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TV’s climate change problem

From Game of Thrones to Chernobyl, viewers are finding climate change parallels everywhere on screen. But why aren’t TV dramas confronting our crisis head on?

Sometimes, the most trivial conversations can spark the strongest reactions. In season two of Big Little Lies, a classroom conversation about Charlotte’s Web sends one eight-year-old into such extreme panic, she collapses. As her teacher uses Wilbur the pig to initiate a conversation about the unsustainability of sausages, little Amabella retreats to a dark corner and has an anxiety attack, falling to the ground so her shoes are left poking out of a cupboard. “She’s worried about the end of the planet,” a child psychologist dressed as Bo Peep explains later. “Her class is evidently talking about climate change, and she’s gotten the message that we’re doomed.”

A melodramatic scene treading the line between comedy and tragedy, it was one of the most discussed moments of the series, thanks to its “relatable” depiction of “eco-anxiety”, an increasingly described phenomenon. Tweets identifying with her breakdown went viral; New York Magazine’s culture site Vulture ran an article declaring Amabella a “Summer 2019 Anxiety Icon”, arguing that the show’s colourful, outsized take on a real-world worry helps viewers identify and discuss it. “We know the terror Amabella feels, but we don’t know how to talk about it directly.”

Talking directly about the climate crisis is both a moral imperative and an existential challenge. Confronted by an inconceivable catastrophe, we are forced to choose between denial and all-consuming dread; sometimes by compartmentalising and veering between the two. As we begin to witness the effects of climate change and rapidly approach a point of no return, global warming is simultaneously being discussed more than ever before and not nearly enough, with governments and corporations around the globe refusing to take action. It’s everywhere and nowhere. And though Amabella’s meltdown sparked a thousand memes, television is lagging behind, too.

“Cli-fi” (or climate fiction) has become a thriving sub-genre of dystopian novels in its own right; films from The Day After Tomorrow to Wall-E are predicated on environmental catastrophe. The climate crisis is a topical, high-stakes, visually dramatic, universal threat; so you’d think it would make the perfect jumping-off point for television, be it a big-budget prestige show on a major US network, niche dystopian sci-fi on a streaming service, or a desperately relevant BBC drama.

There are a handful of shows that directly reference climate change: the clueless parents of Big Little Lies fail to grasp the impact the crisis will have on their children; BBC One’s recent drama Years and Years imagines a future in which the North Pole has entirely melted, bananas no longer exist and 80 days of relentless rainfall hits Britain. In its fifth season, the US series Madam Secretary follows a fictional secretary of state as she attempts to implement environmentalist policy. Norway’s most expensive TV show to date, Occupied, examines the global effects of a climate crisis in full swing. There are major upcoming shows, too: one of Apple TV’s first projects is a dramatic adaptation of Nathaniel Rich’s nonfiction book Losing Earth, which narrates the attempt to stop climate change in the 1980s. An American TV reboot of the 2013 film Snowpiercer, which follows the survivors of a climate apocalypse, is set to air in 2020.

In a different environmental era, this handful of shows would be enough to lazily declare climate TV a “trend”; but given the urgency of the crisis, the number is disproportionately low. In May, Bafta released a report that analysed subtitle data – it found that non-news programmes rarely mentioned “climate change” or related terms (Brexit was discussed almost 23 times as frequently). The conclusion was clear: television is not doing enough. Bafta chair Pippa Harris said, “Reducing our impact is a given, but our real opportunity lies in the programmes we make, and in our ability to use powerful human stories to connect audiences with the world around them.”

And yet, when I watch TV dramas, I feel like the climate crisis is everywhere. Our fear of catastrophe spills over into unlikely places. It’s in Game of Thrones, with its constant refrain “winter is coming”, as Jon Snow desperately tried to convince squabbling rulers of an oncoming ecological collapse. (Game of Thrones author George RR Martin called the climate crisis a “great parallel” of the series: “there exists this threat of climate change, which […] really has the potential to destroy our world. And we’re ignoring that while we worry about the next election.”) It’s in Chernobyl, a portrait of the 1986 nuclear disaster that condemns those who endangered lives by downplaying the true extent of the catastrophe. (“What I want people to think about after seeing Chernobyl is what the cost is of going along with stories,” creator Craig Mazin said. “We can tell ourselves stories about how climate change isn’t real. The climate doesn’t care.”)

