Climate Change Communication on Television:

Beyond the News

Abstract

This essay argues that television shows meant to represent our modern world do a poor job of illustrating the scope of the very real threat of climate change. This essay argues that implementing subtle climate narratives could be helpful in getting through clear and consistent messaging about climate change to a wider audience. With the many barriers to climate change communication, existing research demonstrates that communicating through fiction can have a powerful impact on engaging people on a deeper level. Television has been shown to influence people on a variety of topics and therefore is a tool that can be used to aid in getting people more engaged with the issue. The present study suggests several ways in which climate narratives could be added to the storylines of all types of shows in a seamless way to not disrupt the feel of the program. It argues that using television to convey climate messages could be a way of gently introducing those disengaged with the topic back into the conversation in a non-threatening way.

Introduction

Stories of climate change flood the news cycle. It has even reached a point where many viewers are suffering from what has been coined “climate fatigue” (Kerr, 2009). After the nightly news is over they seek escape into a world where no one seems to worry about such weighty issues. Should this be the case though? Many popular TV shows are meant to represent the reality of the modern world yet they rarely mention such a large and present issue in today’s society, climate change (Lukov, 2019). 

 

    Clear and consistent messaging is an important cornerstone of science communication (Moser, 2010; O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009). The more places in which these climate narratives can appear, the clearer and more consistent the message that action is required will become. I believe it is important that subtle climate narratives should be in any form of media that is meant to portray today’s world. I am not arguing for hard-hitting storylines of doom and gloom in shows such as sitcoms or reality shows. While in the 1990s this may have been done in what was called a “very special episode”, a serious episode of a sitcom that would cover dark or controversial topics, this trend is not nearly as strong today (Nussbaum, 2003). Nor is it shown to be an effective tool of communication (see discussion below). However, there should absolutely be an acknowledgement that these issues are part of our world. This could be as simple as seeing a character making an environmentally conscience choice, like driving an electric car or walking out of the house with reusable bags, or even deliberately doing the opposite. It could also be one of the children talking about a school project they are working on, as many children will have covered sustainability and climate change topics in the classroom from a young age (Flowers & Chodkiewicz, 2009). These are things we all see happening every day in our lives (Holland, Mansur, Muller, & Yates, 2016; Wagner, 2017), yet why are they seldom depicted in shows that purport to represent our everyday existence? As I explore below, in the next section, this has much to do with the complexity of climate change, the imprecision of prediction, and the invisibility of processes around greenhouse gas emissions.

 

    Another important consideration when communicating climate change is to communicate to your target audience through its preferred method of entertainment (Moser, 2010). For many, this will be watching TV in the evening. In America, for example, over 80% of people watch television on any given day. It is also considered the leisure activity of choice, as nearly half of relaxation time is spent in this way (Krantz-Kent, 2018). Other countries are getting access to more shows than ever before through online streaming (Lynch, 2018). Therefore, the audience for these messages is significant. Some could be people that would not be reached by any traditional science communication means, such as those disengaged with the news. By implementing these messages into this medium it can be seen as a way of inviting these people back into the conversation.

 

    Television has been very successful in changing its viewers’ perspective on social, political, and health related issues (Brodie et al., 2001; Denham, 2016; Garretson, 2015; Kazee, 1981; Knight, 2015; Schiappa, B Gregg, & Hewes, 2006), which is why I believe it would be useful in encouraging positive changes in environmental behaviour. There are particular benefits to communicating science through entertainment sources such as encouraging prosocial action. Longstanding research demonstrates that fiction can be a powerful tool of science communication (Green, Garst, & Brock, 2004; Wheeler, Green, & Brock, 1999). Climate change is a particularly difficult subject to effectively communicate about (Kahan, 2012; Moser, 2010; Nerlich, Koteyko, & Brown, 2010). Traditional information only means of communication are failing to promote behavioural changes (Nerlich et al., 2010; Owens & Driffill, 2008). This may be due to the fact that real and immediate actions are required to deal with risks of something whose impacts seems distant and abstract. With such complexities, the more tools we can use the better. For all of these reasons I want to explore why TV producers should be using their shows as a way to help solve this wicked problem. This is particularly important for producers of shows with a wide reach, such as American-produced or funded shows that end up distributed by worldwide streaming companies such as Netflix.

