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date: 22 October 2017

Entertainment Film and TV Portrayals of Climate Change and Their Societal Impacts

Summary and Keywords

Although there is an abundance of social scientific research focused on public opinion and climate change, there remains much to learn about how individuals come to understand, feel, and behave relative to this issue. Efforts to understand these processes are commonly directed toward media depictions, because media represent a primary conduit through which people encounter information about climate change. The majority of research in this area has focused on news media portrayals of climate change. News media depictions, however, represent only a part of the media landscape, and a relatively small but growing body of work has focused on examining portrayals of climate change in entertainment media (i.e., films, television programs, etc.) and their implications. This article provides a comprehensive overview of this area of research, summarizing what is currently known about portrayals of climate change in entertainment media, the individual-level effects of these portrayals, and areas ripe for future research. Our overview suggests that the extant work has centered primarily on a small subset of high-profile climate change films. Examination of the content of these films has been mostly rhetorical and has often presumed negative audience effects. Studies that specifically set out to explore possible effects have often unearthed evidence suggesting short-term contributions to viewers’ perceptions of climate change, specifically in terms of heightened awareness, concern, and motivation. Improving the breadth and depth of research in this area, we contend, can stem from more robust theorizing, analyses that focus on a more diverse menu of entertainment media and the interactions among them, and increasingly complex analytical efforts to capture long-term effects.

Keywords: entertainment media, climate change, science communication, media effects

If asked to name a popular film about global climate change, most moviegoers would likely mention An Inconvenient Truth (AIT). The documentary film, which debuted in 2006, brought to the big screen former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s passionate, data-driven campaign to raise awareness of climate change. It received much fanfare; shattering box-office expectations, garnering critical acclaim, and catalyzing Gore’s 2007 receipt of the Academy Award for best documentary film and the Nobel Peace Prize for being the “single individual who has done the most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted [to mitigate climate change]” (Jacobsen, 2011; Committee, 2007). These measures suggest the film was a resounding success. It is therefore unsurprising that its sequel, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, will debut in theaters in summer 2017 and that AIT’s success sparked other climate change-focused cinema, most recently A-List actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood.

These and other similar films represent notable examples of entertainment media with climate change at the heart of their narratives. Although the tone and structure of these films may differ, they share a common goal: to elevate the issue of global climate change on the public (and political) agenda and inspire actions to address it. Given that mass media have long been a key information source about environmental and scientific issues for the public (Bell, Lewenstein, Shouse, & Feder, 2009; Corbett, 2006; Hansen, 2010; Nelkin, 1995; Shanahan, McComas, & Deline, 2015), it is reasonable to expect that films such as these influence how individuals come to understand, perceive, and behave relative to climate change. Ultimately, however, these potential effects represent important empirical questions. In what ways, for example, did AIT contribute to how its viewers think about and act toward climate change?

The goal of this article is to summarize scholarship that has tackled these questions. The article seeks to provide a comprehensive overview of empirical research that has examined depictions of climate change in popular entertainment media and their effects. Three sections follow. The first section summarizes what is known about portrayals of climate change in entertainment media, and includes, as necessary context, information about depictions of climate change in informational (i.e., news) media as well as depictions of science and scientists in entertainment media. The second section recounts research that has focused on the effects of entertainment media portrayals of climate change. After providing brief context about entertainment media contributions to public perceptions of science and scientists, this section focuses primarily on a corpus of research that has focused on effects associated with a handful of popular films about climate change. The final section highlights future research opportunities for scholars who want to further untangle entertainment media’s contributions to public opinion and behavior associated with climate change.

Entertainment Media Portrayals of Climate Change

Although there is an abundance of social scientific research focused on public opinion and climate change (e.g., Akerlof et al., 2010; Capstick, Whitmarsh, Poortinga, Pidgeon, & Upham, 2015; Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, & Smith, 2011; Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Smith, & Dawson, 2013; Weber & Stern, 2011), there remains much to learn about how individuals come to understand, feel, and behave relative to this issue (Wolf & Moser, 2011). Efforts to understand these processes have often been, and continue to be, directed toward mass media. This focus on media stems from the fact that most people do not have readily-available, first-person contact with climate change. Climate change and its effects are complex, uncertain, abstract, and long term (Moser, 2010). For these reasons, climate change is—to use terminology from the agenda setting tradition—an “unobtrusive” issue for most people (McCombs, 2004; McCombs & Reynolds, 2009). Said simply, it is not a direct part of their daily lives, even if it is becoming a more important issue for citizens (Nisbet & Myers, 2007). And so, as with other unobtrusive issues (e.g., Weaver, Graber, McCombs, & Eyal, 1981), media are a primary source of information about climate change for most people (Arlt, Hoppe, & Wolling, 2011; Carvalho, 2010; Schäfer & Schlichting, 2014; Stamm, Clark, & Eblacas, 2000).

