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Movies, Magazines, TV: Bringing Climate Change into the Mainstream

August 21, 2012
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This past weekend I was bombarded by a plethora of climate change information and images in a variety of art forms—film, magazine, and TV. I was thrilled! In one day, I saw a movie with climate change overtones, read a National Geographic lead article about the recent climate extremes and how they relate to climate change, and watched an episode of “The Daily Show” where Jon Stewart, in his usual comedic self, discussed climate change and its portrayal in the media.

First off, I was happy to see climate change portrayed in so many different public mediums. Does this mean the topic of climate change is becoming more mainstream? And second, I couldn’t stop thinking of our last blog by Megan Kimble on using the arts as a form of climate change communication. Are these mediums of communicating climate change effective?

The movie I saw, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” was recommended by co-workers. The main plot of the movie isn’t about climate change; the movie isn’t a documentary. It’s a fictional story of a little girl, and shows, from her perspective, her life on a poor island community she refers to as “the Bathtub” in the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans. She has a very close connection with nature, listening to the heartbeats of all living things and explaining to the audience that everything is linked and if one piece is broken the entire system can collapse. So enters climate change, through flashes of glaciers melting and images of monstrous beasts known as aurochs, representing the impending doom of sea-level rise. A massive storm comes, flooding the community while the larger, commercial part of the city is protected by the all-important levee, thus injecting images of Hurricane Katrina into our minds.

From the perspective of a climate scientist (and even from an ordinary individual) I thought the movie was thought-provoking and entertaining; definitely worth the six bucks. Most movies about climate change are documentaries, which while highly moving and informative, are usually shown in smaller theaters (or go straight to DVD), and since they typically take a more scientific point-of-view, viewers of these documentaries are normally already concerned about climate change on some level. ”Beasts of the Southern Wild,” on the other hand, is a fictional story that won so many awards it made it to the ‘big’ theaters, reaching a much larger audience. In that respect alone, it is a great way of communicating awareness of climate change. But what’s more, it treated climate change as a fact. There was no debate over whether or not it was occurring, or what was causing it. The movie portrayed climate change as a reality without attempting any call for action—as most documentaries tend to do—and thus has the potential to reach an audience that wouldn’t normally go see a movie about climate change.

In 2011, Texas experienced it's worst wildfire season on record. Images such as this one of a Texas fire on July 5, 2011, can be extremely powerful for communicating climate change. Photo Credit: Zack GuidoI came home from the movie and checked the mail, and there was my monthly National Geographic with a tornado on the front page and the headline, “What’s Up With the Weather?” Photos show a haboob tearing across Phoenix in 2011, a stranded couple clinging to the roof of their Jeep as flood waters rage around them near Nashville in 2010, and a flaming fence post marking the trail of destruction after a fire blazed across Southern Texas in 2011. The article paints a picture of more billion-dollar disasters across the U.S. in recent years, as well as disasters across the globe, and how they’re the result of natural climate variability, more people living in disaster areas, and, of course, climate change.

National Geographic is a great medium for communicating climate change. It’s a far-reaching magazine and the articles are long enough to really address the issue. The authors are able to incorporate both scientific information and anecdotal evidence. Plus, they include amazing photographs that allow readers to enter the world of these disasters and feel (to some extent) what it was like to experience them. The images in the article—as described by words and photos—are much more effective at communicating climate change to the public than words in a scientific journal that are only read by a select group of scientists. They show people the current and potential impacts of climate change in a much more dramatic and relatable manner.

Later that night I was catching up on “The Daily Show” episodes, and lo and behold the August 14 episode incorporated climate change. Stewart talked about the current drought in the Midwest and how it may increase the price of pizza, and then showed how climate change has been portrayed in the media lately, including an interview with James Hansen of NASA and, in the normal Stewart fashion, how conservatives discuss the issue.

The episode is pretty funny, as most “Daily Show” episodes are, and definitely makes viewing the information more entertaining. But in terms of communicating climate change and promoting personal change, is he just preaching to the choir? Perhaps--Stewart’s primary audience likely already thinks about climate change and its impacts. However, I think this just shows that climate change is becoming more mainstream and that more and more people are becoming exposed to the topic as a reality, and not a debate.

There are many ways of communicating climate change and I think all of the mediums I’ve mentioned are effective in some way or another. The fact that we are seeing climate change mentioned in more ways recently shows how mainstream the topic is becoming. Even if some people are still debating the topic, more people are at least aware of the issue and it is thus becoming accepted enough for artists to use it in storylines, be it through movies, magazines, or TV.

Thanks for the post Sarah, it

Thanks for the post Sarah, it is good to hear about the updates. Now that a new semester is beginning at the University of Arizona, I hope that we will hear more about climate in the Southwest.

I just returned from San Francisco, where a thousand climate leaders were trained to present the Climate Reality Project's new multi-media learning production.  While there are a dozen people in Arizona trained to give the presentation, I was the only person at the training from Tucson. 

I hope that the Southwest Climate Change Network can be helpful at increasing climate awareness in Tucson and around the Desert Southwest.


Thank you for your comments

Thank you for your comments Vince. The Climate Reality Project sounds like a great program--glad we had a representative from Tucson there!

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