Cinema, series: the climate is the great forgotten feature of fiction, according to an American study

On television as in the cinema, fictions have shown their power to change minds in many fields. But relatively little with regard to climate change, according to a study which reaches us from across the Atlantic. Of a total of 37,453 film and television scripts analyzed by researchers at the University of Southern California (USC), only 1,046 (2.8%) included words relating to the climate… and only 0.6% specifically mentioned “climate change”.

“Parallel Reality”

“The vast majority of films and shows that we watch take place in a parallel reality, where climate change does not exist, which maintains an illusion for the spectators”, analyzes Anna Jane Joyner, the founder of Good Energy, which specializes in advising screenwriters on the climate issue.

Fiction has, however, been a powerful lever for breaking down taboos and changing mentalities, for example on questions of homosexuality and gender. “Authors who care about climate change may think the public won’t be sensitive to it, but that’s not true,” adds Erica Rosenthal of the University of Southern California.

This scholar has studied in her work how viewers form “para-social” relationships with on-screen characters, which sensitize them to new ideas and new people, and can change behaviors, on immigration or the framing of weapons for example. “Many people are deeply worried about climate change, but hardly talk about it,” adds Anna Jane Joyner. “Even if it’s just touched on in passing on a show we love, subconsciously it validates that this concern is normal,” a prerequisite for the desire to act.

Be careful not to be counterproductive

But beware of good intentions that can be counterproductive, she adds. With two main pitfalls: the apocalyptic vision, which can demotivate, and the moralizing characters, who harass others to give up their big car or their plastic straw. “Nobody likes being told off” emphasizes Anna Jane Joyner. Simple gestures can be more helpful: characters expressing concern for the climate, taking public transport, or not wasting food.

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“We see lots of stories about extreme weather events, but they’re rarely linked to climate change, which would be pretty easy to do,” adds Erica Rosenthal. Few films on the subject have made an impression, except perhaps The day after, Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster released in 2004.

In 2021, the Cannes Film Festival devoted a section of its selection to films devoted to ecology, but the experience was not repeated. In France, “the tradition is rather that of a psychological cinema, rather bourgeois (with) a more distant relationship to nature”, explains Véronique Le Bris, a film specialist who has just published a guide to 100 Great Movies Good for the Planet.

Hollywood has long explored the relationship between man and nature

The Hollywood industry has long explored, since the first westerns, the relationship between humanity and nature. “At the beginning, the Western is all about conquering the territory. But very quickly, there is the idea that the domestication of nature does not necessarily mean destroying it”, adds Véronique Le Bris. Fear of nuclear weapons initiated change, and as early as 1958 director Nicholas Ray tackled the issue of safeguarding biodiversity in The Forbidden Forestwhose distant successors range from Erin Brokovitch (2000) to Don’t Look Up (2021) without forgetting Wall-E (2008).

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