Climate change comics: Dreams of a Low Carbon Future

James McKayDreams of a Low Carbon Future, James McKay, 2013
Ebony & Jay, The Tribe. They say "Hi"
Ebony & Jay, The Tribe. They say “Hi”

I like fiction set “after the/an apocalypse”.

Young Adult fiction? Julie Bertagna’s Exodus, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines, Kresley Cole’s Arcana Chronicles. A-movies? Mad Max trilogy, The Postman (FIGHT ME), Terminator 2. B-movies? Too many to mention! Anime? Hokuto No Ken, GunXSword, Demon City Shinjuku. Comics? Sheltered is great. Old Man Logan (in parts), Akira, Tank Girl, FreakAngels, bit of Dredd here and there, etc etc etc. And don’t even talk to me about The Tribe unless you’ve got two hours and a lot of patience.

I also grew up in a heavy environmentally aware family culture; my mum would carry a magnet on a string to check if cans were recyclable before I was allowed to buy fizzy drinks. I’m primed for projects like Dreams of a Low Carbon Future. Absolutely primed.

James McKay, veteran of 2000A.D, and confusingly-named Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department of Energy & Climate Change, Prof. David Mackay, plus others, have teamed up to produce a graphic novel directly discussing and exploring the realities of climate change, and introducing potential technologies to combat the extreme changes in lifestyle full flooding would force on everyone likely to read it. And they went further; children are the future, after all, and to not include them within strategies of hope is silly. Perfectly silly.

McKay and team went into schools, made friends with teachers, and worked directly with pupils in and around Leeds to educate and create with the leaders, and followers, of tomorrow.

There were disparate goals: teach engineers to communicate about their work. Address myths and pervasive ignorance about climate change. Engage children in environmental and social politics before they grow up and it seems like a chore. Tell some stories about what could happen to “us” if nobody cuts down their carbon emissions, if nobody thinks about fixing what’s broken, if nobody hauls the wheel around. There’s a lot to ask about. A lot to say. I got in touch with  James McKay, and on some questions he reached out further to Holly, a scientist on the project.

Have you had good feedback from the engineers involved on their development as communicators? Did any of them have trouble with the idea of explaining their concepts through comics?

JM: Great feedback – they enjoyed being creative and looking at things from a different perspective. One or two struggled to begin with as they had never done any public engagement before, let alone a creative project like this, but as a result they found it an even more positive experience.

Has your mind or behaviour ever been changed by a comic, or other story?

‘Arzach’ by Moebius (a story of about 6 pages, with no text) was what inspired me to get into comics. ‘Slaine’ by Pat Mills and Mick McMahon/Glen Fabry/Simon Bisley was a comic that was formative in terms of my outlook on life. Other non-comic stories that have affected/inspired me are too numerous to mention. I would say that the following non-fiction books have dramatically changed my views/behaviour/outlook as well: ‘Endgame’ by Derrick Jensen, ‘In the Shadow of Man’ by Jane Goodall, and ‘The White Goddess’ by Robert Graves.

Each section is fairly journalistic–as opposed to immersive fiction. Is this on purpose?

Nothing was ‘on purpose’ – but we certainly found it difficult to get all the information across that we wanted through immersive stories – it was easier to have a ‘journalist’ type figure talking as if to camera.

Were there many opposing views on your long-term options within production team? Did this cause any problems? Was it a benefit?

Everyone in the team has a different opinion. I was quite surprised that there was no opposition to doing stories where the future is projected to be like the Stone Age (after all, the scientists are all working on state-of-the-art technology). We tried to include everyone’s opinion or prediction somewhere.

I definitely wanted to have conflict and controversy between different views, and show people that even the experts don’t agree. There was much more consensus than I was expecting.

What is your target impact with this book?

A raised awareness among the public of the different options for the future.

School children taking up engineering or a science career in order to make an impact on the future.

Our scientists getting involved in more communication of their ideas to the public, or initiating their own public engagement projects as a result.

Why are there no illustrations of the scientific research listed in the back of the book? After going through so many well-illustrated inventions and innovations it was a surprise to see such dense text.

