Cli-fi: cinematic visions of climate change Filmmakers’ gloomy fantasies or a plausible future?

Recently, man faced with ecological catastrophe has become one of the most frequently explored topics in contemporary cinema. Filmmakers take advantage of the anxieties that slumber within us, watering the seeds of fear sown by climatologists predicting possible climate change scenarios: extreme weather events, floods, mass migrations, droughts and depleting food and water resources.

Although the connections between cinema and ecology are as old as cinema itself (the first environmentally-themed film was made by the Lumiere brothers), environmental issues have never before been so omnipresent in cinema as in recent times. With the rise of the emerging genre of climate fiction (cli-fi) movies, there have appeared questions about how much cinematic visions of eco-disasters make a difference to how people react to environmental concerns.

Image from Into the Storm (2014). Director: Steven Quale

Social media phenomenon

The American writer and climate activist Dan Bloom has been credited with coining the term “cli-fi” in 2007. Bloom defines cli-fi as a work of fiction that explores climate change and global warming in its storyline.

“ ‘Cli-fi’ is the term of post-science fiction (sci-fi) consciousness. I merely wanted to coin a catchy buzzword for use as a media tool to raise awareness about global warming. The term may stand apart from the longer, rather pedestrian phrase of ‘climate fiction,’” Dan Bloom clarifies.

The term went viral when Margaret Atwood used it in a 2012 tweet, and simultaneously introduced it to her 500,000 followers. The phrase “cli-fi” began to be seen as a new literary and cinema genre. “It all first happened organically via social media,” Bloom reminisces.

The “cli-fi” genre includes movies that play upon our fears and uncertainty surrounding the destructive impacts of climate change. These films show a world affected by environmental catastrophes, including weather-related disasters leading to a new Ice Age (The Day After Tomorrow); a drastic, sudden increase in global temperature resulting in insufferable heat (the German movie Hell); and dust storms that devastate the planet (Interstellar).

Under such harsh conditions, characters must adapt to a new life in order to survive. This genre includes both high-budget productions loaded with special effects (Waterworld) and arthouse features encouraging deeper reflection (4:44 Last Day on Earth).

Cli-fi flicks point out the errors of modernity, pontificating upon the condition of society faced by crisis as well as the essence and strength of humanity. The world’s all-encompassing paralysis and chaos have the purpose of making the viewer ask important questions related to environmental concerns.

Cli-fi films continue some of the same trends we note occurring in monstrous nature cinema, including drawing on anthropomorphism to both humanize and vilify nonhuman nature. Cli-fi films may present important environmental messages, but to succeed they also must entertain viewers with spectacular effects to attract the audiences needed for big profits. And these awesome cinematic presentations may actually obscure the ecological points on display,” Prof. Robin Murray and Prof. Joseph Heumann, co-authors of five books on films exploring environmental issues, explained in an email.

The Day After Tomorow

In an essay “The Imagination of Disaster,” Susan Sontag wrote of the ambiguous pleasure in watching the world that would soon be destroyed on screen. Films showing visions of a world touched by catastrophe allow us to experience the forces of destruction and the related all-encompassing chaos and fear.

One of the most important films of the cli-fi genre made in the previous decade was The Day After Tomorrow. This production made by Roland Emmerich depicts abrupt and catastrophic climate change that plunges the world into total chaos. On the screen, viewers follow a series of terrifying scenes around the globe: snowstorms sweep across New Delhi, tornadoes rip through Los Angeles, grapefruit-size hailstones batter Tokyo, and a 100-foot tidal wave submerges Manhattan.

The cinematically stunning production turned out to be a blockbuster hit with a worldwide gross of more than $544.2 million.

Showing weather anomalies caused by global warming on a hitherto unprecedented scale, the film shook the public’s understanding of climate change and became a subject of hot debate among environmental groups, scientists, politicians, and critics.

The Day After Tomorrow is built on the premise that global warming has shifted the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation system triggering extreme and almost immediate weather disasters. Within a matter of hours, a new ice age begins on Earth. The Day After Tomorrow subscribes to the theory of abrupt climate change. In the film, an ice age blankets North America in 96 hours. From the scientific point of view, this is not possible.

“There is evidence from paleoclimate records of abrupt changes happening over a decade or two, but not over several days,” Prof. Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Global Ecology, claims. “The idea that somehow global warming will trigger an ice age has no basis whatsoever in sound science. This is an invention of the movies,” Prof. Caldeira adds.

In The Day After Tomorrow, we find more exaggerations about climate change. Hailed as the first film about global warming, it sparked debate on how we might impact public perceptions and act on climate change.

Some commentators argue that the sensational plotline of The Day After Tomorrow would be so extreme that viewers would subsequently dismiss all the issues of global warming as fantasies.

“Hollywood movies are the place to go for entertainment; they are not the place to go for information. Typically, fiction films present a much more extreme view of a future under climate change than what is likely to occur. Hollywood productions deal with our anxieties as well as our desire for entertainment,” Prof. Ken Caldeira states.