 

Climate Change Communication

In science communication, there are many considerations when trying to get across an effective message. Communicating about climate change is a particularly difficult topic to cover, even more so than other controversial topics (Moser, 2010). For one, the science is very complex. Even with the mounting levels of research being undertaken, making predictions about the future is very challenging. This is particularly the case on a local scale, a level at which people tend to have the greatest concerns (Nerlich et al., 2010). This uncertainty allows people to argue for a “wait and see” approach. This tactic has been commonly used by those with an interest in avoiding changes to existing power generation schemes, such as the companies that are profiting from the burning of fossil fuels (McCright & Dunlap, 2000). Their logic is highly flawed as unpredictability can go both ways. While climate change impacts may be less severe than predicted, they could also be catastrophically worse. Therefore, the unpredictability of the issue should be more of a motivation to act urgently (Oppenheimer, O’Neill, Webster, & Agrawala, 2007). Unfortunately, the groups pushing the “wait and see” approach tend to have better means to have their voice heard due to their wealth and social status. There are also many people with an interest in not changing due to not wanting to sacrifice their current lifestyles. Such individuals may fall victim to confirmation bias and will take on board this strategy above all the other voices telling them to act now (Moser, 2010).

 

    Other challenges that exist revolve around the invisibility of climate change. There are several ways this issue is invisible to the public. For one, it is hard to see the build-up of greenhouse gases with the naked eye. For another, the worst impacts of climate change are to occur in the somewhat distant future (Moser, 2010). Also, the worst impacts that are happening are not where many people live. As many people live in cities, they are removed from those parts of the world in which the effects are arguably most apparent. Right now the worst impacts are happening in the oceans, on tops of mountains, and in the Arctic—in other words, they are happening in largely uninhabited places, not readily accessible to the average person. While the media still shows us the impacts on these areas, it does not have the same effect as if changes were occurring in one’s own environment, where they feel a strong connection (Zwiers & Hegerl, 2008).

 

    If that wasn’t enough, human psychology is also holding us back from making real changes. The trouble with getting people to act towards climate change outcomes is a lack of instant gratification that comes along with actions which mitigate against climate change. People cannot immediately see the results of their changing behaviour, as the impacts will be felt far into the future (Solomon, Plattner, Knutti, & Friedlingstein, 2009). For example, when someone cleans up litter from a park, afterwards they could look around and see the results of their actions and feel good about themselves. They could even show people what they had done and get further gratification from their friends and family as indicated from the viral #trashchallenge trend of 2019 (Gallucci, 2019). Therefore, the fact that climate change mitigation actions are not as visual and easily shown on social media, removes that added motivator of getting positive feedback from others (Sherman, Hernandez, Greenfield, & Dapretto, 2018).

 

    Mitigating climate change means making sacrifices. It is a hard task to motivate people to give up the many modern comforts to which they are accustomed (Moser, 2010). Along with the barriers I have outlined, it is easy to see why we are seeing so little significant action despite the urgency of the issue. People see the risks of climate change as “virtual risks”, rather than real risks due to the uncertainties around them (Nerlich et al., 2010). Getting people to make real changes that will impact their immediate lives to deal with “virtual risks” of the perhaps distant future is an immense task to undertake. Due to this, we can no longer limit our methods to traditional means.

Issues with traditional methods

Media coverage of climate change has increased hugely over the last couple of decades, yet greenhouse emissions still continue to rise (Nerlich et al., 2010). Based on this we can assume that these traditional methods of science communication are not adequate, at least in terms of encouraging action. While most government-funded environmental campaigns are based on these methods (Burgess, Harrison, & Filius, 1998), it has been shown many times that the deficit model, which traditional news media rely on, is a poor form of science communication when it comes to changing behaviour (Sturgis & Allum, 2004). It has been shown that most people understand the issue and accept the fact that climate change is a result of human innovations (Hulme, 2018). To continue to give more facts about the issue may make people more knowledgeable, yet this does not directly correlate to people changing behaviour (McKenzie‐Mohr, 2000). 

    We are constantly adding to the scientific information we have, but we are at the point that this is no longer useful (Nerlich et al., 2010). These fact-driven messages fail to connect to people in ways that are emotionally relevant to them, as they do not target their core values and beliefs (Kahan, 2012; Nerlich et al., 2010). Rather than appealing to their short-term interests, communicators need to look at how a person identifies themselves to achieve long-term changes (Crompton, 2008). There is no one-size-fits-all method here as the message that will impact one person will not work for another. This is why variety is needed. To achieve this variety in messages, I believe that increasing quantity is needed which is why sources of information need to be expanded.

 

    Environmental messages are also failing as they tend to be framed in a way that goes against a person’s core values, thereby conflicting with a person’s self-interest (Schultz & Zelezny, 2003). Those whose life goals are to enhance their personal status tend to focus more on economic growth than environmental protection, two things which are often at odds (de Groot & Steg, 2010). These people tend to engage less in environmentally friendly behaviours (Kasser, 2016). Traditional altruistic messages about protecting the planet are not as effective with them and they require messages that are not in conflict with their beliefs. Those types of people that are concerned with materialism are not likely to respond well to messages about helping the environment or helping others (Kasser & Ryan, 1993). They may, however, respond more positively if changing their behaviour is of some benefit to themselves and therefore the message must be framed as such. Such examples of framing the message to the target person’s benefit are things like focusing on having recreational areas for children or maintaining property values rather than protecting the environment for the sake of the environment or for others not directly connected to them (Schultz & Zelezny, 2003).

