Danny Bloom
I seek the truth wherever it lies.

CNN says ‘cli-fi’ films can change viewers’ minds about risks of climate change

CNN producer and reporter Jen Christensen, writing in a recent article about Hollywood and climate change movies, didn’t waste any time getting to the heart of the matter.

According to the academic scholars she interviewed at Yale University and Colby College and elsewhere, climate-themed feature films with good story-telling and audience-pleasing stars can make a difference in how people respond to the slow drip, drip. drip time-frame of runaway global warming. Such cli-fi movies, the experts said, can change minds and lead to action by politicians and world leaders.

Ever since the 1973 movie “Soylent Green” introduced American audiences to the food shortages that climate change might bring, Hollywood directors and TV show producers have been mostly scaring people about it. Some movies are dystopian, some are utopian, and some are what Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood calls “ustopian” (a mix of dystopia and utopia). One studio is now turning the movie “Snowpiercer” into a TV series.

“There’s even a catchy name for this climate change fiction genre — cli-fi,” CNN reported.

”What experts tell us, though, is that cli-fi isn’t just wholesome dystopian entertainment; it seems to help people believe in actual climate change, even when Hollywood’s version of the science is a bit off,” Christensen wrote.

Quoting Anthony Leiserowitz, a senior research scientist at the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, CNN said: “Story is one of the oldest and most powerful forms of communications we ever had. When someone says ‘now, let me tell you a story …’ something goes ‘zzzzzt’ in your brain. It’s like when you were a child and your parents say they are going to tell you a bedtime story. It automatically opens you up,”

“Film, so far, is the most powerful form of storytelling that we’ve devised,” Leiserowitz added.

”The Day After Tomorrow” was a cli-fi movie released in the summer of 2004 that broke box office records around the world at the time.

Depicting devastating overnight climate change, the movie starred Jake Gyllenhaal and Dennis Quaid, with a story about a polar explorer who warns the world that the Gulf Stream will shut down. In the make-believe Hollywood movie, It does break down and triggers some cinematic (and dramatic) weather events, including a new ”Ice Age.”

Oops. Whatever happened to global warming? film critics asked.

According to climate change expert James Fleming at Colby College in Maine, the very unscientific entertainment blockbuster was “based on a short-term variation in ocean circulation that was in the news at the time.”

Professor Fleming told CNN: “Some of my apocalyptically-oriented colleagues loved it, and one, a polar explorer, was even a model for the main character. I myself could not suspend disbelief, however.”

Another climate change scholar, Jonathan Overpeck at the University of Michigan, was interviewed for the CNN article, and he told the global TV network that while the science in the movie made it hard for some experts to enjoy it, at the same time like a lot of sci-fi, “the film goes beyond the science.” Overpeck said that although the ocean circulation can slow, change wouldn’t happen overnight, and it’s unlikely to spark a new Ice Age as Hollywood pretended it would.

In a personal note, Professor Overpeck, who is a paleoclimatologist and a father, told CNN that the 2004 movie was a personal favorite of his ”since its main character is a paleoclimatologist dad who speaks truth to power.”

“The kind of global freeze-up depicted in the film is not something to worry about,” Overpeck added, noting: “But paleoclimatologists do rock!”

Professor Leiserowitz said he liked the movie. He even did a study about how it motivated people to take action to curb climate change, and artists from all disciplines have reached out to him to talk about how to create equally ”impactful” narratives.

Even before “The Day After Tomorrow” opened in the July of 2004, there was a media and Twitter buzz about it, both pro and con.
So Leiserowitz and his team studied its impact in real time, creating a national survey and ”sampling” public opinion a week before the movie’s opening day and again some four weeks later.

What they found out, CNN reported, was that “across the board, the movie appears to have had a strong influence on watchers’ risk perceptions of global warming.”

Most moviegoers didn’t really worry that the most extreme scenario, like the coming of a new Ice Age in what happened in the movie, would happen in real life, Leiserowitz said. But after watching the movie in a dark, crowded theater viewers felt ”more inclined to make personal changes to reduce their carbon footprint. They were more inclined to talk to friends about climate change, and seeing the film affected voter preferences.”

Leiserowitz has a theory about why the silly, unscientific movie ”mattered.”

“You can’t directly experience global warming. It’s a theory. It’s abstract. Scientists have collected temperatures and data from many decades all over the world, and that gets communicated to you through the analytic brain. That’s important, yes, but the movie, it’s a story,” he told CNN.

Our human ancestors relied on ”stories” to survive, he said. Storytelling is part of human history, from ancient religious texts to modern best-selling novels.

And the Yale expert was not the only public intellectual who loved the movie. The globe-trotting Indian-American novelist Amitav Ghosh is also a big fan of the film, surprising many of his climate activist friends around the world.

Although his climatologist friends mock him for his guilty pleasure, Ghosh told a Canadian reporter last summer tha he is a huge fan of some of Hollywood’s overblown cli-fi disaster epics, such as ”The Day After Tomorrow” and ”Geostorm.”

“I love them! I watch them obsessively,” he told the reporter over the phone, chuckling.

“My climate scientist friends laugh at me for this,” Ghosh said, “because the practical science in a movie like ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ is bad. But I find these ‘cli-fi’ movies very compelling. And I do think both film and television very forward-leaning in dealing with climate change.”

Now meet Sydney Laws, a graduate student at a university in Texas, who wrote her graduate thesis on cli-fi.

“I personally don’t think we should hold our collective breath for a film that gets all of the facts correct,” Laws told CNN. “Filmmakers have to tell a story in order to get the audience engaged, so I prefer to focus on their effectiveness at compelling moviegoers to change their behavior. So while scientific accuracy is incredibly important for the public’s understanding of the ins and outs of climate change, merit can still be found in even the most outrageous of movies.”

“Snowpiercer” was directed by a South Korean film director and based on a comic book by two French sci-fi writers. In the movie, a train circles the globe in a continuous loop over and over again, with the Earth’s last survivors aboard after a global warming geoengineering experiment goes terribly wrong.

Dean Overpeck of University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability told CNN that “Snowpiercer” is about a rogue billionaire who has used climate engineering to cool the planet, but when the experiment goes wrong, it creates a “snowball Earth” that is largely frozen solid, and the only survivors ride a train filled with class warfare that forever circles the globe.

“A growing debate exists within the climate science community about the utility of geoengineering to cool the planet back down while at the same time continuing to burn fossil fuels and emitting greenhouse gases that act to warm the planet,” Overpeck told CNN in an email. “One critical aspect of this debate, however, is that we may never know enough to geoengineer safely.”

Did you ever see Disney’s 2008 animated film “WALL-E”? It which featured a ”last robot on Earth,” left to tidy up the pollution humans left behind when they left the uninhabitable plant.

“Unmitigated climate change and pollution interacts and endangers life, and that is well-supported by science,” Overpeck said. “But, the other key message of ‘WALL-E’ is that there is hope.'”

About the Author
Dan Bloom curates The Cli-Fi Report at He graduated from Tufts University in Boston in 1971 with a major in Modern Literature. A newspaper editor and reporter since his days in Washington, D.C., Juneau, Alaska, Tokyo, Japan and Taipei, Taiwan, he has lived and worked 5 countries and speaks rudimentary French, Japanese and Chinese. He hopes to live for a few more years.