Jeff Masters Weather Blog

The best climate change movies and TV series of 2023 » Yale Climate Connections


The lead-up to the Academy Awards program, airing this Sunday night, March 10, is a good time to assess 2023’s movies and TV programs for their attention to climate change — which ought to play a part in any genre set in the near past, present, or foreseeable future.

That’s the position taken by Good Energy, a nonprofit consultancy that the New York Times has called “Hollywood’s climate adviser.” The group argues that contemporary movies and TV programs that don’t acknowledge climate change are engaged in fantasy. But when they reviewed 37,453 TV episodes and films produced between 2016 and 2020 for their 2022 study, A Glaring Absence, they found that “only 2.8% of analyzed scripts included any climate change keywords.” Less than 1% mentioned “climate change.”

To nudge their industry forward, Good Energy released an online tutorial for screenwriters, directors, and producers, “A Playbook for Screenwriting in the Age of Climate.” They also participated in last summer’s Hollywood Climate Summit. And their new report, Climate Reality Check, sets out their criteria for climate realism in storytelling and applies that rubric to the 31 films nominated for Academy Awards this year, 13 of which are set in the recent past, present, or near future. Three pass the test.

For my own review of 2023, I used the schedule of over 500 releases at firstshowing.net to track down movies and TV programs that, by dint of title or word on the web, might address climate change. If a movie or TV program merely acknowledged climate change in a brief scene or line of dialogue, I gave it a climate reality checkmark for including a climate cameo. But if climate change (or related environmental concerns) figured prominently in the story, then I awarded the film or TV program a “Clima” for giving climate change a leading role.*

Using Good Energy’s “Climate Reality Check” report, I identified seven movies and two TV series in which climate change made brief appearances. Climate change played a leading role in another two films and one television series.

My research, while not exhaustive, suggests that too few television and film producers are addressing climate change. But 2023 did mark some milestones. It saw the release of a multi-episode TV series focused on climate change unfolding in the near future. And in that series, wildfires and their smoke played a major role — just as they did in real life in 2023.

✔ Climate cameo in a comedic movie — “Barbie

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, starring Margot Robie and Ryan Gosling

As noted in the Climate Reality Check report, the rebuke of Barbie by teenage Sasha indirectly acknowledges climate change: “You set the feminist movement back 50 years, you destroyed girls’ innate sense of worth, and you’re killing the planet with your glorification of rampant consumerism”

✔ Climate cameo in a drama — “Nyad

Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Varsarhelyi; written by Julia Cox and Diana Nyad; starring Annette Bening and Jodie Foster

Also as noted by the Climate Reality Check report, when her coach (played by Jodie Foster) explains to Nyad (played by Annette Bening) why she might have encountered a box jellyfish, which shouldn’t have been in the part of the ocean where she was swimming, we get a direct acknowledgment of global warming:

“So the U Miami folks think that the box jellyfish came up off the shallow reef when we left Cuba. Global warming.”

Two other films qualified here: “You Hurt My Feelings” and “When You Finish Saving the World.” In both, a character briefly acknowledges and talks about global warming.

✔ Climate cameo in an action thriller — “MI Dead Reckoning, P1

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie; written by Bruce Gellar, C. McQuarrie, and Erik Jendresen; starring Tom Cruise and Hayley Atwell

Early in the movie, independently flagged by both me and the Climate Reality Check report, IMF agent Ethan Hunt is briefed by his government handler: “The next world war isn’t going to be a cold one. It’s going to be a ballistic war over a rapidly shrinking ecosystem. It’s going to be a war for the last of our dwindling energy, drinkable water, and breathable air. Your days of fighting for the greater good are over.”

✔ Climate science cameo in a superhero movie — “Aquaman II

Directed by James Wan; written by D.L. Johnson-McKendrick, James Han, and Jason Momoa

In addition to news clips about rising ocean temperatures, “Aquaman II” includes a scene in which a member of Aquaman’s council expresses her grave concern about ocean acidification, which is caused by the same fossil-fuel-driven rise in carbon dioxide that is heating the atmosphere.

✔ Climate solutions cameo in a superhero movie — “Quantumania

Directed by Peyton Reed; written by Jeff Loveness and Larry Lieber; starring Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lily

The quest for abundant clean energy has been a running thread in Marvel movies, from the first “Iron Man” (2008) through the first “Black Panther” (2018). In “Antman and the Wasp: Quantumania,” that thread has been cut to a brief bit of character development for Hope Van Dyne, the Wasp (played by Evangeline Lily): “She’s using the Pym Particle for global change, reforestation, affordable housing, food production. She’s not wasting a second.”

✔ Climate cameo in a dystopian TV series — “Last of Us, Season 1

Created by Neil Druckman and Craig Mazin; starring Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey

The series opens in a TV studio in 1968. The host has just asked his guests, two epidemiologists, what worry keeps them up at night. “Viruses,” answers the first. His counterpart shrugs. With viruses, he says, “in the end we always win.”