 

    The framing of climate change messages may come into play when discussing the lack of action addressing greenhouse gas emissions. When encouraging behaviour changes, the message can either be framed in terms of gains or losses (Cheng, Woon, & Lynes, 2011; Spence, 2010). It seems quite natural that in terms of climate change that the message will be loss-framed, as there is so much to lose. Indeed, this is exactly what is happening and the results are backfiring. The overuse of alarmism is putting people on the defence (O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009) and is leading to climate scepticism, particularly when the news attributes something as a result of climate change without being completely accurate (Peacock, 2019). There is also speculation that so much alarmism is desensitizing people to the issue so that they are shutting off when they hear the latest warning (Nerlich et al., 2010). Research has shown that with climate change gain-framing can have a much better impact (Spence, 2010). This may be tricky for the news media to accomplish as they have primarily relied on information transfer (Sturgis & Allum, 2004). With all these barriers making traditional information based methods inadequate, we need to explore areas outside of news network that are not as limited and can be approached in more creative ways.

Climate change in fiction

Fictional storylines can be as successful in changing a person’s perceptions of social issues as non-fictional media. In some cases, it can be more successful (Green & Brock, 2000). Fiction can be so persuasive that people will even accept false information when presented as fact in a fictional story as long as they are captivated by the story (Wheeler et al., 1999). By engaging with fiction, we actually allow ourselves to be less critical of the material. When we consume fiction, we do not feel the pressure of being rational and this may be why we accept the content more easily (Prentice & Gerrig, 1999). We engage with a fictional story through more passive means than non-fiction. In doing so, we allow ourselves to accept the information as the author presents it to us (Green & Brock, 2000).

 

    Science fiction is a popular genre of fiction, and climate change storylines have become so common within the genre over the course of the last decade that the term climate fiction or “cli-fi” has been used to describe it (Johns‐Putra, 2016). While it is great that there is a space for this content, I believe the audience is severely limited. These books tend to focus on dystopian futures (Abraham, 2017). Those disengaged with climate change, the so-called “climate fatigue” sufferers, are unlikely to engage with this material. The audience will likely be those already interested in the topic of climate change.

 

    There have been some popular films covering the subject of climate change, such as The Day After Tomorrow in 2004. While the movie itself was fairly successful, as measured by audience numbers, it was made with the aim of changing perceptions about climate change and therefore studies were done internationally to see if this occurred (Sakellari, 2014). Research undertaken by Sakellari shows that viewers did have an increase in awareness about the risks and were even motivated to make changes in their behaviours, but this effect was short-lived. Some issues were that the film relied too heavily on the deficit model and did not engage with the audience's emotions enough. The film also failed to gain the trust of the audience and relied too heavily on fear framing (Sakellari, 2014). 

 

    While mentions of climate change do occur in popular TV series, they are few and far between. Despite it being such a prevalent issue, a study revealed that cats were mentioned four-and-a-half times more often than climate change in British programmes across networks in a year-long period between 2018 and 2019. In fact, climate change was mentioned about the same number of times as zombies or rhubarb (Association, 2019)! If someone from the future were analysing this data, they may conclude that in the future zombies are as urgent a threat as climate change, which we know not to be the case.

 

    Surprisingly, there are a number of instances of climate change storylines as early as the 1980s in children’s cartoons. The cartoon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had mentions of global warming in not one, but four of its episodes during 1987. The Transformers animated series also had one episode in 1986 where global warming was the theme of the entire episode. Star Trek: The Next Generation had a few episodes in the early 1990s that used to the science of climate change to deal with issues on other planets. South Park, which is known for using current political issues in its episodes, has had five episodes that focused about spoofing issues of climate change. Even the Simpsons, a hugely popular and long-running show, had one episode in 2013 that took place in a post climate change world (“Global warming in popular culture,” 2019).

 

    Climate change is a difficult topic to cover in a TV series due to the scope of the issue. One Star Trek episode [S07E09] in 1993 covered the topic metaphorically but did a very poor job leaving viewers confused and lost. Producers admitted to struggling with how to tackle such a complex issue and failed to make the message clear (Dembicki, 2019). 

 

    Black Mirror is a drama that covers all kinds of controversial subjects that could have a dark impact our future. Such topics include artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and social media getting out of control. It approaches these subjects without fear of censorship and explores what could be our possible reality in the future if we are not careful. It seems that this show would have covered climate change by now, yet its creator doesn’t want to touch the issue, as it is too “daunting” (Dembicki, 2019).

