How to responsibly portray speculative climate tech in film and TV

Climate researcher Peter Kalmus explains how to depict climate tech in ways that don’t glamorize speculative solutions or delay action in the real world.

How to responsibly portray speculative climate tech in film and TV

Narrative storytelling about the climate crisis is vital right now.

Photo: Jakob Owens/Unsplash

Climate storytelling just got a major upgrade, care of a new playbook for established and aspiring screenwriters. The guide is meant to help us have fewer “The Day After Tomorrows” and more, well, good climate movies and television shows that have yet to be created that depict the crisis we face accurately.

That doesn’t mean climate change needs to be front and center. It can serve as a backdrop for the stories we tell about the future. Not just the bad stuff — you can see plenty of climate dystopia just by refreshing your Twitter feed — but also the technology that can save us and the power structures that need to be changed for a more just, climate-safe future.

“This moment is a challenge to writers and other creatives in Hollywood to help shape a new reality,” Favianna Rodriguez, the founder of the Center for Cultural Power, and Layel Camargo, a filmmaker and activist, wrote in the guide.

Narrative storytelling about the climate crisis is vital right now because so much of the future will look different than the past. We simply have no analog for what a world full of EVs and wind turbines will look like. Movies and television shows can help us collectively imagine how to create that world more clearly. And they could also give us a sense of how to envision even more speculative technologies like carbon dioxide removal, including how to ensure they’re deployed in a just manner.

To get a sense of what better stories could look like, Protocol spoke with climate scientist Peter Kalmus, who helped write a section on technology in the playbook. Kalmus works at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but he worked on the guide and spoke with Protocol in a personal capacity.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Are there ways to include carbon dioxide removal or other speculative tech in movies that don't glamorize it?

I think so. Just showing that there are many, many ways in which we will not be able to adapt, despite our best technological efforts, would be a good foil for unrealistic or glamorizing depictions. In particular, depicting carbon dioxide removal as expensive and not nearly as easy to scale up as thought would be interesting — and in my opinion, probably more realistic.

Skewering techno-saviorism was, at least in my estimation, one of the more successful parts of “Don't Look Up.” Are there ways you could see applying that lens to CDR/geoengineering or is satire an ineffective tool here?

Absolutely! I think it's already been done, for example, in Neal Stephenson's novel "Termination Shock." There are so many ways things could go wrong, not least of which is unrealistically high expectations, that I think there are unlimited stories and ways to tell those stories.

What climate story would you want to see made for TV, whether fictional or real?

I've been developing this vision of what I think of as "sad but relieved solidarity." I think it's what we should be going for. Sad, because no matter what happens now, we will lose a lot. Things like the Amazon rainforest and coral reefs and some of the world's beautiful coastal cities [will be degraded or destroyed by climate change]. I wish it were still 1990 or even 2000 so I didn't have to say that.

Relieved, because if we do everything right, we could still be more or less OK, I think. Hopefully.

And solidarity, because it will necessarily require us to work together and grow up as a species. It will be a very spiritual moment for our planet — if we start making the right decisions, and putting the right people in charge.

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