Interview with Dan “Cli-Fi” Bloom

I recently exchanged a series of emails with Dan Bloom, who coined the term “cli-fi.” I’ve reproduced the interview here (with a few minor edits). It was originally published in Dan’s Polar Cities blog.

DB: In your novel, why did you choose the date 2018 as the year the polar ice cap disappears completely? All winter too, or just summer? What in the science of climate change led you to this view?

RW: When I began writing ”A Change in the Weather” in  2005, my intuition was that the ice cap would disappear much faster than people thought. Two things fueled that. I’d always noticed that an ice cube in a glass of soda seems to melt very slowly until it reaches a certain point, then the mass loss accelerates rapidly. And I grew up in Maine, so have seen the ice go out on a lake. The entire mass disappears in just a few days, or sometimes just one day, because it melts from the bottom up. Why shouldn’t the same thing happen with the ice cap, once it reaches a certain thinness?

Just summer, because the tilt of the earth’s axis means the Northern Hemisphere faces away from the sun in winter. Why 2018? At that time, it was about ten or twelve years away. Most talk was of 2050, but I was frightened it could be much sooner. That was the genesis of the  book — that, and the reaction to 9/11 that gave us the Homeland Security Department, Guantanamo, and the Iraq War.

DB: Your novel has been called a cli-fi novel. Are you comfortable with this label?

RW: Every writer wants to think their work defies labels, or consciously plays with them. As far as labels go, this one is amusing and pretty apt. I think it’s still kind of arch and not meant to be taken too seriously. If it actually became codified, then I wouldn’t like it. My book is (or aspires to be) a literary thriller.

DB: The points of view of the various characters in your novel are all portrayed with a sympathy that underscores the complexity of the problems we are — and will be — facing. How were you able to do this?

RW: They are all aspects of my personality. I’m a very conflicted person, too open-minded for my own good.

It took about 3 years to write the book. I did it mostly very early in the morning, for an hour a day before my “real” job. I sat in various coffee shops, mostly a Peets in the San Francisco Ferry Building, but also a local place called Le Regency–until they began doing the floors in the morning with a pungent, eye-watering disinfectant. I wrote (and write) in longhand, then type it up over the weekend. I can edit almost anytime, but the creative part is almost always before dawn. It’s like being in a dream state. Otherwise, I’m too self-critical.

DB: You are a former natural gas trader and energy consultant, and you graduated from the creative writing master’s degree program at San Francisco State University. And you blog about the social implications of climate change at achangeintheweather.com. My question is this: were you always on this path to be a climate crusader or was there a special year or event that inspired or push you to where you are now?

RW: I wanted to be a writer in my 20s. I write slowly, and really, I’m very conventional, so the starving artist thing was more than I could deal with. Then I got married and we had a couple of kids, and those priorities took over. I ended up in the energy industry by chance, writing engineering reports and computer manuals. I’ve always been environmentally-minded, and was dimly aware of the carbon dioxide problem. But it wasn’t until the late 90s that I began to let myself think it could actually be serious. The implications were just too huge. But it made inescapable, obvious sense. Then I got deep into energy consulting and was looking at government data daily. The data say it all: we are going in the wrong direction with all deliberate speed.

DB: The term cli-fi, short for “climate fiction” that can take place in the present or the near future or distant future or even the past, is becoming popular now, even in the mainstream media, like NPR and The Christian Science Monitor. What other cli-fi books or movies do you admire?

You blogged that Michael Chricton’s cli-fi novel ”State of Fear” was more a political potboiler that, to you, was ”false on every level.” You wrote: “Ostensibly about the dangers of mixing politics with science, it played into denialist cant, with cartoonish characters pushed around by the author to advance the ridiculous plot and some misguided ideas.”

Why do you think that Chrichton got it all so wrong? Did he drink the kool-aid of the climate denialist camp or what?

RW: Having just become aware of the term of ”cli-fi,” and that I’m an exponent of it, I can’t say that I really have any movies or novels in that genre that are favorites. When I decided to write ”A Change in the Weather,” the first book I read was ”The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. My concern was not merely that the ice would disappear and profoundly upset agriculture, it was that the prevailing political mood would cause a terrible overreaction, like 9/11 on steroids. I still think that, more than ever.

