Let’s keep it real: no amount of reusable straws or bleeding veggie burgers is going to get us out of this mess. We need systemic changes—meaning new laws, incentives, regulations, and institutions—if we are to phase out fossil fuels quickly, promote alternatives, and remove barriers to action.
Yet it’s also important for us to envision the world we want to create. Whether it’s showing bike lanes or characters composting, every story detail can help to shape imaginations and promote new cultural norms. Taking climate-friendly actions is now just part of daily life, no different from wearing a seat belt—and that’s a reality that can be reflected on-screen. Your characters’ actions can make climate-friendly behaviors seem normal, expected, and socially desirable, and they can de-sexify climate-harming behaviors.
We already know that this works: portraying behaviors on-screen can shift cultural norms and lead to real change. Decades of research in media psychology show that what we watch on-screen has an impact on our lives—whether it’s our body image, our desensitization to violence, or even the kind of wine we drink (looking at you, Sideways, and your single-handed torpedo to merlot). Hell, we can thank Hollywood for helping make designated drivers the norm, all through character behaviors. Studios even worked together to limit tobacco smoking on-screen. Sometimes, screen portrayals can do a lot of damage, like perpetuating racist or sexist stereotypes. But when it's approached thoughtfully, the screen can be an incredibly powerful tool for change.
Sourced from Project Drawdown, Rare’s Climate Culture program, and other climate experts, here’s a list of the most practicable and inspiring climate solutions you can start integrating into your stories. No one solution is the answer, but it all helps.
If your characters are clinging to the bow of a ship à la The Perfect Storm, why not include a subplot about how these monster storms come every year now because of human-caused global warming? But not every climate conversation on-screen needs to be that dire. Imagine a sitcom about a couple trying to get divorced, only to discover that their house in Florida is unsalable because of rising sea levels and increased flood risk, so they have to keep living together . . . indefinitely.
Discussions about climate can be personal, dramatic, or even funny. Having your characters talk about the climate crisis normalizes it for your viewers and can show how climate affects everyone in various ways. Different characters are going to care about different aspects of climate change: conservatives may care about national security or protecting their family. Religious characters might be into stewardship or “caring for creation.” Silicon Valley types may be obsessed with green tech.
Seriously: talking about the climate crisis is one of the best things we can do right now. And making clear that a given behavior or impact is linked to the climate crisis is extra impactful. The research we commissioned from USC found that when climate actions were featured on-screen, they were only explicitly associated with the climate emergency 8 percent of the time. So if you incorporate any of the following behaviors into your story, it’s even better if you clearly connect them to the climate crisis. (See our Case Studies for examples of how shows are mentioning the crisis.)
Eat a plant-rich diet
In ABC’s black-ish, Dre struggles to come to terms with his son Jack becoming vegan, but comes around to support him—which is an especially helpful way to portray adopting climate-friendly behaviors.
Eating a plant-rich diet is among the highest-impact behaviors we can adopt. One study found that a widespread shift to a plant-based diet could stabilize greenhouse gas levels for 30 years, and save lives.
Your characters don’t have to be full-on vegans for you to show plant-rich diets on-screen. And they can arrive at plant-rich diets for a variety of reasons—from animal rights and health benefits to racial justice, from workers’ rights to protecting the Amazon.
Electric cars and trucks
Making electric vehicles (EVs) ubiquitous on-screen can go a long way toward helping normalize EV ownership, which could make a huge dent in global carbon emissions. Compared to gasoline-powered vehicles, EVs can cut carbon dioxide emissions by up to 95 percent. People buy EVs for lots of reasons, e.g., saving money, style, or just avoiding traffic—hell, Regina King drove an EV through a squid-storm in Watchmen, and both came out looking rad.
