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Action Guide

Stories are our Superpower

Stories are not just a form of entertainment; they are the bedrock of societies ad shape our perceptions, values, and behaviours. The stories we tell are our most powerful tool in fighting climate change.

Why should we put climate change on screen?

We need look no further than Indigenous cultures to see how embedding climate action into stories can be deeply effective. Indigenous cultures are oral cultures and their environmental teachings are embedded into their stories, which are then passed down through generations.

The vast majority of Canadians are worried about climate change, according to national polling, yet climate literacy among the public is weak.

The climate crisis is not just creative fodder for dystopian science fiction - it’s part of the real every-day world now and can fit into a huge variety of stories and genres. The storytelling potential is enormous.

The Responsible Media Forum’s call to arms for producers is to view content in terms of their ‘brainprint’ - the cultural footprint of the content we produce and put out into the world. They argue that the potential for positive cultural impact is the media sector’s superpower.

We have seen this in action time and again. Ellen changed how the public saw the LGBT community in 1997 by being the first prime-time show to feature an openly gay character. The 2013 documentary Blackfish led to SeaWorld ending their controversial “Shamu Show”. Blue Planet II is credited for a massive reduction in plastic waste due to the so-called “Attenborough Effect”. Even the blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow is credited for “having a strong influence on viewers' risk perception of global warming.” 

Climate content clearly resonates with audiences and the market appears to be growing. Netflix reports that since 2022, over 80% of subscribers chose to watch at least one story on climate issues or climate solutions. The satirical climate change film “Don’t Look Up” became the second-most-watched movie on Netflix within 28 days of release. A study by the USC Norman Lear Centre showed that viewers overwhelmingly feel the stories on screen don’t match the level of anxiety they feel over climate change.

Content Development

Climate action doesn’t start in prep or at a green light. It starts with content development. Once a script is polished, the story-boards are drawn, the budget is locked, and key creatives hired, it’s too late for many sustainability initiatives to be considered.

Talk about climate with your creative teams.
Talk to writers, directors, story editors, artists and showrunners about how to include the planet in your stories.

Talk to buyers.
Ask broadcasters, clients and buyers about their desire for environment-themed stories. Include sustainability as part of your pitch packages.  Include sustainability in development plans and budgets to ensure it's on the agenda from the start.

Producers should incorporate sustainability as part of their regular content development process.
Development is the time when climate narratives and creative elements can be discussed with development teams, researchers, story editors, artists, writers, directors and other key talent. The goal is to assess content to ensure we’re doing-no-harm, as well as to take  advantage of opportunities that arise to influence sustainable behaviours and speak to audiences about the problem of climate change. 

Producers can support sustainability in development by reading scripts with a sustainability lens.
For live-action production in particular, there is a straight line between the script and a production’s eventual carbon footprint. Producers are already reviewing scripts and storyboards for budget factors, logistics, and even diversity. Sustainability is no different. Script factors that impact the budget are likely to have a carbon impact as well. Can night shoots be eliminated or reduced? Is the story set in far-flung locations that will require additional travel to shoot in? 
Consider the climate justice elements of climate change. 
Familiarize yourself and your creative teams with the intersection of climate change and climate social justice to take advantage of opportunities to deepen your stories into the human element.  Use resources like those from Good Energy Stories. When climate justice is added to the mix, the potential for storytelling expands exponentially.

Connect with First Nations communities and integrate environmental teachings into your stories. Use resources like those from Good Energy Stories. When climate justice is added to the mix, the potential for storytelling expands exponentially.
Any content can be climate content.
Nobody wants every project to be about climate change or even to directly address it.  Yet sustainability can be a part of content in more subtle ways. Values like minimalism and using less, systems-thinking, working collectively or co-sharing, supporting communities and respect for the natural world are themes that can be built into nearly any world and narrative.

Help audiences get the message.
Consider sustainability as a theme or message in promos,  EPK’s, second-screen content,  and marketing plans. Don't miss opportunities to speak to audiences about the environment or to share what your production accomplished. Studies also show that the positive impacts of climate content are most likely to occur where audiences are able to engage with post-viewing supports. Post-viewing supports, according to BAFTA's “The Impact of Climate Content" report, including providing further information for viewers, additional resources, and a call to action that works alongside the content.

Best Practices

Consider the following in your company and in your productions:
  • Have likeable characters model sustainable behaviours and show sustainable solutions as positive status symbols.
  • Encourage writers to include sustainability themes in storylines, characters and the world of the story.
  • Include a section dedicated to sustainability goals and practices in pitches. 
  • Review scripts with an eye to environmental impact. 
  • Consider post-viewing supports to increase the likelihood of influencing pro-environmental behaviour. 
  • Provide resources, training or access to expert consultants to development teams to help them incorporate sustainability in content. 
  • Avoid showing, unless necessary, unsustainable behaviours and practices. 
  • Improve climate literacy by informing audiences about climate science, climate risks or climate solutions. 
Further reading