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So you want to tell a good climate tech story

Protocol Climate

Hello, climate-concerned friends. Your Protocol Climate team is here to inspire you to finally write that screenplay you’ve been dreaming of. You know the one we’re talking about, don’t be coy. But no, seriously, today we’re here to talk about how to portray climate-saving technology responsibly on the silver screen. We’ll also dive into California’s big clean car vision and the increasing absurdity of how much cheaper it is to charge EVs.

Getting the climate tech story right

A few months ago, I was watching “The Day After Tomorrow” with some friends. Folks, let me tell you: It did not age well. I mean, to be fair, it’s not that it aged poorly. It’s just not that good of a movie.

In fact, most climate movies are … not great. It’s telling that perhaps the best big-name climate movie is “Don’t Look Up,” a film that currently enjoys a 55% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (I loved it, don’t @ me.) The point is, most climate movies suck. But there’s a new guide out this week from Bloomberg Philanthropies and Good Energy to help Hollywood make better ones. Among the ways TV and film can start to grapple with the crisis is sharper portrayals of the technology we need and have now, as well as the stuff that’s currently science fiction but may come in handy down the road.

Better climate stories start with normalization. One of the central challenges to addressing climate change is the need to change the narrative of our entire economic order from a system that runs on fossil fuels to one that runs on clean energy. Too often, we see the “we’re doomed” narrative. But as the most recent United Nations climate report shows, we have many of the tech tools we need to address climate change. The new storytelling guide provides a roadmap for how to handle tech with care in film.

  • There are numerous power structures that will need to be changed if we want to fix the climate, of course, but technological change absolutely has to happen. Rapidly.
  • That means normalizing renewable energy by showing things like solar panels as backdrops or having cities be car-free. (“The Expanse” does both these things.)
  • There are also real limits to technology solving everything, though. “Snowpiercer” and “Interstellar” are both incredible movies where climate change isn’t front and center, but an important backdrop. Both also show that tech won’t save us, at least if we want to stay on Earth.

We also need to cool it with those silver bullets. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but no single technology is going to solve climate change. Apologies to the nuclear bros out there, but I’m just stating facts. Any climate storytelling that doesn’t acknowledge this isn’t science fiction — it’s just fiction. When it comes to speculative technology, the guide provides some pointers for how to handle it with care.

  • It notes that a major carbon dioxide removal plant in Iceland “takes a year to capture the amount of carbon humanity currently emits every three seconds.” There’s a future where we may have figured out how to speed things up, but it’s not any time soon.
  • Nuclear fusion, another oft-hailed silver bullet, also gets the “calm down” treatment in the guide, which notes, “It could someday be very cool!”
  • The longest part of the silver bullets section is devoted to solar geoengineering, a technique to dim the sun by injecting tiny particles into the stratosphere. This technology actually is available to us now, which makes it all the more terrifying given how little we know about it: “If you decide to portray these technologies in your stories, make sure you are not uplifting them as a panacea,” the guide notes. “This isn’t savior tech; it’s risky planetary experimentation — at best.” Eek. But also, yes.

And these are good lessons for off-screen stories too. While the guide is geared toward Hollywood, it’s also just as important — probably more important — to ensure the stories we tell each other are realistic, too. And they’re directly influenced by the shows and movies we consume.

  • While carbon dioxide removal can often seem like the next shiny thing thanks to splashy Silicon Valley moves and fossil fuel companies pouring resources into it, the reality is anything but at the moment. That’s not to say we won’t need it at some point, but telling ourselves it — or nuclear fusion, or whatever tech is just over the horizon — is the answer to our climate woes sets a dangerous precedent.
  • The less sexy solutions we do have may not be tailor-made for the big screen either, but movies can still play a role in making them feel like the key parts of our future that they have to be.
  • The guide notes, for example, that “EV owners don’t have to be eco-warriors or tech dudes.” Instead, films could have a car chase or racing scene with them. Imagine “Days of Thunder” but it’s “Days of Lightning.” (Because electricity. Get it? Someone please hire me to write this.)
  • “Film and series content play an incalculable role in shaping the public’s perception and understanding of the most important issues impacting our world,” Antha Williams, the climate and environment program lead at Bloomberg Philanthropies, said in an email. “The entertainment community has a big opportunity to play a critical role in the climate fight — to include the climate crisis as part of their storytelling by portraying it accurately, effectively, and, most importantly in my opinion, frequently.”

So seriously, someone get at me about “Days of Lightning.” My email is below.

— Brian Kahn (email | twitter)

California's big ban plan

If Golden State regulators have their way, new gas-powered cars will be relegated to the dustbin of history. California’s powerful air pollution agency just introduced a new proposal that would ban new gas-powered cars by 2035. The move would be a global first — but almost certainly not the last.

