The Art of Climate Change

Is good environmentalist fiction possible?

What makes for good climate change art? In some ways, this question is unanswerable. But inasmuch as its goal is to effect positive change, climate art should be judged on that basis. And so far, its track record has been disappointing.

And that isn’t just because climate change is a difficult problem. In fact, the real issue is much simpler: climate change film and fiction have typically conformed to an apocalyptic, doom-and-gloom template that provokes paralysis and anxiety rather than providing an on-ramp to action.

Popular films and series such as “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004), “Snowpiercer” (2013), and “Geostorm” (2017), along with celebrated novels such as “The Parable of the Sower” (1993), are early examples of the trend. Snowpiercer, for instance, depicted a world in which geoengineering the climate through solar radiation management accidentally triggered a new ice age. More recently, “Don’t Look Up” (2021), which was for a time the most downloaded film in Netflix history, took paralysis a step farther. As a piece of entertainment, the film was a spectacular success. As a work of climate art, it was, like many of its predecessors, an instructive failure.

Mining the difference between popular success and effective art can help us see not just what makes for good cli-fi but also the limits of the progressive imagination about the future. It also points the way toward a more effective vision if the goal truly is climate progress.

Can art get climate change right?

When “Don’t Look Up” crashed into our cultural conversation, it spun off as many hot takes as the shooting star of the show does fragments. In politics, as they say, timing is everything, and given that our politics had by then dissolved into entertainment—and that the pandemic had disrupted the film industry—timing mattered even more for this movie. Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” (another allegory about climate change), which was tipped as the Big Movie Event of 2020, didn’t really happen. Then “The Matrix Resurrections” got lost with the rise of Omicron. But “Don’t Look Up” hit just when people were ready, desperate for a laugh, and grounded from holiday parties with nothing to do—and it broke through.

It’s tempting to think that the film’s smashing success—breaking the then all-time Netflix record for most hours watched in a week—is a sign that it “made an impact” or “struck a chord” or even “raised consciousness.” But despite its spectacular success as entertainment, as a work of climate art, it left much to be desired.

In the film, PhD student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and her supervisor Professor Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) discover a planet-killing comet on course to hit earth in six months. Despite their attempts to warn the U.S. government, the movie’s Trumpish president (Meryl Streep) and the mainstream media spin the story, downplaying or dismissing the threat. The public follows suit, more plugged into a matrix of social media and celebrity gossip than earth science. Dibiasky’s attempt to break the spell on live TV by shouting to the high heavens results only in her public mockery, while Mindy is feted by the media and sculpted into a Fauci-esque celebrity-scientist whose main role is to assure the public that “our best and brightest” are hard at work on coming up with a solution.

The president eventually sees that killing the comet will boost her poll numbers and sends a grizzled American veteran hero (Ron Perlman) to nuke the comet. But after the tech baron CEO of a company called “Bash” discovers the comet contains a treasure trove of precious minerals, the initial plan is aborted so that Bash, using its cutting-edge technology, can extract the minerals before destroying the comet, netting a “win-win”—all of which results, of course, in game-over for humanity. Bash’s plan fails and the comet bashes into Earth.

Many of the negative reactions to the film focused on the problems with applying the comet analogy to climate change. Indeed, there are many ways the analogy doesn’t fit: Humans didn’t cause the comet problem; fixing the issue won’t cost so very much, and no new technology needs to be invented to do so; it poses an equal threat to everyone, and the damage will occur everywhere nearly immediately; the actions of citizens, consumers, and companies (Bash excluded) can do nothing to stop it; a complex global and decades-old infrastructure doesn’t need to be dismantled to stop the comet’s trajectory; unimaginably wealthy special interests are not trying to thwart comet action; the comet has not already caused damage around the world; the problem can be solved by one nation alone; and so on.

The response to this—that analogies are imperfect by definition—is fair enough, but it fails to address three key shortcomings that have much to say about contemporary climate art.

First, there’s the film’s tacit thesis—that the main obstacles to dealing with climate change are a distracted public, greedy corporations, and corrupt politicians (especially in the United States), and that the problem would be solved if everyone just looked up and listened to The Very Wise Scientists.

