The term "cli-fi" first came into use on April 20, 2013 when NPR did a five-minute radio segment by Angela Evancie on Weekend Edition Saturday to describe novels and movies that deal with man-made climate change, and historically, there have been any number of literary works that dealt with climate change in earlier times as well. Dan Bloom has been an influential figure in the development of "cli-fi" as a distinct genre.
Jules Verne's 1889 novel The Purchase of the North Pole imagines climate change due to tilting of Earth's axis. In his posthumous Paris in the Twentieth Century, written in 1883 and set during the 1960s, the titular city experiences a sudden drop in temperature, which lasts for three years. Several well-known dystopian works by British author J. G. Ballard deal with climate-related natural disasters: In The Wind from Nowhere (1961), civilization is reduced by persistent hurricane-force winds, and The Drowned World (1962) describes a future of melted ice-caps and rising sea-levels caused by solar radiation. In The Burning World (1964, later called The Drought) his climate catastrophe is human-made, a drought due to disruption of the precipitation cycle by industrial pollution.
As scientific knowledge of the effects of fossil fuel consumption and resulting increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations entered the public and political arena as "global warming", fiction about the problems of human-induced global warming began to appear. Susan M. Gaines's Carbon Dreams was an early example of a literary novel that "tells a story about the devastatingly serious issue of human-induced climate change," set in the 1980s and published before the term "cli-fi" was coined. Michael Crichton's State of Fear (2004), a techno-thriller portrays climate change as "a vast pseudo-scientific hoax" and is critical of scientific opinion on climate change.
Margaret Atwood explored the subject in her dystopian trilogy Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013). In Oryx and Crake Atwood presents a world where "social inequality, genetic technology and catastrophic climate change, has finally culminated in some apocalyptic event". The novel's protagonist, Jimmy, lives in a "world split between corporate compounds", gated communities that have grown into city-states and pleeblands, which are "unsafe, populous and polluted" urban areas where the working classes live.