And EV owners don’t have to be eco-warriors or tech dudes. Imagine a car-chase scene featuring EV racing cars leaving the gas cars in the dust! Or a small-town drama with EV pickup trucks. There's a huge variety of electric cars out there today; your characters can have their pick! Or better yet, they could buy their EV secondhand. But how you show EVs on-screen matters. Whenever possible, address people’s main hesitations (e.g., range, cost, performance) without reinforcing their fears. If a scene requires a car getting stranded, why not make it a gas guzzler that runs out of gas, rather than an EV that runs out of charge?
Bikes, trains, and public transit
Get your knee socks out and take a note from HBO’s High Maintenance: put your characters on bikes! Choosing a bike over a car just once a day reduces an average citizen’s carbon emissions by 67 percent. Public transit is also a great way to cut emissions (and throw characters together in unexpected circumstances). And swapping flights for train travel not only saves a ton of carbon emissions, it’s also the perfect venue for a meet-cute (think Jesse and Celine in Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan’s Before Sunrise, but at high speed). Or, like in Spike Jonze’s film Her, you can help your audience envision a different future—one where cars have been replaced by bikes and a pristine, ubiquitous, and stylish transit system.
Eliminate food waste
Mutt from Schitt’s Creek is all about composting the cafe’s table scraps—and Alexis, ever eager to relate, makes sure to mention that she participated in Gwyneth Paltrow’s compost gift exchange. The real gift of compost, though, is drastically cutting down on food waste, which is one of the most impactful changes individuals can make to reduce emissions. From dramas to comedies, there’s so much climate-related content to be harvested (you’re welcome) across kitchen and restaurant settings. You could try featuring a cooking scene that shows people composting, restaurants donating unused food, or people eating leftovers and buying only what they need.
Put solar panels on all the things (a.k.a. use clean energy!)
What's the single biggest predictor of someone adopting solar? Believing that other people are doing it and that those people think you should too. Moral of the story: put solar panels on buildings in your shows! Ideally, your characters will talk about solar—like the romantic heroine in Elizabeth Hackett and Hilary Galanoy’s Falling Inn Love, who is eco-renovating a B&B. But if it can’t be present in dialogue, solar panels can still be set dressing.
Solar panels fit in everywhere: action films (Sahara); horror (A Quiet Place); animated sci-fi (Wall-E); and, of course, space operas (Gravity). As with most climate-friendly behaviors, there are a wide variety of reasons why people adopt rooftop solar (the climate crisis, saving money, energy independence, the desire to live off-grid, sending a message to utility companies and governments). This means that no matter what kind of show you’re working on, if there’s a roof on-screen, there’s probably room to fit a solar panel on it. Solar panels save the day in HBO’s Station Eleven. If we can get widespread adoption, they might do the same for us!
We’ve seen the power of direct action across our country, and it could be even more widespread if it showed up more on-screen. Resistance efforts like Standing Rock, School Strike for Climate, and Black Lives Matter have put on the pressure, leading to actual policy reform and gigantic culture shifts. Send your characters to a city council meeting. Or show how a BLM protest can bridge generational divides like the one between Charley and her son Micah in OWN’s Queen Sugar. Hold those politicians accountable! There’s power and joy in community! And if you need an antagonist: Did you know fossil fuel companies bankroll police, who often violently break up peaceful protests? (It’s all adding up now, right?)
Voting is a lever for shaping critical climate-policy decisions. Several fossil fuel companies are financially backing candidates who sponsor anti-voting legislation that primarily affects BIPOC and working-class voters. At the other end of the spectrum, many groups are forcing politicians to stand up to Big Oil and stop taking their donations.
Which means that any time you can show active, exuberant participation in the democratic process, you’re scoring a win for the climate. Besides, getting out the vote is way too good a story engine to confine to the national stage. Characters can vote in high schools or local and state politics, like in The Politician or, also on Netflix, Dear White People.
Pull a Tim “the Toolman” Taylor and get energy efficient. It’s one of the most effective ways to reduce electricity demand and tackle climate change. This could involve any number of home-improvement chores for that family show you’re writing: remodeling the kitchen and heating to go electric, knocking down a wall for more passive solar, installing a new “cooling” roof, or simply using LED lights. Imagine a sitcom about a construction worker who insulates mobsters’ houses. (And while you’re at it, let your characters conserve electricity by turning off the lights when they leave a room.)
