Climate change fiction gets hot in Hollywood (if you still don't get it, it'll get you)

The fourth part of a series. Click here for the first part, here for the second part and here for the third.

Moments before a hurricane filled with airborne man-eating sharks hits Santa Monica in the 2013 made-for-television movie "Sharknado," a newscaster warns that climate change may have something to do with it.

"We have suffered tropical storms in the past, but we've never been hit by a storm quite like this," she says. "Widespread flooding is expected, and experts are saying global warming is the reason for this unprecedented event."

Characters spend the rest of the film fighting off sharks with shotguns and chain saws in an over-the-top sci-fi story that captured the imaginations of millions of Americans. In "Sharknado 2," airing July 30, this fishy storm descends on New York.

"Because it's now happened in two places on different coasts, there's something to be said about the notion Mother Nature is taking out her wrath on us," "Sharknado" director Anthony Ferrante, said in an interview. "It's not bad enough you have hurricanes, twisters and floods; now [nature] wants to add teeth to it."

Climate change will not produce shark-filled tornadoes that wreak havoc on the residents of Southern California. But the Red Cross used the movie launch as an opportunity to hold a live Twitter chat on how to prepare for real-world disasters. The Marine Corps Reserve used the occasion to promote its destructive weather handbook, which, it admits, does not include a chapter on sharknadoes.

"Sharknado" joins a growing list of fiction films in which climate change helps drive the plot line, such as "Waterworld," "The Day After Tomorrow" and the Oscar-nominated film "Beasts of the Southern Wild." These movies join a collection of plays, books and games that fit into a new subgenre called climate fiction, or cli-fi for short, that pits humans against extreme forces of nature (ClimateWire, May 2).

At times humorous, hopeful and terrifying, these stories may offer a wider lens on a subject long dominated and perhaps dulled by the arcane climate models and dueling theories of hard science.

Watch nature's revenge!

Several of this summer's blockbuster flicks also fit under the cli-fi heading. In the remake of the 1954 film "Godzilla" released last month, the monster is made to represent a force of nature seeking revenge on humanity for polluting the planet, director Gareth Edwards said in a recent interview with Time magazine.

In the upcoming movie "Into the Storm" (to be released Aug. 8), a small American town is ravaged by supertornadoes, and in "Snowpiercer" (June 27), an uprising takes place in an ice age triggered by efforts to counteract global warming.

To see climate change cropping up in popular media is encouraging, because it means that society as a whole is talking more about this pressing issue, said Laura Lindenfeld, an associate professor of communication and policy at the University of Maine.

Lindenfeld and postdoctoral researcher Bridie McGreavy published a paper last week in the International Journal of Sustainable Development on race and gender stereotypes observed in climate-related movies.

"People consume entertainment media for fun, not to change their way of thinking," Lindenfeld said. "But for better or for worse, it is indeed changing the way you experience the world."


Film, like any other artistic medium, can shock, thrill, educate or sedate. It can challenge, pushing the taboos of a society or introducing new ways of thinking.

But anytime you push an audience, you risk pushing it away. And that's a risk many Hollywood blockbusters -- with hundreds of millions of dollars riding on their success -- tend to avoid.

Feel your anxieties being manipulated!

Instead, blockbusters tend to reflect the expectations and biases of large audiences, said Tracey Heatherington, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, who studies climate fiction. Movies like "The Day After Tomorrow" and "Into the Storm" play on the emotions and anxieties of the viewer, answering worries about the future with depictions of tidal waves, tornadoes and social upheaval.

This can be problematic for a number of reasons, Heatherington said. Not only do these mischaracterizations mislead on the actual science, but "they also reconfirm expectations for something really dramatic," she said. "And that just doesn't happen with a slow-moving catastrophe like climate change."

There's also the danger that, by exploiting climate change for its entertainment value, the phenomenon may lose some of its connection to reality in the minds of viewers, said Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, a postdoctoral fellow at Rice University's Center for Energy and Environmental Research.

"It's the problem of life coming to resemble art," he said. When films regularly traffic in disaster, even real disasters can take on a film-like quality, he said. "You can only have so many movies about mass extinction or the end of the world before you become inured to the idea."

With the planet losing species at a rate unparalleled since the Permian extinction, "that would be false comfort," he said.

"There is no question that film carries the potential to shock and enlighten. What's less clear is that it offers an incentive to keep learning and thinking for oneself," wrote Stephanie LeMenager, a professor at the University of Oregon who teaches about climate change through the lens of culture, in an email.

Still, she acknowledged, more challenging forms of art, such as novels, "might also be less powerful as gateways for those who have thought little about the issue and perhaps more than anything else need to feel it as an emotional jolt, a visceral shift into this new territory."

The slow onset of climate change makes it a particularly tricky phenomenon to depict accurately in film, said Joe Romm, a fellow at the Center for American Progress and chief science adviser to television documentary "Years of Living Dangerously."

To be scientifically sound, the plot would have to stretch over multiple decades while maintaining consistency, he said. Or, if the story begins in a climate-changed future, due to the nature of the Earth's system, the characters would already be locked into dystopian world offering little room for a happy ending.

"If the science is twisted to the point where it's just being used to serve a standard Hollywood plot line and a bunch of stuff has to happen over a short period of time to let the characters care about it, I think that's counterproductive," said Romm.

"For something that's scientific, rather than cultural, I tend to think you need a documentary and not a fiction movie," he added.

Hear the Heritage Foundation flip out!

For different reasons, the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation has also taken issue with cli-fi.

"Cli-fi is a purveyor of climate change propaganda," Scott Blakeman, a research assistant at the Heritage Foundation, wrote in a blog post last month when "Godzilla" hit theaters.

"However, the sweet irony in the cinematic genre of cli-fi is that the name reveals an underlying truth: The sensationalism surrounding climate change is simply fiction," he continued.

The Heritage Foundation has also railed on the National Science Foundation's use of government funds to create a cli-fi game in which participants imagine various climate change scenarios in "voicemails from the future" (ClimateWire, May 1).

"I think that was a complete waste of taxpayer money, to be honest with you; it seemed pretty nonsensical, and if that's what our taxpayer dollars are going to, I think that's very discouraging," said Nick Loris, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

Funding for the game was part of a $5.6 million grant to the Columbia University Polar Learning and Responding Climate Change Partnership.

Chairman of the House Science Committee Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) also criticized the NSF for funding the game "at the expense of higher priority research in fields like engineering, mathematics, computer science and biology."

But while climate change is still finding its place in entertainment media, activist Dan Bloom, who's credited with coining the term cli-fi, said he sees every new appropriation of the term as a little victory.

"I am an empath," Bloom wrote in an email. "It's in my heart and my mind to care about future generations some 30 generations from now, and I felt that by creating a cli-fi genre as a platform for novelists and film writers to use, it might have a some small impact on politicians and policy decisions worldwide."

Meanwhile, the directors of cli-fi films will be closely watching the box office.

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