Climate Activists Are Turning Their Attention to Hollywood

If TV can change Americans’ views on gay marriage, why not the environment?

Illustration by Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic

On a warm, windy fall night in Los Angeles, I stood in a conference room at the Warner Bros. Discovery television-production offices, straightened my spine, and stared down my showrunner, preparing to defend my idea for a minor character in our near-future science-fiction series.

“This character needs a backstory, and switching jobs because she wants to work in renewable energy and not for an oil company fits perfectly,” I told the unsmiling head honcho.

His face twisted, as if his assistant had delivered the wrong lunch. “Too complicated. That just feels like a lot of information to cram into a backstory. What if her story is that she wants this job because it’s near where her brother was killed in a terrorist attack? We’d just need to invent a terrorist attack.”

As I tried to come up with a response, I looked at the writers, lawyers, agents, and camera operators surrounding us. I was taking part in a workshop organized by the Climate Ambassadors Network (CAN), a group of young climate activists working in Hollywood. Along with three other workshop participants, I had received a yellow index card with a mission: to convince this pretend showrunner—a documentary filmmaker in real life—that a character in the series needed a climate-related backstory.

Ali Weinstein, a 28-year-old wearing a flowered jumpsuit and a dimpled grin, leaned in to hear my answer. She was all too familiar with this situation: When working as a showrunner’s assistant, she had often suggested climate story lines to her bosses, only to be rebuffed. Now, Weinstein is using that experience to help others make a stronger case for climate stories. The goal of CAN is to “infiltrate every part of the industry with climate knowledge,” Weinstein, who is now a television writer, told the group. “Hollywood is a huge cultural influence, and so if we are starting change within Hollywood, we can change a lot of other industries as well.”

While Weinstein’s “infiltration” is hardly sinister, her mission is still a provocative one. The world urgently needs to slow the destructive march of climate change, but using entertainment to send social messages can be a fraught endeavor (as well as the source of a lot of cringe television). And the industry has little experience with climate stories: A collaboration between USC’s Media Impact Project and a nonprofit story consultancy called Good Energy found that 2.8 percent of the 37,453 film and television scripts that aired in the United States and were written between 2016 and 2020 used any climate change key words. Ten percent of stories that depicted “extreme weather events” such as hurricanes and wildfires tied them to any form of climate change.

Weinstein and her allies argue that it’s time for the industry to tell more—and more varied—climate stories, not only to nudge societal attitudes but to create better, more believable entertainment. Television, with its ability to tell stories on a human scale, might have an especially important role to play: Recent research by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that while 65 percent of American adults said they were worried about the climate crisis, only 35 percent reported discussing the topic even occasionally. Could the stories we see on-screen, in the intimacy of our homes, get us talking about the realities of life in an altered climate?

Anna Jane Joyner, who founded the Good Energy story agency, says climate stories are infinitely more varied than writers and audiences might assume. When researchers from her agency and USC asked 2,000 people for examples of climate-themed movies or television shows, the most frequent answers were The Day After Tomorrow, which is almost 20 years old, and 2012, which is about the end of the world, not climate change.

In an effort to expand Hollywood’s definition of a climate story, Joyner’s group created the Good Energy Playbook, a guide for writers who want to integrate climate change into their scripts. The playbook encourages writers to think beyond apocalypse, and instead approach climate change, in all its awful manifestations, as an opportunity for more inventive scriptwriting. What would a climate story look like as a Hallmark holiday movie? Could a rom-com be set at a ski resort that can no longer depend on snow and has to pivot to another business model? How might a hotter summer impact the Mafia’s waste-disposal work—and would Tony Soprano talk about it in his therapy sessions?

In October 2021, the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy aired an episode called “Hotter than Hell” that depicted a heat wave in Seattle. It was a story proverbially ripped from the headlines: The previous summer, a record-shattering heat dome had enveloped the Pacific Northwest, causing ecological turmoil and human misery. Zoanne Clack, a former ER physician who is an executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy and Station Eleven, wanted to feature a disease caused by climate change, but none of the possibilities were acute enough to work within the show. She opted for a failing HVAC system that created dangerously high temperatures in the hospital’s operating rooms.

Clack says climate change is now so familiar to viewers that it can serve as a convenient cheat code for scriptwriters. While Grey’s Anatomy strained viewers’ credulity in its fifth season, in 2008, with an episode about a freak ice storm—an unusual occurrence in Seattle, where the show is set—Clack says now she can attribute all kinds of wild, injury-inducing weather to climate change. “You don’t have to explain anything or go into big discussions about it, how weird it is. If you say those two words, people get it.”

Dorothy Fortenberry, a writer and producer on The Handmaid’s Tale and the upcoming climate-themed anthology Extrapolations, says writers are only beginning to explore the creative possibilities. “If all the climate stories are the same, and the same type of view, it will be boring and bad,” she says. “My hope is every creative person takes this in the direction that is fruitful for the narrative and we end up with a real panoply of narratives.”

Faced with the realities of climate change, some people switch abruptly from complacency to doomerism—perhaps because certainty of any kind feels safer than the muddle of a looming crisis. Joyner says climate-themed stories can help audiences navigate between these extremes, by either offering examples of courage and creativity or providing opportunities to process grief. There’s nothing wrong with apocalypse narratives, she says, but other approaches offer more hope: “Stories help create a world that isn’t the apocalypse, but shows us something more positive or somewhere in between—a vision for something we’re working towards.”

Screenwriters have reason to believe that even passing mentions of climate change can transform public attitudes. Americans watch an average of three hours of television every day, meaning that they spend almost a fifth of their waking lives in the worlds it creates. History shows that issues raised on television can lead to real-world change—for better, and for worse.

Producers of the show Cheers, which aired from 1982 to 1993, helped to popularize the concept of a “designated driver” by showing the patrons of the show’s eponymous bar calling cabs or getting a ride home after drinking. The term, which Harvard’s Center for Health Communication began promoting in 1988 in an effort to prevent alcohol-related deaths, became so common after appearing in the show’s dialogue that in 1991, it was listed in the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary. Seven years later, a poll showed that a majority of adults who drank had either been a designated driver or been driven home by one—and the uptake of the practice was strongest among the youngest drinkers. Between 1988 and 1992, alcohol-related traffic fatalities dropped by 25 percent, a decrease researchers attributed in part to the messages of shows like Cheers.

Will & Grace, which first appeared on NBC in 1998, was the first popular sitcom with two gay lead characters. At the height of the show’s popularity, 17.3 million people tuned in each week to watch two successful men living openly as a couple. In 2006, the final year of the show’s original run, a study analyzed attitudes around homosexuality. “For those viewers with the fewest direct gay contacts, exposure to Will & Grace appears to have the strongest potential influence on reducing sexual prejudice,” the authors wrote, “while for those with many gay friends, there is no significant relationship between levels of prejudice and their exposure to the show.” In 2012, then Vice President Joe Biden cited the show as one reason for Americans’ support of marriage equality—cementing the show’s legacy as a landmark influence.

The power of television isn’t always harnessed for health and equity. A recent study that compared tobacco use in cities that had access to TV in the 1940s, when it first appeared, with those that didn’t concluded that television increased the share of smokers in the population by 5 to 15 percent, creating 11 million additional smokers in the U.S. In 2023, the industry-funded Propane Education and Research Council plans to spend $13 million on its anti-electrification campaign, including $600,000 in fees to “influencers” such as cable-TV home-makeover stars who extol the virtues of propane as they remodel houses. Meanwhile, shows ranging from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous to The Kardashians glamorize private planes, huge homes, and ways of living that are far from sustainable.

When I asked Weinstein about the frequent characterization of climate content as a form of propaganda, she shrugged. Every detail in a TV show is a choice, and in her view, show creators can use those details, and the stories that surround them, to address climate change and its potential solutions—or they can choose not to. Those who choose not to, Weinstein and her allies argue, risk being left behind by their audiences. Most viewers surveyed by the USC and Good Energy researchers believed that they care more about climate change than the characters they see on television and in film. Half of the respondents wanted to see more climate-related stories in scripted entertainment, and another quarter were open to them.

Joyner acknowledges that major studios are still wary of being perceived as environmental activists, and that writers, and their bosses, have long avoided touchy political and cultural issues out of fear of alienating audiences: “Historically, there were two things you couldn’t talk about in a writer’s room: abortion and climate.” But resistance from the top might be softening. At COP 26, the international climate meeting held in Glasgow, Scotland, in late 2021, 12 of the U.K. and Ireland’s biggest entertainment CEOs signed a Climate Content Pledge, and representatives of major U.S. studios now meet regularly to discuss how to better represent sustainability on-screen.

This winter, as rain flooded the streets of Los Angeles and hillsides started to liquefy in Northern California, I logged on to a restricted website to watch a few episodes of a new experiment in climate storytelling: the drama series Extrapolations, which begins streaming tomorrow on Apple+. The show begins in the near future, in 2037, and follows a mix of characters into the 2040s and beyond.

In the world of the show, the science is familiar: Oceans are so acidified that biodiversity has dropped precipitously, wildfires rage everywhere, and companies race to bank species’ genomes before they go extinct for a future zoo. Yet the dramatic tension in Extrapolations is less about whether the characters will die from climate change than about how they can live through it, and with it: A rabbi in Miami tries to convince the city that his temple is worth saving from rising seas; a mother struggles to help her young son, who suffers from a genetic heat-related health condition, imagine his future in a warming world.

Scott Z. Burns, a writer and director of Extrapolations, also produced Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. When the film opened, he was confident that its evidence would persuade people to drastically change their ways. “It was like, well, that’ll solve the problem—certainly the world can’t be the same again after this,” Burns told me over Zoom, with a dry laugh. “But I think what we learned is that the problem is so large and so systemic, that obviously a documentary wasn’t going to change the way people saw life on Earth or their own behavior.”

Burns started to think about storytelling that, instead of threatening disaster, simply brought the event horizon closer, transforming climate change from an unimaginable eventuality into an immediate and pervasive problem. “I wanted to tell human stories set against a world that had a very different climate,” he said. He found inspiration in World War II–era novels, movies, and shows, and points out that the war, while obviously a historic tragedy, was also a source of great creative energy for people in the middle of the last century. “Climate is sort of our World War II,” he said. “This is the existential moment that this generation faces—and where are the great works of art that help us come to terms with this? I think we’re beginning to see them.”

As he finished pitching the show in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic began to lock down the world. Burns had also written Contagion, a movie that turned out to be an eerily accurate portrayal of a pandemic’s spread. He wanted the scientific underpinnings of Extrapolations to be just as solid. But while past pandemics informed his work on Contagion, the human-caused climate change we’re experiencing today has no precedent. “It’s a very reckless gamble,” he told me. “But as a screenwriter, a reckless gamble is also a suspense movie. And that’s what I tried to do, was look at the science and what it suggests may happen, and then look at human beings and think about how they behave.”

Burns found the serialized nature of a television show more compelling than a two-hour movie—it allowed for the narrative to unfold as chapters, with overlapping characters and story lines that extended over decades. It allowed a viewer to follow the slow-moving climate crisis as it intensified.

When Apple+ bought Burns’s show, he called up Adam McKay, who at the time was working on Don’t Look Up, a satire about climate-change denial that was released in 2021. McKay’s generous response was instructive, Burns said. “It was like, great—there’s more than one cop show. There’s more than one hospital show. There needs to be more than one show about this.”

Some people will see climate change as a social-justice story, he said, while others will see it as a parenting story. “Everybody has a different way in which this constellation of issues is going to encroach on your life,” Burns told me. “My first hope is that we maybe crack open the door a little bit to get executives at streamers and platforms to think, Oh, there’s cool work to be done in this area, and artists to think, What stories can we tell in this space that might make a difference?

Burns has heard the old adage that audiences don’t want to watch something that’s not hopeful, but he disagrees. He likes to replace the word hope with courage: “What sort of courageous act can my characters do?” he asked. “What I’m interested in telling is the story that says, right up until the moment we’re going to die, we get to live. What do we do with that life?”

This story is part of the Atlantic Planet series supported by the HHMI Department of Science Education.