The proposed rule could be a game-changer. As written by the California Air Resources Board, the rule would require the state to up its zero-emission car sales in the coming years, culminating in the full ban by 2035. It wouldn’t apply to sales of used vehicles, which is how most people in the U.S. buy their cars, though it would still serve as a major incentive for automakers looking to sell cars in the nation’s largest auto market.

Some automakers are already leaning into the all-electric future. CARB has worked with the auto industry, and the 2035 timeline reflects automakers’ plans. The agency has also worked with community groups who want to ensure the EV transition is equitable. Now, regulators need to figure out how to balance some of the competing interests between those two sets of stakeholders.

  • “It’s building on the commitments that automakers have already made, and not necessarily being transformative or pushing them to do better,” Román Partida-López, legal counsel for Transportation Equity at the nonprofit Greenlining Institute said, in reference to the fact that many automakers have already committed to selling only zero-emissions vehicles beginning around 2035.
  • He would like to see more intentionality, saying the rule could include formal requirements that automakers work to increase accessibility and deployment of EVs in low-income communities via access to charging networks and other avenues.
  • Meanwhile, an alliance of automobile manufacturers expressed qualified support for the proposal, claiming a commitment to electrifying the transportation sector but flagging concerns about whether the state has sufficient charging infrastructure and access to critical minerals to make it happen in time.

Where California goes, the masses will (probably) follow. If the rule becomes reality, the rest of the U.S. might just be dragged along in its wake.

  • Car companies have historically had a bit of a tenuous relationship with California regulators. The state has imposed more stringent air pollution standards than federal ones, and a number of states have followed suit. Since the end of the Trump administration, though, automakers have mostly fallen in line.
  • These companies only have so much power to resist: California is such a large market for vehicles that its policies inform what kinds of cars are sold nationwide, and other states — and eventually the federal government — often adopt California rules because that state is the coolest. (OK, that part is true in the spiritual sense, if not in the actual-reason-the-state’s-rules-get-adopted-elsewhere sense.)

There’s still a 45-day comment period and a June 9 hearing ahead, so feel free to chime in if you call California home.

Lisa Martine Jenkins (email | twitter)


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A tweet to make you think

I don’t drive on a regular basis, but I hear the gas prices are too damn high, and there are social media posts to prove it. I also hear charging an EV is a relative bargain.

Those two trends were — ahem — driven home in stark detail by a tweet from University of Colorado professor Cresten Mansfeldt, where he showed a Denver gas station that also appears to provide EV charging. Its sign advertises both the price of gas per gallon as well as the much lower price of electricity per kilowatt-hour: “Talk about a sea change moment,” he wrote. Indeed.

While the $4.19 per gallon versus $0.15 per kilowatt-hour is particularly stark, commenters swiftly pointed out that the comparison in price between gallons and kilowatt-hours is a misleading one, given that 1 gallon of gas gets the average vehicle about roughly 26 miles down the road, and 1 kilowatt-hour provides an average EV with about 3 miles of range. At the kilowatt-hour price, it would cost about $1.30 to drive an EV a gallon-equivalent distance. That’s still chump change.

With gas prices at an all-time high, would more people switch to an EV if this kind of comparison were a little more in their faces? Clearly we need more gas stations getting into the charging business, too. Bring on the natural experiments!

Lisa Martine Jenkins

How is the infrastructure rollout going — and what does it mean for tech?

It’s been almost six months since Congress passed the landmark $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The long-awaited bill promised significant investments in the tech industry, including $65 billion to support broadband expansion and another $7.5 billion to promote electric vehicle adoption. What progress toward those goals have we seen so far — and what can we expect in the next six months? Find out on April 21. RSVP here.

Hot links

You thought the chip shortage was bad? Rivian’s CEO would like to point out that the EV battery supply shortage might be even worse.

The “dark doldrums” are real for renewables, because the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine 24/7. The New Yorker took a close look at why energy storage is so damn important.

Induction ranges aren’t just more efficient than gas: Installing one could make you a trendsetter. How’s that for a positive climate narrative?

Has a headline ever made me despair more? Probably, but I can’t think of any examples just now.

Carbon dioxide removal: It’s not just for Silicon Valley! Academics have laid out the beginnings of a plan to treat VC firms’ favorite climate solution as a public service instead.

Ford’s CEO has some big EV plans. Also, his nickname as a kid was “Jimmy Car-Car.” This story contains multitudes and is well worth a read.

— Lisa Martine Jenkins and Brian Kahn


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Thanks for reading! As ever, you can send any and all feedback to climate@protocol.com. See you Thursday!

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