- Contemporary Ecocriticsm and the Weather
Near the end of his first three months as the President of the United States, Donald Trump tweeted: “In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming.”1 Commentators from Congress to the Weather Channel rushed to correct him, stressing the difference between weather and climate. Foundational to any discussion of climate change (which many consider a more accurate phrase than “global warming”), this opposition distinguishes between short-term weather events and [End Page 262] long-term climatic trends. “The difference between weather and climate,” the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) explains, “is a measure of time.”2 Whereas weather is measured in minutes, days, or months, climate variations occur over years, decades, or geologic eras. The longer time frame is necessary because climate measurements express average weather conditions, paying especial attention to atmospheric indicators such as temperature, air pressure, precipitation, and humidity. Climate is in essence weather on an epic scale, and conventional wisdom holds that mistaking weather for climate amounts to an inability to distinguish an episode from the narrative, a sentence from the story. By this logic, Trump seemed not to understand that singular weather events may well run contrary to the climatic trend, just as particular phrases may express ironies or reversals internal to a text. Climate scientists situate any counter-cyclical weather events in relation to climatic conditions over a longer period of time, and their analyses abstract from the particular to average and general trends.
The same tactic of extrapolating from average local conditions toward the planetary is used by novelists addressing climate change in the emerging genre of climate fiction or cli-fi. Local events (especially floods and storms) signal looming catastrophes in J. G. Ballard’s Drowned World (1962), Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009), and Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow (2013). The protagonists of cli-fi learn to stop trying to outrun the storm and start adapting to new conditions. Similarly, in Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017), children learn to enjoy surfing down the water ways of a flooded Manhattan while polar bears are transported to cooler locales and real estate is renovated above the water line. Shifting to new grounds is pointless in this city novel, because the high sea levels in New York City typify those worldwide. In these climate fictions, weather serves as a synecdoche for climate, and readers are alerted to climate change through the texts’ imaginative investment in a particular but typical weather crisis.
When considering this literature and the associated problems of representing climate, some ecocritics have aspired to the grand scale of the global. A leading advocate for this planetary turn is Lawrence Buell. In an influential essay entitled “Ecoglobalist Affects: The Emergence of U.S. Environmental Imagination on a Planetary Scale,” Buell asserts that “the prospect of global warming . . . has reinforced a tendency to think of environmental belonging and citi zenship in planetary terms” (227).3 Examining the paradoxical status of national cultural traditions in this emergent planetary vision, Buell advocates for an ecocriticism that overturns the default nationalist tendencies of the humanistic disciplines by explicitly adopting scientistic approaches. “The average contemporary geologist or ecologist or environmental economist,” Buell writes, “is better equipped to operate on a global scale than is the average sociologist or historian, and the...