5 Questions on the Importance of Climate Change Media with Kent Linthicum
Posted April 18, 2022
Environmental humanist Kent Linthicum says that in order to inspire the social and cultural change needed to fight climate change, we need to reach people using media they already engage with. We expect to hear about climate change on the news, in documentaries, and in scientific studies. But what about in our everyday media, such as books, movies, television shows, podcasts, and games?
Linthicum is an American Council of Learned Societies Fellow and former Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. He researches and teaches media, environmental studies, and climate change.
“Engaging with environmental fictions and narratives can be powerful,” says Linthicum. But what makes people act? And what overwhelms people causing them to shut down? How can we explore the intersection of climate and media in classes, and what should we read right now to get a better grasp on climate change in the real and fictitious worlds around us?
To celebrate Earth Day, Linthicum offers his insight on the importance of climate change media and his personal media recommendations.
1. Climate change can be found as a subject across nearly all forms of media in varying extremes, with perhaps the most recent viral example being the apocalyptic black comedy Don’t Look Up. Is there a specific book, film, or show which can be regarded as the first modern media to portray this issue, or the first to create widespread public awareness? What was the public’s reaction to it?
That is a surprisingly hard question because people have been thinking about the impact of a changing climate for a long time. Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, also wrote The Last Man (1826) that depicts an apocalypse and what we might identify as climate change. It's not climate change brought on by the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but it is a changing climate that destroys this imagined world.
The novel that I think is one of the most interesting climate novels, and one that really sits close to when the public conversation around climate change starts in the late 1980s/early 1990s, is Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower (1993). It is a fantastic novel, which takes place in a future United States — in 2024–2027, so not that far from now — where climate change and other scarcities, like the end of oil, have created a dystopia.
For me, the book is interesting as one of the first novels that puts climate change in its imagined future, but if you look at reviews from the late 1990s, they really don't talk about climate change. Reviewers didn't quite pick up that climate change is a central part of the novel. Instead, they focused on more immediate concerns of the dystopia rather than the environmental conditions that led up to that point.
2. Some critics take issue with the often extreme or over-dramatized portrayals of climate change in media being a far cry from the type of fierce action needed to fight climate change. How can depicting climate change in media impact the public awareness of climate change or lead to action by viewers/listeners/readers?
This is a question that environmental humanities scholars and social scientists really wrestle with — what does it take to get people to act? There is a tense debate about whether people need to see shocking imagery to encourage them to act or if it overwhelms them.
Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, associate professor of environmental studies at Yale-NUS College, examines the cultural impacts of climate change, with a focus on climate justice. He showed through multiple experiments that reading environmental fiction, specifically, does have an impact upon the reader.
That said, we need a variety of media. We can't expect that just one kind is going to encourage people. We need media that can reach different audiences and urge them to think about these things, because regardless of where you live in the world and regardless of what you do, the climate is already changing. In some cases, we need dark comedies like Don't Look Up, but in other cases, we need more uplifting media that will encourage people who might shut down if they watched something that dark.
Engaging with environmental fictions and narratives can be powerful. It can cause people to start to think about their world. But we need a diversity of media if we're really going to try to connect with all the audiences that make up the world.
3. Many of the courses you teach at Georgia Tech deal with climate-change media, such as Gaming Climate Change and This is Fine: Humor, Media, and Climate Change. How have students reacted to the curriculum, and what have been your biggest takeaways from these courses?
First, the first-year students in those classes were surprised to learn about the depth of the crisis that we're facing. I don’t fault the students here, but rather this says something about the state of the environmental science classes students encounter before college — if they even get to take an environmental science class. I'm glad, though, that even as an environmental humanist, not a climate scientist, I can introduce students to these topics, so that they can already be thinking about them before going on to upper-division classes.
Second, at the end of these classes, students were really engaged, enthusiastic, and ready to work against climate change. They understand on an emotional level that they're going to see a greater-than-1.5-degrees-Celsius-on-average warming in their lifetimes. They understand the need to do something for that reality. Many of them have come back to me and said that they’re majoring in computer science or mechanical engineering or civil engineering, but they want to make sure their career focuses on climate change.
