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Behind the ‘Bechdel test for climate change’ in movies » Yale Climate Connections

Good Energy, a climate and storytelling consultancy, wants film and TV writers to include climate change in more of their stories and in a greater variety of ways. To measure progress toward that goal, they needed to establish a baseline. How often and in what ways have storytellers included climate change in the works they’ve produced since the changing climate became a matter of widespread public concern?

Cover of the climate reality on-screen reportCover of the climate reality on-screen report

In the new report “Climate Reality On-Screen,” Good Energy answers that question with the results from a two-part test that was applied to 250 films released in the 10 years between 2013 and 2022. The test asks (1) Does climate change exist in the story world? and (2) Is a character aware of it? 

The bad news is that even after limiting their analysis to stories set on Earth in the present or near future, settings in which the climate actually would be changing, less than 10% of the films analyzed passed both parts. The good news is that in the latter half of the study period, nearly twice as many films passed as during the first five years. Filmmakers might be getting better at telling climate stories.  

Collaborating with Good Energy in this effort, which began in July 2023, was the Buck Lab for Climate and Environment at Colby College in Maine. The lab is directed by Matthew Schnedier-Mayerson, an associate professor of English who served as lead author on the report.  

Carmiel Banasky, editor-in-chief for Good Energy and a TV writer, helped finalize the report.

The following interview with Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Carmiel Banasky has been edited and condensed.

Yale Climate Connections: How did you come to this project, Matthew? I’m most familiar with your work on cli-fi novels. How did you get pulled into film?

Schneider-Mayerson: You’re right, I am probably best known for the work I’ve done on the influence of climate fiction on readers. And as part of that, Good Energy asked me to look at the playbook that they published. 

Yale Climate Connections: The test that you wanted to create for films is based on the Bechdel-Wallace test. Can you briefly explain what that is?

Banasky: Yes, it’s a test to measure gender representation in film and TV — any narrative, really. It has three requirements: (1) The story has to have at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about something other than a man.

Yale Climate Connections: And it’s a version of this test that you wanted to apply to the 250 most popular films of the decade from 2013 to 2022. How in an age of financially challenged cinemas, multiplying streaming platforms, and two years of COVID did you determine what was popular?

Schneider-Mayerson: That’s a good question. If we had been doing this back in 2018 or so, it would have been fairly easy. We could have just picked the films with the most box office earnings. But streaming means that that’s no longer viable. And so we ended up using the number of film ratings on IMDb as a proxy for popularity. These may not be the films that people like the most; they’re the films that people take the time to go online and rate the most. There are, of course, some potential limitations with this methodology compared to box office earnings, but there are also some benefits because it can capture films that are reaching the most eyeballs — and not just in the cinemas. 

Yale Climate Connections: So now you have 250 films. What are the questions you asked of every film you looked at?

Schneider-Mayerson: We actually asked about 30 questions per film. But the Climate Reality Check per se has just two parts: (1) Does climate change exist in the story world? and (2) Is a character aware of it? 

Yale Climate Connections: In your system, then, a film gets one checkmark if climate change exists in the story world; it gets two checkmarks if climate change exists in the story world AND a character in that story world talks about it. Can you give our readers an example of a film in which climate change exists but no character talks about it? 

Schneider-Mayerson: One is “Blade Runner 2049.” There’s an introductory text that talks about the collapse of ecosystems leading to famine. “Snowpiercer” is another one; you get a preamble that gives you the context in which climate change is mentioned. 

Yale Climate Connections: So what are your top-line results after you applied this test to the 250 films?

Banasky: We found that 12.3% of the films passed the first part, and 9.6% of the 250 films passed both parts. 

One of our biggest takeaways for the industry was that the films that passed were more profitable at the box office. The films that passed part one were 8% more profitable; the films that passed part two were 10%. What that tells us is that climate change is not divisive, that people will not not go to the movie because it includes climate change.

Another set of takeaways for me as a writer were the demographics that Matthew and his collaborators looked at. The climate-aware characters turned out to be male, white, and middle-aged, which does not accurately reflect our reality where Black and Brown people are the most impacted and therefore the closest to solutions and concerned about climate. 

We also saw that only 2% of the films showed any characters who were experiencing climate anxiety. The three of us sitting here know that that’s not reflective of reality either, especially among young people. We’re looking at 75% of young people feeling afraid for the future. So those to me were the most inspiring and upsetting results. They show that there’s a need for stories to meet this lack.

Yale Climate Connections: Before we look at the stories, let’s return to your key findings. this report, the third released by your collaboration, shows that 9.6% of the 250 most “popular” films from 2013-2022 passed the climate reality test. Your February report showed that 23% of the films nominated for an Academy Award passed it. But of the film and TV scripts analyzed for your 2022 report, just 2.8% included a keyword related to climate change. Do these numbers reflect changes over time or just different samplings?

Schneider-Mayerson: That’s a good question. The 2022 study that Good Energy did with USC used a totally different methodology.

