Does Climate Fiction (and Filmmaking) Work? 

Humanities7 MIN READ

Associate Professor of English Matthew Schneider-Mayerson develops a new tool to measure how effectively filmmakers represent climate change on screen

Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, associate professor of English, has researched the influence of climate fiction for more than four years. In collaboration with Colby’s Buck Lab for Climate and Environment and a Los Angeles-based nonprofit media consultancy, he has launched a tool to help measure how effectively films, TV shows, novels, and video games represent climate change. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti)
By Tomas Weber
March 1, 2024

It is 2047. The northern states have outlawed fossil fuels. A civil war is erupting across the country. In the Southwest, the Colorado River has dried up, and militias are battling over water rights. New York City is submerged. Climate refugees are making their way by the millions to a floating city in the now-iceless seas of the Arctic Circle. 

Over the past decade, a tidal wave of climate fiction, or cli-fi, has swept into bookstores, and these dystopian scenarios represent just a few examples. Today, hundreds of novels have been published that tell the stories of a warming planet. But can these stories really help change readers’ actions? 

Cli-fi is great at raising awareness of our current perilous trajectory, said Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, an associate professor of English at Colby, who has been researching the effect that climate fiction has on readers for more than four years. But speculative fiction isn’t enough, he said. Writers and filmmakers should also be incorporating references to climate change into their stories that are set in the present.  

Schneider-Mayerson is helping them do just that. 

On March 1, in collaboration with Colby’s Buck Lab for Climate and Environment and Good Energy, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit media consultancy, he launched a tool to help measure how effectively narratives like films, TV shows, novels, and video games are representing climate change. A climate version of the Bechdel test, which measures the representation of women in books and film, Schneider-Mayerson’s Climate Reality Check asks two main questions: Does climate change exist in the fictional world? And if so, is the character aware of it? 

Reality check for contemporary narratives

The purpose of the test is to encourage greater representation of climate change by helping content creators and audiences alike understand whether a particular work reflects our current environmental predicament. 

“It’s offering a reality check to contemporary narratives,” said Schneider-Mayerson, who, with the help of four Colby students, applied the test he developed with Good Energy to 250 of the most popular films of the last 10 years, including this year’s Oscar nominees. Those results will be announced in the spring.

“We want to know if the narratives that are set in the present on this planet are reflecting the world as it is,” he said. “If we do see narratives that are reflecting the world that we’re living in, it will hopefully help us respond to the climate crisis as individuals and as communities.”

Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, was drawn to the environmental humanities when he realized “that we need different stories to help guide us through this very difficult period that we’re living through.” (Photo by Gabe Souza)

This emphasis on representing climate change in the here and now, rather than in the near or distant future, is relatively recent. A decade ago, many readers and critics saw the growing popularity of dystopian cli-fi set in the future as an encouraging sign. Perhaps it would help us to respond to global warming. 

“Starting around 2013, there was a lot of hope for climate fiction,” said Schneider-Mayerson, who joined Colby in 2022. “There was an expectation on the part of authors, critics, and activists that climate fiction would serve a really important function.”

A deeper examination

Schneider-Mayerson was interested in these grand claims for cli-fi. But the scholar, whose research focuses on the cultural dimensions of the climate crisis, was also skeptical. Can stories of future dystopias really transform deniers into activists? Can climate fiction help “save the world,” as the Guardian newspaper put it a couple of years ago? Does it work?

Despite the hype, there was little evidence to support a conclusion either way about the effect of cli-fi on readers. So, in 2016, Schneider-Mayerson decided to find out whether climate fiction could really help change the way readers think and act. 

In an initial study, Schneider-Mayerson consulted 161 readers of 19 works of climate fiction about their reactions. What he found was largely positive: the novels made them feel the urgency of climate breakdown more intensely. 

“The environmental transition won’t be driven by culture alone. But storytelling has an important role to play.”

Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, Associate Professor of English

“People described seeing a novel’s characters as if they were their own descendants in the future,” said Schneider-Mayerson. It was the first empirical study to examine the effects of cli-fi, and it seemed to confirm the hype. But Schneider-Mayerson wondered just how long their increased concern would last. 

Long interested in the political power of literature, Schneider-Mayerson grew up in New York City. He was fascinated by the power of the graffiti around him to communicate political messages. “We live within an ecology of cultural texts, and we make stories out of them. Humans are narrative junkies,” he said. 

After a Ph.D. in American studies at the University of Minnesota, Schneider-Mayerson was drawn to the environmental humanities when he realized “that we need different stories to help guide us through this very difficult period that we’re living through. 

“The environmental transition,” he continued, “won’t be driven by culture alone. But storytelling has an important role to play. Even with the best possible policymaking and technology, we won’t get anywhere unless people support the necessary changes.” 

“The environmental transition won’t be driven by culture alone. But storytelling has an important role to play,” said Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, associate professor of English. (Photo by Gabe Souza)

From 2015, he taught for seven years at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, when his interest grew in using scientific methods for exploring the way climate literature affects readers. 

After the initial study, he and his coauthors designed a bigger experiment. This time, he recruited more than 2,000 people across the United States. The participants were placed into three groups. 

People in the first two groups read one of two short stories. In the first story, by the English writer Helen Simpson, a skeptical businessman and a climate scientist discuss global warming on a plane while another passenger has a heart attack. The second, by Paolo Bacigalupi, an American science-fiction writer, is set in the future in the climate-ravaged Southwest. Participants in the third group read a story without environmental themes. 

Schneider-Mayerson found that the participants who read the cli-fi stories reported increased concern about the climate crisis. But their level of concern dipped after a few weeks. “It didn’t last in the way that some folks might have hoped,” he said—a finding in line with research on environmental communication in other mediums. Although the results were not surprising, they reinforced the idea that making people aware of climate change is not enough to lead to real change. 

“We sometimes fetishize raising awareness,” he said. “Awareness is valuable, but we’re aware of lots of things that never affect the way that we act.”

Plus, at this point, most people are already aware of global warming. “So now the question is: what is the value of storytelling at a moment in which we seem to be increasingly aware of what’s happening, but not necessarily acting?”

Matthew Schneider-Mayerson in the film screening room in the Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti)

For Schneider-Mayerson, our times call for different sorts of stories. In addition to speculative dystopian narratives, he said, we also need stories about effective climate actions. “Normalizing climate action is valuable. I think that’s an important function of storytelling at this moment.” 

The key, he believes, is creating many kinds of stories that touch on climate change. And that is where the Climate Reality Check might help.

As Schneider-Mayerson and his students applied the Climate Reality Check test, they watched hundreds of films that often had little to do with climate change. 

But then the team started to notice moments when global warming broke through into the story worlds. “It was fascinating to see how the films that did include climate change often did so in really creative, unexpected ways,” he said. 

Much more of that sort of creativity, he said, would be valuable for the planet. “All stories that are set in the world we currently inhabit,” he said, “ought to include some kind of climate presence.”