Climate Voices

June 23, 2022
By: Lindsey Kirkland, Senior Climate Change Education Manager

Leveraging Literature in a Time of Crisis

Leveraging Literature in a Time of Crisis - Photo

Imagine your favorite book. Who are the characters that you loved and lived through? Which books stuck with you long after you closed the binding? Did you view the world differently afterwards?

Stories, whether through literature or other visual mediums, shape our understanding of the people and environments around us; what is normal, what is happening, what is just and equitable, and what is possible. Natural and social phenomena become known to us partly through art and literature as well. The call for an increase in authentic, diverse perspectives of climate change in media across our culture and educational systems is a growing drumbeat.

Climate fiction, or cli-fi, can change the predominant climate change narrative of impacts and fear into one that centers justice and human experiences. This is in addition to nonfiction works about climate change. Both genres foster intangible skills such as empathy, compassion, creativity, resourcefulness, perseverance, and courage within students. One of the greatest benefits of cli-fi is that it provides an avenue for sharing complicated scientific information and frightening potentialities in relatable, digestible ways.

So, how does cli-fi influence climate change education and engagement in the classroom? Climate Generation recently released an updated 2022 version of our Climate Fiction and Nonfiction Reading Guide. We’re excited to dive into this topic with you!

Climate Fiction and the Reader’s Worldview

Cli-fi can be separated into two subgenres: utopian and dystopian. Utopian stories imagine an idealist or perfect world, while dystopian depicts a society of great suffering and injustice. Cli-fi has traditionally focused on dystopian societies and bleak futures that serve as a warning against our inaction. Both subgenres can influence our understanding of climate change solutions and impacts; they begin with acts of the imagination, with a sharpened sense of a need for something new.

Reading climate fiction allows students (or readers of any age) to personalize and localize the climate crisis in connection with their own realities.

Cli-fi can also serve as a call to action or a roadmap for possible climate solutions and visions of a better future, giving readers the courage and creativity to take action toward solutions. Cli-fi can act as a mirror, prompting us to reflect on our own actions and how things may have gone differently. It can also be a window, allowing us to see the lives of people from different cultural and heritage backgrounds, people from different social classes, and people that live far away from us.

However, climate fiction cannot lead to true solutions unless it addresses climate justice. As most cli-fi fails to include climate justice as a central theme, educators can couple books with critical conversations around why justice issues are not featured. Perhaps it’s asking why there is a lack of diverse voices, and encouraging students to reimagine the book to better represent diverse communities with people-centered climate solutions.

Diverse voices are crucial to help students have empathy for the inequitable ways that climate change impacts others and shift their focus from individual to collective action.

Student Engagement and Climate Literature

Student engagement during a crisis is a complex and emergent framework; the classroom may look different during a crisis than “traditional” learning time.

Engagement typically lives at the confluence of the teacher, the student, and the content.

All aspects of the classroom play a vital role in building an engaging educational experience: the relationships between teacher and student, and student to student; the relevance of the content to student and teachers’ lives and interests; and teacher knowledge of the content. These three components of engagement also hold true during times of crises.

During times of crises students’ and teachers’ emotions are stretched thin, their schedules and lives are altered, and the connection between the classroom and non-school lives becomes less defined and harder to find. Relevance and relationships become overwhelmingly important when trying to create an engaging classroom during a time of crises. Building relationships based on empathy and respect is critical for effective climate change education.

Educators can boost relevance by creating a sense of efficacy, resilience, and hope. The narrative format of cli-fi can immerse readers in the plot and the experiences of the characters, allowing them to absorb information open mindedly without immediately dismissing new ideas.

A 2018 book review from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) shows that children’s books feature white characters in far greater numbers than any other race. The CCBC’s extensive book review found that 50% of books portrayed white characters, compared to 10% Black or African American, 7% Asian/Asian American/Pacific Islander, 5% Latino/a, and 1% Native American or First Nations.

When children of color have less access to positive representations of themselves in literature, it limits their ability to see how they can be part of climate solutions.

It can be harder for youth to explore their culture and appreciate their unique gifts when they don’t see media that celebrates them. It also puts children from any marginalized community at a disadvantage because it is harder to imagine achieving what a book character accomplishes when the character’s identities do not resonate. A lack of diversity in children’s books sends the message to readers that some people do not belong in climate solutions conversations, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Tips on How to Use Cli-fi in Climate Change Education

Climate Generation has selected climate fiction and nonfiction books that represent the slow shift in the cli-fi genre over the past decade to include in our Climate Fiction and Nonfiction Reading Guide.

We encourage you to consider how you can incorporate the following strategies into your classroom or teaching environment.

  • Highlight a mix of dystopian and utopian stories.
  • Use dystopian novels to explore feelings of empathy, anxiety, and trauma.
  • Couple both dystopian and utopian cli-fi with action-inspired projects for creating local climate solutions.
  • Feature books from diverse authors.
  • Feature books with diverse characters.
  • If a book doesn’t focus on climate justice issues, ask your students to analyze why it might not, and see if they can find examples of justice issues that weren’t emphasized.
  • Introduce students to characters both similar to and different from themselves.

Many of the titles newly incorporated into our Reading Guide feature protagonists who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC), female, or represent other marginalized or frontline communities, center climate justice, and/or were written by BIPOC authors.

We hope that our selected books will start enthusiastic conversations with your students that perhaps include climate change impacts, but quickly move toward hopeful, just, and creative solutions that lead to action off the page.

Download the Free Reading Guide

Lindsey Kirkland supports on-going climate change education programs for K-12 educators and public audiences. As the education manager, she also develops a vision for and provides strategic coordination for programs focusing primarily on professional development for teachers and informal educators.

Climate Generation’s team put together a list of some of our favorite climate fiction, storytellers, justice voices, and writings about climate change earlier this year.

Student Engagement Venn Diagram adapted from “Where student, teacher, and content meet: Student engagement in the secondary school classroom,” by Corso, M. J., Bundick, M. J., Quaglia, R. J., & Haywood, D. E., 2013. American Secondary Education