The vast majority of scholarly work focused on media representations of climate change has examined informational (i.e., journalistic) media, particularly newspapers (Schäfer & Schlichting, 2014). Research in this area has assessed news media depictions of climate change in the United States (Antilla, 2005; Boykoff, 2007, 2008b; Boykoff & Boykoff, 2007; Liu, Vedlitz, & Alston, 2008; Mazur, 2009; McComas & Shanahan, 1999; Trumbo, 1996), the United Kingdom (Boykoff, 2008a; Carvalho, 2007; Carvalho & Burgess, 2005; Gavin & Marshall, 2011; Painter & Gavin, 2016), Spain (León & Erviti, 2015), France (Brossard, Shanahan, & McComas, 2004), The Netherlands (Dirikx & Gelders, 2010), Australia (Henderson-Sellers, 1998; O’Neill, 2013), New Zealand (Bell, 1994), India (Billett, 2010; Boykoff, 2010), Japan (Sampei & Aoyagi-Usui, 2009), Germany (Weingart, Engels, & Pansegrau, 2000), and many other countries (Lester & Cottle, 2009). One recent study examined newspaper coverage of climate change across 27 different countries (Schmidt, Ivanova, & Schäfer, 2013), while other scholars have provided comprehensive examinations of the nature, function, and effects of climate change coverage within informational media (e.g., Boykoff, 2008a, 2009; Boykoff & Luedecke, 2016; Carvalho, 2010; Nisbet, 2009; Smith, 2005). Schäfer and Schlichting’s (2014) recent meta-analysis examining 133 studies on climate change media depictions is an excellent starting point for readers who are interested in this body of work. One clear result emerging from these studies is that individuals’ perceptions are indeed impacted by how news media cover climate change (Wolf & Moser, 2011).

Informational media depictions, however, represent only part of the media landscape. Broadly speaking, numerous long-standing theories—such as social learning/cognitive theory (Bandura, 1977, 2001), uses and gratifications (Rubin, 2009), and cultivation theory (Gerbner & Gross, 1974; Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, Signorielli, & Shanahan, 2002)—have demonstrated the unique contributions entertainment media make to how individuals learn, feel, and act toward myriad issues. Beyond this theoretical impetus, scholars have argued that entertainment media may be particularly important when it comes to understanding how individuals think about environmental issues. One such argument stems from the ample research that has highlighted how pro-environmental attitudes do not inherently translate into pro-environmental behaviors (Atkinson & Kim, 2015; Gatersleben, Steg, & Vlek, 2002; Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002). This “gap” has led numerous researchers to emphasize the need for environmental messages that are visual, emotional, and narrative (Howell, 2014a; Huddy & Gunnthorsdottir, 2000; Pooley & O’Connor, 2000; Shanahan & McComas, 1999; Shanahan, Pelstring, & McComas, 1999). Nicholson-Cole (2005), for example, suggested that visual media have “the capacity to convey strong messages, making them easy to remember; condense complex information and communicate new content; provide the basis for personal thoughts and conversations, contributing to people’s memory and issue-awareness; [and] communicate ideas in an instant” (p. 285). Entertainment media, of course, are inherently situated to tell stories that are visually arresting and emotionally provocative.

Other calls for studying entertainment media depictions of climate change reflect our increasingly rich media ecosystem and proliferation of new media technologies. Lewis and Boyce (2009), for example, noted the need for media research that goes beyond news content and considers a wider array of programming including documentaries and dramas that discuss climate change. Similarly, Anderson (2009) urged researchers to cast wider nets when they explore representations of global warming. Among her recommendations, she noted the need to examine the role of popular culture in how people and groups make sense of climate change. Anderson’s research (2011) exploring celebrities’ influence on media coverage of climate change demonstrates the value of this approach. Kirby’s work (2003a, 2003b, 2008, 2011) illustrating the increasingly close relationships forming between the scientific and Hollywood communities further compels research that investigates messages about climate change in entertainment media.

Together, these considerations legitimize the extant research focused on entertainment media portrayals of climate change and highlight the need for more. The remainder of this article summarizes this existing literature—specifically in terms of what is known about content and effects—and suggests future research opportunities in this area. First, however, it is necessary to clarify how “entertainment media” is conceptualized in this article.

Given that this chapter aims to be comprehensive, “entertainment media” is defined broadly to include fictional (i.e., dramatic) and non-fiction (i.e., documentary) productions. This decision rests on two reasons. The first and most important reason is because the amount of extant research focused on climate change depictions in entertainment media is relatively modest. If the volume of research on this topic was larger it may make sense to adopt a more conservative definition of “entertainment media” (i.e., to consider only fictional productions). The second reason stems from the fact that there is inconsistency in terms of the defining differences between fiction and non-fiction entertainment media (e.g., Nichols, 1991; Pouliot & Cowen, 2007; Renov, 1993). With these reasons in mind, it made sense to employ an inclusive conceptualization of “entertainment media” as it enables a broader snapshot of relevant scholarship. This strategic decision, however, is not meant to diminish the value of more granular considerations that explore how different forms of entertainment media (e.g., documentaries, fictional movies, edutainment, etc.) make unique contributions to individuals’ climate change perceptions.

Depictions of Science and Scientists

Before delving into entertainment media portrayals of climate change, it is useful to consider the research that focused on the portrayals of science and scientists. Dating back to the 1980s, researchers began examining depictions of science and scientists in entertainment content on television and in films. At that time this work identified predominately dubious portrayals of science (Collins, 1987; Gerbner, 1987; Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1981; LaFollette, 1982), showing scientists, for example, as superhuman (Hornig, 1990), helpless in the face of evil forces (Goldman, 1989), or as exhibiting undesirable physical and psychological stereotypes (Perkowitz, 2007). However, more current analyses suggest that entertainment media depictions of science have become increasingly sophisticated and, in some ways, more positive (Dudo et al., 2011; Gerbner & Linson, 1999; Ley, Jankowski, & Brewer, 2012). These studies employed both qualitative and quantitative methods.

