Scripted TV and Movies Ignore Climate Change Concerns in Storytelling

A new study from nonprofit environmental firm Good Energy and the USC Norman Lear Center found few references to climate change and environmental crises in a survey of more than 37,000 scripts from 2016 to 2020.

The study aimed to track the level of “climate change representation” in mainstream scripted entertainment. The data showed that only 2.8% of 37,453 scripts analyzed used any “climate change keywords,” while only 0.6% featured the words “climate change.” Only 10% of stories that depicted “extreme weather events” tied the occurance to any form of climate change, while a mere 12% of those tied the problem to the use of fossil fuels.

CBS and HBO Max were cited as the broadcast and pay TV platforms with the highest rate of climate change-related scripted content, with CBS clocking in at 7.5% and HBO Max at 6.4%. That compares with research indicating that some 40% of Americans live in countries that have been affected by extreme weather events.

“Right now the vast majority of shows and films are set in an alternate universe that doesn’t include the
climate crisis. This study shows that audiences are starting to feel that disconnect,” said Anna Jane
Joyner, founder and director of Good Energy. “That’s why Good Energy exists – we support
screenwriters in uncovering how characters would authentically encounter the climate crisis. What’s
exciting is that this process unlocks all kinds of new character conflicts and story possibilities.”

The study, “A Glaring Absence: The Climate Crisis is Virtually Nonexistant in Scripted Entertainment,” asserts that surveys show that viewers have a growing interest in climate-related stories and thus it gives Hollywood an incentive to weave stories that address real-world climate issues like wildfires, flooding, extreme winds, drought, hurricanes, superstorms and other destructives aspects of climate change.

“Despite its absence, audiences want to see stories that address the climate crisis in their favorite TV
shows and films,” said Erica Rosenthal, Director of Research at the Norman Lear Center. “Three out
of four of our survey participants said they learn about social issues from fictional TV or film. The vast
majority are at least open to seeing climate issues portrayed in fictional entertainment, and this was
particularly true among those who are most hopeful about climate solutions.”

CBS’ track record on climate change was paced in part by its 2014-2019 drama series “Madam Secretary,” starring Tea Leoni as U.S. Secretary of State.

” ‘Madam Secretary’ was a show about international issues, and climate change is the ultimate global concern. We tried to shine a light on the crisis that connects us all,” said Barbara Hall, “Madam Secretary” creator, showrunner and executive producer.

The Lear Center and other study partners urge Hollywood storytellers to help illuminate issues and inspire innovation around problems fueled by fossil fuels, over-population and conspicuous consumption.

“We are in a moment of tectonic culture shifts: the intersection of climate catastrophe, racial reckoning,
and economic crisis. It is a moment of extreme hardship — but also of infinite creative possibility,” said
Favianna Rodriguez, president of Oakland, Calif.-based arts nonprofit the Center for Cultural Power. “Writers and other Hollywood creatives must seize this moment to help disrupt oppressive narratives and tell the stories of all people, including those most impacted by the climate crisis who are urging us to imagine and enact bold solutions.”

Good Energy was founded in 2019 by Joyner to work with entertainment industry insiders and advocate for stories that connect with climate-related subjects.

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