Something is cooking in Hollywood. A new group called The Good Energy Project is stirring things up in very interesting ways.
Representing a coalition of the Sierra Club, NRDC, Center for Cultural Power and the Norman Lear Center, Good Energy recently hosted a groundbreaking panel discussion at the Pacific Design Center.
Attendees heard from producers, writers, actors and co-creators of shows including Madame Secretary, The North Pole, A Handmaid’s Tale and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Panelists explained why when it comes to creating series, it is still so hard to include a scene about climate change, show a hybrid car in the background or a shot of a character eating a salad. Networks fear losing a rating point because one of their carefully sculpted characters goes wonky on them.
Imagine your lead character delivering a line of dialogue explaining why climate change cannot be ignored, then watching your cell phone buzzing as the calls come in. There’s no question content related to this still-touchy subject has to feel extremely real, very true and not out of character.
It takes enormous effort, scientific briefings, debates in the writers’ room and late nights on the laptop to carefully craft a smooth way to glide these issues into a script. Daniel Hinerfeld from the NRDC explains why it’s worth it to work so hard to build a new climate narrative, saying “We don’t need more science in order to act. The missing ingredient is public will. That’s because we are telling ourselves the wrong stories about climate—that it’s not urgent, it’s not real, we have plenty of time to solve it, it’s too expensive or it’s already too late. These stories we tell ourselves get in the way of inspiring people to action.”
To illustrate the situation, a clip from the CBS show Madame Secretary was played. Entitled “The New Normal”, the episode’s plot dealt with a typhoon hitting a Pacific island nation, with reactions ranging from a visiting scientist to an evangelical leader.
Supervising producer Alex Maggio told the audience, “The key is to have some easily understandable “stakes” behind the story line that can get people interested in paying attention emotionally to what’s going on.”
As the island nation is about to be wiped off the face of the earth, the scientist briefs the State Department, claiming, “There was a time when we couldn’t link specific storms to climate change, but that time is past.”
The evangelical minister tells the Secretary of State that he doesn’t believe scientists are always right and that “Most doctors used to think that leeches cured pneumonia.” She replies, “You really want to put your chips on that square? Your megachurch is in a flood zone near Greensboro. Millions of your followers are within reach of Atlantic hurricanes. We can help protect them, but we need to act now.”
“Scenes like that are always scenes that I absolutely dread writing because there’s so much information in them,” says Maggio. “They’re sort of mortifying, as you barely understand what you’re typing, despite the fact that experts are patiently talking through every element with you.”
The panel participants are all motivated to try different approaches—comedy, drama, nostalgia—but one thing they agree on is that communicating climate change on TV effectively comes down to characters and stories that feel utterly real.
“When we’re carried away by a good story, we absorb information effortlessly,” says Hinerfeld. “We identify with characters who in many cases are very different than we are. And we kind of drop our defenses, we drop our identity group biases, and we open our minds to other ways of thinking and living.”
The director of the Good Energy Project is Anna Jane Joyner, a preacher’s daughter from North Carolina who gained attention by confronting her father, Rick Joyner, about climate change, in a now famous clip from the series Years of Living Dangerously. Joyner’s dad believes climate change is a communist plot, so she used issues close to home like droughts and water to make her case. “It’s going to become increasingly more difficult for people to have clean water” she told him. His answer: “That’s an assumption you have, but the scientific evidence has not been presented. We’ve had cases in history where 99% of the people believed one thing and they were totally wrong.”
Joyner pleaded with her father to be open to scientific findings, saying, “I really encourage you to put some energy into the research. You don’t want to be on the side that will have to say, ‘I had a chance and I didn’t do anything.’”
She launched the Good Energy Project now because she wants to “accelerate the pace of the change. “Some say change must happen in the next decade if we want to turn things around. Just look at the news—fires, floods, Greta—they all make it hard to escape the fact that we have to start changing the way we live right away.”
“I am mesmerized by film”, Joyner continues. “It’s such a concrete form of storytelling and in such a scary, urgent time, it seems to be the best way to get the real climate stories out in the most concrete, unmistakable forms possible. So to writers who want to tell more and better climate stories, we can connect you to experts and help you think through the stories themselves. We can review your scripts, come to your writers’ rooms and anything else you need to tell a climate story.”
Panelist Dorothy Fortenberry, writer and producer of A Handmaid’s Tale, offered another example of how to weave difficult ideas into dialogue. For one climate change scene, they used a very light touch.
“The idea is that a huge environmental change is happening that’s causing a global fertility crisis. Nations are responding to the fertility crisis in extreme political ways,”says Fortenberry. “We experience this though our heroine, Elizabeth Moss, a beautiful character who we’re rooting for.”
In a flashback, Moss’s character June expresses her nostalgia for snow. “She’s the one who notices that there’s no more snow in winter. But mostly she’s just flirting with the cute guy across the table like it’s in passing. It’s oh, you know, there’s no more snow but now let’s move on to flirting. It’s not at the forefront of her mind. She is not taking steps to address it,” says Fortenberry.
Maggio adds, “Ultimately you need to have that great character hook. And then, is it going be too doom and gloom? Is it going to be too factual and boring? Are people just going to sort of switch off?”
Heads around the room nod in agreement that these are the obstacles faced by most writers and producers. Maggio continues, “So we work on finding the compelling characters to represent those stories. Once you feel like you have that, that’s your new emotional nucleus and everything kind of falls into place.”
When asked why he is so strongly pursuing solutions to this issue, Maggio says “Climate change isn’t abstract anymore; it’s having a sizable impact on our everyday lives. We just need the screen
to reflect reality. We can’t try to save the world with every script. But if we’re sincere and honest, audiences will respond.”
Written by: Katie Carpenter