For all of humanity, the stakes couldn’t be higher. The climate crisis has escalated to a terrifying degree, with daily news reports of the catastrophic effects of extreme weather, flooding from rising seas, crops compromised by drought and parasites and the devastation of unpredictable wildfires including those ablaze this summer in the Amazon rainforest.
Climate scientists say the threat is existential and global, encompassing everything from the air we breathe to the water we drink to the food we need to survive. They are warning of an extreme tightening of the window of time — about 11 years — for countries to make massive changes that might limit the apocalyptic impact of rising air and ocean temperatures over the next 30 years.
Amid the gathering storms, there is growing criticism that mainstream TV news organizations and storytellers in Hollywood haven’t done enough to raise public awareness of the need for action. “I have often wondered what will be the incremental climate event that causes people to say, ‘OK, the validity of the science is clear,’” says Alan Horn, co-chairman of Walt Disney Studios, who is also chairman of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the world’s most prominent environmental advocacy groups.
Horn has been an environmental activist for more than 30 years. With his wife, Cindy Horn, the former Warner Bros. chief teamed with Norman Lear and his wife, Lyn Lear, in 1989 to launch the Environmental Media Assn. The EMA’s charter is to encourage artists in film, TV and music to incorporate environmental themes into their work. Today, the focus of Horn’s environmental efforts is on the NRDC, where he has been a trustee since 1991.
The NRDC is at the outset of a major outreach push to Hollywood screenwriters and showrunners that aims to bring more focus on climate change in popular entertainment beyond the apocalyptic scenarios that unfold in action and sci-fi thrillers. The organization is looking to serve as a resource for compelling true stories that can crystallize the challenges ahead and what’s at stake if humans don’t make meaningful changes that cut the rate of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
“We are running out of time. It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation,” says Daniel Hinerfeld, the NRDC’s director of content partnerships. “We desperately need the Hollywood community to take this issue seriously, understanding that it has tremendous power to change culture norms. We really want to work with [the creative community] in an intensive way to normalize the climate conversation in entertainment.”
But even as scientists warn of doomsday scenarios on the horizon, media and entertainment’s major players are struggling with how exactly to respond to the daunting environmental challenges.
“The thing you have to remember is that entertainment is market-driven. Frankly [audiences] don’t want to hear about climate change,” says director James Cameron, a longtime environmentalist who has been praised for weaving environmental themes into his work. “We did a [documentary] show called ‘Years of Living Dangerously.’ We won an Emmy and got canceled.” Cameron also questions how much of an impact Hollywood can have in addressing a global crisis of staggering dimensions. “I think you can insinuate these ideas into your storytelling,” he says. “I’ve certainly done that with ‘Avatar,’ but frankly ‘Avatar’ came out 10 years ago. And in that time our population has grown by almost a billion people, and the effects of that alone on our environment and climate change are devastating. Does [storytelling] do that much good?”
In the U.S., the politicization of the debate over climate change since the early 1990s has been an enormous impediment to action. More recently, the Trump administration’s agenda on environmental policies has been nothing short of horrifying, in the view of Hollywood’s prominent green activists.
Robert Redford, who has been an environmental champion since the early 1970s, says he maintains hope that these “dark times” will be the source of inspiration for activists and filmmakers alike. “Right now, we have a stage that is occupied by people living in the past,” Redford says, citing the “rigid ideologies” that guide President Donald Trump and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader. “They’re so frightened about change. I think particularly as younger people come into the business of filmmaking, they’re coming in with a different point of view that is more progressive. They know more than those who came before them. I think they will be the ones to let us see the bigger picture.”
Redford strongly believes that filmmakers — whether on Hollywood studio pictures or independently produced documentaries — will help galvanize the public on the need for urgent action in the years ahead. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing” with Sundance Institute and other initiatives, he says. Redford has been an NRDC trustee since 1972.
The approach of the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York on Sept. 23 has also spurred efforts to focus resources and attention on limiting the carbon emissions that drive global warming. Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage climate activist, sailed to New York in an emissions-free yacht to take part in the summit and draw attention to her Global Climate Strike demonstrations set for Sept. 20-27 around the world.