Depictions of Climate Change

Relative to the surfeit of research focused on news media depictions of climate change, minimal scholarship has examined these portrayals specifically within entertainment media. Perhaps the largest threads of research on this topic consist of (1) empirical studies based on cultivation theory, and (2) rhetorical analyses focused on a small handful of high-profile climate change films.

Cultivation Studies

Perhaps the most robust body of research that has focused on entertainment media’s contributions to public perceptions of the natural environment—and thereby climate change, albeit indirectly—stems from cultivation theory. Derived in the late 1960s as part of George Gerbner’s Cultural Indicators program (Gerbner, 1969; Gerbner & Gross, 1974), cultivation theory operates from the premise that “heavier” viewers of television will be more likely than “lighter” viewers to have perceptions of the real world that reflect the televised world (Morgan, Shanahan, & Signorielli, 2009). Cultivation theory has anchored studies examining the impacts of television viewing on myriad social issues (e.g., Gerbner et al., 1981; Gerbner & Gross, 1976; Hoover, 1990; Saito, 2007), and, in the mid-1990s, was integrated into research seeking to understand television’s influence on how people come to regard the natural environment.

An overarching finding from this research program was that thematic depictions of nature and the environment seldom appeared within prime-time television programming (McComas, Shanahan, & Butler, 2001; Shanahan, 1996; Shanahan & McComas, 1997, 1999; Shanahan, Morgan, & Stenbjerre, 1997). These same studies also found a near complete absence of environmentally focused episodes within this programming. Only one study has updated this original flurry of mid-1990s research and it found the same patterns within a sample of prime-time entertainment television programming in 2012 (Shanahan et al., 2015). Although none of these studies specifically went looking for the presence of climate change within entertainment television, their broader scan for portrayals of nature and environmental issues presumably makes it safe to extrapolate that the issue of climate change was also largely absent from television entertainment programs during this time period. Unfortunately, as noted in Shanahan et al. (2015), this research program was relatively short lived and has not spurred researchers to systematically examine entertainment television content in terms of how it integrates climate change—and other environmental issues—into its programs.

Rhetorical Analyses of Popular Climate Change Films

The most visible body of research focused on entertainment media portrayals of climate change emerges from social scientists’ examinations of three particular climate changes films—An Inconvenient Truth, The Day After Tomorrow, and The Age of Stupid. Rhetoricians, particularly, set about analyzing the messages about climate change within each of these movies.

Rosteck and Frentz (2009) turned their attention toward AIT, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s award-winning documentary film about climate change released in 2006. Their rhetorical analysis of the film led them to remark the film’s notable fusion of genres—specifically, quest myth, personal autobiography, scientific demonstration, and jeremiad—that they felt would encourage action in the real world. They noted, “We believe that Gore’s use of the mythic dimension in AIT provides, in and through representation of his personal and mythic quest, a model for our own responses. . . . So, by the end, to move to protect the environment is to act as Gore has already acted—to be courageous” (p. 16). Mellor (2009) also provided a rhetorical analysis of AIT. Her work, however, was focused specifically on the issue of judging the film’s accuracy in light of legal challenges surrounding the film’s use in secondary education in the United Kingdom. Ultimately, Mellor cautioned that attempts to evaluate AIT’s truthfulness should go beyond narrow examinations of scientific accuracy.

Other rhetoricians focused on The Day After Tomorrow (hereafter: DAT), a big budget, commercially successful, unabashed Hollywood disaster flick. Released on Memorial Day Weekend in 2004, DAT told a dramatic story of an abrupt catastrophic ice age caused after climate change stopped a key oceanic current that influences global weather patterns. Salvador and Norton’s (2011) analysis of the DAT problematized the mainstream description of the film as being pro-environmentalist. Instead, they argued that DAT, through its particular version of flood myth, removed collective human agency from climate change and replaced it with fatalism and individualized survivalism. They summarized, “The flood myth [in DAT] represents a version of the apocalypse that ultimately enfeebles environmental advocacy” (p. 60), which, they noted, contrasted harshly with AIT’s calls-to-action.

Von Burg’s (2012) rhetorical analysis of DAT was more optimistic than that of Salvador and Norton (2011). Noting DAT’s commonly heralded potential as a “teachable moment,” Von Burg’s assessment of the film centered on it as a possible locus for meaningful science-public discourse about climate change. Specifically, as compared to non-fiction media (such as AIT), he suggested, “. . . when scientists employ the fictional [DAT] as a rhetorical resource to trumpet the dangers of global warming, there is greater rhetorical flexibility to distance themselves from the film’s epistemic claims . . . without sacrificing their scientific credibility or losing the dramatic elements of the film” (p. 21). Ultimately, he argued, that by properly engaging with fictional films like DAT scientists could help publicize scientific issues while maintaining their credibility and expertise.

Although not nearly as well-known as AIT or DAT, the 2009 film, The Age of Stupid (hereafter: AoS), also has received research attention. AoS was released in the United Kingdom and featured an old man living in the year 2055 after climate change devastated Earth. It wove together elements of traditional documentary and fiction with a goal to raise awareness about climate change and make more people climate activists. Bryant (2009) was harshly critical of this goal. He argued that that film artificially reduced the complexity inherent in the issue of climate change and operated with deficit-model logic (i.e., in this case, the assumption that information about climate change would compel viewers to better understand and act relative to the issue of climate change. He wrote, “while there is much that is commendably refreshing about the film and its making, it is most unlikely to achieve its highly ambitious aim: to effect urgent and dramatic change” (p. 3).

