Conveying climate change to the public, by journalism and fiction

Earlier this month, I joined science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson for a conversation about conveying climate change and other environmental issues to the public. The virtual event took place at the University of California-San Diego’s Triton Leaders Conference 2024 and was emceed by Michael Bumbry. We discussed communicating environmental issues via news reporting and science fiction, respectively; the importance of narrative and sound science when engaging audiences; and the challenges presented by disinformation, among other topics.

Robinson has authored more than 20 books, including the Mars trilogy, “Red Moon,” “New York 2140,” and “The Ministry for the Future.”

The following is a summary of our conversation based on a transcript. Note the text has been heavily edited for clarity and flow. Before quoting, I recommend going to the link above for the original phrasing.

Michael Bumbry:
Could you open with a few comments about what brings you here today and your connection to this topic?

Rhett Ayers Butler:
Mongabay covers climate change in the context of nature and frontline communities. This means the impact of climate change on wildlife ecosystems and on peoples, especially Indigenous communities and local communities.

We do this by reporting in multiple languages and having a large network of contributing journalists who are at the frontlines of these issues.

We cover a lot of climate science, but it tends to be through one of those two angles, and about 70% of our staff and contributors are in the Global South. It is really in the areas which are being hardest hit by the impacts of climate change. Thank you for the opportunity to be here.

Kim Stanley Robinson:
I am indeed a science fiction writer, and I loved my time at UCSD, which was long ago, but I returned often to speak there to students and faculty.

As a science fiction writer, the future is a really vast story space. You can usefully split science fiction into near future, which is like day after tomorrow, the kind of realism of our moment, or far future, which would be space opera like Star Wars or Star Trek, and a middle zone a couple hundred years out that I’ve explored quite often, which you can call future history.

I often do near future science fiction. That means, because of what’s happened, I’ve turned into a climate fiction writer, since climate change is an over-determining factor. It’s the major element of 21st-century history, whether we cope with it successfully or not.

I went to Antarctica in 1995, and the scientists down there were already talking about climate change and what it can do to sea level rise and to the world in general. I began writing about it at that time. It’s not like it’s been the topic of every novel I’ve written since then, but I keep coming back to it.

In 2020, I published “The Ministry for the Future,” a climate change novel which has been an influential novel, which is an unusual thing to say about novels. But I know it’s true, because I’ve spent the last few years touring the world to talk about it, mostly by zoom, thank God, but also in various travels. It’s taught me that people still read novels and that climate change, since the pandemic, has convinced us that the biosphere can slap you in the face and change everything. There’s a new sense of hope and opportunity in the air that I’m sure we’ll continue to discuss. With that, I’ll turn it back over to Michael.

Thank you both. With a packed virtual audience, we encourage you all throughout the hour to post any comments in the chat or raise your hand.

First question: What inspired each of you to focus on environmental themes?

I’ve always been very passionate about wildlife, especially reptiles and amphibians. I had the great fortune of having a mother as a travel agent, so my family prioritized travel to non-conventional places. I had an early experience where I was able to go to the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador, which was amazing. After I left, the forest was affected by an oil spill on the river that I had just visited. That’s what moved me from someone interested in cool frogs to following environmental issues.

Another experience was when I went to Borneo, returned home, and several months later, the forest was logged to make paper. That’s when I decided to write a book about rainforests, which I did while I was at UCSD, and eventually, I started a website that became Mongabay. That’s the origin.

For me, I was a beach kid. I grew up in Orange County and spent a lot of time at UCSD and in North County in San Diego as a body surfer and an ocean person. Then, as an undergraduate at UCSD, a friend took me up to the Sierra Nevada, and I’ve been a Sierra person ever since. In fact, my most recent book is called “The High Sierra.” I would say that all kinds of things interested me through my writing career, but I always had that anchoring in the Sierra and in California consciousness.

It was in Antarctica in 1995 where scientists began to tell me, “Look, this is serious. We are entering an age of carbon dioxide overshoot.” The destruction of the biosphere is really like shooting ourselves in the foot. It isn’t just a rising temperature from CO2; it’s also destruction of the biosphere by extractive activities that aren’t in the best interests of the long-term health of a civilization.

