Weaving In Climate Change: A Cheat Sheet
There is a consensus on climate science, but not on climate stories. There is no precedent for this. Which is as thrilling as it is upsetting! Because there are so few climate portrayals on-screen (so far!), this is totally new territory—which means we get to shape it together.
A lot of writers have told us they’re afraid of “getting it wrong.” But the urgency of this situation requires bravery and risk (and even some fun)—and we’re here with you for all of it. Besides, “the most important thing you can do to fight climate change is talk about it,” says renowned climate scientist and writer Dr. Katharine Hayhoe. And writing about climate change is talking about it on steroids, because you’ll reach the peers and execs who read your work, not to mention your audience.
Because it’s such new ground, we don’t have all the answers. But here are 16 ideas to keep in mind while approaching this vital new aspect of your storytelling.
The climate crisis is here now
If your story takes place now or in the future, climate is already a part of your story world and characters’ lives. Representing climate on-screen speaks to what it feels like to be alive right now.
People want climate stories
Everyone today is facing the climate crisis in their lives. From the global reach of Greta Thunberg to the ridiculous success of Don’t Look Up, it’s increasingly evident that audiences are worried about the climate crisis and want to see their reality represented on-screen. Portraying this issue can only make your stories more timely, relatable, and authentic—and more likely to resonate with your audience.
Climate change can be woven into any genre or storyline
Yes, any! Sitcom, satire, drama. Fantasy, gritty realism. Stories that make us laugh or cry. The climate crisis belongs in ALL genres. We’ll be thrilled if you write us a climate rom-com or noir. (Check out our Climate Loglines for inspiration.)
There are many ways to portray climate
Climate can enter your story in any form, from casual mentions to broad themes, from character motivation to everyday behaviors. The entry point is wherever you are: the show you’ve been working on for seasons, or a new feature idea. Any and all of it counts. (See our Spectrum for more.)
Make climate-friendly actions and behaviors the norm AND sexy
You have the power to make a huge difference by showing climate-friendly behaviors on-screen. If your characters take everyday actions like eating and commuting, why not make them climate friendly? And these behaviors don’t have to feel like chores. Let’s show how a low-carbon lifestyle can be sexy! Let’s reimagine what it looks like for a character to eat a plant-rich diet (Michelin Green Star restaurants, yes!), attend a protest, or upcycle vintage clothes. (And if your story requires a yacht, why not make it solar powered? See our Modeling Climate Solutions On-Screen list for more ideas.)
Everyone is a “climate hypocrite”—take it from climate warrior Bill McKibben, who says: “‘Hypocrisy’ is the price of admission in this battle.” You don’t have to be a climate purist who uses zero plastic and hates planes to write about this issue. It’s just not realistic—we’re all shackled to the same economic system, after all. This goes for your characters too. (See Climate Solutions On-Screen for more ideas about how characters can tackle climate while keeping it real.)
Avoid the tropes
The eco-nazi and bleeding-heart martyr are tired tropes perpetuated by the fossil fuel industry to make us point the finger at each other instead of them. Avoid stereotypes like the climate nag, the naive environmentalist, the dippy freegan, the nerdy scientist (unless he shoots webs). Think of it as a narrative vibe shift: climate has gone from niche to mainstream, so there’s no reason climate concerns should be the butt of the joke. (See our Character Profiles and Climate Loglines for inspiration.)
Embrace character flaws
People who care about climate have flaws like everyone else. Giving your characters flaws won’t hurt the climate movement—rather, it’s vital to it. We want to relate to them! If you’re portraying a climate scientist or activist character, let them contradict themselves, let them contain multitudes. (Read Climate Heroes Ain't Saints for more ideas!)
Apocalypse stories can be exciting and show us a world we don’t want, but too much fear can lead to paralysis. We need ALL of the climate stories, not just one type. What if our climate solutions actually lead to a fulfilling future? Whatever the future holds, it won’t be a binary of hope vs hopelessness, and your stories don’t have to be one or the other either.
It’s impossible to tell the WHOLE climate story. What do you care about most within this crisis? A Black and brown neighborhood being sacrificed by the fossil fuel industry? Butterfly extinction? The demise of downhill skiing? Keep it personal and close to character. Your story doesn’t have to be about saving the planet; it can be about saving a family. Or yourself.
The climate crisis isn’t an “issue”—it contains all issues
The climate emergency is not just an “environmental” issue, and it’s not separate from other critical social issues like racism, sexism, economic injustice, or war. It harms all of us, but it devastates historically marginalized people first and worst. Climate justice is racial justice. This emergency exacerbates all issues. (Check out our Climate Justice section and Character Profiles for more info and stories.)
Systemic change is real change—and real drama
We can’t save the world from the worst impacts of the climate crisis without transforming our energy system and jettisoning the fossil fuel industry. By voting, protesting, advocating, taking nonviolent direct action, and participating in other forms of community action and civic engagement, we can demand policy change on the state, national, and global levels. This is the stuff of great stories: the interpersonal politics, the life-and-death stakes.
Do your research
It’s key to talk to scientists, experts, and individuals with compelling real-life stories, to ensure your scripts are rooted in expertise and lived experience. We would be thrilled to point you in the right direction. (See our Library of Experts for a damn impressive sampling.)
Indigenous stories and storytellers are critical
As Indigenous climate activist and filmmaker Jade Begay says, “Indigenous people are the first climate scientists, and Indigenous people are leading us through this climate crisis.” Journalist, activist, and artist Julian Brave NoiseCat describes Indigenous communities as people who have survived multiple apocalypses, saying, “Climate change is yet another apocalypse that we plan on surviving.” Indigenous stories, landback stories, stories of reparations, stories of standing up to unjust systems—they can all help us imagine a different future. And Indigenous storytellers should be at the forefront of telling them. (Check out our interview with Sarah Eagle Heart on the intersection of Indigenous and climate storytelling.)
Climate anxiety is real
Between 2020 and 2021, Google searches for “climate anxiety” went up by 565 percent. As writers, you are the psychoanalysts of your characters. It’s crucial to understand this real and growing mental health crisis and how it affects them—take it from the award-winning Big Little Lies, which covered climate anxiety in children in its second season. Showing anger, depression, grief, or other emotions in relation to the climate crisis can only make characters more relatable. And don’t forget to take care of your own mental health while doing this work. (For more, go to Climate Character Psychology, Processing Climate Emotions, and Self-Care Tips for Writing about the Climate Crisis.)
One step at a time
This might sound big, but it’s no different than any other story you might enter. Character, image, and story world can all be doorways to portraying the climate crisis. Think about a character you’re already writing in the context of climate change. Climate can be a generative lens with which to view any subject or character. Climate portrayals don’t have to solve all the problems or change the world. There’s lots of room to tell only a part of the climate story and still come out the other side having normalized the climate crisis as a household conversation, and made a big difference.