Wall on Hudson, 'Our Shared Storm: A Novel of Five Climate Futures'
Andrew Dana Hudson. Our Shared Storm: A Novel of Five Climate Futures. New York: Fordham University Press, 2022. 224 pp. $70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8232-9953-9; $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8232-9954-6.
Reviewed by Clare Wall (York University)
Published on H-Environment (March, 2023)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57867
Authors of climate fiction (cli-fi) aim to effectively project images of what the future might look like under climate change based on different socioeconomic decisions, often in hopes of illustrating either a better future and how we might arrive there or the negative consequences of continued petro-capitalist consumerism and inaction. Andrew Dana Hudson’s Our Shared Storm: A Novel of Five Climate Futures published by Fordham University Press offers an analysis of five possible scenarios in the form of novelette-length cli-fi narratives. Each story is based on one of the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs) that were developed as part of the Sixth Assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These scenarios are all set in the same future time and location, the Sixtieth Conference of Parties (COP) meeting in Buenos Aires, and feature the same repeating four characters with the intention of showing how their lives and the people they have become have diverged due to living in these different futures. As Hudson explains, “Depending on which future the story takes place in, however, events unfold differently,” including the nature of the COP itself (p. viii).
Hudson’s introduction succinctly summarizes each SSP, illustrating them on the axes of challenges to climate mitigation and adaptation for the future. SSP1 is the road of sustainability, where significant changes are made to curb climate change leading to what Hudson describes as “the ‘best’ future to shoot for with the greatest chance of keeping global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius” (p. x). SSP2 is a middle-of-the-road pathway, where our trajectory does not significantly move into any of the other scenarios and progress is slow leading to challenges. In SSP3, there are high mitigation and adaptation challenges due to no significant work to address climate change and increased political tensions and military conflicts, while in SSP4, the greatest inequality is produced by the high cost of adaptation, resulting in worse impacts for poorer countries and impoverished groups in society. Finally, SSP5 describes a scenario based on if no action to curb emissions is taken and where fossil fuels continue to be burned for economic growth. Instead of trying to curb emissions, the world becomes increasingly globalized and turns to technological innovation to attempt to adapt to and deal with the climate crisis.
Hudson states in his introduction that he chose to write these stories based on the SSPs in order to “bring about the IPCC’s work to a broader audience and to use speculative fiction’s unique toolbox to deepen our collective understanding of these scenarios” (p. xii). Hudson’s aim with Our Shared Storm is to use fiction as an educational tool. I would argue that his project successfully achieves this goal. The stories are effective in raising awareness in terms of what happens at the COP, the sorts of tense and complex social and political scenarios that are being modeled, and the role that fiction can play in environmental communication by making the concerns and possible economic and environmental scenarios the IPCC is focused on more accessible to a wider audience. In explaining the models used by the IPCC to map potential future scenarios and challenges, Our Shared Storm also draws attention to the challenges and complex decisions that shape climate policy.
As mentioned, each narrative in Our Shared Storm features a different “road” taken and imagines how the lives of the four main protagonists—Noah Campbell, an American from the West Coast; Luis Soto, a local Argentinian teen; Saga Lindgren, a young woman from Sweden; and Diya Kapoor, a middle-aged woman from India—might be different. Each of the four “less ideal” paths (SSP 2-5) focuses on the perspective of one of the characters. For instance, readers start in SSP2, “Politics Is Personal,” with Noah’s perspective as a negotiator for the COP in a future that feels tangibly familiar through its depictions of the complex political tensions and posturing of the COP political delegations. Each successive narrative moves into the bleaker prospective outcomes with the fourth story in the sequence, “Hot Planet, Dirty Place” (SSP3), focusing on Diya’s perspective in a future where several of the COP attendees end up taking shelter in a local pub weathering not only the intense storm but also a bloody political coup in the streets of Buenos Aires outside. The storm that appears in all four of these narratives is also arguably a character, one that creates conflict and significantly affects the plot in each story. It also anchors the stories together and helps direct reader awareness to the increasing inequality and suffering in impoverished communities; these communities and their members are expected to experience significant negative impacts from climate change. Moreover, Hudson's stories emphasize the symbolic political, military, and social "storms" that will also occur as climate change worsens and resources come under increasing stress and demand.