This idea is common in tales of technological overreach. If only John Hammond had listened to the scientists’ warnings in “Jurassic Park” that “life finds a way!” It also shows up in discourse about science, policy, and public health and safety. Think of the bumper stickers insisting that if only we trust that “Science is real,” all will be well. The problem is that not one bit of this is true.

Sure, activists often face dismissal and worse; Dibiasky’s meme-ification after her meltdown on air recalls Trump’s quip that climate activist Greta Thunberg had an “anger management problem.” Yet Thunberg is also a household name, on whose word the mainstream media hangs. Indeed, far from the world in the film, much of today’s media is already “looking up.”

And so is the public. Polling data indicates that the supposed “merchants of doubt”—the much-admonished army of fossil fuel lobbyists and faux experts sowing doubt about climate change—are losing. The most recent report from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, which has tracked public opinion on climate change for years, points to a sea change: in the United States, the number of people the study categorizes as “alarmed” about climate change has increased 15 percentage points over the last five years, rising from 18% to 33% of the adult population. At the same time, over the past five years, the percentage of those the study characterizes as “dismissive” has fallen from 11% to 9%. “Overall,” it concludes, “Americans are becoming more worried about global warming, more engaged with the issue, and more supportive of climate solutions.”

This shift is not confined to public opinion. Larry Fink, chairman and CEO of BlackRock, the largest asset management company in the world, recently predicted “that the next 1,000 unicorns—companies that have a market valuation over a billion dollars—won’t be a search engine, won’t be a media company, they’ll be businesses developing green hydrogen, green agriculture, green steel, and green cement.” And central banks around the world have begun making moves to green their financial systems. Talk is cheap and the devil is in the details, but signs point to a realization that getting to Net Zero is important—and, if the ESG investing movement is any sign—also potentially profitable.

The second problem with the film and climate art in general is that it feeds into the worst apocalyptic fantasies of the progressive imagination. The DNA of these kinds of movies is the inverse of what writer Jamie Wheal calls a “rapture ideology.” Conservative evangelicals have the literal Rapture (the saved are disappeared to heaven). Silicon Valley libertarians have the Singularity (the elect can be rendered superintelligent or even immortal through machine-brain interfaces). Progressives increasingly embrace a view of history in which no one escapes catastrophic climate change and the Sixth Mass Extinction.

“Don’t Look Up” and films like it give good rapture-fearing progressives exactly what (they think) they want: Evil elites, fossil fuel executives and lobbyists, and space barons are ejected from Earth and left to unsuccessfully fend for themselves in the wilds of an alien planet. It is assurance that even if we good guys die, at least we’re on the right side of history; in lieu of heaven, we get the schadenfreude of seeing the president’s son as the lone survivor of the human race after having lost all of his social media followers. These kind of black and white battle lines—capitalism vs. the climate!—show up everywhere.

Such framings generate outrage at the powers that be for putting short-term political and economic interest ahead of survival, an outrage that gradually yields to despair that science, facts, and logic do not prevail. But this presupposes a fantastical view of how politics (and, for that matter, energy transitions) works—what you might call “light switch” politics.

The idea is that if only some better legislation was passed, or a breakthrough global agreement reached, or if we just went to bed one night and woke up to 100% renewable powered societies the next day, then everything would change. Everything else is just, in Thunberg’s words, “blah, blah, blah.”

But politics, as Max Weber put it, is the “strong and slow boring of hard boards.” Climate change will be the slowest and most boring boring of the hardest boards. Light-switch expectations encourage passivity and blind the climate-woke to the real progress being made.

Catastrophism in the modern imagination

Although typically smarter, funnier, and slicker than garden variety disaster porn, today’s Armageddon climate art is a fairly typical expression of the kind of catastrophism that has shaped human imagination about the environment for centuries. It is the same sentiment that informed Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s story about the noble savage in the state of nature. It also winds through Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book “The Population Bomb.” And, in expressions such as those, it has found dangerous political purchase; failures of imagination and pseudoscientific prophecies have had serious consequences, including China’s one-child policy and India’s mass sterilization campaign in the 1970s.