I came very late to wild creatures; it was seeing the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep in 2008 that made me aware to pay attention to wild animals when you see them because they’re all endangered in a way. I’ve been slowly changed over my lifetime by these experiences until it’s become a kind of predominating interest.

Science fiction is the right genre to talk about these things, as it includes people, world history, technology, and the planet as such. So planetary fiction is a part of science fiction, and now we need planetary fiction as part of our understanding of where we are.

Thank you. Even though perspectives have evolved because of lived experience, it’s fascinating to hear that for both of you, a lot of your influence began early in life. Next question: What approaches or elements do you use to engage audiences on environmental themes, such as strong narratives, character development, or examples that link environmental problems to everyday life?

Sure, I can start.

For us at Mongabay, it’s about connecting these issues in far-off places directly to people’s lives. That can be things like the impact of the products you consume in your everyday life, whether it’s palm oil or the wood products you buy, and how healthy and productive ecosystems, both far and near, affect our well-being.

Our approach is to bring these issues to people directly but also stories of inspiration from these places. People who are doing really extraordinary things under difficult circumstances can be really inspiring in our everyday lives to make a difference.

We try to focus on solutions as well. We don’t want to just give people bad news; we want to show them that there are things that can be done. Highlighting local voices is very important to us.

We try to give agency to people who are on the frontlines of these issues, which I think is really key in conservation and environmental journalism. It can’t just be someone flying in from the outside; it has to be people who are living these issues every day.

I agree with that.

What’s been interesting to me in my science fiction writing, and especially in “The Ministry for the Future,” is to find that a strong narrative is very helpful. People like stories, so I give them stories. But also, in this novel, I gave them essays, reports, eyewitness accounts, and what you might call “think pieces” – a whole variety of literary forms inside the novel. This is because climate change is such a huge and complicated story that a single narrative can’t cover it all.

In “The Ministry for the Future,” I tried to use all the tools in the toolkit, and people have responded well to that. They don’t just want a single story; they want to understand the whole situation, which requires different angles. So, I’ve been experimenting with that in my fiction, and it seems to have struck a chord.

It’s evident that both of you have found multiple angles to engage with your audiences. This leads into a related question: How do you maintain hope and optimism in your work and personal lives, especially when addressing such challenging and often bleak topics?

This is a great question, especially right now. I think what keeps me going is the people I meet who are doing really inspiring work on the ground. Whether they’re scientists, activists, or just regular people who have decided to make a difference in their community, those stories are incredibly uplifting and keep me motivated.

It’s also seeing the impact of our work. When we publish a story and it leads to a positive outcome, whether it’s a policy change or someone deciding to become active in conservation, that’s really rewarding.

But it’s definitely challenging. There’s a lot of bad news, and it’s easy to get down. So, focusing on the positive and the progress being made is really important.

I completely agree with that. It’s important to emphasize that in the scientific community, there’s a consensus that we could still avoid the worst of climate change if we were to act decisively now. This isn’t a message of “doom” but rather a message of “potential doom if we don’t act.” There’s still time to act. This is what scientists are telling us, and I’m just a reporter in this context. But it’s a hopeful message if we take it seriously.

I also think there’s a kind of grim satisfaction to be had in facing up to the biggest problems of our time and saying, “Well, I’m doing what I can.” There’s a kind of honor in that. So, I find hope in the efforts of others and in the belief that we can still make a difference. It’s not over until it’s over.

That’s a powerful reminder that, while the challenges are significant, there is still room for action and impact. Thank you both for your thoughtful answers and for sharing your insights with us today. I think it’s clear from this discussion that while the challenges are significant, there is still much that can be done, and there are many people out there doing important work.

Piggybacking on that, could you both tell us more about the power of narrative and strong sciences when engaging audiences around this topic? And Rhett, maybe you could explain to the audience what we mean by “strong science.”

What that means is having a strong scientific basis for something. The idea that there are scientific facts that back up a statement is absolutely critical in journalism, especially when discussing the environment.