“Right now, we have a stage that is occupied by people living in the past. They’re so frightened about change. I think particularly as younger people come into the business of filmmaking, they’re coming in with a different point of view that is more progressive.”
Javier Bardem is among the entertainment industry figures set to participate in the summit. The Oscar-winning Spanish actor is active on climate change and related issues. He addressed the U.N. in August, pushing for a global treaty to combat ocean pollution. “I’m looking out at this room of scientists and biologists, and I said, ‘This looks like one of those catastrophe movies — and there’s no Dwayne Johnson to rescue us. So you’d better create a beautiful ocean treaty for us to avoid it,’” Bardem says of using his celebrity to draw attention to environmental crises.
The Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation magazine have launched the Covering Climate Now initiative to encourage news organizations to emphasize climate change-related coverage in the eight days leading up to the summit. CBS News, Bloomberg News, Nature and Science magazines are among the more than 150 outlets around the world that have pledged to take part.
CBS News and CNN are two of the major news orgs stepping up their investment in climate change as a breaking-news beat. “Time is so of the essence right now. The choices we make now will literally be the difference between tens of millions of lives lost or hundreds of millions of lives lost in just a lifetime,” says Bill Weir, the TV news veteran who has been with CNN since 2013 and was formally appointed its chief climate correspondent in June. “It’s our absolute obligation to talk about this story every night. Soon it will be the only story we’re talking about.”
One of the first things longtime producer Susan Zirinsky did after becoming president of CBS News in January was to greenlight a weeklong series of “Earth Matters” reports on environmental issues that aired in the days leading up to Earth Day on April 22. The reports ran across all CBS News broadcasts and emanated from seven continents.
The impetus for the series came from correspondents who kept flagging climate-related stories as worth deeper exploration. Zirinsky saw myriad opportunities to examine the human element — killer heatwaves, freak tornadoes, lost farms, livelihoods imperiled by erratic weather patterns and much more. “When we really began to focus, stepping out of the political fight, the story is that the cause of global warming is human beings and our impact on other human beings,” Zirinsky says.
For years, mainstream TV news outlets saw stories about global warming and climate change as “viewer-repellent,” as Weir puts it. But that is changing. CBS’ internal research finds that in-depth environmental reporting is sought out by younger viewers.
“It’s of unmistakable interest to the next generation that is having to live with the consequences and wants to know how they’re going to cope,” says Al Ortiz, head of editorial standards for CBS News editorial standards who spearheads its “Eye on Earth” series and ongoing coverage. “We’re focusing on how it affects real people — somebody trying to run a farm or insure a house,” Ortiz says.
As an industry, Hollywood has made significant changes in the way it does business, through a dawning awareness over the past 30 years of the importance of planet-sustainability considerations.
That so many influential figures in entertainment are environmentally conscious has helped push major studios and networks to adopt green initiatives, on the lot and on location. Some TV shows have gone paperless, replacing the need for thousands of script pages per season with iPads and flash drives. Craft services departments often dish up meals using compostable plates and utensils. An increasing number of productions now seek to offset their carbon impact by donating money to preserve a portion of the Amazon rainforest — a vital oxygen-producing region known as “the lungs of the world” that is under pressure from raging wildfires spurred by human-made deforestation in Brazil.
At the same time, many of Hollywood’s most prominent environmental activists still indulge in air and yacht travel and other luxuries of the jet set that are the source of carbon emissions. The transportation sector accounted for 29% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions as of 2017, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the largest share by economic sector, followed by electricity production (28%), industry (22%), commercial businesses and residential homes (12%) and agriculture (9%).
Actor Edward Norton is among those urging media companies to lead by example with concrete efforts to offset the impact of production efforts. “Every TV and film studio — indeed every major media conglomerate — should take the easy step of quantifying the air travel undertaken not only by their executive teams but of all the productions they mount and then directly purchasing verified carbon credits from projects all over the world to offset that air travel,” he says. “This would be real leadership.”
