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Can Hollywood fight climate change?

Katharina Wecker
October 20, 2017

"Cli-fi" movies are turning global warming into apocalyptic drama, but the genre's latest release – Geostorm – has been slammed as insensitive to climate-change victims. Can a good story motivate people to take action?

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Image: Imago/Unimedia Images

Disaster movie "Geostorm" opens in cinemas this week, starring Gerard Butler as a rocket scientist tasked with saving the world after climate-controlling satellites designed to prevent natural disasters are hijacked to do just the reverse.

The movie was some time in the making - reportedly due to major reshoots following poor reception from test audiences. 

As the release date finally came into view, real-life catastrophes like hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria filled our screens with images all-too-close to those in the Geostorm trailer. Many commentators have taken a dim view of the film's flippant treatment of climate-related disasters.

But can the emerging genre of climate fiction – or "cli-fi" – in cinema play a positive role in the fight against climate change?

A failure of imagination

Most people accept that climate change is real. Two out of three people in Latin America, Africa and Europe think global warming is a very serious problem, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.

Yet a threat on this scale can feel disconnected from our personal lives. Most Americans believe global warming will harm people in the United States, but almost all are convinced it won't harm them personally.

Most of us continue our high-carbon lifestyles and hope for the best. So why don't we get our butts off the couch and take action?

Research suggests it comes down to a failure of imagination. Climate change is mostly invisible. We can see the immediate effects such as more regular heatwaves, floods and storms. But we cannot see CO2, or feel changes in average global temperature.

Film - Geostorm
Accelerated climate change hits Afghanistan in 'Geostorm'Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Warner Bros. Picture

So might Hollywood movies about climate change help us "see" global warming? Can films and novels inspire us to take action - even as we relax on that comfy couch?

Researchers say yes – and no.

The power of storytelling

"There's only so far scientists can go in presenting data and appealing to people's rational intellect," Andrew Hoffman, author of "How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate," told DW. 

"To touch people's hearts, the key is to be able to tell stories – stories of what climate change means, how we understand it, what kind of futures are possible."

But Hoffman doesn't think current Hollywood movies are hitting the mark. They tend to frame the issue too negatively, focusing on catastrophe, disaster and dramatic changes happening over night.

If audiences defy critics and flock to see "Geostorm," it won't be the first global-warming disaster flick to pull crowds. 

Back in 2004, "The Day After Tomorrow" turned a story of one man's fight to save the world from an accelerated climate catastrophe into a box-office hit. 

But critics argue these movies' reliance on a heroic individual to save the planet leave most of us feeling powerless. 

Empowering the people

Ed Maibach is director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, located near Washington, DC. He researches how to mobilize populations to adopt behavior to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Roland Emmerich The Day After Tomorrow Filmszene
'The Day After Tomorrow' came under fire for scientific inaccuracyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Fox

"I personally haven't seen or read one [movie or novel] yet that I thought would make a difference," Maibach told DW. He believes that action taken by ordinary people should play a greater role in cli-fi narratives. 

"Convince people they can make a difference, make them feel powerful," Maibach says. "Anger can help, too. The combination of anger, hope, and agency has stopped wars, toppled dictatorships, and earned people the right to marry the one they love."

Still, cli-fi isn't all about disaster movies. In comedy-drama "Downsizing," out later this year, people are shrunk to save resources. 

And the genre extends to novels. "Carbon Diaries 2015" by Saci Lloyd follows a 16-year-old student in London as the government imposes carbon rationing in the wake of climate catastrophes. And in "Memory of Water" by Emmi Itäranta, water has become so scarce that wars are fought over it.

Researchers say creative exploration can change how we relate to our planet, turning dry facts into something tangible.

"Accepting the idea that climate change is real is not only an act of the intellect - it has to be personal," Hoffman says. "We will protect what we love; we won't protect a bunch of scientific equations."

Merging fact and fiction

Yet there are inherent dangers in using fiction over scientific fact to energize people . Movies like "The Day After Tomorrow," and 1995's "Waterworld," were criticized for scientific inaccuracy.

Craig Russell is the author of "Fragment," an eco-thriller about a massive Antarctic ice sheet that floats in the open ocean threatening to destroy all marine life in its path and flood coastal regions. 

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Craig Russell's novel 'Fragment' deals with melting ice in the Antarctica and draws heavily on scientific factImage: picture-alliance/blickwinkel/E. Hummel

He says it's crucial to be scientifically correct in climate-change storytelling. "By giving people accurate information, you gain credibility," Russell told DW. 

As a student, Russell worked at an Arctic weather station, and has been fascinated by the poles ever since. When two ice shelfs in the Antarctica collapsed, he started to think "what if?"

His novel was the result. In it, he provides detailed scientific information about Antarctic ice-melt. But he also introduces a whale that can communicate with humans – mixing fact with fantasy.

Hoffman says that's an approach that can have a real impact. 

"Scientific correctness is important and you don't want to be totally misrepresenting the science," he said. "Yet, if you are trying to be evocative or nuanced, you have to let the artist be free. They shouldn't always be worried about giving the audience a lesson of climate science 101."

"Let's turn artists loose to touch people's heart on this issue," Hoffman added.