In these prospective “worse” futures, Hudson employs conversations between characters who aim to speak to readers of the present-day. Characters reflect on their past (and our present), allowing ways for a broad audience of readers to connect with these future possibilities. For instance, in “Hot Planet, Dirty Peace” (SSP3), while the characters drink and try to pass the storm, they debate how the situation their world is in might have been avoided had different actions been taken. Diya bitterly complains of the cyclical nature of the conversation and (in)action on the part of the COP, asking “Am I the only one who feels like they’ve heard all this before? Earlier tonight, or yesterday, or last year, or at every COP for sixty years.” Saga agrees, stating: “we never come to consensus or real conclusions. Everyone just talks about what people should be talking about, while outside the damage piles up” (p. 163). Such exchanges effectively aim to draw the reader's attention to the challenges of the present-day COP, without downplaying its importance. These discussions also emphasize the necessity of mass action that spans beyond national borders. Having already read the SSP2 future where the world continues to make limited and slow progress, readers will recognize the complex political maneuvering among nation-states, as well as the multitude of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that also present competing agendas and priorities and will likely empathize with such feelings of frustration regarding the outcomes of the COP and governments talking of lofty goals, while all-too-often failing to meet emission reduction targets. Hudson's introduction discusses his personal experiences attending the COP24 as part of the research for this book, and his time spent with the activists and researchers from a wide range of NGOs clearly helped him effectively craft distinct and believable tensions and characterizations of the fictional NGO groups he includes in the various COP scenarios.
While all the narratives are educational, perhaps the most important one for contemporary audiences is SSP5's story “Taking the Highway,” where the challenges to mitigating the effects of climate change are high because little has been done to curb it. Instead, governments have looked to technology and geo-engineering to help them adapt and respond to the climate crisis. This SSP echoes many of the promises of technocrats and Silicon Valley think tanks and start-ups, as well as several current political parties that would rather seek technologies like carbon capture than swiftly transition away from fossil fuels, adopt carbon pricing, or tax major carbon-emitting corporations. The SSP5 future gives readers Luis’s perspective as a booth boy for Noah’s tech start-up. However, the promises of Noah’s technology are empty, and he is even willing to use Luis if it means gaining wealthy investors. The exploitative relationship between a local from a developing nation and a white Western tech owner should not go unnoticed, and Luis's eventual disillusionment with Noah and what he represents is a significant moment. While climate technologies and innovation will certainly play an important role in mitigating and adapting to climate change, Hudson’s story illustrates the dangers of focusing solely on investments in innovation and the capitalist-driven tech industry to deal with climate change, while also drawing attention to how many of these companies stand to profit off disasters that will severely affect the world's most vulnerable populations.
Hudson saves the most ideal of the SSPs (SSP1) for the final story, “If We Can Do This, We Can Do Asteroids!” This narrative differs from the others in two significant ways. First, the narrative perspective focuses on all four of the protagonists equally, passing through their thoughts and experiences at the COP60 in a way that is shared, demonstrating not only their equal role in helping to build this future but also the equal stake each of them has in it as characters from different nationalities and socioeconomic backgrounds. The second significant difference is that the storm has already happened; the story begins with showing the organized cleanup and supports in place to assist the affected communities. The storm, in this case, serves as a reminder that even in a greener future where sustainability has been the focus, there are still challenges and volatile aftereffects of climate change that will last for several generations. In traveling through each character’s perspective, a multipronged and collaborative approach to climate change adaptation, mitigation, and commitment to climate justice is illustrated. One interesting feature of the SSP1 scenario that instills a more optimistic and hopeful tone in it is the intense debate around “where to set the thermostat” for 2100 stabilization targets (pp. 176-77). While this is not a current problem compared to actually making significant movements toward achieving a future where we are beginning to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, Hudson draws attention to the importance of planning for what happens if/when we reach that future. By doing so, he invites readers to imagine what new challenges might await, including the impacts of a lower temperature in some areas once carbon levels drop and the climate stabilizes, leaving some regions with the need to once again adapt crops and economic investments.