No single-use plastic
Ted Lasso is the nicest guy in the world. He became EVEN NICER in season two, because he stopped using those red plastic cups and started carrying his own reusable water bottle to the football field. Good on ya, Ted! We’re only going to get the win if we stop single-use plastics: have your characters use Tupperware instead of Ziplocs for the kids’ lunches, use a real fork rather than a plastic spork, make reusable straws cool, or give Grandma’s old-margarine-container-turned-soup-bowl a shout-out.
And this is not “just” a waste and oceans issue: since almost all plastics are made from fossil fuels, plastics are the oil industry’s big escape plan for the revenue they’ll lose when we all stop using fossil fuels in cars and buildings. That means, among other things, that they have big plans to build new petrochemical facilities. According to a study from the Center for International Environmental Law, by 2030, carbon emissions from plastics could reach 1.34 gigatons per year—the same as almost 300 coal-fired power plants would release in the same time. Bottom line: if you care about the climate crisis, you care about plastics.
It’s also important to note that some communities don’t have access to clean (or even running) water, making bottled water a survival necessity. That makes it even more important that privileged populations step up and reuse! We agree with Adrian Grenier: #StopSucking!
Electric instead of gas stoves
(Spoiler alert!) If we keep using gas stoves, we're going to end up like Nadia in Netflix’s Russian Doll when she dies (again) from a gas explosion—except we’ll be blowing up the whole world in a death loop of fossil fuels. It’s an especially sad fate when you know that the gas industry actually pushed gas stoves in the first place. They’re horrible for the planet and horrible for your kid’s lungs, but good news: the new breed of induction cooktop is great for cooking on. Plus—you’re less likely to die in an infinite loop?
Re-wear your clothes
Your characters don’t need to change their outfits every scene like Cher in Clueless, as much as we love that yellow plaid. The manufacturing of new clothing is responsible for 10 percent of global carbon emissions. Not to mention all those plastic microfibers, made from petroleum, polluting our oceans! “Fast fashion” consumes an immense amount of water and energy and primarily impacts women of color and children in the Global South.
We all have our fave jeans that we wear multiple times a week, and no one ever gives a shit. So let your characters shop at thrift stores, or pull a Steve Jobs and wear the same black turtleneck every damn day. Rock that vintage like Zendaya! It’s better for the planet and it’s the way real people live.
Use less water
In the children’s show Arthur, an episode opens in a desert, with the characters on their seventh day on a field trip, and lost—with only one bottle of water left. Later in the episode, Catherine asks her sister to take shorter showers. In the span of 15 minutes, this kids’ show conveys the scarcity of water—a lesson that us adults need to learn too! Three quarters of the American West is in a “megadrought” (yep, that’s the official name). Plus there’s the enormous cost and energy of treating water. Los Angeles alone expends 4,100 gigawatt hours annually on treating and transporting water. (For reference, 1 gigawatt of power can light 100 million LED light bulbs. Incidentally, it takes 1.21 “jigawatts” to send the DeLorean through time.)
Make earth-friendly lifestyles sexy! For all of the above!
None of the above behaviors have to be a chore, or portrayed in a way that feels like a sacrifice—they can be shown as enjoyable, even glamorous. We love Succession and Billions, but what about a show that’s glam, high-end, and low carbon? Aspiration is a powerful lever for audiences (cue drool-worthy scene at a Michelin-starred plant-based restaurant). We can totally imagine Paper Boi, Darius, and Earn from FX’s Atlanta finally hitting it big—and using that newfound wealth to construct a water-recycling sustainable Earthship mansion. (It seems like the kind of thing Darius would be into.)
If you want to learn more about how showing these solutions on-screen impacts your audience, go to our “How Minds Change—Psychology of Behavior” section.