Other scholars assessed combinations of these films, juxtaposing their particular messages about climate change. Hammond and Breton (2014), for example, examined AIT, DAT, and AoS in terms of their themes of loss and nostalgia, as well as representations of agency. Notions of loss and nostalgia were identified as being main themes in all three films because, to greater or lesser extents, these imagined a future where the past was seen as the preferred choice. They also noted that lack of agency ascribed to humans, particularly in DAT, where nature intervenes to rebalance and reorder the human world at the same time as reordering the ecosystem.

McGreavy and Lindenfeld (2014) also examined the messages within AIT and DAT, as well as another climate change film, Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy. Their study investigated representations of race/ethnicity in these films and considered how the films reflected core sustainable development values, like equity and shared development. The authors found consistent patterns in the privileges of White men in the films as decision makers and leaders, which they argue conflicts with central tenets of sustainability. These patterns led the authors to note that “DAT, AIT and Sizzle are purportedly films that seek to improve citizen engagement around climate change. Yet they are so entrenched in mainstream ideologies about identity—race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality—they fail to break outside the box of dominant discourse that frames change” (p. 133).

Perhaps the broadest examination of entertainment media depictions of climate change is Svoboda’s (2016) analysis of 61 climate change films—what he labels the “cli-fi” genre. His study examined films dating back to 1984 and included theatrical releases, festival films, and made-for-TV movies. Results yielded a handful of common themes that included flooding, extreme weather, the return of an ice age, melting poles, famine or drought, and antagonistic actions. Some films contained multiple themes, and other themes like famine/drought or extreme weather occurred in more recent films than themes like flooding or melting poles that occurred in older films. Svoboda also found that more recent “cli-fi” films—especially those with lower, made-for-TV budgets—had distorted views of climate change and promoted messages of non-action with nature being depicted as capable of self-correction. Svoboda also criticized researchers for their particularly intense focus on DAT.

Effects of Entertainment Media Portrayals of Climate Change

A growing literature has explored the effects of entertainment media on public understanding and perceptions of science and scientists (e.g., Barriga, Shapiro, & Fernandez, 2010; Bates, 2005). Cultivation-based research from the 1980s found that frequent TV viewers were more likely to hold negative perceptions about science (Gerbner, 1987; Gerbner et al., 1981), while more recent research did not find this negative relationship (Dudo et al., 2011). Other recent research has examined how viewing specific TV genres and shows contributes to the formation of science perceptions. These efforts have thus far revealed positive and negative associations between entertainment TV use and science perceptions. For example, Besley and Shanahan (2005) found positive links between viewing dramatic and comedic programming and support for agricultural biotechnology, while other research found that frequent viewing of religious TV programming contributes to unfavorable attitudes toward scientific issues (Brossard & Dudo, 2012; Nisbet, 2005). Additionally, the popular TV show CSI has been linked to increases in viewers’ awareness of and interest in forensics (Brewer & Ley, 2010; Podlas, 2006). Readers should see Nisbet and Dudo (2013) for an overview of the extant research in this area.

Similar to the aforementioned work focused on depictions, research focused on the effects of entertainment media depictions of climate change has nearly all been directed toward the same three films: An Inconvenient Truth, The Day After Tomorrow, and The Age of Stupid. The studies examining the impacts of each of these films are therefore discussed next.

An Inconvenient Truth

The assumption underlying AIT was that it had the capacity to share information about climate change in an informative, compelling way that would engender increased public knowledge, concern, and behavior change (Kellstedt, Zahran, & Vedlitz, 2008). Numerous scholars promptly set about testing this assumption, seeking to gauge AITs impact on common media effects outcome variables (e.g., knowledge acquisition, attitude change, etc.).

Noting AIT’s increasing integration into school curricula, Nolan (2010) conducted two studies—one focused on community moviegoers and the other on a sample of students—to assess the film’s impacts. The combined results suggested that viewing AIT increased knowledge about the causes of global warming, concern for the environment, and willingness to reduce greenhouse gases. Nolen, however, also found that the immediate willingness to take action that followed viewing the film was brief and did not manifest one month later. Like Nolan (2010), Lin (2013) also examined AIT’s influence on viewers’ willingness to make behavioral changes to lessen the negative effects of climate change. Lin also sought to consider the role of third- and first-person effects (see Cohen & Davis, 1991; Davison, 1983) in this process, as well as the extent to which viewing AIT would engender support for the production of environmental documentary films. Within her sample of Taiwanese university students, Lin found evidence that AIT viewers perceived the film to have a greater influence on themselves than on others, and that they responded to this perceptual disparity by supporting the distribution and production of socially desirable films. Speculating on the implications of these findings, Lin suggested that “the promotional behavior induced by the belief that others are less receptive to AIT than oneself in an attempt to raise a grassroots level of global warming awareness . . . may create a shift in public opinion that prioritizes global warming as the most pressing issue facing the country” (p. 725).

Beattie, Sale, and McGuire (2011) took a more granular look at the impacts of AIT. Using an experimental design, they examined the influence of particularly intense sections of the film (e.g., a scene with a drowning polar bear) on viewers’ emotions and cognitions. Overall, they found relatively strong effects. Regarding psychological mood, they found that viewing AIT had significant impacts, particularly in terms of reducing viewers’ levels of happiness and calmness. In terms of its contributions to cognitions, their results were largely positive showing that AIT viewers felt more motivated, more empowered, and less fatalistic relative to climate change.

