Earth to Hollywood: Make more climate movies

A recent Netflix release smashed historic streaming records including most hours viewed in a week. At first glance, I’m sure many would assume I’m talking about the latest superhero flick — far from it. Well, I guess that depends on how you define superheroes. Filmmaker Adam McKay’s climate change satire “Don’t Look Up” tells the story of two heroic scientists trying to warn the world of impending doom.

Don’t worry, this isn’t my take on the film, (which I thought was great, albeit depressing — and somewhat guilt-inducing after the credits roll and you remember this isn’t a laughing matter at all). The most important take-away to me is: We need more climate films — fast. The film smashed streaming records because people are evidently yearning for stories like this one. Stories that let them know they’re not the only one feeling this way. Stories that help them process this existential threat in any way shape or form, even if it’s through seemingly inappropriate laughter. Sure, the star-studded cast didn’t hurt. But I think it says a lot about our collective psyche right now that we’re all so drawn to this story.

With a threat as scary and overwhelming as climate change, we need ways to process that fear, grief, anger, and oftentimes, feelings of powerlessness. Storytelling is a great way to do that. Millions tuned in to watch the film’s lead actors Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio scream with righteous indignation at news cameras asking people to wake up because we all wish we could do the same. We also need new visions of the future that show that climate change is solvable and that we still have time to right the ship.

Popular movies also give us an avenue to talk about real-world issues with our peers. Not only is talking about climate change an important coping mechanism, but climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe says talking about it is the most important thing we can do. After all, if no one is talking about it, it’s hardly likely that our elected officials will feel the pressure to act. 

Hollywood stories, for better or worse, also educate people and can help shape public opinion. Certainly, the U.S. military knows the influence movies have on the public. They have a long history of working with Hollywood on their portrayal in war movies “not just for recruiting but also for … appealing to the U.S. taxpayers who foot the bills,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

And while McKay set out to make a film to help raise awareness about the climate crisis, other Hollywood filmmakers don’t need to share his good intentions. They can be solely interested in box office results and come to the same conclusion that we need more climate movies. I doubt they’ll overlook the massive demand for climate films that “Don’t Look Up” revealed.

Hollywood on climate to date

Climate documentaries have been coming out steadily long before and after “An Inconvenient Truth.” But if you look at Hollywood films to date, climate change is a pretty rare theme. When it is featured, it’s usually through one of a handful of tropes, and rarely the kind we really need.

There’s the obvious — climate disaster movies —  like “The Day After Tomorrow.” In my view, we probably don’t need any more of these — given we don’t need to look far to see the realities of the climate crisis already devastating our communities. Recently, over 1,000 homes burned down near Boulder, Colorado due to the tragic Marshall Fire.

Often, climate or sustainability themes are weaved into a movie through the motive of the villain. The antagonist cares about water, energy or overpopulation like in “Quantum of Solace,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” and “Avengers: Infinity War.” This is not a particularly helpful trope for obvious reasons.

Another is the dystopian future. What will the world look like when it is flooded, barren, too hot or covered in trash? Look no further than “Waterworld,” “Blade Runner 2049,” “Dune,” “Reminiscence,” or one of my all-time favorites, “WALL-E.” 

Another is the heroic lawyer fighting against the shady corporate interests polluting our communities like “Erin Brockovich” and “Dark Waters.”

But perhaps what could be most impactful are the stories that we haven’t yet heard. Where is the “Star Trek”-like future where humanity has figured out how to solve the climate problem? With a challenge as great and complex as climate change, we could be telling countless heroic tales of humanity engaging in the crucial work of solving the crisis — transforming the wasteful, polluting, industrial society ripe with inequality into a more sustainable equitable society — what environmental activist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy has called “The Great Turning.”

In addition, over the past three decades of the climate fight, there have been countless real-world heroes whose stories deserve to be told. Hard-fought battles won and lost — in the courtroom, in the halls of Congress, in the streets, on the lands and waters of people around the world defending the Earth from those that would do it harm.

I hope that Hollywood sees an opportunity here to help us craft better narratives of saving the world that can actually help us do so. In order to help us achieve a more positive future, we need to be able to envision it, and filmmakers can help with this.

Not just Hollywood, but all creatives and artists. When we look at times of change in the past, take the civil rights movement, or the movement to end the war in Vietnam we see that musicians, poets, visual artists, writers and creatives of all kinds helped contribute to shifting the zeitgeist. This is what we need now.

To the filmmakers, artists, storytellers and creatives reading this, it’s clear that the public wants and needs more stories, more art, more avenues to process emotions and galvanize solutions for the biggest crisis of our time — the climate crisis. And you all have a unique platform and set of tools to help us.

Andreas Karelas is author of the book “Climate Courage: How Tackling Climate Change Can Build Community, Transform the Economy, and Bridge the Political Divide in America” published by Beacon Press. He is also the founder and executive director of RE-volv, a nonprofit climate justice organization that helps fellow nonprofits across the country go solar. Follow him on Twitter: @AndreasKarelas

This piece has been updated.

Tags Adam McKay Andreas Karelas Climate change climate disaster climate science extreme weather Global warming Hollywood Jennifer Lawrence Katharine Hayhoe Leonardo DiCaprio movies
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