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What Is a Climate Story?

In this article

Climate writing blocks
How do we write about something so big?!
The climate lens

When we say “climate stories” here, we specifically mean stories that acknowledge the current climate crisis, largely caused by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, making it hotter, scarier, and weird as hell here on Earth.

Climate change is happening now, all around us, not elsewhere or in the future. So, as screenwriter and producer Dorothy Fortenberry says, “If climate isn’t in your story, it’s science fiction.”

A climate story simply speaks to what it feels like to be alive right now.

Yet, watching the vast majority of scripted TV shows and films today, you’d have no idea that Earth is in crisis—and us with it. And so the world depicted in the stories we watch and love is no longer an honest portrayal of the world we live in. And as our research suggests, audiences are increasingly feeling the strangeness and disconnect of that divorce from reality.

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.

Plus, you’re up against antiquated beliefs like the idea that mentioning the climate crisis will alienate audience members. But people are more and more worried about the climate crisis. 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. Capturing the climate crisis in your stories will only make them more timely, relatable, and honest.

Broadcasters and studios are starting to recognize this and do their part as well: 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 lowering 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!

But 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 climate stories with apocalypse or a lecture. It all seems like shame or doom or gloom, or at best a nature documentary.

Apocalypse can be powerful: it shows us where we don’t want to end up. But climate stories can be so much more, as we’ll demonstrate in these pages. They can inspire us, expand us, make us feel seen. They can show people fighting courageously against unjust systems and overwhelming odds. They can make us laugh. They can be suspenseful, poignant, exciting, shocking.​​ They can show us how, in working to halt the worst of the climate crisis, we might actually create a better world.

We need ALL of the climate stories, not just one type. The purpose of this Playbook is to expand the menu of possibilities.

How do we write about something so big?!

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 (as we talk about in our section on Climate Psychology).

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.

Mary Laws, writer and producer, Succession

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 stories 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 you?

The climate crisis touches all of our lives in ways that are both complex and intimate, exacerbated by and exacerbating divisions of class, race, age, ability, gender, geography. It’s the crisis to which no human is immune. Every character who lives in this world is reacting to, running from, or otherwise dealing with the climate emergency. It is the universal backdrop.

That’s a lot of stories.

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.

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.

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 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 climate lens

This Playbook is an invitation. We hope it inspires climate stories that are true to you as a human and writer. Including climate in your work doesn’t mean being didactic, boring, or forced. Instead, climate can be a generative lens through which to view any subject under the sun. It can enable discovery and center new complexities in characters and settings. The result is deeper, richer, more authentic stories that evoke powerful emotions—because they touch on something we’re all seeing and feeling.

The most important thing is to do what you do best: tell a damn good story. We’ll help with the rest.

This world is beautiful. And we are alive at potentially the most important inflection point in human history. Because we have this great privilege of being people who can still turn the climate crisis around.

Mary Anne Hitt, climate leader
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