A scene from The Last of Us. Photo: HBO Max

Member Voices

The Climate Future is in Our Hands—No Pressure

We all have a story within us related to climate change. What’s yours?

There’s a scene in the Abbott Elementary episode “Mural Arts” (Written by Joya McCrory) where Jacob, a sixth- grade teacher, tries to convince his students to choose a more meaningful subject for their class mural than a (fictional) viral sensation. “You like ‘The Silly Sock Show’ now,” he says, “but you might not even remember it in 20 years.” 

A student complains, “But you told us that we’re all gonna be dead in twenty years from climate change.”

“I said unless we act now.” Jacob counters.

Chris Perfetti, Janelle James, and Shwayze in the Abbott Elementary episode "Mural Arts." Photo: ABC

“We’re in school now,” says another student. “How’re we supposed to act?”

This is just one of several wry climate jokes that writers of Abbott Elementary threaded throughout the charming mockumentary sitcom, a welcome sign that the presence of climate mentions in TV and film is growing.

But we need more. A 2021 report from the USC Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project and the non-profit Good Energy—where I serve as a writer and consultant—found that, of all scripted TV and films from 2016 to 2020, only 0.6 percent mention the specific term “climate change.”

Climate change is our reality. 2023 was the hottest year on record, surprising even climate scientists. It saw atmospheric rivers across California, a devastating cyclone in Myanmar, Canadian wildfires so large they turned New York’s skies orange, and a wildfire that destroyed Lahaina. We felt it keenly during the strikes as we marched through unprecedented heat waves. Things got worse when the trees at Universal were chopped back and the climate was, in a sense, weaponized against us, the workers.

Climate affects every aspect of our lives and our identities. So it’s only natural that climate ought to show up in our scripts. As writer-producer Dorothy Fortenberry (The Handmaid’s Tale, Extrapolations) puts it, “If climate isn’t in your story, it’s science fiction.” 

The crisis is—forgive me for saying—terrible for the world, but great for story. It’s only going to get more hellish and weirder from here, but hellish and weird is never boring. Climate is a lens through which writers can view any story: How would the character you’re writing now respond to climate anxiety? What climate impacts or solutions might show up organically in the setting? How is climate affecting the industries your characters work in? 

Whatever you care about is already affected by climate. Maybe you’re writing about a family in Louisiana that is connected to Cancer Alley, an area where Black communities are being poisoned by the fossil fuel industry and activists are working around the clock. Maybe you’re writing about a couple getting divorced on a ski trip; their disintegration could reflect the demise of winter sports. Or perhaps you’re working on a feature about immigrants crossing the Darién Gap, many of whom are displaced because of the climate crisis. There is a story in each of us that is unique to this age of climate change.

The Future isn’t Binary

Most people expect climate-centered stories to be dystopian. While these can be powerful warnings about the future we don’t want (and, in the case of The Last of Us, wildly popular) global dystopia, as we know it in fiction, will hopefully not happen. All we know about our climate future is that we don’t know. We know our homes, our cities, and our communities will all look different than they do today. But how different? How extreme? The uncertainty can be maddening and anxiety-producing. It’s easier for the human brain to know, even if that means a fascist-flood-and-fire hellscape.

Abbott Elementary is an example of how climate references don’t have to be all doom and gloom. We’re still going to sing and laugh and make art into the climate future. Every emotion under the sun will be felt under an even hotter sun. Our climate stories can reflect that spectrum of emotion. It won’t only be despair. It won’t only be sunshine and pumpkin spice lattes either. It will be life. 

Climate is a lens through which writers can view any story: How would the character you’re writing now respond to climate anxiety? What climate impacts or solutions might show up organically in the setting? How is climate affecting the industries your characters work in?

Stories can help us process and live with the building uncertainty, both emotionally and concretely. Protopia is my favorite buzzword. Neither utopia nor dystopia, protopia is a world in which we improve realistically, working toward a better future. We’re not going to reverse climate change—too much warming is already baked in—but what if we do the hard work, accomplish some of our climate goals, and while on the journey, learn to thrive in new ways? There’s still time, if we cease our dependence on fossil fuels; that’s a protopian world I’d live in. 

