“Like the characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, many of us screw up with one hand and try to save the planet with the other. Nobody’s perfect, but we all try, so why not laugh at it and use it as fodder for some damn good drama?”
I couldn’t have related more to the way podcaster, multimedia producer and artist Thimali Kodikara describes the life of a typical “climate man”. Whether it’s my own well-documented hypocrisies or Treehugger Design Editor Lloyd Alter’s soul searching about flying, nearly every activist, advocate, or academic I know has some sort of chasm between the world they want to see and life that he is currently living. And yet, when television shows or films portray these so-called climate people – if they do so at all – they are invariably portrayed as either tiresome, holier-than-thou idealists, or alternatively, as cynical and disingenuous hypocrites.
Surely there are more interesting stories to tell?
In fact, Kodikara’s thoughts on why climate heroes aren’t saints form a chapter in the just-released Good Energy: A Playbook for Screenwriting in the Age of Climate Change. Created by writers for writers, the playbook covers everything from the importance of climate storytelling and the intricacies of climate character psychology to character profiles and ideas for presenting solutions on screen. According to my friend Anna Jane Joyner, the founder and director of Good Energy, it’s all part of an effort to update screenwriting on an issue central to the reality of every person alive today.
“In real life, climate change is all around us. So if your story takes place today or in the near future, climate is already a part of the world of your story and your characters’ lives,” Joyner told Treehugger. “The Playbook introduces a climate lens to help writers figure out how to present it in a fun, relevant, and authentic way.”
It’s a project close to my heart – and not just because I’ve been asked to offer a dedicated chapter on the aforementioned issue of climate hypocrisy. I was delighted to see such a wide array of voices, all committed to pushing the boundaries of climate storytelling beyond the usual tropes of either overly simplistic narratives, apocalyptic doomerism, or pathetic sermons.
The playbook features a contributor list that reads a bit like a who’s who (plus me!) of smart climate writing, advocacy and film, with contributions from Amy Westervelt, Rosario Dawson, Mary Annaïse Heglar, Katharine Hayhoe , Mark Ruffalo, Peter Kalmus, Kate Marvel, Bill McKibben and many more. Across the board is the argument that real, effective storytelling about climate will be central to solving the crisis we find ourselves in – and that this will require writers to have nuance, complexity, diversity, equity and yes, even humor to consider.
The project arose from a desire to correct a glaring underrepresentation of climate in modern television and film. As part of the preparations for the project, Good Energy worked with USC’s Media Impact Lab at the Norman Lear Center to commission an analysis of 37,453 television and film scripts over the past five years. USC found that only 2.8% of the scripts analyzed contained any climate change keywords at all – and within those scripts there were only 1,772 mentions of the same words.
But why is it like that? Given the overwhelming nature of the climate crisis, the magnitude of its impact, or the widespread sense of anxiety rising among populations around the world, one might think screenwriters would be itching to address this issue. The playbook quotes Mary Laws, a writer and producer on the hit series Succession, to offer a possible explanation:
“We had a lot of stories about gender, race and war. We have an understanding of how to tell stories about these issues, but we don’t have an understanding of how to tell climate stories. We don’t have a story of that kind of storytelling because it’s a new kind of problem.”
But as the screenplay argues, screenwriters don’t have to (and shouldn’t) take everything on their shoulders or their characters’ shoulders. A show or movie doesn’t have to focus on climate change to include the climate crisis. And it does not – and cannot – provide all the solutions or even a comprehensive view of the problem.
Instead, a far more powerful approach is for screenwriters to simply do what they do best — tell really good stories — but do it with the understanding that the climate crisis is now an undeniable part of the universe in which those stories take place. Sometimes that means depicting an ecological utopia. Sometimes it means writing about Armageddon. And sometimes it just means that you allow your characters to ride bikes instead of riding—or to ride instead of riding bikes, but somehow feel bad about it. Sound familiar?
Collectively, these changes can help advance a far more important goal. As Antha Williams, who leads climate and environmental programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies, explains: “Our lives are shaped 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 need to mobilize to solve the climate crisis. But data alone is not enough, and there has never been a greater need for meaningful, 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 offer encouragement in the face of this crisis.”