A record number of Americans, 7 out of 10, believe that climate change is real, and the majority understand that human activity is largely to blame, according to a January poll. But still leaves 30% who are skeptical, and there are still key politicians like President Donald Trump who regularly tweet their doubts.
Rather than lobby them with more facts, perhaps climate scientists should send naysayers to the movies.
Ever since the 1973 cult classic “Soylent Green” introduced audiences to the food shortages climate change will bring, movie makers and television show producers have been scaring people about it. Apple TV will run a TV series called “Losing Earth” this year, and TNT will turn the movie “Snowpiercer” into a TV series. (Like CNN, TNT is part of WarnerMedia.) There’s even a catchy name for this climate change fiction genre: cli-fi.
What experts tell us, though, is that cli-fi isn’t just wholesome dystopian entertainment; it seems to help people believe in actual climate change, even when Hollywood’s version of the science is a bit off.
“Story is one of the oldest and most powerful forms of communications we ever had. When someone says ‘now, let me tell you a story …’ something goes ‘zzzzzt’ in your brain. It’s like when you were a child and your parent says they are going to tell you a bedtime story. It automatically opens you up, ” said Anthony Leiserowitz, a senior research scientist at the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
“Film, so far, is the most powerful form of storytelling that we’ve devised,” Leiserowitz said.
Leiserowitz has the data to prove it, although because people don’t always listen to facts, he has a good story about it, too.
‘The Day After Tomorrow’
Once upon a time, back in 2004, there was a blockbuster called “The Day After Tomorrow,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Dennis Quaid. It’s about a polar explorer who warns the world that the Gulf Stream will shut down. It does, triggering dramatic weather events, including a new ice age.
It was “based on a short-term variation in ocean circulation that was in the news at the time,” said another climate change expert, Jim Fleming. “Some of my apocalyptically oriented colleagues loved it, and one, a polar explorer, was even a model for the main character. I could not suspend disbelief, however.”
While the science made it hard for some experts to enjoy, like a lot of sci-fi, “the film goes beyond the science,” another climate expert, Jonathan Overpeck, wrote in an email. He explains that although the ocean circulation can slow, change wouldn’t happen overnight, and it’s unlikely to spark a new ice age. Rather, it means less warming in the North Atlantic, like what we see now. Overpeck, who is a paleoclimatologist and a dad, adds that it’s a personal favorite since its main character is a paleoclimatologist dad who speaks truth to power.
“The kind of global freeze-up depicted in the film is not something to worry about,” Overpeck said. “But paleoclimatologists do rock!”
Leiserowitz likes the movie. He did a study about how it motivated people to take action to curb climate change, and artists from all disciplines have reached out to him to talk about how to create equally impactful narratives.
Before “The Day After Tomorrow” even opened, there was buzz or, as Leiserowitz punnily describes in his 2005 study, “an intense storm of media controversy.”
Scientists and politicians took to the airwaves, debating the movie’s accuracy and impact. Some feared that the drama would make people think climate change was mere fantasy. Others worried that the public would panic and force politicians to fight climate change, something unwelcome by the Republican White House at the time. Leiserowitz and his team studied its impact in real time.
They created a national survey, sampling public opinion a week before the movie’s release and four weeks later. What they found was that “across the board, the movie appears to have had a strong influence on watchers’ risk perceptions of global warming.” Most moviegoers didn’t worry that the most extreme scenario, like what happened in the movie, would happen in real life, but those who saw it, compared with those who skipped, felt more inclined to make personal changes to reduce their carbon footprint. They were more inclined to talk to friends about climate change, and seeing the film affected voter preferences.
Leiserowitz has a theory about why the movie mattered.
“You can’t directly experience global warming. It’s a theory. It’s abstract. Scientists have collected temperatures and data from many decades all over the world, and that gets communicated to you through the analytic brain. That’s important, yes, but the movie, it’s a story.”
Our ancestors relied on story to survive, he said. For example, if you see some berries that look delicious, but someone in your clan told you about a guy who ate one and died, even if you have never tasted one, that story teaches you to avoid them. They are dangerous.
Some other studies about the film showed that motivation to act didn’t last, and not all climate change experts love the cli-fi genre. Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and professor of political science at Texas Tech University, said in an email that she appreciates that these movies bring attention to climate change, but she tends to avoid them, since “seeing the science over-dramatised and misrepresented” can be “incredibly frustrating for me as a scientist.”
