This listing of fiction and movies is for high school students and adults prepared for challenging explorations of climate futures. It includes YA and adult fiction that is focused on the social and practical effects of climate change. Many of these latter texts vividly convey the emotional weight of various disasters that come with climate change. Some are straightforward climate dystopias, while others work as direct allegories.
Finally, a short list of movies and tv shows exploring climate change.
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
Fiction for High Schoolers and Adults: Dystopias and Allegories
Even if Everything Ends, by Jens Liljestrand (2023). Translated from Swedish, this story captures the boredom and panic of modern day first-world consumer culture as the people desperately try to ignore or escape the impending disasters small and large in their lives. Four successively younger narrators will each be affected by climate change for more of their life, and are each dealing with that sense of doom in different ways. As Sweden burns from protests and wildfires, none of the characters in this novel can believe that the social breakdown they expect in other countries is actually happening “here.” In their selfishness, in their smug pride in their orderly, comfortable, environmentally responsible homeland, the characters are easy to mock, but ultimately they are far too similar to us, their readers, for comfort. The book offers a painfully satirical contrast between the trappings of privilege and the sudden humiliations of suffering.
Blue Skies, by T.C. Boyle (2023). This novel delivers as rousing a satire of America’s near-future climate collapse as Liljestrand does of Sweden’s. Here, the wealthy congratulate themselves on their eco-friendly practices while recklessly buying, consuming, and wasting. Disasters approach so slowly that people don’t notice; they adapt seamlessly to the new normal as they lie to themselves about how bad it has become. The overall tone is hopelessness in the midst of a boring apocalypse, as each self-absorbed character uses alcoholism to dull the pain and deny their reality. Thoughtlessness and irresponsibility all of a sudden come home to roost as nature bites back.
Birnam Wood, by Eleanor Catton (2023). Guerrilla gardeners become entangled with a tech billionaire on the edge of a New Zealand national park. The various ambitions of the main characters lead to unexpectedly disastrous consequences, as the allusion to Macbeth would suggest. While this book does not deal with climate change specifically, its focus on environmental devastation and repair frames a psychological thriller concerned with arrogance, idealism, attempts at control through technology, and the ways we deceive others and ourselves. With all our technological and social capital as a species, why are we so unable to stop our own environmental destructiveness? This book provides, if not answers, at least a detailed outline of the problem.
Denial, by Jon Raymond (2022). Set in a near future in which technology and criminal trials have dramatically reduced carbon emissions, this book follows a journalist who is about to expose a convicted climate criminal he has discovered living in hiding. But, the journalist begins to wonder, as he faces a terminal diagnosis and contemplates the throughlines of civilizations throughout history, what will this accomplish? Neither a utopia nor a dystopia, this somewhat hopeful vision of a changed future nevertheless expresses realism about the unstoppable effects of climate change, and more fundamentally, about our tendency to willfully ignore what we do not want to accept.
The Unbalancing, by R.B. Lemberg (2022) depicts a community’s attempt to cope with warnings of apocalypse when all seems well. Nonbinary gender identities symbolize alternate ways of knowing and encountering the world. In the tension between escaping and healing a disintegrating land, characters seek love, patience, rest, and hope, despite disaster. The mode is more poetic, personal, and fantastical than socially incisive.
The Scholomance Trilogy, by Naomi Novik, including A Deadly Education (2020), The Last Graduate (2021), and The Golden Enclaves (2022). This YA trilogy is an ironic take on the magical school genre, featuring a witty and somewhat unreliable narrator, close attention to class and power, and a beautifully-constructed 3-part plot with cliffhangers that pay off. Most importantly, the trilogy offers an inescapable allegory of environmental disaster and the need for climate justice, as those with the least power suffer the most from a doom selfishly (and knowingly) created by the privileged. Sacrifice and collaboration lead to an optimistic conclusion.
Everything Change Volume III, edited by Angie Dell and Joey Eschrich (2021), includes “Invasive Species” by Amanda Baldeneaux, a near-future story in which people are caught and stalled in the midst of slow ecological and economic disintegration, and yet life goes on without fanfare, and “Redline” by Anya Ow, about a rescue mission while clinging to survival in a heat-stricken Singapore. Everything Change Volume II (2018) includes “Monarch Blue,” by Barbara Litkowski, in which the extinction of pollinating insects has left the job of pollinating to the poor, and “The Last Grand Tour of Albertine’s Watch,” by Sandra Barnidge, which illuminates the economic and social tensions of disaster tourism. Everything Change Volume I (2016) includes “On Darwin Tides,” by Shauna O’Meara, in which a young girl struggles to survive without legal papers in a rapidly warming Malaysia, and “Victor and the Fish,” by Matthew S. Henry, in which wildfires slowly destroy not only fish but also the communities built around them.
