Siobhan McGuirk's Blog

Storytelling and Climate Change: Imagining Solutions Beyond Documentary or Dystopia

By Marzena Zukowska & Siobhan McGuirk
September 11th, 2020

“Look over there behind me, that’s a tornado. Yes, a twister in Los Angeles. It’s one of many tornadoes that are destroying our city.”

In 2004, The Day After Tomorrow transformed climate change from a niche political issue into a global public conversation.

The film’s vision of “abrupt global cooling”, despite the questionable science behind it, generated ten times more news coverage than even the most high-profile contemporary climate research publications – and grossed $555 million in global box office. Two years later, Al Gore’s double Oscar-winner An Inconvenient Truth seemed to cement global warming as a pressing issue ripe for entertainment industry attention.

Fifteen years on, as hurricanes, tsunamis and record-breaking heat waves increasingly make newspaper headlines, we still look to these two films as landmark media on climate change. That is to say, the most pressing issue of our time continues to be explored primarily through fact-driven documentaries – few of which reach audiences beyond the festival circuit – or bombastic dystopian fiction – which tends to exaggerate already alarming science to the point of incredulity and paralysis.

As storytellers continue to grapple with the challenge of both accurately and compellingly portraying our climate emergency, innovative approaches are finding success in tying climate change to other social issues – and in the world of gaming, making solutions interactive and possible in real-time.

The challenge: capturing glacial pace disaster

Scientists and policy-makers for decades framed climate change as a slow-moving catastrophe, or “future-oriented problem”, making it hard to sustain public interest. Over the same period, climate change deniers successfully planted seeds of doubt over findings linking human-made carbon emissions to global warming. Despite overwhelming scientific consensus on the issue, large sections of the public remain dubious.

In response, climate storytellers have understandably often chosen non-fiction formats to stress the realities of climate change. As Gore’s film title emphasises, a core purpose of climate-focused media-making is establishing the “truth” – generally through archive and newsreel footage, statistics, infographics, shots of nature and expert talking heads.

Before The Flood (2016) Leonardo DiCaprio meets with scientists, activists and world leaders to discuss the dangers of climate change and possible solutions.

Documentaries dominate environmental film festivals and “best climate change movie” listings. They rarely break into the mainstream, however, or overcome perceptions that the genre is preaching, dull, or both – a view echoed by environmentalist Naomi Klein in her own climate documentary This Changes Everything. The genre’s impact on audience behaviour is also debatable – and no more assured than that of blockbuster fiction.

George Marshall argues that our brains are “wired to ignore” the climate change narratives that rule most documentaries: complex science, uncertain outcomes and calls for personal sacrifice with intangible rewards. While daunting in magnitude, the threat of climate change is “exceptionally ambiguous”, explains Marshall, with no obvious “external enemy with an intention to cause harm.”

The makers of TV mini-series Years of Living Dangerously (2014) echo Marshall’s view. They presented A-list celebrities as “concerned citizens” in an effort to make climate change feel less distant to potentially skeptical viewers. Executive producer Joel Bach explained: “it’s meant to really look like a scripted narrative… hopefully [viewers] get sucked in and before they know it they’re watching a documentary.”

The presence of movie stars does not guarantee engaging content, however, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s The 11th Hour (2007) and Before the Flood (2016) attest. In fact, climate media anchored by celebrities might be counterproductive, as they often promote elite solutions and white-saviour narratives that obscure grassroots activists’ voices – including of the people most impacted by climate change.

Notable documentaries buck these trends by adopting more relatable – and more engaging – approaches. Mossville: When Great Trees Fall(2019) weaves together local stories of personal struggle with a historical exploration of environmental racism and corporate power with international reach. Kenyan-Norwegian co-production Thank You For the Rain (2017) touches on related themes through a very different aesthetic. Shot over five years in video-diary style by climate activist, rural farmer and co-director Kilisu Musya, the film asks subtle, searching questions of the mainstream environmental movement.

In the world of factual television, nature films have also become increasingly explicit about the global impacts of climate change. The mesmerising early-2000s BBC series The Blue Planet (2001) and Planet Earth (2006) portrayed nature as pristine and wildlife undisturbed by human contact. This is in keeping with genre trends of avoiding “haunting” stories that could alienate audiences and downplaying the impact of humans on the environment.

Notably, natural history broadcasting veteran and voice of the BBC Planet series Sir David Attenborough doubted the threat of global warming until 2004. His sequels – including Our Planet (2019) andBlue Planet II (2017) –explicitly address issues like overfishing and plastic pollution. The latter seized the public imagination so much it provoked policy action on microplastics. Attenborough’s latest film, Climate Change – The Facts(2019), has been heralded as a turning point for the BBC – though its title suggests a return to a now-familiar documentary style, rather than innovations in form.

