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Industry / Market - Europe/UK/USA

Industry Report: Europe and the Rest of the World

Films and TV programmes feature a "glaring absence" of climate change-related terms


A recent study in the USA found that only 0.6% of scripts mentioned the term "climate change" at least once between 2016 and 2020, and a UK study came to similar disheartening conclusions

Films and TV programmes feature a "glaring absence" of climate change-related terms

“If climate isn’t in your story, it’s science fiction,” states producer and screenwriter Dorothy Fortenberry (The Handmaid’s Tale) in Good Energy’s online playbook. Climate change is an undeniable human issue, and possibly the greatest of our time. But to what extent have films and TV programmes broached this matter in the past few years?

A Glaring Absence is a study published in 2022, in the USA, by Good Energy and the USC Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project. The project analysed how many times 36 keywords related to climate change appeared in 37,453 scripted TV episodes and films in the USA from 2016-2020. The terms varied from climate-related ones (“climate crisis”), through more scientific words and phrases (“biodiversity”, “carbon emission”) as well as more popular ones (“plastic pollution”, “save the planet”), to solutions (“solar energy”, “reforestation”). The results helped name the study: only 0.6% of the scripts mentioned the term “climate change” at least once, and only 2.8% included one of the 36 keywords at least once. “Climate adaptation”, “monoculture”, “climate anxiety” or simply “planet is burning” weren’t included because they didn’t appear at all in the scripts. For comparison, the word “dog” was 13 times more frequent than all 36 terms put together.

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In the UK, in a study conducted by Albert, “dog” was mentioned 22 times more than “climate change” in all programmes (except for daily news) aired by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, Sky and UKTV in 2020. Albert is an environmental organisation that encourages the film and TV industry to become more sustainable. Since 2019, it has published three reports, such as Subtitles to Save the World, analysing the frequency of different words linked to five areas of sustainability (food, resources, travel, energy and climate knowledge/environment) in programmes aired by the UK’s broadcasters, which include films, series and light entertainment.

Besides estimating their recurrence, these studies also examined how the terms were used. Albert’s reports indicated that the most frequent sustainability keywords referred mainly to individual or lower-impact behaviours (recycling and veganism, for example) instead of higher-impact issues, such as energy and transport. At the same time, the US study remarked that around 10% of the scripts that referred to the coal and oil industries or extreme weather events (such as drought, flood or wildfires) were the same ones that mentioned one of the 36 climate-change terms analysed. This indicates that most of the scripts didn’t link these industries and/or extreme weather events to climate change, even though they are intrinsically connected. Additionally, the studies developed in both countries reached a similar conclusion: the keywords related to the causes of the problem were massively more frequent than mentions of the solutions or the way we feel about it. According to Albert’s 2020 report, “climate change” got a total of 12,715 mentions, “solar energy” 304, “climate justice” 109 and “climate anxiety” 17.

The film and TV industries have a significant influence on how societies see the world, since they are committed and sensible observers of the past and present, and imaginative creators of the future. These studies lead us to wonder to what extent we have been attentive to and conscious of the greatest challenge of our time and how it is represented in our stories. Good Energy’s study also surveyed North American audiences and found that viewers believe they are more concerned about climate change than fictional characters. Talking about it, and approaching the systemic relations inherent in climate change and how to transform them, is not only about climate literacy, but first and foremost about bringing what we are currently feeling and living, individually and collectively, to the screens.

Albert observed that programmes have more than doubled mentions of climate change-related terms in the UK since 2017/2018. Nevertheless, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) urged last March, in the Synthesis Report for its Sixth Assessment Report, the transformation towards sustainability has to be greater and faster. It also has to be better, and this can be achieved by finding creative ways to bring the issue to our stories, and envisioning possible and desirable futures.

To read the reports, please click below:


Born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Carolina Dias has been working in the film and audiovisual industry since 2000, mainly as a creative producer and executive producer at Refinaria Filmes, and as a screenwriter, film director and independent expert, with work experience in Brazil, Portugal and France under her belt. Currently, she is also developing PhD research on film and audiovisual narratives and sustainability at the University of Lisbon.

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