How can climate change films teach us about climate injustice?
by Lucy Page
Ever since first becoming aware of the destructive impacts of human activity on the planet, I have consumed countless forms of media claiming to shed light on the phenomenon of climate change. From documentaries that convince me to renounce plastic straws and stop eating meat, to Hollywood films that use special effects to turn the threat of climatic hazards into an edge-of-your-seat experience, to books and podcasts that pin the blame for the climate crisis on big business.
Despite the stream of climate change films being produced for a popular audience each year, rarely are the experiences of the communities facing the worst effects of climate change featured on our screens. After feeling like I had exhausted the knowledge that Netflix had to offer me and becoming alarmed at the absence of voices from communities most at risk from climate change, I set about researching alternative climate films as part of the project 'Advocating through Film: Education and Climate Change in Fiji'.
Looking beyond the gaze of Western climate activists, who tend to dominate the narration of the climate crisis in popular media, and sensationalised content calculated to accumulate clicks on social media, I found a plethora of climate change films that I may otherwise not have come across. The process of reviewing these films was filled with unlearning what I thought I knew about climate justice, hope, frustration, and an unhealthy dose of climate anxiety.
Climate change films have huge potential to educate diverse audiences about climate injustice and catalyse large-scale climate action. Bringing together powerful imagery and hard-hitting storylines, climate change films are an accessible and engaging medium used to engage global audiences in the movement for climate justice. Filmmaking technology has the power to make distant issues, such as climate change, hit home for viewers, when their screens allow them to witness up-close the devastation caused by climate injustice. These films can challenge common misconceptions about climate change only being a problem for future generations, as they uncover the ways that climate change is already impacting climate-vulnerable communities.
Audience emotions can be manipulated by climate change films in both productive and counterproductive ways. Whereas feelings of shock and hope can be harnessed to motivate viewers to engage in urgent climate action, anxiety and despair can make the audience feel like there is no point in trying. Climate change films need to carefully craft their messaging to communicate the seriousness of the issue without losing the audience to a paralysing state of climate anxiety.
Based on what I learnt from binge-watching climate change films, here are five suggestions for the effective use of film for just climate change education:
1. Empower community voices.
Addressing global structures of climate injustice, climate change films should create opportunities for climate vulnerable communities to share their experiences of climate injustice with an international audience.
2. Showcase local knowledge and grassroots initiatives
Climate change films should draw attention to the value of local knowledge and community-led initiatives for addressing climate injustice.
3. Use supplementary educational materials.
Climate change films should be supplemented with additional educational materials to reinforce the key messages and fill any knowledge gaps.
4. Target a specific audience.
Whether the target audience is children, adolescents, community leaders, researchers or policymakers, climate change films should be adapted to effectively communicate with specific groups.
5. Bridge the gaps between knowledge to action.
Too often, viewers come away from climate change films with a vague understanding of the issues but not having a clue of how to go about fixing them. The emotional momentum generated by climate change films needs to be leveraged into climate action by directing the audience on the next steps to take.
From the 1 ⭐ to the 5 ⭐, each of the five films selected for this blog and in the list below provide insightful lessons for the effective use of film as an educational tool for climate. When strategizing how the medium of film can be mobilised as a transformative vehicle for climate justice, it is crucial to learn from the successes and failures of previous climate change films.
This blog attempts to showcase the huge potential for films to educate diverse audiences about climate justice including policymakers, researchers and the general public. At the same time, this blog issues a warning that films presenting the climate crisis through an uncritical and ahistorical lens risk silencing the voices of climate vulnerable communities. A failure to engage with a recognition of the past inequality of climate injustice only serves to re-entrench the unequal power structures that continue to stand in the way of just climate action.
At the time of writing this blog, world leaders and activists have recently convened in Glasgow for COP26. The stakes for educating people about climate injustice are reaching a pivotal point. It has never been more important to understand how film can be used educate a global audience on climate injustice and catalyse urgent climate action.
Five selected films
To read the films review, simply click the '>' button to the left of the ⭐ rating
This short film, produced by the National Geographic, uses a combination of interviews and visual footage to tell the story of the islands of Pemba and Kokota, situated in the Zanzibar archipelago. The film’s narrative, as told by a host of local community members, native experts and international specialists, skilfully balances the human and ecological costs of climate change by enabling the viewer to learn from multiple perspectives. The narration is paired with captivating footage that juxtaposes environmental degradation with conservation to showcase both the harm caused by the exploitation natural resources and opportunities for humans to restore the environment.
