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Fact, not Fiction

Why we have an insatiable appetite for dystopian fiction, but seem willing to ignore the reality of climate change?


HOW MANY MOVIES AND TELEVISION SERIES on streaming platforms are about a catastrophic, dystopian future? Their, and, one must assume, our obsession with such matters is telling. The most recent iteration, Extrapolations, is an eight-episode Apple TV series, each set in a different year between 2037 and 2070 on an ever-warming planet.

Although it’s blessed with a great cast (Meryl Streep, Kit Harrington, Edward Norton, Forrest Whitaker and others), the series hasn’t received critical acclaim: on the movie-rating website Rotten Tomatoes its score is 42 out of 100. The show has been lauded for its relative scientific accuracy (as accurate as a sci-fi show can be) in depicting its unconvincing story with a backdrop of the plausible disasters that will happen as we cross the 1.5°C threshold in temperature increase and then 2°C – huge wildfires, giant floods, rising sea levels.

The series may help to convey the climate crisis message to the public. However, being in the same category as a fungus that erases humankind, a virus that strips everybody of sight or an invasion of the nastiest of aliens, it risks being perceived as nothing more than the usual fantasy show.

Sadly, a very unusual show is already happening before our eyes, without the need for effects-laden cinematography.

The latest alarm comes from the oceans. According to the University of Maine’s Climate Re-analyzer, the global average sea-surface temperature rose nearly 0.2°C in April. While this may sound negligible, it’s a staggering and unprecedented jump. Many experts say they’re ‘terrified’ by such an anomaly, but not at all surprised. The international comparative framework known as the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (covering the interactions among atmosphere, oceans, ice and land) had already predicted a monthly 0.7°C anomaly to be reached by 2040.

The data come from a network of 4,000 floats, known as Argo, that constantly measure the ocean heat content, or OHC. OHC is a reliable indicator of our warming troubles, as the ocean is very efficient at storing heat. Its surface layers store more thermal energy than the whole atmosphere. Climatologists estimate that the rise in OHC recorded over the past 50 years accounts for more than 90 per cent of the Earth’s excess energy from human-made warming. In other words, the immense swathes of water covering 71 per cent of the globe have been dampening the effects of our civilisation’s heavy climate footprint.

Many experts now fear this may be a prelude to more atmospheric warming. Others, however, believe this is just the beginning of the expected El Ninõ phase – the multi-year warm cycle that recurs in the waters of the Pacific Ocean – on top of climate change. The former case is scarier than the latter, yet they both entail a continued divergence from what we once called ‘the usual’.

This year started with something very unusual. A few shifts in the polar vortex – a swirling mass of freezing air that usually hangs over the North Pole – brought snow and floods to California while Texas was sweltering in winter (in 2021, it was Texas that experienced sub-zero temperatures). A few weeks later, it happened in Europe: bitter cold in Germany and unseasonably hot weather in Portugal. As I write, in early May, rivers in northern Italy and southern Spain are in critical summer-like conditions instead of being at their seasonal water-flow peak.

These things happen when the jet stream – an air current that encircles the Arctic and keeps the polar vortex in place – weakens and its course starts to wobble, thus allowing vast pockets of frigid air to venture southwards. This results in more unpredictable weather patterns on a global scale. Needless to say, the jet stream is being debilitated by a warmer Arctic.

Movies and novels have already explored what might happen to this planet when the Arctic (and the Antarctic!) melts, and so does Extrapolations. You don’t want your children or your grandchildren to live in a world like that, nor would you like them to be blinded by a rogue virus or eaten by voracious aliens. But remember, only one of these three scenarios isn’t fictional.

Published on the June 2023 issue of Geographical Magazine

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