Guest essay by Eric Worrall
The Conversation is worried that climate disaster films like Sharknado might damage the credibility of climate scientists, because sometimes the characters in such movies use scientific sounding language to discuss preposterous fictional climate disasters.
Why ‘Sharknado 4’ matters: Do climate disaster movies hurt the climate cause?
At their heart, however, the “Sharknado” films are stories about climate change, albeit in a way that is scientifically flawed to a comical degree. It’s a genre – climate disaster films – we decided to explore as an emerging mode of communication in society.
Fiction helps us understand reality
It’s explained in the original “Sharknado” that climate change has created an unusually strong tropical cyclone approaching Southern California. The sequels backed away from that explanation, whether out of a desire to avoid courting political controversy or simply because the creators felt that sharknados needed no explanation, we can’t be sure. But casting climate change as a catalyst for extreme, globally threatening natural disasters is a move characteristic of a small but growing genre of climate disaster films.
To get a better sense of how fictional disaster films shape environmental attitudes, I (Lauren) conducted an in-depth analysis of 18 disaster films featuring climate change. The results of my research show that most of these films make only tenuous connections between climate change and natural disasters, which affects how people react to them.
Terminology related to climate change and extreme weather is often misused, and it’s not uncommon to see films that use the term “climate change” or “global warming” to refer to completely different phenomena – some of which are physically impossible and could happen in no world. For example, one film uses climate change to discuss a buildup of methane gas in the atmosphere that is predicted to ignite, incinerating all life on Earth.
The results from focus groups I held with participants who watched one of three representative disaster films confirm that these scientifically dubious depictions of climate change dilute any perceived environmental message in climate disaster films. Most participants were unconvinced – often with good reason – that anything shown in the films could happen in the real world and did not see much of an environmental message.
It’s worth noting, however, that “The Day After Tomorrow” was an exception within the larger climate disaster film genre, both in terms of its production value and its (relatively) detailed discussion of climate change. Low-budget films like “Sharknado,” which stray very far afield from climate science, likely pose different possibilities for both misinformation and engagement with climate change. The question, then, is how to best tap into this potential while avoiding the pitfalls.
I suspect films like Sharknado are more about mockery of establishment climate narratives, than about promoting concern. The credibility of climate as an urgent issue has long since passed. When given a choice between different issues, people consistently rate climate as one of their lowest priorities.