Why Screenwriters Should Keep Climate Change Top of Mind in Their Scripts

·5-min read

There’s a hilarious scene in HBO Max’s “Hacks” where Ava challenges her boss Deborah Vance as to what exactly she thinks millennials are entitled to: “Expensive ass health care? The planet ruined by climate change?” The scene is hardly “about” climate change, more of a passing remark and joke, but it starts a conversation that keeps the ongoing climate crisis top of mind.

That’s the goal of the folks at the nonprofit organization Good Energy, which on Tuesday put out a “playbook” for screenwriters about how they can introduce substantive ideas about climate change and global warming into their scripts and storytelling.

It’s not even about making every movie or show into the climate change satire “Don’t Look Up” — though that film’s director, Adam McKay, is one of the sponsors of the playbook — but Good Energy’s founder and director Anna Jane Joyner argues that to ignore climate change in your stories is to ignore the reality we live in.

“If you stop reflecting the world that your audience lives in, it creates a divide between the audience and the story,” Joyner told TheWrap. “It’d be strange at this point to have modern scripts written that don’t include cell phones or modern technology. And that is the direction we’re headed in with the climate crisis.”

As part of the playbook, officially titled “Good Energy: A Playbook for Screenwriting in the Age of Climate Change,” Joyner in partnership with USC’s Media Impact Lab at the Norman Lear Center found that of 37,453 TV and movie scripts released between 2016-2020, only 2.8% — or just over 1,000 — had any mention of climate change. The scripts studied were not fantasy films, period dramas or reality TV but rather contemporary stories or futuristic projects, many of which Joyner argues failed to grapple with any sort of reality about climate change. And she would like to see that figure change to at least 50% by 2030.

Good Energy Climate Change Playbook
Courtesy of Good Energy

“Climate change isn’t going away. It will only become more substantial over the course of our lifetime,” Joyner said. “It helps normalize the conversation with climate. There’s this dynamic happening right now where a huge majority of Americans are worried about climate, but very few actually talk about it in their daily lives.”

Joyner analyzed scripts for terms like “solar panels,” “sea level rise” and “climate anxiety,” and she found that the word “dog,” for instance, was used 13 times more than all 36 of the keywords she studied combined. But she says that climate change, as well as the effects of it, are touching our lives in both physical and “intense psychological and emotional ways” — all of which happens to be ripe for storytelling.

“It’s becoming more and more clear that this is a crisis within a crisis that’s happening, and we know from psychological research that TV and film can be a really great container to help us process harder emotions, like anxiety and fear,” Joyner said.

Joyner points to the “Hacks” episode but also shows like Netflix’s “Dead to Me” and CBS’ “Madam Secretary,” on which Joyner previously served as a consultant. They are projects that have brought up climate change in casual conversation and done so in a way that is in context for the characters.

In addition to quotes throughout from stars like Zazie Beetz, Scott Z. Burns, Don Cheadle, Rosario Dawson, Lyn and Norman Lear, Adam McKay, Mark Ruffalo, David Rysdahl and Sarah Treem, the playbook also includes case studies and ideas that are rooted in climate science and developed in partnership with climate professionals.

For instance, one case study in the playbook is called “Maria’s Two Worlds,” which was conceived by a NASA scientist and a story consultant for the Marvel Comic Universe. In it, a girl is born in two separate realities: In one, society has acted late on climate change but has still taken drastic steps to slow the effects on the environment, whereas the other shows the world rapidly collapsing as the world continues essentially business as usual. The story outline draws up scenarios that pick up with the girl in each reality but at different times across 50 years of her life and show how climate change has impacted each reality.

Don't Look Up Leonardo DiCaprio Jennifer Lawrence
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up” (Netflix)

Joyner hopes to release additional data via the USC Media Lab in the coming weeks about which studios, networks, shows or films have had the most mentions of climate change over the last few years. But above all, Joyner’s playbook is a guide for screenwriters specifically and always keeps good storytelling as the top priority when thinking about anything related to climate change. One simple exercise writers can take as they approach their next scripts is to ask on a basic level how their characters might encounter climate change in their daily lives.

“What are the climate impacts happening in the Midwest or in New York City or wherever you’re setting your story? What is that going to look like in 10 years,” Joyner said. “How would my characters be feeling about this? How would they be encountering it in their real life? Would they be talking about it with their friends, would they be worried about it? So for me, it really helps to get inside of the story thinking through that lens.”

The Playbook will live as an online resource at goodenergystories.com. Throughout 2022, Good Energy and its partners will host workshops and programming to bring the playbook to writers’ rooms and creatives across the industry.

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