Storytelling can be a powerful tool for change. Scientists recognize this and have called on the arts and entertainment communities to step up and address the communication challenge that climate change represents today. With the recent release of the sixth assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have seen that the need for effective climate stories — stories that help all of us to face reality, to process our fear and grief, and to take action for a better future — is now more urgent than ever.
Writers and storytellers have risen to the challenge with a plethora of literary works spanning a variety of formats and mediums, to form a new sub-genre of literature called climate fiction (or cli-fi for short, rhyming with sci-fi). But with the above real-world objectives in mind, how can we test if a climate story is helpful or not? Is there a quick and easy method for gauging the effectiveness of such stories on a case-by-case basis?
Many people have, by now, heard of the Bechdel Test. First appearing in a comic strip by the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, it’s a simple yet functional ‘litmus test’ for assessing female representation in films and other works of fiction: Does the story feature at least two women who talk to each other about something besides a man?
Inspired by this simplicity, the UK-based change agency Futerra and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) developed the Planet Test to assess the representation of environmental issues on screen. Their criteria are as follows: The story must acknowledge that the natural world actually exists, show negative environmental behaviors as bad character traits, and feature a person who does something at least once to make the world a better place.
Here at Climate + Pop Culture, we adapted the Planet Test into a similar three-point checklist that focuses particularly on the climate issue in order to create our Climate Test:
- The story acknowledges that the Earth’s climate is changing…
- Due to human business-as-usual which, if willingly left unchecked, is portrayed as a negative character trait…
- And at least one character does something at least once to help solve the problem.
Many films with climate themes don’t strictly meet the first criterion of acknowledging that climate change is presently under way. Apocalyptic dystopias like Waterworld (1995), Snowpiercer (2013) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) are set in such faraway futures that they risk conveying the false notion that climate change belongs to an equally distant time. Moreover, the Earth’s climate has already changed and has reached a sort of end point in these films — there is usually little mention or explanation of how it got there. By fast-forwarding to the distant future in this way, the world we know today is not shown except as something beyond saving. To avoid the despair, hopelessness and other unhelpful feelings that can arise from such narratives of ‘doom and gloom’, we propose that an effective climate story includes some representation of the issue (and its solutions) in the vicinity of the here and now.
Portraying the attachment to business-as-usual as a negative character attribute is our second criterion, which addresses a problematic trend in popular films where it is ‘environmentalists’ who are depicted as the villains. In these films, environmentalism is co-opted and misrepresented as an excuse for a villainous plot against humanity — retaliation for all the destruction that our species has wreaked on the natural world. When these villains are defeated, the story typically ends with celebration at the restoration of the status quo — in other words, the return of business-as-usual. We’re thinking of movies like Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), Aquaman (2018), Fast and Furious: Hobbs and Shaw (2019), and Avengers: Infinity War & Endgame (2018 & 2019). Their errors do no favors for the climate movement because they promote the misleading idea that environmentalists are extremists who must be silenced and that business-as-usual is best. Labeling climate activists as terrorists is also a tactic of the fossil fuel industry, so perpetuating this false narrative actually supports the climate villains in real life. This is why we propose that effective climate stories set the record straight by showing what true villainy is: the continuation of business-as-usual against all the facts and evidence calling for societal change.
This brings us to our third and final criterion, which requires that at least one character does something at least once to help solve the climate crisis. The purpose of this requirement is to demonstrate human agency and to model positive or helpful behaviors at a time when many people still don’t know what they can do in reality to contribute toward solving the issue. It also serves as a safeguard against another problematic storytelling trend: using climate change as an excuse to bring aliens to Earth, or to escape to other planets, while giving up on solving the climate crisis ourselves. We unfortunately see this problem in popular films like Interstellar (2014), The Predator (2018) and Venom (2018).
In addition to the films mentioned already, we used our Climate Test to assess three well-known movies that are widely touted to contain climate themes:
Mother! (2017): The director himself has explained that this highly-symbolic film is actually about climate change. But because the film evades our first criterion of acknowledging the crisis clearly, its meaning is rendered so ambiguous that climate becomes one possible interpretation among many. For audiences not already familiar with the issue, the correct interpretation is elusive. And if only climate activists get the point, then the film merely preaches to the choir. Fail.
Geostorm (2017): This movie is a disaster spectacle about weather-control technology gone wrong. While such fictional technology acknowledges the ongoing threat posed by climate change, the premise of using techno-fixes like this to prevent extreme weather events represents a false solution that neglects to address the root causes of the climate crisis. With no one in the cast of characters attempting to solve the real issue then, the film doesn’t meet our third criterion. Fail.
The Day After Tomorrow (2004): Now a cli-fi classic, this disaster spectacle manages to meet all three of our criteria. Climate change is directly attributed as the cause of a deep freeze that unfolds across much of the Northern Hemisphere. The reluctance of political leaders to act is portrayed negatively. And the hero is a scientist who tries to save the world by raising awareness of the problem. By the end, a political leader is even redeemed by admitting to his mistakes. Pass.
Like the Bechdel and Planet Tests before it, our Climate Test is pretty simple, which we believe is key to any broad uptake of the method. But such simplicity will undoubtedly mean that some aspects of effective climate storytelling are overlooked. Do you think we’ve missed something important? Let us know in the comments below! We’d love to hear your ideas on how the test could be improved.
And if you’d like to see Hollywood make more films with effective climate stories, please consider supporting our Hollywood climate storytelling campaign. In collaboration with the Fridays For Future youth climate movement begun by Greta Thunberg, we’re calling on the major film studios to take a stance on climate change by committing to more, and better, climate stories. You can find out more on our Action Network page: