Climate change stumps Hollywood

Geostorm, which opens this month, focuses on the climate going apocalyptically haywire when satellites malfunction.
Geostorm, which opens this month, focuses on the climate going apocalyptically haywire when satellites malfunction.PHOTO: WARNER BROS

It is a pressing yet tough subject to tackle in movies and rarely have such films managed to motivate the audience to act

NEW YORK • Aliens? Easy. Terrorism? A breeze. Climate change? Hollywood has a problem.

It is hard to make a movie about that threat when the enemy is often the cinemagoer. Just ask Darren Aronofsky, whose recent thriller, Mother!, buried his climate-change message in allegory.

"It's really tough," said film-maker-actor Fisher Stevens. "It's not a very sexy subject and people just don't want to deal with it and think about it."

Stevens won an Oscar in 2010 as a producer of The Cove, a documentary about dolphin-hunting.

He used the star power of Leonardo DiCaprio for his latest environmental film, Before The Flood, which examines global warming in a way he hopes would inspire viewers to change their habits.

A 2016 National Geographic documentary, it found a sizeable streaming and digital audience.

But getting Hollywood movies about climate change made is not easy.

And when they do refer to it - as did Roland Emmerich's 2004 disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow - they rarely do much to galvanise the public to action.

As opposed to terrorism or drugs, there is no clear enemy with climate change. We're all participating in the climate crisis - if there is an enemy, it's us. And it's hard to go to war against ourselves.

PER ESPEN STOKNES, author of What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming

Part of the problem is simply plot, said Per Espen Stoknes, author of What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming.

"As opposed to terrorism or drugs, there is no clear enemy with climate change," he noted. "We're all participating in the climate crisis - if there is an enemy, it's us. And it's hard to go to war against ourselves."

And when climate change is depicted on screen, it is often an apocalyptic vision that hardly leaves room for a hopeful human response.

"Typically, if you really want to mobilise people to act, you don't scare the hell out of them and convince them that the situation is hopeless," said Andrew Hoffman, a professor at the University of Michigan and author of How Culture Shapes The Climate Change Debate.

But that is just the kind of high-stakes film that Hollywood loves to produce - such as The Day After Tomorrow, which depicted New York City as a frozen dystopian landscape.

Or Geostorm, due on Oct 20, in which the climate goes apocalyptically haywire, thanks to satellites that malfunction.

Copious research shows that this kind of dystopian framing backfires, driving people further into denial and helplessness.

The question becomes how best to motivate people.

"It's a difficult balance," Hoffman said. "You have to communicate the sense of urgency, otherwise you won't have a sense of commitment."

Some high-profile examples, such as the Oscar-winning 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, might go too far.

"The movie was 100 per cent about fear," said Mr Ed Maibach, a professor and director of the Centre For Climate Change Communication at George Mason University.

"And during the credits, literally the credits, they made some recommendations about what we could do.

"That should've been a prominent part of the narrative, in telling people the highest-value actions they could take."

More recent documentaries and programmes such as Years Of Living Dangerously, a National Geographic series in which celebrity hosts investigate environmental issues around the world, hope to find the sweet spot between jolting audiences and inspiring them.

Mr Tim Pastore, president of original programming and production for the National Geographic channel, said: "We try not to create programming that is a cause for despair, but rather, an opportunity.

"The greatest goal of climate change programmes is to first find a new audience and stop preaching to the converted.

"At the end of the day, we're trying to find new converts."

Mr Maibach said the greatest problem facing climate communicators is that Americans are not talking about climate change enough - in any shape.

"We call it the climate silence," he said, "and it's pretty profound."

Hoffman hopes to see discussions generated via "more movies, more television, more music".

"We have to touch people's hearts on this. It's critical."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2017, with the headline 'Climate change stumps Hollywood'. Print Edition | Subscribe