 

    However, there is an example of a popular show successfully covering this daunting issue, at least in one episode. Big Little Lies, an American drama series, had a subplot of an episode in 2019 [S02E03] in which one of the main character’s daughter has a panic attack about the future due to climate change. The mother finds her daughter hiding in a wardrobe and needs to console her. The scene was quite dramatic and there was much talk about it, at least throughout the internet (Dembicki, 2019). Getting people talking about something related to climate change is a success, I believe, but it also brings to light an issue not many people may be aware of, climate anxiety. While climate anxiety is not a clinical definition, it has become so common that the American Psychological Association has created a 69-page guide to help medical practitioners deal with patients suffering from it. This anxiety has only been increasing over the years, and likely will continue to do so (Christensen, 2019). The episode of Big Little Lies particularly highlighted that fact that children are being affected by this and that adults need to know how to talk to them about their very real worries (Dembicki, 2019).

 

    The threat of climate change is becoming more urgent, especially after the IPCC 2018 report saying that we have 12 years in which to take drastic actions to mitigate the worst of the impacts (IPCC, 2018). Yet, mentions of climate change in popular fictional media do not appear to be increasing with a commensurate level of urgency. BAFTA, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, agrees that climate change needs to be addressed more in entertainment media, based on the success that television shows have had with health and social issues in the past (Foster & Lukov, 2019). It is about making behaviours that will help with climate change the norm (Dembicki, 2019) and reengaging with those that previously felt excluded (Rasmussen, 2014).

 

The success of narratives in TV shaping the audience's attitudes

 

Television narratives have been very successful in altering a person’s perspective of an issue and creating changes in behaviour (Brodie et al., 2001; Denham, 2016; Garretson, 2015; Morgan, Movius, & Cody, 2009; Schiappa et al., 2006). This fact is one of the major reasons I believe they would be useful in encouraging environmental action. To demonstrate how television narratives have successfully influenced viewer’s ideas and actions, I will group examples into three general areas: increasing acceptance of marginalised groups; creating prosocial action in regards to health related issues; and influencing political ideology. 

    When marginalised groups are portrayed more often in the media, there is an increase of social tolerance of these groups (Garretson, 2015). This can be any marginal group. For instance, in the United States during the 1960s - 1990s single working women were considered to be in this group. They were aided by shows such as Mary Tyler Moore which helped to normalise the role of women in workplaces (Atkin, 1991). In one example of a more recent show, people exposed to the sitcom Will and Grace showed lower prejudge towards male homosexuality as opposed to a control group with similar previous attitudes. This was thought to be due to the portrayal of two very different homosexual main characters. It was also helped by the fact that one of the characters did not fit the overtly feminine trope that was so common at the time (Schiappa, B Gregg, & Hewes, 2006). Conversely, when a show includes no minority characters, tolerance for these underrepresented groups was lowered (Garretson, 2015).

    Television shows in the United States have shown greater diversity in casting over the years. While just seeing actors from marginalised groups more often is positive, I also believe the types of portrayals are important. For instance, research about acceptance of black characters is not conclusive as there is an argument that they have not been well portrayed (Ford, 1997; Matabane & Merritt, 1996). There are stages of representation that a television show can go through. Often a group will start with no representation and evolve to being a stereotyped group until finally being portrayed with respect (Raley & Lucas, 2006). Today, I would say a group such as single working women have reached the level of respect, but minority groups will vary from show to show. So often we see lazily written storylines use minority characters as a “token” character (Hinton, Seggar, Northcott, & Fontes, 1974), simply to appear diverse or for a quick joke at a stereotype, even in modern shows (Stanley, 2007). Yet, other shows today have done great work in showcasing a diverse cast. Brooklyn Nine-nine, for instance, has many characters of minority status from black to latino to LGBTQ+. None of these characters are “tokens” as one catagory does not have just one member representing it. All are complex characters with much more to them than their race, gender or sexual orientation. I point this out because a useful starting point, based on these examples, is to see more mentions of climate change on television. The first stage is to get representation and then the focus can be moved to talking about the way which will afford the best outcome.

    When it comes to health issues on television, people learn a surprising amount from medical dramas, such as ER which aired from 1994 - 2009. Given that climate change is also a scientific topic, the conveying of medical information is relevant. Studies show that views are particularly receptive to information around family planning or HIV prevention. Research indicates that after being exposed to these storylines, the audience is not only more knowledgeable about such issues but more likely to discuss health-related issues with friends, family and even medical professionals to seek further information (Brodie et al., 2001). Storylines in television shows can also promote prosocial actions in regards to health. This can range from the willingness to help others in need (Morgan, Movius, & Cody, 2009) to the willingness to help oneself (Denham, 2016; Knight, 2015). 

