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What do Angry Birds and Mad Max have in common? A climate change message

By Adam Corner on June 5, 2015

Climate messages are finding their way into Hollywood blockbusters and addictive games. Is popular culture embracing the reality of climate change?

In any given 24-hour period, the average urban commuter is subjected to hundreds of corporate advertisements. By contrast, it’s easy to make it through the day without hearing a mention of climate change. For all intents and purposes it is invisible in our daily lives, and this invisibility goes a long way towards explaining why the allegedly “defining” challenge of the 21st century barely registers on barometers of popular culture.

Whether it’s the addictive melodrama of long-running TV soap-operas, the swirling churn of “trending” topics on social media, or the glamorous high-definition version of reality refracted to us through the lens of Hollywood cameras, climate change is missing in action.

It was a surprise, then, to find such a high level of chatter about climate change at the glitzy Cannes film festival (not famed for grappling with the world’s biggest questions). The festival concluded with Ice & Sky, a sombre take on the work of the French scientist Claude Lorius, documenting the destruction of Antarctic glaciers. Charlize Theron, discussing the forthcoming remake of dystopian classic Mad Max, commented: “What makes [the film] even scarier is that it is something that is not far off if we don’t pull it together.”

And it’s not just the film industry that has been showing some interest.

On the small screen, the 20 million fans of fantasy-drama Game of Thrones may ostensibly be watching sword fights and violent vengeance. But they’re also being told a powerful story about impending ecological destruction – at least, according to a researcher at Arizona State University studying how science blogs have responded to the world-conquering series. And on the even-smaller screen, the maddeningly addictive Angry Birds franchise recently announced it would be integrating a climate change angle in September to coincide with the UN’s climate week events.

So is popular culture finally embracing the reality of a changing climate?

Saci Lloyd, author of The Carbon Diaries, thinks it is. “Climate change is definitely breaking out of the cultural fringes and into mainstream movies and pop. James Cameron has stated that Avatar is a lesson for humankind to stop damaging the environment. Lady Gaga has recently partnered with Vivienne Westwood for the Climate Revolution campaign. And now Pharrell Williams is dropping in on the UN and telling them it’s time to go from climate change to climate action. I don’t think you can go more pop than that.”

Climate change has traditionally thrived in rarefied spaces (at least in the western world): the complex knowledge chambers of science; the bureaucratic back-channels of international diplomacy; and the minority-interest meetings of specialist campaigns groups. So climate change finding its way out of the highbrow realm and into popular culture at all is grounds for optimism.

But as ever with climate change, the transition is unlikely to be straightforward.

Firstly, when compared to other big issues of our time, it’s clear that climate change has one unique and problematic characteristic: there is no outside observer uniquely well positioned to narrate the story. Hollywood celebrities – often fairly – take flak for their advocacy around global poverty or human rights abuses. Because of their privileged positions, they may be challenged on their credibility. But we all have a credibility problem when it comes to climate change – because like it or not, we are all complicit.

And some of us are more complicit than others. Mad Max may tell a cautionary tale about a world ravaged by resource wars, but its own carbon footprint must be mind-bogglingly, extravagantly high. Mainstream cultural channels are, currently, unavoidably high-carbon. This doesn’t invalidate Hollywood’s voice on climate change, but it is essentially impossible to make a big budget (aka popular) film in anything approaching a sustainable way. Unsurprisingly, research suggests that people have ambivalent views about the contradictions inherent in “eco-celebrities”.

As the British actor Tom Cullen says: “It’s a tricky position I find myself in. I’m a climate change advocate but often find my lifestyle at odds with my views. I juggle my guilt and my career. The actor Mark Ruffalo has a strong voice in climate change awareness but has recently completed a round-the-world press tour for The Avengers, and therein lies a problem. How can our most adored and respected be listened to if they are hypocrites? How can we bring climate change into the pop-culture foreground if we deem their argument as illegitimate?”

Of course, you can entertain people on a village green with a local theatre company using solar-powered lights. The concept of entertainment does not start and finish with pyrotechnics and private jets. But if the mainstream is where climate change needs to be, then this is the reality it will have to grapple with – and it is not hard to see where tensions could arise.

While TV executives don’t agree on many things, research by the International Broadcasting Trust has found that they are unanimous in their belief that viewers do not want to be lectured.

Nick Comer-Calder, of the Climate Media Net, puts it this way: “Climate change themes need to be embedded in long-running series to make it mainstream – to normalise it. I don’t think it has to be the whole rationale for a plot – but it needs to be firmly woven in. And it is not just about the science or the impacts, its about the whole complex mechanism of tackling climate change in personal, political, and professional life.”

It is encouraging that the final spot in Cannes was reserved for an eco-documentary, and positive that a game played by millions worldwide sees a place for climate change in its franchise. But the real challenge is to integrate climate change into the juggernaut of popular culture – not drag it alongside in a special sidecar of its own – and this is a much tougher (although ultimately more meaningful) proposition.

This article was first published in the Guardian

By Dr Adam Corner

Adam Corner is a writer and independent researcher who specialises in climate change communication and climate/culture collaborations. Adam worked with Climate Outreach between 2010-2021, helping to build the research team, developing Climate Visuals and Britain Talks Climate, and establishing the centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). Adam has published widely on public engagement with climate change, from academic journals and reports for NGOs to media commentary (including for the Guardian and New Scientist). Currently Adam’s work is split between strategic climate communication projects (like the Local Storytelling Exchange), writing and contributing to reports, and developing the climate communication evidence base into music and cultural spaces.

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