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Can a story change the climate? Why two climate activists chose fiction to propose climate change solutions

Novels have captured the imagination of readers for centuries. Fantasy, horror, science fiction (a.k.a. sci-fi), and mysteries are just a few popular genres, but now a new one is emerging: climate fiction, or “cli-fi” for short. 

The rise of this new genre coincides with increasing awareness of climate change across the world. Just in February, Climate Copernicus – the European Union climate monitor – reported that the average worldwide temperature over the past 12 months was 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.5 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than at the dawn of the Industrial Age.

While activists and non-profit organizations can certainly spread awareness, authors of the latest addition to the cli-fi literary canon argue that fictional characters and scenarios can be more effective in motivating people to take action.

“Nobody reads a boring report,” said Steve Willis, co-author of Fairhaven – A Novel of Climate Optimism. “A story is far more engaging than that.”

Willis, along with his co-author Genevieve Hilton, spoke at an FCC Club Lunch on the day of their book’s debut. Moderating the talk was FCC Correspondent Board Member Karen Koh.

Willis is the Director of Herculean Climate Solutions, an environmental consulting agency based in Malaysia, while Hilton is a full-time sustainability activist and writer under the pen name Jan Lee. The duo initially connected on LinkedIn and brainstormed their ideas for Fairhaven and continued to meet and discuss online while crafting their novel. Their recent trip to Hong Kong for their book launch was the first time they had met in person.

Hilton also shared her thoughts on why she as an activist figured a novel might be a better approach to the message she wants to share.

“There’s a whole ‘scared straight’ phenomenon. If I give you all the evidence and show you how horrible it could be, you will do something about it [climate change],” Hilton said.

Fairhaven is set in 2036 in Penang, Malaysia. The main character, Grace Chan, is about to take office as President of the newly-formed Ocean Independent State, yet crashes into a dyke and begins reviewing the life she has lived as the tide rises.

Despite being fiction, the novel roots itself into the environmental history of Malaysia – and the world – and proposes two solutions: restoring ocean ecosystems and refreezing the Arctic. Both of these solutions, while not currently being worked on by any organization, are possible, say the authors. But, it would take the right people to step forward and make it happen.

“It feels absolutely hopeless, but when you actually have your hand on something and you think, ‘This would actually work – we just need to keep pushing,’ you’re determined to make it otherwise,” said Willis.

Thinking about a climate change solution that doesn’t currently exist – but could – is what Hilton also finds to be instrumental in inspiring climate action.

“You can’t work towards something if you don’t know what it looks like,” she said.

Watch the full talk on our YouTube channel below:

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