“I feel that when it is so dramatic, people instinctively know, ‘oh that can’t be true,’ and so that leads them to reject what we actually do know,” wrote Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech. Some studies show that the apocryphal nature of many of the films turns people off to some of the messages.
Hayhoe’s grad student Sydney Laws, on the other hand, wrote her final project about cli-fi. “I personally don’t think we should hold our collective breath for a film that gets all of the facts correct,” Laws writes. “Filmmakers have to tell a story in order to get the audience engaged, so I prefer to focus on their effectiveness at compelling moviegoers to change their behavior. So while scientific accuracy is incredibly important for the public’s understanding of the ins and outs of climate change, merit can still be found in even the most outrageous of movies.”
Overpeck, climate scientist and dean of University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, said a “surprisingly novel and scientifically credible premise” led him to watch another cli-fi classic, the 2013 film “Snowpiercer.” It’s about a rogue billionaire who has used climate engineering to cool the planet, but the experiment goes awry, creating a “snowball Earth” that is largely frozen solid, and the only survivors ride a train filled with class warfare that forever circles the globe.
“A growing debate exists within the climate science community about the utility of geoengineering to cool the planet back down while at the same time continuing to burn fossil fuels and emitting greenhouse gases that act to warm the planet,” Overpeck wrote in an email. “One critical aspect of this debate, however, is that we may never know enough to geoengineer safely.”
The Earth has experienced such frozen conditions millions of years ago, and “thus climate science indicates it can be done. And, as in the movie, a snowball Earth eventually would start to thaw,” Overpeck said. But the technological mistake is “unlikely.”
“Instead, the potential for other mistakes more deeply trouble climate scientists, for example triggering severe droughts and famines in sensitive parts of the planet,” Overpeck said. Creating technology to cool the planet does not get rid of fossil fuels that he said will continue to acidify the oceans, endangering life.
“Bottom line, the potential for geoengineering the planet’s climate, complete with inherent likelihood of mistakes, is already moving from science fiction to reality,” Overpeck said. “But, most climate scientists feel it would make more sense, and be safer, to just move beyond fossil fuel burning, and create a more sustainable planet.”
Fleming, one of the world’s better-known history of science experts that focuses on climate change, said “Snowpiercer” was a “free airplane flick.” He watched it, ironically, on his way home from a geoengineering conference “where I had lecture on the insanity of planetary intervention.”
He found the class conflict and the revolution on the train interesting, as (spoiler alert) was the ending. “Two survivors of the inevitable train wreck (both people of color) seem to foreshadow a new beginning and a hopeful future,” Fleming, the Charles A. Dana professor of science, technology and society at Colby College, wrote in an email. “Yet a hungry polar bear looks down on them. The film ends suddenly before the polar bear has his dinner.”
‘Mad Max Fury Road’
The scenario in the 2015 film “Mad Max: Fury Road” may be more likely, scientists said. It’s another post-apocalyptic film depicting a planet ravaged by climate change and ecological collapse.
“This film, intentionally or not, hits home accurately with climate science and one of the big under-appreciated impacts of climate change and human-folly,” said Overpeck.
In the movie, fresh ground water is gone. In our world, water supplies are threatened.
“The world of Mad Max has more of a scientific foundation – at least when it comes to dry-land water sustainability – than many might think,” Overpeck said. “And the emphasis on gas-powered cars and trucks strike a real irony – to the end, humans rely on the very fossil fuel that has destroyed their world. Worth a watch.”
In most cli-fi, our future doesn’t look so bright, but there is one film in the genre that experts like so much they’ll see it with their kids.
Disney’s 2008 animated film “WALL-E” features the last robot on Earth, left to tidy up the pollution humans left behind when they left the uninhabitable plant. The scenario does seem plausible, scientists said.
“Unmitigated climate change and pollution interacts and endangers life, and that is well-supported by science,” Overpeck said. “But, the other key message of ‘WALL-E’ is that there is hope.
“The planet Earth has been ravaged before (think asteroid impacts), and it has recovered. Climate change could indeed cause the next planetary mass-extinction, but millions of years further on, life would again flourish on the planet; science supports this premise as well.”
“A planet largely destroyed by unchecked climate change and pollution is possible, but do we really want to envision living in space as a viable solution when instead all we have to do is move beyond fossil fuels and use available knowledge to chart a more sustainable future for our planet?” Overpeck said. “More than worth a watch, kids or not.”