Since the turn of the millennium, cli-fi has evolved from a subgenre of science fiction into a class of its own. Unlike traditional sci-fi, its stories seldom focus on imaginary technologies or faraway planets. Instead the pivotal themes are all about Earth, examining the impact of pollution, rising sea levels, and global warming on human civilization. And the genre’s growing presence in college curriculums, as well as its ability to bridge science with the humanities and activism, is making environmental issues more accessible to young readers—proving literature to be a surprisingly valuable tool in collective efforts to address global warming.
When it comes to courting the interest of younger generations, it certainly helps that cli-fi is emerging at the movies and on TV. Last year's Christopher Nolan epic Interstellar shows the American Midwest turning into a second Dust Bowl, with a forecast so dire it drives humans to seek a new planet. In 2014's Snowpiercer, a bungled attempt to stop global warming creates a new ice age. Margaret Atwood’s popular cli-fi trilogy MaddAddam is currently being adapted into a series for HBO, whose wildly popular show Game of Thrones also flirts, if unintentionally, with global-warming themes.
The writer and climate activist Dan Bloom came up with the term “cli-fi” circa 2007, hoping to convert the dull phrase “climate fiction” into something more compelling. “I never defined or even tried to define a new genre,” said Bloom. Instead, he merely wanted to come up with a catchy buzzword to raise awareness about global warming.” The strategy worked: When Atwood used the term in a 2012 tweet, she introduced it to her 500,000 followers, according to Bloom. As the notion of cli-fi took hold, publishers and book reviewers began regarding it as a new category. In this respect, cli-fi is a truly modern literary phenomenon: born as a meme and raised into a distinct genre by the power of social media. Today cli-fi has an actively used hashtag on Twitter, two user-created book lists on Goodreads, and several Facebook groups, including one devoted exclusively to young-adult climate fiction.
Given cli-fi’s contemporary genesis, it’s no surprise the genre is gaining popularity with high school and college-age readers. In a February 2015 feature for The Guardian, the cli-fi author Sarah Holding wrote that the genre “reconnects young readers with their environment, helping them to value it more, especially when today, a large amount of their time is spent in the virtual world.” Environmental themes complement the current trend of dystopian narratives in YA fiction. Bacigalupi’s young adult novels The Drowned Cities (2013) and Ship Breaker (2011) show how rising sea levels reconfigure America, while the protagonists of Sarah Crossan’s Breathe (2012) inhabit a domed city because oxygen is a rare commodity.