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Why is it so hard to make good climate change TV?

  • 22 March 2024
  In November 1983, American broadcaster ABC aired a little-remembered and unassuming TV movie that had profound significance. Starring Steve Guttenberg, JoBeth Williams and John Lithgow, The Day After depicted the imagined horrors of a nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. With a sense of narrative urgency, the film captured a society teetering on the brink of hysteria, moments before the cataclysmic unleashing of nuclear devastation, and subsequently immersed in the grim aftermath of the blasts and the creep of radioactive fallout. It was a gut-churning wake-up call to the havoc that such a war could wreak. 

With no cinematic release, this telemovie premiere was viewed by over 100 million people, making it the most-watched made-for-TV movie in history. The screening was followed by a televised discussion featuring Carl Sagan, Henry Kissinger, the US National Security Advisor, and the US Secretary of Defence.

Created as a response to escalating cold-war tensions, The Day After took the abstract threat of nuclear armageddon and translated it into a visceral experience that viewers could feel in their bones. Instilling a profound sense of terror in viewers, The Day After became a stark reminder of the potential for apocalyptic ruin inherent in the nuclear arms race. This terror, in turn, crystallised into a societal shift in attitudes towards nuclear weapons and the Cold War.

The world now faces an existential threat in climate change. According to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, ‘We are on a highway to hell, with our foot on the accelerator.’

And while the rise of streaming services and asynchronous media consumption has fragmented audiences, making a cultural phenomenon like The Day After virtually impossible, there’s no question about the power of film and TV to shape audience hearts and minds. The question then becomes: could a new work of fiction have the same eye-opening and culture-shaping impact for climate change that The Day After had for nuclear warfare? 

Recent decades have given us a spate of powerful documentaries about our warming world. An Inconvenient Truth, Age of Stupid, The 11th Hour, The Years of Living Dangerously, David Attenborough’s Climate Change: The Facts, and countless others have consistently and emphatically sounded the same alarm. Entire industries have been built around generating and maximising societal impact through documentary filmmaking.

However, in the world of narrative drama, climate change has been noteworthy for its absence. Despite the semi-regular release of dystopian or post-apocalyptic films, the world of dramatic