One example of encouraging prosocial behaviour is people being more likely to sign up as an organ donor after viewing an episode of a show with a storyline about the subject. This was seen over four television dramas that had an episode on the topic. The likelihood of donation was even further increased if the viewer was emotionally invested in the narrative (Morgan et al., 2009). In another example, viewers are more likely to opt into routine screening tests after being exposed to storylines involving breast cancer screenings. It was even shown that fictional media is as powerful as a public service announcement for conveying knowledge about this issue, but that the fictional narrative was even better for engagement with the message (Knight, 2015). The last example involves people seeking help for mental health issues. It has been found that a quarter of people that seek help do so after seeing a storyline on television about mental health issues. This would occur mostly through watching soaps or dramas where a relatable character is suffering from a mental health issue similar to them (Denham, 2016). 

    Television content can even alter our political attitudes and beliefs, such as feelings towards criminal justice systems and the death penalty (Holbrook & Hill, 2005; Mutz & Nir, 2010). US crime dramas, in particular, impact levels of concern about crime and influence opinions about policy issues related to crime (Holbrook & Hill, 2005). While fictional shows are not regarded as seriously as an agent of influence on viewers as the news is, fictional shows may have an advantage because they are better at creating empathy through the narrative and engagement with the character (Mutz & Nir, 2010). People that are not already strongly committed in their political beliefs are even more strongly impacted by television (Kazee, 1981).

    Political influence is not limited to the watching of news or TV shows that deal with political issues. A whole range of television series can impact the way a person identifies politically. In the US in the 1980s people who watched more television in general were significantly more likely to classify themselves as “moderate”, staying away from classifications of liberal or conservative (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1984). This may not hold true today, but now “liberals” and “conservatives” have drastically different viewing habits. Shows like Modern Family which depict non-traditional family types are mostly consumed by liberal-minded viewers, whereas conservatives tend to prefer shows such as NCIS about criminal investigation in the Navy (Blakley, 2019). This could be due to a greater divide between beliefs or the amount of options in viewing. What is important to note is that this is an excellent opportunity to tailor the message to the audience through shared values, which as discussed above is crucial to effective communication.

    As we can see, substantial research shows that topics in storylines in television can have a demonstrated impact on the way people feel about a subject or impact on the action they take. Along with these topics mentioned, there is no reason why storylines or even mentions of climate change should not have an impact on the way people respond to the issue, even if in subtle ways or as a piece of a much larger puzzle. People may be more accepting of the debate as seen in increased acceptance of others. It may encourage action as seen with health related issues. It may even impact how they respond politically and what policies they support, leading to more progressive politicians being put into office. With the right framing, any of these outcomes are possible.

Case Study: How the “real world” is portrayed in Sitcoms

The world that is reflected in fictional shows is meant to represent the modern world of the places they are representing, yet people actually living in these real places may have a very different experience. As mentioned earlier, fiction can have a powerful effect on the way we perceive reality (Green et al., 2004) and inaccurate portrayals could influence how we see our world (Wiles, 2017). Housing is a good example of this. In shows about family, it is normal to see one working parent (usually the father) provide a beautiful suburb home for his wife and three kids (McGauley, 2015). In shows about younger characters, they often live in huge loft apartments while working somewhere like a coffee shop (DeMarco, Moore, Steckelberg, & Tan, 2017). My focus, however, is the seeming lack of mentions of climate change or other environmental issues.

    To outline this, I have decided to evaluate TV shows to look at their portrayal of actions, behaviours, and concern for the environment. I have selected sitcoms for this case study due to the fact that I believe they would be an appropriate genre to introduce these narratives for three reasons. First, they have new storylines with multiple subplots, with every episode giving plenty of opportunities for the topic to naturally be woven into the narrative. Second, they tend to have diverse casts with numerous character types. This allows for interesting interactions and dialogue between the characters but also allows more opportunity to have a character that has characteristics that would lead to them being concerned about environmental issues. Third, they are usually meant to take place in the modern real world.

    In selecting suitable programmes to analyse, I have focused on popular American shows that are available worldwide through streaming channels like Netflix. This is because of the large audience and reach of these services. It is estimated that 765 million people are subscribers to one of the variety of streaming channels available, with about 45% of this market being Netflix alone which is now available in over 190 countries (Lynch, 2018). To meet these criteria I have selected The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family and Brooklyn Nine-nine. I’ve picked these three due to overall popularity, my own familiarity with them, their contemporaneity (having seasons as late as 2019), and that they, in combination, cover a wide range of character types. 

