I am not good at handling horror stories. Even the tension in Doctor Who is enough to get me jumping out of my seat and leaving the room, much to the annoyance of anyone I might be watching with. But the more I think about anthropogenic climate change, the more I think one of the best ways to frame it is, indeed, with horror. But what kind of horror story is it?
Perhaps it is a cosmic horror story, with the climate and how it is changing because of us filling in the role of Cthullu or Hastur or one of the other array of Gods and Entities and Old Ones with bizarre spelling. The climate is a system far larger than us, and terrifyingly complex: even with all our computational power and mathematical techniques, even with satellite observations and vast networks of telemetric robots diving and rising through the seas, we still have huge holes in our understanding of it. In this model, like cultists, we merely raised an ancient god from its slumber, and it neither knows we exist nor has the ability to care as it crushes us. It does not care about us; the changing precipitation systems are not deliberately bringing drought and floods to us out of malice, but just because the system is changing, and outside of the most physical influences we have on it, both macrolevel influences like the urban heat island and global influences like releasing stable, harmful gases into it like CFCs, the climate has no interest in us. We are just small things in a world of small things.
Furthermore, much like the “sanity” measures so beloved by so many Cthullu inspired game systems, studying the climate very much has a detrimental effect on climatologist’s sanity: depression and anxiety are common in the field, even on top of the normal crushing feeling of academia.
But I think this doesn’t quite work. For one thing, we have actually clawed understanding of the climate from it. We do not have all the answers, but we definitely have quite a few, and studies to understand more continue all the time. We’ve understood that pumping CO2 into the air would warm the planet since Arrhenius’ work in the 1890s, ideas that built off earlier work from Fourier and Tyndall on the infrared absorption capability of water vapour, carbon dioxide and other gases. Despite what some claim, global warming has been the climate’s predicted path since the 1960s. The climate is not utterly inscrutable, even if we need to work out what the effects of our own actions will be.
Then perhaps we should turn to a different, more human made, form of horror. Perhaps we should look at climate change as a child of humanity, a child we are desperately fleeing from. Perhaps we should be looking at it in terms of that classic story of a scientist’s creation turning against him; perhaps climate change is our version of Frankenstein’s monster.
Frankenstein created the monster and brought him to life, but upon seeing him move, fled and allowed him to stumble off into the world by himself. There are two particular bits of this metaphor I think fit here. Firstly, the monster is initially not an entity with moral responsibility in and of himself; he is like a new born, or indeed, like a carbon dioxide molecule. We cannot blame the CO2 itself in anyway but the most physical for the warming effect it has, that is just what CO2 does. It is the one who released it into the world who must take responsibility, whether Dr Frankenstein or…well, all of us. And like Frankenstein, many of those in the best position to take responsibility refuse to until it is too late. When confronted with the reality of climate change, governments and corporations choose to declare that responsibility for it should fall upon the individuals, with focus on personal carbon footprints over systematic changes. Companies such as Shell knew about the risks, and distributed internally their own versions of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, but outwardly put their efforts into preventing anyone doing anything about it. Now there’s more and more attempts to regain control, more and more attempts to mount an expedition into the Arctic to find and subdue our creation, but, as the recent G7 meeting showed, it is a dysfunctional expedition, with every member looking for how they can give up as little as possible and wanting to use it to still get ahead. Some of those in power deem the monster, or climate change, as nothing more than a cryptid, a non-existent being chased only by the foolish or those with some kind of agenda, such as Thatcher going from opening the Tyndall Climate Centre to later declaring climate change was a leftist plot to bring in government control.
But again, there’s a major problem, because Adam, as the creature names himself, is not simply an unthinking CO2 molecule, but a living, thinking creature. This is an issue with the cosmic horror analogy; so many cosmic horror stories presume that the things we don’t understand are intelligences in and of themselves. They both also move the focus of the horror from us, the ones who are causing the issues, to the climate itself which seems…unfair, to us and, as little as it matters to it, to the climate. Note I said unfair, not kind, to us.
So then, what other stories do we have? Maybe we should be looking at global warming as a far more simple form of spooky story – a haunting. Ghosts are often portrayed as not having control of their own actions, wandering through walls because they are still following the paths they did through life, before those walls were built. What’s more, hauntings are often generated by human activities; murder and neglect. Climate change is, in this model, simply the ghost of all that fuel we have burnt into the atmosphere, coming back to haunt us not from any inscrutable motivation or even an understandable one, but because that is just the only thing the ghosts, formed from an ectoplasm of CO2, can now do. Or perhaps we could look at Poe, and the tell tale beat of the old man’s heart beneath the floor boards; a tell tale beat that the police officers who appear at the end unable to hear the beating and only believing him when he tells them to rip open the floorboards to find the body, as the officials of our world failed to respond to the tell tale warming measurements until now.
Again, despite this being my favourite of the three metaphors, and understanding that no metaphor will be perfect, it hides that in many ways the climate is living. Not in the classical sense, mostly, but it is constantly changing and adapting, and indeed, oxygen and carbon dioxide are extremely linked to life itself. The climate is not a ghost. It is a vast, confusing physical system with thousands of feedbacks and forcing mechanisms, both in and out of our control, and that we do not currently understand fully, but that we do understand enough to know how we are messing it up.
Perhaps the real horror stories were the climate papers I read along the way .