Banasky: The USC study also included television.

Schneider-Mayerson: Yes. But in the 2016-2020 period analyzed by the USC study, we found that climate change was present in 13.4% of the films, almost five times more than they found, likely because our methodology is able to capture more nuance.

As for the Oscars study, of the 31 films nominated, 18 didn’t meet our criteria because they were set in the past. But of the 13 we looked at, 23% passed. And when we break down our results into five-year intervals, we have 8.8% [of the films] from 2013 to 2017 passing the Climate Reality Check, but 17.6% from 2018 to 2022. Then we have 23% in the 2023 Oscar sample.

Yale Climate Connections: So despite the different sample sizes and methodologies, there does seem to be an increase over time. Interesting. OK, let’s look at the 23 out of 250 films that passed both parts of the Climate Reality Check and the nine films that passed just the first part. I’ve seen 25 of these 32 movies, and I would say that seven deliver skeptical messages about climate change. I’m thinking of films like “Interstellar” (one checkmark) and “The Kingsman” (two checkmarks). Yes, one can say their stories incorporate climate change, but I was surprised that no attempt was made to differentiate films promoting skepticism from those engaging the issue in good faith. What was behind that decision?  

Schneider-Mayerson: We spent a lot of time developing the Climate Reality Check. This is an unusual but, I think, quite productive collaboration. I’m essentially a critic, right? I write about what are the most effective kinds of messages, the risks of ecofascism, and related topics. And I’ve done empirical research to come to those conclusions. Good Energy, on the other hand, is a climate consultancy; they work with folks in Hollywood. 

And so when we were coming up with the Climate Reality Check, we had two goals. The first one was to make sure we came up with something that would be widely used. And my initial impulse was to draw on the communication research and to write down the five ways you should tell climate stories to be most effective.

It was instructive for me to hear Good Energy tell me, you know, that’s actually not going to be that helpful. Folks in Hollywood don’t want to be told what kinds of stories they should and should not tell. They don’t want to apply Dr. Schneider-Mayerson’s lessons on climate communication. Coming up with the perfect test that no one uses was not the most productive thing that we could be doing together.

Our hope is that this will be a test that can be really useful for folks in the industry. And if, as a result, we get twice as many climate stories, we will probably have some that critics think are not as helpful as they could be — maybe even counterproductive. But even if we get some stories that critics think could be told in a better way, they’re likely to drive home to viewers that climate change is happening in the real world. That’s how I think about it. But Carmiel, you might have different thoughts.

Banasky: Matthew said it really well. I’ll just add that we had many iterations of this. Some had ideas about how a character should show that they’re aware of climate change, that they need to be moved by climate change in the plot. We interviewed over 200 TV writers and showrunners, screenwriters and execs, and climate communicators. We realized that people just need a baseline test; they don’t want to feel like they’re being told what to do. We are very story-first at Good Energy. The writer is the expert; climate needs to bubble up in an organic way to that story, no matter what kind of amazing messages we think should be put out there.

That said, there are tropes we hope people will avoid. We just don’t think of them as do’s and don’ts; we think of them as creative opportunities. We often tell writers we work with to steer clear, if they can, of the eco-terrorist trope. But if you tell someone that, then you’re going to miss movies like “Woman at War” or “How to Blow Up a Pipeline,” which turn those tropes on their head. We also would like to avoid making people feel guilty, that it’s all on them to change their personal behavior. And we hope people emphasize collective action. But this test isn’t the place for that.

Schneider-Mayerson: The Bechdel-Wallace test is a minimalist test, right? It’s not demanding that we only tell positive stories about women on screen. You could have a film that passes the test that perhaps is not ideal or is even counterproductive. The Climate Reality Check, too, is minimalist. If more films meet the Climate Reality Check, it would expand our capacity to respond to the climate crisis. But it’s not supposed to crowd out any other forms of criticism or thinking about climate change in media. 

Yale Climate Connections: One final question: Do you have another project already in the works?

Schneider-Mayerson: I’m going to use a similar methodology on short stories over the summer. Then my plan is to come back to films in three or five years and apply the methodology in the same way.

Banasky: And we would like to apply it to television at some point in the future.

Yale Climate Connections: Yes, which is getting harder and harder to do. But I hope we find a different mix of genres than was found here. This list tells me that filmmakers still haven’t arrested the impulse to use climate change to re-tell stories they already know as opposed to figuring out how to tell the new stories of climate change. 

Banasky: I think our Academy Award study offered anecdotal evidence of a new trend. We had one film that was apocalyptic: “Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning, Pt. 1,” the AI-end-of-the-world story. And then we had “Barbie” and “Nyad.” The intersection of climate and consumerism is highlighted in “Barbie.” It’s affecting biodiversity and athletics in “Nyad.” So maybe we’re moving away from only superhero, only end-of-the-world versions of climate stories to more domestic, smaller ways that climate enters our lives. 

Yale Climate Connections: I think that’s a nice place to end. Thank you both! 

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