That being said, not everyone engages around numbers or even facts. They may not remember, for example, how many square miles of rainforest were destroyed or how many tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans every year. What people tend to remember are the stories. Those stories are often built around characters, whether it’s an activist, a community member, or an individual animal. Building a narrative around that character is really important to establishing a connection with an audience. But again, there needs to be a factual basis if we’re talking about science.

Stan excels at this as he brings in the science that underpins the worlds he creates and engages people around that. It’s having the combination of narrative and fact-based science that engages and compels an audience to action.

I’m eager to hear Stan’s thoughts on this as well.

For me, there’s a huge advantage in writing science fiction in that you can leverage the power of science, which is dominant in our culture. It creates all the necessities and toys and is extending our lifetimes. It is a powerful engine for human improvement. When you write about it, you are given new stories with new vocabulary.

As an English major and a literary person, the idea that there are new stories out there, and new language to describe them is exciting. If you trust science, as I do, and can figure out plots that engage without the slow pace and tedium of the group process of science, you’ve got good material. I’ve trusted the sciences to provide good literary material.

We live in a world where narratives are all about magic and superheroes. There’s room for stories about how the world really works, and the sciences are kind of the model of what we can do that is quite magical in their results but meticulous and realistic.

AI generated image of a futuristic city.

Absolutely. And the importance of facts was brought up. With that in mind, what have we seen or experienced in terms of climate or environmental disinformation? And how do we navigate through all that noise?

I’ve personally been seeing climate change misinformation regularly since I started [the news section of] Mongabay almost 20 years ago. It has evolved from outright denialism to delayerism to attacks on renewable energy and EVs.

In my work, I’ve encountered a lot of misinformation on deforestation, even outright denial that it is happening. Thankfully, the proliferation of satellites has made it harder for those making false claims about the world’s forests, as we can now see what’s happening on a near-daily basis. This has been a positive development, making ignorance no longer an excuse.

I want to reference Naomi Oreskes, a UCSD person, who wrote an important book, “Merchants of Doubt.” It shows how the tobacco industry’s denial strategies were repurposed to deny the impacts of burning fossil fuels. This disinformation has been systemic, paid for, and purposeful.

Now, almost everyone knows climate change is real. Those denying it are taking a political stance against the facts. It’s getting hard to be a denialist as the effects of climate change become more apparent.

What is one of the biggest challenges related to climate change or environmental justice that keeps you both up at night?

For me, it’s the scale of change required in a short amount of time compared to the pace of political change and the power of business-as-usual interests. That’s what concerns me the most, even though I see reasons for hope.

What scares me is that our political representation can get bought by the fossil fuel industries because of Citizens United and the sheer amount of money poured into the political system. Our political representatives are not truly representing us, and that frightens me. However, a vote is still a vote. You can overwhelm money with knowledge and the right narrative, but the influence of money still scares me.

So, we’ve discussed the volume and the challenges that can seem at times insurmountable, including politics and dark money, among other issues. Switching to the positive side, the next question is kind of the flip of that. We talked a bit about the importance of hope and optimism in your work and why this matters.

Sure, if I may, issues can certainly feel overwhelming and lead to feelings of despair and apathy. But hopeful reporting, from a journalistic standpoint, can help counteract this by focusing on the potential and progress rather than just problems. This can give people reasons to be inspired about the future, engage them, and help motivate them to seek change in the world. We find that people are more likely to get involved when they feel like their actions can really make a difference.

Another trend is that about 40% of people worldwide, according to a recent survey, are actively avoiding the news because they’re getting bummed out by it. The topics that self-identified news avoiders still read are solutions and positive stories. So, to engage people, even those who don’t read the news anymore, focusing on those topics that bring hope and reasons for optimism is key.

Yes, I agree. Rhett’s journalism includes stories of individuals and local projects doing good, which links to the question of hope as a driver for your own projects. No one person can do enough on their own, which can feel like it’s not going to work. But realizing you’re one brick in a larger wall, part of a global effort, can encourage you to continue with your small but important project. Focusing on the good things that are already happening is crucial, as there are many of them.

