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Why TV and film scripts need to stop ignoring Climate Crisis?

A study revealed that the climate crisis is no longer a topic that is touched on in Hollywood movies and series.

By Wahid Bhat
New Update
Why TV and film scripts need to stop ignoring Climate Crisis?

TV and film are powerful mediums that can inform, entertain, and inspire millions of people around the world. They can also shape the public perception and awareness of the most pressing issues of our time, such as the climate crisis.

However, a new study by Good Energy and the USC Norman Lear Center has found that most TV and film scripts are ignoring the climate crisis, or failing to address it in a meaningful and realistic way. This article explores why this is a problem, and what can be done to change it.

A study revealed that the circumstances crisis is no longer a topic that is touched on in Hollywood movies and series. Does that have any major impact?

The study focuses on tracking the level of representation of the climate crisis in scripted entertainment, that is, stories that are not necessarily documentaries or reality shows. However, figures from recent years show a low rating on global warming-related topics, as only 2.8% of 37,453 scripts used words related to the topic, while only 0.6% used the words "climate change" expressly.

Introduction: TV and Film’s Impact

TV and film have a huge impact on our culture, society, and behaviour. They can influence our emotions, opinions, values, and actions. They can also educate us about the world, expose us to different perspectives, and challenge us to think critically and creatively.

According to a 2019 report by the Motion Picture Association, there were 1.4 billion cinema admissions and 646 million online video subscriptions in the US alone. Globally, the film industry generated $42.5 billion in box office revenue, while the TV industry generated $266 billion in revenue. These numbers show the massive reach and potential of TV and film as mediums of communication and storytelling.

The consequences of the climate crisis are already visible and devastating, such as rising temperatures, melting ice caps, sea level rise, extreme weather events, droughts, floods, wildfires, biodiversity loss, food insecurity, water scarcity, displacement, conflict, disease, and death.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global average temperature has already risen by 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels, and is likely to reach 1.5°C by 2030. To avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, the IPCC recommends limiting the temperature rise to 1.5°C, which requires reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030, and reaching net zero by 2050.

Ignoring the Issue: Media Oversight

Despite the urgency and severity of the climate crisis, most TV and film scripts are ignoring it, or failing to address it in a meaningful and realistic way.

A new study by Good Energy and the USC Norman Lear Center, which analyzed 37,453 TV and film scripts produced in the US between 2016 and 2020, found that only 2.8% of the scripts included any climate-related terms, such as “global warming,” “sea level rise,” “solar panels,” etc. Even fewer (just 0.6%) explicitly mentioned the term “climate change.”

Writers only linked 10% of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, wildfires, or other climate-related disasters that were shown on screen to climate change in any way. The study also discovered that portrayals of the climate crisis were mostly as a distant or abstract problem, rather than a present and personal one, and it found that the proposed solutions were often oversimplified or unrealistic.

On the other hand, only 10% of the audiovisual materials showed "extreme environmental changes" linked to some form of pollution, while 12% linked it to the use of fossil fuels.

The TV platforms with the most mentions cited CBS and HBO Max, with CBS addressing the topic in 7.5% of their projects and HBO Max in 6.4%.

Media ignores climate, affects people

The lack of representation and realism of the climate crisis in TV and film scripts has a negative influence on the audiences, who may not fully understand the causes, consequences, and solutions of the climate crisis, or may not feel motivated or empowered to take action.

According to a 2020 report by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, only 57% of Americans are very or somewhat worried about global warming, and only 38% think it will harm them personally.

The report also found that only 18% of Americans hear about global warming in the media at least once a week, and only 9% talk about it with their friends and family at least once a week. These numbers indicate a low level of public engagement and awareness of the climate crisis, which may be influenced by the media coverage and portrayal of the issue.

On the other hand, TV and film scripts can positively influence the audiences when they address the climate crisis in a meaningful and realistic way. The audience may learn more about the issue, feel a greater connection and concern, and be inspired to take action.