It’s in the screen adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, in characters’ whispers about pollution, strange weather patterns, toxic waste corroding the environment, and how the nation of Gilead “cut its carbon emissions by 78 per cent”. It’s in Good Omens, the fantasy series about the end of the world that swaps out the Horseman of the Apocalypse traditionally called Pestilence for one called Pollution. Viewers have read climate analogies into all manner of sci-fi shows, from The Leftovers to The Walking Dead to Fortitude.

These shows all share a common atmosphere of growing dread, with characters swerving between states of delusion or denial and grim, horrified acceptance. A fear of total ecological collapse hangs over all of them. Eco-anxiety is, in one way or another, infiltrating entertainment. But as one 2016 report noted, dramas exploring climate issues do so in “striking but indirect ways”. Vague metaphors and whispered suggestions are a poor substitute for direct storytelling, and lack the urgency programming should have as our planet rapidly heats. So why can’t we confront it head on?

Charlie Brooker, whose anthology series Black Mirror has obliquely grappled with ecological storylines, calls the climate crisis “a very, very tough nut to crack” in drama, due to the challenges of turning a global catastrophe into “a simple story”. His opinions are echoed throughout the industry: a 2013 report from the International Broadcasting Trust found a widespread “reluctance of drama executives to commission issue-based drama”, quoting one film-maker who said the difficulty of exploring climate change is finding “one human story to exemplify the issue”. If the climate crisis is envisioned as an abstract scientific hypothesis, rather than a real and current condition of everyday life, it becomes harder for broadcasters, producers and writers to see a coherent human story take shape.

John Yorke – the author of Into The Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them and a former head of drama at both the BBC and Channel 4 – is quoted in the report as citing all manner of difficulties facing climate dramas, from the cost of depicting environmental damage to “the fact that CO2 is invisible”. “Arguing about issues is not exciting,” he says. “It’s not a subject that attracts viewers.” The report revealed that, despite a “dearth of audience research”, the belief that audiences have no interest in climate change was “a commonly expressed perception among executives and commissioners”. One ITV executive said, “Audiences might have the best of intentions and say they are interested in the environment, but when you give it to them, they don’t watch it.” In Yorke’s words, “Drama is meaningless unless it’s rooted in character.”

If this feels like a failure of imagination, it is – but more worryingly it’s a failure of comprehension. It’s deeply misguided to view the fragility of our planet’s future as anything other than a direct result of human character. Assuming that a mysterious, invisible substance called CO2 is the root of the planet’s problems is certainly a lot more absolving than facing the fact that the climate crisis is man-made. In the story of the destruction of the Earth, ordinary men and women are the perpetrators; something that a number of the more successful human narratives mentioned here, such as Chernobyl, Losing Earth and even Years and Years, understand. Attitudes about climate change have evolved significantly in recent years – perhaps even in recent months, thanks to the rise of Greta Thunberg and her school strikes, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s impassioned speeches in support of the US Democrats’ Green New Deal, and a summer marked by extraordinarily hot weather, sustained Extinction Rebellion protests, and David Attenborough appearing on stage at Glastonbury to praise the festival’s ban on single-use plastic. But judging by recent televisual output, people are still struggling to grasp that climate change is a deeply human story.

Perhaps that’s why we often prefer our climate narratives cloaked in a veil of fantasy. Supernatural or dystopian stories, despite their parallels with reality, often depict environmental apocalypse as spontaneous or unavoidable, or instigated by inscrutable evil. Zombie apocalypses, unexplained toxins and divine intervention are sexier and less discomfiting villains than sheer human arrogance and indifference. But there are ready-made villains for climate narratives, and they look a lot like you and me.

This is something that a younger generation have been more willing to grasp. Millennials and Gen Z are the demographics that have forced conversations about eco-anxiety into the mainstream (Greta Thunberg has written about the years of anxiety attacks that preceded her climate activism). They are, according to YouGov, the age group that is most concerned about the environment; and, according to the Pew Research Center, the demographic most likely to understand the link between human activity and climate change. One hope for the future of climate television is that younger audiences’ interest in environmentalism and climate narratives seems hard to dispute. Eight-year-old Amabella’s reaction to the climate crisis might be to turn and face the wall, but it’s time for TV commissioners to stop doing the same. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 02 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special