What is a Climate Lens?
Climate change is happening now, all around us, not elsewhere or in the future. Whether we like it or not, climate intersects with every issue you care about, every topic under the sun. So, as screenwriter and producer Dorothy Fortenberry says, “If climate isn’t in your story, it’s science fiction.”
Including climate in your work doesn’t mean being didactic, boring, or forced. It doesn’t have to mean conjuring shame or doom. No shoehorning or despair required.
In fact, climate change is a generative lens through which to imagine any aspect of a story. It can be a tool you use to add conflict and reveal complexities in character and setting. The result is rich, authentic, relevant stories that touch on something we’re all seeing and feeling.
Every character who lives in this world—our world—is reacting to, running from, or otherwise encountering the climate crisis. It is the universal backdrop. That’s a lot of stories.
We’re not talking about a separate genre or story; we’re talking about climate as a lens that can and should be applied to any and every genre and storyline, so that those stories truly reflect our reality.
Because here's the thing: the climate crisis is inherently intersectional. It is exacerbated by, and exacerbates, all the societal divisions we’re already living with, like class, race, age, ability, gender, geography, to name a few. And it impacts historically marginalized groups first and worst.
And because the climate crisis affects all of our lives, it fits into every type of story. We will die happy when we see a climate rom-com. (A climate activist falls in love with the daughter of a fossil fuel tycoon, anyone?) And detective fiction lends itself perfectly to this moment in which we need all the problem-solving skills we can get. Action-adventure, buddy comedies, political thrillers, police procedurals going after climate criminals, Wes Anderson–style ruminations on the meaning of home . . .
Recently, a bunch of classic UK soaps coordinated crossover climate-themed episodes ahead of the UN climate conference COP26. Imagine the crossover potential in the Marvel Cinematic Universe!
The headline: climate has a place in every story, from a passing mention to being the driving force of an episode. Write the stories that are most important to you, and climate can be part of them.
Climate Writing Blocks
We get it! It’s hard enough getting your work made, let alone creating room for the huge, confusing, terrifying monster that is the climate crisis. But we’re here to mythbust a few outdated notions.
Writing Block #1: Climate Change is Too Depressing
Well, okay, it’s not NOT depressing. But human stories about dark things can still be inspiring, enlightening, captivating—they can get viewers all fired up. Maybe you’ve been told that audiences only want feel-good escapism right now. Well, for one thing, wildly popular shows like Squid Game and The Handmaid’s Tale prove otherwise.
And for another: climate can be incorporated into feel-good stories!
Most writers understandably associate the climate crisis with apocalypse stories or a lecture. Shame, doom, or gloom.
And there’s nothing inherently wrong with apocalypse stories. Too much fear can lead to paralysis—but apocalypse stories can also be exciting and powerful. They can show us a world we want to avoid.
But is apocalypse the ONLY genre we can use to talk about climate? Hell no. If you take one thing from these pages, please let it be that.
Climate portrayals don’t have to evoke shame and doom. They can be a source of catharsis, connection, creativity, courage, and hope in dark times. They can be suspenseful, poignant, shocking. They can even make us laugh.
We need ALL of the climate stories, not just one type. What if tackling the climate crisis is the conflict we need to grow up as a species? 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. The climate crisis holds all the emotions.
As Scott Z. Burns says, “The only thing we know for sure about the future is that we are all going there together—and we’re taking with us our hopes, our fears, our appetites, our creativity, our capacity for love and our predilection to cause pain. These are the same tools that storytellers have been using since the beginning of time.”
We’ve had many stories of gender, race, and war. We have an understanding of how to tell stories about those issues, but we don’t have an understanding of how to tell climate stories. We don’t have a history of that kind of storytelling because it’s a new kind of problem.
Writing Block #2: Climate Change is Too Controversial
You might have been told that even mentioning the climate crisis will alienate audience members. But the thing is: this political polarization was fabricated by the fossil fuel industry itself. Yep! They ran (pretty damn smart and horrible) PR campaigns denying basic climate science—and sadly for us, these lies took hold of the public.
But that’s changing. People across the political spectrum are more and more worried about the climate crisis. According to Yale’s most recent research, 75 percent of adults are on the scale of mildly concerned to deeply alarmed—and most fall toward “alarmed.” There’s a reason Don’t Look Up was the number-one movie on Netflix worldwide for three weeks straight: viewers are already grappling with the climate crisis in their own lives, both psychologically and physically. More than 40 percent of Americans experienced climate disasters in 2021 alone! And as the success of Don’t Look Up reveals, audiences want to see those struggles represented on-screen. As our research shows, audiences are feeling that increasing weirdness of the shows they watch being divorced from our climate reality. Capturing the climate crisis in your stories will only make them more timely, relatable, and authentic.
The gatekeepers are on board, too. Broadcasters and studios are starting to recognize this and do their part: 12 of the UK’s biggest broadcasters recently committed to upping their climate content, and most of the major studios, networks, and streamers have made public commitments to lower their carbon footprint. In 2021, Netflix announced its goal of net-zero emissions by the end of 2022. And Disney is committed to 100 percent zero-carbon electricity by 2030!
Writing Block #3: Climate Change is Too Big to Write About
At first glance, the climate crisis doesn’t seem to lend itself to story. There’s no clear beginning or middle, and certainly no foreseeable end (fun!). There’s no sole villain or hero. It spans time and space, species and nations. It is a “hyperobject”—too vast to see the whole. Our brains aren’t wired to grasp it (more on that in our section on Inside Your Characters: Climate Change and Psychology).
But here’s the thing about the vastness of this crisis: because it impacts all of us, you can find real-life inspiration anywhere.
You don’t have to tell the WHOLE climate story. Climate portrayals can be personal and specific. What’s the one angle you care about most? What terrifies or intrigues or drives you? How does climate impact the people and places you love? How does it impact your mental health?
And you don’t have to be an expert or be fluent in climate science to write from the angle you care about most. (Though we’re happy to put you in touch with experts from our library.)
Climate stories 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—the part you care about most—and still come out the other side having normalized the climate crisis as a household convo, and made a big difference in the process.
The Drama is Endless
There are endless captivating ways to weave climate change into shows and movies of any genre, from a sports comedy like Ted Lasso to a mystery like Veronica Mars, from setting and plot points to character development and dialogue. The potential for drama is limitless: real bad for humans and planet; great for story fodder.
Screenwriters are being handed a scary new issue to play with. But it’s not the first time: racism, homophobia, and a whole bunch of other injustices were once Big Scary Topics that were risky to even write about, let alone advocate against. Writers faced those challenges head-on, and they can do the same thing now.
This Playbook is an invitation. We hope it inspires climate portrayals that are true to you as a human and writer. The most important thing is to do what you do best: tell a damn good story. We’ll help with the rest.