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Climate Change Is Everywhere. Just Not on TV

Prestige TV dominates the culture, but it has a big blind spot when it comes to our warming planet.

by Geoff Dembicki; illustrated by Hunter French
Jul 15 2019, 11:00am

All it took was a single mention of climate change on a hit TV show to cause a sensation.

A June episode of HBO's Big Little Lies dove into the subject in an unexpected way when the young daughter of Laura Dern's character has an anxiety attack about the future of the planet. The storyline constituted just a single subplot, but it spawned a minor eruption of hot takes, analysis pieces and recaps. Grist discussed the question of how to talk to children about climate change. Esquire deemed the second grader's panic-stricken retreat into a closet as "a metaphor for living in 2019." Vulture called up a child psychologist. "Climate-change anxiety is now a part of growing up," declared the Washington Post. "Pop culture has caught on."

Well, not exactly. At a time when television—especially glossy, made-for-binging prestige programs like Game of Thrones—dominates the culture, the medium is strikingly silent when it comes to climate change. John Mitchell, an editor and writer with the Washington DC-based Climate Reality Project, set out this spring to find major TV shows addressing the damage that humans are inflicting on our atmosphere and could only come up with three: Game of Thrones, a National Geographic docu-series called Life Below Zero and the Norwegian political thriller Occupied.

"I was surprised to see that there really wasn't much there," he said. "We talk about this as the biggest challenge of our time, well, wouldn't you think that would take up a bit more air in popular entertainment?"

A crisis that's reshaping every aspect of human experience is being effectively ignored by TV, and advocates think that lack is harming the chances for real, aggressive action on climate. Josh Healey is a writer and producer for the climate-themed web series The North Pole, and an activist with Movement Generation. "If we want to change the politics in this country, we have to change the stories that are being told around these issues," he said. "We need something that can contain the whole range of people's lived experiences."

"The more people are talking about the climate crisis, the more likely we are to have action," said Climate Reality Project spokesperson Stacie Paxton Cobos. "TV really gets people thinking in a way that sometimes the hard news doesn't."

The deep level of emotional engagement that comes from a dramatic storyline can influence people's real-world behavior. Lisa Holdsworth remembers writing an episode of a popular U.K. soap opera called Emmerdale in which one of the main characters finds out he has testicular cancer. "And there was a spike not long after that of men turning up to doctor's offices in the U.K. and having themselves checked out," she said.

Holdsworth thinks TV has an obligation to confront climate change just as Emmerdale dealt with testicular cancer. "The vast majority of people are still watching television, sitting on their sofa in the evening, often with other people in the room," she said. "If we model the behavior that will help the climate emergency, then that becomes the norm."

There's no evidence that Hollywood gatekeepers are standing in the way of great climate television shows. After all, A-listers like James Cameron and Darren Aronofsky have helped create documentaries about climate change and the environment. But fictional shows—the sort of programs the majority of us tend to watch and discuss—have rarely tackled climate change.

More likely the dearth of prestige climate TV is due to ecological catastrophe being seen as supremely difficult to dramatize. Nathaniel Rich got a small window into this thinking when the rights to develop his 2018 cover story for the New York Times Magazine, "Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change," were acquired by Apple.

"Hollywood is filled with people who care about environmental issues and climate," Rich explained. "As I've learned through this process, they have been struggling for years to figure out ways to make movies [and TV] about it."



Even writers such as Charlie Brooker—whose sci-fi show Black Mirror regularly engages with the hellish underside of social media, gaming and artificial intelligence— thinks that writing plotlines about ecological collapse is daunting. "It is a difficult thing to see a simple story," he told the BBC in May.