Other work has focused on AIT’s contributions to individuals’ climate change policy positions. Morrison and Hatfield-Dodds (2011) fielded three surveys to Australian citizens before, during, and after the release of AIT and the influential Stern Report (Stern, 2007), which was commissioned by the U.K. government and sought to describe potential effects of climate change on the world economy. The results found effects that varied depending on viewers’ levels of engagement with climate change. Specifically, findings suggested that increased public willingness to support emissions reductions at the highest cost levels and decreased willingness to support reductions and low and medium cost levels. The investigators surmised that the increased information about climate change (including from AIT) led less engaged respondents to disengage while it reduced the more engaged respondents’ cost sensitivities, increasing their willingness to pay higher costs for policy action. Notably, Morrison and Hatfield-Dodds concluded that “explaining the case for action on climate change is not straightforward, and must manage the tension between ensuring public debate is well informed, and the risk of disengagement by some members of the public when issues are perceived as complex or highly contested” (p. 279).

Jacobsen’s (2011) study focused squarely on behavior, specifically the extent to which viewing AIT may have influenced its viewers to purchase voluntary carbon offsets. Using a timely natural experiment, Jacobsen examined the patterns among geographic distribution of AIT in theaters with the purchase of carbon offsets through Carbonfund.org. His analysis found zip codes within a 10-mile radius of where the film was shown in a theater had a 50% increase in offset purchases compared to areas outside that geographic radius. Results also showed similar purchase patterns across these two areas during the time when the film was not in theaters. This seemingly dramatic finding, however, was tempered by the fact that the increase in offset purchases did not last one year after the film’s release. Regardless of this limitation, Jacobsen astutely suggests that simpler changes (e.g., increases in awareness and concern, etc.) related to climate change engendered by AIT may have been likely given what his analysis revealed about the film’s potential influence on its viewers’ voluntary decision to spend money on carbon offsets.

Collectively, these studies provide empirical evidence suggesting that, at minimum, AIT likely contributed to how its viewers think about and behave relative to climate change. Its contributions to attitudes may indeed be largely through the reinforcement of existent views (as opposed to dramatic attitude changes, see Miller, 2002), and its impacts on behaviors may be fleeting, but this body of work does imply that the presumed goals of AIT—increasing public knowledge and concern, and empowering individual behavior change—were partially met.

The Day After Tomorrow

Upon its release, DAT generated much commentary about its potential effects, which ranged from one extreme (e.g., that the issue of climate change would be regarded as fantasy) to the other (e.g., that U.S. citizens would demand dramatic policy shifts) (Leiserowitz, 2004) and in between (e.g., that the film would reduce public understanding of climate change) (Weaver & Hillaire-Marcel, 2004). Numerous scholars set out to examine DAT’s effects, particularly given its reach to heterogeneous audiences that included individuals not previously interested or concerned about climate change.

A handful of empirical studies to assess DAT’s effects on viewers were conducted surrounding the time of its release. Balmford and colleagues (2004) conducted a small scale survey of U.K.-based DAT viewers before (N=95) and after (N=105) seeing the film. The investigators measured respondents’ concern (measured as how much out of a hypothetical £1000 people wanted to give to climate mitigation versus four other good causes), number of emission-reducing actions being practiced or intended to practice, and knowledge of predicted temperature changes and potential consequences. The two notable results suggested that viewing the film raised respondents’ immediate levels of concern about climate change, and that moviegoers had less realistic expectations about the likely climate change consequences. Balmford et al. concluded that DAT heightened concern for climate change at the expense of understanding.

A larger-scale project led by Ruesswig, Schwarzkopf, and Pohlenz (2004) surveyed German citizens before and after watching DAT. The key finding showed that viewing the film significantly eroded respondents’ previously held belief in the legitimacy of climate change. The film, in essence, made these German moviegoers more likely to view climate change as a fantastical issue. Simultaneously, Leiserowitz (2004) conducted a similar pre- and post-survey DAT of U.S. citizens. Results showed the film elevated respondents’ levels of concern, worry, and perceived threats related to climate change (e.g., that a new ice age was likely to occur). Viewing DAT also appeared to influence respondents’ conceptual models of climate change, with moviegoers being more likely to choose a threshold model of the climate system. The threshold model describing, in short, that climate is stable within certain limits, but that large changes lead to abrupt and catastrophic impacts. Respondents who viewed DAT also were more willing to engage in climate-related behaviors (e.g., join, donate money to, or volunteer with an organization working on issues related to global warming) and more likely to vote for the 2004 democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry. Leiserowitz contextualized the study findings by saying “the results suggest that popular movies can have a considerable influence on the risk perceptions, conceptual models, behavioral intentions, policy preferences, and even the voting intentions of the movie-going public” (p. 31). He also, however, stressed the importance of not overgeneralizing DAT’s impacts and of considering the longer-term influence of the film on public opinion.1

A short time later a study was published that investigated the impact of DAT on filmgoers’ perceptions of climate change in the United Kingdom (Lowe et al., 2006). The investigators found that seeing the film influenced attitudes in the short term. Viewers became significantly more concerned about climate change and environmental risks. The film increased viewers’ anxiety about environmental risks, but also heightened their motivation to act on climate change. An associated challenge was that these viewers were not equipped with the specific information they needed to act on their increased motivation to mitigate climate change. The authors reiterate the importance of designing strategic “teachable moments” (Moser & Dilling, 2004) to capitalize on the fervor accompanying large media events like DAT.