I can’t speak for Chrichton. I was appalled by his book. I suppose he was alarmed at the implications, too, but rather than thinking them through, he reacted to his own political biases. Despite my earlier statement that I’m too open-minded, I’m pretty certain that we have a lot more to fear from a right-wing authoritarian takeover in this country than a left-wing one. Any movement that bases itself or closely aligns itself with religion or mystical ideas can justify almost any act when it’s fearful. That’s what happened in Nazi Germany. The Germans had a mystical notion of their superiority, felt thwarted by unworthies, and that justified everything.

We have that same attitude in a lot of America. God has chosen us as his special people. It’s deeply frightening, because it’s trans-rational. It cannot be argued with the believers.

DB: There are tremendous risks in instituting the kind of top-down changes required to halt GHG accumulation; we can see them playing out in our reaction to terrorism, where we’ve surrendered civil liberties and handed enormous extra-Constitutional power to the government. But that’s the dilemma. We have nothing but bad choices. Do you see a way out of this impasse, and what is your solution – or ideas — on this?

RW: The phrasing of that question is very American. We look for fixes. We think there are definite answers, and that the impediment is the failure to accept the answers.

If this impasse is to be resolved, it will take time and probably a series of events that are indisputably related to climate change. Of course, the problem with waiting is that those events will be markers that it’s too late.

This period of history makes me think of 1860. There’s a set of people who simply won’t accept the political, social, and economic changes that are required to head off the crisis. We could hardly pass a law that treated health care as a utility, like roads. It spawned a new political party to resist it. The measures required to head off climate change, or the worst of it, since some of it’s literally baked in at this point, are like that only more so. The cultural problem is huge. Instituting the measures I list below will look like the “tyranny” the Tea Party speaks of, and I think they ultimately may react the way plantation owners reacted to the idea of abolishing slavery. It’s not a coincidence that climate change denial is centered in the South and the rural areas that Southern whites fled to after the Civil War — particularly the Rockies.

The only way to solve this problem is with immediate, multifaceted, coordinated action. First and foremost, continue to raise consciousness. Then, institute the broad, systemic changes necessary to get our economy off of fossil fuels as fast as possible. We don’t have time to let the market sort it out. That window closed about the same time the Supreme Court handed the election to George Bush instead of letting Florida recount its votes.

World War II is the model. The federal government is the only organ of social cooperation that is capable of doing what needs to be done. The market is no more able to solve this problem than it was to dispose of Nazism.

We need to pass a federal law that leaves most fossil fuel in the ground, with maybe a ten-year phase-out and some kind of compensation for the fossil fuel companies. Such a law will severely impact the market value of Exxon and like companies. We can’t expect them or their shareholders to take it lying down. But they must be persuaded that this approach is better than the alternative, which is where the ongoing consciousness-raising comes in.

There will be deep economic dislocations. That’s unavoidable. We have to spread the pain. We can’t just tell Ohio and West Virginia, we’re done with coal, go figure something out. We have to pitch in to transition their power plants and their employment economy off coal. It’s a national problem, not a regional one. We have to agree and share and share alike.

It’s also of course an international problem, but when we start talking about international aspects, the conversation always turns to how we should do nothing because without the Chinese, we can’t reduce carbon. I think this is bull. We have a crisis because the Western world accumulated carbon in the air. The Chinese are late to this party. They are going to insist that we have the moral obligation of first move, and I don’t see how we have a moral counter. Nothing happens without the leadership of the US.

We have to deploy as much non-carbon energy capacity as possible, as fast as possible. Solar, wind, geothermal, whatever. Except nuclear. We should retain what we have, but not initiate new supply. However, we should continue research in that area–we might find something that doesn’t generate a bunch of lethal waste with a 10,000-year half-life.

We should retrofit all buildings for maximum efficiency with a civilian work force hired or funded by the government, with some contribution from the property owners. This is low-hanging fruit that is both an investment and a job creator. I was in a hotel a few weeks ago where the wind was coming through a crack in the door. So easy to fix. There’s a lot of stuff like this out there.

We need a national carbon tax. This is one area where the market can support what needs to be done. If we have to substitute the carbon tax for the income tax, that’s fine. Ultimately, taxes in general are going to have to rise, at least for a while, to finance the transition off fossils. We’ve been living off a profoundly back-end-loaded deal, where we’ve polluted for free for 10 generations, and now the balloon payment is due. A carbon tax is a win-win. We tax what we don’t want–carbon–and let up on low-income earners. Some will say such a tax is regressive. Well, it’s a lot less regressive than having agriculture fail and the economy collapse. Also, one can control how much energy one uses, to some extent. Regressiveness is a red herring that Republicans, who really don’t give a rat’s ass about whether taxes are regressive so long as they’re low, throw out to stymie this kind of idea.

