of the story responding to the one before. In short vignettes, fictional farmers, activists, lawyers, and rock stars meditate on the natural world and the human forces of emotional/cultural inertia as climate disaster approaches. The final portions of the book ask what kind of new life humanity/nature can make in the ashes of trauma.
Discuss: Which of the characters’ stories in Part 1 do you most identify with? Which perspectives seem most odd or confusing to you? What changes have happened to humans between Part 1 and Part 2 of this story? In what ways might those changes be bad? In what ways might those changes be good? What has stayed the same?
Dry, by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman (2018).
What happens when the flow of water suddenly runs dry? This powerful YA dystopia follows a group of California teenagers as their lives suddenly go from “normal” to a horrifying fight for survival. All it takes is a drought bad enough that a few states upstream seize the remaining water for themselves, and California starts quietly losing its mind. The most striking part of this book is how long it takes for everyone to realize that everything has changed. It's so easy to deny and ignore what's happening in the quiet background of life, until suddenly you can't anymore.
Discuss: What are some of the most surprising ways that the lack of water changed life for the characters in this story? What are some of the most important reasons people survive or don’t survive in this story? What advice do you think the characters at the end of the book would give their past selves at the beginning of the book? What advice would the characters give us today?
New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson (2017).
This massive novel imagines New York after fifty feet of sea rise has put Lower Manhattan underwater, and creatively (and often optimistically) explores the ways that buildings, food, transportation, politics, and economics might change in a new world after carbon, through a cast of characters including homeless water-rat kids, an airship viral video star, a self-important financial trader, and more.
Discuss: How does our economic system encourage climate change, both now and in this novel? What would it take to enact the renewable energy changes in the novel sooner? In what ways is life in this novel surprisingly like life today? How is it different? How would your life change if the sea rose fifty feet? How would you feel about living in such a world?
Exodus (2002), Zenith (2009) and Aurora (2011), by Julie Bertagna.
These novels comprise an accessible YA trilogy set around 2100, when rising seas have submerged much of the world, sending refugees in search of a new home. The series explores the tension between technological and natural ways of living in a changed reality, and the counterintuitive value of compassion in a harsh world.
Discuss: Why do those with so much keep it for themselves, rather than sacrificing in order to share? What are the advantages and disadvantages of technological escapism vs living in the “real world,” especially as the real world seems to be falling apart?
The Carbon Diaries 2015 and The Carbon Diaries 2017, by Saci Lloyd (2009-2011).
This YA novel and its sequel humorously depict a teenage girl and her family dealing with electricity rationing and carbon taxes in London after extreme global weather events in the near future.
Discuss: How would similar laws change your life? What would you spend your carbon points on? How bad would climate change have to get before politicians would be willing to enact such laws? What would it take to convince the public to accept them? How do selfishness and fear worsen the energy crisis? A discussion guide from the publisher is here.