As a subject to tackle in front of a camera, climate change is a leviathan of a topic with few easy answers. But it’s never been easier to put a human face on the subject. Hinerfeld points to NRDC supporter Laura Dern, who directly influenced the inclusion of a climate-change-focused story thread in the second season of HBO’s “Big Little Lies.” (Dern’s character, Renata Klein, has to deal with a crisis when her young daughter has a panic attack over what she learns in school about the subject.)
“It’s really exciting when you have a writer and collaborators who are clever enough to weave within a narrative our most vital issues so that storytelling can resonate with the greatest issue of our time,” Dern says of working with the “Big Little Lies” team on the storyline. “There can be no greater focus than saving our home.”
Dern’s “Big Little Lies” co-star Shailene Woodley agrees. She’s been working with Greenpeace in recent months to understand more about the effect of climate change on the world’s oceans. “To stir a conversation and curiosity in a subject that isn’t necessarily spoken about in mainstream media is our superpower,” Woodley says. “I think we should 100% be exploiting our resources and our creativity to share what’s going on with our planet.”
The NRDC had historically trained its focus on working with mainstream print and broadcast news organizations and documentary producers when it came to media strategy. But with the climate clock ticking, there’s a sense of desperation among activists to send a message that spreads deeper into pop culture. There’s concern among activists that even successful documentaries tend to mostly preach to the choir.
“I don’t know why it has taken the advocacy community so long to wake up to the potential of working with Hollywood, but we have finally awakened to the potential,” Hinerfeld says. He hopes movies and TV shows can have the same culture-changing effect on environmentalism they’ve had on social concerns ranging from drunk driving and cigarette smoking to racism and issues of equality.
Horn knows from experience how tricky that can be. “When you try to appeal to people with a catastrophic warning, you have to be careful,” says the Disney chief. “If we talk to people about the quality of the air their children are breathing, they get that.” Horn cites James Cameron’s 2009 global smash “Avatar” as an effective example.
“A huge way we in the entertainment industry can be impactful in this world is not using our voices to tell people what to do, but using our platforms to connect people on the ground, in the grass roots movements, with our audiences.”
Dorothy Fortenberry, a co-exec producer on Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” is among the writers who have met with NRDC reps. The discussion about the nature of TV drama was eye-opening for her. “Handmaid’s Tale” is among the few series to directly acknowledge the impact of climate change on the dystopian parallel universe presented in the show, which is based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel.
“We’ve been telling the story of the climate crisis for a while now; we just haven’t admitted what we’re doing,” Fortenberry says. “There’s a reason everyone watches ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Game of Thrones.’ There’s a reason we’re obsessed with shows about scarcity and post-apocalyptic narratives of limited resources. In 200 years, when people study TV shows of the early 21st century, they’ll say, ‘Oh, they were dealing with the climate crisis’ in the way that we now read [19th-century] vampire stories and say, ‘Oh, they were dealing with tuberculosis.’”
Bill Nye has made a career of explaining scientific principles and celebrating its achievements on TV, starting with his “Bill Nye the Science Guy” educational series produced by Disney in the 1990s and more recently with Netflix’s “Bill Nye Saves the World.” Nye’s message for this fraught moment is to emphasize how the devastation to come from an unstable environment cuts across every aspect of human life, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, wealth and geographic location. Of course, poorer countries in the less-developed world are more at risk, for economic and geopolitical reasons. At the same time, the level of global interconnectivity of the atmosphere and waterways is magnified by the effects of climate change. Rising seas are sending saltwater into freshwater areas, which is wreaking havoc on both ecosystems and leading to tropical diseases showing up in places like Alaska. Erratic weather patterns are disrupting the natural cycles and yields of basic crops. The disappearance of coral reefs is a threat to marine life around the world. And on and on. “We are all in this together. Everybody’s going to be affected,” Nye says. “I hope the message coming from Hollywood is ‘Let’s get together and address it.’”
The efforts to galvanize mainstream news coverage of climate change as a cohesive issue — as opposed to reports of fires, floods and droughts as one-off disasters — come in the same spirit as the NRDC’s outreach to Hollywood.