Wanting to explore the notion of DAT functioning as a “teachable moment,” Hart and Leiserowitz (2009) examined the public’s climate change-related information-seeking behaviors (particularly via web-traffic changes) after the release of the movie. They found, among other results, that web traffic on a subset of climate change websites increased during the release period of the film, and that there was a significant correlation between web traffic and media coverage of the film. The authors suggest their results show that fictional depictions of climate change can create teachable moments of “heightened public interest and concern” (p. 363), in this case, that online information seeking about climate change increased concurrently with the release of the film. Taking cues from agenda setting research (McCombs & Reynolds, 2009), Hart and Leiserowitz also reiterate that individuals are most likely to seek information during an issue’s “importance building stage” (p. 364) and urge organizations that seek to take advantage of “teachable moments” to have their outreach strategies in place before the release of a climate change film.

The Age of Stupid

Howell (2011, 2014a, 2014b) identified this film as being particularly interesting to study because of its unique documentary-fictional dystopia tone, emotional potential through its disaster narrative, and minimal calls-to-action. Howell’s first study (2011) used a three-stage survey—pre-survey, immediate post-survey, delayed post-survey—to explore the effects of AoS on U.K. viewers’ attitudes and behaviors toward climate change. The study assessed numerous outcomes, including respondents’ concerns, motivation to act, fear, beliefs about responsibility for action, and sense of agency. The pre-survey revealed that filmgoers held ample concern about climate change, knowledge about how to reduce their carbon emissions, and connection with organizations associated with climate change. Immediately after seeing the film, respondents reported increased motivation to act and an increased sense that they could do something about climate change. They also, however, were less likely to report that they do as much as they can about climate change and felt that the devastation shown in the film seemed likely to occur by 2055. The survey that followed 10–14 weeks later revealed that these effects failed to persist. Regarding behavioral effects, results suggested that the type of people who saw AoS were already engaged in lower-cost actions, and that the film did not seem to contribute to them engaging with the higher-cost behaviors. Overall, the results were mixed, and Howell cautioned against assuming that the findings would hold for an audience more similar to the general population.

Wanting to further assess possible longer-term impacts of viewing AoS, Howell’s second study (2014a) reported results from an additional post-viewing survey she fielded more than one year after the film debuted. As hypothesized, assessing results from this long-term survey revealed that the heightened levels of concern, motivation to act, and sense of agency about action that initially followed the film did not persist. In light of these findings, Howell provides numerous recommendations about studying and engendering longer-term effects; these recommendations, along with other considerations she raises (Howell, 2014b), are discussed in the final section of this article.

Overall, the aforementioned studies that focused on these three films—AIT, DAT, and AoS—found evidence that they contributed to their viewers’ perceptions of climate change. Specifically, individuals who viewed these films often expressed heightened awareness, concern, and motivation related to climate change (Sakellari, 2015). Changes to behavior, however, were short lived. The important issue of understanding long-term effects associated with climate change entertainment media is revisited in the next section.

Future Directions for Research on Climate Change and Entertainment Media

This final section presents considerations for scholars who want to further untangle entertainment media’s contributions to public opinion and behavior associated with climate change. These ideas, where appropriate, situate other scholars’ recommendations of future directions for climate change communication (e.g., Anderson, 2009; Moser, 2010) within the context of entertainment media.

Long-Term Effects

Numerous hurdles must be overcome to gather longitudinal data that provide valid and generalizable insights about the duration of media impacts, especially when it comes to behavior change. It is not surprising, then, that media effects research has most commonly focused on identifying short-term impacts. Researchers concerned with entertainment media’s contributions to public responses about climate change demonstrate this same pattern: capturing short-term effects while yearning for others to explicate longer-term effects.

Within the broader context of encouraging pro-environmental behaviors, Steg and Vlek (2009) emphasized the dire need for researchers to study long-term effects of interventions. This concern is echoed in many of the studies discussed in this article. For example, Beattie et al. (2011) conclude their analysis of AIT’s effects by noting, “What we now know is that films like An Inconvenient Truth do produce a genuine (and measurable) psychological shock to our emotional and cognitive systems. But how temporary or enduring this shock is remains to be properly investigated” (p. 124).

Howell’s work (2011, 2014a, 2014b) represents a noteworthy example of a research program directed specifically at investigating the long-term effects of a climate change film. Finding that the initial increased levels of concern, motivation to act, and sense of agency in viewers after watching AoS eroded over time, Howell (2014a) grappled with the needs and challenges associated with exploring longer-term effects. She made numerous recommendations. Some of these recommendations include the need to (1) get greater variance in participants (i.e., samples that are not dominated by respondents with strong, established feelings toward climate change); (2) use measures of actual behavior (e.g., diaries, observed behavior, meter readings, as cited in Chao & Lam, 2011); and (3) diversify methodologies (e.g., better use of control groups), particularly so as to increase the reliability and validity of the data. Howell rightly acknowledges that implementing these suggestions requires significantly greater financial and time investments. Regardless, her efforts—and particularly the suggestive evidence she uncovered of a “late-starter effect” (2014a, p. 88)—suggest that the strains that accompany obtaining better long-term data are quite worthwhile.

Theory

Any research area can benefit by integrating more sophisticated theoretical and analytical approaches. Work focused on understanding entertainment media’s contributions to climate change perceptions and behaviors is no exception. Indeed, looking across the scholarship in this area, one is likely to notice a relatively fleeting use of theory. For example, widely cited studies focused on the effects of DAT, despite their strengths, were not substantively underpinned by theoretical considerations (e.g., Leiserowitz, 2004; Lowe et al., 2006). Indeed, they did not test theoretically guided hypotheses and research questions. A lack of theoretical rigor undermines the potential impact of this research in numerous ways. Most basically, it inhibits the ability of researchers working in this area to identify salient predictive and explanatory mechanisms. It also makes it more difficult for researchers working in this area to identify the key concepts and relationships they should be exploring, as well as the most appropriate measurements they should be using (Chaffee, 1991). Meaningful replication and extension of research is thereby also hampered (Dance, 1970). And, ultimately, it inhibits the autonomy and growth of the communication field, as well as its ability to connect new theoretical frameworks with those which are established (Atwater, 2008).