To fight and win WW2, the federal government walked into factories like Ford, GM, and Chrysler and said, “You used to make cars. Now you make tanks and airplanes. Here, sign the contract.” That’s exactly what needs to happen now. Companies need to have their production switched to making products that will get us off fossils.

DB: How did you go about marketing ”A Change in the Weather”? Did you do book signings, or a small book tour? Were there any local newspaper stories about you and the book, or radio or TV interviews locally? Who was your publisher and how did you find them?

RW: After two years of trying to find an agent, I decided to publish the book myself: so the book is self-published. Then the genre of “cli-fi” took off. I should probably take another run at finding an agent.

I have not done any book signings. I’m open to that, but need a toe-hold somewhere. My local independent bookstores won’t talk to me because I used Amazon to publish. I don’t really understand what influence they think they will have on publishing trends by trying to keep my book out of the marketplace. First, I’m way too small. Second, every book in their own stores is on Amazon. I just use Amazon as a printer and a distributor, just like any other author. The independents (love them as I do) are kind of like Luddites battling against the Internet itself. I don’t see why they shouldn’t take a few copies of my book and make a few bucks. They think they’re being principled. I think they’re fighting a futile, rearguard action.

Marketing consists of taking whatever opportunity presents itself to talk about the book. I also comment frequently on other blogs, and have sent copies to people I hope are influential—mostly climate scientists.

DB: It’s 2013 now. How much longer do you think that humankind has to fix and deal with the pressing climate issues before it is too late? 100 years? 50 years? When will it be too late? Are you hopeful and an optimist—or a pessimist?

RW: When I began my novel in 2005, I thought we had maybe 20 years before we passed a point where some impacts would be unavoidable. I now think we’ve passed that point, 10 years sooner.

It’s all about the Arctic ice cap. If that goes, we have deep, irreversible problems because the jet stream will get very erratic, which will affect seasonal rain patterns. I now think it probably will go, in pretty much the time frame of my book. Did you know that it has lost 80 percent of its summer mass since 1980? The ice cube in the glass of Coke is just about to go poof.

We can maybe limit the disappearance to a few summer weeks if we crash the problem as I described above, so agriculture will only be somewhat screwed up instead of completely screwed up. We have no time to avoid all problems, and we have maybe another 20 years to avoid a true cataclysm that will result in the near-extinction of the human race. I think that would take just a few generations, maybe just two or three, once the temps got to a point where food can’t grow. Agriculture, particularly large-scale monoculture, is really a very sensitive system. You have to have temps in just the right range and water in just the right amounts, and both at just the right time. Otherwise, flowers are out of phase with pollinators or the water cycle, or you get floods, or droughts, or it’s just plain too hot or cold.

Given the antebellum attitudes in much of the United States, particularly in the U.S. Congress, I’m not optimistic that we’ll succeed. The best thing that could happen now, as perverse as it sounds, is a nationwide crop failure attributable to the erratic behavior of the jet stream. That will make everyone pay attention and possibly create the social psychology to support the coordinated actions necessary to avoid the truly awful things that will happen if we don’t do those coordinated things.

But it could also create social havoc, which is what happens in my book.

DB: James Lovelock still believes in climate change and global warming, but he now says the major impacts of climate chaos won’t happen until 500 or 1000 years from now. But that they will happen. Is his long view too long a view?

RW: I suppose that’s a question for Dr. Lovelock. I think the above point of view is delusional.

DB: You are writing an essay in Terrain’s summer issue about these issues of climate change. Can you tell me a little bit about what the essay will say?

RW: The essay will be about my deepest feelings about the prospect of climate change–feelings I haven’t shared with anybody. It will be about the burden of that secret.

DB: Thank you for a very good and timely interview.

RW: I’m happy to have had the opportunity.

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2 Comments

Filed under Climate Change, Culture, Politics

2 responses to “Interview with Dan “Cli-Fi” Bloom

  1. Andy Revkin ‏@Revkin 10h Inventor of “cli-fi” label for climate change science fiction @leinadmoolb explores genre on @JudithCurry blog: http://judithcurry.com/2013/06/09/cli-fi-takes-off/

  2. Andy Revkin @Revkin 10h Inventor of “cli-fi” label for climate change science fiction @leinadmoolb explores genre on @JudithCurry blog: http://judithcurry.com/2013/06/09/cli-fi-takes-off/

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