So what does keep him up at night? “Fungus. … Fungi seem harmless enough. But many species know otherwise. Because there are some fungi that seek not to kill but to control.”

Now the first guest objects: “Fungal infection of this kind is real but not in humans.”

“True, fungi cannot survive if its host’s internal temperature is over 94 degrees. And currently, there are no reasons for fungi to evolve to withstand higher temperatures. But what if that were to change? What if, for instance, the world were to get slightly warmer?”

And with that hypothetical, “The Last of Us” re-imagines the zombie tale.

✔ Recurring climate cameos in science fiction TV series — “For All Mankind,” Season 4

Created by Ronald D. Moore, Ben Nedivi, and Matt Walport; starring Joel Kinnaman, Krys Marshall, and Wrenn Schmitt

In the re-imagined world of “For All Mankind,” the Russians get to the moon first. But NASA then discovers/invents a new energy source that quickly replaces fossil fuels, establishes a base on the Moon, and thereafter competes with Russia and a leading tech company in a race to Mars. In season four, which begins in 2000, Al Gore is elected president.

Often surprising and always entertaining, “For All Mankind” periodically reminds viewers of where we are with climate change by showing us where we could have been: In its alternative history, NASA retains patents on its technological breakthroughs and becomes self-funding, the protests against the space program are led by oil riggers who have lost their jobs to the clean-energy revolution, and the fossil fuel companies that employ them don’t install climate deniers in the White House.

Clima Award for leading climate role in an animated film — “Strange World

Directed by Don Hall Qui Nguyen; written by Qui Nguyen; voiced by Jake Gyllenhall, Jabouki Young-White, and Gabrielle Union

Although released at the end of 2022, “Strange World” was still in theaters in 2023 and so is included in this end-of-year review. It tells a tale of fathers and sons struggling to communicate with each other in a world facing environmental collapse. With his son and the town’s mayor, a farm manager sets out to discover why their energy pod plants are failing.

In their journey, the team encounters the manager’s long-lost father and discovers that they are living inside a larger organism, making “Strange World” at once a metaphoric rendition of the Gaia hypothesis and an animated remake of “Fantastic Voyage” (1966). Together, father, son, and grandson learn that the energy pod plants are symptoms of the disease killing Gaia.

One could interpret “Strange World” as an argument against the false economy and ecology of biofuels. It is, in any case, a vivid and touching acknowledgment of the intricate interconnections between humans and the biosphere.

Clima Award for leading climate role in a dramatic film — “How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Directed by Daniel Goldhaber; written by Ariela Barer, Jordan Sjol, and Daniel Goldhaber; starring Ariela Barer, Kristine Froseth, and Lukas Gage; U.S. release in 2023

An attempt to construct a story out of Andreas Malm’s polemical book of the same title, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” follows seven young people, drawn via social media from Alaska, the Northwest, and Texas, as they plot and carry out an act of industrial sabotage.

The strength of the film is its depiction of the individual journeys taken to this moment by each member of the group. The actors portraying these characters convincingly convey the anxiety, anger, and anomie many young people experience when they contemplate the climate-changing world they will inherit from elders who failed to act when the problem was still manageable.

Less successful is the depiction of the act itself. Not a drop of oil is spilled when the group successfully blows up a section of a Texas pipeline. And the genuinely surprising twist at the end requires that one overlook some implausible steps on the way there.

Clima Award for leading climate role in a series — “Extrapolations

Created by Scott Z. Burns; starring Kit Harrington, Sienna Miller, Tahar Rahm

“Extrapolations,” the eight-part series produced by AppleTV, gave climate change its biggest role in a 2023 movie or TV series. (See YCC’s discussion of it here.)

The series begins in 2037 and ends in 2070. Each episode starts with a graph, stamped with the year in which the episode is set and in which an animated red line traces the rise in temperature or heat-trapping carbon dioxide up to that point. By the end of the series, an economically feasible mechanism for drawing CO2 from the atmosphere has been developed and CO2 levels start to fall from their peak.

The series debuted to mixed reviews. Some of the scenes frequently mocked by critics — for example, the humpback whale speaking in the voice of Meryl Streep — were for me the most affecting. One can easily imagine how a scientist who has recently lost her mother might use her voice to render AI translations of the last female whale’s vocalizations.

The fact that I streamed the series after the Northeast experienced the orange skies and hazardous air of the Canadian wildfires also lent “Extrapolations,” with its recurring scenes of wildfires and smoke-filled skies, added credibility

Other episodes and their absences, however, gave me pause. The increasingly arch villain played by Kit Harrington was, by the end, not believable. And the almost complete absence of China and oil companies made me wonder whether Apple’s corporate considerations were shaping the plot. Nevertheless, “Extrapolations” marked a milestone in the depiction of climate change on the screen. In eight episodes that span 33 years, much of the globe, and a surprising variety of genres, “Extrapolations” shows human beings adapting to the increasingly severe effects of climate change, including health effects, while struggling to find effective and just ways to reduce carbon pollution. “Extrapolations” depicts what many climate scientists are now saying: With every tenth of a degree increase in temperature, we will make our lives harder and meaner; taking action on climate change is always the right thing to do.

