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Climate Change on Film

Filed under: — stefan @ 8 October 2013

Making a film about climate change is difficult, especially if you want it to reach a wide audience. One problem is the long time scale of climate change, which fits badly with the time scale of a typical film narrative. That was the reason why in the Hollywood blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow some laws of physics were treated with a certain artistic freedom, in order to present a dramatic climate change within a few weeks instead of decades.

Mike and I have spent the last few days at a very interesting workshop in Iceland, where climate scientists, social scientists and filmmakers were  brought together in conjunction with the Reykjavik International Film Festival. I will make no attempt to reproduce the many exciting discussions which we had, that often continued into the night. Instead, I’d like to present two short films by workshop participants. I chose a contrast of hot and cold.

First, the cold. The following film is a trailer by Phil Coates, a British filmmaker and expedition leader, who has filmed in extreme conditions on all seven continents. It is a “work in progress” under the working title “North Pole Living on Thin Ice”. Coates was dropped off with three scientists on the sea ice near the North Pole. On foot out on the Arctic Ocean they made oceanographic and ice thickness measurements. Soon you will be able to experience this research expedition on film. The scientific findings of the team will of course come out in the scientific literature.

Now, the heat. Peter Sinclair is a cartoonist from the US Midwest. Some years ago, out of anger over the aggressive disinformation campaign of climate deniers (he prefers this term), he started his now well-known video series “Climate Denial Crock of the Week”. Sinclair now also produces the film series, “This is Not Cool” for the renowned Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media , and has made more than a hundred short films on climate issues. The following short film “Welcome to the Rest of Our Lives” was created in summer 2012 after the record heat wave in the United States. By his own admission, when he had finished it his film brought himself to tears.


26 Responses to “Climate Change on Film”

  1. 1
    Fergus Brown says:

    This is where Science Fiction steps in. Never mind the slightly silly DAT, look at the depictions of the future in Cloud Atlas (yes, it’s a book, yes, it’s not sci-fi) – in Song-Mi’s story (nearish future) technology has developed along with cc/sea level rise but society has transformed in interesting, morally challenging ways. Then, further into the future, we have the post-apocalyptic vision hundreds of years into the future which probably appeals to many – but either way, it’s a bleak vision which is not obviously abusing current scientific knowledge or the bounds of possibility. The point being, that we have to imagine the relationship between now and the future as a human story to get a sense of where climate change might take us.

  2. 2
    Jim Larsen says:

    “dramatic climate change within a few weeks instead of decades.”

    Amazing how much a statement like that would have brought derision by most everyone a decade ago. “Decades” is a brand new order of magnitude when it comes to dramatic climate change.

  3. 3
    Bob Bingham says:

    I do talks on climate change and it is very difficult to explain clearly even the simple concept of the natural cycle of ice ages and warm periods http://globalwarmingsimplified.weebly.com/ let alone acid oceans, sea level rise and the heats affect on the weather.

  4. 4
    Fred Magyar says:

    Bob @3,

    As someone who has been scuba diving on coral reefs for over thirty years I can tell you from having seen first hand the degradation of these magnificent ecosystems that the situation is dire indeed!

    I do have a suggestion on how to possibly drive home the consequences of ocean acidification to our senators and congressmen, they should be required by law to take a minimum of $10,000.00 of their own funds and set up live coral reef aquariums. Then they should slowly allow the pH of their tanks to fall from an optimum of around 8.3 to about 7.9…

    They should be required to publish a daily log on the health of their tanks during this experiment.

    I know, it’s purely wishful thinking on my part that this might make a difference, sigh!

  5. 5
    Dan Bloom says:

    Stefan, good post, i coined a new term for climate-themed novels and films and i call it CLI Fi for climate fiction, from sci fi to cli fi, and CLI FI movies and novels can take place in the past, the present or the future, just like sci fi. THE DAY after 2moro is a cli fi movie, sure. So it a new movie called NOAH by Hwood director Darren Aronofsky due out in March 2014 set in the past of 5000 years about climate change and the flood, yes that flood. watch for it. CLI FI news is at the CLI FI CENTRAL blog and also at the CLIFIBOOKS webzine in Canada run by Mary Woodbury. Visit

  6. 6
    MalcolmT says:

    Re #1 Fergus, “Cloud Atlas” is now a movie as well as a novel. I haven’t seen it but it has been highly recommended by some, although panned by others. Also, I’ve been collecting books and movies with your wider point in mind – see lists/reviews of books at http://malcolmtattersall.com.au/wp/2013/06/greenie-adult-fiction/ and http://malcolmtattersall.com.au/wp/climate-refs/climate-refs-books/and of movies at http://malcolmtattersall.com.au/wp/2012/07/more-green-movies/

