Climate Change on TV: Beyond the News
You get home from work. Make a quick dinner, plop down on the couch, and turn on the evening news. Yup, climate change is still going to destroy us. Ok, time for something lighter. Ah, that’s better. It’s a sitcom about some friends living in LA. Man, they never worry about that stuff. No one is stressed about the state of our world. Everyone has a car and drives everywhere. They get takeaways every night and everything they drink is out of a one-use plastic bottle. I mean, this is based on our world right? Real things going on our world do pop up, but climate change? Hardly ever. That’s ok though, it’s just a comedy. No one wants to hear about that.
True. The doom and gloom of climate change doesn’t really have a place in a light-hearted show. Yet, shouldn’t it exist? We hear it all the time, so why don’t these characters acknowledge it?
During my research into using fiction to talk about climate change the phrase “clear and consistent messaging” kept coming up. It is super important for an issue as big of this to be salient in our minds as we go about making daily decisions. This is achieved by clear and consistent messaging. There is nothing clear and consistent between what’s happening on our news and what’s happening on our favourite shows. It makes it easier to shut out the messages we don’t want to deal with.
My thoughts that climate change is underrepresented were confirmed by a study of British programming that found climate change was as mentioned as rhubarbs and zombies on entertainment shows. Ok, zombies are kind of in (wait, are they still?) but rhubarb? Does anyone even like the stuff?
So I looked into a few American sitcoms that are watched worldwide. I was looking for any subtle environmental messaging and I found extremely few occurrences. The Big Bang Theory and Brooklyn Nine-nine’s characters are very environmentally unfriendly and climate change only appeared in a couple of passing joke (over many seasons!). Modern Family did a little better. Environmental messaging came up more with the kids in things like school projects. There was even what could be called a “green character” as he was an environmental lawyer, but even he was never shown as being green in his personal life other than driving a Prius. Yet even with all that opportunity, it’s still a show that depicts gross amounts of middle to upper-class consumerism.
These subtle narratives do pop up, but far too infrequently. There are some good examples though. Big Little Lies had a good subplot about kids dealing with climate anxiety. Game of Thrones uses metaphor to show climate change in a dramatic way. They should be everywhere though. The topic should come up with the frequency it does in real life.
Television shows have so much potential to help to get these messages across. Not only do they have a massive audience but it’s a way to target those that are disengaged with the news. The news is so limited as to how they can frame the message (hint: it’s negative). With the creativity of fiction, there are so many more possibilities. One of the most important ways to incite change is to speak to people through their values. This is much easier to do when they are already watching something that is in line with their values. The sheer quantity of messages will help as well. It’s easier to hit a target by shooting a thousand arrows!
Television has the power to change people’s ideas and behaviours. It’s been shown time and time again. In the past, it has helped increase acceptance of marginalised groups, get people to sign up as organ donors and seek help for mental disorders, and even change political ideology. This is why I think TV producers have a duty to use their voice to help deal with this enormous issue. The more tools we can use, the better.
*This blog is a summary of a very long research paper I have done. You can find that under my research section for more information or any referencing to the claims I have made.