A Person holding a film clapboard in the middle of a desert landscape. The writing on the clapboard reads, “There is no planet B”
Image credit: Jakob Owens on unsplash.com

A “prophetic sermon on climate change.” “A coherent account of a complex topic that Americans desperately need to understand.” These were some of the reviews at the time for the 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. 

Directed by Davis Guggenheim, the film about former United States Vice President Al Gore’s attempts to educate the world about the looming climate crisis was described by Rolling Stone as “a thriller with an ending that will haunt your dreams.”

The film would go on to win two Oscars (the first documentary to do so), along with a slew of other awards and critical acclaim. At the box office, it would gross a whopping $49.8 million worldwide, unprecedented for a documentary film with a budget of less than $2 million.

ScienceNews wrote upon the 10-year anniversary of An Inconvenient Truth that in the years since “the movie sparked increased public discussion, climate scientists have made major advances,” including pledges to curb global emissions. As NPQ reported in 2011, “Emboldened by the power and influence of the movie, Gore announced in 2006 the creation of the Alliance for Climate Protection.” The movie also paved the way both for broader conversations about climate change and the idea of film as a mainstream vehicle for communicating larger social justice issues.

People can only handle so many negative events at a time.”

What educational institution doesn’t have a film series now, a popular programming idea for nonprofit organizations as well as community groups? But it’s been nearly 20 years since Gore’s documentary swept cinemas. While it’s not new to talk about hard truths through art, it’s worth questioning whether movies are still an effective medium for inspiring action when it comes to tough issues, such as the climate crisis. Are people still watching, or have they started turning away to less intensive programming, especially in the age of streaming services?

The Finite Pool of Worry

An Inconvenient Truth launched hundreds of environmentally focused documentaries from 2024 to Our Planet. Most did not do as well, critically or popularly, as Gore’s film. Climate change has made the leap into plotlines in fictional films too, including blockbusters. Thriller and action movies from Geostorm to Snowpiercer to Don’t Look Up feature the climate crisis as a driving force. 

This last film in particular, in which scientists try to warn a population in denial about an approaching comet, generated mixed reviews. Many of them gave voice to the weariness some people have expressed when it comes to listening or learning about climate change, no matter the medium. Rolling Stone described Don’t Look Up as “a blunt instrument in lieu of a sharp razor,” while the New York Times wrote in its review, “[director Adam] McKay isn’t doing much more in this movie than yelling at us, but then, we do deserve it.”

Grim films presenting the climate crisis, in fact or fiction, as a bleak inevitability aren’t helping.

In 2023, Vox wrote about a hypothesis known as the “finite pool of worry,” the idea that “people can only handle so many negative events at a time. So when public concern about one issue rises, another concern should fall.” Vox gave the example of economic fears taking precedence over the climate for many following the 2008 financial crisis. 

Climate fatigue is a growing issue worldwide. Skepticism about the science persists, while some people worry about the costs of moving away from fossil fuels and toward sustainability. Still, others trust the science behind climate change but feel overwhelmed by the problem. 

NPQ and other outlets have reported about climate anxiety, defined as “severe dread about damage to the environment due to human-caused climate change.” That dread, combined with grief about the harm humans have done and continue to do, can lead to numbing hopelessness and inaction.  

Grim films presenting the climate crisis, in fact or fiction, as a bleak inevitability aren’t helping. “We need a subtler, more varied portrayal of climate change in film,” the BBC wrote in 2022. Unrelenting darkness can be tuned out, turned away from. To continue to engage on the issue of climate, people need hope: possible solutions and new ways of living more sustainably. They need to feel like they can make a difference.  

Streaming Competition 

Along with increased accessibility, an advantage of a virtual film screening is the possibility of an interactive audience chat running during a film, for example.

Can that hope be found in film? The BBC points to recent research that found “constructive hope” was necessary for people to take action on climate change. Films like Common Ground, a documentary on regenerative agriculture, might fit that bill. The films that render the climate crisis most effectively spend time “imagining what could go wrong, as many dystopian blockbusters already have,” according to the nonprofit Good Energy, “but also what could go right.” The nonprofit has released the Good Energy Playbook with recommendations for including climate change in film. The playbook “emphasizes the importance of thorough research and avoiding tired environmental tropes; of recognizing intersectionality and including marginalized voices.”

Many climate change films, particularly blockbusters, aren’t as nuanced—and that can be an issue for the format as well. In general, documentaries have been enjoying a renaissance over the past few years. According to the Center for Media and Social Impact, the documentary genre experienced an increase in viewership of 120 percent between 2019 and 2020, becoming the fastest-growing growing genre, at least on streaming services. 

Docuseries are particularly popular, where a service like Netflix can break a story into episodes, perhaps giving a real-life narrative the extended drama and tension more commonly found in fiction. 

So, where does this leave an in-person film series?

Some series made the leap into virtual screenings during the first part of the pandemic, from screenings at the United Nations to university film centers. Though COVID cases are still occurring, most places have now moved away from online programming, which is an issue of frustration for disability advocates. Along with increased accessibility, an advantage of a virtual film screening is the possibility of an interactive audience chat running during a film, for example.

One way a film series can compete with streaming is to continue to offer these extra interactions, to not simply screen a film but to make it part of a lecture series or include a question-and-answer session with the filmmaker or an expert afterward. Such additional programming further connects an audience with the material. That’s essential when the topic is heavy-hitting or people have already started turning away from it, like the climate crisis.

Films can be a tool for inspiring action, and a way for nonprofits, grassroots groups, and others to reach an audience who may not be moved by other means. It’s a crowded field out there for climate crisis films, but the Guardian describes many of them as necessary, “emergency viewing,” particularly when films can provide hope for change, inspiring viewers rather than merely frightening them.