Recently a sustainability journalist and blogger in Europe, Erica Eller, asked me what my favorite cli-fi novel of all time is and could I name it for her?
“You know, my favorite cli-fi novel of all time is not a cli-fi novel at all but it ties in with my work as a cli-fi advocate and promoter,” I replied by email. “It’s ‘On the Beach’ which was a dime novel paperback from Australia about nuclear war and nuclear winter back in the 1950s, and which had a huge impact on world leaders in the 1960s and 1970s. So I am looking for, and hoping for, an ‘On the Beach’ style of a cli-fi novel about climate change. Who will write it and when? I stay awake at night thinking about this sometimes.”
After part 1 of a 2-part blog post appeared online, a friend of mine who is a psychiatrist in Ohio, Steven Moffic, commented online in reaction to my concluding line in part 1:
”That is why I am looking for the “On the Beach” of the 2020s or 2030s. Such movies take time and funding to get made. I will be watching.”
Moffic wrote: ”Dan, your wish has been mine, too. In the meanwhile, ”On the Beach” should make the rounds again, with a clear connection of nuclear disaster to climate disaster. This connection has been recognized by the Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 for helping nuclear disarmament and now feel that climate instability is as big a risk to humanity. One of the great psychiatrists of our time, Robert Jay Lifton, has been a leader of PSR all the way.”
”I am also a psychiatrist, who is one of the editors of a new book in progress about combatting climate change. Also, in the second edition of the best-selling book ”The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” set to be released on March 19, I co-authored a chapter on the environment dangers not being addressed by this administration. Actually, maybe our modern sci fi story is actually our reality, which to many seems like an alternative reality that was once unimaginable.”
And to add fuel to my search, here is what CNN had to say a few weeks ago in a post on the network’s website, written by reporter and producer Jen Christensen. Her article adds more fuel to the fire.
”Cli-fi (climate fiction) on the big screen changes minds about real climate change,” was the CNN headline on February 8th.
A record number of Americans, 7 out of 10, believe that climate change is real, and the majority understand that human activity is largely to blame, according to a January poll. But that still leaves 30% who are skeptical, and there are still some politicians …who regularly tweet their doubts,” Christensen wrote.
”Rather than lobby them with more facts, perhaps climate scientists should send naysayers to the movies,” she added.
Ever since the 1973 cult classic “Soylent Green” introduced audiences to the food shortages climate change will bring, movie makers and TV show producers have been scaring people about it. Now TNT plans to turn 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, CNN added, 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.
“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 parent says they are going to tell you a bedtime story. It automatically opens you up, ” CNN quoted Professor Anthony Leiserowitz, a senior research scientist at the Yale University School of Forestryand Environmental Studies and director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, as saying.
“Film, so far, is the most powerful form of storytelling that we’ve devised,” Leiserowitz said.
While the science made [the 2004 movie “The Day After Tomorrow”] hard for some experts to enjoy, like a lot of sci-fi, “the film goes beyond the science,” climate expert Jonathan Overpeck told CNN. He explained that although the ocean circulation can slow, change wouldn’t happen overnight, and it’s unlikely to spark a new ice age. Rather, it means less warming in the North Atlantic, like what we see now. Overpeck, who is a paleoclimatologist and a father, adds that it’s a personal favorite, he told CNN, 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 said. “But paleoclimatologists do rock!”
Leiserowitz told CNN he likes the movie. He 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.
Before “The Day After Tomorrow” even opened, there was buzz or, as Leiserowitz punnily describes in his 2005 study, “an intense storm of media controversy.”
“Scientists and politicians took to the airwaves, debating the movie’s accuracy and impact. Some feared that the drama would make people think climate change was mere fantasy. Others worried that the public would panic and force politicians to fight climate change, something unwelcome by the Republican White House at the time. Leiserowitz and his team studied its impact in real time,” Christensen noted.
They created a national survey, sampling public opinion a week before the movie’s release and four weeks later. What they found 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 worry that the most extreme scenario, like what happened in the movie, would happen in real life, but those who saw it, compared with those who skipped, 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 told CNN he has a theory about why the 2004 blockbuster movie mattered.
“You can’t directly experience global warming,” he said. “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.”
”Our ancestors relied on story to survive, he said. For example, if you see some berries that look delicious, but someone in your clan told you about a guy who ate one and died, even if you have never tasted one, that story teaches you to avoid them. They are dangerous,” he added.
Ms. Sydney Laws wrote her graduate school thesis about cli-fi, telling CNN: “I personally don’t think we should hold our collective breath for a film that gets all of the facts correct,” Laws said. “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.”
So is Hollywood listening? Stay tuned.