Climate Change and the Big Screen

On March 29, 2023, the Yale Center for Environmental Communication and the 2023 Environmental Film Festival at Yale hosted a panel discussion on “Climate Change and the Big Screen,” exploring Hollywood’s role in climate change and culture change, and featuring a preview of a new exciting TV series. The scripted drama series “Extrapolations” by executive producer Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, An Inconvenient Truth) launched in March, 2023 on Apple TV+ and it depicts a possible future where unmitigated climate change increasingly impacts our everyday lives. Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz, Founder and Director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, moderated a conversation with Dorothy Fortenberry, Executive Producer of Extrapolations, Anna Jane Joyner, Founder and CEO of Good Energy Story, and Emily Coren, Science communicator affiliate at Stanford University’s Dept. of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences.

Key Takeaways include:

  • Climate storytelling is often centered around the worst case scenario, but EXTRAPOLATIONS paints an idea of what the near-future could look like in people’s daily lives with a 2.5-3 degree warming scenario starting in the year 2037, through 2070.
    • The show portrays not only the physical health impacts of climate change, but also social and technological innovation.
  • Talk is not a substitute for action, but is a necessary condition for action – films and entertainment education, in particular, are underutilized channels to advance the narrative of climate change communication and help audiences feel less alone.
  • Perhaps more than a lack of climate storytelling, we’ve lived through a very successful climate communication campaign designed to convince the public that climate change is controversial, polarizing, and a question of belief.
    • The oil and gas industry has played a part in the film industry for many decades, driving a very specific narrative.
  • Massive global problems like the mass biodiversity extinction are tough to process; storytelling with parallel characters can help people mentally and emotionally comprehend and feel what is at stake.
  • Stories can provide a role model that people can identify with – people learn by watching the behavior of others (mirroring and modeling), which can collectively inspire a variety of actions to improve climate outcomes within their respective spheres of influence.
    • No single story can speak to every audience – it will take many different forms of content, which come with different costs.
  • Film executives and decisionmakers grapple with a balance between wanting to avoid “pushing boundaries” and fear of being “left behind” amidst social change.