I’ve felt a turning of the tide; I wrote “Ministry for the Future” in 2019 and was much angrier and less hopeful then than I am now. The pandemic was a slap in the face — quite a severe one, one out of every 1000 persons died in that pandemic. That’s a big number and you wouldn’t want to take those odds in Russian roulette. And we came out of it confused, but it also brought climate change high on everybody’s list of concerns.

And when people learn that there are already good efforts being taken to try to cope with [climate change] and turn the then the arc on this century, then it helps everybody.

Thank you both. Two important stats that I learned just now from your comments are about 40% of folks do not engage with the news, and then one out of every 1,000 deaths is COVID-related. Very sobering. We’ve been going for about 30 minutes. Any questions from the group? Feel free to unmute yourself, introduce your connection to UC San Diego, and ask your question or comment. Or, if you’d be more comfortable, put it in the chat.

Lily asks, “What are some action items we can do today, and what message would you like us to share with our peers?”

A good start is be to become informed about what’s happening in the world. Use that information to think about how your everyday decisions affect the planet and people around you. This includes choices around diet, transportation, and consumption. It also informs your actions around voting and conveying concerns to politicians and businesses. For example, asking a company about their policy around palm oil can be powerful, even if you don’t do anything else. The fact that consumers are asking these questions can raise important conversations internally.

Those are good points. Additionally, there’s almost certainly a local environmental group where you live that you can join. Doing something tangible in a group is very rewarding.

Also, consider electrifying your home. The tech is there to try to get off of burning gas or oil to heat your home or stove. I’m in that process right now and I find it interesting. There are rebates or payments of that sort from the state of California that cover some of the costs. It’s satisfying to do.

All of us can reduce our carbon burn by paying attention to small things and changing daily practices. But I also have to say that everyone on Earth is going to burn some carbon. So you don’t want to go into some kind of saintly suffering and guilt mode, you can just pay attention to unnecessary waste, and go a really long way.

Thank you. Trina asks, “Do you think that movies could reach more people to convey the message, perhaps more than books?” Just thoughts in general about the potential impact of the movie industry.

Movies or the mass media of our time, although I think we should really say visual media now because TV series and platforms have become so widespread, especially since the pandemic. It’s important to discuss how hard it is to tell visual narratives. I’ve attempted adaptations of my climate fictions; none have been green-lighted yet, but a lot of work has been done.

Visual media is used to spectacle and speed, which makes it challenging to tell positive stories about climate change. It doesn’t fit any of the current tropes. But, it’s worth trying repeatedly.

One thing I’ll add is that with novels, the reader has to co-create the story, whereas visual media is more passive. That’s why I’m more pleased than ever with the power of literature. More people watch movies and TV than read novels, but I would love to see adaptations of my work. However, it’s a long shot in my case.

Thank you. A question from Marcy Morrison. She’s interested in hearing more from Rhett about his initial inspiration in the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador.

The inspiration came from near Yasuni National Park, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. I visited twice last year. Recently, Ecuador voted to phase out oil drilling in the park, which is a significant development.

Back in 1990, I visited an area affected by an oil spill on the Rio Napo. The local indigenous community and wildlife were affected by this disaster.

We continue to report regularly from the Amazon. We have staff in Ecuador and a large number of contributors.

We’re about to announce a fellowship program for indigenous Ecuadorians to train in journalism. It’s exciting and if successful, we hope to expand this program for indigenous journalists across the Amazon.

Thank you, Rhett. Another question from Lily: Can both of you share any upcoming works or projects?

I’m writing a nonfiction book like The High Sierra, about Antarctica. There’ll be a small strand of memoir about my own trips there, a bit of history about the classic era of exploration — Scott, Shackleton, Mawson, and the rest — and the exciting adventures in the early 20th century. But then also a future strand: What are we going to do about the big ice sheets of Antarctica that are sliding into the sea and melting faster than ever before, in ways that will cause all of the beaches on Earth to disappear?

I write about this as a direct reporter in the style of Rhett and his crowd in a way that I never have before because there’s a group of glaciologists trying to figure out whether the method that I described in Ministry for the Future could work or not. That method involves drilling through the ice and then sucking water out from underneath the glaciers, which would cause them to thump back down onto their rock beds and slow the melting back down to the historic speed.

