Climate change isn’t a thing of the future any more, something for your grandchildren to worry about. It’s here, it’s real, and it’s coming for all of us.
My first short story collection, published in 2001, was called Extreme Weather Events. That was also around the time I got involved in action to call attention to the dangers of climate change and reduce emissions.
Weather and climate wind like threads through my writing.
Recently, cleaning out a cupboard, I found old climate policy papers from the late 1990s, talking about actions that New Zealand could take easily and soon – like ending the burning of coal and switching to renewables.
“Low-hanging fruit,” they said, ripe for the picking.
But it’s fruit we still haven’t picked, even though fire and flood and furious winds menace us more every year, even though Cyclone Gabrielle ripped homes and lives away, even though the seas are rising. Why not? Why do our politicians, with some honourable exceptions, compete to see who can look hardest in the other direction, discarding climate policies whenever an election draws near? Why do our captains of industry keep steering our economy straight towards the climate iceberg, whining about the costs of action while ignoring the costs of inaction?
As a writer and as an inhabitant of these jagged, beloved shores, worried for my future, worried for my family, I wanted answers to those questions – and so I wrote my new novel Emergency Weather to explore them. I imagined three ordinary New Zealanders, living in very different circumstances with their friends and family, dropped them in the middle of the climate crisis as a great storm hit Aotearoa, and asked: would they survive, and if they did, what would they do? Would they deny, delay, or act?
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When I began outlining the novel in late 2017, it was set in the near future. But climate change has got so much worse so much faster that I became concerned that reality would outpace fiction, that by the time it was published, Emergency Weather might become historical fiction. That hasn’t happened, but it was a close-run thing in 2023. It’s fiction, but reality is near.
Cyclone Gabrielle was devastating. It should have shown us that though adaptation is needed, we can’t adapt our way out of climate change. The storms of tomorrow will overwhelm the best possible defences unless we end our fossil fuel addiction and work with other nations to help end theirs. Instead, after the storm, the trucking lobby seized the opportunity to push for lots of new road-building, further increasing our emissions. My novel is about those people too, the lobbyists: the sharp suit and comb-over brigade, always keen to turn planetary destruction into private profit.
Take a look along your street and around your neighbourhood. Perhaps you live on a flood plain, perhaps on a hill or an eroding shore. How might climate breakdown come for you: as a flash flood in the night, as fire through the treetops, as a tornado that strikes without warning? Or relentless summer heat that is too much, at last, to bear?
Money can insulate the rich for a while – poor people suffer sooner and suffer more – but no quantity of dollars can stop a cliff-top mansion sliding down a cliff.
That’s where we’re headed if we don’t act, as a society, to change the path we’re on. Despair is a sin, hope perhaps an irrelevance. Every tonne of emissions stopped, every percentage point of warming prevented, makes a difference.
In action lies our only hope of survival. When emergency weather strikes, be ready.
Emergency Weather, by Tim Jones (Cuba Press, $38) is out on October 2.