Good point. We wanted to make sure that as much of the children’s work and interesting ideas were included in the bulk of the book, so there was not much space left (we had to keep to a page limit for printing and budget-wise). It would have been better, in hindsight, to have some interesting photos of the researchers at work, but on the other hand, an awful lot of their work is done with bits of equipment that are just white boxes with a button on the front (we have this problem when arranging promotional photos for brochures).

Are there plans for a “second draft,” or the development of the project?

Yes. I’d like to do a follow-up, and have some initial plans ready, but am so busy with actually running the current project (exhibitions/follow-up events/evaluation), that it won’t be for a while.

What is, or was, your advertising scheme?

We have a website for the project, and piggy-backed on advertising through the festivals and exhibitions we’ve been involved in.

What were you most worried about during production? What are the acknowledged weaknesses of this project?

I was worried we wouldn’t have a book ready in time for the launch. I have extensive experience of major collaborative projects going wrong, or missing deadlines e.g. I worked on a collaborative comic for a studio once, where the whole comic printed too dark – it had looked fine on screen and in the proofs. This book could easily have been an incoherent mess, or alternatively too much of one person’s work.

Weaknesses are possibly that the scientists couldn’t get as heavily involved as I’d have liked in actually producing the book – I had grand ideas that they would learn some basic graphic design and publishing skills but there was just no time. It was an extremely difficult thing to pull together even for myself and Ben Dickson my colleague – and we’re both experienced at these things.

Cover by Mark Wilkinson. Dreams of a Low Carbon Future, James McKay, 2013This is a comment rather than a straight question, but I like the painting seen on the cover. I worry though, that some readers may be put off by the shape, paper quality, and lack of people on the cover. To be honest, it looks rather like a prospectus, which affects the atmosphere of the read before the spine is ever cracked!

We’ve had both positive and negative responses about the cover. In hindsight it would have been really nice to have some people prominent in the foreground, and I actually asked the artist to do this, but he went his own way, and the painting is fantastic so I didn’t push him. I would say that the only negative responses have been from people who have really lacked any understanding of the book i.e. their responses showed that they hadn’t read it at all.

Everyone we’ve given the book to has been really impressed by the high-quality print job, although I recognise that it does make it ‘feel’ like a prospectus. I think if we did a follow-up that we’d do it in a different format e.g. landscape, but I would still aim (if budget allowed) to go for as high-quality paper and reproduction as possible. I’ve been involved in projects where lovely artwork was ruined by horrible flimsy, grainy paper.

Is “the crash” inevitable? Is this essentially a post-apocalypse survival handbook? There aren’t really any “good” futures depicted… there are some post-disaster, but that tells us that disaster IS coming.

I personally think the crash is inevitable, and there are high-profile writers and scientists who believe it is going to happen very soon (problems related to peak oil in the immediate future, with climate change effects becoming more pronounced further down the line). Jeremy Leggett, a well-known campaigner on peak oil, believes there will be an economic crash in 2015, and even the oil companies, who are notorious for covering up problems, recognise that peak oil will happen at the latest by 2030, with ENORMOUS consequences for our lives, and especially for food supply.

Art by Corban Wilkin. Cover by Mark Wilkinson. Dreams of a Low Carbon Future, James McKay, 2013

Corban Wilkin’s excellently clear section, A History of Energy Use

I’d disagree that we didn’t show any good futures. The core of the book is the “low demand utopia” and this is very positive, even though they had to go through problems first.

I would say that what I’ve seen and read over the last few months as a result of the project means that the follow-up book could be along the lines of ‘get a gun, start caching food, and learn how to make fire with sticks’!!

The choice to address the reader and remove the fiction at the end of the book–why was this made? Do you want to spur readers to personal action? Sow political seeds for their future voting pattern?

Yes, this was deliberate. We’d like people to consider that they can have an impact. It’s apathy that underlies a lot of our problems. Certainly we want to encourage children into careers where they will learn skills that will enable them to have a positive impact.

Why don’t comics tend to address climate change properly, do you think?

I’ve only read one, ‘Science Tales’ by Darryl Cunningham, which was excellent.

Having said that, I don’t think our society at large addresses climate change properly – in view of how important it is. A writer on this topic said that if a meteorite was predicted to impact on earth in 2030 and wipe out civilisation, the world would be coming together to solve the problem. Humans are very good at dealing with this kind of discrete, near-term threat. Climate change is on the same level, but because it’s very diffuse and difficult to predict, we feel free to ignore it or worse.