Even if, miraculously, we accomplish all of our climate aims, there will still be murder and infidelity and other bad and juicy choices for characters to make. And utopia is never utopia for all people. In my own protopian worldbuilding, I interrogate societal reliance on tech gurus, and how progress always comes at a cost. Or I imagine new systems of care, and new kinds of love that might rise from the wreckage. For me, these angles lend themselves to the both/and of our uncertain future. What angle resonates with you?

Climate Belongs in Every Genre

WGAW member Carmiel Banasky during a climate storytelling workshop at the Sundance Film Festival.

Aside from dystopia and sci-fi, climate is popping up in other genres. How to Blow Up a Pipeline (Written by Ariela Barer, Daniel Goldhaber, and Jordan Sjol, based on the book by Andreas Malm) follows a group of young activists who come together to sabotage an oil pipeline in West Texas. It’s an investigation of climate action and inaction in the container of a high-stakes heist thriller. Glass Onion (Written by Rian Johnson) is a wild whodunnit with climate change as the backdrop and impetus of villainous billionaire Miles Bron’s untested hydrogen fuel scheme. A Murder at the End of the World (Created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij) also revolves around a billionaire would-be climate savior and climate themes like our reliance on tech to save us. 

Political dramas make for the perfect climate genre; Madame Secretary (Created by Barbara Hall) had the most climate mentions of any show, according to the USC/Good Energy study. Procedurals are also ripe for it, with Grey’s Anatomy featuring a heat wave in Seattle that affected every aspect of the hospital in the episode “Hotter Than Hell” (Written by Jamie Denbo). Pokémon Shield is a great example of kids' media addressing the climate crisis, as the coral Pokémon Corsola, once pink and cute, “disappeared as a result of sudden climate change,” and is now a white ghost, illustrating the coral bleaching caused by warming waters.

The genre opportunities are limitless. Perhaps there will be more faith-themed climate-centered stories like First Reformed (Written by Paul Schrader). Or a crime thriller about the biggest criminal of all—the fossil fuel industry. All those bodies washing up because of climate-caused erosion? The melting tundra releasing ancient viruses? Scorpions taking over a town after an unprecedented flood? There are so many inciting incidents to choose from.

Breaking Down Structures and Systems

Few of the above-mentioned examples follow a solo hero saving the day. James Bond alone can’t get us out of this pickle. There are many less-expected story structures that could be conducive to storifying this wild, interdependent climate reality we find ourselves in. Ensemble stories about community seem made for this moment. Structures like those used in Babel, Crash, or Magnolia could lend themselves to the complexities of climate politics, highlighting our interconnectedness. Perhaps a Nashville-structured film that takes place at a climate protest could show the diverse voices in and around (and against) this movement. We can also look to nature for inspiration, taking a cue from Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory, structured like a tree.

And while we’re questioning our conventional story structures, why not question the systems they are born from? We, the WGA, demanded sweeping change from a system that puts profit over people. We can continue to do that work both in our activism and in our writing. As Daniel Kwan said at the 2023 Hollywood Climate Summit, “...our systems are fossilized stories. They are the codified stories of our past, the stories that we told ourselves about endless growth markets and all these things that have really broken down and are no longer serving us.” 

Politically, we have the science and policies and solutions, but we’re roadblocked by systems that created this mess to begin with. The only way out is through story. Stories can point the way forward, towards something most people can hardly imagine. Stories can help us navigate the weird and unwieldy heartache of climate change. Stories will help us survive, and even flourish, in our uncertain climate future. 

And we need our wildest ideas. The solutions that end up being our future responses to the climate crisis could, in fact, come straight from a writer’s mind. We, as writers, have the power to shape a future that is equitable and built on care and love. As author and activist adrienne maree brown says, “Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless.” What seems out of reach today is just a story away from being possible.

Banasky is a WGAW member and wrote on the Amazon show Undone. She is head writer and consultant for Good Energy, a nonprofit that supports screenwriters in portraying the climate crisis on-screen. Banasky is also a novelist and screenwriter who co-wrote A Family Guide to Hunting, a short film starring Margaret Cho. She recently created a climate-fiction audio drama for Wondery. To find out more about exploring climate in your writing, visit goodenergystories.com.

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