Sci-Fi Writers Discuss Climate Catastrophe: Julie Czerneda, Author Of A Play Of Shadow

Photo by Roger Czerneda Photography
Photo by Roger Czerneda Photography

To mark the end of another global climate summit — the COP21 conference in Paris — I contacted three Canadian science fiction writers and asked them what they thought were some plausible scenarios for the planet if we fail to solve our carbon problem. The article that came out of those conversations is titled Apocalypse Hot and appears in the Dec 10 Prairie Dog.

The writers I spoke with covered a lot of ground but I only had space in the paper to use a few short quotes. So, I’m publishing longer versions of the interviews here on Dog Blog.

First up is Julie Czerneda. She is the author of the novel, This Gulf Of Time And Stars. And she is also the author of A Play Of Shadow, which won the Aurora Award for Best Novel shortly after I interviewed her. Czerneda did graduate studies in biology at the University of Saskatchewan and taught biology at the University of Waterloo. 


PRAIRIE DOG: Many climate scientists and science writers who cover global warming argue that the only way we can hope to keep to 2°C of warming — if that’s even possible any more — is through a major, coordinated international effort. And yet the summits we’ve held on global warming have either failed outright or have come to weak conclusions. Many of those same scientists and writers argue that COP21 in Paris is our last chance to get this right. From your position as a science fiction writer, what do you see happening to the planet and our society if we keep failing at these international summits?

JULIE CZERNEDA: The landscape around us will change. We will have no say in that change. We will have different living things. We will have us, I don’t want to dwell on the failure of food crops, but what we grow and what we eat will have to change. There won’t be the vast prairie landscapes, there won’t be the fruit belts and areas that grow rice. Areas will be diminished or flooded. We’ll have to make shifts to deal with food shortages and changing diets. Our kids may not be able to afford the kinds of things we do now which is having lots of cattle. A good steak may be something we can’t afford in the future.

Certainly the fisheries, they could do better, we may find that we become more dependent on the oceans but we’ll have to care of them too and we’ve been doing a terrible job of that.

So, it’s going to be a shift in the basic biology that’s around us. Even the animals that are around. They’re already changing. There’ll still be lots of life but it will just be different. And it will be taking advantage of what we’ve done to the world. And it may not be what we want. Acutally, I’m sure it won’t be. We’ll get invasive species, things coming up. Malaria in Saskatchewan. All these things are going to happen with climate change.

PD: What kind of Canada emerges when we face this kind of ecological pressure?

JC: Our climate will benefit the most. The equators, the seashore areas, they’ll suffer the most. Up where we are, in the middle of Canada and across, will probably become more verdant, more productive.

I would hope that that would lead us not to a mentality where we keep out the world but a mentality where we’re, “Fine we’re the food basket for the world. That’s what we’ll be.” We’ll be growing peaches in Alberta.

If there’s a transition where we have 30, 40, 50 years ahead or even longer, generations to build towards this, then that’s fine. If we get that mentality that nobody gets any of what we’ve got, the world is going to be sore about that.

PD: We’ve been warned for a long time that we could see climate refugees from the US and further south moving north into Canada.

JC: I see the concern being the people that become disenfranchised because they’ve lived along the coastline rather than it being a concern for people living down in the far south. They’ve already been dealing with tough times in that they have to dig water up from the ground. They’re basically spending the future in water use already. They’re sort of used to that. That’s not going to change their way of life a great deal. I think what’s going to change is if we get the water rising, we’re going to see the islands of the Caribbean, the people won’t be able to live there. Parts of California, British Columbia will be under much more water than they are [now].

Will businesses fly north? Will we become enriched by this in some bizarre way? Traditionally, people can’t move who are the poorest and need to move the most. The people who move first are the people who can take advantage, who have the wherewithal to make the move.

PD: Do you have any ideas about how long these changes will take?

JC: Could be anything. If we don’t do anything, if we leave everything alone, it probably wouldn’t be our lifetimes but I could see it happening in a significant way when our children are seeing their children grow up.

Probably, I would say, within a generation we would see the impact. Well, we’re seeing it now.