There’s a strong impression of trying to push past the stalled status quo of the current public narrative around climate change. Why do you think that this is still a matter of “belief”?

The establishment (the military/industrial complex) has absolutely no interest in recognising climate change as a problem, because any response would threaten their grip on power e.g. society moving away from fossil fuels will mean oil executives are out of a job. Jeremy Leggett (again) and Derrick Jensen show in detail how the ‘incumbency’ frustrate any attempt to solve the problems of climate change and fossil fuel use. Some of the oil companies’ tactics are amazing, and really make you despair for the human race.

We try to show in the book that ordinary people can forge communities that don’t have to rely on the current power structure, but to be honest it’s unlikely that this sort of future will happen without the military/industrial complex going down in flames.

The book is directed towards everyday people with everyday needs and desires for carbon use. Why choose to target the masses rather than government or corporate powers?

Derrick Jensen (who helped with the book) maintains in his writings that the people currently in power are like child abusers. That is, they cannot be reformed or rehabilitated. Real change can only happen by addressing and influencing the masses – basically the next generation.

Holly: Ultimately it is the masses that have the potential to make the most change. There are plenty of ways that people can reduce their emissions without the intervention of governments and corporations, such as turning down thermostats or choosing to walk to work instead of taking the car.

However at the end of the day there is an extremely important part to play for both corporations and governments to ensure that climate change fully addressed. But basically it comes down to the simplicity of supply and demand. Governments and corporations depend on the support of a majority of people to function. Corporations rely on being able to supply the product that is demanded by the most consumers; that is how they make money. For example, if there was more demand for electric cars then the manufacturers would put more into production.

Essentially the government is the same as a corporation, except instead of being in the business of making money, they are in the business of getting votes. Using the electric car example again, if a significant number of people demanded government support for electric car infrastructure then it is likely this would move much further up the list of government priorities. Whilst governments and corporations have a strong role to play in tackling climate change, they are unlikely to pay anything more than lip service to these issues unless there is significant demand for greener products and behaviours. Therefore targeting everyday people and encouraging them to change their behaviour is way of getting to the root of the issue.

CN: The children’s gallery mentions “lots of penguins on melting icebergs”–where does this pervasive imagery come from and why is it unchallenged?

JM: This seems to be the most stereotypical image of climate change in the media (either penguins or polar bears). We had HUNDREDS of images like this, only a couple were included in the book.

I guess it’s unchallenged because it’s clearly happening and the most visible sign of climate change – and penguins and polar bears are cute and cuddly!

Holly: Although this penguins on icebergs was not even something that was mentioned by the scientists during school workshops, it is clear that this is an image that many children had in their head when it came to climate change. This may be as it is quite an easy thing for anybody, not even just children to grasp; the idea that a warming world will lead to melting of ice that will threaten some of the world’s most iconic animals.

It was clear that in a lot of cases, these are things that are learnt from the media rather than things that the children are told in school. Therefore I think it does highlight that education of climate change issues is something that does still need to be addressed. Again this applies to people of all ages, not just children. But at the end of the day, as long as people find some way to relate to climate change that is an important step forward.

CN: Why a compilation? Why is it important to let children see their own work in the final product?

JM: I wanted the book to be a product of a team where 10 year old school children could work as equals with 40 year old world-leading academics, and also with writers and artists from all walks of life. This really worked and is the aspect of the project I’m most proud of.

I knew at the start that there are as many opinions as there are people, so I wanted it to focus on lots of different ideas.

It has been great for the children to see their work published – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Hopefully this will raise their self-esteem and inspire them to do further projects of their own. The expressions of amazement and pride on their faces when they were shown the final book said it all.

Holly: Letting children see their own work is an important part of the graphic novel. When doing school workshops one of the main messages is that everyone can make a difference when it comes to climate change. By including their work, it not only encourages them to take more of an interest in the final product, but it also reinforces the message that the climate debate is not just for adults but it’s for everyone.

CN: Who was your projected audience? Who was your actual audience, from the surveys you sent out following Thought Bubble?

JM: The projected audience was all the children who took part, other children that we contact through science festivals, the public through Thought Bubble and local libraries and museums.

