Screenwriters and storytellers find themselves in a strange conundrum when it comes to the climate crisis. On the one hand, we viewers often look into art to deal with the major issues of our time. On the other hand, we also often turn to television, film, and fiction as an escape from our daily reality, and many of us are suspicious of being preached to on a subject that is already stressing us out.
Now that we’re finally hearing about the climate crisis at least a little more often in the news media, is there a way for screenwriters to explore this topic effectively without feeling like they’re sacrificing their story to an agenda or breaking carefully constructed reality? that inhabit their characters?
This is a challenge that the non-profit climate and storytelling organization Good Energy has been working on for quite some time. Now that the group has created a climate playbook for screenwriters (in which I have a short chapter on hypocrisy), the group has released a report that suggests many screenwriters are reluctant to even engage with the topic. This new report, produced in collaboration with the USC Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project, consists of a unique analysis of 37,453 television and film scripts produced between 2016 and 2020.
Here are just some of the results of this analysis:
- Only 2.8% of the scripts analyzed contained climate-related terms such as “global warming”, “sea level rise”, “solar panels”, etc.
- Even fewer (only 0.6%) explicitly mentioned the term “climate change”.
- Only 10% of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, wildfires or other climate-related disasters shown on screen have been linked in any way to climate change by writers.
In a way, it reminds me of another major crisis. As we have been living through a pandemic for several years now, television and film have had major problems with whether and how to advertise its impact. If the relative lack of face masks and COVID testing on the shows I’ve watched is anything, screenwriters have chosen to tread lightly.
There are many reasons why this could have happened. Perhaps screenwriters were afraid that an explicit COVID lens would date the show for future viewers or make it seem difficult to relate to once the world finally moved on? Perhaps they weren’t sure how to write well on this topic without making their audience feel like public health messages were being preached to them? Crisis?
“To be fair, it’s hard to figure out how to tell stories about the climate crisis when it’s been largely ignored for so long,” Anna Jane Joyner, founder of Good Energy, tells Treehugger when searching for the parallel to Covid and the Hollywood’s reluctance to delve into the climate. “We developed the playbook to help overcome the challenge. We wanted to show that there are artful, fun, and lucrative ways to do it — and that there’s a growing audience demand for it, too. The good news is, the more and the more different stories we see, the more it will inspire others to do the same.”
She also points to a large number of myths or misconceptions that screenwriters struggle with when thinking about climate. These include:
- The topic is too preachy, boring or polarized
- Climate stories have to be depressing or apocalyptic
- Climate stories are necessarily some kind 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, have to be eco-saints before they can delve into the subject
The thing about the climate crisis, however, is: we will live with its effects for generations to come. These effects will become increasingly difficult to ignore. And while few of us want to be preached every time we turn on the television or go to the movies, we also want to watch shows that make sense within our own framework of lived experiences.
If we don’t find ways to incorporate climate into the stories we enjoy and engage with, the stories we enjoy and engage with actually become less enjoyable and less compelling. (Imagine if movies from the 1920s and 1930s ignored the existence of the automobile, the railroad, or the First World War…)
Far from making shows less relatable by referring to what is—or at least should be—one of the defining issues of our time, the opposite is true. As the folks at Good Energy have strongly argued, shows that authentically integrate a climate lens are shows made for our time and the reality we all live in. It shows do not happening in connection with climate change are essentially science fiction at this point.
As Becca Warner recently found in an excellent article on climate and film for the BBC, this does not mean that every show or film has to or should focus on climate. And that doesn’t 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, having a beer with friends, checking on loved ones, watching a movie — with the climate crisis playing quietly in the background. And a realistic portrayal of the crisis may actually mean that most shows work with references to heatwaves, new energy policies, or clean energy solutions where and how it makes sense, while allowing the story to go where it belongs in terms of characters and plot .
Most importantly, Good Energy’s analysis shows that there is a great need and tremendous opportunity for the industry to step up their game and both scale and diversify their storytelling on this vitally important topic.