The earlier origins of environmental catastrophism are meticulously documented by Charles Mann, who identifies two warring archetypes: “Wizards,” represented by Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist and father of the “green revolution,” who genetically engineered a resilient strain of wheat that dramatically improved crop yields and arguably saved millions of lives; and “Prophets,” represented by ecologist William Vogt, whose work on birds piqued his interest in ideas like the carrying capacity of local ecologies and population control. The Prophets critiquing the system tend to tell juicier stories and inspire movements, but the Wizards at the edge of the system tend to tell truer ones—and invent improvements.

Today’s climate artists like Adam McKay, who wrote “Don’t Look Up,” tend to be Prophets—an attitude inspired in the case of McKay by the philosopher Timothy Morton, author of “Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World,” which introduced the term after which McKay named his company, Hyperobject Industries. In his book “The Uninhabitable Earth,” journalist David Wallace-Wells offers a succinct summary of the five features of hyperobjects: “[they] are 1) viscous, by which [Morton] means that they stick to any object or idea they come into contact with, like oil; 2) molten, by which he means so big, they seem to defy our sense of space-time; 3) nonlocal, by which he means distributed in ways that frustrate any attempt to perceive them entirely from a single perspective; 4) phased, by which he means that they have dimensional qualities we cannot understand….; and 5) interobjective, by which he means that they connect divergent items and systems.” To represent hyperobjects, we have to use simple objects, like a comet as a stand-in for the climate. No one has ever seen an increase in global average surface temperature, and it’s hard to fear something we can’t see.

Regardless of how effective the concept is in red-pilling people, is it even an accurate appellation for climate change? Wallace-Wells thinks not, arguing that “the deeper you get into Morton’s analysis, the less illuminating it becomes”: “Viscous, nonlocal, and interobjective—okay. But these do not make global warming a different kind of phenomenon than we have seen before, or than those—like, say, capitalism—that we actually understand quite well.” And climate change isn’t even something we don’t understand. Scientists, Wallace-Wells notes, have predicted it for years. “That we have failed to deal with it, over those same decades, does not mean it is literally beyond our comprehension. Saying so almost sounds like a cop-out, in fact.”

I would go further. Climate change is a problem that is centuries in the making, and solving it requires overhauling an infrastructure spanning six continents. To give humanity a failing grade for not doing so over the course of three decades says more about the grading system than the student.

Hyper-objectification in climate change art turns climate change into both more and less than what it is: more, in that it inflates the extent to which the problem defies our understanding, and less, in that it encourages us to shirk the task of understanding its vast complexity—the uncertainties of the science, the history of national and international climate and environmental policy, the moral and conceptual aspects of climate finance and economics, the properties of different energy sources and systems, the history and structure of energy transitions, and so on.

It also obscures the real progress that we have already made. In fact, the risk of catastrophic climate change has already been downgraded. One of the major drivers? Governments and the private sector have started to spend real money on the problem. In turn, lower-carbon technology, systems, and products are starting to take off.

Misunderstanding good and bad

If contemporary climate art misdiagnoses the problem and what might be done about it, it also gets the moral of the tale totally wrong. In the Manichean moralism of its universes, heroes are, in fact, few: only the scientists (sort of) and we viewers who understand that science is real. Yet even they do little to inspire. In Don’t Look Up,” Mindy’s newfound fame goes to his head, distracting him from what is important. Viewers, meanwhile, are rather like the two security guards watching TV in the closing scene of “The Truman Show”: After Truman (Jim Carrey) has emancipated himself from the small city-size television set he thought was the real world, they look at each other and ask, “What else is on?” In our case, we need not even search; Netflix already knows what we want to watch next.

