Can Hollywood save us from climate catastrophe?

Can Hollywood save us from climate catastrophe?

hollywood films and climate change
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How could film change public perception about climate change?

By taking on the link between football and brain injuries, the recently released movie "Concussion" reminds us of the potential for Hollywood to shape attitudes and beliefs about controversial topics through entertainment. 

The film has put America’s most popular sport under a microscope and sparked a dialogue about children participating in contact sports and the role of the National Football League in preventing injuries to its players.

Certainly, there is the potential for a similar movie to be made about climate change — one that builds on "An Inconvenient Truth" and speaks to a new generation. 

Perhaps it’s a film about a whistleblower who stands up to oil company executives, who have known since the 1970s that burning fossil fuels contributes to global warming. Such a movie would confront head-on the impact that our car culture is having on global warming.

But movie dramas that directly tackle a controversial topic might not actually be the best way to appeal to a broader audience. While lackluster box office receipts for "Concussion" simply might reflect a crowded field, it also may reflect a public reticent to confront a controversy that taints a beloved sport, especially one so core to our identity as Americans.

Apocalypse now 

While a similar claim could be made about "An Inconvenient Truth," this may not be a universal truth about climate change movies in general.  In fact, one could argue that Hollywood has had more success in tackling climate change as an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic story.

"The Day After Tomorrow," a movie where ice sheet melting shuts down thermohaline circulation in the oceans, resulting in the rapid onset of a new ice age, was the No. 9 highest-grossing disaster movie of all time. "Waterworld," where humanity is forced to live on water when melting ice caps raise sea levels high enough to flood all land, was the 11th highest grossing "post-apocalypse" movie (adjusted for 2015 dollars).

Such movies are not made without criticism, given the artistic license taken to tell such doomsday stories.

Some from the scientific community argue that interjecting Hollywood into the climate debate may be a bad thing, as it could further blur the lines between fact and fiction, especially with a public that remains skeptical of science. 

But, with a public that holds views on climate change that largely align with political affiliation, Hollywood might offer a rare opportunity to cut across these lines with a message that is both entertaining and eye-opening. Indeed, there is already evidence that movies such as "The Day After Tomorrow" can change consumer attitudes and beliefs about climate change.

According to a study (PDF) conducted by Anthony Leiserowitz at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications, viewing "The Day After Tomorrow" increased movie watcher "concern" and "worry" over climate change. Not only did movie watchers say they were more likely to purchase a fuel efficient car and share their concerns with politicians, but they were also more willing to talk about global warming with their friends and family, reflecting the increased importance that movie watchers placed on this issue.

Flipping the script

Given the past financial success of such doomsday stories, one might think that moviemakers would be clamoring for new scripts. Today, there is increasing awareness of climate change impact among Americans, especially given the extreme weather events occurring across the U.S. as a result of a usually strong El Niño this year. 

This type of script would be especially appealing to Millennials, who are especially passionate about this issue and remain a coveted target audience for studios.

As scientists learn more about the potential impacts of climate change, more stories are emerging that easily could be spun to read like nightmarish sci-fi movies. Here are a few examples:

  • Ancient bacteria brought back to life as glacier ice melts cause pandemic
  • Global food stocks collapse from widespread drought, ocean acidification that dissolves shellfish and the spread of neurotoxins in fish, unraveling social order and leading to war, or worse, nuclear confrontation
  • Rising temperatures shut down photosynthesis by phytoplankton, the source of most breathable oxygen on earth, suffocating all life

In the "Terminator" movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger saved humankind from apocalypse by traveling back in time to change the course of human history before it was too late.

Perhaps when it comes to climate change, Hollywood can inspire humanity to save itself the first time around so it doesn’t have to rely on time travel as a last-ditch effort.