    The main characters of The Big Bang Theory are academic scientists aged in their 20s-30s. Of the three sitcoms I feel that this is the least diverse. Six of the seven main characters are white and from generally middle- to upper-class backgrounds. The show has been criticized many times for the male character’s misogyny (Jasper, 2017; Semíramis, 2019). There are a few progressive themes of the show including portrayals of characters with disabilities such as Aspergers (McGrath, 2014) and social anxiety and its depiction of successful female scientists in later seasons (McIntosh, 2014). Even with its flaws I have still decided to use this show as it is the top-ranked sitcom with over 23 million viewers (Moraes & Moraes, 2019) and the focus on science still makes it a good candidate for these narratives. 

    The show takes place near the University of California, Los Angeles campus. In terms of sitcoms, the character’s housing arrangements are not overly unrealistic, with the exception of Penny. While she has the smallest but still nice apartment, it’s not reasonable to think she could afford a place of her own in LA as she switches between an unemployed actress and a waitress through the early seasons. Raj’s very nice apartment is explained by his rich parents who pay his bills, while Leonard and Sheldon sharing of a large apartment is plausible with their jobs. Howard lives with his mother, which is an accurate depiction of people living at home longer (Burn & Szoeke, 2016). Most drive cars but this is normal for living in LA and some of their cars are shown as being old models.

 

    In terms of their actions, they are shown to order takeaway every night and you can see a massive amount of disposable containers littering the coffee table. They are often seen getting water from the fridge in a plastic bottle to drink in their home, something that seems highly unnecessary. They are quite materialistic as well. The men of the show are very often buying things like memorabilia, toys and costumes of their favourite movies, shows and games. 

    Environmentally conscious behaviour rarely takes places in this show. One of the only instances I could find is when Penny states that she is vegetarian but then quickly says “except for fish and the occasional steak” [S01E01]. Even with the caveat I think this is still a positive message as it shows a relatable character is reducing her meat consumption in a way that works for her. She doesn’t say her reasons for being “vegetarian” but it is still doing something that benefits the environment. I believe she would be a good character to bring up concerns through. There are many wasted opportunities in the show where these narratives could have been implemented. For instance, Sheldon prefers trains to flying. He could easily mention the environment as part of his reasoning but it is only about his personal preferences. While none are environmental scientists they would likely be knowledge of the subject and discuss it at some point over the 9 years. 

    Modern Family was considered by some journalists a more progressive sitcom when it came out in 2009, due to the portrayal of non-traditional families. However, the show hasn’t really pushed many boundaries to keep up with the times (Fallon, 2013). The writers depict a same-sex couple which has adopted, and a multicultural couple with a large age gap. However, the show also often challenges the traditional masculine stereotypes with the heterosexual character Phil who doesn’t fit the norms of the way a dad is normally portrayed in media. 

    Like The Big Bang Theory characters, they are also in Los Angeles but live very differently. I have selected this show not only to showcase a family sitcom, but also a more upper-class lifestyle. Two of the three families live in very large homes. Jay Pritchett’s wealthy status and opulent lifestyle is believable due to him owning a successful business. His much younger wife is often seen spending his money on unnecessary things while her son has a taste for fancy goods, such as fine foods. Obviously they do not live at all sustainably. The series depicts large-scale consumerism, for just about all the characters, but particularly Phil, who buys many useless gadgets, and Gloria who shops all the time. 

    This show has a “green” character. Mitchell is an environmental lawyer and is often seen working to protect the environment. However, I do think this could reflect more in the character’s actions outside of work. The only real green actions we see him taking is driving a Prius. 

    There is an episode called “Under Pressure” [S05E12] that really highlights this and actually has a climate narrative. Mitchell’s neighbour (who is only shown in this episode), Asher, is very green. This episode actually has a direct reference to climate change when Asher criticises Mitchell for running the air conditioner even on cooler days. Mitchell responds that his partner runs hot and Asher says back “so does the planet”. During the course of the episode the one truly green character, who is taking serious actions, is presented as judgemental and unlikable. The episode ends well, with them becoming friendly and Mitchell admitting that maybe he liked the label of being green but is not taking the actions to really be so. Asher also admits that he has alienated himself from society, showing that his preachiness is not that right way to inspire change. Both of these I think are really positive messages. However, they are mocking environmentalists as being over the top and annoying. They also made it sound as if using green alternatives is hugely inconvenient when they joke about taking four days to cook a chicken on solar.

    Aside from this episode, there is another climate change reference in an episode called “The Big Guns” [S06E12]. Unlike “Under Pressure”, it is a very casual passing comment and a good example of a very subtle message. Alex simply jokes that the neighbour’s boat, which is being discussed as a nuisance because it is blocking their driveway, will be helpful with upcoming sea level rise. While it does not make any statement about the issue, it is enough to highlight the fact that this is an issue that will affect normal families in this region and it is on the horizon. I believe this is important messaging to see continuously and it is very easy to slip in without needing a plot around it.