The challenge: leveraging fiction – without predicting dystopia

Within two decades of scientists discovering a weakening of the Earth’s ozone layer, decisive action was taken to repair it. Sheldon Ungar argues that environmental catastrophe was averted by instilling the issue, despite its scientific complexity, as a “hot crisis” in a public imagination already attuned to cinematic metaphors. “The idea of rays penetrating a damaged ‘shield’ meshes nicely with abiding and resonant cultural motifs, including ‘Hollywood affinities’”, Ungar explains. “That the ozone threat can be linked with Darth Vader means that it is encompassed in common sense understandings that are deeply ingrained and widely shared.”

Commercialization of ultraviolet radiation threat – new brands of sunscreen, UV ray sunglasses, and “safe sun” advertising – solidified ozone leakage as a public health emergency. But entertainment media also played a major role in establishing the task of tackling the issue as “all but unavoidable”.

In the late 1970s, the imagined dangers of ozone depletion fuelled B-movie thrillers like Day of the Animals(1977) and The Billion Dollar Threat(1979). By the early 1990s, the consequences of global warming was providing backdrops for dystopian adventuresincluding Highlander II (1991) and Waterworld (1995), two mega-budget box-office flops that nonetheless reflected the zeitgeist – though the latter case may have been ahead of the curve.

Meanwhile, children watched and played as Captain Planet and the Planeteers (1990-1996) battled CFC-toting villains, while Ferngully: The Last Rainforest(1992) cast pollution and deforestation as terrifying animated antagonists. Silly, spectacular, and scientifically spurious, these stories still helped to ensure the terms “ozone”, “CFCs” and “global warming” lingered “in the air”, complementing news reports and factual programming.

Climate change has tended to lack such ubiquity and immediacy, although climate fiction, or cli-fi, is resurgent – particularly in the disaster / dystopia genres. Historically, natural disaster movies have worked as analogies for other social upheavals – from Great Depression woes to atomic age anxieties to pre-Millennium “Y2K” fears. Since The Day After Tomorrow, however, human-induced climate change has increasingly been cast as the literal threat.

In the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, for example, environmental destruction replaces nuclear warfare as the existential threat humanity poses to itself. British film The Age of Stupid(2009) cleverly blurs the lines between dystopian sci-fi and documentary to make a similar point on a tiny budget. In Take Shelter (2011), a sand-mining company employee has foreboding nightmares of oily black rain and deadly storms that engulf his small Ohio town.

Temporally, these films depict worlds on the brink of disaster and employ the “ignored expert” trope – be it scientist, alien, archivist, or psychic everyman – whose warnings of impending destruction are fatally ignored. As similar scenes unfold in real life, these films may be seen as cautionary tales. Many cli-fi movies ultimately remain cynical about humanity’s ability to respond to the identified danger, however. Such pessimism may be counterproductive if viewers sense that urgent calls to action are always doomed to fail.

Similarly, when the apocalyptic damage wrought by climate change is presented in the same cinematic language as countless other disaster movies, it risks joining the ranks of other spectacular threats – from earthquakes, to comets, to alien invasions – understood by audiences as either unlikely, inescapably devastating, or both.

Post-apocalyptic cli-fi can offer an even bleaker view of humanity. In Snowpiercer(2013), after an experiment fails to prevent a new ice age, earth’s last survivors reside in a high-speed train organised by class hierarchies and propelled by extreme exploitation. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), a revival of the  1980s Australian franchise, weaves a commentary on gender into its desert wasteland survival narrative. Here, toxic masculinity and climate change go hand in hand. Fast Color (2018), in which black women protagonists save the earth from an 8-year drought, has been similarly praised for subverting paradigms of male power.

Tom Hardy & Charlize Theron in post-apocalyptic action film, Mad Max: Fury Road.

In their narrative and aesthetic constructions, these films all largely avoid the pitfall of presenting women – particularly black and indigenous women – as mother earths; spiritual caretakers who are closer to nature. They are important counterpoints to disaster movie tropes: the aforem entioned “ignored experts” are all, predictably, male.

The gender neutral protagonists of WALL-E(2008) present a different message. Filled with gentle indictments of hyper-consumption and our over-reliance on automated technologies, WALL-E champions selflessness and unity across difference – while calling on people to look away from their screens and appreciate the world around them. Despite its makers’ protests to the contrary, the film is an environmentalist critique of corporate power and the pursuit of profits over people – wrapped up in Pixar’s trademark, family-friendly animated style. Earth is a wasteland, but WALL-E retains faith in humanity – a message all too rare in climate fiction.

A solution? Gaming climate catastrophe

A meteor is on a collision course with earth. You have 30 days to stop it. Can you do it? This is not the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster, but the premise of Eco, a collaborative open-world video game in which each player’s survival matters. Destroying an ecosystem, or putting the economy into overdrive, could cause a “server-wide perma-death” and end the game for the entire team.

One of the top-reviewed games of 2018, Eco is only the latest independent video game to tackle the issue of climate change. Blue Planet II spinoff Beyond Blue simulates deep-sea diving to “educate players on how to interact with the ocean in a way that enriches it”. In The Climate Trail, an update of the iconic 1971 educational game The Oregon Trail,players must survive a 1,000 mile trek across a United States torn apart by tornadoes, heat waves, and food shortages. Cities including Flint, Michigan feature prominently, nodding to real-world socio-economic inequalities and failing water infrastructure that has been exacerbated by climate catastrophe.

Climate change is not new territory for the gaming industry, although the theme has most often been relegated to the category of “serious” educational games – with world-building games proving an exception. Following the success of SimCity, numerous 1990s strategy games gave players “godlike” control over nature and presented environmental destruction as obstacles to industrialisation. SimEarth allowed players to evolve a planetary ecosystem over billions of years, mitigating melting ice caps, rising temperatures, and looming natural disasters along the way. In Civilization I (1991), which launched a multimillion dollar franchise, players hand to manage factory pollution specifically to avoid the threat of global warming. Climate change all but disappeared from Civilization sequels, and video games more generally, until recently.

Now, says game developer Karn Bianco, more gaming companies are interested in climate themes, “from simple, pick-up-and-play arcade romps to deep, richly detailed simulations.” The Sims 4 Eco Lifestyle expansion pack, for example, lets players produce their own electricity, launch eco-activist campaigns, and “upcycle” furniture and clothing. Rather than focus on macro climate change issues, the game leans into changing individual habits. In 2018, Minecraft introduced climate change mechanics, including carbon dioxide emissions, into its open world setting – host to 91 million monthly players. Both Anno 2070 and Frost Punk, two popular post-apocalyptic city-building simulators, feature melting ice caps, volcanic winters, and refugee crises specifically as outcomes of climate change.

Civilization has also returned to its roots. The franchise’s newest expansion pack,Civilization VI: Gathering Storm, released in 2019, sought to counterbalance its genre’s formulaic quadfecta of “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate” by challenging players to keep their carbon emissions down. In “4X” games, preventing climate change however continues to mainly serve Eurocentric notions of empire-building. The Civilization franchise, for example, implies resource extraction – responsible for more than half of our world’s carbon emissions – is inevitable and necessary in the march towards progress. Gathering Storm presents a significant shift in focus: as the game progresses into the “future era”, players contend with global diplomacy, climate treaties, and new carbon-neutral technologies to find success.

Other innovative scenarios are emerging beyond the strategy genre. Acclaimed action/adventure game Horizon Dawn Zero, while fantastical and combat-driven, slowly reveals climate change as the historical antagonist that destroyed our heroine’s world. Well-designed and complex, the game offers the type of layered storytelling more often associated with great novels. Other indie games shift the storyteller’s gaze: in 3D adventure Endling, players see the world through the eyes of the last fox on earth. Similar themes of extinction, albeit less fantastical, motivate Bee Simulator, which establishes and leverages player’s empathy to raise awareness of how climate change is devastating global bee colonies.

Imagining more

Author and artist Sheree Renée Thomas argues that we need more imaginative stories to tackle climate change. “To survive and thrive”, she explains, “we will need to have the fortitude and the commitment to imagine community-based solutions as part of our shared future.” Because climate change disproportionately impacts already marginalised people, and “climate apartheid” – not apocalypse – is its most likely consequence, we must acknowledge that “community” extends far beyond our own neighbourhoods and national borders. Solutions must include all of us.

At its crux, those are the challenges facing climate storytellers and media-makers: How to avoid a doomsday outlook that can make the issue feel insurmountable while emphasising the spectacular threat posed by human-induced climate change? How to compel action when the threat feels distant – when strangers far away, not only our own communities, are in danger? How to convince people that, against the fictional world of individual heroes, only collective action can avert catastrophe?

We have to look beyond documentary and dystopia as go-to models of storytelling on climate change – even while recognising impactful innovations within those genres. Climate change is not going away. Before we know it, new climate realities will provide unavoidable backdrops to every aspect of our lives – and will encroach into every storytelling genre, from low-budget horror to soap operas and sitcoms. We must not wait for a new norm to imagine better climate change solutions.

Marzena Zukowska is a writer, community organiser and research consultant with OKRE. Follow her on Twitter: @MarzenaZukowska.

Siobhan McGuirk is a writer and editor of Red Pepper magazine, and an academic at Goldsmiths University. Follow her on Twitter: @s_mcguirk.

Siobhan McGuirk – In addition to her academic publications addressing gender and sexuality, migration, and social justice movements, McGuirk is an award-winning filmmaker, curator and editor for Red Pepper magazine. Her writing has appeared in Teen VogueRewire News, and Australian Options. She received her Doctorate in Anthropology from American University in 2016 and holds a Masters in Visual Anthropology from the University of Manchester. She is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London. 

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