Of the science fiction I have read, a lot of it takes place very or somewhat far into the future, but, even among quite recent stuff, a large majority of it makes no mention of what the Earth will be like after climate change's more major effects if we don't do anything, such as droughts, flooding, etc.

What is the first work of science fiction that mentions or takes place on an Earth in which the worst effects of unintentional human-caused (i.e. from greenhouse gases) climate change have either already happened or are happening? I'd prefer an answer that isn't about a work that's some crazy hypothetical, more something that's thinking about what will realistically happen (not like The Purchase of the North Pole, in which the Earth is tilted by humans and weird effects occur).

  • @user14111 I mean like icecaps melting from the greenhouse effect. Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 14:46
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    J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World (1962) comes to mind.
    – Spencer
    Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 16:18
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    @user14111 - I find it hard to believe you're not familiar with the primary usage of the phrase "climate change" in English media.
    – Adamant
    Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 16:31
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    Need to clarify something: Are we talking humans-wreck-the-Earth climate change or entropic climate change (where stuff will end on its own, i.e. the sun dies)?
    – Machavity
    Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 17:27
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    @Adamant I think I see user14111's point. It might be possible to find a story from, say, the 1930s, which was set during a future Ice Age, and that might be blamed on the consequences of human activity. That would qualify as a cautionary tale along the lines of "if we aren't careful, the climate will change and the results will be catastrophic" -- even though these days it's more fashionable to worry about the "global warming" variety of "climate change." I think it's reasonable to ask Stormblessed about what type of "change in the climate" would qualify for his purposes.
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 21:53

3 Answers 3


1946: Hal Clement's novelette "Cold Front" (first published in Astounding Science Fiction, July 1946, available at the Internet Archive) is set some time after the (intentionally) human-caused greenhouse effect has warmed the earth considerably with significant melting of the polar ice caps. An Earthman wants to sell the denizens of a cold planet on a similar project:

"There is one fact that I think will help you greatly," he said. "This planet is in an ice age — we could tell that from space. In this hemisphere, where it is now two Earth years past midsummer, the ice cap extends more than thirty degrees from the pole. In the other, the large island and continental masses possess glacial sheets scores of feet in thickness to within forty degrees of the equator; and heavy snow fields reach to less than twenty degrees south latitude in spots. On smaller islands, whose temperatures should be fairly well stabilized by the ocean, there appears to be much snow at very low latitudes.

"I suppose, though that's outside my line, that these people developed their civilization as a result of the period of glaciation, just as the races of Earth, Thanno, and a lot of the other Federation planets seem to have. Now, however, they have the situation of a growing race cramped into the equatorial regions of a planet — admittedly a large one, but with most of its land area in the middle latitudes.

"On Earth we pushed the isotherms fifteen degrees further from the equator, and benefited greatly thereby. How about selling the same idea to the Heklans, if you really want a convincing example of what we can do for them?"

"Two questions, please," returned Vickers. "First, what's this about changing the Earth's weather? I don't recall ever having heard of such a thing. In the second place, I'm afraid we'll have to sell the Heklans a little more than possible advantages. Our working theory, remember, is that I inadvertently got them leery of the combative and competitive elements of Federation culture. How would curbing their ice age, if you can do it, help that? Also, and most important, how does it help us to get a corner on the metal trade here before a real Federation agent steps in and opens the place up? Once that happens, every company from Regulus to Vega will have trading ships on Hekla; and we want Belt Metals to be solidly established here by that time. How about that?"

"To answer your first point, we didn’t change Earth's weather, but it's climate. There'd be no point in trying to explain the difference to you, I guess. They stepped up the CO2 content of the atmosphere, producing an increased blanketing effect. At first the equatorial regions were uncomfortably hot as a result; but when the thing stabilized again a lot of the polar caps had melted, and a lot of formerly desert land in the torrid zones, which had been canalized for the purpose, had flooded in consequence. The net result was an increased evaporation surface and, through a lot of steps a little too technical for the present discussion, a shallower temperature drop toward the poles. The general public has forgotten it, I know, but I thought it was still taught in history. Surely you heard of it sometime during your formative years.”

  • I’d prefer something about unintentional climate change, but I forgot to specify — here’s an upvote. Commented Aug 20, 2019 at 1:51

1935(?)–1967: "Dust", a short story by Wallace West in Famous Science Fiction No. 2, Spring 1967, available at the Internet Archive. According to a note by editor Robert A. W. Lowndes in the preceding issue (Famous Science Fiction No. 1, Winter 1966/1967, also available at the Internet Archive), it is a slightly revised version of a story originally written in 1935 and rejected by Weird Tales:

We were sorry to have to postpone a most fascinating "lost" story — Dust , by Wallace West, to our second issue — but that gives us a chance to plug the tale a little. It was originally written in 1935, as the reproduction of a letter from Farnsworth Wright shows.

In re-typing it, Wally cut some of the dialogue, added a few modern references, and changed the ending — we won't tell you what it is; originally the refugees sought out deep caves — but the essence of the story, the descriptions of a world smothered in searing, poisonous dust, has not been altered. It sounded like fantastic fiction back in 1935; today, it's still fiction, but uncomfortably close to fact. RAWL

It is a story of a near-future pollution apocalypse, including melting ice caps and rising ocean levels resulting from a carbon dioxide greenhouse effect.


"Listen!" Frowning, she picked up a sheaf of newspaper clippings and began reading headlines: "'Dust Pneumonia Epidemic Hits Texas'. 'Asthma Attacks Cause Thousands to Flee New Orleans'. 'Dust Storm Sweeps Cincinnati'. 'Drought Cuts Niagara Flow in Half'. 'Canadian Wheat Crop a Failure'. 'Atlantic Ocean Level Rises Three Inches'."

[. . .]

"And this is only the middle of October." Dr. Norworth sighed. "Can you imagine what's going to happen when the heating season starts and November winds begin to blow?"

"No, you can't." She held up a slim hand. "You've been conditioned to ignore pollution as a nuisance and nothing more. 'Wear your nose plugs and your goggles. You'll be all right, fella.' That's why I issue no more jeremiads. When I was getting my doctorate, the debacle might have been stopped. We could have cleaned up our rivers, planted the Dust Bowl in forage crops, banned incinerators and leaf burning, used electric cars for driving in town; that sort of thing. It would have cost the taxpayers money they would rather spend on liquor. So nothing much happened in the long run. Now it's too late."

"Why?" My spine was a ridgepole for icicles.

"Because, if computers don't lie, dust storms, the seven-year drought, and air and water pollution will peak together this winter. Complicating the situation are the vast amounts of carbon dioxide belched from factory chimneys. That gas is causing a worldwide greenhouse effect that's melting the Polar ice caps and raising ocean levels. And the fallout's getting much worse, now that India and Brazil have started testing." She held her head in her hands.

[. . . .]

As days grew shorter they became gloomier as well. By February it was impossible to ignore that something had gone badly out of kilter. The mayor, as well as state and federal officials, issued vague assurances. Food stores ran out of stock frequently. Water was severely rationed and pipes often gurgled dryly when faucets were opened. Yet the Hudson Tubes flooded one day because of a sudden rise in the sea level. Sometimes the lights went out . . .


1969: "We All Die Naked", a novelette by James Blish, first published in the anthology Three for Tomorrow. The following excerpt is copied from the 1973 anthology Alpha 4 edited by Robert Silverberg.

Masks were introduced, but of course nobody could stop breathing and emitting carbon dioxide. In 1980 there were 4,500 million human carbon dioxide emitters on the Earth—very few of other species—and so much of the world had been paved over, or turned into desert, that the green plants had long lost the battle to convert the gas into oxygen and water vapor. The burning of fossil fuels, begun in prehistory among the peat bogs, might have fallen off with the invention of nuclear power, but the discovery in 1968—when nuclear power was still expensive to exploit, and which produced wastes so long-lived and so poisonous that people had the rare good sense to be terrified of them while it was still early enough to cut down on their production—of the Alaskan oil field, the fourth largest in history, aborted the nuclear boom and produced a new spurt in burning. The breathers, in the meantime, continued to multiply; by 1989 nobody knew what the population of the world was—most of the statistics of the increase had been buried under the statistics for the increment of garbage.

Carbon dioxide is not a poisonous gas, but it is indefatigably heat-conservative, as are all the other heavy molecules that had been smoked into the air. In particular, all these gases and vapors conserved solar heat, like the roof of a greenhouse. In due course, the Arctic ice cap, which had been only a thin sheet over a small ocean, an ocean furthermore contained in a basin also heat-conservative, melted, followed by the Greenland cap. Now the much deeper Antarctic cap was dwindling, dumping great icebergs into the warming Antarctic Ocean. Great fog banks swept around the world, accelerating the process and chelating the heavier gas molecules as they moved, making them immune from attack by oxygen, ozone, or the activating effects of sunlight. The fogs stank richly of tars and arsenes, and were thicker and yellower than any London had seen in the worst years before the Clean Air Act had been passed.

And the ice continued to melt. Sea level in 1989 was twenty-one feet higher than it had been in 1938; every harbor in the world had been obliterated, every shoreline changed, and the brokers of lower Manhattan had been forced to learn to paddle. The world temperature rose; more bergs fell into the Ross Sea; the last Ice Age was over.

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