As the public seek fictional characters that align with their outlook, how will growth in climate storytelling impact the actions of consumers?

Scripted media portrayals of the climate crisis are rarer than you might think but still capture a wide audience. With such narratives likely to become more common, constructive hope could lead to a more climate-motivated customer base.
As the public seek fictional characters that align with their outlook, how will growth in climate storytelling impact the actions of consumers?

Entertainment audiences seek climate-conscious characters

The Norman Lear Centre (NLC) for the study of entertainment, media & society based at the University of Southern California has conducted extensive research that analysed over 37,000 scripts from between 2016 and 2020  and surveyed the attitudes of 2003 Americans. Their goal was to understand the portrayal of climate change in television and cinema and how this was perceived by their audience. Their rationale was based on the defined influence of entertainment narratives’ impact on public understanding as well as its ability to motivate action.[i] Their work presented what was described as a ‘glaring absence’ of climate change keywords within scripted media; only 2.8% of analysed scripts contained climate keywords, and only 0.6% mentioned climate change explicitly. However, even though the subject was rare within television and cinema scripts that were analysed, the NLC did note that the content (with a climate change keyword within it) had been seen by over 1.2 billion people worldwide.[ii]

The ‘glaring absence’ that was identified was explored in the context of the audience members that it surveyed. Their report says that audiences fundamentally want to engage with content that puts them in a good mood but also wish to see their own outlooks on society expressed by the characters they are watching. In the context of concern for climate change, this outlook is underrepresented when compared to other themes such as LGBTQ+ rights, systemic racism and gender equality.

Source: NLC

Through a process called narrative transportation, audiences to television and cinema may become immersed in the fiction that they are engaging with. They become a part of the world they are watching and those more immersed within the media are more likely to adopt the attitudes and behaviours of the characters they are watching.[iii] This portrays quite why the NLC are so interested in the amount of television and cinematic media that portrays climate change within it, as it could be a powerful tool for empowering planet-positive behaviours in its audiences. However, if the absence of the climate crisis within scripted media remains ‘glaring’, will the opportunity be missed?

The climate crisis: a growing villain in cinema and television

The Day After Tomorrow, Avatar, Geostorm and most recently, Don’t Look Up are all examples of an intensifying presence of environmental issues in film. In the last few years, this has hit new heights as producers recognise a growing concern and desire from their audiences for content that engages with the climate crisis. Amazon Prime’s first major release of the year, The Rig, is perhaps a precursor to 2023 being a year which sees more growth than ever in content that addresses the theme. The show’s creator, David Macpherson, not only has an MA in environmental studies, but his father worked on an offshore platform.[iv] Macpherson told the financial times his views on the presence of the climate crisis within entertainment:

“I think it would be a disservice to avoid it,” … “We’re in the age of climate change, and things are going to get worse. If writers aren’t putting that aspect in their story, are they really reflecting the world as it is?”

Macpherson’s portrayal of  the climate crisis and its relation to fossil fuels within The Rig was a nuanced one. Unlike many other climate crisis stories, only 12% of which link it fossil fuels, the show does not shy away from attributing the issue . But in his own words, it makes sure not to demonise the rig’s workers themselves. Instead, it presents the view that what is missing from previous narratives is the individual impacts. Macpherson explained to the Financial Times:

“I wanted to tell that global story [of climate change],” he says. “But one of the things that gets missed is the impact on everyday people in these facilities. The rounds of industrial decline in the UK haven’t always been managed well. If this industry comes to an end, I hope people are much better looked after and their skills properly valued.”

Bringing emotional and narrative nuance to scripted media

There’s no denying that most climate crisis narratives leave us feeling somewhat afraid; planetary destruction is not something that many would claim to be a source of joy. This is a problem for previous attempts by films and television shows to portray the climate crisis. Evidence suggests that fear-inducing imagery and stories, whilst impactful upon their target in terms of raising concern for the issue, can leave an individual feeling powerless in the face of the struggle they hope to overcome.[v] Instead, some suggest that hope is the key to mobilisation in the face of the climate crisis and that scripted media may be the perfect delivery method for such narratives. Julia Leyda, a professor in film studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, points out that personal stories like that portrayed in the rig will allow the audience to identify with the issue:

"It's not just science, it's not just numbers – it's our bodies, it's our clothes, it's our daily life," …"Media prepares us to feel something we're going to feel soon. Watching representations of this stuff in fiction on the screen kind of helps us rehearse for it."[vi]

If television and cinema are this kind of ‘rehearsal’, then narratives that don’t present the threat as a forgone conclusion may become a powerful tool for filmmakers and screenwriters to use their art as an agent of change.

Growth in this area can’t just be swept under the carpet by the corporate and business world. Not only do we know that narrative transportation means that any growth in these kinds of climate crisis portrayals may well see a corresponding growth in calls for action for consumers, but also that narrative transportation is not limited to long-form media. Advertisements can be considered micro stories, and as such, how you use your advertising could be a vital consideration as you seek to engage consumers on the topic and keep them onside as you attempt to pursue change.


[i] The Norman Lear Centre- A glaring absence: the climate crisis is virtually non-existent in scripted entertainment context

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Palgrave MacMillan & Portland State University- Entertainment-Education Behind the Scenes

[iv] Financial Times- Amazon’s ‘The Rig’ shows how TV drama is waking up to the climate crisis

[v] Science Communication- “Fear Won't Do It”: Promoting Positive Engagement With Climate Change Through Visual and Iconic Representations

[vi] BBC Future Planet- The climate films shaping society


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