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Why the climate will soon be starring in your favourite TV show

Words: Anne-Marie Hoeve

Photo: Ben Cohen/NBC | 2014 NBCUniversal Media, LLC

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Hollywood is putting climate in the picture. Behind the scenes, work is underway to make sure stories about the environment get from script to screen, and reach an audience of millions. At Climate Week in New York we spoke to the people making it happen. Planet Earth, it’s time for your close-up.

There’s a story in the news now about how a 12-year-old boy saved a drowning man using a CPR technique he picked up from watching the TV show Stranger Things. It’s a powerful example of how the shows we enjoy for entertainment can have a big real-world impact. Because if they can empower us to help people in need, maybe they can empower us to help a planet in need.

Imagine the knock-on effects of CPR for the Earth, interwoven into the script of the next must-see series streamed straight into millions of living rooms. Or what if our warming world – the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced – could feature in the next Barbie-scale global blockbuster? Yet, aside from a few outliers like the apocalyptic satire Don’t Look Up, the climate remains a glaring, planet-sized absence when it comes to what’s being covered in the shows we love to watch.

To put a number on it, only 2.8% of scripts include any mention of global warming, USC researchers recently found, after analysing 37,453 scripted television episodes and films released between 2016 and 2020. (For context, the word “dog” was mentioned almost 13 times as often as all 36 climate keywords combined). 

In their report, USC researchers looked for mentions of 36 keywords related to climate change in scripted shows. This graph reveals the top mentions. Source: USC Researchers

That’s exactly what a new group of Hollywood industry insiders are working hard to rectify. They’re called the Hollywood Climate Summit. And instead of waiting for big entertainment executives to greenlight these missing storylines, they’re taking things into their own hands (or pens), empowering writers and producers, to introduce climate narratives from the bottom up, into the very scripts that actors then turn into action on screen. When the current strikes are over, could we come back to a world where climate stories are the norm?

Still a taboo

Hollywood Climate Summit co-founder Heather Fipps explains what sparked her to act. “This industry is by and large not talking about climate. We’re not seeing it in our stories. It’s a sore and still taboo subject to broach on nearly any set in nearly any editing room and nearly any writing room.” It’s no coincidence that she is also program director at the Redford Center – with its focus on ‘advancing environmental solutions through the power of stories that move’.

The three founders, Heather Fipps, Ali Weinstein and Allison Begalman take to the stage at the Hollywood Climate Summit in Los Angeles. Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez / Stringer via Getty Images

She’s at Climate Week in New York to introduce the topic in a packed panel event hosted by Solitaire Townsend, of renowned change agency Futerra, who is on the advisory board.

Where does Fipps think this taboo comes from? She identifies a culture where industry executives are afraid of scaring off mainstream audiences with a topic considered too political and polarising, too big, too overwhelming. But, she argues, it’s a perceived notion. Audiences actually want this. We need to see it, we need to talk about it. Because it’s already affecting our lives. Nearly half of audience members want to see fictional TV/films that include climate-related storylines, USC research shows. One of the panellists playfully floats the idea of a new Oscar award – for best climate narrative.

Dreaming big on the small screen

So are there any examples of shows already out there, getting it right? Fipps mentions Netflix hit comedy Parks and Recreation as her favourite, which is perhaps surprising as it’s not directly about the climate. For Fipps, that’s exactly the point. “To me, it’s so fun and engaging and ultimately, I think it is a climate story because it’s showing what public service looks like. It’s showing incremental changes that are bettering your community. It’s dreaming big. It really humanises what policy change looks like on a micro scale. And I think it’s just something we haven’t really seen a lot.”

She is eager to emphasise that it’s not about having special ‘climate episodes’ – it’s about nuanced ways to thread climate themes, emotions and behaviours into the very fabric of the storyline, which a show like Parks and Recreation does very well, she says, “engaging climate values that we need, showing a different value system of what we could be together”.

Popular shows like Parks and Recreation can reach audiences that the latest IPCC climate report can’t. Photo: Ben Cohen/NBC | 2014 NBCUniversal Media, LLC

What really excites her are natural and authentic ways to build this into stories. Questions like: “How can nature inform the next great blockbuster? How can it inform a television show that we love or a character that we love?”

Fellow co-founder and TV writer Ali Weinstein couldn’t agree more. “A lot of people feel closer to characters than they do sometimes to their own family or friends and they’re able to project their own lives and invest in them and I think that’s the power of storytelling,” she says over coffee the morning after the panel event, together with the summit’s other co-founder Allison Begalman.

You’re allowed to laugh

So far, Hollywood has been very prone to covering the climate story only in sci-fi, or apocalyptic terms, with Don’t Look Up as a prime example. What Weinstein really wants to see is these narratives appearing in romcoms, in sitcoms, and especially in comedies. “I think levity is the way that we reduce tension around topics that are otherwise very challenging to talk about and comprehend,” she says. “We need to be able to talk to other people about it in a way that isn’t anxiety-inducing and we need to make the climate crisis the same sort of thing and normalise it in that way. It’s not about an agenda, it’s about representing our lived realities.

It’s one of the key reasons she started writing, she explains, drawing a parallel with the lack of queer representation on screen, growing up. “I saw, like, no queer characters on TV, ever. So when Will and Grace came out, it was like a huge deal. Joe Biden has cited Will and Grace as one of the reasons that he voted for marriage equality.”

Pitchfests for the future

Since it was launched during the pandemic, the Hollywood Climate Summit has seen interest in their efforts snowball. Their most recent annual conference drew a crowd of over 3,000 industry insiders from 52 countries around the world. They are also training writers and producers how to use their influence to be climate leaders, exploring different ways anyone within the entertainment ecosystem can drive larger socio-cultural change. Another success are their pitchfests – where writers get the chance to meet with industry executives and agents. A recent pitchfest has already seen three climate projects get accepted for further development. 

What this all shows is that climate action can take many forms. Some is very visible, like the massive protest that kicked off New York Climate Week, which saw 75,000 people marching through Manhattan in a call to end fossil fuels. Other work begins outside of the spotlight, at least initially. Either way, it’s clear that people want to engage with this.

You can be a climate leader wherever you are, Fipps believes. Whether you work in Hollywood or are sitting on the couch watching TV and talking about it with friends. I for one am ready – feet up, with snacks on my lap. Of course, the most pressing issue for Hollywood’s striking writers right now is fighting for their working conditions. Then they can begin planting those formative seeds for an audience already out there, looking for the stories they need to become a future president, senator, industry CEO, community builder, activist, or innovator. We’re all watching and waiting.

Watch this space

Find out what you can do with the Hollywood Climate Summit’s action toolbox.

Read more

Check out Parks and Recreation on Peacock

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