    There is a lot of space in this show to have more climate narratives than the ones described. The episode, entitled “All Things Being Equal” [S08E20], involves characters going to a gender equality rally. This shows that the show is not opposed to talking about current political issues. The show also often includes sub-plots of school projects that involve charity, such as collecting recycling to build houses in Haiti or having yard sales for Unicef. Yet they never show the kids or anyone exactly caring about these causes, more that they are competitive about it. 

    While sitcoms tend to rely on having one character fill a trope, I feel that caring about the environment is so common that we should see more than one character exhibiting this sentiment. As these characters are at least fairly, if not very well off, they all have the means to take action. Some characters are particularly well suited to filling the role of caring about the environment. The middle daughter Alex, for instance, is highly intelligent and interested in science. She is also often seen getting stressed so having some climate anxiety would not be surprising given the knowledge she would have about the issues. Other possibilities would be Manny or Cameron who are more sensitive empathic characters. In a show with progressive themes such as this, these narratives would fit in a variety of ways, without being off putting. 

    Brooklyn Nine-Nine is another show that has been celebrated by fans for its progressiveness (Shim, 2014). The cast is very diverse with multiple Black, Latino and LGBTQ+ characters that do not fit traditional stereotypes often associated with these groups on television. It also features female characters just as strong, if not more so, than their male counterparts. The cast consists of a diverse group of detectives and mostly takes place at a police precinct, but we do see into the home lives of some of the main characters.

    I have not come across any positive environmental messages over the course of the show. A few blatantly environmentally unfriendly messages have popped up, such as Jake saying that he just leaves his fridge open to cool his apartment or Charles’ refusal to have any involvement with a vegan. I have never noticed any of the characters having reusables. They always have coffee in takeaway cups and food in disposable containers. There were two mentions of climate change throughout the six season of the show. In one Jake is very obviously nervous about the situation he is in so when asked about what’s bothering him he blurts out “global warming” [S05E10]. The other scene is surprisingly very similar where Boyle is listing things that could be bothering Jake and climate change is on the list [S03E08]. I think this is a good acknowledgement that it is something people worry about and the kind of thing we need more of.

    Another episode titled “Overmining” [S04E09] almost seems like there might be an environmental message when the sergeant say that their police station is doing a green initiative and they need to cut back on energy use by 15%. However, even with this subplot, never once is the environment mention. It all focuses around whether or not they will listen to the Sergeant and cut back on their wasteful practices. They get a lot worse before giving in, and when they tell the Sergeant that he has “won” and they’ll cut back and save energy he loudly rejoices that he doesn’t care about the energy, just winning. This is poor messaging to the viewers that admire and respect these characters as they are seeing these characters actively not caring about the environment. 

    While the show is very much a comedy, it is willing to tackle hard political issues. An episode, titled “Moo moo” [S04E14], dealt with issues of racial profiling by police officers (Rosenberg, 2017). Not only did it deal with the Sergeant’s struggles after being profiled, but also the issue of how to discuss hard topics with small children. While there are still funny parts, the episode was very emotional, similar to the “very special episodes” of the past. This shows that modern sitcoms are still willing to do more serious episodes about current issues that break the normal mould. Therefore, this negates any arguments that serious topics have no place in comedy. 

    It is important to realise that even though many of these shows are considered to be left-leaning or right-leaning, in general they will avoid being overly partisan. With the exception of a few of the examples above, which were picked specifically and can be seen as outliers, mainstream shows will try not to take sides on political issues. Rather they will sidestep the issue leaving the moral standpoint up to interpretation, as was noted in an article about Modern Family. The journalist gives the example about how during the earlier seasons of the show Proposition 8, an amendment allowing same-sex couples the right to marry, was being debated heavily in California. With the show having a same-sex couple with a child who live in California it seems obvious that this would be discussed amongst the characters. Yet it was not mentioned until the proposition had passed and the characters started wedding planning (Zurawik, 2012). The immediate celebration and plans to marry showed that this couple was being stopped from taking this step by law, therefore giving even more reason that it should have been discussed on the show earlier. The reluctance of television shows to tackle political issues may appear to be the hurdle of introducing climate change narratives. However, I think the subtle narratives I am arguing for are non-partisan and open to interpretation. It is not a matter of telling people what to think, but acknowledging this is a large present issue in our world.