Bonus: Clima Award for historic fictional depiction of climate change — The Fire Next Time

Directed by Tom McLaughlin; written by James Henderson; starring Craig T. Nelson, Bonnie Bedelia, and Jurgen Prochnow

At least 11 movies produced before 2000 would pass Good Energy’s Climate Reality Check, most notably Soylent Green (1973), set in 2022 in a New York City with 40 million people. (See a chronological list of 100 cli-fi films here.) But in only three of these 11 did climate change play a leading role.

In what I hope will be annual reviews of fictional representations of climate change in film and television programs, I plan to honor some of these earlier films. My choice this year is “The Fire Next Time.”

A movie poster shows three people looking at the camera: Richard Farnsworth, Craig T. Nelson, and Bonnie Bedelia. The movie's title is "The Fire Next Time: A family struggles to survive in the aftermath of global warming in the year 2017."

A two-part movie made for CBS in the spring of 1993 but set in 2017, “The Fire Next Time” tells the story of a Louisiana shrimper whose life, livelihood, and family are upended by the impacts of climate change.

In California, where he travels to retrieve his son from his hypochondriacal sister and her mercenary commodity-trading husband, our everyman helps contain a raging wildfire that threatens to cut off his way home.

Back in Louisiana, his shrimp fishery and his home, uninsured because he couldn’t afford the premiums, are destroyed by a Category 5 hurricane.

Now climate refugees, he and his family travel north, hoping to find work and a new home, either with a former business partner in upstate New York or with extended family in Canada. En route, they encounter a Gaia cult, a gated community, militant eco-activists, and, in Canada, an Amish farmstead, where he is finally able to still his anger.

The “Fire Next Time” goes beyond most fictional depictions of climate change, at that time and since, in depicting not only impacts but adaptations and mitigations.

It even features an actual climate scientist, Stephen Schneider. Speaking under his own name as a TV commentator asked to explain the surprising power of the storm that has devastated the Gulf Coast, Schneider provides a short back story:

“Even though some people still won’t admit it, the effects of global warming have been with us for a long time. … It creates superstorms and flooding in coastal areas; it also creates killer heat and disastrous droughts in the interior. … Had the global community taken concerted action 25 years ago, much of this might have been mitigated.”

Remember, this is a movie set in 2017 but scripted in 1992 for broadcast in April 1993. Through his TV cameo, Stephen Schneider warns his 1993 TV viewers that they must act now to prevent the sort of impacts he’s depicted commenting on, 25 years in the future.

Climate scientist Michael E. Mann said in an interview with Yale Climate Connections that although he found the film overlong and overplotted, he sees the fingerprints of his mentor on many parts of the story.

“You can see some of his classic messaging worked into the narrative — for example when Craig T. Nelson’s character remorsefully describes how he had decided not to renew the insurance on their home. This was one of Steve’s famous analogies in characterizing climate action as a planetary insurance policy — an analogy I and many others continue to use,” Mann recalled. “The bitter irony here is that the scenario of inaction that Steve warned about is precisely the scenario that played out.”

“The Fire Next Time” remains one of the better tellings of the climate change story. It depicts the real and diverse threats posed by climate change, but it does not collapse into apocalypse or dystopia. It was not until last year, in “Extrapolations,” that another set of filmmakers offered an equally complex, nuanced, and near-future story of human endurance in the face of climate change — a story that we now know includes the health impacts of widespread wildfires.

But many stories that should include at least cameo roles for climate change still don’t. I was particularly surprised to discover that three animated movies about the natural world — “Migration” (birds), “Under the Boardwalk” (crabs on New Jersey’s shoreline), and “Ruby Gilman: Teenage Kraken” (deep ocean) — never mentioned climate change, even though, in the last example, climate activist Jane Fonda voiced one of the characters. And some filmmakers are still using climate change as a means to revive the tired old stories they already know how to tell — like the zombie tale.

Good Energy plans to issue another report in April. Under the direction of Colby College Associate Professor Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, the research team will apply the rubric for their climate reality check to the leading box office successes of the last decade. That report will likely be on the agenda for the next Hollywood Climate Summit, scheduled for June 24-28, 2024.

That still leaves the challenge of assessing all the films and TV programs put out by the studios and major streaming platforms in 2024. I invite YCC’s readers to help with that work for next year’s Clima awards. If you see or learn of a 2024 film or TV program that should be included, please email me at [email protected]. Join me in climate action by climate viewing!

* Dan Bloom, widely recognized for having coined the term “cli-fi,” first suggested such an award in 2014.


We help millions of people understand climate change and what to do about it. Help us reach even more people like you.





Source link