The research on The Day After Tomorrow suggests that it raised awareness but also created confusion,” says Prof. Michael Svoboda from the George Washington University, an expert on climate change and popular culture and the author of a comprehensive study of cli-fi films currently under review by WIRES Climate Change. “TDAT greatly exaggerates the speed at which the events depicted could occur, hence the confusion it created,” Prof. Svoboda adds.

He points out that this confusion was likely compounded by the many films that later imitated TDAT’s depictions of tornado clusters (such as NYC Tornado TerrorStorm Cell, and Into the Storm), superstorms (Category 6Category 7), or an abrupt descent into an ice age (100 Degrees Below ZeroIce 2020Ice TwistersAbsolute Zero). “Now climate change communicators have to live with the consequences of the fact that the first popular impression of climate change was created by TDAT,” Prof. Svoboda asserts.

“It seems to have been more successful at raising awareness in the United States, possibly because previous levels of awareness were lower than elsewhere, or because its release was accompanied by more publicity here. TDAT was, as one researcher put it, an ‘event-film,’” Prof. Michael Svoboda adds.

A 2004 Yale study of Climate Change Risk Perception: Day After Tomorrow by Anthony A. Leiserowitz reported that this film indeed raised viewers’ levels of concern about global warming; changed their perception of climate change; and made people more willing to take environmentally friendly actions (such as purchasing more fuel-efficient cars or volunteering with global warming group).

Climate change

Climate change poses a global concern with set of environmental and social threats that may significantly affect our lives of and lives future generations and lead to growing social inequalities. Scientists predict that climate change will increase the frequency, intensity, and duration of extreme weather events around the world.

Among the concerns related to climate change, Prof. Ken Caldeira mentions an increase in global temperatures. “The planet will get hotter. The tropics may get too hot to be able to grow food, and this could cause massive dislocation of people and suffering,” he predicts.

The next serious matter that Prof. Ken Caldeira points out is the melting of the massive ice sheets that may cause sea levels to rise dramatically. “This rise might not happen smoothly, so it cannot be ruled out that we could see a few meters of sea level rise in a short amount of time. If we keep emitting greenhouse gases, substantial amounts of sea level rise over a long time is the central expectation,” the expert states. Central expectations of sea-level rise for this century is about 60 cm (or 2 ft). Prof. Caldeira expects sea level to rise by 30 m (100 ft) over the next thousand years.

Climate change is a complex issue that poses special challenges for mobilizing collective and individual actions as well. Communicating complex concepts such as global warming and climate change in mass media can bring difficulties.

Global warming, as laid out by scientists, is the antithesis of news: it is incremental, still largely masked by natural climate variability, with widespread subtle effects and the worst outcomes projected decades, if not generations in the future. That’s why the issue, somewhat like the national debt or other creeping risks, tends to hide in plain sight,” Andrew C. Revkin, a science and environmental writer, says. He notices that this issue made it a terrible fit for conventional media, and it’s even a worse fit for cinema.

“When it does make it into a film, there’s inevitable exaggeration, which is a normal part of the process of making any dystopian, action, or horror film. “So from Waterworld to The Day After Tomorrow and Snowpiercer and onward, it’s not surprising to see stark futures full of conflict,” Andrew C. Revkin explains.

Impact on viewers’s emotions

The image of a world touched by environmental catastrophe that appears in cli-fi productions has a strong effect on viewers’ emotions. Under such extreme circumstances, the verification of human attitudes in dramatic situations takes place on screen. Apocalyptic visions become also a pretext for exploring the simplest feelings and family bonds (Interstellar).

Can cinema that appeals to viewers’ fears and anxieties related to the environment make them more likely to take environmentally friendly actions?

“Climate fiction is generated for the purpose of entertainment rather than public empowerment. It may increase people’s sense of distance and attachment by giving climate change the shape of an exaggerated fantasy,” claims George Marshall, founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network.

I’m sceptical that climate fiction raises overall awareness of climate change, although I do think that it might intensify concern amongst those people who are already engaged,” George Marshall adds.

It’s my hope that cli-fi movies will inspire viewers and lead to actions or fundamental changes in their perspectives, but I have not seen that happen yet,” Dan Bloom, a writer and climate activist, confides. “I don’t think novels or movies have that kind of power anymore,​ given all the distractions on television and the internet that take people away from the real problems we face. We live in a very distracted world, and cli-fi movies face very distracted audiences.”

Prof. Robin Murray and Prof. Joseph Heumann, authors of the book Ecology and Popular Film, point out that the impact of cli-fi movies on viewers’ perception of the dangerous repercussions of climate change seems to depend on audience size and demographic composition. “Although there are few studies on the effects cli-fi films have on viewers’ awareness of environmental issues, the environmental movement has definitely made its mark in classic and contemporary cinema,” they explained via email.

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