This week, the Academy released the list of Oscar nominations. I’ve seen exactly one of the nominated films (go Black Panther!) because I’m extremely busy and too worried by current events to enjoy watching anything more stressful than the Great British Baking Show. My more cine-literate friends assure me, though, that none of the movies recognized is about climate change. This doesn’t surprise me. So far, Hollywood has only tried to tell one story about climate. And it’s the wrong one.
I know this because I’ve recently started a podcast (shameless plug here) where four scientists watch disaster movies to raise money for a good cause. We’ve already sat through The Day After Tomorrow, in which Dennis Quaid breaks Antarctica, triggering a global cooling event not seen since the Younger Dryas. We’ve seen Geostorm, where Gerard Butler mitigates climate change by shouting at the weather. And we’ve seen Sharknado, where global warming results in tragic catastrophe (basically, Ian Ziering’s career). The narrative is clear: humans get their comeuppance, Nature fights back, multiple cinematic disasters happen in the space of two hours. No one has time to care about anything but the apocalypse at hand.
Of course, this isn’t what really happens. There are disasters, to be sure: human fingerprints are apparent in events as disparate as the California wildfires and the rainfall that Hurricane Harvey dumped on Houston. But these unfortunate events happen against a near-constant backdrop of other unfortunate events. A hurricane can be swept from the news by a new revelation about Russia, and natural disasters compete for attention with the messes made by governments. Even when there’s a clear and obvious climate component to a disaster, other things matter too. Sometimes they matter much more. Hurricane Maria was turbocharged by warm sea-surface temperatures, but it was governmental incompetence and institutionalized racism that made it into a disaster for Puerto Rico. Climate change is almost never the only story.
Why, you might ask, do we care about Hollywood’s inability to get climate change right? Because the one story we tell about climate change is impeding our ability to talk sensibly about policy. A prime example is the notion that we have only twelve years to prevent apocalypse. This is understandable- disaster stories are compelling, after all. “Twelve years until we all die” is catchier than “under some reasonable but debatable assumptions about economic growth, policy choices, and the physical climate sensitivity, the carbon budget to stay below the arbitrary threshold of a 1.5 degree C temperature increase relative to pre-industrial conditions appears to be exceeded by 2030”. I understand the sense of urgency conveyed by “12 years to fix everything”, but I don’t want to put scientists in the strange and awkward position of being asked to apologize in 12 years when we are not all, in fact, dead.
Here’s the thing: for many of us. climate change isn’t a disaster movie. It’s a kitchen sink drama. It’s parents worrying about the rising cost of food and young families buying cheaper housing in flood plains. It’s manual laborers weighing the dangers of outdoor work in hot, humid conditions against the dangers of crossing borders in search of new opportunities. It’s black and brown communities displaced by waves of prosperous newcomers fleeing submerged coasts. It’s schoolchildren trapped inside at recess by wildfire smoke.
None of these stories is only, or even primarily, about climate change. They’re about people and their relationships, the choices they make and the obstacles they face. When we act like climate change is a disaster movie, we miss the stories that are not only more compelling, but more realistic. Climate change isn’t the only thing people care about, nor should it be.
So, how about it, Hollywood? Can you tell compelling stories about people navigating their lives in a changing climate? Can you show how rising temperatures upend expectations, shatter dreams, and create new worlds? There’s no need to limit yourselves to gritty dramas. Let’s have rom-coms where characters meet cute wearing masks to filter dirty air and coming-of-age dramas in emptying coastal towns. Let’s have heist movies in droughts and war movies in the Arctic.
Sharknado wouldn't ever win an Oscar, but telling the real stories of climate change? That would be worthy of an award.