There’s already a couple island countries who know they only have so many years left so they’re already starting to move off their land. And Miami is making these crazy plans — well, not crazy — they’re making plans to bank up and make themselves some kind of Venice because they know they can’t stop the water that’s coming already. So whether it’s incremental, whether we can control it and adapt, as we always have. But if anythign catastrophic happens… They’re talking about the North Atlantic Current starting to shift? Are we going to see that? If anything happens significantly to change the regions so that they’re getting worse than everywhere else — so, England for example, they may not suffer necessarily, but they could become like Scotland, and be cold and snowy in the winter. They’ll have to heat their homes which is a big expense.

PD: One side of science fiction is the techno-utopia. There are dystopias on the other side, sure. But under these climate-change scenarios, what happens to those dreams of sci-fi tech that we were promised? Where does that rocketeer future go?

JC: One of the things that people do best is become inventive when there’s a need to be. And we’re certainly seeing, not even inventiveness because we’re desperate for something, but inventiveness because we’re seeing problems we never bothered to consider before. We’re thinking about how to make electricity in different ways. Toronto has this amazing thing where it’s experimenting with [storing energy under the lake]. When we generate too much electricity they use it to compress air and instead of trying to keep that air compressed they pump it into balloons under the lake. And the water pressure is compressing. All you have to do is close the valve and the water pressure is ready. You open the valve, the air rushes back through and generates electricty. You can store electricity with no batteries.

This amazing inventiveness is coming out of climate change issues. And I think the main thing is people are paying attention to their importance. One thing is you have to get the public on board and it’s been a struggle. I helped publish some of the student materials back in the 90s for [an educational foundation] after Kyoto. The teachers were ready. But the kids weren’t quite there, the parents weren’t quite invested and the schools were busy with stuff. And I think now, we’re seeing something happening that’s bigger.

That’s going to help. Not to get off topic, I think one of the things we do well — I’m not a dystopic science fiction writer because I feel like when our backs are against the wall that’s when we come together and we come up with solutions or we deal with things, we’re a very resilient species.

We may learn to live with what we get.

PD: Does climate change inform your fiction?

JC: I did a book, an anthology for the International Polar Year back in 2007. It won the Science Writers Award. I think it’s the first time they ever gave it to science fiction. What it was was about polar science but specifically about climate change and polar science. We had an international contest that was mostly entered by Canadians — students on climate change and what they saw for the world. And it was very interesting. A lot of concern about the far north, as there should be.

So I think, I’d like to think that we’re all working towards this. I get very annoyed when people deny climate change and deny the science because I’m thinking we have to share the planet with them, but it has been ever thus. I spend a lot of time paying attention to the natural world and I see the increase in frost-free days, the types of things that are blooming here that never used to bloom because we’re far enough north. So it’s been good for us except for the pests that come up. So I think the natural world will be changing in a fundamental way.

When that happens, everyone pays attention. If we suddenly don’t see monarch butterflies, we will know, we will pay attention.

That may be the thing in the future that the world will be changed the most by, people saying, “Do you remember those things?”

PD: Are you hopeful for a good resolution from COP21?

JC: I hate to say it but I’m on board with people who say the horrific events in Paris, if they did anything, they woke people up to being international and how much everybody at the every person level wants that to happen. Rhey want an international response to things.

And I’m very hopeful with the new government because the old government gave me no hope about climate change. It was just terrifying. The fact that [the Liberals] even changed the ministry name to include climate change is huge. I think that shows leadership from our country. We used to be leaders in this. So I am hopeful. It’s a big step but it has to be taken.


Many thanks to Julie Czerneda for taking the time to do this interview. Coming up: Interviews with Nina Munteanu and Robert J Sawyer.

Author: Paul Dechene

Paul Dechene is 5'10'' tall and he was born in a place. He's not there now. He's sitting in front of his computer writing his bio for this blog. He has a song stuck in his head. It's "Girl From Ipanema", thanks for asking. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @pauldechene and get live updates during city council meetings and other city events at @PDcityhall.