Actual audience at Thought Bubble included a lot of teachers (who wanted books for their schools). Also plenty of creative types (as you would imagine) who wouldn’t ordinarily get interested in science topics.

Zahra Massey’s comic struck me as very good. Are you still in contact with any of the children whose creative work features? How can we help young creators who are already engaged with important subjects to develop their talent and gain an audience?

Beyond giving the children the finished book, I don’t expect to be in contact with them, however, we hope to follow up with further contact with the schools and maybe do projects with them later in their school life. However, it grows increasingly difficult once they’ve made their decisions on GCSEs and A Levels, which is why we targeted this age group (10-13).

It’s a big question about how to get young creators to develop their talent. I think the best way is through getting funding for similar projects that they can take part in – the best experience is learning through doing a live project.

Are there any positive scenarios you chose not to show? The whole book, to be honest, has a subtle theme of “good riddance,” regarding humans.

We could have chosen to show a future where society has changed for the better, and climate change has turned out to be a false alarm. However, this wouldn’t represent the work of the researchers involved. One of the contributors to the Technotopia section, Dr Ian Pearson, who is a professional ‘futurologist’, doesn’t believe that climate change is going to be serious, and also thinks we’ll solve any problems through technology, something we tried to show in the Technotopia chapter. But if you read his stories and articles, his future is not a place where I would like to live!

Are there plans in the works to work with illustration students or comic creation programmes to further inform the public about sustainable energy supplies and lower impact behaviours? How can interested parties follow the threads picked up in your book?

Yes – I’d like to do further work with illustrators on the project idea described above. There’s a ‘further reading’ section at the back of the book, and also people can look at our website and contact our researchers.

Is funding graphic journalism re: climate change & energy efficiency a long-term project?

Yes, it will just be a case of people trying to raise awareness through as many projects as they can grab funding for.

“Biochar” is mentioned several times. Is this real? What about carbon foam?

Biochar is real – several of our researchers work on it. Essentially it is roasting biomass (woody matter) until you get solid black carbon as a waste product (the useful products given off are oil and gas). This is then sown into the soil, rather than going up into the atmosphere. We should have included this in the glossary – an oversight.

Carbon foam is not real – currently. This was one of Dr Ian Pearson’s ideas, and features in a book he’s publishing online. There are lots of possibilities for amazing materials made from carbon – along the lines of the (real) wonder material discovered recently – graphene.

The book makes a point of it being necessary to change ourselves and our own habits. But there is no example given of a person choosing to do this now, and how it impacts their life (or the world, even unaccompanied by others). Was this an oversight, or a proactive decision?

This was an oversight, and it’s pretty hard to find examples. Having said that, I’ve learnt that Cuba managed to go from massive reliance on imported fossil fuels to community-based self-sufficiency when the Soviet Union collapsed. But I didn’t know about this until after the project finished. It would be good to include in a follow-up book. They managed to do it without the predicted terrible effects like wars and famines, which is remarkable.

Bhutan is another country that does things differently .

A problem that I have with the book is that the persistent sticking point is stupid, boorish bullies who ruin it for everyone. Do you believe that idiot jerks have, will or are ruining it for us as a species, as inhabitants of a planet? Do you think that this sort of bad penny is a true human archetype, or do they recur due to fear that they might be? I find the idea that some dickhead can be so heartily strong in their refusal to let us do better that we all fall into the sewer rather demotivating, and I think it’s a shame that demotivation goes hand in hand with awakening to a problem. Popular post-apocalyptic stories might not address energy problems correctly or even closely, but they do provide us with hope within the bounds of humanity.

It will be a shame if demotivation goes hand in hand with awakening to the problem for our readers. I don’t believe that the ‘bullies’ are inevitable – for example there are lots of indigenous societies where there are no figures like this, or where they have (or had) effective ways of dealing with them.

But I think that unfortunately as soon as you have a “civilisation” you will have people who resort to violence to gain and preserve their power, and who look for the quick buck without caring about the long-term impact of their activities. In fact, according to Derrick Jensen in his book ‘Endgame’, civilisation IS violence. Civilisation (i.e. a state where more people live together than can be accommodated by the natural resources in one area) requires taking those resources from other people. If you can imagine all the people in your town or city having to exist on just what that area can provide (fish, wild animals, nuts, roots, berries), clearly it can’t support the number of people who currently live there. Somewhere down the line, the stuff that is necessary for a lot of people to construct a high standard of living is going to result in a less-powerful group of people having to give up those resources (which no one in their right mind would do unless they are subjected to violence, or tricked into giving them up).

