New Work of Climate Science Fiction Depicts a Bleak Future
Review of 2084: An Oral History of the Great Warming
In 2084: An Oral History of the Great Warming, career scientist and academic James L. Powell describes a future calamitously altered by climate change. Powell’s book borrows its format from the work of World War II oral historian Studs Terkel, drawing on retrospective interviews from fictional characters deeply affected by a warming planet.
Though Powell is an accomplished scientist, appointed to the National Science Board by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, his approach is more than a simple juridical account of the scientific evidence. Rather, 2084’s events and characters are fictional, drawing upon established climate science in order to provide a basis for Powell’s wild imagination. And it is wild indeed.
Powell’s characters vividly describe the consequences of climate change for their cities and nations. New York City is abandoned after huge storms drown thousands and submerge large parts of the city. Miami Beach disappears under five feet of water and its abandoned buildings collapse as their ground floors are reclaimed by the sea. Fifty million Bangladeshis become climate refugees as more than a quarter of the country is submerged. The island of Tuvalu disappears, as does Rotterdam and half of The Netherlands. Vast tracts of land are rendered unlivable by water scarcity and the Amazon is reduced to a handful of acres. The last polar bears survive only in zoos.
But Powell doesn’t merely describe the physical changes caused by the great warming; he also tries his hand at predicting the geopolitical consequences of these dramatic events. In Powell’s imagination, the great warming unleashes the worst in human nature. Arab states, with the support of a nuclear-armed Iran, attack Israel as the Jordan River runs dry. After disputes over water rights in the Punjab, Pakistan and India descend into full-scale nuclear war, resulting in the literal erasure of Lahore, Karachi, Bangalore, Calcutta, New Delhi, and Islamabad, along with their 150 million inhabitants.
As if that isn’t frightening enough, climate refugees flood into developed nations, sundering all pretenses of tolerance and ending centuries of liberal democracy. The United States devolves into fascism, establishes an Orwellian Department of Homeland Purity, and forces Americans of color to wear armbands, á la Nazi Germany. And true to form, America invades and annexes our feeble neighbor to the north in order to seize what has by then become a quite pleasant climate.
All combined, Powell crafts an extraordinarily alarming fiction. His description of climate change and its geographic consequences are descriptive and compelling. His characters’ narratives are embedded with plausible scientific extrapolations that make the shifts seem genuine and credible. But his venture into geopolitics is far-fetched, pessimistic, and perhaps counterproductive to his larger persuasive goals. Powell writes, “to almost any politician or scholar at the turn of the century, the notion that fascism might appear again would have been risible.” Indeed.
Powell may risk losing skeptical readers he may have otherwise persuaded by entertaining his dystopian predictions. It is difficult, however, to persuade an audience of the need to act with anything but a tragic end. After all, the title of the book is 2084, a clear nod to Orwell’s dystopian canon. Powell hopes to shock society out of climate complacency with vivid descriptions of human suffering in the same way 1984 inoculated its readers against totalitarianism. One wonders, though, if Powell did take it a little far with the Nazi references.
Overall, 2084 is a thoughtful work of science fiction that asks us to confront a bleak picture of the worst ravages of unabated climate change. Rooted in rigorous scientific research, Powell’s climate dystopia is a compelling—if extreme—illustration of the greatly diminished existence in store for mankind should we fail to transcend petty political squabbling and ignore climate science.
Junayd Mahmood is an intern with CAP’s Energy Opportunity team. Also see John Atcheson’s review of 2084 and the Amazon Singles format at Climate Progress.org.
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