The film stood out to me because it uses case studies of community-led climate change adaptation on low-lying islands, including reforestation and Education for Sustainable Development. For this reason, I recommended the film to several friends because of the film’s capacity to disrupt the dominant discourse on climate vulnerability and resilience. Rather than making communities out to be helpless victims of climate change, the film illustrates how community ties and traditional knowledge can be used to mitigate climate vulnerability. The film finishes with a direct appeal to support the islands and learn more via a linked website, which effectively channels the motivation of the viewer to participate in climate action.
The IIED provides viewers with a behind-the-scenes pass to international climate change negotiations in their documentary following delegates from climate vulnerable countries around the COP15 summit. The documentary uses interviews with climate negotiators, media representatives and activists from countries currently endangered by climate injustice. The interviews reveal how these parties were effectively shut out of the backroom meetings where politicians from the high emitting “Global North” decided the outcomes of the conference.
Watching as the defiant voices of climate vulnerable communities were drowned out by the inward-looking agendas of countries most responsible for climate change was gut-wrenching and infuriating. Days after viewing the documentary, I still found myself asking how can the perpetrators of climate change refuse to listen to victims of climate injustice when their survival is at stake?
As a general audience member, this frustration quickly subsided into a feeling of powerlessness due to not knowing what I could do to rectify this seemingly hopeless situation. Although the IIED gives insights into the realities of climate diplomacy, the documentary risks overwhelming a general audience and allowing politicians to shrug responsibility.
Part of a research project by Bath Spa University, exploring the use of climate change films for stakeholder engagement, Pathways to Resilience explores how mountain communities in the Kullu district of India are coping with the effects of climate change. There are three versions of the film: 1) 5-minute version aimed at raising awareness among international policymakers and practitioners of how local communities are experiencing climate vulnerability; 2) 20-minute version detailing the research journey for an interdisciplinary research audience; 3) 15-minute version in Hindi to use for public engagement in the Kullu District.
Pathways to Resilience highlights the crucial role of community participation and local knowledge in realising culturally relevant climate change adaptation. The project calls for the dual use of climate change films as a tool for conducting participatory research and sharing the stories of at-risk communities.
At first glance, this DW Documentary film, with almost 9-million views on YouTube, appeared promising as it focused on the plight of a small island facing the extreme consequences of human-induced climate change. After further inspection, it became clear that the film’s failure to address historical and contemporary patterns of climate injustice made it deeply problematic. The American narrator repeatedly cited population growth as a cause of Kiribati’s resource shortages and glossed over the responsibility of high emitting countries for causing the climate crisis.
Throughout the documentary, the onus is put on Kiribati communities to cope with climatic hazards or flee the island as climate refugees. While the documentary features interviews with local community members, who share insights about how their culture is interlinked with the environment, their contributions are disregarded by the narrator, who views migration or invasive technologies as the only options for Kiribati. The most absurd part of the documentary is the suggestion that “artificial floating islands” could be the answer to Kiribati’s problems. The community voices in the film, which emphasise climate injustice and cultural preservation, have apparently not been heard.
The climate crisis is presented as an inevitable reality which the island of Kiribati has little chance of escaping. The narrator’s use of apocalyptic language gives viewers a false impression that the doomed fate of low-lying islands, like Kiribati, has already been determined. This narrative is misleading as the latest climate science indicates that there is still a small window for action to avoid climate catastrophe.
the Happening to Us film was presented to global policymakers at the COP25 summit. Depicting the everyday reality of climate change for Indigenous communities in the Arctic facing rising temperatures and sea levels, this compelling film provides a platform for those carrying the greatest burden of climate injustice to appeal to the rest of the world for urgent climate action.
Happening to Us features anecdotal reflections from young and old community members about how climate change has rapidly encroached on their livelihoods and culture over the course of their lifetimes. To back up these first-hand accounts, the film makes use of two aerial images of their community, taken 18 years apart, to visually demonstrate the effects of coastal erosion. The film is effective for conveying the urgent need to tackle climate change, while still offering a glimmer of hope that Inuit communities can be saved. The film finishes with a powerful call to take action from Eriel Lugt, one of the filmmakers:
“I just think that kids should be very aware of climate change and I think that we should all take it serious because we are the next generation and we can change the world. People may doubt us but…with determination and effort nothing is impossible.”
Lucy Page is a former MA Education, Health Promotion and International Development Student at the UCL Institute of Education. During her studies, Lucy collaborated with local NGOs in Ladakh, India, to conduct research on the relationship between education, wellbeing and climate vulnerability. Prior to her MA, Lucy graduated from the University of Warwick with a BASc in Politics, International Studies and Global Sustainable Development. Since graduating, Lucy has been working as a consultant on education and health projects at Mott MacDonald.