This is a very bleak message (if you agree with it) and one we didn’t want to weigh down the book, so it only gets a partial mention.

You’re sure to show the downsides of almost every technological possibility that’s posited. That’s a heavy trip. Is it (scientifically? socially?) important to shoulder responsibility for the future whilst patching up the present? Or is this a byproduct of having a lot of cooks around your cauldron?

Examining the pros and cons is core to what our researchers do, so we wanted to include this. They spend all their time pointing out the problems of each of the different technologies to each other. It turns into a bit of a game e.g. we have a ‘fuel cell’ gang who think fuel cells will solve all our problems, but they’re laughed at by the rest (good naturedly).

In society as a whole, this is mirrored by the lack of consensus among renewable technology experts – obviously if you run a solar power company you are going to claim wonders for your technology, and rubbish wind, or CCS. This is one of the problems we have going forward – every technology has its pros and cons, and even the experts can’t agree (or even compare them like-for-like). How can the public expect to be informed? This was something we came up against when the children in the schools workshops asked the simple question ‘so what’s the best technology?’. We even played a game called ‘energy top trumps’ to find out, but the figures we stated for e.g. ‘most efficient’, ‘least damaging for the environment’ etc were almost impossible to agree on.

“Utopia… would be a sustainable society”. Is that anything other than a thought experiment within strictly defined boundaries? Do the people of 2253AD, and the people of pre-colonial Australia, have no philosophical or social problems? There must be a strong spiritual or cultural shift between then/there and now/here. You begin to address this, but only very slightly, with very basic adulthood rituals in the far-flung future. There’s no talk of spiritualism, religion, or prized cultural values having an impact on people’s decisions or lifestyles. Why is this? Is it not the time? Is it too emotive a subject to risk involving? Does science weaken itself by introducing the question of faith?

We didn’t have space to go into this although I would have liked to as I find all this side of things fascinating. I’m reading a book called ‘The World Until Yesterday’ by Jared Diamond which I’d recommend – it compares hundreds of different cultures on subjects such as their treatment of death, religion, rituals, war, health, caring for the elderly etc. and shows the upsides and downsides of living in a large-scale state, or a small-scale community.

There would certainly be problems for alternative societies like the ones we mention in the book. One thing that Jared Diamond makes clear is that if you don’t have a powerful state, you have to live with almost continuous low-level warfare. In fact, the proportion of people killed in small-scale societies is much higher than even the proportion of people in our society killed in the World Wars.

Many communes or kibbutz-style experiments in small-scale sustainable community living fall apart due to clashes of personalities or factions. They can be very unstable.

Having said that, we do feature Professor Wem, who becomes like a Martin Luther King-type figure to inspire a movement for sustainable living (whether it would be a religion is debatable). One of our researchers wrote a very interesting article saying that this is what is lacking at the moment – people have what he described as a ‘just world’ belief – that the world is stable and that things work out in the end, which makes them very sceptical of climate change, and that what we need is a visionary leader to inspire them to take action.

I think science can only be stronger by engaging with faith (rather than rubbishing it). I dislike people like Richard Dawkins who go out of their way to provoke those with religious beliefs. But it’s hugely complex area and definitely merits its own books/comics/films.

It looks like every entry in the book is produced (coloured, at least) with traditional, physical media. Is this an active choice? Is it your personal preference? Is it a coincidence?

Yes, it was an active choice, and my personal preference. I do all my work by hand as I think computer-generated art all looks the same. It should be one tool among many, but people get carried away by the impressive results into thinking it’s now the ONLY way to create art.

We also committed to do two exhibitions of artwork as part of the project, so I wanted original hand-drawn stuff to exhibit and told the artists to go for this.

Plus, it was much more immediate when working with the kids to do physical artwork together. One group did use computers and it meant we had less interaction with them.

Artwork from the project is available to view in exhibition at the Cartoon Museum, London, until July 2014!

Claire Napier

Claire Napier

Critic, ex-Editor in Chief at WWAC, independent comics editor; the rock that drops on your head. Find me at and give me lots of money