We need all parts of our world focused on solving this issue, because it is one that will affect everyone. It's a lot of fun to teach those classes and impact students in that way. I hope that any incoming students will be enthusiastic to take more environmental humanities classes from the School of Literature, Media, and Communication.
4. What are your top recommendations for media dealing with climate change and why?
Novels: I've already put my pitch out there for Parable of the Sower, but I really want to underscore it because Parable of the Sower does something often missed in climate media — it emphasizes environmental justice, which is the idea that environmental issues don’t affect all people equally. Rather, climate change affects people unequally based on their circumstances, such as where they live, their racial background, their gender identity, their religion, their class, etc. All these things play a role in how we might experience climate change. Parable does a good job of highlighting the fact that people are going to experience these kinds of catastrophes, this slow violence, in different ways.
For a more recent book, I would say that NK Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy is an interesting climate change-adjacent series. It does a good job of thinking through what a changing world might look like, and what it might look like to different sets of people.
Television: One of the first things I want to emphasize is that there are relatively few TV shows dealing with climate change. I recommend Occupied, a Norwegian political thriller, because it has interesting resonance with our current times. In Occupied, a future Norwegian government attempts to move away from fossil fuels, but Russia (supported by the European Union) occupies the country to restore oil and gas production. There's also Snowpiercer, although haven't had a chance to watch it, but it’s an interesting place to look for climate narratives on television. Outside of those, there are not many television shows that really focus on climate change, which I would argue is a problem.
Film: Though it might be controversial among some environmental humanists, I think Don't Look Up is a potent and interesting climate change movie. Although it does not deal directly with climate change, it does a good job of depicting the way we experience these kinds of crises through media, as well as the way people digest information and respond to crisis. It is a bit dark, so for some people it may be too depressing.
The Day After Tomorrow is also an interesting film. It is a little over the top, but I think what's interesting about it is that it offers a strong vision of solidarity and people trying to come together to solve a climate crisis.
Video games: I want to recommend one video game, too, but to the same point, there are not many video games dealing with climate change. The one big-budget game that does is Civilization VI, which is a game about managing a civilization across time. It has a climate-change mechanic, which affects the way you experience your civilization, so if you burn too many fossil fuels, you experience rising sea levels and increased disasters and so forth. What I like about Civilization VI is that it gives you the opportunity to see a grand sweep of time alongside the ways societies extract and use resources.
A smaller game I would also recommend is The Climate Trail, which takes the formula of The Oregon Trail, but puts it through the perspective of a climate refugee. The player can pick various climate scenarios, difficulties, that they try to survive.
There are also several YouTube channels that do an interesting job of talking about climate issues. PBS Digital Studios had a channel called Hot Mess, but it has not been active for a few years. Their videos discussed a range of climate topics from the basics of science to philosophical concepts that deal with climate change. Also, Climate Town does a good job of tapping into current events and how climate change is related to those events.
5. How can the Georgia Tech community make an impact using climate change media?
This question means a great deal to me because it speaks to what we need to solve the climate crisis. One of the things that I think we often overlook as people at Georgia Tech, and even people outside of Georgia Tech, is the need for social and cultural changes in the way we live our daily lives.
At Georgia Tech, students can learn to create diverse media by participating in classes offered by LMC. We need media that helps people think and experience and understand climate change. If we have more people creating television shows, movies, games, books, YouTube content, and putting information on social media platforms, I think that we can help people understand how we need to change the way we live to adapt to this ongoing crisis.
Further, Georgia Tech students, faculty, and staff can think through the ways technology can distribute this media and information. Me telling someone to change or giving them a bulleted list is not going to persuade them to change their behavior for climate change — they need to engage with this information in a narrative fashion. Between our experts in LMC and experts in other programs across the campus, we can find a way to engage with people beyond our campus and make an impact in the fight against climate change.
To learn more about Linthicum’s research and work at Georgia Tech, visit his faculty profile.
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Cassidy Chreene Whittle
School of Literature, Media, and Communication | School of Modern Languages