USA (Columbia University) How Do You Tell Stories About the Climate Crisis in Film and Television?

A group of writers and filmmakers gathered at Columbia to discuss the best approaches.

On November 15, 2022, the School of the ArtsColumbia Climate Imaginations Network, and the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Rewrite the Future initiative convened a panel discussion at the Lenfest Center for the Arts on climate storytelling onscreen in film and television.

David Klass, the co-head of the television writing concentration in SoA’s Writing Program, introduced the evening by acknowledging the difficulty of telling climate change stories. “How do we tell these tales tonally?” he asked. “How do we make them entertaining and compelling? How do we get our serious and even dire message across without pushing the audience away?”

Climate Storytelling 101

Daniel Hinerfeld of Rewrite the Future delivered a Climate Storytelling 101 primer—first, an overview of existing, harmful climate narratives, followed by a discussion about the potential for new approaches to change the way audiences engage with the climate emergency. “Stories matter,” Hinerfeld said, “and for decades, we’ve been telling ourselves the wrong stories about climate change.” From myths about the non-urgency of the climate crisis, to misconceptions about individual (rather than corporate) responsibility, or even the idea that one person can’t make a difference: “These stories didn’t evolve naturally,” Hinerfeld said. “They were designed by the fossil fuel industry to confuse us, divide us, shame us, and discourage us. And they have worked very well.”

We need new stories, he continued, that “help people see and feel the urgency of the problem, as well as process increasingly negative emotions around climate.” Stories must also give hope. Entertainment storytelling has a unique reach, beyond news and documentaries, to shape views on climate change. “Entertainment reaches those who distrust or tune out the news or other sources of factual information,” Hinerfeld said. “Good stories have the capacity to transport the viewer, which has powerful psychological effects.”

Hinerfeld’s presentation included slides that illustrated existing channels for climate-centric film and television, and suggested new avenues for creators thinking about incorporating climate into their work. “My first suggestion to screenwriters is to reflect our current reality: Climate change already affects us; we worry about it. Using this is an important first step,” he said.

Hinerfeld showed a clip from a Rewrite the Future panel in which Dorothy Fortenberry, an executive producer on A Handmaid’s Tale, likens climate elements in a story to walls: “Are walls entertaining? I don’t know, but most TV shows have them,” Fortenberry said. “Climate change is as much a part of our reality. The episode might not be about the walls, but they influence everybody’s decisions, because you have to go around them.”

Building Climate Change into Fictional Stories

Next came clips of scenes from the works of two of the panelists—filmmaker Miguel Arteta’s 2017 Beatriz at Dinner, starring Salma Hayek and John Lithgow, and filmmaker Julia Hart’s 2018 superhero drama Fast Color.

Rewrite the Future’s Meredith Milton was joined in person by Meehan Crist, writer-in-residence in Biological Sciences at Columbia. Crist is the author of the forthcoming nonfiction book about facing the climate crisis, Is It OK to Have a Child?, which is based on her 2020 article with the same title.

Arteta and Hart joined via Zoom, to discuss how they build climate change into the fictional stories they tell, by incorporating intersectionality (both Fast Color and Beatriz at Dinner are centered on women of color), vital information, and difficult emotions.

“Sometimes, a story that doesn’t deal directly with climate, but deals with how you have hope with dignity, and without feeling like an idiot can be helpful,” Arteta said. “What’s behind [climate] anxiety is a deep anger about the fact that we feel helpless. Finding stories that teach people how to deal with their anger, that let you make friends with your anger, are the ones that can create the most change.”

Crist spoke about the intersection of scientific, corporate, and popular narratives. She pointed out that BP Oil popularized the idea of the individual carbon footprint, effectively displacing responsibility for the climate crisis onto the individual consumer. “If fossil fuel companies have given us certain narratives, then science has also given us certain narratives,” she said. She traced pervasive historical fears about overpopulation from the British economist Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) to Darwin’s theories about competition as the engine of evolution.

“These ideas from political economy and religion got baked into a biological argument that we now live with: Humans are a scourge on the planet, there are too many of us, and it’s not possible to have a just society, biologically,” said Crist. “This version of climate crisis veers into xenophobia, anti-humanism, and eco-fascism, and ignores the actual drivers of climate change—the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, inside a political and economic world order based on accumulation. That is killing us. And that we can change.”

Crist added that this fulcrum is where she finds hope: There is no future in a biological argument, but instead in acknowledging that the systems we have built to live in are capable of transformation.

How to Pitch Climate Crisis Stories

So when you pitch stories about the climate crisis, should you focus on effecting change or reflecting reality?

“It’s important to be honest about the version of the story you want to tell,” Hart said. “Also, it has to be something that people want to watch, it has to be entertaining.” She acknowledged that climate conversations with producers and studios often involve their conviction that “the message has to be underneath, we don’t want to scare anybody with reality. But,” Hart added, “there are a lot of brave allies and advocates on the decision-making side of our industry who aren’t afraid to say the quiet part out loud.”

There are countless climate stories to tell, the panelists emphasized, and many ways to incorporate climate realities. In the end, they all agreed that the most important thing is to be fearless when creating. “Like any healthy ecosystem, a media ecosystem is going to have a multitude of approaches that speak to different audiences,” Crist said. “This question of form is wide open. Do not get hung up on, ‘I have to do this the right way.’”