Imagine if Hollywood Actually Made Realistic Climate Stories

It still haven’t seen Tomorrow is TomorrowIt was released in 2004, when I was 10. I remember many occasions, including sibling trips to Blockbuster with my friends and sleepovers at home with horror-loving family members. But I was terrified by the trailer’s scenes of water crashing through city blocks. They were connected to real world threats, which I vaguely knew. I was a curious child who wanted to go to bed at night.

Eighteen years later, the apocalyptic nature of climate representation in Hollywood hasn’t changed much. These are the creators Game of Thrones (2011), The Dead Don’t Die (2019), Chernobyl (2019), Don’t Look Up (2021) have all talked about using their world-ending subjects (zombies, nuclear disasters, comets), as metaphors for humanity’s failure to act on climate.

Those symbols have little to do with the ways that the crisis is showing up in my reality so far—anxiety, longer heat waves, a groundswell of youth activism, to name a few. But they’re pretty much all we’ve got; a soon-to-be published analysis by the University of Southern California found that only 2.8% of scripted television and film made in the last five years included any of the climate keywords used by the researchers. That’s despite the issue skyrocketing up the news agenda over the same period.

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The disconnect feels like a huge missed opportunity for the climate movement. It could be tapping into the powerful (though admittedly hard to quantify) role that entertainment media has played in shaping society on other issues, notably LGBTQ representation. Instead, TV and film have largely reinforced a sense of climate change as an intractable death sentence. Tween me couldn’t handle it. Bringing climate issues into people’s living rooms in a more nuanced way, however, could help stimulate the behavioral change and political will we need to create.

Anna Jane Joyner is hoping to do just that. Last week, her storytelling consultancy Good Energy launched its Climate Playbook, a publicly available resource that aims to help writers take climate stories beyond the doom-laden tropes, and past lingering industry fears of being too preachy. “I really believe in the ability of stories, particularly film and television, to emotionally move us, which is critical to action,” she tells me over the phone from Los Angeles. “You have to feel something before you’re willing to do something, and it can’t just be fear.”

Climate change remains a topic of industry silence

Joyner had worked for most of her life in communications, including at environmental organisations like Sierra Club. After two unsuccessful attempts in entertainment, Good Energy was founded in 2019. First, in 2014, she appeared in an episode of SHOWTIME’s climate documentary series, Many Years Living DangerouslyIt happened after she tried and failed to convince her dad (a climate skeptic, and an evangelical pastor) to accept climate change. Later, Alex Maggio was a CBS producer and writer. Madam SecretaryJoyner called Joyner asking if she could help him create a character inspired by her memories with her dad. “That’s kind of when it clicked for me,” Joyner says. “Why aren’t we seeing more of these stories?”

The answer, according to Maggio, lies in the politicization of climate change in the late 1990’s. “At the time, a lot of network executives and producers got really worried about alienating audiences,” he says. “That got inculcated in a whole generation of writers who might have tried to [write about climate] at one point.”

But Maggio says today’s decision makers are largely open to pitches on climate, thanks to consistent polling data showing most Americans care deeply about the crisis (though the taboo may persist at a few networks). The problem now, he argues, is that writers haven’t learned how to approach climate, and get discouraged by both the lack of examples and the sense that tackling it requires complex research. “It’s such an enormous concept that people don’t know where to start,” Maggio says, “so they give up.” Even Charlie Brooker, the British writer of Netflix’s imaginative dystopia series Black Mirror, said in 2019 that incorporating climate into plotlines was “a very, very tough nut to crack.”

Joyner began consulting with writers on a pro-bono basis before the industry’s pandemic shutdown led her team to shift focus to the Climate Playbook. Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Sierra Club are two of the donors that fund Good Energy. Joyner claims she is interested in IllumiNative Define American (which provides donor-funded consultancy services to help with Indigenous stories and immigrants in media and pop culture, and which also campaigns for them.

The Good Energy playbook aims to help writers weave climate stories into their work naturally, “so that it doesn’t feel like broccoli wrapped in chocolate,” Joyner says. It includes ideas for climate characters beyond the annoying vegan or eco-terrorist clichés: “a teen skipping school to strike with his crush” or “the Sierra Club lobbyist racking up frequent-flier miles because of their long-distance relationship.” There are seven weird ways to die in the climate crisis. There are also story germs: what happens when someone’s elderly parents don’t want to leave their home in a wildfire-ravaged ranch? Or when a lack of government support after a hurricane forces a young woman “to go on an After Hours–type odyssey” across her flooded city to help neighbors find bags of ice?

Those ideas remind us that climate action and climate impacts don’t happen in a vacuum, they’re bound up with everything else in our reality. That means they don’t need to be consigned to apocalypse tales. “No matter what genre you’re working in, we’re still living in a world where climate is happening,” Joyner says. “And of course, there’s still romance in that world, there’s still comedy and absurdity, and so all that should also be showcased on screen.”

Hollywood’s turning point

Good Energy’s desire to see a shift in television and film coincides with the need for more representation of those groups who have been historically excluded. Joyner believes that telling climate stories must include more stories by and about those in these communities, as climate change has a devastating effect on the poor, African-Americans, and people from countries in South Asia. Good Energy joined forces with Center for Cultural Power (an organization that fights for equality in the arts), to ensure those conversations informed the playbook.

The last few years have seen a gradual increase in realistic representations of the climate. Joyner refers to Icelandic films in cinema First Reform2017 The Woman in War (2018). The television has provided a lot more. The year 2019 The Affair’sThe fifth season was filmed 30 years ahead to present the child of both protagonists, a climate scientist. That year was also the first. Big Little Lies’ second season had a memorable B-plot in which Laura Dern’s onscreen daughter faints after learning about climate change at school. Last year’s comedy Hacks features a rant on boomers’ environmental failings from its millennial protagonist.

Joyner said that Joyner is working on a lot more. Her goal is for 50% of scripts to include climate change references by 2030 at the latest—anything from brief moments to plot drivers. “I think we’re all kind of learning this together, because there isn’t much [to draw on],” she says. “But there’s a lot of people experimenting and pitching. There’s definitely been a turning point in the industry. And we will continue to see more and more of these stories.”

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