  7. 7
    Fergus Brown says:

    Thanks for those, Malcolm. The point I was trying to make is that a film ‘about climate change’ is a challenge, as Stefan points out. Good narratives for film focus on people, require adversity, response and resolution. The world tends to be the context of a narrative rather than the subject. Where sci-fi (as film or literature) steps in is that the convention expects a what-if scenario and themes can be far-reaching, for example, the excellent ‘Earth Abides’ by George R Stewart (note the one ‘R’ – NOT the GOT author)- an ‘ecological’ themed novel written in 1949 (synopsis on Wikipedia). You could also consider John Brunner’s overtly environmental novels about the effects of population change, such as ‘The Sheep Look Up’ or ‘Stand on Zanzibar’ – these are stories ‘about’ our changing world. I would suggest that one of the most effective ways of presenting the challenges of CC would be through Sci-Fi, where we can directly postulate the question ‘What if CC continues as feared?’and offer a vision of the consequences from a human perspective.

  8. 8
    Dan Bloom says:

    @Fergus, above, I don’t know if you read my comment above the new genre called CLI FI, which is replacing SCI FI for climate themed novels and movies, see NPR and Guardian news stories on this, also Disssent mag and the New Yorker mag: and so I would rewrite your comment above this way:

    SLIGHTLY EDITED BY DAN: “Malcolm, The point I was trying to make is that a film ‘about climate change’ is a challenge, as Stefan points out. Good narratives for film focus on people, require adversity, response and resolution. The world tends to be the context of a narrative rather than the subject. Where cl-fi (as film or literature) steps in is that the convention expects a what-if scenario and themes can be far-reaching, for example, the excellent cli fi novel ‘Earth Abides’ by George R Stewart (note the one ‘R’ – NOT the GOT author)- an ‘ecological’ themed cli fi novel written in 1949! You could also consider John Brunner’s overtly environmental cli fi novels about the effects of population change, such as ‘The Sheep Look Up’ or ‘Stand on Zanzibar’ – these are stories ‘about’ our changing world. I would suggest that one of the most effective ways of presenting the challenges of CC would be through Cli-Fi, where we can directly postulate the question ‘What if CC continues as feared?’and offer a vision of the consequences from a human perspective.”

    see CLIFIBOOKS.COM run by Mary Woodbury in Canada

  9. 9
    Jane Tully says:

    What a ludicrous man, the CEO. And what arrogance and prevarication….What he means to say is “I am all right, because I am rich and powerful”. “To hell with the rest, make your own plan. And as for animals and plants and every living thing…umm…who, what..unhhh?”

  10. 10
    Fergus Brown says:

    Dan #8:

    Thanks, but I prefer the version without the re-framing :). Not all Sci Fi is Cli Fi – there is not an equivalence. That a new sub-genre is appearing is I suppose inevitable, but my fear of the concept is that it is a turn-off, worthy as it no doubt is. Apocalyptic/dystopian fiction hit the post-war/cold war zeitgeist because it reflected a genuine anxiety in Society about the possibility of destruction and the hope of redemption. From the material I looked at (ta for the ht’s) I’m by no means convinced that the approach matches the present generation’s anxieties for the future (or present).

    My other concern is that the approach is too blunt and thus, as can be seen from the reviews, too polemical/preachy. The starting point is the ‘what if’ question – it isn’t necessarily the point of the narrative. In order to create empathy a reader needs to be able to see themselves in a character, dealing with a life in the context of external forces, not tossed into inevitable crisis because of them.

    Just my opinion :)

  11. 11
    wheelsoc says:

    @Bob #3: One thing I’ve come up with that might help to put the consequences in perspective:
    Remind the audience that the difference between the climate of today and the climate by the end of the century (if we do nothing) will be about the same as the difference between the climate now and the climate that buried Chicago under a mile of ice about 20K years ago. So the by the end of the century, if we do nothing, today’s climate will look as different from that vantage point as the “ice age” climate looks from here. It will be that much hotter.

    It doesn’t hurt to point out that the latter change happened over the course of several thousand years, longer than the elapsed time since we changed the letters in our dates from BC to AD, whereas the probable future conditions will come about in a matter of decades.