Star Trek: The Next Generation proved that point in 1993. The hit show had previously addressed complex topics like automation, sexism and colonialism, but when it tried to make an episode called "Force of Nature" explicitly about environmental collapse, it produced a notable bomb. Writers struggled with the concept and had to pad the script out with scenes about Data's cat. The arrival of Hekaran scientists who warn that the warp drive was gradually destroying the fabric of subspace—the metaphor that was the whole point of the episode—came late in the hour. "It isn't great drama," said Larry Nemecek, the author of Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion. "It's far from Star Trek's best hour." Even the creators were disappointed. "I think people were hopelessly lost," Star Trek writer and producer Jeri Taylor later recalled. "But it's still an important idea and our intentions were good."

Disasters linked to climate change are now more costly and destructive than when "Force of Nature" first aired over 25 years ago, and people are feeling the consequences much more acutely. The science has also become more terrifying. The IPCC—Earth's version of the Hekarans—calculates we only have 11 years to halve global emissions or risk locking ourselves into atmospheric warming that could permanently destabilize human civilization.

What would effective TV about climate change look like? It might deal in historical comparisons, as Craig Mazin did in his critically acclaimed Chernobyl. The show creator made the comparison between that nuclear disaster and climate change clear in an interview with Refinery 29: "We can tell ourselves stories about how climate change isn't real. The climate doesn't care… The nuclear reactor in Chernobyl didn't care that the Soviets insisted it was flawless. It just did what it does."

Or the metaphor for the climate's transformation could be less explicit. Tom Perrotta never intended his novel The Leftovers to be an allegory for climate change. His imagining of a world where 2 percent of the population vanishes was instead a secular variation on the Christian Rapture. "I was thinking about a sudden disruption of the ordinary state of the world," he said. "I was also thinking about my father's death in a car accident. Just this sense of what it means for someone to be there one day, one second, and gone the next."

But when his book became a celebrated HBO show (which he co-created), some critics connected it to climate change, a comparison that Perrotta doesn't shy away from. " The Leftovers is about that moment when older narratives fail," he said. The show's characters struggle with guilt, denial and nihilism; the breakdown of cause and effect; a loss of meaning. "They're put in kind of a much more primal state of having to craft a narrative that explains the inexplicable," he said.

That may sound vague, but telling a straight story about climate change is hard because there aren't instantly identifiable heroes and villains. It's also a very slow-moving subject matter for TV. "The problem with climate change is that it's a disaster in very slow motion," Perrotta said. "Drama depends on urgency and a ticking clock. This clock is ticking very slowly by the standards of TV and film storytelling."

These were dilemmas Rich faced when he wrote "Losing Earth" for the NYT Magazine. The 30,000-word article—and forthcoming Apple TV+ show, for which Rich serves as executive producer—tells the story of environmental lobbyist Rafe Pomerance and climate scientist James Hansen during the crucial decade from 1979 to 1989 when the world had the opportunity to stave off the worst impacts of global temperature rise but failed to take it.

"That was one of the concerns I had in writing the piece, that the dramatic tension would be sapped by the knowledge that their efforts came to naught," Rich said. "My strategy was to go as deeply into their lives and into their experiences and into the time as possible." Narratively, this helps to create a sense that the fate of the world was resting on Pomerance and Hansen's shoulders. It also allowed Rich to articulate moral questions that don't have a clear resolution—like is it ethical to have children when we know what kind of harsh future they'll face?

Inner dilemmas like these are "for me the core of the piece, rather than any kind of revelation of how close we were on policy in the late 1980s," Rich explained. The strong reaction he received to "Losing Earth" and Apple's interest in dramatizing it suggests to him "there's a great desire by people to engage with [climate change] in a more profound way than simply which candidate should we vote for."

It's too soon to tell whether the "Losing Earth" adaptation will succeed in critics' eyes or be that breakthrough climate show so many people say they want. But it's a good-faith effort to engage with an abstract yet existential quandary—and break genuinely new ground.

"There's only so many nasty corporations you can talk about," said Holdsworth. "I think the problem is just massive over-consumerism and corporate laziness and it's really hard to dramatize that, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try."

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Josh Healey's name. VICE regrets the error.

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Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change . Follow him on Twitter.