Have you ever wondered how much you’d know about World War II if there weren’t hundreds of movies on it? Or considered the multitude of cultures and stories from across the world you are able to experience (and from the comfort of your sofa, no less!) thanks to a television?
Cinema serves as a constant source of inspiration, evidence and information. It can capture the zeitgeist of an era and illustrate some of the most complex issues across communities globally. It can bridge the gap between various generations and go beyond borders, thereby influencing and shaping opinions and ideologies.
Climate change on screen
Talking about climate change can often be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing, but cinema can be a powerful tool to raise awareness and inspire action towards addressing environmental challenges. However, movies have often failed to portray compelling stories based on facts and climate science. Think 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow, based on an absurd notion that abrupt climate change might just happen one afternoon. In reality, climate change is already happening, and such stories distort our perception of the ongoing crisis that needs immediate action.
While on the topic of action (or lack thereof), Netflix’s Don’t Look Up perfectly captures our society’s terrifyingly slow response to the climate crisis. It’s a satirical take on how humanity is responding to the fast-spreading climate breakdown, drawing inspiration from the world we live in today. The Inconvenient Truth — considered one of the best and most influential climate documentaries ever made — is another brilliant example of climate education in film. It recounts former US Vice President Al Gore’s campaign in 2000 to educate people about global warming, stressing how “each one of us is a cause of global warming, but [….] the solutions are in our hands.”
Numerous impactful documentaries have been made that shed light on critical social and environmental issues. For example, The True Cost of Fashion has helped bring attention to the detrimental effects of ‘fast fashion’ on both the planet and people. Before the Flood documented the significant changes happening worldwide due to climate change and advocated for policy reforms. 2040 offers an optimistic perspective and presents more practical and feasible approaches to address the crisis. Moreover, Blue Planet II (2017), a widely popular show that explored the effect of plastic pollution on marine life, is known to have inspired people across the UK to ditch single-use plastic.
The latest addition to this list is Apple TV’s show, Extrapolations, supposedly the biggest-budget scripted TV show ever made about global warming. The heavily star-studded series takes a new, unexpected approach to depict climate change — staying clear of post-apocalyptic narratives and dwelling deeper into what life on a warming planet might look like in the future. It imagines that wildfires in the 2030s will rage all over the globe, destroying forests and covering the sky in blankets of smoke. In this envisioned future, children will be born with a condition called the ‘summer heart’, caused by excessive exposure to smoke. Another episode very aptly depicts India’s ‘jugaad’ culture (a colloquial term for frugal innovation), with street merchants selling fresh air canisters and breathing masks in 2060 due to the degraded air quality and charging per ‘puff’ to breathe ‘fresh air’. This speculative future may feel grim, but is not wholly impossible, considering the air quality in the capital city, New Delhi, can be as bad as AQI 424. AQI or Air Quality Index is utilised to determine the level of air pollution in an area, with 0-50 indicating good air quality, and over 300 representing hazardous air quality that can lead to severe health issues. However, the show lacks the activist aspect of climate change, primarily focusing on the consequences of climate change rather than how we can tackle it.
Tools for social change
Movies have always been an effective way to reflect the world around us — through comedies and dramas, through stories of love, tragedy, hope, and triumph. Entertainment narratives can shape our understanding of the world and mobilise us to take action.
A survey of film and TV scripts from 2016-2020 found that only 2.8% included any climate-related words, and only 1% explicitly mentioned ‘climate’. That’s a huge missed opportunity to shape society’s collective approach towards climate action.
While there is still a long way to go in terms of representation, there are signs that climate change is starting to make its way into mainstream media. In 2019, BAFTA Albert created ‘planet placement’, a resource that provides inspiration and practical guidance on how to embed sustainability into films and TV content. This can be done by raising the issues in a way that inspires the audience to take action, or by normalising sustainable behaviours on screen. Similarly, in Los Angeles, Hollywood Climate Summit is an annual multi-day conference that creates a cross-sector community space for entertainment and media professionals via interactive workshops and events to drive a cultural shift in the industry towards collective action.
Cinema constitutes a crucial part of popular culture, and with climate change being one of the most pressing issues of our time, we need more narratives addressing the crisis in mainstream media. Unlike commonly shown in movies, there will be no ‘day zero’, no sudden switch from calm to chaos as throngs of people flee markets, planes drop from the sky, or a sudden military takeover happens. While certain films and TV shows address the impacts of climate change, there is a lack of positive, action-focused movies.
We need stories that show humanity responding rationally yet proactively to the crisis. By showing examples of individuals, organisations, and communities that are making a difference, films can inspire others to take action and make changes in their lives, which often has co-benefits for society beyond climate. The industry itself can showcase climate leadership by adopting sustainable practices in production, distribution, and exhibition. The sooner we see a reflection of our desired future on our screens, the more motivated and driven people will be to work to achieve it.
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