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TV and Film Scripts Need to Stop Ignoring the Climate Crisis

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Screenwriters and storytellers are in a strange conundrum when it comes to the climate crisis. On the one hand, we, the viewing public, often look to art to explore the big topics of our time. On the other hand, we also often turn to TV, film, and fiction to escape from our daily realities, and many of us a leery about being preached to on a topic that stresses us out already.

So, now that we are finally hearing at least slightly more often about the climate crisis in the news media, is there a way for screenwriters to effectively explore this topic without feeling like they are sacrificing their story to an agenda or breaking the carefully constructed reality that their characters inhabit?

This is a challenge that climate and storytelling nonprofit Good Energy has been working on for quite some time. Having created a climate playbook for screenwriters (in which I have a short chapter about hypocrisy), the group now released a report that suggests many screenwriters are shying away from tackling this topic at all. Produced in collaboration with USC Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project, this new report consists of a first-of-its-kind analysis of 37,453 TV and movie scripts produced between 2016 and 2020.

Here’s just some of what that analysis found:

  • Only 2.8% of the scripts analyzed included any climate-related terms, such as “global warming,” “sea-level rise,” “solar panels,” etc.
  • Even fewer (just 0.6%) explicitly mentioned the term “climate change.”
  • Only 10% of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, wildfires, or other climate-related disasters that were shown on screen were linked by writers in any way to climate change.

In some ways, it reminds me of another major crisis. While we’ve been living through a pandemic for several years now, TV and film have struggled mightily with whether and how to reference its impact. If the relative lack of face masks and COVID tests on the shows I have been watching is anything to go by, screenwriters have decided to tread lightly.

There are many reasons why this may have happened. Perhaps screenwriters were in fear that an explicit COVID lens would date the show for future audiences or make it seem hard to relate to once the world has finally moved on? Perhaps they were unsure about how to write on this topic well, without making their audience feel like they were being preached to about public health messages? Or, perhaps, like many of us, they were just exhausted after many years of an ongoing and disruptive crisis?

“To be fair, it is hard to figure out how to tell stories about the climate crisis when it has been largely ignored for so long,” Anna Jane Joyner, Good Energy’s founder, tells Treehugger when asked about the Covid parallel and the Hollywood reluctance to dive in on climate. “We created the Playbook to help tackle the challenge. We wanted to show that there are ways to do it that are artful, entertaining, and lucrative —and that there is growing audience demand for it, too. The good news is, the more and more varied stories we see, the more it will spark others to do the same.”

She also references a large number of myths or misconceptions that screenwriters struggle with when thinking about climate. These include:

  • The topic is too preachy, boring, or polarizing
  • Climate stories have to be depressing or apocalyptic
  • Climate stories are necessarily a type of story at all—as opposed to a lens that we apply to all of our stories
  • Screenwriters, some of whom live among Hollywood celebrities, need to be eco-saints before they can tackle this topic

Here’s the thing with the climate crisis though: We will be living with its impacts for generations to come. These impacts will become increasingly hard to ignore. And even though few of us want to be preached to every time we turn on the TV or go to the movies, we also want to watch shows that make sense within our own frame of lived experiences.

Unless we find ways to work climate into the stories we enjoy and engage with, then the stories we enjoy and engage with will actually become less enjoyable, and less engaging. (Imagine if movies from the ’20s and ’30s had ignored the existence of the motorcar, or railroads, or World War I …)

Far from making shows less relatable by referencing what is—or at least should be—one of the defining issues of our time, the opposite is actually true. As the folks at Good Energy have argued forcefully, shows that authentically integrate a climate lens are shows that are made for our times and the reality that we are all living in. It’s shows that do not happen within the context of climate change are essentially pedaling science fiction at this point.

As Becca Warner recently explored in an excellent article on climate and film for the BBC, this does not mean that every show or movie has to, or even should, center the action around climate. And it also does not mean we need 1,000 more disaster movies like “The Day After Tomorrow” or even comedies like “Don’t Look Up!”

Most of us go about our daily lives—taking the kids to school, getting a beer with friends, checking in on loved ones, watching a movie—with the climate crisis playing quietly in the background. And a realistic depiction of the crisis may in fact mean the majority of shows work in references to heat waves, new energy policies, or clean energy solutions as and where it makes sense while allowing the story to go where it needs to in terms of characters and plot.

Above all, though, what Good Energy’s analysis demonstrates is that there is a gaping need, and huge opportunity, for the industry to step up its game, and to both scale and diversify its storytelling on this critically important topic.