Weather, by Jenny Offill (2020), traces the hyperaware depression of a librarian who becomes overwhelmed by a sense of oncoming climate doom, even as the banalities of daily life continue. The novel is mainly about the narrator’s efforts to accept and cope with loss: the loss of her health, the loss of her original career, the loss of ecosystems, the loss of a sense of safety, the loss of her hopes for her child’s future. Her struggle against depression is mystical, poetic, and won moment by moment, like the sobriety of her addict brother. If the world is indeed dying, as we all are, how do we appreciate it and care for it anyway? I also enjoyed the book’s companion website, obligatorynoteofhope.com.
The Interdependency Series, by John Scalzi (2017-2020) (The Collapsing Empire, The Consuming Fire, The Last Emperox). This series explores a far-future space empire that has thoughtlessly developed around a natural phenomenon it exploits without fully understanding. When scientists predict that cataclysmic change is coming, the profit motive and inertia make it difficult for society to take the drastic action needed to stave off disaster. While it’s not explicitly about climate change, the allegory is clear and could help students analyze the present moment. Be aware: mild sexual content and excess swearing.
After the Flood, by Kassandra Montag (2019), imagines a scenario in which water rapidly covers the world and dramatic social change ensues, as a mother searches the increasingly lawless ocean for her stolen daughter. While it’s scientifically unlikely for the American Midwest to be flooded anytime soon, this novel’s depiction of the rapid unmooring of our modern society and way of life is devastating.
The Overstory, by Richard Powers (2018), makes trees the unexpected protagonists through a dazzling use of symbolic connections, deep-dive science, and the epic interwoven timelines of multiple human and arboreal characters. This book turns the ordinary tree outside your window into an alien lifeform living on an entirely different timescale. A motley band of ecoterrorists defending a forest forms only one of several powerful narrative threads.
The Broken Earth trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin (2015-2018), includes The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky. This series depicts a fantasy world in which society is shaped around the need to survive recurring geological disasters, an allegory of the social and physical devastation of climate change. It also explores how power shapes racial and social identities, tying into issues of environmental justice.
The Marrow Thieves, by Cherie Dimaline (2017) and sequel Hunting By Stars (2022). In this YA dystopian series, Native Americans flee mainstream settler culture, which is hunting them as a resource. The melting ice and rising oceans of a devastated climate future form a distant backdrop for this story, which focuses instead on the struggle to hide and survive in the still-beautiful wilderness of a broken world.
American War, by Omar El Akkad (2017). When I first read this book several years ago, I thought its premise of a second American civil war, fought this time over the right to burn fossil fuels, was a little far-fetched. Who would be willing to fight and die for that? But as climate change continues to worsen, and as science denialism shows itself to be far stronger than even immediate threats to human life, it seems more likely that any realistic climate action America takes could be either too little/ too late, or violently opposed by much of the population. What comes after that? This book mostly focuses on the refugee crisis and political turmoil that climate change would cause.
Tales from the Warming: Envisioning the Human Impact of the Climate Crisis by Lorin R. Robinson (2017). These 10 “slice of life” vignettes offer exposition of possible futures, punctuated by frequent action and romance sequences. The most memorable stories include “Exodus,” concerning Polynesian islanders’ decision to leave their home, Viatupu; “The Perfect Storm,” in which a Bangladeshi man becomes a second Noah, following God’s prompting to save his family; and “Starting Over,” about Midwestern refugees moving to Greenland to farm.
Ship Breaker, The Drowned Cities and Tool of War, by Paolo Bacigalupi (2011-2017). This YA series depicts a post-apocalyptic world of radical inequality after sea rise and warming. The novels explore similar themes as some of Bacigalupi’s adult stories and novels, including The Water Knife (2016), which is a thoughtful thriller that imagines corporations, states, and a reporter battling over water in the American Southwest as global warming takes a toll. Be aware: The Water Knife depicts sex, rape, and torture. The YA series (Ship Breaker) does not.
The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway (2016). This short book is not really a novel. It uses a non-fiction style as if written from the perspective of a historian four hundred years from now, chronicling how climate change destroyed civilization. In this imagined future, democracies cannot muster the political will to act against climate change in time, and only dictatorships like China respond fast enough to save their citizens.
Fragment, by Craig Russell (2016), starts out as an eco-thriller about a collapsing Antarctic ice shelf, but develops into a tender exploration of interspecies communication and solidarity. Of the dozen or so narrators Russell weaves together, the most interesting is a blue whale.
Gold Fame Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins (2015). Having lost its water, the most essential of its various mirages, California has become a land of scavengers and outlaws. Makeshift families find purpose through building communities amidst physical devastation, but the human appetite for self-induced fantasies persists. The novel meditates on the varieties of ecological collapse (drought, nuclear waste, and a truly epic vision of desertification in the American West). The narrative style is complex and encyclopedic, threaded with a personal story of hope and failure. Be aware: some fairly explicit sexual content.