“Don’t Look Up,” for example, turns a common climate fiction motif—what literary critic Caren Irr describes as the “ultra masculine and robotically unflappable scientist hero”—on its head. As she explains more broadly, in climate fiction, “the figure is common enough that it is reproduced through satire—especially in Ian McEwan’s Solar, where the central scientist-hero is well past his prime intellectually and trapped in a spiral of domestic and professional decline.” Likewise, Eliot Peper’s “Veil” centers on the political fallout from an aging mogul of a satellite company who launches a covert SRM program after a heat wave in South America kills 20 million people, including his wife. The scientist hero is thus either cartoonishly Promethean or a cipher for the failure of humanity to save itself.

The villains in “Don’t Look Up” are many: the deplorables, the attention merchants, the space billionaires, the military industrial complex, multinational energy companies, neoliberal capitalism, consumerism, celebrity culture, and the Republican Party—in other words, the better part of American civilization itself. This broad grouping would be familiar to the Manichees, the gnostic Christian sect that believed every human soul was tainted with a touch of evil, an idea that may well have influenced St. Augustine’s invention of the concept of original sin.

In the late 19th century, as industrialization, urbanization, and population growth expanded and the roots of what became the environmental movement dug in, original sin was secularized. Humanity came to be increasingly seen as a problem, an evolutionary mistake, a blot on the biosphere. This anti-humanism rears its head in many places—the anti-natalist movement comes to mind—but also among the various progressive environmental movements, including the “Dark Mountain Project” of Paul Kingsnorth or Dave Foreman’s “Earth First!”

All of which is to say that films in this genre are caught in what Wallace-Wells calls the climate kaleidoscope. “Today, the movies may be millenarian, but when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination. This is climate’s kaleidoscope: we can be mesmerized by the threat directly in front of us without ever perceiving it clearly.”

A better climate story

So what would a better climate story look like?

When I teach Plato’s “Republic”—the first great book about politics in the Western tradition after the Bible—students often wonder why he spends so much time talking about poetry. For Plato and the Greeks, poetry had a broader meaning than our modern sense of the term: It referred to stories in general, such as Homer’s epics, the “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” and the plays that would be performed at Athenian public festivals.

The first laws laid down by the “framers” in Plato’s treatise were concerned not with bread-and-butter issues like protecting individual rights, providing security, or economic policy, but with the kinds of stories that should be told about the gods. The storytellers must be supervised because the values they transmit will shape the character of the people, and it is the character of the people (not their military might or GDP) that determines the health of the society. Good stories, Plato thought, are likely to make good people whose primary allegiance is to the public weal and who possess virtues like moderation and courage. And only really good people—who possess not just virtue but also knowledge and love of the good—can tell good stories from bad.

To our modern ears, this sounds laughable, naive, even dangerous. Laughable because the idea of our leaders being morally and intellectually superior to us has been in decline for a long time. Naive because our pluralistic society tolerates free expression and rival conceptions of the good, and Plato’s proposal smacks of paternalism. And dangerous because such censorship and centralized control sound authoritarian. But Plato was well aware of these contradictions at the heart of democracy: If a society becomes too open, it makes itself vulnerable to hijacking.

If Plato were around today, I can imagine his email signature or bumper sticker saying something like “Art is Real!” For Plato, the good, the true, and the beautiful—or, more prosaically, morality, science, and art—were distinct but overlapping dimensions of existence. Art has a political function because it invariably encodes ideas about how we should live and what is real. Along these lines, novelist Iris Murdoch has made a distinction between fantasy and imagination. The difference is that fantasy leads us away from reality, whereas imagination draws us closer to it; fantasy drugs the intellect, while imagination directs it.

In Plato’s allegory of the cave, the prisoners chained underground are held fast by fantasy, transfixed by the images projected onto the cave wall by puppeteers. The allegory itself is an act of imagination: It uses images to help the intellect go beyond those images. Plato is the one who left the cave, saw the truth, and returned determined to use pictures and stories to convey it in a form that would help people not just look up, but get up and change how they live.