Part of this challenge may very well be that baseline theory-building work is needed to help propel work in this particular area (see, Burleson, 1992). However, there is ample conceptual and theoretical work available within the broader area of entertainment media effects, which has grown rapidly since the late 1990s (Vorderer, Klimmt, & Ritterfeld, 2004; Vorderer & Zillmann, 2000). This implies that researchers looking to make novel contributions about climate change and entertainment media can obtain conceptual guidance from numerous sources beyond long-standing theories like cultivation, uses and gratifications, and social cognitive theory.

One obvious literature to consult is that of entertainment-education (i.e., “E-E”). E-E has become a popular strategy for using entertainment media to convey informative messages designed to impact viewers’ awareness, knowledge, perceptions, and behaviors about various topics (Bouman, 2002; Brown & Singhal, 1999; Poindexter, 2004; A. Singhal & Rogers, 2002, 2004, 2012; Slater & Rouner, 2002). E-E research, for example, has shown that educational health messages embedded within episodes of popular television shows increased viewers’ knowledge about organ donation (Morgan, Movius, & Cody, 2009) and condom use (Collins, Elliott, Berry, Kanouse, & Hunter, 2003). E-E research has frequently relied on conventional media effects theories (e.g., social cognitive theory), but E-E is now developing its own theoretical identity (Moyer‐Gusé, 2008) and yielding increasingly sophisticated insights about the effects of entertainment media on viewer cognitions and affect (e.g., Bartsch & Schneider, 2014; Roth, Weinmann, Schneider, Hopp, & Vorderer, 2014).

Recently, E-E research is becoming more common as a scaffolding for understanding entertainment media’s influence on pro-environmental sentiments. For example, Reinermann, Lubjuhn, Bouman, and Singhal (2014) explored the potential of E-E as a communication strategy for influencing sustainable lifestyles. The authors discuss “how sustainability and media professionals can collaborate to tell compelling stories, spur conversations, and achieve a greater, greener public good” (p. 178). Examples of E-E efforts promoting sustainable consumption practices from numerous locations—including India, Vietnam, and Europe—are retraced. Reinermann et al. conclude that E-E harbors immense potential to communicate messages about sustainability to the public in ways that can spread awareness, inspire attitude change, and influence behaviors. To realize this potential, they suggest enhanced dialogue between E-E researchers and professional storytellers (i.e., entertainment media professionals), a focus on transmedia E-E research (i.e., research integrating multiple media platforms), and increasingly nuanced uses of E-E that connect more effectively with viewers’ emotions.

Lubjuhn and Pratt (2009) provide reflections on E-E that dovetail with those of Reinerman et al. (2014) and posit that E-E is especially positioned to communicate “climate-friendly” messages to individuals within middle and lower socioeconomic classes. Lubjuhn and Pratt also present numerous recommendations for the improved theoretical use of E-E within the context of communicating about environmental issues. Among other suggestions, they emphasize the need for (1) E-E strategies oriented to affect (instead of cognitions); (2) more systematic formative, process, and summative research on E-E messages; and, ultimately, (3) more clearly articulated and comprehensive theoretical frameworks for E-E research.

In sum, E-E represents a growing and increasingly theoretically based approach on which to anchor research seeking to understand entertainment media’s potential to influence public attitudes and behaviors relative to climate change. The potential of E-E also implies, more generally, the benefits of acknowledging the important role of narrative (i.e., storytelling) in communicating science. Dahlstrom (2014) makes this case quite compellingly. He discusses why narratives are more appropriate and important for communicating about scientific issues than information-based messages, noting particularly that narratives are associated with increased motivation, mental processing, mental elaboration, and long-term memory formation. This viewpoint corroborates the broader need to study how entertainment messages affect non-experts’ climate change perceptions and behaviors, but it also implies that scholars working in this area consult the rich literature focused on narratives, how they are conceptualized, how they are operationalized, and how they have been demonstrated to influence learning, retention, and memory (e.g., LaMarre & Landreville, 2009; Wyer, 2014; Zabrucky, 1999).

New Media and Visuals

In their discussions of E-E strategies, Reinermann et al. (2014) recommended “transmedia” research; that is, research that takes into account the multiplicative effects of various entertainment media sources on public climate change perceptions. This recommendation inherently implies that scholars working in this area pay attention to the increasingly diverse platforms available in the current media ecosystem. This seems of paramount importance considering the growing role these platforms play in the communication of science (Brossard, 2013; Brossard & Scheufele, 2013; National Science Board, 2012) and that the majority of the research detailed earlier focused primarily on a small subset of films. O’Neill and Boykoff (2011) review and evaluate the current role—and potential future roles—new media could play in engaging publics with climate change. The authors specifically discuss the ways in which new media platforms can generate information exchange, interactivity, and inclusivity related to the issue of climate change. Their review shows the complex roles new media play in how individuals can engage with climate change chapter highlights, and ultimately highlights the need for “critical and empirical evaluations of new media in climate change engagement” (p. 248).

