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The representation of climate change on-screen is scant, but growing

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Movies can be powerful cultural messengers for ideas, behaviors and values. But a team of researchers says the movies of the last decade or so have missed an opportunity because very few of them address the urgency of climate change. The researchers surveyed 250 of the most popular movies between 2013 and 2022, and NPR's Kathryn Fink dug into what they found.

KATHRYN FINK, BYLINE: Over the last 10 years or so, the reality of our warming climate has cropped up in some unexpected places, like "Pokemon: Detective Pikachu" from 2019...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "POKEMON: DETECTIVE PIKACHU")

RYAN REYNOLDS: (As Detective Pikachu) At this point, how can you not believe in climate change?

FINK: ...Or "Kingsman: Secret Service" (ph) from 2014...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE")

COLIN FIRTH: (As Harry Hart) Climate change is a threat which affects us all, Mr. Valentine.

FINK: ...Or 2022's "Glass Onion."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY")

KATHRYN HAHN: (As Claire Debella) I'm hard line on climate change. If that scares you, go stick your head back in the sand.

FINK: Each of these movies passed the Climate Reality Check. That's a new metric modeled after the Bechdel test, which measures the representation of women in film. The Climate Reality Check evaluates whether a movie acknowledges the reality of climate change. And there are basically just two requirements - one, climate change has to exist, and two, a character has to know about it.

MATTHEW SCHNEIDER-MAYERSON: It is an incredibly low bar, and then you actually look at the number of films - the percentage of films that are passing it - and it's still shockingly low.

FINK: Matthew Schneider-Mayerson of Colby College in Maine is one of the developers of the Climate Reality Check alongside the storytelling consultancy Good Energy. He spent his whole summer watching movies, and his team found that fewer than 10% of those movies cleared the bar. But the ones that did mention climate change actually fared better commercially than those that did not. Schneider-Mayerson and his collaborators say, based on their findings, Hollywood shouldn't be afraid of climate narratives, even if they're dark or depressing, because they're clearly resonating with viewers.

SCHNEIDER-MAYERSON: Most audiences would like to see their reality reflected on screen. You know, I think, for most of us, increasingly, climate change is a part of that reality.

FINK: Schneider-Mayerson says the inclusion of climate change in popular films more than doubled between 2013 and 2022. And the types of movies also expanded. Superhero films were a mainstay at first. And then...

SCHNEIDER-MAYERSON: In the second half of the decade, we did see, you know, climate change appearing in people's daily lives in sort of more quotidian ways. And I think that's a really important development.

FINK: Take the romantic drama "Marriage Story" from 2019. Adam Driver's character is constantly flicking off the lights.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARRIAGE STORY")

SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Nicole Barber) He's energy conscious.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIGHT SWITCH CLICKING)

JOHANSSON: (As Nicole Barber) Hey.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIGHT SWITCH CLICKING)

ADAM DRIVER: (As Charlie Barber) Sorry.

FINK: Schneider-Mayerson says the most impactful way to address climate change on screen is by modeling individual and collective action. He hopes that's where more movies are headed next.

SCHNEIDER-MAYERSON: You know, if we see characters that are living slightly different lives, it's likely to normalize it for folks and hopefully to lead to more acceptance and practicing of these climate-positive behaviors.

FINK: So that's the power of storytelling on screen. But meanwhile, there's the climate footprint of the industry itself, which is massive for every film that's made. So when it comes to the reality of climate change in film, there's a good reason to ask what movies to make, but also how we should make them.

Kathryn Fink, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kathryn Fink
Kathryn Fink is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.