What Hollywood writers bring to the climate fight

June 22, 2023

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”  

Forty-six years ago this week, Jaws became Hollywood’s first summer blockbuster and changed how Americans looked at the ocean (and sharks, too, unfortunately). To this day, people think twice when they dip their toes in the water.

Hollywood’s power to influence our culture and behavior cannot be understated. And it’s due in large part to the writers working behind the scenes. Right now, however, that power is paused as 9,000 Writers Guild of America (WGA) members are striking for the first time in sixteen years, fighting for pay and protections they deserve.

Creative output isn’t the only thing we lose without the talent of Hollywood writers. We also lose this power to influence society. Writers are our cultural messengers; their stories change how we see the world and how we behave in it. Writers craft the narratives that move us to think differently, to act in new ways.

Consider the popular NBC sitcom Cheers. During the late 1980s, the show’s writers frequently referenced the idea of the designated driver in the show’s plots and dialogue, as part of a broader effort to address the issue of drunk driving. By the 1990s, designated drivers became common practice throughout North America and alcohol-related traffic fatalities fell by nearly 30%.

What if TV and film writers could do to climate change what they did to drunk driving? Might they help shift our personal habits and actions in order to make a dent in our greenhouse gas emissions? Might they help create the kind of social proof needed to accelerate personal change in transportation and home energy envisioned in the Inflation Reduction Act?

At Rare, we have been exploring how we can bring our expertise in behavior change to Hollywood writers and creatives following patterns similar to those we have used to improve conservation outcomes for decades. And it begins with a foundational understanding of how people act and make decisions. Here’s what we know:

  1. People change when we see other people changing.
  2. People change when we believe others expect us to change.
  3. People change more readily and more rapidly when they believe others are changing quickly.

Social norms are a powerful climate strategy. If people adopt new behaviors when they see those around them doing so, imagine the influence an on-screen protagonist might have by exhibiting climate-friendly behaviors like driving an electric vehicle, living in a house with rooftop solar panels, or enjoying a salad?

In shows and movies, this is called “behavior placement,” and it’s one of the goals of Rare’s Entertainment Lab. Similar to the concept of product placementbehavior placement – which has been around for a while – is a subtle but effective way for Hollywood to help drive climate action. Rather than expecting depictions of post-apocalyptic landscapes ravaged by climate change to inspire action (ie. Mad Max, The Day After Tomorrow), behavior placement offers a subtle and arguably more effective approach.

As my colleague, Dr. Anirudh Tiwathia, lead behavioral scientist with the Entertainment Lab, recently told Fast Company, “The idea here is to make a much smaller ask of the writers across a wide range of genres. If we can blanket the ecosystem with small but repeated mentions, humans pick up on that, and it starts altering their perceptions of what is the correct social norm.”

Today, there is growing demand from both creators and audiences for Hollywood to play a leading role in the climate fight. On the creative side, we’re seeing a proliferation of climate-conscious creators and groups like the Climate Ambassadors Network, Comedy Climate Cohort, Young Entertainment Activists and Good Energy, all of which seek to unite and educate writers to include climate change in their scripts.

And there is growing demand from audiences. According to new research from the Entertainment Lab7 in 10 Americans want to see climate behaviors on screen.

It’s encouraging to see examples of Hollywood meeting the moment. Take Ted Lasso, which I devoured like so many others. Between Ted’s tear-jerking soliloquies and Roy Kent’s F-bombs, we see the endearing Sam Obisanya drive an EV, the powerhouse team owner Rebecca Welton reconsider her use of a private jet, and the irresistible Keeley Jones enjoy salad after salad.

A good start, no doubt, but this is just one series; we have a lot of work to do. According to research from the University of Southern California, only 2% of TV scripts between 2016-2020 overtly referenced climate change. And when climate change is depicted on screen, it is usually post-apocalyptic.

Hopefully, the strike ends soon and writers get the deal they deserve. And perhaps, more importantly for the rest of us, let’s get these powerful weapons of mass influence back in the writers’ rooms, helping normalize the low-emission 2030 lifestyle we all know we need to adopt if we’re going to ever have a happy ending.