Encouragingly, O’Neill and Boykoff’s (2011) recommendation appears to be making inroads. One recent study, for example, examined how online video clips contribute to public climate change discussions. Shapiro and Park (2015) examined communication about climate change on the popular video sharing website, YouTube. Specifically, they examined the nature of post-video discussions, seeking to understand the extent to which these discussions reflected that content of the specific climate change videos. After identifying the most viewed climate change videos on YouTube and determining their broad themes, the authors assessed how viewers responded to the claims made about climate change within these videos. Results indicated that discussion centered on politicized science within the video comments. Shapiro and Park suggested that the findings provide “clear evidence that people are likely to respond to claims about the science of climate change in ways that politicize (or reference the politicization of) the issue” (p. 16) and that the specific content of the videos does not seem to influence the discussion threads. Overall, these results suggest that YouTube videos may not be engendering productive information exchange and discourse about climate change. More research in this, area, however, is certainly needed. Scholars who are interested in further exploring contributions of online video to public engagement with climate change should consider modeling their efforts on the theoretically and methodologically robust research conducted by Schneider and colleagues (2016).

Other scholars have turned their attention toward exploring the relationship between video games and public perceptions of science and scientists. For example, Nilsson and Jakobsson’s (2011) interest in the educational potential of computer games led them to examine the urban simulation computer game SimCity 4 as a potential facilitator for science learning contexts. Their case study focused on Future City 1, a national competition for Swedish students (ages 12–15) who take on the role of urban planners with the mission to create sustainable cities in SimCity 4. The authors were particularly interested in how interactions in gaming environments supported students’ reflections on simulated “real” world problems, and how students used their scientific knowledge in this learning environment. Among their results, the authors found that most students were able to apply the scientific concepts included in their game experience in relevant ways, and were able to understand and connect the concept of “sustainability” to the management of their cities. Likewise, they also saw that student misunderstandings (e.g., some students did not express an awareness of the link between the combustion of fossil fuels, carbon oxides, and global warming) were made obvious. In sum, their study yielded encouraging results about the potential of popular video games to facilitate students’ use of scientific concepts including that of sustainability. Other recent research, although not specifically focused on enhancing students’ environmental literacy, has hinted more broadly at the potential of popular video games to engage their players about science and scientists in positive ways (Dudo, Cicchirillo, Atkinson, & Marx, 2014).

Climate change communication scholars have also recently called for more work focused on visual images of climate change across the media landscape. O’Neill and Smith (2014) provide an informative review of the nascent literature emerging in this area. They also make recommendations for future research, (1) noting that visual images have the capacity to help individuals imagine futures under climate, (2) highlighting the need for research that accounts for a more comprehensive spectrum of visual image types (e.g., cartoons, YouTube videos), and (3) calling for increased methodological clarity within this work. Although not examining climate change specifically, work by Lazard and Atkinson (2015) suggests visual messages, like infographics, might be more persuasive and engaging than text-based messages about issues of sustainability.

Conclusion

Research exploring entertainment media portrayals of climate change and the effects of these portrayals on individuals’ awareness, knowledge, perceptions, and behaviors related to climate change is limited. This should not be surprising given that the preponderance of communication content and effects research has focused on informational (i.e., news) media. Research on entertainment media and climate change, however, is growing. The timing of this growth coincides with the communication field’s increasing attention to entertainment media more broadly (Vorderer & Zillmann, 2000), and also reflects climate change communication researchers’ calls to get serious about explicating the contributions entertainment media—and popular culture, more broadly—make to how individuals and societies come to understand and act toward climate change (e.g., Anderson, 2009; Moser, 2010).

Some clear take-home messages emerge when looking across the research summarized in this article. First, minimal work has examined depictions of climate change within entertainment media. This contrasts sharply with the profusion of research that has examined depictions of climate change within news media. Most of the extant work consists of rhetorical analyses that focused on a small handful of high-profile climate change films. These studies, with some exceptions, provided mostly negative readings of the films’ depictions of climate change and extrapolated from these readings to presume negative effects on their viewers. These deep analyses, unfortunately, have not been complemented with empirical assessments of these films or other entertainment media. The existing work is thereby characterized by its focus on a small subset of films and its use of qualitative methodologies. Our current understanding of climate change portrayals in entertainment media, therefore, is restricted.

Second, studies exploring effects found evidence suggesting entertainment media depictions contributed to their viewers’ perceptions of climate change, specifically in terms of heightened awareness, concern, and motivation. However, this corpus of research also focused narrowly on the same three films—AIT, DAT, and AoS—and, overall, leaves the question of long-term impacts on behavior mostly unresolved. What is more, the seemingly positive short-term outcomes emerging from the majority of the “effects” studies are incommensurate with the negative effects predicted in the majority of the rhetorical “content” studies.

In sum, few communication scholars would argue against trying to understand entertainment media’s contributions to public engagement with climate change. Scholars working in this area have, indeed, unearthed enough evidence to legitimize these efforts. The current challenge now is to improve the breadth and depth of research in this area. Specifically, as indicated above, this can manifest in terms of more robust theorizing, analyses that focus on a more diverse menu of entertainment media and the interactions among them, and increasingly complex analytical efforts to capture long-term effects. This may seem like an intimidating charge, but, perhaps refreshingly, this charge also applies to the broader area of media effects scholarship.

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Notes:

(1.) Readers who are interested in methodological considerations associated with the Reusswig et al. (2004) and Leiserowitz (2004) studies should see Reusswig and Leiserowitz (2005).