Hollywood’s climate adviser
Only a tiny fraction of scripted movies and TV shows talk about climate change. Meet the woman trying to change that.
Climate change is one of the defining issues of our time, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the Oscars this Sunday.
None of the films nominated for top awards talk about it directly. Avatar does address the subject in a metaphorical way, but that’s about it.
The awards reflect a larger trend. An analysis of thousands of scripted films and TV episodes made between 2016 and 2020 found that only 2.8 percent included any climate-related keyword.
Today, as part of our Someone to Know series, I want to introduce you to a woman who is working to change that. Anna Jane Joyner is the founder of Good Energy, a nonprofit consultancy that works with screenplay writers to help them include climate in their stories. (Good Energy supported the research project that revealed the number above.)
Joyner, 38, has always understood the power of stories. It was her upbringing in a conservative evangelical family that instilled that sensibility in her, she told me. In a way, she said, religion is “a set of stories used to inspire and mobilize people, for better and worse.”
It’s probably why Joyner likes to go way back in history to explain why she believes in the power of storytelling so strongly.
“The reason that humans started telling stories many tens of thousands of years ago was essentially to grapple with the difficulty of being alive,” she told me.
So why are we not talking about what could be the biggest difficulty of all, climate change? It’s a question that moves Joyner.
Her career in the climate world started after a professor in college who worked on environmental communication encouraged her to apply for an internship at the Sierra Club.
Years later, she worked on a documentary series that followed her while she tried to convince her father, a prominent evangelical pastor who has called on Christians to arm themselves for an inevitable war against liberals, that climate change is a reality. She failed, but the experience provided an opportunity for her to ask producers what the climate movement was doing wrong when it came to storytelling. It was the beginning of her journey into activism in the cinematic world.
Activists for other causes were already working in the industry, she later learned. There were several organizations advocating for specific story lines. Color of Change for Black people, Illuminative for Indigenous people, Define American for immigrants.
There weren’t any for climate change, though. So in 2019, Joyner created Good Energy.
The problem wasn’t that TV and film writers didn’t care. Joyner found that some would tear up when talking about their climate anxiety. But there were obstacles.
There was the lack of repertoire beyond science fiction movies and apocalyptic stories like “Interstellar,” “The Day After Tomorrow” and “The Road.” Though many of those don’t mention climate change. The science also intimidated some writers. To top it off, the challenging politics of climate change made some in the industry concerned about alienating audiences.
After examining the problems, Good Energy wrote a playbook for screenplay writers. The idea is to help them accurately reflect the way climate would affect characters if their stories were taking place in the real world. Good Energy also consults on TV, film and podcast projects, but Joyner said nondisclosure agreements stop them from specifying which ones.
Joyner told me about some narratives that she would like to see more on the big and small screens. They would be stories that help us envision a future that isn’t apocalyptic, stories that deal with the uncertainty of the future, and those that portray courage by showing how communities, not heroic individuals, can change things.
“That is, you know, truly how we move things forward in the real world,” she said.
Then, there are the stories that deal with the mental health toll of climate change. They help viewers who are feeling isolated understand that they are not alone and engage, Joyner said.
She saw it happen live on Twitter when a 2019 episode of the TV series “Big Little Lies” included a girl called Amabella who had a panic attack when she learned about climate change in school.
“So many people who were not climate people” saw themselves in Amabella, she said.
Joyner’s work is only starting. She said she hopes to track mentions of climate change in films and TV shows every two years to gauge how things are evolving.
Getting the number up is personal for her, she told me. Living between Los Angeles and the Gulf Coast of Alabama, she has experienced her share of climate disasters, like when Hurricane Sally hit the Gulf in 2020.
“There is this incredible grief of living in a beautiful place that, you know, isn’t going to look like anything that I know it as,” she said. “I need stories to be able to navigate.”
Joyner’s recommendations for a climate watch party:
“First Reformed,” a 2017 movie about a pastor, played by Ethan Hawke, who encounters a radical environmentalist and his pregnant wife.
“Woman at War,” a 2019 Icelandic film about a 50-year-old activist fighting a local aluminum company while she is in line to adopt a child.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a dreamy 2012 story about a little girl whose father is dying while her community floods.
“Extrapolations,” an upcoming TV series starring Meryl Streep, Kit Harington and others, about the choices people are forced to make as the climate crisis gets worse.
Essential news from The Times
A novel solution: A New York City law requires buildings to cut emissions. One is using a new system to capture the carbon dioxide from its boilers and seal it in concrete blocks.
A lonely voice gets a platform: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave daily speeches on the chamber floor about climate change. Now, as a committee chairman, he has a megaphone.
A superconductor revolution. Maybe: After a 2020 paper was retracted, a physicist and his team are back with a bolder finding.
“A once-in-a-lifetime storm”: Freddy, which has pummeled countries in Africa and killed 21 people since early February, is on track to become the longest-lasting tropical cyclone.
El Niño may be on the way: La Niña, which helped fuel drought in the southwest for over two years, has ended. Brace for El Niño and a likely spike in global temperatures.
Resolving a trade feud: American and European officials are negotiating a limited deal that would help heal a rift over the Biden administration’s new climate law.
“Climate-proof Duluth”: The Minnesota city is coming to terms with its status as a refuge for people moving away from places more vulnerable to climate change.
From outside The Times
Argentina is facing its worst drought in over 60 years, Reuters reported. That’s led to steep cuts in soybean and corn production, two crops that help drive the country’s economy.
Politico profiled a Dutch activist who has received death threats after initiating a series of legal cases forcing the Netherlands to uphold its environmental commitments.
From National Geographic: Gabon hopes to create a new sustainable industry by exporting iboga, a plant that can help with trauma and addiction.
The BBC reported that Arctic sea ice has receded to its second-lowest extent on record.
The Energy News Network explained how an entrepreneur is bringing community solar projects to low-income people in Illinois. She says building trust is critical.
Teen Vogue interviewed two social media creators about a viral campaign to pressure President Biden to stop Willow, a proposed oil project in Alaska.
Before you go: Cautionary tales
Joshua Ashish Dawson, an India-born director and architect, sees himself as a “world builder.” He uses digitals tools to create scenarios in his short films that show what he calls “speculative climate futures.” One portrays a spa created for the wealthy to cope with extreme weather events. The goal, he said, is to “ask viewers to question their assumptions about the world they live in.”
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Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward. Read past editions of the newsletter here.
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