    I draw this comparison because the climate during the Wisconsin Glaciation of the Last Glacial Maximum spanned a range of temperatures roughly 3-5 degrees C cooler than the 20th century (I usually split the difference and give a figure of “about 4 C”). Projected temperature increases up to the year 2100 where the scenario doesn’t include intensive GHG emission cuts show about the same rage.

    So make them think about the difference between our familiar climate and an “ice age,” then have them realize that we’re talking about the same amount of warming just a few generations from now.

  12. 12
    Bouke says:

    A little thing: All the links, even the English ones, refer to google translate, not just the Reykjavík Film Festival link.

  13. 13
    Dan Bloom says:

    Fergus Brown #10. I see your point and I accept your pov. Well said. The New Yorker mag blogger Kathryn Kormann wrote a long piece about cli fi in July but she also concluded that “I don’t think that the cli fi term will last much longer than a lifespan of a buzzword and will soon be history,” something to that effect. So maybe. — cheers, DB

  14. 14
    Dan Bloom says:

    and FERGUS you said it best here, no matter what the genre, this is KEY: ”The point being, that we have to imagine the relationship between now and the future as a human story to get a sense of where climate change might take us.” — PS: Fergus, you might want to google the title of the novel by Jim Laughter titled POLAR CITY RED, which is really a good human story which gives readers a powerful sense of where climate change might take us, emphasis on the might. He is not a bestselling writer, but the Fairbanks News Miner in Alaska gave it a very good review, with reservations over the preachiness of some of the novel. Libbie Martin did the review, if you google it.

  15. 15
    Dan H. says:

    Wheelsoc,
    Your projected temperature increase, which averages almost 0.5C/decade, appears high by just about any standard. The highest decadal increase, observed during the 1990s, was only 0.17C. To say that the difference between now and the end of the century compares to the difference between now and the Wisconsin glacialiaztion would qualify as CLI FI, to quote Dan’s earlier characterization.

  16. 16
    clifman says:

    Yes, Jane, his hubris is astounding. My cynical side immediately went into a mocking riff – “We don’t need no damn bugs or birds or fish. All we need’s moneh. That’s whut’s important. That’s why Ah’m a CEO. Th’ only other thing Ah’d even think about bein’s a CFO. That’s ‘Financial’, and that’s MONEH. That’s all that matters. We cn turn ever’thing into moneh, and we’ll adapt to the rest. Just moneh, moneh, moneh. Who needs plants & birds & deer. Th’ deer just eat your nice yard plants anyway. Turn ‘em all into moneh, and we’ll just eat the moneh!”

    What an arrogant fool. And thanks, all, for the CLI FI links.

  17. 17
    Walter Pearce says:

    wheelsoc@11

    As I read the IPCC’s report and RealClimate’s commentary on it, the combined land-ocean anomaly for the most recent decade is nearly .5C.

    And, under the highest emissions scenario, the best estimate for temperature increase is 4C by 2100.

    I’ll leave it to Dan H. to do the math on decadal averages.

  18. 18
    wheelsoc says:

    “And, under the highest emissions scenario, the best estimate for temperature increase is 4C by 2100.”

    Yes, exactly. This is the case in the RCP 8.5 (or in the older reports’ A2 scenario, a value that’s mostly between 3 and 4C). This is what I’m using to represent the conditions in future where we don’t make an effort to tackle the climate problem and seriously curb emissions, where we “do nothing.” All of the other RCPs are based on scenarios which assume at least some serious emissions reductions and concentrated efforts for increasing dependence on cleaner energy instead of fossil fuels. In the US, at least, these are the kinds of measures that face a lot of political opposition (both against renewables and nuclear energy). RCP 8.5 has been called the “baseline” condition for a future that doesn’t strong mitigation targets or effective emissions reduction efforts, so that’s why I’m using it in this fashion.

    As I said, the best estimate for this scenario is a change of +4C. This is about the same as the difference between modern temperatures and those of the Last Glacial Maximum (which was about 4C cooler).

    The likely range of temperature values for that RCP also spans from ~ +2.8C to +5.5C above the baseline period. Compare that range to the negative 3-5C range used to describe the LGM in the AR4 WGI executive summary. In each case, a difference of ~4C from the baseline of modern times is approximately in the middle of the ranges given. That’s why I pick it as a convenient point of comparison between the two.

    I’ll leave all the “cli-fi” to the writers who want to come up with a specific, compelling narrative about what life is like in that RCP 8.5 future; those who want to tell the tale of Mad Max or Jack Hall, fighting for whatever it is they’re doing to drive the conflict and resolution of the story in that warmer world.

