Storytelling As if Climate Mattered

October 24, 2022

When climate change can be written in to fiction as a subtext, rather than as a “message” that you are supposed to “get”, there may be hope that readers or viewers can integrate the reality.
One of the interesting subtexts of Marvel’s Black Panther, for instance, was the existence of a super-technological society (the fictional Wakanda) that is diverse, advanced, and yet harmonious with natural surroundings. In my mind one of the movie’s most important messages, right behind the obvious racial ones.


Non-profit storytelling consultancy Good Energy believes it can. It is among a small but growing number of organisations calling for far more TV and film scripts to feature climate-related storylines, characters and reference points.

In April 2022, it released its Good Energy Playbook, a set of guidelines for embedding climate change into any on-screen story. It joins other initiatives in drawing attention to the need for film and TV to reflect the myriad ways climate change leaves its mark on our everyday lives, including Planet Placement, a set of tips for the TV and film industry from Bafta’s Albert, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NDRC)’s Rewrite the Future.

The Good Energy Playbook’s suggestions are appropriately wide-ranging: characters with climate anxiety and those fighting against injustice; utopian narratives that explore climate solutions; storylines that quietly weave climate references into their characters’ worlds. Examples span from showing solar panels on houses in the background of a shot to main characters taking on the fossil fuel industry.

Good Energy argues that the stories on our screens should hold a mirror up to our real, climate-changed lives. This includes imagining what could go wrong, as many dystopian blockbusters already have, but also what could go right. It also emphasises the importance of thorough research and avoiding tired environmental tropes; of recognising intersectionality and including marginalised voices.

The playbook was created by Good Energy founder Anna Jane Joyner, whose background in climate communications led her to question why climate was barely appearing in fictional TV and film worlds. “It started very much as a personal campaign, where I just got on the phone with as many screenwriters as I could,” she says.

She quickly learned that writers increasingly wanted to talk about climate, she says, and were more and more worried about it in their personal lives, but “didn’t really have the support and toolset to be able to do it”.

Storytellers might be ready to bring climate into the writers’ room, but is it the job of fictional TV shows and films to deliver climate realities to our sofas and cinema seats? More to the point, what good will it do?

Climate stories do, of course, already exist. A wave of dramatic, often icy, nearly always apocalyptic movies has graced cinema screens since The Day After Tomorrow’s box office success in 2004. A handful of research studies looked at the impact this film had on viewers, and found that it prompted greater concern about climate change. It also shifted people’s understanding of it and made them more likely to say they would take action to reduce their emissions or donate to a climate-related charity.

These different impacts – on how people think, feel and behave – appear to go hand-in-hand. A 2019 study of climate change in mass media more broadly found that attitudes, understanding and behaviour interlink. The authors called on governments to consider media an important tool in making progress on important climate pledges.

Science also tells us that stories have a power that hard facts often don’t. Research has long established that the human brain finds it easier to understand and rememberinformation delivered as a narrative, and has even found that stories can influence behaviour. In one study, when research participants read about the environment in the form of a story, they were almost twice as likely to sign up to Greenpeace or recycle their paper than participants who were given the same information as a series of facts.

Might hope be the antidote? Research suggests that it could. A US survey looking at how people’s attitude to climate change impacts their likelihood to take political action on climate found that those most likely to engage in climate-related actions and feel like they can make a difference were people who felt “constructive hope”. This is the belief that humans can be the solution to climate change, rather than having faith in a higher power. 

These findings point to the need for stories that show human-powered possibilities. Svoboda describes Black Panther’s visionary landscape of Wakanda: an anti-colonial society powered by clean energy. “Black Panther was an interesting movie in that it envisions a sustainable world,” he says. “If you’re falling back into the old genre boxes, you’re not getting the job done.”

Even comedy has its place. When environmental communications try to make people laugh, they attract more attention to environmental issues and improve understanding of them.

The climate crisis might not seem like a laughing matter, but Nicole Seymour, associate professor of English at California State University, says it can be. “We still underestimate the value of comic relief and catharsis,” she says. In fact, irony in fiction can help us navigate the absurdity of the real world, and our frustration at it. “There’s something incredibly absurd about, for example, Donald Trump denying climate change when it’s so palpable. So there’s this way in which absurdity or absurdism seems like the tactic to reach for to kind of capture this moment.”

She points to comedian Sarah Cooper’s brightly coloured Netflix special, in which Cooper plays the part of a TV host on fictional breakfast show Everything’s Fine. With a fixed smile and cheerful delivery, the show’s weather anchor, played by Maya Rudolph, explains that the week ahead will see temperatures “most likely not survivable, so wear a jacket”.

“You can laugh about it,” Seymour says, “but then also feel like, ‘Okay, so someone else recognises that the world’s gone mad'”. It’s an experience that can make people feel less alone, she adds. The response of climate scientists to the satirical disaster movie Don’t Look Up speaks to this, with some describing their relief at feeling seen. “If a climate scientist can […] go to work the next day and feel a little better, I feel like there’s a lot of value in that,” says Seymour.


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