Mark Hertsgaard is an environmental journalist and author who is behind the Covering Climate Now campaign with the Columbia Journalism Review. He asserts that journalists in the U.S. owe their readers more rigorous coverage of climate change and the roots of the subversion of science into a political issue. He blames the PR and lobbying counterattack by the fossil fuel industry as climate scientists began to sound the alarm about the need for changes that would force dramatic alterations in the nation’s energy choices. The effort to introduce doubt about scientific research began in the early 1990s as big energy companies sought to ward off proposed environmental regulations and green reform efforts. Those battles are still raging on Capitol Hill — witness the sharply divided reaction to the Green New Deal introduced this year by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and other progressive members of Congress.
Hertsgaard, now a columnist for The Nation, faults mainstream U.S. media outlets for presenting global warming as a “false equivalency” — as an issue where facts are in debate. Mainstream media coverage lent legitimacy to the doubt purposefully injected by fossil fuel industry lobbyists, Hertsgaard and others assert. “To the great lasting historical shame of the U.S. media, we by and large bought that in a way that our [journalist] colleagues overseas did not,” Hertsgaard says. “The U.S. media treated this like a political story rather than a science story.”
There was also a woeful lack of scientific expertise in most major U.S. newsrooms during the 1980s and ’90s, when warming concerns began to emerge in a public way. That has been changing. Hertsgaard sees a responsibility by the news media to explain what’s at stake and to reveal the profit motives behind so much of the strongest opposition to addressing greenhouse gas emissions.
Documentary filmmaker Fisher Stevens has teamed with DiCaprio to produce two highly lauded documentaries revolving around climate change: 2016’s “Before the Flood” and the upcoming “And We Go Green.” Stevens sees a ripe opportunity for a next-generation exposé film à la “Erin Brockovich” or “The Insider” on the story of how climate change became politicized in America. “When the public starts to get to understand that this has all just been fed to me — it’s a lie that was paid for to save the oil companies — that would be great to tackle,” Stevens says. He saw an uptick of interest in climate-related issues in the creative community after Hurricane Sandy ravaged New York and New Jersey in 2012.
“We are all in this together. Everybody’s going to be affected. I hope the message coming from Hollywood is ‘Let’s get together and address it.’”
Kevin Reilly, chief content officer of HBO Max and president of TNT, TBS and TruTV, has been active on environmental issues since his college days. He thinks a key focus for media of all kinds is the nexus of green initiatives and economic growth. “I do not believe that conservation and commerce have to always be in opposition,” says Reilly, who is chairman of the Nature Conservancy of California. “We need to spread the message that it’s not about hurting people or taking their jobs if you’re trying to make the world a livable place.”
“Cheers” and “The Good Place” star Ted Danson has been a vocal activist on environmental issues since he stepped up to successfully battle a bid to allow oil drilling off the Santa Monica coast in the mid-1980s. Co-founder of the respected American Oceans Campaign, he echoes Reilly’s view that the economic potential of transformative green initiatives should be explored much more rigorously in the public discussion of climate change. “I’m saying let’s talk about your pocketbook. Every time you do something environmentally correct, you end up creating more jobs,” Danson says. “If you keep doing things the polluted way, you’re making a crapload of money for a few people. We need to find a way to communicate this better. This is not an idealistic, tree-hugging conversation. This is about jobs, it’s about money and sustainability and it’s about your kids.”
The NRDC and other organizations are investing in efforts to spread the word by mass market entertainment, in part as an antidote to the damaging influence of a president who declared in 2012 that climate change was “a hoax” invented by China to hurt American manufacturing. At the same time, Horn says he has always found value in tackling the subject one cocktail party conversation at a time.
“When people tell me, ‘We’re not sure — maybe it’s a cyclical thing,’ my answer is, if you don’t think climate change is real, the cost of doing nothing and being wrong is catastrophic. If you’re right and climate change is not as serious as we say it is, what’s the worst that could happen if we do make some changes? The air’s a little cleaner, and the water’s a little cleaner.”
Matt Donnelly and Will Thorne contributed to this report.