    But here I’m just laying out the conditions of that future and putting them into context, getting these numbers straight from the IPCC. Their reports indicate that the LGM was about 3-5C cooler, and the RCP 8.5 says we’re looking at a future that’s almost 3-6C hotter if we do nothing.

    One of the reasons I post my thinking here is because there a lot of people who know the issue much better than I, and will feel free to correct my mistakes. But I don’t think I’m mistaken in this case. To me, the tactical comparison between the two scenarios (actual past and probable-future-if-we-do-nothing) does not seem to be obviously wrong.

  19. 19
    Hank Roberts says:

    > specific, compelling narrative about … life …in RCP 8.5

    Mad Men, I think, did it already. Except for a very few, in RCP 8.5 the good times, fat-of-the-land, and high rolling all comes in the first few decades.

    Burp. It was good while it lasted.

  20. 20
    Leif Knutsen says:

    To you nay sayers one and all. Ignorance may be bliss but it makes a damn poor survival tactic. The IPCC does not take into account the methane “burp” from melting tundra and methane sea ice. It does not factor the forest loss from disrupted ecosystems. It does not factor the weather pattern shifts from changing polar ice to open water. No one dismisses the effect of a hand full of degree change from El, Nino in the South Pacific. it does not address ocean acidification. It is hubris to dismiss the effects of a Arctic changing tens of degreed from ice to open waters on our boarders. Some say 4 degrees is not much but a stagnate drought in our heartland bread basket a few years running can have disastrous consequences. Extreme snow fall in SD these past days has just killed an estimated 75,000 head of cattle. The final toll is weeks away.

  21. 21
    prokaryotes says:

    Fergus Brown #1

    The point being, that we have to imagine the relationship between now and the future as a human story to get a sense of where climate change might take us.

    Since all evolving species in the Universe will get to a similar state of civilization, the problem solving involved in becoming aware of planetary habitability and adjusting accordingly means to live by certain rules, such as to care for the climate collectively. Are we intelligent enough to evolve to this new state of civilization? Can we unlock the next level?

  22. 22

    Wouldn’t fiction be more appropriate now?

    Say gang ! let’s make an exciting movie where our heroes are pushed out of an airplane and have to knit a parachute on the way down…do they have a chance?

    Or a suspense drama movie where we’re on a dark, wet mountain road and the driver is drunk and he is swerving and speeding and we try to tell him he’s out of control, but he ignores us, we cannot take control of the car.. instead it crashes through a guard rail and bounces down a rocky hillside and in the back seat of the car are 7 billion people. The car, still crashing, has not yet hit bottom…

    Or perhaps a thriller where our car is speeding forward on a superhighway – faster and faster in the dark and stormy night – the bridge is out ahead, and all we hear on the radio are sponsored words from misdirected actors saying that everything is OK, and we should drive full speed ahead. Increase speed even.

    Or a human tragic drama — where the family headed by alcoholic/addicted parents are constantly drunk and refuse to admit they both have a problem. The heroic children see that the parents are consuming everything, and there will be little left for them even after the parents are gone. They are worried about their own lives – and the children are severely disappointed in them for not seeing the problem and for endangering their future. What will they do?

    Instead we seem stuck in bad movies — like where wealthy warlocks wield wands and claim they can make magic happen, but instead all their spells are powerless. University wizards know the truth but have no power make others believe.

    Then there are the tried and true stories about the giant, super-luxury ship hitting an iceberg that nobody saw until it was too late – because it thought it should go full speed, despite the risk, and then there were not enough lifeboats for everybody, and the newspapers loved it.

    Or there was the other sea story about the Great While Whale and the fanatical captain… there are too many movies to be made – too many stories. Time for us to take charge of making our stories.

  23. 23
    MalcolmT says:

    Thanks, Dan and Fergus, for more titles for my lists.

  24. 24
    Fergus Brown says:

    Just read ‘This Is The Way The World Ends’ by James Morrow. Please. An object lesson in how to kick a** via narrative. Also simply brilliant.

  25. 25
    Dan Bloom says:

    btw, stefan, thanks to your post here i was able to make contact with Peter Sinclair, via his Youtube videos, and I left a comment on one of them and he replied, asking for more info on cli fi issues, and i sent him a short news article and he ran it today in his very good website. So synergy in action, and thanks, stefan in germany from danny in Taiwan via Peter in USa. one world one people one climate.

  26. 26
    Safety says:

    Interesting article in the Guardian last Thursday entitled “Do Protest Films Change Anything?” http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/oct/17/do-protest-films-change-anything


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