​The ‘Biggest Entertainment Launch of the Year’ Is All About Climate Change

So why aren't we seeing global warming at the movies or on TV?

by Brian Merchant
Nov 12 2015, 1:00pm

Call of Duty Screenshot. Image: Activision

So why aren't we seeing global warming at the movies or on TV?

Climate change is routinely called the biggest threat humanity's ever faced, but pop culture missed the memo. While there's a burgeoning genre devoted to hot earth fiction in literature, led by Margaret Atwood (Oryx and Crake), Nathaniel Rich (The Odds Against Tomorrow), Paolo Bacigalupi (the Water Knife) and others, there still hasn't been a whole hell a lot of climate movement in our most-watched media—film, TV, or video games. This week, though, we saw a bit of progress, courtesy of Call of Duty.

Yes, that Call of Duty. As my colleague Emanuel Maiberg points out, the most persistent enemy in the latest installment of the franchise is actually climate change. The game takes place in a globally warmed 2065, and players face environmental extremes wherever they go—dust storms in Egypt, floods and hurricane winds in Singapore, and so on. There have to date been a handful of games where the impact of climate change is made explicit—Anno 2070 is basically a post-global warming SimCity—but few that dramatize the experience in such a visceral way.

And Call of Duty is huge. This is the series that routinely beats out summer blockbusters at the box office, the series that has nearly as much reach as any fiction franchise going, period. This latest installment is already the "biggest entertainment launch of 2015," according to IGN and Fortune. It pulled in $550 million in three days. That's crazy money. Especially for a game about climate change. Think of it this way: the biggest entertainment launch of 2015 forces players to interact with, and endure, a climatically-transformed world, in a ~reasonably~ realistic fashion.

Granted, there's a lot going on in the new Call of Duty—supersoldiers, cybernetic implants, technophobia, people shooting people dead, all the time—but climate change is an omnipresent, obstructive force. It's something you have to deal with, constantly. You are forced to experience the environment that will likely come to pass if warming continues unmitigated. You will wade through floodwaters, wait out that dust storm. It will aggravate and annoy you. You are forced to feel climate change.

It's an interesting frontier for climate fiction, and one that's probably unprecedented, on a couple fronts. For starters, a decent climate-themed fiction project of any medium has never dominated a box office of any sort, as far as I'm aware. (Okay, Day After Tomorrow did all right, but it mangled the climate science so badly it really shouldn't even count.)

Secondly, it marks an innovation in how audiences might experience distant climate impacts. Today's big budget games are clearly organic enough in the manner in which they drive players to interact with their environments that it might not be too much to posit that this COD could prod some new neurons to fire on the climate issue. I'd love to see some social scientists try to study whether gamers' attitudes towards global warming changes over the course of playing through this installment.

Could be nothing, could be minute, but then again, it could plant some seeds, too. And the more audiences engage with the climate issue—which is notoriously tough to get folks to do so, given global warming's pervasiveness and seemingly long-unfolding timeframe—the more they might internalize and respond to it.

The climate activist movement and liberal "thought leaders" alike have long aspired to generate more effective "storytelling" and deploy more memorable narratives around global warming—I've heard calls for VR, augmented reality, and immersive media to inspire the public to learn about climate change. How about we just get them to play Call of Duty, first.

Still, we're going to need a lot more than a single video game, however popular it may be, before we can consider pop culture a useful tool in reflecting back to the public the severity of the currently unfolding crisis. The true populist mass media—television and film—are conspicuously absent of compelling climate fiction. (Nonfiction, it should be noted, fares better: An Inconvenient Truth created a sensation, as was the Arctic melt-documenting Chasing Ice,and the Year of Living Dangerously, and the climate episodes for VICE's own HBO show, if I do say so myself, have been well received on TV.)