This final story also has characters at the COP60 trying to establish biome sharing—globalizing ecosystems to promote biodiversity instead of focusing on strict concepts of local/native versus invasive/non-native wildlife and plants. As Diya explains to Luis, it “means a lot of careful swapping of bugs and birds and molds across continents, in addition to seeds and skill” (p. 185). While this is an interesting concept and certainly one that challenges the idea of exclusively favoring “native” species over resilient or adaptive ones in increasingly depleted and changing ecosystems, in a post-COVID-19 reality, it does raise anxieties about the unintended impacts of such exchanges. Even though it is described as careful, zoonotic pathogens and less desirable parasites or infections may also migrate or adapt—perhaps unknowingly.
The characters in Our Shared Storm are engaging and distinct enough in each narrative to show the different circumstances and experiences that have shaped their lives, without them being unrecognizable. One criticism of the choice of characters, however, is that while Luis and Diya certainly add racial and global diversity as protagonists, both Saga and Noah appear to be white characters from developed Western nations. Considering the importance of reconciliation, climate justice, and the significant role that Indigenous peoples, in particular, play as stewards of the land, water, and biodiversity, it is unfortunate that Hudson does not make use of the opportunity to draw attention to some of these matters through the inclusion of an Indigenous character. Hudson does acknowledge the importance of climate justice and the role colonialist history has played in climate change. The final SSP1 sustainability future, in fact, predicts that the global south will transition faster and more effectively to sustainable economies and technology than Western and heavily industrialized economies. However, I do feel that the importance of Indigenous voices and their role in environmental conservation and restoration could have offered an additional opportunity for critical reflection. That said, it is understandable that with the limits of a text with only short stories and only four of them being futures that focus on one character’s point of view, not all perspectives can be represented within it.
Overall, Our Shared Storm provides five engaging stories of possible futures, leading the reader on trajectories from recognizable, to significantly worse, and better future possibilities. This book is quite accessible to readers, even those without much knowledge of the COP or climate change, and Hudson’s introduction provides useful context for the organization and groups that the reader will be introduced to in some of the narratives. As an informed work of fiction, this text would lend itself well to college or university courses as a teaching tool to introduce students to some of these concepts and lead to discussions on how fiction might be used as a tool to encourage engagement and facilitate understanding of science writing.
Hudson’s conclusion also offers an informed explanation of why fiction should concern itself with climate change, asking “How could fiction not be concerned about something with such vast impacts on the human condition?” (p. 211). Hudson articulates that a possible distinction between science fiction and cli-fi is that while science fiction tends to position science and innovation as the primary drivers of social change, cli-fi instead suggests “that the biggest driver of social change in the coming century will be climate change” (p. 214). This “cli-fi theory of social change” itself presents a means of approaching cli-fi that helps break down the traditional boundaries erected between literary fiction and science fiction.
It is clear from Our Shared Storm’s narrative arcs and Hudson’s conclusion that he tries to reserve some optimism for the future and the potential role that cli-fi can serve in helping others imagine not only possibilities but also the kinds of politics and large-scale social changes that might have to happen to get there. While Hudson’s final “sustainability” scenario does not trace out specific solutions in how we get there, it does hint at the global action and the socioeconomic and political restructuring that will have to happen in order to effectively progress to the sustainability future, not solely as an individual action or national policy but also as a global initiative. From our current moment, this seems like a distant possibility, but it is certainly a future worth aspiring to.
Clare Wall. Review of Hudson, Andrew Dana, Our Shared Storm: A Novel of Five Climate Futures.
H-Environment, H-Net Reviews.