We're torching the planet, and hardly anyone is telling stories about it. Hollywood's not making movies about it, pop stars aren't writing songs about it. Few authors or artists have addressed it head on. There are plenty of documentary films and nonfiction books and investigative articles about global warming, but that's more or less where the phenomenon's life in popular culture begins and ends. Critics lament that even mainstream journalists are afraid to use the c-word.
"There's a huge disconnect between what professional scientists have studied and learned in the last 30 years, and what is out there in the popular culture," Naomi Oreskes, a science historian at the University of California, San Diego, told The Seattle Times a few years back, and she's still right.
With the exception of a few cultural artifacts, our pop culture has largely failed to absorb, reflect, and moralize humanity's ongoing struggle with a warming world. And that struggle is now entering, in earnest, its third decade. Here's the best case in point: Hollywood movies about climate change. Name one.
If you came up with any at all, you probably named The Day After Tomorrow, that big-budget disaster flick that featured the single least plausible scenario ever mentioned in the same breath as real-world climate change. Or the infamous mega-flop Waterworld, which many critics would prefer we left in the '90s. But there certainly aren't many. Sure, there are plenty of popular documentaries—An Inconvenient Truth, obviously, and more recently, Chasing Ice.
But even in an era brimming with dystopian science fiction, our cinema has failed to cough up even a single non-terrible film in which something very dystopian and very non-fictional plays a role. That's weird. After all, our fears of large-scale catastrophes have inspired some of our most iconic films and given rise to entire genres, which in turn have inspired us to build a better future. (That's not to mention somewhat older stories, like the one about Noah and his ark.) Godzilla, our king of monsters, for instance, is an allegory for the destruction we humanfolk might wreak upon ourselves with nuclear weapons.
Climate change is back, too.
We have earthquake films and volcano eruption films and films where the earth gets smacked by asteroids. Disease films—and their Siamese twins, zombie movies—constitute an entire genre. So does the post-nuclear apocalypse yarn—Mad Max, Terminator, A Boy and His Dog, the awesome and unfairly forgotten Threads, and so on. Sadly, however, American cinema has given moviegoers very little dystopian climate change fare with which to imagine a hothouse apocalypse.
This isn't just a complaint about the movies. A scant climate filmography speaks to a larger deficit: we still don't know how to talk about climate change. There are a number of reasons that commentators point to explain this lack of climate culture. One reason is the diffuse, long-tail, slow-motion nature of the disaster itself. Sea levels and temperatures are rising, sure, but the bad stuff seems further down the road. Our brains aren't hard-wired to worry—let alone think—that far ahead.
Another is what the University of Toronto sociologist Sheldon Ungar describes as the "absence of a bridging metaphor."
Ungar argues that public may have internalized the crisis with the vanishing ozone layer much more readily than it has with climate change. Ozone could be understood to function like a shield from harmful UV rays, and we were knocking it out of commission, like deflector shields going down in Star Trek or Star Wars. The risk wasn't diffused across the planet's ecosystems but rather felt on our skin: cancer was one of the potential threats from an eroded ozone layer.
Today, Ungar says the public's failure to consider climate change was related to the absence of readily available cultural metaphors. But flipped into reverse, the lack of a bridging metaphor for climate means that there's no easy way to dramatically demonstrate its impacts in one fell swoop. Sure, filmmakers can show wildfires and floods and hurricanes, but that's hard to separate from your typical disaster movie fare. (Besides, disaster movies can be a hard sell to begin with: they generally involve a villain who doesn't speak and gets crafted inside a computer graphics program.)
And climate metaphors are a little harder to bring to the big screen, too. Nuclear bombs = a fireball of hell on earth = Godzilla. Global warming, on the other hand = gradually rising temperatures and a host of ancillary weather events that may or may not be directly attributable to an increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. You see what I mean.
The inherent complexity of climate change may be why literary and science fiction have been the first to embrace the phenomenon. Even before the correlation between greenhouse gases and rising temperatures was scientifically established, J.G. Ballard wrote The Drowned World, which imagined a hot, flooded planet in the future. That was an anomalous bit of portent, there though. Even novelists have been late to the game, and have largely neglected the crisis until rather recently. The '90s and much of the '00s passed without a lot of climate-centric fiction.
Things have slowly been changing, as authors have bucked up and waded in. The always-prescient Margaret Atwood and the trilogy that begins with Oryx and Crake, is an exception. Nathaniel Rich's Odds Against Tomorrow, about disaster anxiety in our fickle and warming world, features a submerged Manhattan right on the cover. Far North by Marcel Theroux is dystopian climate fiction in the purest sense of the concept. Then there's Ian McEwan's Solar, a satire about a pig-headed scientist fighting global warming. The book was met with a middling reception in the States—I was lukewarm about it immediately after finishing it, too—but the lead character is actually a pretty ingenious metaphor for mankind in the era of climate change: we're brilliant, innovative, lazy, reckless, base, and ultimately our own undoing.
Now, finally enough climate fiction is trickling out to have earned itself a semi-goofy genre name of its own—cli-fi. And climate change is cementing itself in the background of truly mainstream works. Peter Heller's best-selling The Dog Stars and Karen Thompson Walker's The Age of Miracles both prominently feature climate change as either central to the plot or do so allegorically. Even in the The Hunger Games, the impact of climate change on the near-future dystopia can clearly be felt in Panem, too—the coasts have been ravaged, civilization has moved inland, and a massive social disruption has taken place.
That's a pretty good description of where climate change is at, however—in the margins, off screen. Informing pop culture but not yet playing a central role in mass cultural products. The novels above are still fairly highbrow, where they preach the quietly worried choir. In his paper The Future of the Mass Audience, social scientist Russell Neuman estimates that the swath of population that digests such cultural artifacts is less than ten percent.
The lack of cultural support for the climate is further evidence that the public simply hasn't adequately absorbed the climate crisis yet: we're not afraid. The reasons for this are myriad, too. Studies show that only 20-25 percent of Americans can be considered even minimally scientifically literate. Unger points to the information-knowledge paradox, wherein the specialization of professional knowledge about things like climate change have resulted in more widespread ignorance in the lay person. And the numerous "twiggings" in climate discourse—the proliferating technical terms and ideas required to understand the topic—make it difficult to be culturally disseminated. Then there's the right-wing echo chamber that disseminates doubt about climate change, the fossil fuel industry that sponsors mass misinformation on the topic, and so forth.
A short film by Peter Sinclair on climate's role in Hollywood films—including perhaps the Best Dennis Quaid Film of All Time
Of course, it's a chicken-or-egg issue, too. I suddenly became a lot more afraid of global pandemics after I sat edge-of-seat through the duration of Contagion. Maybe audiences would be more attuned to the threat of climate change if there was a properly potent Hollywood thriller that made visceral its impacts.
Without the gut-punch of nuclear bombs or the immediacy of plagues, climate change has largely been relegated to being a disaster of literary fiction. Where's our pulp? Where are the big budget hamfests? Where are the super villains that plot to exterminate human life by magnifying the sun's rays? The treacherous oil company CEOs shredding scientific documents? Where are our flooded, scorching, disease-ridden climate dystopias, wherein survivors shake their heads and wonder how they let this shit happen? Where is the cultural pathos of climate change?
It's bubbling up, like a slow-rising tide against a berm, but it's been a long time coming.