About a year ago, I recall having a brief chat with Vox's energy and politics guru David Roberts, about this very problem; even then, there just weren't any great examples of a climate change-based pop culture product, or even of climate change simply existing as a fixture of a future ambient reality in which an SF show took place. He noted that there hadn't been a "Will & Grace" moment to spur the cultural normalization of climate change yet, in the way that that sitcom had for gay rights. I argued that Interstellar, which featured a thinly veiled stand-in for climate change called "the blight" could be the start of that very trend. Clearly, that didn't pan out.

There hasn't been a single major film this year that prominently features climate change—and this is a year in which we will witness the world's biggest effort to actually try to save itself from climate change, when leaders gather in Paris for COP21. Climate change has been in the news, a lot, for reasons both scientific and political, all of them worrisome. But no films. No executive thought to synergize the surefire climate-heavy news cycle with apocalyptic climate fiction to maximize interest and/or profit—no, our dystopian fiction is stuck on zombies and hunger games.

"My busi­ness is a dis­as­ter in this area," he said, referring to Hollywood. "There's no inter­est at all."

So what's going on? This week, we got an interesting clue. In an interview with City Atlas, the successful TV and film producer Marshall Hershkovitz revealed that he'd spent all last year shopping around a pilot for a dramatic show that took place in a climate-changed world.

"My busi­ness is a dis­as­ter in this area," he said, referring to Hollywood. "There's no interest at all. I tried to sell a pilot that dealt with climate change this year. Not one net­work would go near it." Which is weird; Hershkovitz is the creator of numerous respected prestige TV shows; thirtysomethings, My So-Called Life, Relativity, and Once and Again. He's produced Hollywood hits like Traffic, The Last Samurai, and Blood Diamonds. He recently signed a first-look pact with Lionsgate TV.

So how did Lionsgate, and all of the industry, for that matter, feel about a TV show focused on climate change? "Wouldn't go near it," he told City Atlas. The pilot sounded pretty interesting, too! Here's the premise, per Hershkovitz:

"It took place in 2085. It existed in a world that had been utterly trans­formed by cli­mate change; cli­mate change was every­where. It was called 'Storm World'... Basi­cally, they just live in storms all the time. In the show, by 2085, 25 mil­lion Amer­i­cans had to be removed from where they lived because where they lived had been inun­dated, and so they set up what they called 'The Ter­ri­to­ries' in the West. Most of the Dako­tas and Utah had been turned into, essen­tially, refugee camps for 25 mil­lion peo­ple to live because there was no other place for them. And these were Amer­i­cans. This dis­place­ment had com­pletely messed up the econ­omy and the pol­i­tics of America."

Hershkovitz thinks he knows why, that, in the age of mass pop dystopia, the studios wouldn't even consider his concept. "Because they are not in the busi­ness of mak­ing peo­ple mad. In other words, they are try­ing to max­i­mize their audi­ence, and this is still very polar­iz­ing in the coun­try. I think they feel that for a lot of peo­ple, it's a turn off."

And there it is. Because climate change is still a fraught political issue, with significant minorities of the country still in denial about the scientific reality of climate change, execs figure that they're denying themselves a market segment—and perhaps courting controversy—right off the bat. It's the same reason Hollywood produces an unending deluge of superhero flicks, "reboots," and sequels—it's a deeply conservative, risk-averse industry. Of course, it could be that this treatment was underdeveloped, poorly written, or whatever. But it could also be that Hollywood is full of profit-driven cowards.

Which, again, is why it's so interesting that Call of Duty has unambiguously drawn climate change into a central role in such a marquee product. Sure, the franchise doesn't even need to comment on the nature of climate change, just introduce the players to an environment in which it has occurred. But it's still a mass-market product—and already an extremely profitable one—powered by global warming.

Unmitigated successes like COD: Black Ops 3 (and, I'd argue, Interstellar before it) may help to break down the perception that climate stories aren't fit for the big tent. And, ideally, they'll further encourage developers, producers, and executives to invest in stories about that biggest threat to humanity. In turn, and somewhat ironically, it might help those doubters currently holding back climate fiction production to finally start feeling the gravity of the situation. Everyone wins. Except us I guess, when we look up from the screens and the earth is still scorching.