New book explores literature as a lens for climate change

28 Jun 2022

Climate change is now widely recognised as an anthropogenic and catastrophic process. Yet, many people and policymakers still turn a blind eye to the role played by human activity. Climate literature helps to focus our attention on the implications of climate change by broadening our emotional response to the crisis.

Professor Adeline Johns-Putra from the Department of Literature at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University has recently published a new book featuring climate literature, The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Climate, which she edited with Kelly Sultzbach from the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. She says: “Since the 1990s, climate literature has developed into a space for understanding not just the science of anthropogenic climate change, but also its ethical dilemmas, psychological challenges, and cultural and socio-political ramifications.

“The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Climate is an edited collection presenting the history of representations of climate and weather in literature, and how literature has interacted with the very concept of climate.”

The power of literature

It can be challenging to make sense of climate change. People may be aware of the climate crisis and the global catastrophe that will occur if nothing is done to stop environmentally damaging habits, but it can be hard to imagine how that future may look.

Professor Johns-Putra believes this is where literature is important: “Literature brings this crisis home to us and transforms it into something that we not only know rationally and logically, but feel, psychologically and emotionally.

“Literature can help us sympathise with people around the world who are suffering from the crisis now or with future generations who will bear the brunt of it in decades to come.

“Imagining a climate-changed future actually makes the crisis more tangible and may make us think twice about the impacts of our actions,” Professor Johns-Putra continues.

“Stories have the power to convince people to engage more actively with environmentally friendly activities.

“Although understanding climate change as a physical and meteorological phenomenon is a significant step in the global effort to slow climate change, moral, political, and psychological dimensions can help make sense of the situation. Both our brains and hearts need to be convinced if we are going to take action to control climate change.”

Refreshing ideas in literature

The climate and weather are common topics in everyday conversation. It is normal for most people to check the local weather forecast every day, and climate is a recurrent topic in the news. However, there is often confusion over the difference between the two terms.

Professor Johns-Putra’s new book provides refreshing ideas to enrich the current understanding of climate and discusses the language used to describe climate change.

“Climate refers to specific weather patterns in a particular place over a particular time duration; therefore, it is a representation of weather,” explains Prof Johns-Putra.

“Weather is the different meteorological events that happen every day, and climate is a stable picture of meteorological patterns over space and time.”

As well as consolidating the concepts of climate and its relative terms, The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Climate brings together the different global perspectives of climate change.

Professor Johns-Putra says: “The book reflects on different experiences of weather and describes diverse understandings of climate from both the northern and southern hemispheres and indigenous and non-white communities.”

Professor Johns-Putra also points out that despite advances in climate measurement since the 17th and 18th centuries, the concept of climate that has emerged has sometimes lulled people into a false sense of security, so that they continue to ignore the impact of their actions on the climate.

“Contrary to the concept of climate as a stable background to human activity, our activities are actually damaging the climate; it is a fragile system.”

The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Climate is edited by Adeline Johns-Putra and Kelly Sulztbach and published by Cambridge University Press.

By Ying Jiang

Edited by Catherine Diamond

28 Jun 2022