Small Screen, Big Impact: How Madam Secretary Boosted Support for Climate Policy and Climate Justice

  • Dr. Anirudh Tiwathia
  • Dr. Erik Thulin
  • Dr. Stylianos Syropoulos
  • Ellis Watamanuk

Narrative film and TV have the power to portray complex issues in interesting and engaging ways to large audiences. Issues like climate politics and climate justice (i.e. addressing the unequal impacts of climate change on marginalized or otherwise vulnerable populations) are often seen in news and documentaries, but rarely make it into our favorite scripted TV shows and movies.

In this study, Rare’s Entertainment Lab examined the impact of the CBS political drama Madam Secretary, a show that weaves complex geopolitical issues into fast-paced, entertaining episodic TV. Specifically, we examined how its portrayal of climate change impacted beliefs around key climate concerns and actions. We found that the show increased support for governmental action on climate change and boosted several hard-to-move attitudes on climate justice. 

Most exciting: we found that many of the positive shifts in audience attitudes persisted even two weeks after viewing the episode – providing empirical evidence that viewing climate-forward content can provide stable shifts in climate attitudes in the short-to-mid term. Madam Secretary proves that good storytelling and meaningful issues can blend together to create compelling, thought-provoking drama with real-world impact for audiences at home.  

Episode Content: Climate Disasters are “The New Normal”

In this episode, a “super typhoon” threatens to destroy the coral island nation of Nauru. U.S. Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni), and her team must figure out how to evacuate and permanently relocate the entire island’s population.

The episode dramatizes the real world connection between climate change and worsening “super storms,” with one character calling super storms “the new normal” (the episode’s title). The show highlights how political polarization can impede action and shows the role of the government in addressing climate change, including hot-button topics like climate migration, emergency support to vulnerable nations, climate reparations (e.g. compensating impacted nations for the damages caused by climate change), unequal impacts of climate change on poorer or less economically developed countries, and other climate justice themes. The episode also questions the roles and responsibilities of the world’s biggest emitters, like the United States, to address climate change. In one scene, the president of Nauru points out that the U.S. has significantly fueled climate change, but it’s the people of Nauru who suffer the consequences first.

After watching the climate episode, participants were nearly three times more likely to identify as a climate single-issue voter.


We recruited 1065 U.S. participants from the crowdsourcing platform Prolific to participate in a 3-week longitudinal study. Participants were randomly assigned to a treatment or a control condition. In the treatment condition, participants watched a climate-focused episode of Madam Secretary (S5-E16: “The New Normal”). In the control condition, they watched the previous episode from the same season (S5-E15: “Between the Seats”), which focused on US involvement in the Middle East.

To track the impact of viewing over time, we measured audiences at four different points: 

  •  Baseline (2-3 days before watching show) [N=1065]
  •  Immediately after watching the show [N=789]
  •  Three days after watching the show [N=690]
  •  10-15 days after watching the show [N=722]

At each point, participants completed a survey measuring climate concern, policy preferences on issues relevant to climate change, as well as key psycho-social predictors of individual action. To hide the purpose of the survey, these climate questions were embedded within other decoy-items (e.g. questions about other topics like “international conflict” or “large-scale migration”).

Key Findings

Watching climate-focused entertainment had robust impacts across a range of key measures. For participants who watched the climate episode, we saw a substantial increase in general climate concern including (i) increased worry about climate change and (ii) increased certainty that climate change “poses a significant threat to society.” We also saw some impacts on individual-oriented attitudes, such as one’s willingness to engage in climate action.

Increased Support for Climate Policy

Watching the climate episode had a large impact on support for various climate policies and attitudes about climate justice. Participants reported increased overall support for “robust government action” to address climate change and were more likely to endorse the belief that “smaller, poorer, and developing nations are disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of climate change compared to richer, larger nations.” We saw a significant increase in support for hard-to-move climate justice policies, including:

  • compensating vulnerable countries for damages caused by climate change; 
  • the US accepting climate migrants;
  • creating a resilience fund to protect from ecological disaster; and 
  • providing emergency aid to victims of climate disasters in poorer nations.

Most importantly, immediately after watching the climate episode, participants were nearly three times more likely to identify as a climate single-issue voter, meaning they would only vote for a candidate if they were willing to take action on climate change.

Impact Persists Over Time

Overall, for the 11 measures that showed an increase in support immediately post-viewing, we saw a small drop in gains when measured 3-5 days later. However, for five of these 11 measures (climate worry, threat certainty, providing emergency aid, creating a resilience fund, and single-issue voting), the boost in support stabilized and was significantly higher than baseline, even 10-15 days after watching the show. For example, self-identification as a climate single-issue voter remained 86% higher than baseline after 10-15 days.

One takeaway from these findings is that, to maximize impact, exposure to climate content should be paired with opportunities for audiences to take action no more than two weeks after viewing.

Social Norms and Perceived Efficacy

The episode focuses on government action, and does not address the role of individuals. Therefore it was unsurprising that watching the climate episode did not impact measures of social norms (“are others currently taking action?”), social expectations (“do others expect me to take action?”), self-efficacy (“can I take actions that make an impact?”), or collective-efficacy (“can we – together – make an impact?”). Nor did it move other measures of behavior adoption (e.g., self-reported willingness to incur costs of climate action, information seeking, willingness to take action).

Despite the episode showing successful government action and trustworthy government officials, watching the climate episode did not boost general trust in government or impact perceptions about government officials. However, we did see an increase in perceived institutional efficacy (the belief that “governments, businesses, and other institutions – by working together – have the ability to make a difference on climate change.”) This could be due to the episode’s conclusion (spoiler alert), in which the government works hand-in-hand with a private citizen to help relocate the Nauru population.

The Role of Research Insights

The entertainment industry has enormous potential to raise public awareness about climate change and reflect emerging social norms around climate action. However, there is very limited empirical research that evaluates the impact of programming that addresses these issues. We believe that additional targeted research is needed – not only to measure the impact of existing content, but also to bolster the growing movement of creatives within the industry who want to reflect climate and sustainability on screen. Such research helps expand the field and provides key stakeholders (from creatives and working professionals in entertainment, to climate leaders and social scientists) with valuable insights on the potential impact that film and TV can have on climate policy and climate justice.