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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






2018 | There are two more films in this series which you can find here:








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.

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