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Why Hollywood Can’t Tell Stories About Climate Change

Hollywood climate change

Roar writer Amiya Johar on the stories Hollywood does and does not tell about climate change.

Blizzards born overnight, sudden earth-consuming darkness, and doomsday predictions of the end of the world – these have long been the archetypal portrayals of climate change in Hollywood. Most mainstream cli-fi films, from “The Day After Tomorrow” to “2012”, are decisively apocalyptic and offer a population already faced with existential threats a mode of doom-laden entertainment. Why do we enjoy this? Is this genre a manifestation of our environmental anxieties? More pressingly, do these films prompt us to act upon them?

In Roland Emmerich’s “2012”, a solar flare supposedly overheats the Earth’s core, triggering a barrage of natural disasters that nearly wipe out humankind. Meanwhile, Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” sees the planet becoming uninhabitable due to severe crop blights and dust bowls. While cinema sensationally portrays the consequences of climate change, it has always been reluctant to acknowledge human activity and mankind’s growing carbon footprint as the cause. In true Hollywood fashion, environmental disaster is portrayed as an insidious villain attacking quickly and calculatedly, like in the film “Geostorm”. These plots show that the protagonists must heroically survive climate change, but that they cannot influence it.

These dramatisations couldn’t be further from the truth; if depicted accurately, climate change would be a rather boring antagonist. It acts over millennia, without motivation, is indiscriminate, and has no mastermind manipulating it. Unlike in “Geostorm”, there is no treacherous crew member waiting to sabotage planet Earth. Instead, every member of humankind, living and dead, shoulders part of the blame due to their action and inaction. Professor Ed Hawkins, an author of the 2021 IPCC report, recently weighed in on the assessment’s findings. He declared that “we cannot be any more certain; it is unequivocal and indisputable that humans are warming the planet”. While scientists scramble to convince governments and global populations of the ecological consequences of human actions, Hollywood chooses to absolve us all of accountability.

Even more dismaying is cinema’s depiction of the resolution of climate change. “2012” sees survivors being safely evacuated onto climate-resistant arks, while the protagonists of “Interstellar” escape Earth aboard the high-tech Endurance spacecraft. This portrayal of a techno-centric approach to climate change lulls us into a false sense of security. We begin to believe that we can continue ravaging planet Earth, while the elite 1% will swish their technological magic wands and fix it when doomsday hits. In reality, doomsday will never come – we are already living through the devastating consequences of climate change that creep steadily deeper into our lives. The wildfires that tore through Turkey and Greece, the floods that drowned India, and the Hurricane Ida that devastated the United States, all within the span of a couple months in 2021, bear testament to this. Oh, and also the Covid-19 pandemic.

Cli-fi films are ultimately fictional, so counterarguments about creative liberty shouldn’t be dismissed. Moreover, telling stories about intellectually-heavy concepts can not only be challenging for filmmakers but also tedious for viewers. The problem lies in the fact that while many people may not be inclined to listen to scientists, they are interested in watching movies. With the proven popularity of cli-fi films, Hollywood has a sizeable platform to depict scientifically-accurate and socially-stimulating stories about climate change. We need a middle ground between Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and Bong Joon-hoo’s “Snowpiercer” – science and storytelling can meet halfway. 

With newer generations being avid cultural consumers, the film industry has a responsibility larger than entertainment – to reflect and stimulate social conversation. Films have real-world impact and tangibly influence societal opinions. Whether it be about anti-racism, gender equality or environmentalism, meaningful cinematic storytelling can inspire action as well as inaction. Humanity has reached the precipice of irreversible environmental damage through its own fault; now is Hollywood’s chance to pick which side of cultural history it wants to be on. 

Amiya Johar

BA Culture, Media and Creative Industries student. Writer for Roar News' Culture and Comment. Poet. Artist. Puppy person.

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