Scientists frustrated at the public’s resistance to climate change are like those who have left the cave, seen the truth, returned, and started drawing equations on the wall; they forget about the art of the thing. They inform, but do not entertain. As Plato predicted, the prisoners will respond to this with mockery, threats, denial, or dismissal. And poets unconcerned with the scientific details are merely reinforcing the prisoners’ plight; they forget about the truth. They entertain, but do not educate. Plato’s greatest teaching is found in the following formula: Education without entertainment does not empower. Information without inspiration does not incite action. People come away from “Don’t Look Up,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” and documentary “The Merchants of Doubt” feeling a great many things. But inspired or empowered isn’t one of them.

To be fair, the real solutions to climate change pose a mighty challenge to climate storytellers: How do you weave technical concepts—like border-adjusted carbon taxes; social discount rates; intergenerational justice; and climate negotiations that split hairs over periods, commas, and the difference between “should” and “shall”—into a compelling narrative?

But this isn’t the first time we’ve had to face this challenge. In 2008, we all got an education in a cluster of ideas from the world of high finance that most of us had never heard of: derivatives, credit default swaps, mortgage-backed securities, and so on. Having some understanding of what these terms mean was necessary for us to understand why the Great Recession happened, what had to be done to address it, and how to prevent the next one. Fortunately, an artist came along to help us do just that: Adam McKay in “The Big Short.” If it takes Ryan Gosling waving around Jenga blocks and Margot Robbie sipping champagne in a bathtub to explain climate feedbacks, methane leakage, and the need for industrial policy, that might not be such a bad thing.

But more fundamentally, climate art will have to get the villains right, find the drama without resorting to catastrophism, and embrace a moral complexity adequate to the political, economic, and technological complexity of the problem. It doesn’t mean abandoning heroes and villains in the post-moral style of so much postmodern art, but it does mean overcoming simple tales in all their forms. Put crudely, traditional stories have saints and sinners, modernist stories have winners and losers, and progressive stories have oppressors and the oppressed. A mature climate aesthetic would recognize that the real conflicts are between competing valid worldviews and values playing out on the battlefields of individual psyches.

Peper makes a valiant attempt at this in “Veil.” His initial inspiration for the novel came after learning about Mann’s distinction between Wizards and Prophets, and his protagonist, Zia, is the child of these two archetypes, in this case a nature writer wizard and technologist prophet father. Zia’s challenge—and, arguably, ours—is to integrate both perspectives. Though Peper does help himself to fairly one-dimensional villains—Tommy, a conspicuously white and blond oil executive who serves as the foil to Zia and her BIPOC friends, is the bad guy—he manages to offer us a story that blends real-ish human beings with philosophical depth, geopolitical intrigue, and even some scientific realism.

Similarly, a good storytelling framework must recognize both that climate change is the hardest problem humanity has ever faced and that humanity is making—and is capable of making further—progress toward addressing it. It must also highlight, rather than obscure, the need to think carefully about what we could reasonably expect additional work to look like, where it could realistically come from, and how to measure it. Good ideas may come from petrostates, from the fossil fuel industry, from scientists, activists, shareholders, me, and you. We just need to look.

The writer Joseph Campbell once remarked that one of the problems with modernity is that because life conditions change so quickly, it’s impossible for any myth to persist; all myths that are
solid, to paraphrase Marx, melt into air. Campbell was channeling Nietzsche’s notion of the “death of God,” the collapse of a shared cultural background, a common source of meaning, morals, and metaphysics. For both Campbell and Nietzsche, that collapse contributed to pessimism—a loss of confidence that people can do big, hard things.

But climate change presents us with an opportunity: Since it will be a constant in the background of our culture for decades to come, it provides an enduring scaffold around which a shared global story can be woven. Some of the plot threads will be scientific. But that is just one among many ways of making sense of the world. The other threads will be policy, politics, law, religion, and culture—all in the domain of meaning and value. Peper noted that in writing “Veil,” “my discussions often wound up being more philosophical than scientific. And that’s what helped me clarify the heart of” the story.

Biologist E.O. Wilson famously said that our modern predicament comes down to the fact that “we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.” To this I would add exhausted imaginations. The stories we tell about the future will shape the future. We had better choose wisely.