For example, the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, in which former US Vice President Al Gore explains the science and impacts of global warming, earned credits for raising public awareness and concern about the climate crisis and won an Academy Award and a Nobel Peace Prize.

Similarly, viewers praised the TV series Years and Years, which depicts a dystopian future where the climate crisis has worsened, for its compelling and provocative portrayal of the issue, and it sparked discussions and debates among them.

TV, film scripts show growing interest in climate

While most TV and film scripts are ignoring the climate crisis, there are some exceptions and trends that show a growing interest and attention to the issue. For example, the study by Good Energy and the USC Norman Lear Center found that some TV platforms and genres had more mentions of the climate crisis than others, such as CBS (7.5%) and HBO Max (6.4%), and comedy (4.9%) and drama (3.9%).

The study also found that some climate-related terms had increased in frequency over time, such as “renewable energy” (by 1,100%), “carbon footprint” (by 400%), and “climate justice” (by 300%).

Some examples of recent TV and film scripts that have addressed the climate crisis in various ways are:

  • The Good Place, a comedy series that explores the ethical and philosophical implications of the afterlife, and features a storyline where the characters try to save humanity from the climate crisis by changing the rules of the moral system.
  • The Midnight Sky, a sci-fi film that follows a scientist who tries to warn a returning spaceship crew of a global catastrophe that has made the Earth uninhabitable, and reveals the causes and consequences of the climate crisis through flashbacks and visions.
  • The Social Dilemma is a docu-drama revealing the harmful societal impact of social media, including a former Google employee's explanation of how these platforms' algorithms spread climate crisis misinformation and polarization.
  • The Crown, a series depicting Queen Elizabeth II's life, includes an episode where she and environmentalist Sir David Attenborough discuss handling the climate crisis.

Most TV, film misses climate crisis nuances

While these examples show some progress and potential, they are still far from enough to reflect the urgency and complexity of the climate crisis and to engage and empower the audiences to take action. There are many missed opportunities and gaps in the representation and realism of the climate crisis in TV and film scripts, such as:

  • Lack of diversity and inclusion of the voices and experiences of the people and communities who are most affected by the climate crisis, such as women, people of colour, indigenous people, and people in the Global South.
  • Lack of nuance and depth of the causes and solutions of the climate crisis, such as the role of the fossil fuel industry, the systemic and structural barriers, the social and behavioural changes, and the political and economic transformations.
  • Lack of optimism and hope of the possibilities and benefits of addressing the climate crisis, such as the co-benefits for health, equity, and justice, the innovations and opportunities for green jobs and industries, and the visions and values for a better future.

Responsibility of Creators: Ethical Considerations

The study, A Glaring Absence: Climate Crisis Lacks Representation in Scripted Entertainment," emphasizes viewer interest in climate-related narratives, urging Hollywood to integrate real-world climate issues like wildfires, flooding, and extreme weather into stories.

Erica Rosenthal, Norman Lear Center's Director of Research, highlights audience desire for climate-centric content, citing surveys showing three-fourths of participants learn about social issues from TV and film.

CBS notably addressed climate change through "Madam Secretary" (2014-2019), linking global concerns with international diplomacy, per creator Barbara Hall.

The study, backed by Lear Center and partners, calls on Hollywood to spotlight climate issues, catalyze innovation, and challenge narratives perpetuated by fossil fuel dependence.

We need more stories that can help us understand and engage with the climate crisis, not just the ones that show the most dramatic effects. Even if we don’t see melting icebergs, we can still feel the impact of the changing climate on our lives and emotions. We should create and explore stories that capture the complexity and diversity of the climate crisis, and that challenge us to relate to it in different ways.

The climate crisis is not a simple problem that can be solved by one emotion, but a multifaceted issue that requires a range of emotions. We can use the power of storytelling to inspire hope and action, but also to acknowledge fear and uncertainty. This kind of nuance and variety can open a new chapter in the larger story of how we respond to the climate crisis.

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