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Know the West

The case for speculative journalism

Climate fiction can help us imagine the impacts of climate change in a way that science journalism can’t.


In June 1988, James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, testified before a congressional committee, where he announced, with 99% certainty, that human-caused global warming was real. A year later, the Global Climate Coalition, an industry group formed by fossil fuel companies, began a determined effort to stymie climate action. Hansen, being a scientist, based his testimony on scientific fact. The GCC lobbyists, being slimeballs, based their efforts on telling stories — including, incredibly, the 1992 release of a video claiming that adding CO2 to the atmosphere would boost crop yields and end world hunger.

From left: Corey Brickley, Zoë van Dijk, Abi Stevens, Weshoyot Alvitre.

Thirty years later, we are still fighting stories with facts, and the results have been underwhelming. While it is easy to get frustrated by this state of affairs, it is also easy to understand why it’s happening. Global warming is a human-caused phenomenon that exceeds the human capacity for understanding. The typical institutions that we rely on to guide government policy — science and journalism — have not been fully up to the task. We know this at HCN because we cover, over and again, a changing climate. The facts are there, and the problem is still there — and getting worse. So last December, when the U.S. government issued a damning, detailed assessment on the climate, even we were at a loss with what to do with it. How, we wondered, can we help people understand the importance of all these facts, if the facts aren’t enough to speak for themselves?

One possible answer is this issue, a departure from our usual rigorous, fact-based journalism, and a foray into the world of imagination. Call it science fiction, or, if you prefer, speculative journalism. We took the projections of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, interviewed scientists, pored over studies — then imagined what the West would look like 50 years from the release of the report.

Brian Calvert, editor-in-chief
Brooke Warren/High Country News

The result is a multiverse of future Wests, all set in the year 2068. No two stories take place in the same reality, but each is a reflection of possibilities presented in the climate assessment. In some, the West verges on satirical catastrophe. In others, technology steps up as reality melts away. Some of us imagined a better world; others imagined how much worse things might get. Readers weighed in, too. Taken together, we hope these stories inspire further exploration of the national climate assessment, which is available online and is an impressive body of work. For our hardcore readers, we’ve provided a citations page, where more information on the relevant science and studies can be found.

None of these stories are true, but any of them could be. The fact is, we don’t really know what climate chaos will bring … but we do know that enormous challenges — and opportunities — lie ahead. Our chance to change the future is now, but we’ll need a better story first.

Poring through all of this peer-reviewed scientific literature wasn’t easy. Luckily, the writers in this issue were aided by countless experts, including climate scientists, rangeland ecologists, hydrologists and others, who helped us interpret climate models and clearly imagine these many possible future Wests. See references to scientific research each piece was based on at the end of the story.

Brian Calvert is the editor-in-chief of High Country News. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.