As U.S. governors and international climate representatives met at the Beverly Hills Hilton for California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s climate change summit
on November 18, a group of Hollywood writers and producers—plus a few climate change experts—gathered on the other side of Los Angeles at the Skirball Cultural Center for “Changing Climate…Changing People: Connecting to the Biggest Story of Our Time
,” a unique conference sponsored by the Population Media Center
on how to incorporate climate change into mainstream TV and film.
Entertainment industry insiders like Sonny Fox
emphasized that “earnest isn’t enough and won’t cut it”—that a show or film’s entertainment value cannot be compromised by its addressing serious issues like climate change impacts. Yet Chris Alexander, senior vice president of corporate communications for 20th Century Fox, showed that this is possible, with examples of how “The Simpsons,” “King of the Hill,” and “Boston Legal” have seamlessly incorporated environmental issues into jokes, dialogue, and storylines.
David Rambo, a writer and supervising producer for “CSI,” described how “CSI” has addressed climate change impacts in two separate shows: one that examined the surprisingly large effect of a degree or two difference in temperature; and another that explored the high concentration of pharmaceuticals in water that has been recycled due to water shortages. According to Rambo, after that episode aired, “CSI” received grateful letters from public officials and educators from around the country, who said that the fact that “CSI” had addressed water reuse had made it acceptable for them to broach this once-taboo topic.
The conference was also anchored by some heavy-hitters—Dr. Howard Frumkin, director of the National Center for Environmental Health/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn (Ret.). Frumkin discussed the potential health impacts of climate change, which include increased levels of air pollution; higher incidence of allergies; geographic spread of vector-borne and waterborne diseases; severe disruptions to water and food supplies; and mental health problems, often resulting from exposure to natural disasters. McGinn explained that because climate change is a threat multiplier for instability, it could increase the risk of humanitarian disasters, failed states, civil conflict, extremism, competition over scarce natural resources, and mass migration.
In addition to panels, the conference also featured a one-act play, “Shuddering to Think,” about the challenges of incorporating serious issues into mainstream entertainment. It sounds dull—but was actually funny and incisive, thanks to sharp writing by Jon Robin Baird and adept acting by Bruce Davison, Scott Wolf, and Bradley Whitford, whom you may remember as Josh Lyman from The West Wing. Speaking after the performance about media’s power to convince the public to get serious about climate change, Whitford observed, “The press failed, the government failed, science failed—but Al Gore’s movie [An Inconvenient Truth] worked.”