How climate narrative could be better implemented more often

My vision for getting climate narratives into mainstream television involves two arguments. One is that the shows should have a more accurate portrayal of the modern world. This includes having characters use public transport when that makes sense for the plot or location. Characters that would require a car could use a smarter option. Rather than an SUV they could use an electric vehicle. We could see more carpooling, which could make for interesting storylines. It could also include seeing items in scenes such as reusable bags or coffee cups, just like we now see in many places in the western world on a daily basis. None of these things even have to be mentioned, just be present. This would help to reinforce the idea that this is our new norm, making viewers more likely to follow.

    The other way is to work climate change into dialogue or storylines. Climate change is all over our news and comes up in conversation all the time. Particularly with younger characters it would be easy to work some of this in, either just in passing or through more developed storylines. For example, characters could casually mention working on a science project about an environmental issue or there could be a storyline about one of the teens attending a rally. In my examples from Modern Family, we see that these are common storylines already and they just need to include the topic of climate change now and again. With shows with diverse casting it seems natural that one or more of the characters would have some interest in this topic. I just think that it should be a character that is relatable, and not filling an environmentalist trope which are often portrayed as judgemental or overly intense, as was the case of the “Under Pressure” episode, mentioned above. We are living in a time where many people, especially the young, care about the environment without being fanatical about it.

    While I focused on sitcoms in my case studies, these narratives could be woven into just about any genre. In dramas, climate narratives can be explored in a more serious way. The scene from Big Little Lies is a great example of how these can be implemented. Another could be an adult struggling with guilt from past actions. For example, a character could have worked for an oil company in the past and now worries about the world they are leaving their children. This highlights the real issue of “green guilt” that adults have and may be attempting to relieve through actions to offset their past (Kotchen, 2009). Another subplot could be someone trying to decide if they will get solar panels on their house or take a much needed vacation with their bonus money. It doesn’t matter what they end up choosing—it simply highlights the fact that we are always making decisions about what is good for the planet versus what is good for us, which are often contradicting goals (de Groot & Steg, 2010).

 

    I strongly believe these narratives need to be in any screen depiction of our current life, however, I don’t even think that it needs to stop there. Even shows that are not based on reality, such as fantasy or different times in history, can use metaphors to talk about climate change. Metaphors are a strong tool in climate change communication as it helps when dealing with the complexity of the issue (Nerlich et al., 2010). Game of Thrones is an example of this. It’s a completely fictional world where magic exists and it is not a heavily industrialised world at all like ours but it has been looked at as a metaphor for climate change. The writer George RR Martin explains the parallels in an interview. We see families fighting for power or “the throne”, yet the real threat of “winter”, which could easily wipe out everyone, is being ignored. He says that we are doing this right now. Despite the fact that some of the political issues we are fighting over are serious issues, climate change should not fall into the background and should be a number one priority as none of these other issues will matter when the worst of the impacts come (Miller, 2018).


    While I have focused on fictional shows so far, there are obviously many documentaries out there that explore climate change. However, I think that there is room for these narratives in other types of non-fictional shows. For example, these subtle narratives could be implemented quite easily into reality competition shows, such as cooking and home renovation shows, which are quite popular now (Hershman Shitrit & Cohen, 2016). For cooking shows we could have sustainably sourced foods, as well as discussion about them. Shows such as Masterchef often have specific challenges for the contestants, and about once a season they have one where they will need to cook something vegetarian. They could go into the reason for this challenge being an environmental one, or they could also implement similar challenges with specifically sustainable or drought-resistant ingredients with mention of the need to use these food in the future. Similarly, with renovation shows, their challenges could be using more sustainable materials or making eco features within the homes. In both cases there is entertainment value as well as getting across the message that these are things we need to consider when it comes to the future of agriculture and other resources.

Conclusion

Climate change communication through television needs to reach beyond news programmes. Not only do many viewers not watch the news, but there are numerous limitations to this method of communication. Television shows, even when fictional, shape the way we see the world. Through seeing both subtle and not-so-subtle messages in our daily viewing, people may be more engaged with an issue, and even be inspired to change their day-to-day behaviours. It will allow the message to be more consistent by appearing in multiple forms of media. Also, the message will be more tailored to the target audience as people tend to consume media more in line with their values. There is a huge scope for creativity in the framing of the messages and through the quantity and variety of messaging there will be much more opportunity to communicate effectively with each individual.


    Of the three American sitcoms I examined as case studies for this essay, I felt that two completely failed to portray a world in which climate and environmental issues are of concern. Modern Family, acknowledges that there is an issue going on and these subtle environmental messages do pop up. However, even this one falls short. The show is ripe with opportunities to tackle the message and still, these messages are very rare. These messages have a place in all types of media, from fictional shows about our real world of any genre, reality television and even as metaphor for shows about fictional worlds or different time periods.  With an issue as urgent as climate change, anyone with the power to influence a large audience should do so, including producers of television shows.

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CliFi Productions

Passionate about Game Design, Fiction, and Science Communication