*** special to Cli-Fi.Net blog
[exclusive, with copyright (c)2016 Michael Svoboda]
No Awards for the Academy on Climate Change this Year
An Exclusive OpEd By Michael Svoboda, a professor at George Washington University in Washington DC
– Saturday, January 16th 2016
Moviemakers seemed cowed by the politics and confused by the challenge of climate change.
WASHINGON, DC -- The nominations on January 14 for this year’s Academy Awards seem out of touch. The announcement came a month after the Paris COP21 talks, when delegates from nearly 200 countries braved threats of terrorism to forge a landmark agreement on climate change.
The nominated actors, directors, and films portrayed Cold War-era America, in several places, the Western frontier, the surface of Mars — anything but the future we actually face. Even in Mad Max: Fury Road, the major theatrical release predicated on a breakdown of the environment, the words “climate change” never appear.
It was not always this way. Once upon a time, the studios were quite willing to use “climate change” to create a disaster movie or dystopia, however far-fetched the link.
Years before The Day After Tomorrow hit the screens in 2004, Waterworld (1995), The Arrival (1996), and AI (2001) explicitly referred to climate change in setting up their plots. Climate change was even given a supporting role in Aaron Sorkin’s first drama about Washington, DC, The American President (1995).
Now those words are only spoken ironically (as in the Sharknado series, 2013–5), or by villains (Kingsman, 2015), neurotic teachers (Tomorrowland, 2015), or Arctic stereotypes (Chloe and Theo, 2015). Or they turn up in films that depict efforts to address “climate change” as more disastrous than the problem itself, as in Snowpiercer (2014).
Why the change?
Politics is certainly part of the answer. Over the last decade climate change became embroiled in America’s culture wars. A significant portion of the electorate now views “climate change” as a Trojan horse for “the liberal agenda.” If a studio has invested millions to create a pop-spectacle, it will hesitate to include political notes that might sour its siren call.
Moviemakers also seem confused by climate change. As a result, they keep forcing it to fit into stories they already know how to tell.
The disaster story is the most frequent choice. Over the last 20 years moviemakers have re-made Twister (1996) at least 12 times, and they’ve hurled superstorms against major metropolitan areas on at least 6 occasions. But at the end of these disaster films, survivors simply vow to rebuild the lives and communities they had before. Climate change becomes an unfortunate accident, something you just have to get through.
Apocalyptic and dystopic films are runners-up to the disaster genre. But in these plots, the challenge of climate change is never met; it is only mooted. With the end of the world as we know it, we return to well-rehearsed scripts of “the struggle for survival.”
So moviemakers face a choice: Take on the hard-work of creating new stories for this climate-changing world, or keep playing to nostalgia — for the can-do spirit of the space age, for the real-politics and spy craft of the Cold War, or for the romantic heroism of a galaxy far, far, away.
As it happens, there’s a nostalgic path to the first choice. The Fire Next Time (1993) follows a family through a changed American landscape and economy. In this made-for-TV movie, set in 2017, climate change doesn’t bring the world to an end, but it does remake it.
Let’s hope a new cohort of moviemakers chooses this more challenging option. The stories they tell in coming years may well influence what humans are able to achieve on climate change by 2100.
AUTHOR ID: Michael Svoboda is an assistant professor of writing and director of the Sustainability Minor at the George Washington University (GWU). He is also a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections, where he first began to write about climate change in popular culture. “Cli-Fi on the Screens,” his survey of climate change in over 60 fictional films, can be downloaded for free from the January 2016 issue of WIREs Climate Change.