The 2084 Report: An Oral History of the Great Warming

Image of The 2084 Report: An Oral History of the Great Warming
Release Date: 
September 1, 2020
Atria Books
Reviewed by: 

“packed with crucial climate-change information framed in fairly comprehensible terms. . . . Its main appeal must be to readers who resist fiction, but who seek insight into climate change patterns in an easily digestible form.”

The 2084 Report has a marvelous premise: a Studs-Terkel-esque version of the near-future events of climate change. These events, framed in the words of people who lived through them, bring the urgency of climate change into the present. Science fiction presented as public document!

The frustration of the book is that it isn’t actually an oral history, or if it is, it’s a misunderstanding of how oral history works. Terkel’s books The Good War and Hard Times, both of which the fictitious “author” references in his preface, relate some of the most dramatic events of the early 20th century in the voices of ordinary people. The intimacy of those accounts shifts history’s focus away from large-scale developments and dry data toward an awareness of individual experience. James Lawrence Powell, The 2084 Report’s author, recognizes the power of history, but misses the purpose of oral storytelling, to disappointing effect.

The individual accounts of the report vary in formality, but their reliance on data and overviews of events, rather than individual memories, belies the book’s oral history premise. One character discusses his childhood in Arizona in terms of numbers and statistics: “At the turn of the century, those in charge of planning for central Arizona thought that the population would rise to nearly 7 million people by 2050. In hindsight, that was a ridiculous assumption. When my great-grandparents moved here in 1950, Phoenix proper had only about 100,000 people. The year I was born, 2012, it had 1.6 million. Now it’s back down, headed towards 100,000 again.”

Powell is a scientist, with a PhD in geochemistry, and he’s written books on climate change before. Those weren’t, however, fiction. He’s approached his first book of fiction with the same data-driven focus that creates clarity in scientific papers, but the result isn’t the same. Numbers are inhuman, and they don’t usefully illustrate human experience.

The book’s most dramatic episode is the CanAm war, in which Americans move into Canadian territory in search of better farmlands, and ultimately transform Manitoba into American territory. The section, told by “Neale Fraser, . . . the first governor of the American state of Manitoba,” begins promisingly, with an ambivalent voice. Fraser begins with the remark, “Many of my fellow Canadians consider me a quisling,” and he does use some self-justification in his account, but few personal details. Fraser disappears quickly from a story in which he should be the central character.

The 2084 Report begs comparison to Max Brooks’ phenomenal World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Wars. It’s ironic, perhaps, that Brooks’ less plausible scenario reads “truer” than Powell’s urgent, deeply realistic one. Brooks uses short, intensely personal accounts to offer fragments of larger global events. The characters’ horror and triumph create a deeply emotional narrative. Powell’s “interviews” approach big questions without integrating individual experience or conflicting perspectives, which results in a flatter, less engaging narrative.

The book’s first interview, with a climate scientist, sets the Report’s tone. There’s a real question as to why a climate scientist would even be the right person to ask, “why, back in the first few decades of this century . . . people did not act to at least slow global warming.” It’s not a question for a scientist, but for a psychologist or historian. The climate scientist’s answer frames the problem in terms of people’s inability to accept evidence: that those who did not act did so out of ignorance and willful blindness.

There are more complex and useful answers that Powell could explore. He could examine economic precarity: people who do not act because their livelihoods relied on climate-damaging industries. He could look at the failures of political will in the face of a problem with no single, easy solution. He could identify the role of capitalism in driving choices and in preventing real choices. He does none of these things, though they’re the answers he could find in a real oral history, one in which characters consider, carefully, what they did and failed to do, individually.

The 2084 Report isn’t a bad book. It’s packed with crucial climate-change information framed in fairly comprehensible terms. It’s only as a novel, as a future-history, that it frustrates and ultimately comes apart. Its main appeal must be to readers who resist fiction, but who seek insight into climate change patterns in an easily digestible form.