Seven Insights From “More than a Feeling: Climate Emotions in Film & TV”

By Bailey Pennick

The climate crisis is something that affects everything we do, not just as storytellers and artists, but human beings on this planet. With this crisis always being present in our lives, our emotions with regards to climate change reveal themselves in a myriad of ways.

Throughout this year’s Festival, we’ve been presenting several thought-provoking conversations about how storytellers can help inspire immediacy and action within their viewers. In a lively panel moderated by Zazie Beats and presented by the Natural Resources Defence Council, accomplished showrunners, writers, and producers tackle the concept of how we visualize climate emotions in film and television.

Below, dive into insights from Dr. Britt Wray (Generation Dread), Scott Z. Burns (Extrapolations, An Inconvenient Truth), and Naren Shankar (The Expanse).

What is “climate anxiety”?

“Climate anxiety is a term that’s used to describe the distress that a person might feel when they reckon with their awareness of the severity of the climate crisis, and what it’s threatening to do to people and species and wild places — both now, already, and in the future. It often gets lumped in with expressions of overwhelm at the scale of how bad this problem is… grief about what’s being lost, and terror about how awful things could get given inaction. And it’s typically intensified because people are aware that decision makers and leaders are not doing nearly enough to prevent that from happening. 

Young people are, unsurprisingly, bearing the brunt of it. It’s disproportionately showing up in their lives because they’re aware of this threat, they’ve grown up under the specter of the climate crisis, and often are reckoning with these feelings before they’ve had the opportunity to take up their places in society and find out personal aspects of their identity, and other kinds of way-finding missions that we all go through in our lives. That can be incredibly oppressive, to have this hanging over you while you’re trying to do those other human tasks — and older people seem to be checking out of here before things really hit the fan. They feel like adults have left the building and are giving them the responsibility to clean it up.” — Dr. Britt Wray

How can we avoid the climate storytelling dichotomy?

“As a storyteller, I really am trying to escape that sort of dichotomy that the studios — and the people who have the financial resources that allow us to tell stories — tend to push us towards, which is ‘please tell hopeful stories.’ I don’t think that’s the right way to explore this issue. I think looking at stories in a different world is really the only way I know how to do this at this point, which is there are things that are going to change in the world, whether they’re about wild places or about where we live and how we live, and what we eat. So, creating believable stories within those worlds, and exploring those anxieties and the feelings that they provoke, are really the job that’s in front of all of us. And not succumbing to what I think starts to turn into propaganda, when you start saying ‘you got to be hopeful.’ I think the audience isn’t going to give you a pass, so you need to be entertaining, you need to be compelling, you need to create really great characters.” — Scott Z. Burns

Why shouldn’t we rely entirely on technology to get us out of this crisis?

“There’s a great line from The Simpsons. It’s ‘To alcohol! The cause of and the solution to all of life’s problems.’ Substitute ‘technology’ for ‘alcohol’ and that’s the American ethos. We always want that big technological solution on the horizon, because you’ve seen it happen over and over again… I never thought I would see this move to mass electrification for automobiles. I mean, it’s kind of amazing that that’s happened. So I think there’s possibilities for that, but on the balance, you got a lot of people who are protecting their own interests and short-term economic interests, and that’s a hard thing to break people out of. It really is.” — Naren Shankar

What should we make of climate denial in 2022?

“Denial is a really fascinating and complex thing. It doesn’t just show up in the way that we’ve been taught through the media to think of it, in terms of folks who think climate change is a hoax. Denial is a much softer process that many of us unwittingly participate in all the time, when we have one eye open to how horrible this is, and then one eye closed in order to allow us to keep on living comfortably, not take responsibility, and make big uncomfortable changes. And that’s called disavowal. 

Of course, right now, this is a big threat to ourselves — that we can pretend ourselves away from the responsibilities that we have to take right now. But, even more disturbingly now, climate anxiety can lead towards doomsayer mode. Like the nihilism that says that it’s too late to do anything that matters in this scenario. It’s really when we don’t have an awareness of the climate anxiety — when we’re not creating spaces to process it, when we’re not allowing the feelings to move through us and value them — that climate anxiety can be problematic for furthering denial: denial of options, of actions that still matter, or denial of the fact that we all have a role to play right now, and should get our head out of the sand.” — Dr. Britt Wray

What is the role of the science fiction genre now?

“My writing partner on our show is a really amazing writer named Dorothy Fortenberry, and Dorothy always says the real science fiction shows are the shows that are going to be created that don’t take into account climate. That’s what science fiction is. What we’re doing is trying to look at the world as all of the science tells us it will be, and create stories in that world. We’re all embarking on a big adventure together in the next 40 to 50 years. I don’t know how it’s going to end any more than I had any instincts about COVID when I wrote Contagion. All I’ve done is look at the research and try and extrapolate about how the world might look, and the big question is, we’re all going in it together: Are we going to solve this or not? Hopefully, that is a provocative enough proposition for the marketing people at Apple to get people to watch our show.” — Scott Z. Burns

Is it appropriate to make climate crisis comedies?

“[Comedy] does lower your defenses. It lets you engage with it in a totally different way. I’ve been primarily a drama writer my entire career, but I think it takes a particular touch to hit comedy in that way. Think about [a film] from a different era; Dr. Strangelove is a very, very funny movie. It is also a terrifying movie at the same time. And when you can engage with something like that, I think it’s really kind of interesting, if you can pull it off.” — Naren Shankar

What emotions should we evoke in climate crisis storytelling?

“I think we need them all! We need all the emotions to show up in these stories, because there is no secret sauce to getting people to change their mind…or producing behavior change. Different people are motivated by different emotions. I think they all need to be valued, rather than this really stale, old debate about hope versus fear that we’ve been stuck in for a really long time.” — Dr. Britt Wray