Open Notes

Screenwriters are getting it wrong about the climate crisis

Screenwriters are getting it wrong if they want their work to help us take action to address the climate crisis.

Writing in The New York Times Magazine, Peter C. Baker argues for a multi-dimensional approach to dramas showing the climate crisis. As he has it, and I think he’s right, is that writers usually focus on the flaws of a few individuals trying to cope with the climate crisis and assume that their individual problems will extend to the rest of us. In movies like George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky, we zoom in on “pathos and small moments of acceptance” instead of describing actions and solutions to the real problems that face us now. Baker calls up Elon Musk, who dreams of leaving this planet to go live on another before we fix our problems here. That sounds like more fun to most of us. It’s easier to write another zombie movie or focus in a man-against-the-system heroic drama. Looking at the interrelationship of bureaucracy, corporate greed, climate justice and race, and the collective good winning out over individual agency — winding all that together into a narrative is harder.

For most writers, turning out a script for an apocalypse movie turns on telling the story personally. Writers know to bring the narrative down to the personal level. It’s about survival, heroism, and regret. We, the audience, rarely get to learn anything about how the Bad Thing happened and why. As Baker has it, “it’s all too easy to imagine how the end of the world might work.” We can skip over the hard parts.

It’s not working anymore. We need something better. We need to see the next step in movies, television, and audio dramas, and that step would be showing us characters who face up to what we’ve done wrong to land where we’ve landed and to show us what to do about it now.