I got the idea from a glaciologist, and he’s still involved. Now that they’ve had the publicity of my book, describing it as if that actually could work, they want to see if it could work. I’ve been attending their workshops and their meetings to explore what the experiments would be and what the pilot projects would be. So I’m still involved and doing climate nonfiction now, a strange assignment for me, but I’m enjoying it thoroughly.

I would like more positive science fiction that depicts positive futures in this century, because what I’ve been noticing in my endless touring for Ministry for the Future is that there aren’t many books in this genre. It is an ecological niche in our cultural imagination that is relatively empty. One reason my book has been taken up with such enthusiasm is that people are really hungry for that kind of story. And it’s not an impossible story, but it’s underrepresented.

As a news outlet, we’re a little bit different in terms of how we thinking about the future. But we have a series that builds off of exactly what Stan is talking about from from a journalistic perspective, where we are actively trying to scale up our solutions journalism. This series focuses on what is working in the world. That effort manifests in different ways: One of the sub-themes under that is Indigenous-led conservation because there’s a growing body of research that shows that when Indigenous peoples and local communities have rights to their territtories, the result is better outcomes for conservation, the health of ecosystems, and climate.

We’re also looking at how conservation can better leverage appropriate technologies as well as regnerative agrilculture and agroecology.

Another area where we’re going to be scaling up coverage quite a lot this year is in in Africa, considering its environmental significance in the coming decades.

Thank you. As we wrap up, could both of you share a meaningful experience from your work?

I’ve talked to so many people who have been motivated by my book, particularly chapter 85, which is just a list of local environmental organizations and wildlife groups doing good work.

One time, I had someone come up to me and say, “I work already for the Ministry for the Future. I work for a preschool.” And it made me think there are already so many people working for the future generations. It’s been a beautiful thing to see the way that a report or a work of art can rally people around it because they recognize their own work.

In September, the UN is going to run a “Summit of the Future” and publish “A Pact for the Future” in part because they were thinking that a ministry for the future is a good idea. And in my book, it’s a UN body. So it is essentially inspired people at the UN to try to do the same kind of thing. And I’m very pleased with that, obviously.

Additionally, the UN’s upcoming Summit of the Future and Pact for the Future, although not directly associated with my book, align with the concepts I’ve promoted. These developments affirm the potential of literature to inspire real-world change.

My anecdote is about a story we did several years ago.

I mentioned that satellite imagery is transforming how we observe the world. This story involved satellite imagery of deforestation in the Amazon.

A company that listed publicly in London claimed to be sustainable but was actually clearing the forest.

We investigated using satellite imagery and local reporters, bringing the issue to a global audience. Local indigenous groups and international activists launched campaigns.

Two years later, the company was delisted from the London Stock Exchange. They had planned to raise capital to clear more land for plantations, but being delisted prevented this, avoiding about 30 million metric tons of CO2 emissions.

Mongabay played a role in this ecosystem, showing how journalism can impact the real world.

Thank you, Rhett, for sharing that impactful story. It gives us hope and optimism. We have time for one more question, if anyone has any. Lilly asked where you’d like to travel to next.

I recently returned from New Guinea and would love to visit Antarctica next.

I would like to go back to Antarctica, but I have no excuses to do so.

I’ve lived in Zurich and am looking forward to returning to Switzerland to enjoy the Alps again. For those in California, I recommend exploring the Sierra Nevada. It’s a local treasure worth visiting.

Thank you both. Before we conclude, I’d like to express our gratitude to our panelists, Rhett and Stan. Any final thoughts?

I’m grateful for the formative role UCSD played in my journey and the development of Mongabay. It’s been a privilege to share our work and mission with you today.

I echo Rhett’s sentiments and emphasize the importance of solutions journalism. UCSD has the potential to become a climate action nexus, and I hope it continues to leverage its resources towards this cause.

By Rhett Ayers Butler

Rhett Ayers Butler is the Founder and CEO of Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. He started Mongabay in 1999 with the mission of raising interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife.