Climate Change in Film: The Medium and the Message
I’ve been thinking a lot about how climate change is presented in popular media. This summer we’ve seen reports from across the world of fires and floods, made more probable due to global climate change. These phenomena grip us with their visceral, destructive power. But are we overemphasizing the wrong stories? Heatwaves kill more people on average than fires and floods, especially in low-income countries, which are the most vulnerable to climate change. Of course, heatstroke itself isn’t the sole culprit here, heat waves are particularly potent due to how they exacerbate existing issues like heart or respiratory problems. More than that though, extreme heat likely doesn’t get the headlines it should due to its undramatic visuals. News media, in particular, is often reliant on dramatic visuals to tell their stories. Graphs can be used to back up someone’s point, but they usually don’t make for prime viewing.
Online and social media are no different; simple, eye-catching visuals are much more sharable than walls of text. That’s why memes tend to spread faster than nuanced essays. These media generally don’t focus on trends as much as they focus on aberrations. We almost never hear about broad trends, unless they’ve taken a sharp turn one way or another. We don’t read about the steadily declining infant mortality rate in sub-Saharan Africa over the last decade(s). We read about, or watch, a real-time murder mystery that captures our imaginations (and fears).
All of this brings me to film. I’ve seen many environmental documentaries over the years, and I’m grateful for these films and filmmakers which bring climate change to light. I’m a big fan of movies like Truth to Power and Anthropocene and I think our world would be better if more people watched them. Lately, though, I haven’t been able to shake some nagging doubts. Film is a visual medium, but climate change cannot be confined to the merely visual. Indeed, a central proof we have of climate change is the increasing concentration of an invisible gas in our atmosphere. So, are these environmental films missing something? And if they are, does it hurt our progress in mitigating climate change?
For this article, I reviewed three films in particular; 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth, 2016’s Before the Flood, and 2018’s Anthropocene: The Human Epoch. These reflections demonstrate my thoughts on how the films depict climate change, not the quality of the films themselves. Further, in evaluating these films, it’s important to note that they aren’t necessarily trying to be perfect encapsulations of climate change, that goal would be impossibly large. However, regardless of our intellectual understanding of this truth, we are still invariably swayed by what we view on screen or read about, and importantly, what is left out. We hear about a burglary somewhere in our city and we think that we’re at greater risk of being robbed, regardless of whether the risk itself has actually risen. For this reason, it’s vitally important that we view environmental films with a critical eye and understand how our emotions or perceptions may be shifting, for better or worse.
According to research down by the team behind Project Drawdown (which I’ll be writing about in a later article), changing our refrigerant management is the most effective way we can reduce, and drawdown our greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, refrigerant management. To understand why, I encourage you to check our website next Monday when I’ll be publishing a book review of Drawdown, in which I’ll delve into the sexy world of refrigerant management. The point is that you probably don’t think about refrigerant management, like ever. In fact, it’s hard to even conceptualize what that looks like or means. It’s extremely hard to make refrigerant management visually appealing and I would argue that’s part of the reason we know so little about it. A visual medium has little incentive to demonstrate the non-visual. When it comes to climate change, we tend to focus on the more optical aspects of it, with the rest sometimes left behind.
2006’s An Inconvenient Truth is one of the most iconic documentaries of all time, right up there with Grizzly Man, Super Size Me, and Bowling for Columbine. Before discussing the film, It’s important to acknowledge Al Gore’s mission in making this movie; he’s trying to elicit an emotional reaction. So it follows that he emphasizes the visual dimensions of climate change. With An Inconvenient Truth, Gore is trying to shake the audience out of their ignorance or apathy about climate change and show them its power. Despite this goal, Gore doesn’t skimp on the science, he impressively employs data throughout the film and represents it visually. He shows the trends underlying climate change and global warming in addition to dramatic images.
I think the movie accomplishes what it sets out to do; weaving together science and moving scenes. Indeed, Gore sums up the power of an image to spark action when discussing the photo below, the first picture taken of our planet. In his own words: “[the Apollo 8 crew] looked up and they snapped this picture, and it became known as "Earthrise" And that one picture exploded in the consciousness of humankind. It led to dramatic changes. Within 18 months of this picture being taken the modern environmental movement had begun.”
In 2016, I was incredibly excited for Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary, Before the Flood. As a blossoming environmentalist, how could I not be excited? One of my favourite actors producing a documentary on climate change that promised to have a wide audience? It sounded incredible. After watching the movie, my feelings were decidedly more mixed. There were some beautiful moments and the urgency of the message was clear, but at times the urgency seemed to slip into apathy. Indeed, one of the most damning side effects of trying to ignite urgency is instead igniting apathy as people decide that the problem is simply too large or too far gone. At times it seemed that the narrator of the film had resigned himself to climate change. However, when the films spends its second half exploring potential solutions to climate change, it ignites hope and justifies the desolation inspired in the first half. The delicate balance between hope and expressing the gravity of the problem is not danced perfectly, but the earnest effort to show solutions made this a film worth watching and sharing for me.
Anthropocene is visually stunning. Every shot in the movie is a piece of art and the film makes no apologies for almost purely displaying the visual side of climate change. Yet though I walked in expecting to be affected by the display, I left the theatre surprisingly unfazed. The film was gorgeous at times and when it was rooted in context the visual narratives were moving. However, there were many moments while watching where I felt that no context was given for what I was seeing on screen and thus I felt that forming any judgement based on what I saw was irresponsible.
Perhaps I’ve grown too cynical in my consumption of media but I can’t help but feel that someone is trying to trick me when all I’m shown is a snapshot, with no way of knowing whether that snapshot is part of a larger trend. Of course, the makers of Anthropocene didn’t necessarily set out to make a movie about the larger trends associated with climate change. They set out to show the huge and unmistakably violent effect that humans have on their environment. Yet without context I found that message compelling at times and ineffectual at other times. For me, the surrounding story is key, without that we can’t know whether or not something is a problem we should be prioritizing.
The message of this article isn’t that focusing on the visual aspects of climate change and global warming is bad, far from it. Emotionally evocative visuals draw us in and stay with us far longer than a slew of facts. The message of this article is that we can’t stop at the dramatic visuals. They are powerful vehicles for motivating action but they don’t tell the whole story. To create change we need strong convictions, absolutely, but we also need to be clear-eyed about the realities of what we’re facing, and importantly, how we can stop the worst of it. Climate change is a visceral, dramatic force in our world, but not all parts of it look that way, and some of the best solutions we have sure don’t.
As always, thank you for reading.