Screenwriters can help fight the climate crisis through storytelling

“Like characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, many of us cheat with one hand and try to save the planet with the other. No one is perfect, but we all try, so why not laugh about it and use it as raw material for some damn good drama?”

I couldn’t have understood more how podcaster, multimedia producer and artist Thimali Kodikara describes the life of a typical “climate person”. Whether it’s my own well-documented hypocrisies or the soul of Treehugger Design editor Lloyd Alter who questions theft, nearly every activist, advocate, or scholar I know has some form of gap between the world they would like to see and the life they are currently living. And yet, when TV shows or movies portray these so-called climate people – if they do at all – they are invariably portrayed as boring, holier-than-thou idealists or, alternatively, as cynical and hypocritical insincere.

Surely there are more interesting stories to tell?

Indeed, Kodikara’s thoughts on why climate heroes are not saints form a chapter in the just launched “Good Energy: A Handbook for Screenwriting in the Age of Climate Change.” Created by writers, for writers, the playbook covers everything from the importance of telling climate stories and the intricacies of the psychology of climatic characters for character profiles and ideas for representing solutions on screen. According to my friend, Anna Jane Joyner, founder and director of Good Energy, this is all part of an effort to update screenwriting on a topic central to the reality of every human being alive today.

“In real life, climate change is all around us, so whether your story is set today or in the near future, climate is already part of your story world and the lives of your characters,” said Joyner told Treehugger. “The Playbook introduces a climate lens that helps writers discover how to portray it in entertaining, relevant, and authentic ways.

It’s a project close to my heart, and not just because I was asked to offer my own chapter on the aforementioned issue of climate hypocrisy. I was thrilled to see such a wide range of voices all committed to pushing the boundaries of climate storytelling beyond the usual tropes of overly simplistic narratives, apocalyptic doomerism, or goofy preaching.

The playbook features a list of contributors that reads like a who’s who (plus me!) of climate-smart writing, advocacy, and filmmaking, with pieces from Amy Westervelt, Rosario Dawson, Mary Annaïse Heglar, Katharine Hayhoe, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Kalmus, Kate Marvel, Bill McKibben and many more. Everywhere the argument that real and effective climate storytelling will be essential to solving the crisis we find ourselves in – and that it will force writers to embrace nuance, complexity, diversity, justice and, yes, even the ‘humor.

The project was born out of a desire to correct a gross under-representation of climate within modern television and film. As part of the project’s preparations, Good Energy partnered with USC’s Media Impact Lab at the Norman Lear Center to commission an analysis of 37,453 TV and movie scripts over the past five years. USC found that only 2.8% of scripts analyzed included keywords about climate change – and in those scripts, there were only 1,772 mentions of those same words.

But why is this? Considering the overwhelming nature of the climate crisis, the scale of its consequences, or the widely felt sense of anxiety growing in people around the world, you’d think the screenwriters would be eager to tackle this issue. . The playbook quotes Mary Laws, writer and producer of the hit show Succession, as offering a possible explanation:

“We had many stories of gender, race and war. We know how to tell stories about these issues, but we don’t know how to tell stories about climate. We don’t have a history of this kind of storytelling because it’s a new type of problem.

But as the playbook argues, the writers don’t have to (and probably shouldn’t) take it all on their shoulders or those of their characters. A show or movie doesn’t have to be climate change focused to incorporate the climate crisis. And it doesn’t – and can’t – provide all the solutions or even a complete overview of the problem.

Instead, a much more impactful approach is for the screenwriters to simply do what they do best – tell great stories – but knowing that the climate crisis is now undeniably part of the universe in which those stories occur. It will sometimes be a question of staging an ecological utopia. Sometimes that means writing about Armageddon. And sometimes that will just mean allowing your characters to ride bikes instead of driving – or drive instead of bike, but feel a little bad doing it. Sound familiar?

Taken together, these changes can help achieve a much bigger goal. As Antha Williams, who leads climate and environment programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies, explains: “Our lives are driven by stories. Storytelling allows us to empathize with each other, see new perspectives, and remind ourselves that we are all connected. The science is there and the data is clear that we must mobilize to solve the climate crisis. But data alone is not enough, and there has never been a greater need for powerful and diverse climate storytelling. The Playbook will be an invaluable resource for writers and creatives to bring these stories to life, both to communicate the urgency of climate action and to inspire courage in the face of this crisis.