Clade, by James Bradley (2015). This interconnected series of brief snapshots tells the epic story of three generations of one family as they experience the slow burn of climate change over time. It examines the intergenerational relationships and emotions that emerge from long-term change of this magnitude.
Loosed Upon the World: The Saga Anthology of Climate Fiction, edited by John Joseph Adams (2015). Besides the stories listed above, this large volume explores different human relationships and emotions in the context of climate change, including standout tales about a Midwestern family facing desertification (“A Hundred Hundred Daisies,” by Nancy Kress), ecosystem destruction in the Pacific Northwest as humans move there to escape climate change (“The Myth of Rain,” by Seanan McGuire), journalists covering drought refugees in Arizona (“Shooting the Apocalypse,” by Paolo Bacigalupi), a family struck by a tropical pandemic (“Outer Rims,” by Toiya Kristen Finley), an environmentalist fighting technological solutions to climate change (“Eagle,” by Gregory Benford), a marriage crumbling along with dikes against the storms (“The Netherlands Lives With Water,” by Jim Shepard), and a meditation on denial as water rises (“Quiet Town,” by Jason Gurley).
Orleans, by Sherri Smith (2013). This YA dystopia depicts a post-hurricane Gulf Coast where a blood disease has restructured society into tribes based on blood type. It explores issues of rebuilding communities and the power of technology vs. the power of relational bonds, through the perspective of a young Black girl trying to survive.
Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver (2012). This poetic novel looks at climate change through the perspective of a rural Appalachian woman who finds monarch butterflies in the forest, after climate change has pushed them out of their native Mexico. This book deals explicitly with the contemporary problem of climate change denial.
The Alchemist, a novella by Paolo Bacigalupi (2011), later collected in The Tangled Lands (2018). In this fantastical allegory for climate change, any use of magic causes the growth of more and more deadly bramble, which threatens to sicken children and swallow towns. Ironically, the protagonist is secretly practicing magic in order to heal his own daughter from bramble disease.
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell (2004) is a difficult but rewarding read, told through six different stories, each embedded within the last and successively jumping forward in time. Collectively, they deal with how power inflicts violence on the powerless and how communities of empathy might develop against cultures of greed. Ecological devastation is a central theme, though war and nuclear weapons are more direct causes here than climate change.
Earthseed series (Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents), by Octavia Butler (1993-1998). These two novels, groundbreaking early YA dystopias, feature a young woman who journeys in a disintegrating, overheating world to spread the message of a new religion in the face of relentless change. Unique in its own time and even more relevant today.
“The New Atlantis,” by Ursula K. Le Guin (1975). This novella imagines a future America in which the combined forces of government control and corporate ownership have made art, knowledge, nature, and meaningful work all equally obsolete– or at least driven them into hiding. As the sea begins to invade the decaying continents of the old world, a new world may be arising from its depths.
If you’re interested in post-apocalyptic visions, you may like Earth Abides by George Stewart (1949). Though its initiating apocalypse is a pandemic, rather than climate change, its central focus is the reciprocal relationship between people and their world, and how each changes the other. After the majority of people are gone, how does the earth change? And how do those changes, in turn, change the people who are left? As technological knowledge fades, the story explores whether we might ultimately be happier and wiser to let much of civilization go.
Climate Fiction in Film
How to Blow Up A Pipeline (2023), by Daniel Goldhaber. This fictional film, working in the heist thriller genre, imagines how an intrepid crew might directly attack fossil fuel infrastructure in order to interrupt climate change. Even more powerful, however, is its thoughtful and sympathetic portrayal of the various environmental and personal reasons why each member of this crew chooses to take this desperate action.
Extrapolations (2023), by Scott Z. Burns and Dorothy Fortenberry. This series extends 30 years in the future to imagine how people’s everyday lives (or more specifically, the lives of multiracial, upper-middle-class Americans) might be affected by climate change, forcing its audience to consider “What would I do?” Each episode can essentially stand alone. The message is fatalistic and offers little hope for solutions; the emphasis rather is on the frightening future that awaits us, and how selfish we might allow ourselves to be along the way.
Don’t Look Up (2021), by Adam McKay. This satirical film starts with the classic disaster movie trope of an asteroid hitting the earth, but removes all the triumphant heroism or unified patriotic fervor. Instead, we get denial, misinformation, and capitalist shortsightedness, epitomized in one character’s line to her anxious daughter, “Your father and I are for the jobs the comet will provide.” Even in a situation far more immediate and easier to stop than climate change, society is paralyzed. There is no miracle solution offered here, only a relentless diagnosis of the political and social inertia of our decadent and distracted culture.
First Reformed (2017), by Paul Schrader. This film represents in a beautifully personal and dramatic way the spiritual crisis of a man coming to terms with ecological destruction. The protagonist, an alcoholic pastor, becomes radicalized when he realizes that his church is supported by fossil fuel money. His response to this information places him in the space between madman and prophet.