Screenwriters Can Help Tackle the Climate Crisis Through Storytelling

Real, effective climate storytelling will be central to solving the crisis we are in.

An image of flowers with celebrities in both corners.

Good Energy

“Like the characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, many of us are screwing up with one hand and trying to save the planet with the other. No one’s perfect, but we’re all trying—so why not laugh about it and use it as fodder for some damn good drama?”

I couldn’t have related more to the way filmmaker and artivist Layel Camargo and podcaster, multimedia producer, and artist Thimali Kodikara, describe the life of your typical "climate person." Whether it’s my own well-documented hypocrisies, or Treehugger Design Editor Lloyd Alter’s soul searching over flying, almost every activist, advocate, or academic I know has some form of a gap between the world they’d like to see and the life they are currently living. And yet, when TV shows or movies depict these so-called climate people—if they do so at all—they invariably get painted as either annoying, holier-than-thou idealists or, alternatively, as cynical and insincere hypocrites. 

Surely there are more interesting stories to tell? 

Indeed, Camargo and Kodikara’s thoughts on why climate heroes aren’t saints form a chapter within the just launched "Good Energy: A Playbook for Screenwriting in the Age of Climate Change." Created by writers, for writers, the playbook covers everything from the importance of telling climate stories and the intricacies of climate character psychology to character profiles and ideas for depicting solutions on screen. According to my friend, Anna Jane Joyner, the founder and director of Good Energy, it’s all part of an effort to get screenwriting up-to-speed on a topic central to the reality of every human that’s alive today.

“In real life, climate change is all around us, so if your story takes place today or in the near future, the climate is already a part of the world of your story and characters’ lives," Joyner told Treehugger. "The Playbook introduces a climate lens that helps writers to discover how to portray it in ways that are entertaining, relevant, and authentic.” 

It’s a project close to my heart—and not just because I was asked to offer my own chapter on the aforementioned matter of climate hypocrisy. I was delighted to see such a wide range of voices all engaged with pushing the boundaries of climate storytelling beyond the usual tropes of either overly simplistic narratives, apocalyptic doomerism, or cringeworthy preaching.

The playbook features a list of contributors that reads a bit like a who’s who (plus me!) of smart climate writing, advocacy, and film, with pieces from Amy Westervelt, Rosario Dawson, Mary Annaïse Heglar, Katharine Hayhoe, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Kalmus, Kate Marvel, Bill McKibben, and many more. Threaded throughout is the argument that real, effective climate storytelling will be central to solving the crisis we are in—and that this will require writers to embrace nuance, complexity, diversity, justice, and yes, even humor

The project was born from a desire to correct a glaring underrepresentation of climate within modern TV and film. As part of the preparations for the project, Good Energy partnered with USC’s Media Impact Lab at the Norman Lear Center to commission an analysis of 37,453 scripts in TV and film over the past five years. USC found only 2.8% of analyzed scripts included any climate change keywords at all—and within those scripts, there were only 1,772 mentions of those same words. 

But why is that? Given the overwhelming nature of the climate crisis, the magnitude of its consequences, or the widely felt sense of anxiety that is growing in populations around the world, you’d think screenwriters would be itching to tackle this issue. The playbook quotes Mary Laws, a writer and producer on the hit show Succession, in offering one possible explanation: 

“We’ve had many stories of gender, race, and war. We have an understanding of how to tell stories about those issues, but we don’t have an understanding of how to tell climate stories. We don’t have a history of that kind of storytelling because it’s a new kind of problem.”

But as the playbook argues, screenwriters don’t have to (and probably shouldn’t) take it all on their or their characters’ shoulders. A show or movie doesn’t have to be centered on climate change to incorporate the climate crisis. And it doesn’t—and can’t—provide all the solutions or even a comprehensive overview of the issue. 

Instead, a far more impactful approach is simply for screenwriters to do what they do best—tell really good stories—but to do so with an understanding that the climate crisis is now an undeniable part of the universe in which those stories take place. Sometimes, that will mean depicting an ecological utopia. Sometimes it will mean writing about Armageddon. And sometimes it will simply mean allowing your characters to bike instead of drive—or to drive instead of bike, but to feel kind of bad doing it. Sound familiar?

Taken together, these shifts can help drive home a far more important goal. As Antha Williams, who leads climate and environment programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies, explains: “Our lives are driven by stories. Storytelling allows us to empathize with one another, see new perspectives, and remember we’re all connected. The science is in and the data is clear that we must mobilize to solve the climate crisis. But data alone isn’t enough and there’s never been a greater need for powerful, diverse climate storytelling. The Playbook will be an invaluable resource for writers and creatives to bring these stories to life, both to communicate the urgency of climate action and inspire courage in the face of this crisis.”

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