Press Release, March 4, 2019: James Cameron won his third Oscar for his climate change epic Requiem for a Species starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Suraj Sharma, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Jennifer Lawrence.
There are few things as compelling as a poignant tragedy skillfully told. Romeo and Juliet. Hamlet. Gone With The Wind. The most captivating of all are the ones where we want to stand up and shout at the stage or the screen, "No, wait, don't do that! You don't have to do that, there is another way!" We watch, riveted, as the narrative continues on its tragic course, impervious to our exhortations.
We still await the first top-shelf drama about climate change. Some say that a play or movie needs immediate and forward-going actions and that the dynamics of climate change are too 'slow motion', distant and removed for the purposes of effective story telling. Yet, if poignancy and tragic inevitability are qualities of compelling theater, I can think of no more qualified candidate then the climate story that is unfolding before our eyes:
Dynamic Tension: On the one hand we have the science and the scientists. They have done their good work, much as the Apollo scientists and the pioneers of medical science before them. Almost two hundred years ago, they recognized that carbon dioxide and other gasses held in and trapped escaping heat much in the manner of a greenhouse. Forty years ago as industrial fossil fuel use (and rampant deforestation) boosted atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations to levels not seen in millions of years, climate scientists painstakingly began to measure, model and observe the specific and unfolding consequences in earnest. Their discoveries converged upon a stark and specific finding: Our actions were progressively pushing the climate equilibrium that has birthed and nurtured human civilization out of balance -- where and how we grow our food, where and how we get our drinking water, where and how we build our cities and towns.
The message has been broadcast load and clear for some time now and yet, as in any tragedy plot arc worth its salt, we are not heeding. Are there, perhaps, entities watching from afar, entreating, " Wait! Stop! What are you doing?!" They shake their heads as most of us take refuge in a kind of benumbed oblivion while others actively and irrationally deride the findings of science. Maybe a few of our imagined audience members mutter, "It's a pretty good story, but not really very believable; why would they just keep making it worse when they don't have to be?" But of course, if they are at all like us, they understand that fear, greed, apathy and overwhelm are a potent and sometimes deadly brew; and so, they keep watching, wondering if we will pull out of our self-induced swan dive in time.
The Scope: The actual scope of the unfolding story encompasses all of the living members, human and otherwise, of our planet. Many tragedies restrict their focus to a few characters, allowing the audience to build a personal sense of empathy and identification. Whoever writes the first successful climate drama may employ a similar approach. Perhaps there will be a farmer in Oklahoma or Texas hit by heatwaves similar to the 2010 '1-in-1,000-year' heatwave in Russia that resulted in over 50,000 deaths and $15 billion in crop damage that the Potsdam Climate Institute found, are likely to become the "new normal" by the second half of the century. erhaps there will be a Pacific Islander family that is forced to leave its ancestral homeland due to sea level rise. Maybe there will be a family caught up in civil unrest, exacerbated by drought-induced higher food prices, similar to those in 2011/12 in Africa and the Middle East.
The Stakes: Life and death situations are at the heart of tragedy. Climate change offers many dramatic opportunities in this regard. One possibility is to portray non-linear consequences of escalating global temperatures over several generations. The term 'non-linear' may seem intimidatingly technical at first glance, but really the idea is a simple one: Symptoms escalate more and more rapidly the farther a system is pushed out of balance. A fever of 100.6 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 centigrade) above normal is not usually a very big deal, perhaps causing minor headaches and some fatigue. Two degrees higher -- 102.6 -- and now there is body-ache, intense fatigue, perhaps a feeling of disorientation. Two more degrees -- 104.6 -- and the stakes are at an entirely new level. A visit to the emergency room is a distinct possibility, especially if the fever cannot be quickly brought under control.
Our drama could start in 2013 at our current, relatively modest warming of 1.4 F (0.8 C). Already droughts, as we have seen, have started to ramp up, leading to crop death, higher food prices, even political unrest. The Arctic ice melt has stunned scientists and lay people alike, losing 80 percent of its volume in less than 35 years. New studies indicate that the ice melt is shifting the jet stream and causing weather systems to move in new and unpredictable ways -- including the track of Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy.
Next, we can take our story and our characters to 3.6 F (2.0 C) warming -- perhaps as soon as 2034 at current trajectories. he children of our 'first generation' characters are now young adults. They are at a loss to understand how their parents and grandparents could have allowed events to take this course. The world is noticeably different with plenty of juicy cinematic possibilities. Non-linearity has shifted the grain belts of the United States and Russia hundreds of miles to the north. Our Texan farmers have either migrated or changed professions. Low-lying megalopolises such as Manhattan and Beijing and Mumbai have laid in hundreds of billions of dollars worth of flood defenses. Still the new Category 6 and 7 storms cause additional hundreds of billions in damages and relocation costs. The Arctic summer ice is long gone and even the winter ice is retreating. The melt rates of the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica that had already increased 500 percent and 50 percent respectively between 1995 and 2012, have now begun to contribute to sea level rise in earnest; the members of our family of Pacific Islanders are now official climate refuges.
In this world, politicians and corporations are frantically playing catch-up. Studies as far back as 2010 showed that many crops simply cannot withstand a certain temperature threshold. Glaciers that have provided drinking water for hundreds of millions are going or gone. A multi-national geo-engineering effort is underway, pumping millions of tons of heat-deflecting aerosols into the stratosphere. Whatever perceived costs of climate mitigation cited back in 2013 have been dwarfed many times over by subsequent damages incurred.
Next we go to 2072. In 2012, multiple studies, including those commissioned by PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the World Bank, found a 10 F (6C) rise plausible by 2100. By 2072, global temps have already risen 7 F (4 C). In such a world according to these studies, "There is no certainty that adaptation is possible. A 4 C world, plausible by the 2060s, is likely to be one in which communities, cities and countries would experience severe disruptions, damage and dislocation." The director and screenwriters will have a decision to make: Despite the emergency climate efforts of mid-century, will runaway feedback loops have been set off that have taken climate mitigation out of our hands? If their preference is for high drama, then perhaps the permafrost carbon and methane hydrate emissions that have been implicated in several of Earth's Great Die-off will have been triggered. If they decide to go that route, they can cite studies and warnings posted in the first decade of the 21st century by American and Russian scientists.
As we are showing no signs of enacting anything that approaches appropriate climate-related policy, it is likely inevitable that Hollywood will turn its attention toward our developing planetary emergency. It will be engrossing and, I assume, disconcerting to witness our species wide tragedy-in-motion portrayed. I'm not sure what James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee are waiting for.